The First Hundred Thousand
Ian Hay
(Major John Hay Beith)

Ian Hay

This page:

The First Hundred Thousand


World War I

index pages:

The First Hundred Thousand

Being the Unofficial Chronicle of a Unit of “K(1)”

(book publication: 1916)

Book One

Blank Cartridges
Ab Ovo

“Mind me: on the command ‘form fours,’ odd numbers will stand fast; even numbers tak’ a shairp pace to the rear and anither to the right. Now —— forrm fourrs!”

The squad stands fast, to a man. Apparently — nay, verily, — they are all odd numbers.

The Daily Grind
To-day our platoon once marched, in perfect step, for seven complete and giddy paces, before disintegrating into its usual formation — namely, an advance in irregular échelon, by individuals.



Still, we are getting on. Number Three Platoon (which boasts a subaltern) has just marched right round the barrack square, without —

(1) Marching though another platoon.

(2) Losing any part or parts of itself.

(3) Adopting a formation which brings it face to face with a blank wall, or piles it up in a tidal wave upon the verandah of the married quarters.

They could not have done that a week ago.

Half the battalion hail from the Loch Lomond district, and of the rest there is hardly a man who has not indulged, during some Trades’ Holiday or other, in “a pleesure trup” upon its historic but inexpensive waters.
“ You’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road —— ”

On we swing, full-throated. An English battalion, halted at a cross-road to let us go by, gazes curiously upon us. “Tipperary” they know, Harry Lauder they have heard of; but this song has no meaning for them. It is ours, ours, ours. So we march on. The feet of Bobby Little, as he tramps at the head of his platoon, hardly touch the ground. His head is in the air. One day, he feels instinctively, he will hear that song again, amid sterner surroundings. When that day comes, the song, please God, for all its sorrowful wording, will reflect no sorrow from the hearts of those who sing it — only courage, and the joy of battle, and the knowledge of victory.



Growing Pains
If you answer a sergeant as you would a foreman, you are impertinent; if you argue with him, as all good Scotsmen must, you are insubordinate; if you endeavor to drive a collective bargain with him, you are mutinous; and you are reminded that upon active service mutiny is punishable by death. It is all very unusual and upsetting.
The Conversion of Private M’Slattery
Personal enthusiasm for a Sovereign whom they have never seen, and who in their minds is inextricably mixed up with the House of Lords, and capitalism, and the police, is impossible to individuals of the stamp of Private M’Slattery. To such, Royalty is simply the head and corner-stone of a legal system which officiously prevents a man from being drunk and disorderly, and the British Empire an expensive luxury for which the working man pays while the idle rich draw the profits.




By a “crime” the ordinary civilian means something worth recording in a special edition of the evening papers — something with a meat-chopper in it. Others, more catholic in their views, will tell you that it is a crime to inflict corporal punishment on any human being; or to permit performing animals to appear upon the stage; or to subsist upon any food but nuts. Others, of still finer clay, will classify such things as Futurism, The Tango, Dickeys, and the Albert Memorial as crimes. The point to note is, that in the eyes of all these persons each of these things is a sin of the worst possible degree. That being so, they designate it a “crime.” It is the strongest term they can employ.

But in the Army, “crime” is capable of infinite shades of intensity. It simply means “misdemeanor,” and may range from being unshaven on parade, or making a frivolous complaint about the potatoes at dinner, to irrevocably perforating your rival in love with a bayonet. So let party politicians, when they discourse vaguely to their constituents about “the prevalence of crime in the Army under the present effete and undemocratic system,” walk warily.

We are much harried by generals at present. They roam about the country on horseback, and ask company commanders what they are doing; and no company commander has ever yet succeeded in framing an answer which sounds in the least degree credible. There are three generals; we call them Freeman, Hardy, and Willis, because we suspect that they are all — to judge from their fondness for keeping us on the run — financially interested in the consumption of shoe-leather.
Digging is not their department. If you hand them a pick and shovel and invite them to set to work, they lay the pick upon the ground beside the trench and proceed to shovel earth over it until they have lost it. At a later stage in this great war-game they will fight for these picks and shovels like wild beasts. Shrapnel is a sure solvent of professional etiquette.
In our haste we had overlooked the long dreary waste which lay — which always lies — between dream and fulfilment. The glorious splash of patriotic fervour which launched us on our way has subsided; we have reached mid-channel; and the haven where we would be is still afar off. The brave future of which we dreamed in our dour and uncommunicative souls seems as remote as ever, and the present has settled down into a permanency.
Deeds of Darkness
II He had spent the greater part of his life selling evening papers in the streets of Glasgow: and the profession of journalism, though it breeds many virtues in its votaries, is entirely useless as a preparation for conditions either of silence or solitude.




