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British Isles Genealogy | 23rd Service Battalion Royal Fusiliers

Formed almost as soon as the war broke out in 1914, the First Sportsman's Battalion may have provoked some criticism. It was uncertain at first as to what branch of the service it was to represent. Personally I thought it was to be mounted, and I was not alone in this idea either. More than a few of us got busy at once in settling how, if possible, we could provide our own mounts. That was in the days when we were new to war, long before we began to know what something approaching the real thing was.

Recruiting went on briskly at the Hotel Cecil, London, where Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen and her staff worked hard and late. Lieutenant-Colonel Winter, then Second-Lieutenant Winter, with his ledger-like book and his green-baize-covered table, was a familiar figure. So, too, was the tailor who had been entrusted with the task of fitting us out with our uniforms. He, poor man, was soon in trouble. The stock sizes could be secured, but stock sizes were at a discount with the majority of the men who first joined up. They wanted outside sizes, and very considerable outside sizes, too, for the average height was a little over six feet, and the chest measurements in proportion.

Still, we recognized that these things had to be, and we kept on with a smile and a joke for everything. Perhaps we had a pair of army trousers and a sports-coat. Perhaps we had a pair of puttees, and the rest of the costume was our own. It didn't matter. It was good enough to parade in off the Embankment Gardens. It was good enough to route march in through the London streets. And the traffic was always stopped for us when we came home up the Strand, and proceeded down the steps by the side of "the Coal Hole" to the "dismiss." Rude things might be said to us by the crowd, but there was a warm spot in their hearts for us. We just carried on.

Bit by bit we were provided with our uniforms, and we began to fancy ourselves as the real thing. We began to make new friends, and we were drawn closer to those we knew. We came from all over the world. At the call men had come home from the Far East and the Far West. A man who had gone up the Yukon with Frank Slavin, the boxer; another who had been sealing round Alaska; trappers from the Canadians woods; railway engineers from the Argentine; planters from Ceylon; big-game hunters from Central Africa; others from China, Japan, the Malay States, India, Egypt—these were just a few of the Battalion who were ready and eager to shoulder a rifle, and do their bit as just common or garden Tommies. The thought of taking a commission did not enter our minds at the start. Every man was eager to get on with the work, with but a dim thought of what it was going to be like, but worrying not a bit about the future.

In a few weeks the Battalion had learnt how to form fours, to wheel, and to maintain a uniformity of step. Every man was desperately keen; to be late for parade was a great big sin. And this despite the fact that every man had to come into London from all parts of the suburbs, and farther out than that in many instances, by train (paying his own fare) every morning.

So the time went on. Then came the news that we were to go into camp at the Grey Towers, Hornchurch, Essex, and next came the formation of a fatigue party to go on ahead and get things ready for the reception of the Battalion. There was a rush to get into this party as soon as the news went round. Everyone was eager to do something fresh, and, after all, we didn't know what fatigues were in those days. So the party went on ahead.

We who were left kept on with our drills; we even did physical jerks on the slopes of Savoy Street, Strand. Then came the news that we were to march away. That bucked everybody up tremendously, for, to tell the truth, we were really beginning to get tired of the London life. Some of us, who had seen life in various parts of the world previously, were sighing again for the open air. All of us were thinking it was really time we did something to justify our existence. We did not claim to be show soldiers; we wanted to get at it.

Marching Away from Hyde Park to Entrain for Hornchurch

All things come to those who wait, however. We were to move to Hornchurch—the first step to active service. We had our uniforms, we even had white gloves, and at last we fell in, by the Hotel Cecil, with a band at our head, and off we went. Funnily enough, some of us felt this break with London more than we felt anything afterwards. It was really our first introduction to "the Great Unknown."

Had the Guards been marching away they could not have had a greater and a more enthusiastic send-off. The streets of the City were packed; it was a struggle to get through. At Liverpool Street we were reduced to a two-deep formation, and even then it became a case of shouldering your way through those who had gathered to wish us "God speed." But we were entrained at last; we detrained at Romford, and we marched to Hornchurch. We were in the camp.

Our First Surprise. That's when we had the first surprise sprung upon us, for we learnt that the camp would be our home for a whole solid fourteen days. No one was to be allowed to go into the village; we were to begin our course of instruction in discipline. There were a few heart-burnings, but nothing more. The Battalion played up to its ideal.

We were drilled early and late; we were instructed in the art of guard mounting; we peeled potatoes in the cookhouse; we fetched coal from the quartermaster's stores; we fell in to get our rations from the cookhouse; and last, but not least, we began to grouse. That was our first advance to becoming real soldiers. At least, so the author was told by an old N.C.O. who had marched with Roberts to Kabul, and who was again in the Service, too aged to do more than to instruct, but not too aged to do that well.

Hard work and plain but plentiful food soon made the Battalion as hard as nails, a phrase coined by the London Evening News, and a phrase that stuck. Quite as important, too, was the fact that a member of the "hard as nails" Battalion had to prove he was capable of acting up to it. So it was just a matter of honor that every man should keep off the sick parades, and not come home in the ambulance when a long route march or a field day was indulged in.

This took a bit of doing sometimes, for there was no mercy shown us. We said we wanted the real thing, and, between ourselves, we got it. A march of seven miles to the scene of operations, a hard field day, and a march of seven miles home again, with pack, rifle, and full equipment in other ways, was our lot. We began to recognize that we were really soldiers, and we patted ourselves on the back.

