To mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Legion Magazine is delving through its archives to find first-hand reports of the war and the men and women who showed their mettle during four long years of fighting. Each week we will post a new selection from a past issue written by those who were there to experience it.
The “Nut” Squad
Do you remember the guy in your platoon that always had a habit of doing a left-turn when the command was “right-turn,” or who couldn’t help saluting the R.S.M., or doing some other stunt the direct opposite of what was intended? Just about every platoon of the C.E.F. had one or two such men. It wasn’t always that they didn’t have the grey matter to understand an order or observe an instruction – in some cases it was just because the man wasn’t cut out to be a soldier. In other cases, the good Lord just made them slightly different from the rest of us. In my favorite one-arm lunch the other day I got to chatting with another ex-mudslugger and our conversation turned to this latter type of man. I told him a little of my experience with a squad of just such men and he said: “That might interest some others of the troops. Why not send a line or two on the subject to THE LEGIONARY?” So if you’re interested, light up and listen in.
I went into the army under a handicap. As a sort of bribe I was offered – and unwittingly accepted – sergeant’s stripes to enlist. Two or three weeks later I landed at the M.D. headquarters town to take an officer’s course, having the further promise that another jump or two and I would have a commission. I didn’t know the army in those days and believed it all. Anyway, a few weeks later I was turned out with a certificate, and still I scarcely knew what it was all about. Landing back with the battalion, the R.S.M. looked me over, gave a contemptuous snort and ordered me to report for instructions to the officer in charge of “special” squads. Perhaps you had something to do with a “special” squad during the early days of your army life. If so, you will appreciate the proposition I had on my hands when I was ordered to take five assorted individuals in uniform off by themselves and “teach ‘em how to ‘shun, slope arms, etc.”
Having been in the army some three months and consequently thinking I knew all that was necessary, with all confidence I detailed the procedure as it had been laid down to me in the training school. I might just as well have shouted to a bunch of stones and expected them to move. On the first order after all this meticulous instruction, there was a queer sort of tremor went through my army of five men, their feet shuffled around and their arms twitched and they managed to work themselves into poses that never could be duplicated. Something assuredly had gone wrong. I sought an opportunity to look over the little red book on infantry instruction in an effort to solve the mystery but I was leaning on a broken reed, so to speak. I scratched my head in a very un-sergeant like manner, and then started all over again. After three hours of much effort I was rewarded by having one man come to attention three times in a row more or less in the prescribed manner.
The same result held good with saluting, slope arms, and the other essentials of a good barrack soldier. But whether the five unfortunate men were learning anything or not, one thing is certain – I learned a few things. Sometimes I feel that contact with the men of this “nut” squad, as they were erroneously described by the rest of the battalion, helped me to break into the real life and spirit of the army without the jolts and disillusionments that were common to those who enlisted without having had any previous knowledge of military service.
Take for instance, one of the five whom I will call Josh. I don’t know how a recruiting officer ever got to the territory where he lived. Josh’s conception of a town was a railway station, two or three stores, a pool room and barber shop. He was born in Northern Ontario and never had been on a railway train before enlisting. The morning I was assigned to the “special” squad was the morning of his arrival at the battalion centre. He had surrounding his face a luxurious hedge composed of stout black hair that stood out so that his eyes seemed to be hidden in caves. I had to take Josh to the Q.M.’s stores, bar-barber shop and other places and try to make him look like a soldier. I could write a whole book on that experience alone. He darned near wrecked the barber shop before the camouflage was removed. He figured he could soldier as well with hair on his face as without it. His sweeping comments included the “officer of the day,” who happened to look in while the barber was trying to get in reach of the bushes. He told that gentlemen to “get to h— out of here and go stare at someone else” with such effect that I had a lot of explaining to do – he was my charge and apparently I was to be held responsible for all he said and did. (It took some time to explain to him why he couldn’t talk that way to an officer.)
In due time the hunting expedition was concluded and Josh stood before us fully exposed for the first time since he was a young boy. We discovered that he was probably 32 or thereabouts, with strong irregular features and a jaw that would have looked in place a la Dempsey poised over the fallen victim in a canvas square. The next job was to get him a bath. I will draw a curtain over this procedure – not alone from modesty ( which I have regained to some extent since the war), but because the affair resulted in me, with a uniform on, getting more of the water from the shower than Josh did in nature’s garb. He insisted that in the seven previous baths that he could recall he had stood up in a creek or river. Consequently he didn’t like the idea of having it spilled on him from above. Anyway, he didn’t believe in baths in the winter time. I should add, that when I saw him stripped, with muscles rippling over all parts of his impressive size, my carefully-cultivated sergeant’s voice lost some of its pep.
We had an awful time fitting Josh with underwear and a uniform. The tailor had never anticipated anyone more than two feet across the shoulders. The Q.M. staff did the best they could and it got by with Josh, for he thought that he had fallen in the lap of luxury – he had never worn underwear before in his life. He took to the boots, too, commenting that they were “real stylish.”
Getting back to the “nut” squad – before the battalion left for overseas I had passed some 32 men trough this special training. Some of them were hopeless, and were discharged. Others were turned over to labor details. I had the satisfaction of knowing that around 20 of the 32 eventually made good front-line soldiers. I could tell a separate story about many of them, but my mind wanders back to Josh.
Shortly after landing in England our battalion was broken up and a few of us were sent – kilt and all – to one of the Mounted Rifle outfits (you know the old gag about “all they ever mounted was a firing step”). About six months later, who should land at the horse lines but Josh. He had been shunted around England and eventually, when he found out that he wasn’t “at the war” there he raised cain until the reserve outfit were glad to ship him across. Josh made a real good soldier. He was one of the best comrades you ever would have wanted – tried to force money on those he liked; acted as your bodyguard when you got into a fuss with someone bigger than yourself, and lied without batting an eyelash when it would help someone out of a hole.
Just when we got to the point of agreeing with the “neverenders,” I took to myself a nice blighty which kept me in the hospital long enough to have the scrap end, and to get home among the first fifty thousand. I found myself a civilian job and was just getting settled down when one day I bumped into Josh. Do you know I never felt more glad to see anyone in my life. As for him, there was a hint of dampness in his eyes, and I knew from the choice lot of names he let loose and the back-breaking thump he gave me, that the feeling was reciprocated. I dragged him off home. Heaven help me! Wasn’t the missus shocked when I brought him in. We had invested some of our gratuity money in a chesterfield outfit, and she nearly died when Josh flopped on it. The springs stood up under the test, however, and days later I was able to calm her ruffled feelings. She got enough steak for dinner for six people, but between Josh and I we made the platter look as though it had forgotten its purpose in this world. Incidentally, the wife’s face bore a pained expression when Josh’s masticatory battery got into action. After dinner she beat it off to a picture show and left us to talk over old times. We said good-bye and he left for his old home in the North that night. I haven’t seen him since.
Later on, after the first shock of surprise, my wife says one day: “What on earth ever made you chum up with a man like that?” She couldn’t quite grasp my explanations, so I was content to say no more. Anyway I would be darned glad to see him once more.
Perhaps if this hasn’t wearied you, later on I will tell about of some of the other members of the “nut” squad.