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best. Perhaps he will return to "Blighty." If he does
best. Perhaps he will return to "Blighty." If he does
the latter he will be no longer a boy but a man.
the latter he will be no longer a boy but a man.
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Latest revision as of 07:45, 19 September 2008



ON the barrack square of a Special Reserve battalion you may see both the raw material and the finished product---the recruit but newly arrived from the depot, and the war-worn veteran, with anything over one year's service, just discharged from hospital. The change wrought in one year is remarkable. It "sticks out all over." It is seen in their physique, their bearing, the poise of their head, their expression, and most of all in their eyes. The recruit is not set. He stands loosely. He is never still. His expression is always changing. His eyes are restless. Now he is interested, and his pose is alert, his eyes fixed on the instructor. Now his attention is distracted elsewhere, his attitude becomes less tense, his eyes wander. Now he is frankly bored, his head and shoulders droop forward, he stands on one leg, his eyes are fixed on the ground. His movements reflect every passing mood. His will is untrained, his character unformed, his muscles undeveloped. He has no control over his mind or his limbs. He is just a boy. The fascination about him lies in his potentialities, in the uncertainty as to how he will turn out. There are so many pitfalls ahead of him. . . . The trained soldier, who has fought, seen death, suffered wounds, endured hardness, offers a complete contrast. He is thicker. His limbs are quiet and under control. He stands solidly motionless and upright. His mouth is firmly shut. His eyes are steady, and their expression unvarying. His whole attitude and his expression suggest quiet expectancy. He is still; but he is ready to move at a seconds notice. He is intensely self-controlled. Of course all generalizations are untrue. But probably this is how the contrast between the recruit and the trained soldier would present itself to anyone who watched a number of them as they paraded on the barrack square.

Recruits come from all sorts of classes in these days, and so it is not easy to describe a "typical case" which would not offend quite a number of them. Yet this, I think, is a fair specimen of perhaps the commonest type: All his life he had lived in a stuffy little home in a big town with a mother and father, and a swarm of brothers and sisters. He had lived there, but he had not spent much time there, and it had not been by any means a determining factor in his life. In the early morning he had tumbled out of bed in the semidarkness, pitched on such clothes as he had discarded for the night, swallowed a cup of strong tea and a slice of bread-and-dripping, and without the ceremony of a wash or brush-up dashed off to work. There he had carried on a sort of guerrilla warfare on his own account against anyone and everyone who seemed inclined to "put it on him." It was rather amusing, and distinctly helped to make life interesting. He and his mates all played the same game of trying to do less than their share of the day's work, while appearing to do more. He did what he was told---when he could not help it. In his warfare with the foreman each had a trump card. The foreman's trump was "the sack," and the boy's was the right to "chuck the job." The boy had played his trump two or three times, without suffering from it overmuch, and two or three times the foreman had played his. But on the whole "work" had been much less of a discipline than one might expect. It had taught him one idea, which is somewhat less than a truth, that a man's first duty is to stick up for himself, and avoid being put upon. In the evening he used to dash off home, indulge in a good wash of the exposed portions of his anatomy, brush his hair, eat a hurried tea, and go off to meet his pals, male and female, in the street. Though he hadn't got much money to spend there was always a certain amount of amusement to be got out of the street, and by the time he reached home he was glad to get to bed. It was an odd existence, with much more interest and variety than you would think. But it was not a particularly wholesome one. It developed no fixity of purpose, and there was no real discipline in it. His father occasionally asserted his authority with sudden spasmodic violence, usually ill-timed. Otherwise there was practically no authority in it at all.

Then came the time when his mates began to disappear. Posters stared at him from the hoardings telling him that his King and country needed him. Recruiting sergeants eyed him doubtfully. He did not look much more than sixteen. Here was a chance of variety. His restless temperament responded to the suggestion with enthusiasm. He loved change, and feared monotony above all things. Besides, he would be on his own. Even the shadow of parental control would be removed. He would be a man, and his own master. So he reckoned! "Mother" noticed his excitement, and with a sure instinct guessed what was the matter. "Our George is going for a soldier," she remarked to her husband. "I can see it in 'is eyes." "Father" taxed him with it, and waxed indignant. "Ain't yer satisfied with yer 'ome?" he demanded. "Ain't yer got no gratitood to yer mother? Don't know when yer well off, yer young fool." This clinched matters. The boy said nothing. He could afford not to. His answer was to enlist next day. When it was done "Mother" shed a surreptitious tear, and "Father" grunted; but both were secretly proud of him, though it meant seven shillings a week less in the family exchequer. He went away feeling a little lost and young, and with a lump in his throat for the sake of the home that he had valued so cheaply.

Freedom! He didn't find much of that after all! The barracks were full of authorities far more peremptory and potent than foreman or father. There was the corporal of his room, who unsympathetically kicked him out of bed in the morning---bed being a mattress on the floor---and made him wash, and do his share of cleaning up the room. There was the sergeant who made him march up and down the square all the morning, doing what he was told, and in the intervals lectured him on his duties, his morals, and his personal cleanliness. There was the sergeant-major, a terribly awe-inspiring person, to whom even the sergeant was deferential, and to whom the corporal was positively sycophantic. There were subalterns and a captain, mysterious beings from another world, whose business in life seemed to be to preserve an attitude of silent omniscience, and to criticize his personal appearance. Instead of freedom, he found discipline. His uprisings and his outgoings, and all the smallest details of his being, even to the length of his hair and the cleanliness of his toes, were ordered by Powers against whom there was no appeal. They held all the trump cards. He could not even "chuck the job" in the old lordly way, without becoming a criminal, and having all the resources of the police enlisted to bring him back.

Yet the despotism, though complete, was not brutal. Even the sergeant-major was genially abusive, while the subaltern was almost paternal. But these were only signs of the plenitude of their power. They could afford to be jovial! Indeed, he soon noticed that urbanity of manner was apt to increase in a direct ratio to an individual's rank. It was the corporal, the least of all his masters, whose manner was least conciliatory. Submission was obviously the only course; and by degrees he learned to do more than submit. He learned the pride of submission. He came to believe in the discipline. He gained self-respect from his subordination to it, and when he went home on furlough, wearing the uniform of it, he boasted of it, to the evident envy of his civilian chums. He was learning one of the great truths of life, a truth that so many fail to learn---that it is not in isolation but as a member of a body that, a man finds his fullest self-expression: that it is not in self-assertion but in self-subordination, not as an individual but as one of many brethren, sons of one Father, that a man finds the complete satisfaction of his instincts, and the highest form of liberty.

Our recruit has not learned quite all this; but he has made a beginning. He has learned a certain pride in his company, in his regiment, in his N.C.O.'s even, and in his officers. He is learning to be proud that he is English. He has given up his personal freedom, which was not really of much use to him, and in return he has received what is infinitely more precious---his share of the common heritage of the regiment, its glorious past, its present prowess, its honor and good name, its high resolves. His self-respect has increased enormously. His bearing has altered completely. It is not the fear of punishment that makes him so smart and clean; but his care for the honor of his regiment. It is not the fear of punishment that makes him sweep and scrub and tidy his part of the barrack-room so scrupulously; but his care for the reputation of the company, his desire to please his officer, his loyalty to his corporal. Besides this, he is learning to share with his mates instead of to grab. He is learning to "play the game" by them, and to think more of fairness all round than of his own personal benefit. He does his bit and takes his share, and as long as the other fellows do ditto, he is content. It is impressed on his mind that for the honor of the company they must all be tolerant, and pull together. Also he has a "chum." In the Army everyone has a "chum." As far as his chum is concerned the good soldier obeys the "golden rule" in its literal sense. He shares with him. He divides with him his parcel from home, he helps him to clean his rifle and equipment, he is a friend in the Baconian sense, who halves sorrows and doubles joys. The recruit is all the better for observing the golden rule even towards one person.

The recruit is developing rapidly. His perspective is altering hourly. Old prejudices are vanishing, and new ones forming. His old selfishness is giving way to good comradeship, his individuality is being merged in a bigger corporate personality. As he becomes less of an individualist, he becomes quieter, and more contented. In a few months he will be drafted out to the front, there to learn harder lessons still, and lessons even better worth learning. He will learn to endure without complaint, to be unselfish without "making a song about it," to risk life itself for the good of the world, the honor of the regiment, and the safety of his comrades. A man does not rise much above that. Perhaps he will make the supreme sacrifice, and so be taken hence at his best. Perhaps he will return to "Blighty." If he does the latter he will be no longer a boy but a man.

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