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Training

London Scottish marching into camp in Richmond Park

Some men might march straight out of the recruitment office to a nearby training depot; others often had to wait some time before receiving instructions for joining their battalion but eventually all new recruits would spend a period in training before departing for the front. Parks and public spaces around the country were adapted into military training camps, and men would often spend their period of training living under canvas through a British winter. Others might be billeted at homes local to the camp, but still perhaps several miles away, adding yet more miles to the already adequate number of miles covered daily on route marches. In London, the spectacle of newly formed battalions, drilling in public squares and gardens drew curious crowds. Also in the early weeks, while supplies of uniform struggled to catch up with demand, volunteers would drill in their civilian clothes, wearing a khaki armband to make it clear they were doing their bit.

Length of training periods varied but most would spend several months in what could be a gruelling and often mindlessly repetitive routine of marching and drilling, interspersed with bayonet practice (on straw dummies), musketry and lessons in digging. For some men, unused to physical exertion, the regime could be gruelling, but it was designed to toughen recruits before they faced far greater challenges, while drilling accustomed them to obeying orders. The unprecedented size of this new Army meant that training facilities were inevitably inadequate. There were too few artillery and rifle ranges in which to practice for instance and mock wooden rifles were handed out as alternatives to real ones, which were initially in short supply.

In hindsight, some of the methods inculcated in training were woefully inappropriate for the type of war these men would face. Men were trained to walk steadily, and upright, towards the enemy during an attack – and never to lie down or to seek shelter, a short-sighted rule that served only to make the approaching soldiers easier for enemy machine gun teams and snipers to hit. By 1917, having learnt terrible lessons, more imaginative tactical training taught men to advance in short rushes and give covering fire allowing initiative, agility and the element of surprise to become part of the Army’s new training doctrine.