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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 11 (February 1, 1940)

Trentham Military Camp — From Civilian To Soldier — An Object Lesson in Community Effort

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Trentham Military Camp
From Civilian To Soldier
An Object Lesson in Community Effort

Members of the First Echelon of the Special Force arriving at Wellington Station from Trentham Camp to take part in the official Government and civic farewell, on 3rd January.

Members of the First Echelon of the Special Force arriving at Wellington Station from Trentham Camp to take part in the official Government and civic farewell, on 3rd January.

There is nothing prettier in its own sylvan fashion than the northern end of the Hutt Valley, and I was dreamily enjoying its quiet beauty when suddenly a Bairnsfather drawing swung round the corner. It was a troop of stalwart New Zealanders, with tin hats, packs on their backs, and that curious “loaded” look that the artist has made so familiar. Their arms were swinging and they were marching smartly; the non-com I had collected on my way in said, “There's either a beer or a bathe at the end of that one.”

As we turned the next corner, two motor cars passed, with their curious green-complexioned camouflage, and straight ahead of us was a swarm of khaki figures, doing swift and purposeful things to a motor lorry, also decorated with protective colouring. I learned later that the new battle-dress is the last word in plain utility. Officers and men look alike, buttons are concealed, and badges sewn into the uniform materials. The whole workingsuit for the fighting front is a loose affair with patch pockets, wide pants, collars with hooks and eyes, canvas leggings replacing puttees, and altogether it is designed solely for freedom of action and ease of movement.

The first building I passed on the road into the camp was the library, with the customary notice about hours showing prominently. I subsequently found that this was a well run and up-to-date institution, using latterday librarian technique, and possessing a good range of books. None the less, contributions of sound and useful volumes are welcome, but the books should be a little later, and more entertaining than Smiles' “Self Help” if possible. And it is an advantage to have the covers still on. While I am on this subject, books will be received by any Public Librarian, and they are distributed by the Government Country Library Service.

Scene in the grounds of Parliament Buildings on the occasion, of the official farewell by the Governor-General, Lord Galway, the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon M. J. Savage, and others.

Scene in the grounds of Parliament Buildings on the occasion, of the official farewell by the Governor-General, Lord Galway, the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon M. J. Savage, and others.

Of course, there is nothing remarkable about encountering a library here. In this survey of Trentham Camp, we are dealing with a township larger in population than plenty of boroughs in New Zealand having a racecourse and a couple of cinemas.

Trentham is a substantial self-contained community with one great and vital difference: all the folks of its population are seeking one objective, are dominated by one purpose.

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My journey through this engrossing settlement area deepened many of my convictions. Here is a place in which there is complete order, where routine has its inescapable military rigidity, and yet all the main activities of citizen life function freely and easily. It seemed to me that the ease and swing and the purposeful endeavour derived from the very fact that there is such complete order.

I went round with the soldier who corresponds to the Town Clerk of a borough, and I had my eyes opened every ten minutes. Arrangements have to be made for clothing, feeding, training, and providing the amenities of life for well over two thousand males, and a large staff running into well over three figures. No Town Clerk is, of course, asked to reach quite this level of efficiency, nor, I firmly believe, does any borough reach the administration values of Trentham Camp.

The first feeling that seemed to permeate all hands as I went along was a cheery and informal sense of brotherhood, with this proviso, that prompt obedience and strict observance of rules, were also everywhere. Salutes were given smartly, and I got the impression that privates and officers both regarded the practice as a rather bothersome but necessary exercise of good manners.

The camp itself is divided into dwellings, administration offices, surgeries, shops, stores, warehouses, workshops, restaurants and so on, just as would appear in any civic centre. In a little while, a full Olympic-sized swimming bath will be finished, which would be a sight in a country town that the local enthusiast would take one to from the railway station, after pointing out the bowling green and the new Town Hall.

There are two tented areas with 140 tents in each, holding six men apiece, which it is hoped will soon be cut down to four. In addition there are rows of long wooden buildings which contain cubicles. Every tent has a number so that mail, newspapers, and other articles are delivered, just as in a street in Taumaranui or Riverton. By the way, many of the tents are inhabited by officers. The streets revive the old haunting names of the Great War—Sling, Somme, Bapaume, Cairo, and so on.

The administration offices have a familiar air. Typewriters click; forms are being studied closely; returns are being made out; the telephone rings incessantly; black and white signs jut out along the passages, indicating where your business can be handled. There is one great difference: every worker is in khaki, and the gender is masculine without exception.

Our first sortie ended at an equipment store. Here is the list of what the Trentham arrival gets for his new life: kitbag, 2 pairs of boots, braces, 3 pairs of socks, 2 towels, 2 singlets, 2 pairs underpants, 2 shirts, denim coat and trousers, khaki coat and trousers, great-coat, knife, fork and spoon, 2 plates, mug and blankets. All the tents and cubicles are provided with palliasses, which also form part of this ration.

The quality of these articles has to be seen to be believed. The undergarments are fleecy and of good texture, and the boots have performed miracles on the pointed cobble of the transition state of the Trentham roadways. I spent a long time in these quarters. Here were goods all made in New Zealand, living up to severe tests faithfully and well. My guide was an officer with Home experience who had seen the Great War through, and he was genuinely enthusiastic. The shirts are light and dark grey “of dandy quality,” and the boots made upon specifications decided after examination of British, Canadian and Australian details, selecting the best features of each. Amusing difficulties arise. Boots up to size 11 were provided, but one of the early six-footers who enlisted took size 13 in boots and 7 3/4 in hats.
A section of the troops in Lambton Quay in the course of their march through the streets of Wellington.

A section of the troops in Lambton Quay in the course of their march through the streets of Wellington.

I got a thrill out of the stacked rows of manuka sticks with padded ends, for I found them to be good New Zealand ready-made improvisations for bayonet fighting instruction.

The caps and hats amount to an education in the intricacies of military organisation. Here is the list of hatband meanings for the benefit of readers who, like me, have often been puzzled in the street: red on blue, artillery; blue, engineers; black on blue, signallers; black on khaki, tunnellers; red on khaki, infantry; white on khaki, A.S.C.; cherry on khaki, medical; maroon on khaki, veterinary; black on red, ordnance; green, cavalry or mounted rifles. It should be remembered that the soldier of to-day is largely a specialist, a trained mechanical expert. The days of the thin red line of heroes, and courage and horse-riding skill with some knowledge of rifle-shooting as the only requisites, are over. A modern brigade resembles in its personnel more nearly the Railway Workshops than any other unit of everyday life.

The card systems, complex record files, and docketing methods resemble those of any modern factory.

Leaving the clothing emporium, we passed through a set of sergeants' cubicles, two to a room, and here I saw shelf after shelf of technical military works, manuals, and so on; here I saw service badges now and again, and I ran into a graduate from the famous Argyle Highlanders.

Before I leave the subject of clothes there is a fact that speaks volumes: approximately seven hundred tunics page 19
The troops return to the Railway Station to entrain for Trentham.

The troops return to the Railway Station to entrain for Trentham.

have had to be replaced since the camp started, the trouble being “button bursting”; they simply grow too small. Figure what this means; in the short space of three months or thereabouts, seven hundred young men have been so transformed by hard work, good food, regular hours and open-air conditions, that clothes no longer fit.

There was little doubt about the hard work. I saw them in busy groups, “kicking it in” with zest. I saw them coming in from the field exercises. In the twinkling of an eye, the shower houses were swarming with joyful figures. The arrangements for bathing are superb. Each bath house has fifty showers, arranged in double rows. The sprays are adjustable for hot and cold, and walls screen them so that clothes do not get wet. In the “ablution” sheds, each basin is faced with a shelf for carrying shaving gear. It is all neat, planned and thoroughly efficient.

The question of food now becomes one of terrific intensity. Appetites here are formidable; they are gargantuan. I had a look at a typical cook-house. Here I saw the largest mammoth of a jam tart I have ever seen; and there were many more of them. In spite of the lightness of the pastry, they represented a good lift.

Now, anyone who quarrels with the menu at Trentham is an epicure with exotic tastes. I carefully examined the records of the meals which had been eaten for weeks back. The variety is greater than most housewives imagine, and I noticed a memo, saying: “Owing to the popularity of the fish breakfasts, arrangements should be made to increase their frequency.” Breakfast is a liberal protein meal with curry, fish, sausages, braised steak, Irish stew, haricot mutton in rotation, porridge every day, jam, bread and other extras also present.

Lunch is a dry ration, bread, butter, jam, cheese and tea, and dinner is a sound three-course meal. I looked at several larders, butchers' store rooms, and huge pantries, and the quality of the meat and vegetables was superb. However, the 700 soldiers that grew too big for their clothes form the best testimonial. The parade for meals is on military lines; twelve men go to a table, with a mess president for each dozen, who distributes the food.

Another scene at Wellington Station after the march through the city

Another scene at Wellington Station after the march through the city

The examination has now taken us up to the point where the inhabitants of Trentham have been fed and clothed and have also performed a sound day's work. Many other operations of modern life remain. There is a dental department where many chairs are occupied; there are the camp bootmakers, who, besides the repairs, have put hobnails into 3,000 pairs of boots; there is a camp tailor; there is a camp barber. There is a Post Office, a bright and busy place, equipped to deal with a high voltage current of postal needs including “Everything but Old Age Pensions.” Soldiers, in spite of the stories, are inveterate correspondents, as I saw when I visited the fine Y.M.C.A. establishment. It was thronged with men in uniform sitting at writing tables, and an equally large crowd were in the billiard room, where four full-sized tables are kept busy. A stage is in course of erection, and the social life of this centre will be in full swing shortly. The Y.M.C.A. has a long and rich experience of this work.

Then there is the canteen; this was a heart-warming experience although my rations were dry only. It was a convincing demonstration of what can be done by commonsense regulation. The place has the air of an estaminet; long low tables with wooden benches fill the wide room. While I was there the crowd was thick and cheery. Each man has to get his drink with his sixpence at the bar and then go and sit down. It is very hard to overdo the festive spirit when seated in a large community page 20 room, singing and talking. The radio plays and there is a general air of good fellowship. There has been no abuse of this valued privilege; and here again was the atmosphere of order, of cheerful conformity to rules. The beverages were being used in their proper way, good stimulating refreshment after a day's hard toil. It was as matter-offact and friendly as a crowd of English harvesters having their mid-day beer in the wheatfields as they have done from time immemorial.

Of course, there are more things than drinks at the canteen; hot pies are on tap, at the rate of forty dozen a day; hot coffee and tea, cold drinks, cigarettes, sweets, chocolates, are all there. Perhaps the best way to put it is the remark of the chairman of the Canteen Committee: “We lack for not one thing that a soldier can want; if there is one, we get it.”

There are lashings of rules; “shouting” is forbidden, drinking is confined to those seated at the tables; there is no drinking in parade hours. The canteen hours are sensible, 4.30 to 5.30 in the afternoon; 6.30 to 9.30 in the evening; but closing at 8 p.m. on Saturday evenings, and there are a couple of hours on Sundays.

“This is a man's show, run by men.” The Canteen Committee consists of senior n.c.o's. from each unit, and regular meetings are held to consider reports and deal with every problem that arises. I believe these meetings are models of close logical discussion and practical knowledge. Of course, the final glory of this community effort is that the profits go back to those who produce them, the men of the regiment. The whole thing is the triumph of commonsense.

I mentioned before that the technical and mechanised aspects of warfare now dominate the scene. The workshops and buildings of “Div. Sigs.,” for instance, are testimonies to this feature of Trentham life. They remind one of precision engineering shops, full of modern mechanisms and complex tools, and there are many similar establishments scattered about the camp area. There are, as well, maintenance requirements; hot water installations, transport equipment, and intricate lethal weapons which require constant servicing. Once more I learned that the New Zealander was a born engineer, and could “do anything with his hands.”

Clothes have to be kept clean, blankets disinfected, and a hundred and one other special problems are handled which relate to the life of two thousand young men massed together in the prime of life. The old unit idea has been abolished, and the identification numbers run in straight rotation. The discs are worn round the neck, Trentham numbers running, for instance, from 4,001 to 7,000 and the regimental number comes in for a variety of uses. There is an atmosphere of permanence about Trentham; the roadways are being steadily improved and tarred and sanded fairways will soon be the order of the day. I liked the rows of whitewashed stones marking the divisions between the tents, and the two upright white-painted shells looking like miniature lighthouses; I liked the military precision which marks the way each kit is laid out; I liked the plenty which showed in the huge larders, the masses of currants, jam, vegetables, sugar, and other goodies which help to make it true that the “New Zealand soldier's ration is the largest and richest in the world.” I enjoyed watching a pair of young soldiers using electric irons with skill “flossying-up” their handerchiefs and pressing creases in trousers. I had a look at a pay-book, bound in a wellknown pillar-box red, and so full of detail as to be a small life-story of the owner.

I noticed a plentiful supply of railway timetables about Trentham. Leave is plentiful also, and the railway brethren have arranged convenient and frequent services to the city. I saw signs that cricket was on the way.

Trentham is a paradise for “hemen.” It will amply repay a visit; it is the proof that men can live in brotherhood and happy harmony under circumstances of plain living, hard work, iron discipline, and sharply clear distinctions of rank. Remember, it is a place of volunteers; cheerful, casual, industrious, prompt in obedience, healthy and bright-eyed, but volunteers nevertheless. It is a strange and dreadful thing that it should take a war to give us this splendid phenomenon, this proof that men are happier when they learn that they are all units of a community, exercising a communal will and purpose.