Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 12 - The Grimgribber Rifle Corps : We Commence the "Movement"

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IT was not until long after this grand patriotic volunteer movement had been started that we began to talk of it at Grimgribber, and it was much later before we thought of joining it. You see we are rather peculiar at Grimgribber -  not aristocratic, perhaps, but decidedly rich, and on that account rather high and stand-off-ish. We live in large houses, considerably given to portico we carpet our halls, and therein do a good deal in the proof-before-letter prints and stag's-horn and fox's-foot hat-rail line; we have very large gardens, with graperies and pineries, and everything that can cost money ; but we are decidedly not sociable. To tell the truth, Grimgribber is, perhaps, a thought overdone with Quakerdom, having been selected as the favoured spot in which some of the choicest spirits of the Peace Society have pitched their mortal tents, and the consequence is, that it requires the greatest exertions to prevent our general notions from becoming too drab-coloured; so that when we read in the newspapers of the formation of the various corps, we merely shrugged our shoulders, and said, "Ah!" in rather an admonitory tone ; and it was not until the announcement that the Queen would probably receive the officers and review the troops, that the possibility of [-124-] there being a Grimgribber regiment dawned upon us. I am bound to confess that the idea did not originate with me but with Jack Heatly, a young stockbroker, who was always looked upon as a dangerous character, and who, when at a very early stage of affairs he joined a metropolitan rifle corps, was considered as having booked himself for perdition. Under cover of the darkness of night, and with extraordinary mystery (for even his bold spirit quailed at the audacity of his plan), Jack paid me a visit one evening last December, and imparted to me his ideas for the formation of the Grimgribber volunteers. The first of his large-souled propositions was, that he should be made captain; the second, that I should undertake all the work; the third, that I should mention the scheme to all likely persons, in my own name at first, but if it met with approval, in his.
    I was struck with Jack's magnanimity, and fell into his views; so, likely persons were seen, and agreed at once to the rough outline of the scheme - Grimgribber should have a rifle corps; that was decided on; all details could be entered into at a public meeting, which should be forthwith advertised and held in the lecture-room of our Literary Institute. The consternation with which the drab-coloured portion of our population received this announcement cannot be described; the head-shakings, the hand-upliftings were awful, and the accusative case of the second person singular was joined to every verb of monition and reproach, and applied to us rigorously. But we managed to make way even against this, and we held our meeting. One of the county members bad promised to preside, and at eight o'clock the room was crammed and beginning to get noisy, but the county member had not arrived; then I, as secretary, explained this to the meeting, and proposed that someone else should take the chair; and someone else accordingly took it, and had just reached a triumphant point in his peroration, when the door was burst open, and the county [-125-] member walked in, in a white waistcoat and a rage; and we had to begin all over again. But still we had a very great success. I had drawn up a set of rules, based on those of Jack Heatly's former corps, and these met with great approval; an enemy had obtained admission, and he caused some disturbance by uttering a very loud and sarcastic "Hear, hear!" after one of them which inflicted a fine of five shillings for discharging the rifle by accident; and when I sat down, he rose and proceeded to comment on this rule, declaring it absurd to punish a person for an offence committed accidentally. But Jack got up, and in an oration of unexampled eloquence completely demolished our adversary, by proving to him what a consolation it would be to the surviving relations of any unfortunate person who might be thus killed, to think that the cause of the accident had been made to pay for his carelessness. And then an old gentleman, long resident in the village, and reputed to have been the author of some very spirited verses on the Prince Regent's coronation, which actually found their way into print, rose, and recited some poetry which he had forged for the occasion, in which Britannia was represented as bestowing crowns of laurel on each of her " commercial sons;" and this brought the meeting to a close with a storm of triumph.


