The British regular army in the form of the 'Old Contemptibles' of the B.E.F have proved no match in numbers-if not in spirit-to the challenges of a Great War in Europe. More men were needed and Lord Kitchener's finger, pointing out from the recruiting poster, made that appeal directly and simply. A 'New Army' had to be quickly formed. It would not be a professional army, but one formed of citizens who would rally to the cause-ready to do their 'bit'-because their country needed them. Ian Hay Beith has written two of the classic accounts of the first of these volunteer amateur soldiers and they are brought together in this Leonaur book. They provide an invaluable insight into the training and battlefield field experiences of a 'new' Highland regiment from its early encounters of trench warfare to the 'Big Push' at Loos and on to the Somme. What makes them most memorable is the author's skill in bringing to life its cast of characters from Captain Wagstaffe and Lt. Bobby Little to a company of irrepressible 'Jocks' including Mucklewame, Tosh, Cosh, Buncle, Nigg and others. Created in the midst of the tragedies of the Western Front here is a well executed and readable account filled with wry humour. Those familiar with the fictitious 'MacAuslin' will find much to satisfy them in its pages.
Ayling, leading a machine-gun section who were burdened with their weapons and seven thousand rounds of ammunition, mopped his steaming brow and inquired of his guide how much farther there was to go.
“Abart two miles, sir,” replied the youth with gloomy satisfaction. He was a private of the Cockney regiment whom we were relieving; and after the manner of his kind, would infinitely have preferred to conduct us down half a mile of a shell-swept road, leading straight to the heart of things, than waste time upon an uninteresting but safe detour.
At this Ayling’s Number One, who was carrying a machine-gun tripod weighing forty-eight pounds, said something—something distressingly audible—and groaned deeply.
“If we’d come the way I wanted,” continued the guide, much pleased with the effect of his words upon his audience, “we’d a’ been there be now. But the Adjutant, ‘e says to me—“
“If we had come the way you wanted,” interrupted Ayling brutally, “we should probably have been in Kingdom Come by now. Hurry up!” Ayling, in common with the rest of those present, was not in the best of tempers, and the loquacity of the guide had been jarring upon him for some time.
The Cockney private, with the air of a deeply-wronged man, sulkily led on, followed by the dolorous procession. Another ten minutes’ laboured progress brought them to a place where several ways met.
“This is the beginning of the reserve trenches, sir,” announced the guide. “If we’d come the way I—“
“Lead on!” said Ayling, and his perspiring followers murmured threatening applause.
The guide, now in his own territory, selected the muddiest opening and plunged down it. For two hundred yards or so he continued serenely upon his way, with the air of one exhibiting the metropolis to a party of country cousins. He passed numerous turnings. Then, once or twice, he paused irresolutely; then moved on. Finally he halted, and proceeded to climb out of the trench.
“What are you doing?” demanded Ayling suspiciously.
“We got to cut across the open ‘ere, sir,” said the youth glibly. “Trench don’t go no farther. Keep as low as you can.”
With resigned grunts the weary pilgrims hoisted themselves and their numerous burdens out of their slimy thoroughfare, and followed their conductor through the long grass in single file, feeling painfully conspicuous against the whitening sky. Presently they discovered, and descended into, another trench—all but the man with the tripod, who descended into it before he discovered it—and proceeded upon their dolorous way. Once more the guide, who had been refreshingly but ominously silent for some time, paused irresolutely.
“Look here, my man,” said Ayling, “do you, or do you not, know where you are?”
The paragon replied hesitatingly:—
“Well, sir, if we’d come by the way I—“
Ayling took a deep breath, and though conscious of the presence of formidable competitors, was about to make the best of an officer’s vocabulary, when a kilted figure loomed out of the darkness.
“Hallo! Who are you?” inquired Ayling.
“This iss the Camerons’ trenches, sirr,” replied a polite West Highland voice. “What trenches wass you seeking?”
Ayling told him.
“They are behind you, sirr.”
“I was just goin’ to say, sir,” chanted the guide, making one last effort to redeem his prestige, “as ‘ow—“
“Party,” commanded Ayling, “about turn!”
Having received details of the route from the friendly Cameron, he scrambled out of the trench and crawled along to what was now the head of the procession. A plaintive voice followed him.
“Beg pardon, sir, where shall I go now?”
Ayling answered the question explicitly, and moved off, feeling much better. The late conductor of the party trailed disconsolately in the rear.
“I should like to know wot I’m ‘ere for,” he murmured indignantly.
He got his answer, like a lightning-flash.
“For tae carry this,” said the man with the tripod, turning round. “Here, caatch!”