Sport, too, played a very big part in our training. The Army of to-day recognizes the fact that athletics makes and keeps our youngsters fit and well. Our Colonel recognized it from the start, and as we had plenty of material to work upon we went right away with it. We had a "soccer" team, a "rugger" team, and a cricket eleven. The records of the matches we won, and the fact that very few defeats were notched up against us, proves we had a perfect right to style ourselves "the First Sportsman's Battalion, the 23rd (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers."

The Camp: Hornchurch

Interior of a Hut: Hornchurch

Scullers, footballers, boxers, runners, wrestlers, actors, musicians, artists—all these could be had for the asking, and we drew upon them liberally. We were given plenty of opportunities to indulge in our passion for sport in the ordinary way, but the private who once asked for leave in order to go grouse shooting didn't get it. It was suggested he might put in a little time at the rifle range instead. No restrictions, however, were put upon any early morning running matches, and the football and cricket teams were helped in every way.

To get back to the purely military side, however. We groused at the amount of drills and night operations, to being hut orderlies, going on guard, and so on. But we did them as a means to an end. Then we had the rudest shock of all. We learnt we were to embark on the task of digging trenches—somewhere in Essex! That put the lid on things, so we considered. We, infantry soldiers, to dig trenches! It couldn't be right. We thought the Engineers, or the Pioneers, or somebody else, always did that. Our job was to carry a rifle, and to shoot Germans. That's how the rank and file looked at it in the first place. Of course they discovered other things when the Battalion got to France, but that's another story.

However, it had to be done and, like everything else, it was done. After an early breakfast, the company detailed fell in and marched off to the station. After a while, a special train arrived and we scrambled in. In the interim, it may be mentioned, packed trains proceeding cityward went by, the passengers cheering us. That passed the time if it did nothing else.

Nearly an hour in the train, a march of perhaps a couple of miles, and we reached our objective. Mysterious personages, with a big "G.R." in gold on scarlet armlets popped up from somewhere, produced plans, and informed our Company Officer that trenches had to be dug at such and such a place. As a rule it was somewhere where the water from an adjacent brook would percolate through the earth and make things uncomfortable. That's by the way, though, and after all it was good practice, this working out a method of trench drainage on our own. As a matter of fact we had a lot of Civil and Colonial Engineers in our ranks, and so we put all the mistakes made by the others right. Whenever possible, of course. One or two things, it must be admitted, beat us.

Sometimes it rained, sometimes it snowed, occasionally, very occasionally, it happened to be fine. But we got on with our work, waiting for the bugler to blow for the midday lunch. When "cookhouse" went we straightened our backs, got some of the mud off our boots, and proceeded to take what the gods (in this case the quartermaster) were good enough to give us. We always had two guesses, and we were always right. It was either bread and cheese, or bread and bully. If we were fortunate we might be able to purchase beer at a local hostelry, or Oxo at a village shop. If not so fortunate, the water bottle or, if again lucky, a pocket-flask was brought into service.

The Kindly Shopkeeper. Digressing for a moment, though, it may be mentioned that the various shopkeepers were always very, very good to us! They always supplied us with what we needed, if they had it, and they never put the prices up to us! At least, not much. For instance, if a resident could buy a pair of bootlaces for a penny, we were only occasionally charged more than threepence. Other things were in proportion, and Essex to-day has quite a lot of nice new shops, unknown before the advent of the First Sportsman's Battalion. It is pleasing to remember that a Navvy Battalion followed us!

To resume the trench digging. As we were later complimented on the quality of the work we did, we must have shone in the way of handling the pick and the spade. At the end of our labors, when the "fall in" was sounded, we were quite ready to say we were looking forward to a hot meal in our huts in camp, where, outside, the breezes whispered through the branches of the trees lining the drive, where the moon silvered the tin roofs of our living quarters, and all was bright and jolly—in the sergeants' mess!

So time sped away, and still we kept on wondering if we were forgotten. We sat by the fires in "stoves, hot, combustion slow," and we told the tale of the two highly placed War Office officials who were discussing the war years after it had finished. One had asked the other how the Sportsman's Battalion had shaped in "the Great Adventure," and then would come the climax. "Good God!" the other would say, "I've forgotten them. They're still at Hornchurch!"

All things have to come to a finish though, and so we found. We had night attacks, some three and four day route marches, even a recruiting march through Barking and its neighbourhood, we did our shooting tests, got through our bayonet exercises, had battalion drill in the early mornings, with a fair amount of ceremonial drill thrown in as a makeweight, and then came the rumor that a real big move was to be made, such a move that the departure for the Front could not be long delayed.

This was the move to Clipstone Camp for brigade training. We had heard so many rumors previously that we did not believe this, the latest, at first. But it was correct, and at last the Battalion, formed up in hollow square, was found on the parade ground at Grey Towers, where the Rector of Hornchurch bade us God speed and good cheer.

A few days later the Battalion, leaving two companies behind as depot companies, entrained at Hornchurch for the new camp at Clipstone.

There it went through brigade training, was equipped with its regimental transport, and afterwards moved to Candahar Barracks, Tidworth, to undergo divisional training with the 33rd Division, of which it formed a part.

Finally, after being reviewed with the Division by Queen Mary, acting in place of His Majesty the King, who was suffering from his accident sustained in France, all was in readiness for the next and biggest move of all.

23rd Battalion

The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920

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