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Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The Story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and Some Account of the Daily Round of the Troops within Its Bounds

Bathing Parade

page 105

Bathing Parade.

"What is the matter?" the sergeant said,
"This," said the raw recruit, "
How can you tell, when it's bathing parade,
Who you have got to salute?"

The bathing-place at the river is more than a mile from Camp, across the railway and the main road. On the far side of the road an old dray-track winds down to a creek and crosses it by a ford. The soldiers' road swings to the left and crosses on a bridge that is only a skeleton. Four planks, about eighteen inches apart, are all the decking it boasts. But that is all that is required by soldiers marching in fours. On the other side of the creek a way has been fenced off through grazing paddocks. Here, too, instead of the usual three tracks found in country roads, there are four, for the marching men always keep their formation, and they have worn four clear paths. So it is at another bridge on the borders of a heavily-bushed portion of the land: the four tracks are clearly defined. Then they merge with one wide path which dives into the gloom of bush, which shuts out all but tiny glimpses of the sky. And the soldiers' road loses itself in a grassy, open paddock. From this point there are two ways to the river. It is not advisable that all the men should congregate at one point, for with 2500 men in the water, a considerable stretch of river is required. Beyond the grass paddock the river rushes along. It is rather narrow in its shingle bed, for on the opposite side the hills rise almost precipitously with bush, broom, and tree-ferns growing in profusion to the highest ridge. Birds flit about, and the river chatters and sings on its way. In the open paddock thrushes and starlings run about on the grass.

page 106

But in the dim aisles of the thick bush all is quiet. If one goes there before the marching troops pass, small wrens and robins and wagtails may be seen flitting noiselessly about. A rabbit will hop quietly out of cover, to stare at the intruder, and move slowly away again. For a time the stillness is remarkable. But, in the distance, the whirr of a side-drum is heard, and the voices of men singing, as they pass along the four-way road, while the grazing cattle in the paddocks watch with curious eyes. They are crossing the bridge; the leaders darken the glare of the sky in the opening which barely admits the path. At once the quiet bush echoes and throbs and re-echoes to the drum and the voices and the tramping feet. The wrens and robins have gone; after a terrified backward look, the rabbits have fled, too.

The company is just finishing a chorus: "Who-who-who-who's your lady friend?"

There's a muddy place to be passed, and each strives to dodge it and push someone else in. The officer marching briskly in the lead says "Left! Left!" and the drum emphasises the step—"B-r-r-r-m! B-r-r-r-m!" it throbs, its clamour suddenly becoming less as the drummer passes out into the open again. Down to the river they go, happy as skylarking boys. Company after company follows, the bagpipes sounding weirdly in the bush colonnades, and the bugles splitting the sombre silence.

The bank of the river is soon a scene of animation. Most of the men are out of their clothes and into the water in a brace of shakes; others are slower, and some don't bathe at all; they do a little washing instead, this being allowed. Even so, many of the washers are chaffed, and some hurry through in time for a hasty dip ere the company resumes its clothes and sets off again for the Camp. With the majority of the men in the water the river looks like a surf beach in summer, and the noise is astonishing, though when it is analysed it is found to be great in volume by reason of the multiplication of many individual noises, and not by any special individual effort. There is a great commotion near a rock which overlooks a deep pool. This is a favourite diving-place—in fact, diving-places are so few that it is regarded as the only satisfactory one.

A large soldier is poised in readiness to dive, but lingers in the warm sunshine.

"Hurry up, Mac! Make up your mind," shouts a man in the water.

Mac goes in with a fine splash. He comes up with streaming face, brushes the water out of his eyes and is after Curly, the man who chaffed him. But that nimble one is already in the shallows, splashing vigorously to cover his retreat. The rock is a favourite spot, undoubtedly, but as it is on the far side of the river the initial plunge of the dip cannot be taken page 107from it. Those who are not so keen on diving to await their turn in the queue, splash in the shallows or swim and float contentedly; some only paddle. Every man, including the washermen, must bathe their feet, for the feet are important attributes in marching and must be kept fit and clean.

