Friday, March 02, 2012

The General Inspection

This excellent chapter comes from the book "The Amateur Army" by Patrick MacGill.

For the volunteer soldier who joined up to do his bit, general inspection was one of the least agreeable trials. Patrick MacGill paints an excellent and vivid picture of the monthly chore.


One of our greatest trials is the general inspection, which takes place every month, and once Lord Kitchener inspected the battalion, in company with the division quartered in our town. But that was before I joined. It involves much labour in the way of preparation. On one occasion, midnight the night before, a Friday, found us still busy with our work. My cot-mate was in difficulties with his rifle--the cloth of the pull-through stuck in the barrel, and he could not move
it, although he broke a bamboo cane and bent a poker in the attempt.

"It's a case for the armoury," he remarked gloomily. "What a nuisance that ramrods are done away with! We've been at it since eight o'clock, and getting along A1. Now that beastly pull-through!"

What an evening's work! On the day following the brigadier-general was to inspect us, and we had to appear on parade spick and span, with rifles spotless, and every article of our equipment in good order. Packs were washed and hung over the rim of the table by our billet fire, web-belts were cleaned, and every speck of mud and grease removed. Our packs, when dry, were loaded with overcoat, mess-tin, housewife, razor, towel, etc., and packed tightly and squarely,
showing no crease at side or bulge at corner. Ground-sheets were neatly rolled and fastened on top of pack, no overlapping was allowed; rifles were oiled and polished from muzzle to butt-plate, and swords rubbed with emery paper until not a single speck of rust remained.

Saturday morning found us trim and tidy on the parade ground. An outsider would hardly dream that we were the men who had ploughed through the muddy countryside and sunk to the knees in the furrowed fields daily since the wet week began. Where was the clay that had
caked brown on our khaki, the rust that spoilt the lustre of our swords, and the fringes that the wire fences tore on our tunics? All gone; soap and water, a brush, needle and thread, and a scrap of emery paper had worked the miracle. We stood easy awaiting the arrival of the general; platoons sized from flanks to centres (namely, the tallest men stood at the flanks, and the khaki lines dwindled in stature towards the small men in the middle), and company officers at front and rear. The officers saw that everything was correct, that no lace-ends showed from under the puttees, that no lace-eye lay idle, and that laces were not crossed over the boots. Each man had shaved and got his hair cut, his hat set straight on his head, and the regimental badge in proper position over the idle chin-strap. Pocket-flaps and tunics were buttoned, water-bottles and haversacks hung straight, the tops of the latter in line with the bayonet rings, and entrenching tool handles were scrubbed clean--my mate and I had spent much soap on ours the night before.

One of our officers gave us instructions as to how we had to behave during the inspection, more especially when we were under the direct gaze of the general.

"Not a movement," he told us. "Every eyelash must be still. If the general asks me your name and I make a mistake and say you are Smith instead of Brown, your real name, you're not to say a word. You are Brown for the time being. If he speaks to you, you're to answer: 'Sir,' and 'Sir' only to every question. If you're asked what was your age last birthday, 'Sir' is to be the only answer. Is that clear to every man?"

It was, indeed, clear, surprisingly clear; but we wondered at the command, which was new to us. To answer in this fashion appeared strange to us; we thought (the right to think is not denied to a soldier) it a funny method of satisfying a general's curiosity.

He came, a tall, well-set man, with stern eyebrows and a heavy moustache, curled upwards after the manner of an Emperor whom we heartily dislike, attended by a slim brigade major, who wore a rather large eyeglass, and made several entries in his notebook, as he followed on the heels of the superior inspecting the battalion.

We stood, every unit of us, sphinx-like, immovable, facing our front and resigned to our position. To an onlooker it might seem as if we were frozen there--our fingers glued on to our rifles and our feet firm to the earth at an angle of forty-five degrees. I stood near the rear, and could see the still platoons in front, not a hat moved, not a boot shifted. The general broke the spell when he was passing me.

"Another button. There were forty-seven the last time," he said, and the man with the eyeglass made an entry in the notebook. Through an oversight, I had helped to lower the prestige of the battalion: a pocket flap of my tunic was unbuttoned.

Kit inspection was a business apart; the general picked out several soldiers haphazard and ordered their packs to be opened for an examination of the contents--spoons, shirts, socks, and the various necessaries which dismounted men in full marching order must carry on their persons were inspected carefully. A full pack is judged best by its contents, and nearly all packs passed muster. One man was unlucky: his mate was chosen for kit inspection, but this hapless individual came out minus a toothbrush and comb, and the friend in need took his place in the freshly-formed ranks. Here, the helper found that his own kit was inefficient, he had forgotten to put in a pair of socks. That afternoon he had to do two hours' extra drill.

Perhaps an even greater trial than Divisional Inspection was that of waiting orders when we were the victims of camp rumours. But this was as nothing to the false alarms. There is some doggerel known to the men which runs:

"We're off to the front," said the colonel,
as he placed us in the train,
"And we went at dawn from the station,
and at night came back again."

For months we had drilled and drilled, all earnest in our labours and filled with enthusiasm for our new profession, and daily we await the order to leave for foreign parts. Where are we going to when we leave England? France, Egypt, or India? Rumour had it yesterday that we
would go to Egypt; to-day my mate, the blue-eyed Jersey youth, heard from a friend, who heard it from a colour-sergeant, that we are going out to India, where we will be kept as guardians of the King's Empire for a matter of four years. Ever since I joined the Army it has been the same: reports name a new destination for my battalion daily.

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