Barrack life



Blenheim Barracks, and most of the barracks in the Aldershot area, were old and quite devoid of comfort.  Each room had twenty-four folding bedsteads, twelve each side and in the centre a scrubbed wooden table and forms to sit on. There was also a coal-burning stove in the centre of the room, but fuel was doled out very sparingly.   Two low wattage bare electric bulbs suspended from the ceiling completed the picture. Not very palatial by any means, but after the bare hall we encountered on the first night and the subsequent nights under canvas it seemed like home from home.  More important, the lads already in occupation were a nice lot, roughly the same age as myself, and from similar backgrounds.   We newcomers were rookies and rather  looked down on, but in a week or two there would be a new batch of rookies come in,  and  then we would count among the old timers.   On arrival I was given no information whatsoever, and I had to get all I needed to know from those already knowledgeable in these matters.  Reveille was at 6 a.m. and it was out of bed sharp. The Sergeant burst into the room within a minute or so of reveille and anybody still in bed had a whack across the backside with his cane.  I was too near the door to take any chances. The old “sweats” move up the room as vacancies happen and the beds near the door are left for the rookies. Crafty lot! 

The food was quite good and varied, but there was never enough of it. There was nothing to be had between tea and breakfast.  It has to be remembered of course that at this time there was a serious shortage of food  in the country, because German U-boats had almost got the upper hand, and the loss of merchant shipping was enormous.  While my money lasted, I nipped straight from the dining hall to the canteen and topped up with stewed prunes and custard.  There wasn’t much else to be had, and though it was not very filling, at least  it was cheap.

Although the rate of pay was a shilling per day we never drew seven shillings per week.  There were various stoppages. We were never told what these were, but generally we were paid five shillings. Out of this we had to buy all our toiletries, shoe polish, button cleaning materials etc.,  and most of us had our laundry done privately.  This didn’t leave much for riotous living.  We even had to buy a walking out cane, and this was compulsory.  I was fortunate because the Post Office continued to pay my wages, which by the time I joined up had reached the giddy height of sixteen shillings a week. I had nominated my father to receive this money for me, but needless to say, I had to sub on it quite regularly. 

We were kept very busy at school with telegraphy practice, technical lectures and drill on the parade ground.  Dugouts had been built on Farnborough Common and periodically we would go there, set up our equipment and work under conditions similar to those we would meet with later on. 

I have already mentioned the ancient character of the barracks.  Over the years, I suppose, they had been occupied by various units home after a long stint in foreign parts, and without doubt they brought all sorts of germs home with them. Cases of spotted fever, scarlet fever and measles were occurring all too frequently. There were two cases at different times of scarlet fever, and one of measles in my own room, which put us into isolation.  We were unable to attend school, unable to use the canteen or recreation room, and had to have all our meals in the barrack room. No jaunts into town or Aldershot, in fact though we were innocent of any crime, we were well and truly “confined to barracks”. For twenty-four young lads to live, eat and sleep in one room for about three weeks was a good test of temperament.  We had a happy time, plenty of laughs, plenty of singing, and lots of leg-pulling.  These were the early days of traditional jazz and I remember we used to sing “Baby Doll”, “Alexanders Rag Time Band” “Down on the Farm” and  many more now forgotten.

In the early summer we were all moved out of barracks and went under canvas.  I can recall a very wet summer that year, and with leaky tents we spent many uncomfortable nights.  Often it was necessary to pour the rainwater out of your boots before putting them on, and blankets and clothes got a soaking.  The camp was quite near the Basingstoke Canal and when off duty, I often went with others to the canal for a swim.  We undressed on the canal bank, which was raised higher than the surrounding land.  On one occasion, when I came out of the water, to my horror my trousers had disappeared. It really put me in a flap as I had got to get back to camp, and in any case, it was my only pair.  We found them after a search some distance away. Someone had evidently kicked them down the canal bank, into the field and out of sight, and then taken them a little way away.  My money, which included some extra from home,  and a new wrist watch had disappeared. I was so relieved to recover my trousers that the other loss didn’t seem so important. I had a pretty thin time of it until the next payday came around.

Intermingled with the training were guard duties and fatigues.  The most favoured fatigue was cookhouse, and I managed this twice, once in the barracks and once in camp.  There was always a little surplus food around, and a full tummy was compensation enough for scouring pots and pans.  The best fatigue of all was one I did in the Sergeants Mess. It followed an overnight party in the mess. Some of the sergeants must have had quite a drop to drink overnight, as they couldn’t face up to a bacon and egg breakfast. I could, and I think I had about ten breakfasts that morning. I also managed during the course of the morning to clear up dishes in which there was trifle and all the other things which go to make a party.  There was supposed to be a shortage of food but there was no sign of it hereabouts.  

Periodically during training we had written examinations on the technical aspect of Wireless, and when we reached a certain standard stage we were upgraded to ‘A. M. Second Class’. This wasn’t very important except that we were now entitled to two shillings per day, less deductions of course.  Late in July, with about fifty others, I was put on draft for France.  

We had to be re-kitted, everything reduced to the bare minimum, as from now on everything had to be carried on our own backs.  We were issued with revolvers and ammunition, gas masks etc. and had to go through the Gas School at Aldershot.  Gas was being used in France, and so this part of our training was very important.  Speed in getting a mask on, and how to test for gas concentration before removing the mask was taught. Then we went into the trenches where gas was being blown in from cylinders, presumably to give us confidence in the masks.  Some of us went to the cinema in the evening, and people sitting near us started to complain of the smell.  Our uniforms were impregnated with it.  

The best part of being on draft was of course the four days embarkation leave.  I had only had one short weekend leave - midday Saturday to midnight Sunday up to now, and the train services were so bad it gave me me  only a few hours at home. Looking forward to four whole days leave seemed heavenly, but on the third day we all had telegrams calling us back, and that was my lot until the war ended and I came home for good.  The recall was most annoying because we were still waiting at Farnborough for about four days before setting off for France.

I remember that we marched off from the barracks about midnight, and boarded a train at Farnborough North Lines.  We hadn’t the slightest notion of our destination, but in the early morning we detrained at Folkestone.  Incidentally we had been joined by a big draft of other R.F.C personnel.  We spent three lovely days at Folkestone.  The sun shone all the time and provided our particular draft was not due to embark, we were able to wander off and do as we pleased. On my nineteenth birthday, 3rd September, in the afternoon it was our turn to go and so we marched down to the quay and embarked. We had now been joined by hundreds or Army personnel and were quite a mixed bag. Life jackets were issued to each of us, and the bows of the ship were roped off to keep us back in case of striking a mine.  There was a convoy of three transports, flanked by destroyers and an airship flying overhead on submarine watch. The channel was quiet and smooth and we arrived at Boulogne all too soon for my liking.


Tom Herbert’s Story  - WW1 Begins  -   Work and Play  -  R.F.C. 1917  -  Barrack Life -
 To The Front Line  -  Menin Road  - Entrained  -  France to Italy  -  Montello  -  Easter -
Monte Pau  -  Angelo  -  Log Cabin  -  Vittorio Veneto  -  Bordighera  -  Blighty  -  Notes  -  Links