To the civilian, the bathing parades in the river seem a mighty confusion of men, long arrays of clothes, and much upheaval of waters. Yet there is order all the time. Not a man could disappear without his disappearance being noted. At every bathing parade, each company has four life-savers on duty. They stand, ready for action, at points along the portion of the river occupied by the company. Usually they are men who were members of surf rescue clubs in their civilian days. Their presence gives the timorous ones confidence.

It seems that the fun is still at its height when a whistle blows, the signal for dressing. Out of the water the swimmers come like seals, dripping and breathless from their play. Towels are busy, and the men get into their clothes in quick time, while the four life-savers, one of whom is Mick Laney, splash across to the rock and enjoy ten minutes' diving and swimming, amid the banter of the men.

"How'd you like that handsome bloke to rescue your best girl?" a soldier asks his friend.

"He'd have to black his face first," is the reply. "I'm the only handsome bloke she'll look at."

"Hi, Napoleon!" to a posing diver, "get off the rock!"

"That's one for little Mary!" as the diver strikes the water heavily.

The company does not wait for the four to dress. They will follow on later. The drum stutters and falls into its rhythmic clatter. Soon it is muffled by the bush. So, out again, and by the four-track way to the main road to the Camp. Approaching the guard, the officer smartens the men up in their marching, and three hundred clean, shining faces salute the guard with half-turned glances as they pass.

In the roomy bath-house the fifty men made noise enough. Those who were undressed urged their slower comrades to hurry up.

"Jimmy's shying at his 'weekly' again," one man said. "See that he gets it good and hot this time, Tommy!"

Tommy promised he would see to it. The n.c.o. in charge began to hurry the men who were slow, though the whole business of undressing had not taken long. The men in the loft, where the tanks and taps are, heard the order for the men to step under the showers. An Irishman was singing "Killarney," and a chorus had begun the chant, "Here we are again!"

page 108

Suddenly the whistle of the speaking-tube screamed. It was the signal for hot water. Almost simultaneously the whistle from the other bath-house sounded. Both taps were turned—they are like steam valves and worked by a small wheel. There was a moment of quietness while the water travelled from the tanks to the showers. Then, as it hissed down upon bare shoulders and tousled heads, exclamations, yells, and whistling arose.

"Hoo!" shouted Lusty; "that'll take the hide off you, Billy!"

"Look, you're getting red all over," retorted Bill—"like a lobster!"

The happy chorus was still going strongly. The men were as happy as sandboys under the warm flow of water. But the gauge in the tank was moving. These squads had had their share of hot water. The taps turned and the showers ceased. Then the voices changed their tones to one of expostulation. They wanted more hot water. Both whistles screamed.

"Give us just a drop more," a voice cajoled.

"Can't be done!" replied one of the operators, through the sizzle of the steam as it heated more tanks of water for the squads that were to follow. "Are you ready for the cold?" he added. "Stand by—here she comes!"

He spun the cold water tap with a will, and the fifty voices took on another and a sadder note, which was followed by the sound of clean, healthy soldiers singing as they stepped from under the showers and rubbed themselves down with their towels. The man at the wheel shut off the water and turned his attention to the tanks that would be needed for the next batch.

The other operator of taps and gauges was a grim kind of humorist.

When the request for hot water was made he answered cheerily.

"Right oh, boys! Just this once I'll do it. Stand by!"

Instead of giving them more hot water he turned on a deluge of cold. The uproar which followed suggested that the fifty men were being murdered. Through the din could be distinguished dire threats upon the life of the joker; but the victims of his practical joking saw the fun, as healthy men usually do, and were soon rubbing themselves down, while another fifty took their places under the hot showers.

Squad after squad, the two companies underwent bathing parade. The stars were out and the street lamps were burning in the Camp when the last lot were finished. But there was hot water for all, the steam from the big boiler being directed first into one and then into another of the four big tanks, under the skilful handling of the men at the taps and gauges. The sallies of the men were a continuous fusillade of wit and sarcasm, and the humorist in the loft worked his chilly jest with the cold water with considerable success from time to time.