“Well, take my tip,” continued Kemp, “and avoid amateur ministering angels, my son. I studied the species in South Africa. For twenty-four hours they nurse you to death, and after that they leave you to perish of starvation. Women in war-time are best left at home.”


The Olympus which controls the destinies of “K(1)” differs in many respects from the Olympus of antiquity, but its celestial inhabitants appear to have at least two points in common with the original body — namely, a childish delight in upsetting one another’s arrangements, and an untimely sense of humour when dealing with mortals.

So far as our researches have gone, we have been able to classify Olympus, roughly, into three departments —

(1) Round Game Department (including Dockets, Indents, and all official correspondence).

(2) Fairy Godmother Department.

(3) Practical Joke Department.

The outstanding feature of the Round Game Department is its craving for irrelevant information and its passion for detail.

Note (Hal’s):
There’s an Americanized version – “Round Game” doesn’t translate well – in Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road.

— end note

For instance, in the case of the machine-gun washers — by the way, in applying for them, you must call them Gun, Machine, Light Vickers, Washers for lock of, two. That is the way we always talk at the Ordnance Office. An Ordnance officer refers to his wife’s mother as Law, Mother-in-, one — you should state when the old washers were lost, and by whom; also why they were lost, and where they are now. Then write a short history of the machine-gun from which they were lost, giving date and place of birth, together with a statement of the exact number of rounds which it has fired — a machine-gun fires about five hundred rounds a minute — adding the name and military record of the pack-animal which usually carries it. When you have filled up this document you forward it to the proper quarter and await results.

The game then proceeds on simple and automatic lines. If your application is referred back to you not more than five times, and if you get your washers within three months of the date of application, you are the winner. If you get something else instead — say an aeroplane, or a hundred wash-hand basins — it is a draw. But the chances are that you lose.



Olympus will not disgorge your washers until it has your receipt. On the other hand, if you send the receipt, Olympus can always win the game by losing the washers, and saying that you have got them. In the face of your own receipt you cannot very well deny this. So you lose your washers, and the game, and are also made liable for the misappropriation of two washers, for which Olympus holds your receipt.

Truly, the gods play with loaded dice.

On the whole, the simplest (and almost universal) plan is to convey a couple of washers from some one else’s gun.



On field service an officer is entitled to a certain sum per day as “field allowance.” In barracks, however, possessing a bedroom and other indoor comforts, he receives no such gratuity. Now Bobby had once been compelled to share his room for a few nights with a newly-joined and homeless subaltern. He was thus temporarily rendered the owner of only half a bedroom. Or, to put it another way, only half of him was able to sleep in barracks. Obviously, then, the other half was on field service, and Bobby was therefore entitled to half field allowance. Hence the one-and-fivepence. I tell you, little escapes them on Olympus. So does much, but that is another story.
Its favourite pastime at present is a sort of giant’s game of chess, the fair face of England serving as board, and the various units of the K. armies as pieces. The object of the players is to get each piece through as many squares as possible in a given time, it being clearly understood that no move shall count unless another piece is evicted in the process. For instance, we, the xth Brigade of the yth Division, are suddenly uprooted from billets at A and planted down in barracks at B, displacing the pth Brigade of the qth Division in the operation. We have barely cleaned up after the pth — an Augean task — and officers have just concluded messing, furnishing, and laundry arrangements with the local banditti, when the Practical Joke Department, with its tongue in its cheek, bids us prepare to go under canvas at C.

But if you can manœuvre your helpless pawns into Mudsplosh Camp, you receive ten whole points, with a bonus of two points thrown in if you can effect the move without previous notice of any kind.

We are in Mudsplosh Camp to-day. In transferring us here the Department secured full points, including bonus.

Concert Pitch
III Only War itself can discover the qualities which count in War. But we silently pray, in our dour and inarticulate hearts, that the supreme British virtue — the virtue of holding on, and holding on, and holding on, until our end is accomplished — may not be found wanting in a single one of us.



Book Two

Live Rounds
The Back of the Front
I “When given an impossible job by a Brass Hat, salute smartly, turn about, and go and wait round a corner for five minutes. Then come back and do the job in a proper manner.”



“Dirty Work at the Cross-Roads To-night”

However, once he has attached this outfit to his suffering person, and has said what he thinks about its weight, the private has no more baggage worries. Except for his blanket, which is carried on a waggon, he is his own arsenal, wardrobe, and pantry.

Not so the officer. He suffers from embarras de choix. He is the victim of his female relatives, who are themselves the victims of those enterprising tradesmen who have adopted the most obvious method of getting rid of otherwise unsaleable goods by labelling everything For Active Service — a really happy thought when you are trying to sell a pipe of port or a manicure set. Have you seen Our Active Service Trouser-Press?

The New Warfare
I The fact is, a trench is that most uninteresting of human devices, a compromise. It is neither satisfactory as a domicile nor efficient as a weapon of offense. The most luxuriant dug-out; the most artistic window-box — these, in spite of all biassed assertions to the contrary, compare unfavourably with a flat in Knightsbridge. On the other hand, the knowledge that you are keeping yourself tolerably immune from the assaults of your enemy is heavily discounted by the fact that the enemy is equally immune from yours.
We shall win this war one day, and most of the credit will go, as usual, to those who are in at the finish. But — when we assign the glory and the praise, let us not forget those who stood up to the first rush. The new armies which are pouring across the Channel this month will bring us victory in the end. Let us bare our heads, then, in all reverence, to the memory of those battered, decimated, indomitable legions which saved us from utter extinction at the beginning.
III Out here, we are reasonable men, and we realise that it requires some time to devise a system for supplying munitions which shall hurt the feelings of no pacifist, which shall interfere with no man’s holiday or glass of beer, which shall insult no honest toiler by compelling him to work side by side with those who are not of his industrial tabernacle, and which shall imperil no statesman’s seat in Parliament.
The Trivial Round
I Each afternoon we creep unostentatiously into subterranean burrows, while our respective gunners, from a safe position in the rear, indulge in what they humorously describe as “an artillery duel.” The humour arises from the fact that they fire, not at one another, but at us.



Not the least of the arts of bomb-throwing is to keep out of range of your own bombs.



IV First come the post-cards, which give no trouble, as their secrets are written plain for all to see. There are half a dozen or so of the British Army official issue, which are designed for the benefit of those who lack the epistolatory gift — what would a woman say if you offered such things to her? — and bear upon the back the following printed statements: —
I am quite well.
I have been admitted to hospital.
I amsick
} { and am going on well.
and hope to be discharged soon.
I have received your { letter,
dated . . .
Letter follows at first opportunity.
I have received no letter from you { lately
for a long time.


All the sender of this impassioned missive has to do is to delete such clauses as strike him as untruthful or over-demonstrative, and sign his name. He is not allowed to add any comments of his own.

Most of them begin in accordance with some approved formula, such as —

It is with the greatest of pleasure that I take up my pen —

It is invariably a pencil, and a blunt one at that.

Crosses are ubiquitous, and the flap of the envelope usually bears the mystic formula, S.W.A.K. This apparently means “Sealed with a kiss,” which, considering that the sealing is done not by the writer but by the Censor, seems to take a good deal for granted.




Private Burke, never a tactician, concludes a most ardent love-letter thus: “Well, Kate, I will now close, as I have to write to another of the girls.”
The Gathering of the Eagles

“Na pooh!” is a mysterious but invaluable expression. Possibly it is derived from “Il n’y a plus.” It means, “All over!” You say “Na pooh!” when you push your plate away after dinner. It also means, “Not likely!” or “Nothing doing!” By a further development it has come to mean “done for,” “finished,” and in extreme cases, “dead.” “Poor Bill got na-poohed by a rifle-grenade yesterday,” says one mourner to another.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language will have to be revised and enlarged when this war is over.



The Battle of the Slag-Heaps

Further forward still, half-right, another isolated trench was being held by a portion of the Highland Brigade. These were suffering cruelly, for the German artillery had the range to a nicety, and convenient sapheads gave the German bombers easy access to their flanks. It is more than likely that this very trench had been constructed expressly for the inveiglement of a too successful attacking party. Certainly no troops could live in it for long. “A” Company were to go forward and support.

Captain Blaikie, passing word to his men to be ready, turned to Bobby.

“I’m a morose, dour, monosyllabic Scot, Bobbie,” he said; “but this sort of thing bucks me up.”

text checked (see note) Apr 2005

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Although Hay’s regiment wore the kilt, no particular pattern (sett) is mentioned. The background graphic is my attempt to represent the tartan most likely to have been envisioned as the uniform of the fictional “Bruce and Wallace Highlanders,” actually worn (I believe) by Hay’s regiment, and variously known as Campbell ancient, Military, 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, Government, Universal, and (most famously) the Black Watch.

If I got it right, I have no claim on the pattern itself, only this rendition, copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen.