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
The Mad Minute
The Mad Minute
Flashing of steel in the sunrise,
The loom of a gun on a hill,
A squadron of horsemen wheeling,
And the ranks came marching still,
With a far-off bugle blowing;
Bidding the rifles kill.
The roll of rifle-fire throbbed along the Trentham hills like the roar of surf on ocean beaches. It had a pulsating cadence of sound, now loud and threatening, now muttering low, as the combined effort was relaxed a little. Day after day, from dawn till dark, the sound had been going on, and day after day it would continue. Three companies of infantry were firing their course at the long ranges—one at each range—and another was at work at the 25-yards range. In each company there are four platoons, and on the range each platoon had six targets. No. 13, in the centre of the twenty-five targets, was not used, because the observers in the target trench had a periscope there to watch for the fire-signals of each platoon.
Twenty-four men, six from each platoon, lay on the long earth-bank at the 300-yards range; behind them stood other sixes, and behind them, again, were more of them, all ready and keen to step forward when their turns came. They wore their web equipment, with haversack, water-bottle, and other service gear. Each of those on the range had a sandbag before him to represent cover. This was the "deliberate fire" test, and the marksman rested his rifle against the sandbag as he would against a tree or stone in actual battle. A soldier with a wide-mouthed canvas bag slung over his shoulder passed along the line and dealt out to each his supply of cartridges. Another man carrying a bucket had just finished gathering up the spent cases that had been hurled out of the rifles during the last "mad minute." Flags waved between the outside platoons and the target; a telephone on a post in the centre of the line began to whirr. Crack! A rifle spoke and a puff of dust rose behind No. 20. On the two adjoining ranges the firing was becoming rapid. This was one of the crescendo moments in the surf-like song. The bobbing disc on No. 20 told that the opening shot was a 1, high and to the left. The rifles were roaring now; the spurts of dust behind the targets were thick. A novice might have thought that there were a great number of misses being made. But the red waving flag, that records a miss, was not the only signal that page 162was being made—the twirling disc, that tells of a 2; the waving disc, sign manual of the useful 3; and even the bright disc laid flat on the "bull," were to be seen. The targets are made of paper and scrim, and the bullets whistle clean through them and find a billet in the hill behind, from which they are dug out, by and by, to be used again.
"That man is firing with his elbow in the air," an instructor shouted. "Keep your feet together, there."
The soldier shortened his reach along his rifle and rested his elbow on the ground. He wriggled his legs together, but he did not take his eyes off his target.
Crack! The red flag dolefully recorded a miss. The big surf was breaking now on an iron-bound beach. Deliberate fire it was, truly, but a multitude of deliberating marksmen set the echoes roaring over the hills.
Suddenly a bullet from a rifle which had been pulled down too much in the act of firing struck a sandbag on the parapet a few yards in front of the firing-line. It ricochetted with a humming sound, disturbing the larks that were feeding and flirting on the ground over which the bullets were hurtling. These birds are always there, and they always keep low down, as though they knew that a screen of lead flies over their heads. Sometimes larger game appears on the ground. Once it was a hare. For two hours the troops had been firing, when the hare rose from a tussock and loped away across the range and up the hillside. Here was an opportunity for deliberate fire, but no man turned from his duty to fire a sporting shot—at least, no man said he did, after the hare escaped.
The deliberate fire was finished. The sandbags were removed in preparing for the "mad minute"—during which time fifteen rounds have to be loaded and fired.
"Five in the magazine, ten in the pouch," is the order. The targets are all out of sight, having their punctured surfaces patched with paper. One by one they swing into position. A man with a Vandyke beard and sweeping moustaches opens the ball. There is no marking until the mad minute is over.
"Get yourselves into comfortable positions for this," the instructor says. The bearded man sprawls his legs apart and cuddles his rifle.
Crack! The dust rises in spurts, but there is no disc to tell where the bullet struck. The five shots are soon fired. Reloading with loose cartridges is awkward work for clumsy or nervous fingers. At last the rifle is ready. Up goes the butt to the shoulder, and the empty cases begin to spin out of the breech. All men are firing without removing the butts of the rifles page 163from their shoulders. A man who is firing left-handed finds the working of his rifle-bolt a little difficult and slow. But the rapid fire is kept up till the order comes, "Cease fire!"
Then the targets swing down, to reappear shortly afterwards with a large or small number of black spots upon each, according to the skill of the marksmen. The black dots are small pieces of wood, called "spotters," inserted into the bullet-holes. In addition, so that the n.c.o. who lies beside each soldier and acts as his recording angel may not make a mistake, the man in the target-trench signals the shots with the discs, in methodical sequence.
"Unload!" is the next order. The men rise and step back to the level ground. Rifles are ported for inspection, and the six of each platoon march off to the rear, while the sixes in waiting move up. This is a period when there appears to be a lull in the surf's song—when it seems to be gathering force for another wild uproar. And that uproar begins as soon as the fresh marksmen get to work.
The last days on the range were spent in carrying out field practices. Small grey steel plates, which fell when hit by the bullets, and khaki-coloured figures shaped like men, were used as targets. Like an enemy, the targets often appeared unexpectedly and behaved with as little regard to timetable as an enemy would, except that they sent no bullets back—they did not return the fire.
The first practices were designed to test the individual soldier, but later on little schemes were arranged in which officers and men, working together, took part. In the individual practices, prompt action, in accordance with previous training, and skill in shooting were required; but in the collective work action is first demanded from the leader, who is responsible for dealing with the situation as it develops, and is concerned with getting the best results from the fire of his men.
"And now it's 'good-bye to the ranges,'" said Curly, when the last day's shooting was finished. "It is lesson number one, now, Blasty, that you've to remember—the care and cleaning of your rifle."
The men gathered round the tins of boiling water that are always provided on the ranges. Funnels and dippers were handed out; the rifles that the men had carried throughout their training were to be washed out by them for the last time and wiped and oiled and thoroughly cleaned before being banded in to the armourer.