Monday, September 7, 2015

Ashley Sterne Spickness and Spanness

Here is an excellent wartime article by Ashley Sterne, as reprinted in The Journal, Adelaide, SA, 18 January 1918.

In the article Sterne mentioned a previous article about the duties of a "grub" orderly.  I hope to find this article some day.

[Note, the word "lyddite" below refers to a high explosive containing picric acid, used by the British during the Great War.  The word "cruse" refers to a small jar for storing liquids (cf. the story of Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings 17.)  The word "spillikins" refers to the game of jackstraws — called "pick up sticks" in the United States — where spillikins are the set of straws or thin strips that are let fall into a heap.  Each player tries to remove one at a time without disturbing the heap.]

Spickness and Spanness
In the Soldier

[By Ashley Sterne, in London Opinion]

The very last thing which the soldier has either time or opportunity to clean is himself.  The military authorities long ago decided that the sight of several dozen dazzling brass buttons marching along the road was infinitely more ennobling and inspiring than one fair, lily-white neck and a brace of coral-pink ears; and accordingly they present each recruit with a small brass-foundry of buttons, number-plates, buckles, and badges, which for ever after (or the period of the war, whichever be the longer) he is doomed to keep in a condition of shining splendor of that would shame the summer sun.

On an average at least two hours per diem of the soldier's hard-won leisure are occupied in bringing his collection of minerals to that state of refulgence which shall ensure immunity from a severe ticking-off by an officer or N.C.O., .whose own metalwork has been rendered san peur et sans reproche in the hands of an unfortunate menial.  To appear on parade with a button or cap-badge of the hue of the rich, red gold of Ophir is a military crime, and the only excuse accepted for this breach of discipline is the plea of sudden and total paralysis.  Buttons are usually polished by means of "soldier's friend" — a paste that is distinguishable from the potted salmon and shrimp supplied at the canteen by the label on the lid, which is spelt differently.  At first, most recruits wonder how it came by the name of "soldier's friend;" but after daily spending more time in the society of their tins than in the company of their associates, they begin to understand.  When we return to civilian life, I am certain that many of us will give the family solicitor a month's wages in lieu of notice, and for the future unbosom ourselves and confide our heart's innermost secrets to the ear of our little pale-pink companion.

A good soldier, they say, does no cleaning overnight; and if this be true, I, for one, am a heartless forgery.  I have to admit that the problem of how, in the hour and a half that elapses between reveille and first parade, to polish the odd score of buttons with which I am so picturesquely decorated, clean my rifle and bayonet, remove a large portion of the dear homeland from my boots and black them, dress, wash, shave, make my bed, sweep the floor, and fight 20 other ruffians for my breakfast; is one whose solution. completely baffles me.  When to this is perhaps added the duties of "grub" orderly (whose unhappy lot I have previously described) you will appreciate the fact that many a man has gone to bed with this terrible load of responsibility upon his mind, only to find in the morning that in the course of one single night the whole appearance of the battalion has been ruined by his hair turning grey.

Nor does the good soldier shave overnight, is another army axiom.  This granted, the army is at least one short of the efficient strength it shows on the books.  If one attempts to shave with the razor provided by the army it is absolutely essential to commence, at all events, the operation overnight, and — in extreme cases — two nights before the face is required on parade.  Plucky and indomitable men have, indeed, been known, by shaving  zealously all through the hours of darkness, to pass the scrutiny of a myopic officer the following morning; but many of us, whether we employ an army razor or one of our own that really will cut better, have not yet surmounted the difficulty of shaving in the dark.  Those of us who attempt to do so generally present in the cold light of day faces that have apparently had the whiskers blown off them by a charge of lyddite.  Indeed, one persistent individual, afflicted with a relentless growth of face-vegetation, who sedulously shaved himself for eight consecutive hours, was next morning called from the ranks, and in front of the whole battalion presented by a humane and understanding C.O. with an assortment of golden wound-stripes.

Luxuriance of hair upon the head, too, is oftentimes a matter for censure, and a rigid inspection of our skulls and the napes of our necks takes place periodically — more especially at such times as there is a shortage of material for filling the sacks required for bayonet practice.  Apparently the soldier is expected to have among his other accomplishments a knowledge of practical hairdressing; for not infrequently does one hear the remark at inspection, "Your hair's too long. Cut it during the next stand easy."  Then, if the culprit cannot borrow the sergeant-major's sword, he has to perform the operation with his bayonet.  At least I suppose that is what happens.

Then, too, there is one's rifle to keep clean.  Granted that every man were served out with a perfectly clean rifle, this would not be a task of much magnitude.  I can conceive that he would be able to keep it clean and still find time to wash some of his fingers or one of his ears.  But one may be excused from wondering, when rifles are served out, whether their prime function is to fire bullets or to hoe turnips.  I extracted enough soil from mine to plant a geranium, and the wealth of oil I subsequently lavished upon it would have shamed the contents of the widow's cruse.

Theoretically, one is supposed to keep the interior of the rifle barrel bright and rustless with the aid of a "pull-through," and there is a rumour current in camp that the battalion actually does possess one.  But I am afraid it belongs to the same category as the sea-serpent and the Indian basket-trick.  Men know of others who have seen and used it, and their actual identities are sometimes disclosed when the canteen coffee gets into their hands and sets their tongues a-wagging.  But I know of no man who has personally handled or seen our battalion "pull-through."  Enquiries for the loan of one at the armoury, after I had spent an afternoon in a futile attempt to clean my barrel with a sardine tied to a string, merely resulted in my leaving the armourer sergeant feverishly hunting up the word in the dictionary.

When arms are dealt out to us, one of the first things we are taught is the proper care of them.  This instruction is usually given in the form of a "lecture" — not one of those comfortable lectures with dissolving views at which a common interest in the search after the fundamental truths of science and art sanctions holding hands with the fair damsel in the next pew, but a highly dramatic monologue delivered in the middle of a draughty, muddy cow pasture by a sergeant-instructor who has a lot of spillikins embroidered on his sleeve.  He tells us how, twice a day, we should wipe the entire rifle over with an oily rag, how (in defiance of all journalistic tradition) we should keep the magazine dry, and free from all foreign matter; how our life may one day depend on our taking care that the bolt be always covered with a thin film of oil (or not covered with a thin film of oil — I forgot which); how we must never fire a loaded rifle at a sergeant-instructor, even in fun; and how, in conclusion, the rifle is the soldier's best friend, and will repay all the care, oil, tenderness, boiling water, affection, emery paper, and friction that we bestow upon it.  "In short," he will add, "treat your rifle as you would your wife."

I take his meaning, though I fancy most married men would think twice before attempting to wipe the wife over, morning and evening, with an oily rag.

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