On 4 August 1914, as the German Army rolled into Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany and the Great War began for the British Empire. My granddad’s brother, Jim Griffiths, volunteered and joined what were known as the New Armies, which were raised by the Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener. Although men from Nantwich might be expected to join The Cheshire Regiment, Jim joined The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry). Volunteers had a choice at this time and he may have joined the KSLI simply because some of his friends had done so – indeed, a sizeable minority of men from the Crewe & Nantwich area would join the KSLI, as they also joined, to a slightly lesser extent, other regiments bordering on Cheshire. Judging from when Jim reached France, he must have joined the 7th Battalion of the regiment and an account of the early days of this battalion has survived to show us what those early months were like. Jim may not have been there for all of the events depicted, but we can get an idea of what was happening.
The 7th Battalion of The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) had arrived in Codford, Wiltshire, in September 1914, setting up camp there with the rest of the 76th Brigade. The weather for the first fortnight was splendid – and then it rained and all the locals nodded and explained how they could have told the Army how badly sited the camp was – if only they’d been asked. “The men had no tent boards, and all approaches to the camp became knee-deep in mud. At the supply depot, one subaltern of the R.A.S.C., and eleven civilians, with such transport as they could raise locally from the farmers, were engaged in rationing 14,000 troops. Small wonder if the bread did not always arrive to time, or if the rations were received spoilt by the rain.”
As far as equipment goes: “the men arrived clothed in motley, about 60 per cent had red coats (presumably Army full dress, AB), and the rest civilian suits. A few had service dress, but no overcoats other than civilian ones. Hats were very various and included form of civilian headgear. There were no rifles and no equipment. The effect, on parade, of a man in a red coat, drab trousers and a bowler hat defies description.” The first rifles reached the camp after about three weeks, while on 20th October, the men were all issued with blue serge uniforms. The origin of these blue uniforms is not clear and it’s been suggested that they were diverted from His Majesty’s Prison service – and not from the warders, either!
For the battalions at Codford though, the weather was the worst problem. To begin with, the recruits had been sent on five mile route marches to get them – and most especially, their feet – into condition. “Early in November the weather got steadily worse. From October 25th until November 10th it rained in torrents every day. Roads to the camp became impassable, and training was suspended. Even route marches were impossible, the troops being soaked through before the last man of the company had struggled through the mud on to the road. The men, of course, had no change of clothing, and no washing accommodation. There was nothing to be done day after day, but to lie, in an indescribable state of mud, in tents without floor boards, listening to the rain beating on the canvas. Rumours of other battalions training in billets in their home towns affected some of the troops in the Brigade to such an extent that mass meetings were held, and cases of men refusing to go on parade by companies occurred. One regiment of South Wales miners marched away, and it was supposed that they had gone to train in their home counties, but this was not the case. The rest of the Brigade remained cursing the rain and Codford.”
Fortunately, on 4th November, word came through that the brigade was to be moved into proper billets in Bournemouth. “Training at Bournemouth was slightly less strenuous, owing to the short days. The battalion at this period was at company training; the surrounding country affording very good facilities for this, but, being in billets, and each company being left largely to itself, the battalion, as such, did not progress as quickly as it might otherwise have done.”
The 7th Battalion, King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry), along with the rest of the 25th Division that it formed a part of, moved to Aldershot in May 1915 for final training. At Aldershot the Division was inspected by Field Marshal Lord Kitchener on 12 August 1915, before finally crossing to France, where Jim and his battalion arrived in Boulogne on 28 September 1915. Incidentally, having something like a year between the raising of the battalion and entry to France, is not untypical of the time that it took these “New Army” Divisions to get into action from virtually nothing. In fact, within a few weeks, the battalion was transferred into the 3rd Division, possibly as reinforcements in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Loos.