First World War Training Camps

After men joined the army they were sent to local army camps to be turned into soldiers. As experienced officers were needed in France to organise the war against the Germans, elderly people were bought out of retirement to train the men. These men were often over the age of sixty. One sixty five year old officer died of a heart attack while on parade. Another gave out instructions while sitting in his bath-chair. An elderly cavalry officer weighed over 20 stone and the regiment had great difficulty finding a horse that could carry him. They also had to build a special loading platform so that the officer could get on his horse.

Most of the officers were recruited from universities and public schools. Sometimes men became officers without even an interview. George Gillet was offered a commission while playing cricket with a colonel. Gillet was told that any of his friends that he wanted to bring with him from Harrow could also have a commission.

Training camps rarely had enough huts for men. Most of the recruits had to sleep in tents. Conditions in these tents in winter were appalling and there were several examples of soldiers going on strike. Eventually it was decided to billet the men in local towns and villages. This also created serious problems. One soldier, Charles Cain, admitted later that the recruits sometimes took advantage of their hosts: "ten soldiers were billeted to one women who had three teenage daughters, and the mother and all the daughters finished up the family way."

The Worcestershire Regiment marching to war in 1916.
The Worcestershire Regiment marching to war in 1916.

Primary Sources

(1) Private Charles Jones, 8th Royal Sussex Regiment, letter to his wife(15th September, 1914)

One of the most pitiful things here is the incompetence of our instructors. They are nearly all illiterates and most have been out of the army some10 years. One slouches about in a bowler hat and confessed he does not understand some of the drills. The company Sergeant-Major is a weak, stupid fellow, looks 55 or 60, doesn't know his business.

(2) R. W. Murphy, Some Experiences in the First World War (1916)

In November 1914, I was in an army camp at Tidworth. Icy mud flowed over the floor, sometimes up to a height of 2 inches. Tent pegs lost their hold, with the inevitable result the each increase in mud and rain was marked by the wholesale collapse of tents. Blankets, bedding, clothes and men became plastered with mud and conditions began to have an effect on health.

(3) In August 1914, R. C. Sherriff attempted to obtain a commission in the British army.

"School?" enquired the adjutant. I told him and his face fell. He took up a printed list and searched through it. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm afraid it isn't a public school." I was mystified. I told him that my school, though small, was a very old and good one - founded, I said by Queen Elizabeth in 1567. The adjutant was not impressed. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "But our instructions are that all applications for commissions must be selected from the recognised public schools and yours is not among them."

(4) In his book Margin Released, J. B. Priestley described his training as a young British soldier at the beginning of the First World War.

It is not true, as some critics of the First War British high command have suggested, that Kitchener's army consisted of brave but half-trained amateurs, so much pitiful cannon-fodder. In the earlier divisions like ours, the troops had months and months of severe intensive training. Our average programme was ten hours a day, and nobody grumbled more than the old regulars who had never been compelled before to do so much and for so long.

(5) After joining the army James Lovegrove was sent to Woolwich Common.

Woolwich Common, six hundred of us, sleeping under tents, in the middle of winter. I'll never forget my first night in the army. Mother had always told me to wear pyjamas or I'd get lumbago! Well, I was putting them on when the tent flap opened and a voice said "Cor bloody blimey! Come and have a look at this bloke, he's a getting dressed to go to bed!" Well, they all had a good laugh at me. I don't think most of them had seen pyjamas before. They all seemed to sleep naked. And the foul language! I'd never heard such swearing before in my life.

(6) Henry Bolton, Ist East Surrey Regiment, interviewed (1978).

We were generally handicapped by shortage of rifles and equipment, for I was doing my first two months training in the clothes I enlisted in. I received my first suit of khaki (and that a second hand one) the last week in November, my rifle about three weeks after and then another suit the week before Christmas, this time I had a new tunic and old trousers.

(7) Arthur Gibbs, letter to parents (November, 1914).

I am fairly bitten with the military fever and am learning all I can. I spent yesterday morning shooting on the big range. I had never shot before, so I didn't do it very brilliantly: there is quite a lot of kick and the noise is considerable. There were only four firing at once and it was quite loud enough to make one's ears ring. What is must be like in the firing line with thousands going on, besides shrapnel and explosive shell, passes comprehension.

(8) On the outbreak of the First World War Guy Chapman decided to join the Royal Fusiliers.

I was loath to go. I had no romantic illusions. I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thought of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, anxious lest I show it.

The ten months' training, which the battalion went through before it reached France, was therefore a compound of enthusiasm and empiricism on the part of the junior subalterns and the other ranks.

We listened hopefully to the lectures of general officers who seemed happier talking of Jubulpore than of Ypres. We pondered the jargon of experts, each convinced that his peculiar weapon, machine-gun, rifle, bayonet, or bomb, was the one designed to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion.