Described below are the experiences of Cyril James during his basic training. Cyril unfortunately died in the summer of 2013 but his book is an incredibly good account of the war fought by the 4/5th Bn.
On Friday 15th September Cyril got a hug from his Mam and “Cheerio” from his Dad. He left home at eight o’clock in the morning and caught the tram from Cross Gates down to Leeds Central Station. He had a travel warrant in his pocket to take him to Scotland to join a Scottish Regiment he knew nothing about. He didn’t mind going, he would have to dress as a Scotsman, in the Regimental gear. He would prefer not to be going but it would be interesting; a different sort of life. He didn’t think about fighting. When he got in the train there was a man already in the compartment. They got talking and discovered he was also being called up to join the Scots Fusiliers. The man’s name was James Greaves. He was a small man, the same height as Cyril, and he worked in a Gallon’s in Holbeck, part of a large chain of grocers’ shops. They both had a little suitcase and a gas mask case, all they were allowed to take with them. It took hours; they changed at Kilmarnock and finally got out at Ayr. It was now six in the evening. An NCO spotted them and took them out to the station front. There were fifteen there, the others were all Scots. After a wait they were ordered onto the back of an Army truck and driven through the streets to the Barracks. The NCO pulled down the tail gate and ordered them off and into the Guard Room. It was full of Scots soldiers. “What do you want?” The two Yorkshiremen had difficulty understanding anyone. Each man handed over his call up papers. That was it. They were in the Army.
By all accounts the Basic Training experience of those joining up in late 1939 was pretty harsh. In a way, it had to be, due to the requirement to dramaticaly expand the army in size, in such a short time.
Cyril always listened carefully to the instructors and made sure he got it right. Marching wasn’t much trouble, but it was soul destroying. In those first days some recruits were ready to crack up. The NCOs targeted people, anybody different or with a weakness. Naturally, the English were a target. The NCOs were screaming insults, shouting about “Bannockburn” and other events in Scottish-English history: Cyril and Greaves had no idea what they were on about. The events might have been important in the history taught in the Scottish schools but it wasn’t on the History syllabus in Leeds. But the two Sassenachs were in no doubt they were being persecuted as the old enemy.
NCOs set out to destroy recruits so they couldn’t think straight, or, in some cases, think at all. At six o’clock the men were out of bed and out of the stalls, by six-thirty they were outside doing PT without anything to eat.
Sometimes they exercised in formation, sometimes using a railway sleeper with ropes either side. Then the NCOs trotted the platoon round the Parade Ground. After half an hour a bugle sounded and they were fallen out. Now they had to be washed and shaved, dressed and eat breakfast. There was no bathroom; they washed over a gutter with line of cold water taps. Every man was ordered to shave every morning, whether or not he needed to. Cyril wasn’t used to this; his facial hair was only fluff and light coloured. He was told, bluntly, crudely, he had to shave. No exceptions. NCOs came round and checked.
To anyone with a military background, you will recognise the tactics of the NCO's however the general bullying of many and the sadistic manner of some got to the recruits and also to some of the newly promoted JNCO's sent their to assist.
L/Cpl Robert Miskimmin was one of these and in the end elected to be demoted, so he could return to the battalion away from the atmosphere of the depot.
After six weeks training the platoon were finally given their own rifles. Cyril was issued with a Lee Enfield 303, number 4844. It was a great heavy thing and in an awful state, covered in grease and oil. It had been in storage, probably since the end of the First War. All the rifles were the same. They had to be cleaned up, so they would fire, and pass an inspection. The recruits were taught how to hold, aim and fire a rifle; how to load it, strip it down and reassemble it. They were taught how to march and salute with a rifle, slope arms, shoulder arms and how to present arms. They were also shown a Bren gun: how to load, aim, fire, strip and reassemble it. They were taught safety with the weapons but they never fired them except to say “Bang” when required.
After the basics, the recruits went on route marches and joined the battalion in field exercises.....