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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

The Records Office

page 28

The Records Office

They nail you down to a number,
And treat your name as a fact;
And then, my son, it's an easy run,
If you only use some tact.

At a long table in a large building were seated Curly and Long Mac and the eight others of the party. Their names had been called at the group roll-call beneath the flag; and now they were in charge of the officers of the unit to which they had been allocated. Opposite each man sat an officer or n.c.o. with the new soldier's attestation paper before him; and if an onlooker could have glanced along that row of ten attestation papers he would have read these names, without ever guessing at the men's nick-names which are here written in parentheses:—

"Horace Barley" (Curly).

"Duncan McGregor" (Long Mac).

"John Mills" (men knew him as Millie).

"Arthur Hoe" (Wat was his nickname).

"Benjamin Lusty" (whom the pet name of Blasty pleased).

"Harold Jallow" (abbreviated to Hal).

"Wilfred Race" (just Bill).

"Thomas Crow" (by Curly christened Rooster).

"Michael Laney" (Mick).

"George Dew" (Chinny, because of his double chin).

The foundations of the men's military histories were being laid.

"Tour name is Lacey or Laney?"

An n.c.o. held Laney's papers up to the light to read. "How do you spell your surname?"

"M-i-c-h-a-e-1," said Laney.

"That is your Christian name."

"Oh, you mean my maiden name—L-a-n-e-y."

"Are you married or single ?"

"Narrowly escaped both. I'm only engaged."

"Your next of kin?"

"My what?"

"Your nearest relative?"

"My nearest relative is in Queensland and all the rest are dead."

page 29

"Then you must give me the name of the one in Queensland and the name of some friend who lives in New Zealand. And your religion ?

"My what?"

"What is your religion ?"

"I don't know," said Laney, with hesitation.

"You must belong to some church. Say you belong to something. Are you an Episcopalian ?"

"No," said Laney, "I'm an Australian. Look here, sir, what are you short of? I'll belong to that, if you like."

The n.c.o. smiled and wrote down something.

"Was your wife a widow or a spinster?" was the question put to Mills, whose occupation was given as a plumber.

"She was neither—she was a typist," came the astonishing reply.

"You can't remember what name you were baptised?" Bill Race was asked. "You have given your name as Wilfred and signed your paper as Will."

"No, sir. I'm sorry, but I was too young at the time."

"Who is your next-of-kin?" Curly's n.c.o. asked him.

"My mother," said Curly.

"What is her name?"

"Mrs. Barley."

"Her Christian name?"

Curly pondered.

"I'll have to write and ask her," he said at last. "I don't remember ever having heard it. We just called her Mum!"

"Well, tell me when you left home to come into camp."

"Yesterday morning."

The date was entered on the form as the one from which the soldier's pay would begin and his service commence—officially.

When the groups of soldiers had been put through the Records Office, the men were marched away under an n.c.o. to the Camp Quartermaster's stores, while their papers began a career almost as interesting as the military careers of their owners.

"What do you reckon they want all that information for?" asked Wat Hoe, as they marched along. "Asking us all those questions!"

"Oh, just to be able to identify a fellow, I suppose," said Curly. "There must be a lot of chatty information in that Records Office."

Of the bunch of papers constituting each soldier's file which comes to the Records Office, the attestation papers, showing that he has taken the oath of service, and the military history sheet remain in the Records Officepage 30at the Camp. The military history sheet, on which is shown all information regarding next-of-kin and marriage particulars, is kept up to date concerning posting, transfers from unit to unit or from one arm of the service to another, promotions or reversions. This constitutes the "statement of service," and shows exactly to which unit a soldier was attached and the rank held by him on a given date. The Base Records Office has a special department in the Wellington office for the purpose of summarising and making extracts from Regimental Orders which are received (periodically from overseas. The conduct sheets are built up on the information gleaned by the office on the man's first day, and consist of the company conduct sheet and the regimental one. The former is kept by the officer commanding the unit, while the regimental conduct sheet remains at the Records Office, unless the owner of it is being tried by the commanding officer on a charge too serious to be dealt with by the officer commanding the company. Then the sheet is taken to Headquarters, to be returned immediately after the case is concluded. All crimes—to use the word in the military sense—whether company or regimental, are entered on the company sheet, but only the regimental ones appear on the regimental sheet. And it is not only in matters incurring blame that the soldier's regimental sheet is brought out to have entries recorded. Instances of exceptional or meritorious conduct that are brought before the commanding officer's notice are recorded in a man's conduct sheet also. As an example may be quoted a case of a gallant rescue by a soldier of a comrade from drowning in the Hutt River. When the circumstances were laid before the Commandant he ordered them to be recorded in Routine Orders, from which the facts were entered on the soldier's regimental conduct sheet.

The dental card which forms an item of a soldier's papers shows what work has been done to his teeth at the recruiting base and what more has to be done in camp. The card is sent to the Principal Dental Officer in the Camp Dental Hospital, who attends to it, particulars of the man's unit having been endorsed upon it so that he can be found. When all dental work has been completed, the cards, duly filled in, are returned to the Records Office and filed.

The personal files of soldiers move with the soldiers—perhaps not so far, always, but quite as fast. When, later on, Mills, escorted by Curly, who had become a corporal—duly endorsed on his card in the Records—moved over to the Engineers, and when Mike Laney joined the Camp Police, their files had moved from one clerk to another in the same room. Before the men had got themselves and their gear into their new quarters, their personal files were making acquaintance with a new lot of neighbours, and when, in course of time, Chinny Dew went away to join the Artillery at page 31Featherston, his file had a joy ride in an envelope and never came back to Trentham, as it would have done had he stayed in the Infantry and merely gone to Featherston for a time.

Every soldier is given his number when he enters camp, and that number is never changed. Formerly the numbers were "bar numbers"—for example, 5/678—the figure before the bar indicating the particular branch of the forces to which the soldier belonged. The soldier's personal number was placed behind the bar.

In practice this system was found to be cumbersome when men were transferred to different branches of the service, as their personal numbers often coincided with those of men already in that unit. It was decided, therefore, to start a new system commencing with the number 10001. Curly and his friends had numbers which ran into five figures—just plain numbers without any bars. Right through the history of the New Zealand Army No. 01234 indicated Private Wat Hoe—and no one else could ever use it, nor could he ever have another number, not even if he had been able to re-enlist after being discharged as medically unfit, though to mention that circumstance is to run ahead of the story. The files of returned soldiers who are sent to camp and whose service has been continuous are despatched to camp again from the Base Records Office. Such men, if discharged and re-enlisted, have new papers, but their old ones are attached and they take their old numbers again.

In addition to the papers of the personal files, at Trentham a system of index cards has been adopted by means of which track can be kept of men who are in camp or who have been in camp. Their promotions, reversions, transfers, and movements from camp to camp are duly noted. In the fraction of a minute their whole camp careers can be covered by glancing at the cards, which are posted daily from the Routine Orders of Trentham and Featherston Camps and kept in alphabetical order according to Reinforcements.

When the troops sail, their files, after a period of intense activity, go to the Base Records Office at Wellington and remain there, but the cards remain at Trentham.