Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Sunday in Camp

page 171

Sunday in Camp

"Nearer my God to Thee,"
Sung by strong men;
Mother, the heart of me
Yearned for you then.

Men were polishing buttons and cleaning boots and belts with earnest zeal. It was Sunday morning and there would be no drill. But there was church parade to attend during the forenoon; and in the afternoon either a visit to town in the troop train or a visit from friends who would travel to the Camp by the special trains. A few would come by the morning train, for the Camp is open to civilians on Sundays from eleven a.m. till half-past-six in the evening. Church parade was the immediate matter before the troops, and men were hastening with their toilets so as to be ready. Shortly before eleven the companies were marching down the streets leading to the eastern parade-ground, where hundreds of chairs and forms were arranged in a hollow square. On slightly higher ground the Chaplain's pulpit was set, and the Camp Band had its position behind that.

Platoon after platoon filed into their places. Soon the square was a khaki one, relieved by the brighter colours of officers' uniforms, where the Camp Commandant and his staff sat in the front row. The occasion was a special one, for it marked the departure from the Camp, within a few days, of a Reinforcement that was going on service overseas. A few civilians, relatives of the departing men, were there, too.

The service opened with the singing of the hymn, "Oh, God, our Help in Ages Past." The effect of the thousands of voices blending with the music of the band was magnificent. The sound seemed to roll in a strong, slow wave across the valley and over the hills', right away to the homes of the mothers and other loved ones of these splendid men in khaki. The Chaplain-Colonel read, in a voice that shook with emotion, verses from St. John, Timothy, and Job. A Chaplain-Captain read from the Psalms, and also a lesson from the Corinthians. Once more the parade joined in singing a hymn. "Nearer, my God, to Thee" was the hymn. There was no outburst of sound. It was in soul-moving throbs of wonderful music that the fine hymn was sung. Intense quiet reigned when the singing was finished. In this silence the Chaplain-Colonel stepped up into his open-air pulpit and spoke to the troops, not with ringing rhetoric or fervent appeal. He spoke page 172quietly, heart to heart, as a man would to his brother who was going out to lay down his life for his home and his sountry. For, though many more return than are left on the battlefield, every man who goes has offered his life.

On that still, clear Sunday morning, in that beautiful New Zealand valley, many a man became more steadfast in the sacrifice that he was making, more sure in the task that he was undertaking. In the end the Chaplain's voice was trembling, for he had known these men in camp, he and his captains, and felt the parting that was so near.

"Now the Labourer's Task is O'er" came softly from the band ere many had realised that the address was over. Like a quiet home-song that has a note of great rejoicing hidden in it, the hymn rose in the still air; and if there were mothers in distant homes who thought of their soldier sons that morning, as there surely were, they would have found comfort could they have seen and heard the simple, impressive soldiers' service on the quiet parade-ground—the ground where these trained men had begun to learn the slow march months before. There seemed to be more than the usual meaning in the words of the Blessing as the Chaplain pronounced them at that farewell church parade.

In the afternoon the Sabbath calm fell from the Camp. A train took several hundreds of men to town on leave, but the bulk of them had had leave on the day and evening before, and they expected their relatives and friends to visit them in Camp. Before two o'clock the men began to gather at the main gates. The roadway inside was soon lined with hundreds of those who awaited the arrival of the first train. When the train rushed past—for the railway station is at some distance from the gates—there was waving of hands and handkerchiefs, though many could not recognise one another at that distance and that speed. After a few minutes the stream of civilians began to arrive. Then there was craning of necks among the mass of khaki. But they kept the roadway clear and stood on each side of it. Through this avenue of embarrassing eyes pretty girls and smiling mothers, sisters, and cousins passed, till their soldiers stepped forward and claimed them. Sometimes, when a soldier carried off an unusually pretty girl, or when lovers' meetings were ardent, there was a chuckle, and quiet remarks were made. But each man was intent on the occasion and there was no chaffing.

The passengers by the first train thinned out the throng at the gates; the second and third trains completed its dispersal. In every part of the Camp khaki mingled with the motley of civilians, for so the civilian dress appears in comparison with the uniform colour.

page 173

The Camp Band played beside the canteen. Here was a continual circle of soldiers and their visitors, the units of which constantly changed as they went the rounds of the Camp.

A sergeant-cook in his clean cook-house would be asked if a matron and her pretty daughters might see where the soldiers' meals were prepared. He was only too willing. Through the spick and span premises he conducted them, and told them all about the ovens that cooked for fifteen hundred men in all—"that was one cook-house alone." The Camp Police on duty at the shower-baths were just as pleased to show the wonders of the hot baths to the curious ones.

"It was one thing that worried me," a mother said, "when Jim came into camp—his hot baths, you know."

"Oh, he got plenty here, and hot ones, too," said Mick Laney, the policeman, while Jim grinned and talked to his sisters, who were not listening because they were smiling at the good-looking Mick.

Through the trenches, over the rifle ranges, into the Institutes and Soldiers' Club and canteen—everywhere the Sunday visitors went. And at last train-time came. Then the crowd of khaki at the gates grew and grew as the stream of civilians began to pour towards the railway station. No soldier was allowed to pass outside. All farewells must be taken inside the gates. Yet more than once a mother and her son were allowed to pass through, on the understanding that the soldier kept within sight of the guard, and they said good-bye apart from the crowd. The last train pulled out at length, waving handkerchiefs fluttered, and then the train was gone. And at no time in the training of New Zealand's soldiers was their cheerful, quiet determination more apparent than on those Sunday afternoons when they had said good-bye—very often for the last time—to those they loved best in the world, and turned back to the quiet Camp, where but a few minutes before they had revelled in the love or warm regard of "their people."