Most of the men came from the city of Nottingham or close by. After a short time, without setting out to do so, I found I could pick which suburb they were from by their voices. There used to be thousands of regional dialects in England. All the lads spoke with the Nottingham accent but there were subtle variations. I used to think that the Professor Higgins thing in Pygmalion was an invention of Bernard Shaw but I found that I could do it.
Next door to the hall in which we lived, and part of its grounds, was a church. On a Sunday we used to form up outside, march out of one drive, along the road and back in by the other drive to end up almost where we’d begun. That struck me as stupid but I suppose the officers were trying to keep up a proper tradition of a church parade. Several of the boys had learned to be drummers or buglers in the Boy Scout or Church Brigade movements. Our Major, newly arrived from civilian life, paid for instruments so we had our own small bugle band to lead us on Sundays.
You never took weapons into a church so the rifles had what was called a piling swivel near the top of the wooden part. Outside a church three of you locked your swivels and then stood the rifles up to form a tripod. This was a hazardous operation but it was a mortal sin to let the rifles fall over. I hated this drill and was very pleased later in 1940 when the piling swivels were removed to be melted down for scrap.
Once a week we marched into Nottingham a few miles away to have a bath in municipal baths. Then we marched back again by which time we were hot and sweaty and just about as dirty as before. When we went on longer route marches some of the blokes would shout to women standing at their gates, “Hey up, missus! Hey you mashed?” (mashed meaning brewed tea.) Discipline carried over from the peacetime army was fairly harsh. If the person taking a parade wasn’t happy with you he’d double the squad up and down with our heavy rifles held high above our heads. Sometime during the war I had a little trick that cheered me no end. I never told anybody about this, even mates, in case it filtered back to somebody in authority. When you stood at ease with your feet apart you brought the left foot smartly up to the right one on the command “Attention!” I used to bring my right up to the left but equally smartly and looking fixedly to the front. This drove the person taking the drill into a frenzy. His eye told him that something was not quite right but he couldn’t pin it down. On the command to stand at ease I reversed the movement to keep my same position relative to the others. He then frothed at the mouth and made us repeat it several times over. I did the move correctly until he was satisfied and I felt it was safe to do so and then I played my trick again. How did I keep my sanity for six years? This was one of the ways.
During 1940 there were some fund raising ceremonies in the middle of Nottingham and we took part. One thing we learned to do was silent drill. We did a series of movements in unison without any apparent orders. In fact somebody in the middle gave a quiet command to start and from then on it was all done by timing. It looked pretty impressive. Another time I did ceremonial sentry drill outside the big building where the council had its offices. This is what they do outside Buckingham Palace etc. Two sentries some distance apart decide at the same moment to come to attention, slope arms, turn inwards and march towards each other, turning at the same moment and going back to their original positions.
How this was done was that one soldier tapped the butt of his rifle on the ground as a signal to his mate and thereafter it was done by timing. After marching up and down a few times one man made a slight gesture with his hand as it swung up and down to indicate that they should stop when they got back to their positions. I enjoyed that. We took turns at ordinary guard duty outside the hall at night. I took this seriously but many of the others took the opportunity to get into one of the buses and have a sleep. Not so much there as later I loved the form of words, probably going back hundreds of years. When you saw somebody approaching you called out “Who goes there?” He replied “Friend.” “Advance friend and be recognised.” When he got close “Halt!” and then “Pass friend, all’s well.” next