[This article first appeared in Stand To! No 11 Summer 1984 pp.34-35. At this time, there were more than 170 members of the Western Front Association who were veterans of the First World War, like Harry Fellows they shared reminiscences, their memoirs, diaries and letters. Members of the WFA have access to a growing online archive of back issues of Stand To!]
For me to say that a surge of patriotism or an urge to kill some Germans caused me to join the army in 1914 would certainly not be the truth. From leaving school at the age of thirteen I worked for a firm of cycle manufacturers in my native Nottingham. In those days the cycle industry was a very seasonal one. There was very little export trade and the late summer and early autumn were always our worst periods.
My mother had died in 1912 aged forty-two and my father followed her two years later aged forty-seven, leaving me in that memorable year of 1914 the eldest of four orphans. My two brothers and my sister, who were all still at school, went to live amongst my mother's family in Melton Mowbray, whilst 1 went to lodge with friends in Nottingham.
In terms of work August 1914 was no different to its predecessors and I was now finding it difficult to pay for my board and lodging. The Unemployment Benefit Act was then in being but there was no such agreements as to three days on and three days off. A man had to have been fully employed, with his cards lodged with the Labour Exchange, to claim benefit and although we worked as little as twelve or fourteen hours each week we had no entitlement to benefit. Around the third week in August the first casualty lists were published in the daily papers. Two thousand men killed and wounded in the Retreat from Mons. Lord Kitchener was asking for 100,000 men! Meeting to collect our wages on the first Friday afternoon in September I and two other lads in my department decided to join the army on the following morning. It would certainly ease our financial problems, we would be assured of food and clothing, in any case, didn't everyone say it would be all over by Christmas!
When we did present ourselves at our local Recruiting Centre, the Drill Hall, we found a crowd of at least 300 young men, all with the same idea as ourselves. The entrance to the Drill Hall was guarded by two large gates set with a small wicket gate.
The latter was being opened periodically to let about a dozen men through at a time. I had at least two fights that morning to get through that gate. Two years later I "looked back in anger" on that morning!
The three of us eventually-got through and presented ourselves to the doctors:
"Have you had any serious illness, pneumonia, rheumatic fever?"
And after that you were fit enough to fight for King and Country! No birth certificate was asked for.
It was when we came to selecting a regiment that the problems arose. None of us had ever been on a horse and yet we all wished to join the cavalry! "Only infantry regiments available. The Notts and Derbys..?" One of the lads asked "Where are they stationed?" The reply came "Normanton Barracks, Derby!" that evoked the response "We could walk there! Let's have a long ride in a train!" I think we had a choice between the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and the Northumberland Fusiliers. We chose the latter - weren't Newcastle United a good football team... or at least they were in those days!
I do not think that any of us had ever had a seaside holiday and the long train ride would certainly be an adventure. And we certainly got it! We had at least four changes of train and did not arrive in Newcastle until late evening.
Arriving at the barracks we were amazed at what we saw. Some 2,000 men were sitting, lying or walking around aimlessly. Asking one chap what we had to do he directed us over to a window at the far right-hand side of the square where we joined a queue, handed in our papers and were given a blanket in exchange. None of us had had a bite to eat since early that morning.
There did not seem to be any chance of getting anything at the barracks so we went back the way we had come and eventually finding a suitable shop we clubbed together a few of the coppers we had and bought a loaf and half a pound of cheese.
The only road we knew in Newcastle was the way back to the station and so we wended our way back there, only to find the booking hall occupied by around fifty or sixty men, all of them like us, equipped with a blanket. It certainly looked odds-on for a night on the seats or on the floor of the booking hall until one of the lads with a blanket was seen talking to a railway official. He afterwards came over to tell us that there were some empty railway carriages in a siding adjacent to the station. Their doors were unlocked and if we left them as we found them no one would offer an objection to our sleeping in them for that night. The offer was immediately accepted.
Around 6am on the following morning we were once again back at the barracks. Around 100 men were there and all the local lads had obviously gone home for the night. By 8am the numbers had swollen to around five or six hundred when some massive zinc baths were wheeled into the centre of the square. They were filled with steaming tea and as no one seemed to have any utensils there was a mad rush behind the cook house to acquire any empty tins which might be there. It was then a case of sharing with just what was available. In front of some buildings on the lefthand side of the square some trestle tables had been erected, on which were huge baskets filled with chunks of bread and behind them soldiers with large jars of jam. A queue was formed and a man took a chunk of bread, passed along and a tablespoonful of jam was deposited on his bread. That was breakfast!
During the morning a man with a crown on his cuff and a voice like a foghorn (it was much too early to have any notion of rank) called "for volunteers for the Royal Naval Division!" Obviously fed up with hanging around about a hundred men stepped forward and after some time spent in arranging them into some semblance of "fours" they were "marched" away. We heard afterwards that these men, after only a few weeks of training, were sent with this Division to Antwerp to try to stem the German advance on that port. They were unsuccessful in this but were able to retreat into Holland where they were interned throughout the war. Lucky devils!
Around midday the same baths were paraded again, this time filled with steaming stew! I think they were put there to annoy us! Some men certainly had a go! They rolled up their sleeves and searched around for the "goodies"!
During the afternoon we were assembled into groups of around two or three hundred and my group was taken (1 cannot say marched) to Tilly's Assembly Rooms which I believe were in Granger Street. This move saw the end of our feeding problems as we must have been placed in the hands of professional caterers and the food was really good.
I have no recollection as to how long we stayed at Tilly's but our next move was to Mitford Street Schools off the Scotswood Road and on the edge of the Tyne. It was here that we met our first officer who told us that we were C Company, 12th (Service) Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers.
It was here that we were issued with our first items of kit: a knife, fork and spoon, a "housewife" (a canvas roll containing needles and cotton, etc.) and an issue of army underwear, undershirt and long-johns. I cannot remember if I ever wore underclothes before the war, all I do know is that wearing this thick army underclothing nearly drove me mad with irritation!
After a few weeks we entrained and moved south arriving at the lovely little market town of Aylesbury where we were installed in civilian billets. However, our troubles were not yet over. After only a fortnight at Aylesbury it was found that someone had blundered! The York and Lancasters were in Tring and they should have been in Aylesbury and we should have been in Tring. We changed over, passing them on the way. When we arrived at Tring it appeared that no one wanted us! All the householders jibbed at taking us in. The Police Inspector-cum-Billeting Officer was brought to the scene and it was a case of "Two in here" and "Three in there". Along with another lad I was billeted with a stone-mason on the High Street and we were both led to a kitchen in the rear.
The lady of the house would not have us in until we had divested ourselves of our clothes and a large zince bath was brought in and we had a bath. The York and Lancs had spread the word around that we were lousy!