The War Effort of New Zealand
It was not the experience of many New Zealand soldiers to visit all the New Zealand camps in England. Some men of the earlier drafts who went to France from Egypt, and were fortunate enough to escape wounds, had no acquaintance at all with them. Sling was the temporary home of most of the men—Sling unloved, bleak, and lonely. It remained the chief New Zealand training camp in England throughout the war. It was situated in the heart of the great Salisbury Plains. Twelve miles to the south of the camp clustered around its famous old cathedral the ancient town of Salisbury; and London, with its perpetual call to the exile in training, was seventy-four miles away. The Plain was the manoeuvre-ground of the British Army long before the war, and Sling had its name many years before New Zealanders camped there. The camp lay astride the main road from Amesbury to Tidworth. Amesbury, one of the most ancient towns of England, was an easy four-miles walk toward the south. Many years ago it possessed page 249a magnificent abbey, or priory, and was of outstanding ecclesiastic importance. Amesbury could be reached from the camp over agricultured down, or through the little intervening hamlet of Bulford, a pretty, typical south-of-England village, with a few thatched houses, a hotel, a manor, and many overspreading trees. But so many British and Australian camps lay hereabouts, and so much khaki found Amesbury and Bulford its chief and only source of attraction during hours not devoted to drill, that one soon tired of their vicinity, and longed for attractions elsewhere. Out back of Sling to the north lay Tidworth, an old military town, with hospital, riding-school, and modern, regular, red-brick buildings; and the way to Tidworth, across undulating, un-interesting ground, flanked by clay-banked rifle ranges, was known every inch to all Sling-trained soldiers, because of the very frequent route marches along it. This was the setting of Sling—this and high, bare hills at the back of the camp, scratched everywhere white—all the Salisbury Plain is chalk land—with practice trenches, bombing-pits, and model dugouts, while here and there arose ancient, oval mounds, or tumuli. These tumuli had not to be desecrated, nor must the human bones be sought which tradition said were beneath—relics of the burial places of Britain's earliest inhabitants, possibly Druidical worshippers, possibly hairy beings older than they.
The organisation of Sling was different from that of the New Zealand camps. In New Zealand one head-quarters admininstered directly the four or five thousand soldiers in camp, and all companies came directly into touch with head-quarters. At Sling the troops were divided into four battalions—Canterbury, No. 1; Otago, No. 2; "Wellington, No. 3; and Auckland, No 4. Each had its separate cluster of huts—Canterbury and Otago on the high ground at the back, and Wellington and Auckland nearest the entrance gate—each its head-quarters, with a lieut.-colonel in charge, and each its own training staff. Over the whole was a group head-quarters, controlled by a brigadier-general, who had with him a general staff officer and a staff. The brigadier was usually at Sling for a few months respite from France, and as a rule he did not remain there long. In the earlier days, training was under group control, but Brigadier-General Fulton in 1917 decentralised it under the battalion commands.
With the exception of a few Imperial Army physical instructors, sergeant-majors of the old regular British forces who had been there almost since the camp started, New Zealanders comprised the entire instructional staff. They were chiefly officers and non-commissioned officers who had seen service in France. They had also undergone special courses at the best military schools in Britain. Who will not remember the bull-ring of Sling, with its bare slippery surfaces, its bleak winds sweeping across, its snow-covered rifle ranges, or its dreary heat, and its monotonous tasks? The new-comer from New Zealand—how he inwardly scoffed because he was supposed to know nothing of drill or soldiering—was treated very much like the recruit at Trentham, housed, and given time to shake down, and his softness after the long voyage taken into consideration. Then the remorseless regime gripped him. New Zealand reinforcement badges were taken away—to wear regimental badges in Sling was the rightful privilege only of the men and officers who had been on service—and also his sea-shoes, page 252extra tunics, blankets, everything he did not actually need and which would encumber his hut. "Issues" were given to him of things required in the new training. And then he was paraded, lectured, and sent to the bull-ring. Discipline, such as he had never yet experienced, came as a shock. It was enforced the moment the feet were placed in camp—smartness, absolute steadiness on parade, saluting of officers. It was all part of the training, though it was scarcely carried to the forward areas in France. Anyhow, the habit was easily acquired, and the first rebellious feeling soon passed away.
There was much that was new to be learned. Drill and musketry required to be smartened up, range practices had to be fired; then came wiring, bomb-fusing and throwing, gas-mask drill, with visits to the gas chamber, Lewis gun instruction, trench stunts on the latest methods, mock attacks, and trench-digging. In the early days, when reinforcements were wanted for France, men were kept in Sling only a week or two, and then were sent across efficient or inefficient; but after 1916 they usually took the full course of thirty days. At the end of that time they were fit, hardy, disciplined, lean visaged troops—troops that any general would covet.
Non-commissioned officers arriving from New Zealand "went down" one stripe, were placed in an instruction class, and at the end of their course sat for an examination. If they passed the test they retained their reduced rank; if not they went to the ranks. There were some heart-burnings because these facts were not known to the soldiers in New Zealand, and men said they would not have carried the burden of non-commissioned rank had they been aware they were not entitled to it at Sling. But the practice was a right one; and when the men reached the line in France, where many fine hardy experienced soldiers, fitted in every way for non-commissioned rank, were still awaiting their stripes, they understood, or the best among them did. Most of them refused even the stripes they possessed under such conditions.
Reinforcement officers similarly had their special training classes under instructors from France. They carried packs and rifles like the men, and their training was very much the page 253same with the addition of lectures on tactics, compass-work, map-reading, the handling of men, and a great deal else. They had to carry gloves and canes, wear felt hats and not caps, and putties and not leggings. In the battalion messes (which toward the end of the war were more comfortable than in the early days) the new arrivals may have felt a little awkward in the presence of old hands from France, but there was no cause for it, and, generally speaking, their lot was quite a happy one.
Days of hard, serious, work, will be the chief recollection of Sling; but there will be other memories also. The huts were comfortable and warmed in winter, the food was whole-some, well-cooked, well-served on hot plates, the canteens well-appointed, and with good libraries and billiard tables; and the spacious Y.M.C.A. at the junction of the roads, with its devoted, kindly, English ladies, and its cinema, catered well for the leisure hours. Later, of course, there was education. Cultivation of surrounding areas also came toward the end of the war when the camp supplied a considerable proportion of its own vegetable requirements, though from the first there were flower-gardens, and neat plots around the huts.
Some who were acquainted with Sling, and its distant, bleak appendage, Lark Hill, only in the early days, others who were there only in the demobilisation period, could no doubt add much else to this description. There was the big white kiwi on the hill at the back of the camp for instance, which was left behind as a souvenir, and there were days without drills and "Piccadillies." But the long tramps to Amesbury and Bulford were always the same, the route marches across the downs and over the hills, the drone of the aeroplanes, the wail of the plover, the old tin bombing pulpit on the hill, the craving for leave, and the everlasting khaki.