    On a convenient desk outside the meeting-room we had placed a large broadsheet, to which each intending "effective member was to sign his name, and before the lecture-hall was closed we had seventy signatures. The seventy pledged ones met the next day and elected their officers- Jack Heatly, of course, being chosen captain; his brother, lieutenant; and I myself receiving the distinguished post of ensign. To any gentleman content with moderate exercise and a good position, I recommend the ensign's berth; his [-126-] lungs are left intact, for he never has to shout the word of command; he is never in that awful doubt which seizes upon the other officers as to whether they are "on the right flank," as he has simply to walk behind the rear rank in the centre of the company; he is not liable to be shot by the enemy, or by his own men; and he can gain a character for smartness with little trouble, by merely occasionally uttering the caution, "Steady, now!" "Easy in the centre!" "Keep your fours in the wheel!" and such-like mandates, delivered in an admonitory voice. He is, in fact, the Lord Burleigh of the company, and best comports himself by grave silence and stern military aspect.
    When the selection of officers had been made, we set to work and chose certain gentlemen to be members of council. We had seen that other corps had a council, and it was therefore necessary that we should have one but, beyond checking the expenses of the regiment, we were not at all clear as to what were the council's functions. We soon found out. The members of the council were exclusively privates, and it appeared that their first and most urgent duties were to oppose every arrangement made by the officers, and to endeavour in every possible manner to set the corps by the ears. Did Jack Heatly, as captain commanding, issue an order, the council was down upon him like a shot, had him up like Othello before the Senate, and harangued him with Old-Bailey-like politeness and Central-Criminal-Court etiquette. Did the lieutenant, a shy and retiring young man, make a mistake in his word of command, he was summoned the next day before the Vehmgericht, had his error pointed out to him, was told to make himself immediately master of a few instructions contained in very small type in a fat red-covered quarto volume of some eight-hundred pages, and was dismissed with a rather more severe reprimand than if he had stolen a watch. Did I endeavour to come to the rescue, I was received with [-127-] bland smiles and disbelieving shoulder-shrugs, and with pleasant hints that "the subaltern officers had really better not expose themselves." Now this was trying to all, especially to Jack Heatly, who is as explosive as a volcano, and who used to make a light meal off his lips and tongue in endeavouring to maintain his reticence ; but as the members of the council were indefatigable in their zeal at drill, punctual in their attendance, and showed thoroughly that they had the welfare of the corps at heart, we put up with it all, and got rapidly under weigh.
    Of course it was necessary that we should accumulate as ample funds as possible, besides the subscription of the members; and with this view the council determined that a select few of us should call upon the inhabitants and ask for donations. The list of names was divided into three portions ; and I as junior officer had the most implacable enemies of the movement allotted to me to visit. Now it has been my fate to have been placed in many humiliating positions during my life. I have been compelled to act a knight in a charade with a tin-pot on my head for a helmet and a towel-horse for my charger, and in this guise to make love to a very stout old lady before the grinning faces of deriding friends. I have been asked to "do" an orange "nicely" for a young lady at dessert, and, owing to my having blind eyes and utterly immobile stiff fingers, have bungled thereat in a manner contemptible to behold. On the King's Road, at Brighton, I have ridden a flea-bitten gray horse, formerly a member of a circus, which, in the presence of hundreds of the aristocracy then and there assembled, persisted in waltzing to the music of a German band. But never was I so thoroughly ashamed of myself as on the errand of requesting donations for the Grimgribber volunteers. In ten places they told me plainly they would not give anything; and next to those who gave willingly, I liked these best : in others, they shook their heads and [-128-] sighed, and said it did not augur well for any movement which began by sending round the begging-box. Some were virtuously indignant, and denounced us as openly inciting foreign attack by our braggadocio; some declined to give because they were comfortably persuaded that the end of the world was so close at hand that our services would never be required; one old farmer, known to be enormously rich and horribly penurious, offered us a threepenny-piece, a brass tobacco-box, and a four-bladed knife with a corkscrew in the handle.
    But perhaps my noblest interview was with Mr. Alumby, our senior churchwarden, who lives at The Hassocks, close outside the village, and who has the credit of being the best hand at an excuse of any man in the county. Overwhelmingly polite was Alumby, offered me a chair with the greatest hospitality, spoke about our Queen, our country, our national defences, and the patriotic body of men now coming forward, in a way that made my ears tingle; but he declined to subscribe, on principle - on principle alone. In any other possible manner that he could aid us, he would; but he could not give us money, as he thought such a proceeding would deprive the movement of its purely voluntary character! I was so staggered that I paused for a moment, overcome; then I suggested that this feeling might not prevent his helping us in another way: we wanted a large space to drill in - would he lend us his field? He hesitated for a minute, and then asked if I meant his field in Grimgribber, at the back of his house. On my replying in the affirmative, his face expressed the deepest concern "he could not spare a blade of that grass, not a blade - he required it all for grazing purposes, and it must not be trampled upon; but he had considerable property in South Wales, and if that had been any use to us, he could have put hundreds of acres at our disposal." However, notwithstanding these rebuffs, we collected a very respectable [-129-] sum of money, and thought ourselves justified in really commencing operations. Of course the first and most important operation was


    He to whom our military education was confided was a sergeant in the Welsh Bombardier Guards, and he brought with him a corporal of the same regiment as his assistant. The sergeant was short and stout; the corporal tall and thin; both had hair greased to the point of perfection, and parted with mathematical correctness; perched on the extreme right verge of his head the corporal accurately balanced a little cap. Off duty the sergeant was occasionally human in his appearance and manners, but the corporal never. In his mildest aspect he resembled a toy-soldier; but when, either in giving command or taking it from his sergeant, he threw up his head, stiffened his body, closed his heels, and stuck out his hands like the signs at a French glove-shop reversed, I can find no words to describe his wooden nonentity. I think we all felt a little awkward at our first introduction to our instructors. They surveyed us, as we were drawn up in line, grimly and depreciatingly; in obedience to a look from his superior, the corporal then fell a pace or two back and assumed the statuesque attitude; while the sergeant rapped his cane against his leg, and exclaimed : "Now, gen'l'men, FALL IN!", the first two words being uttered in his natural voice, the last two in an awful sepulchral tone, and sounding like a double rap on a bass kettle-drum.
    We "fell in" as we best could-that is, we huddled together in a long line - and were then "sized" by the sergeant, who walked gravely down the rank, and inspected us as though we had been slaves in the market of Tripoli, and he the Dey's emissary with a large commission to buy; and then commenced our preliminary instruction. The [-130-] first manoeuvre imparted to us was to "stand at ease" - a useful lesson, teaching us not only the knowledge of a strategic evolution, but giving us quite a new insight into the meaning of the English language. In our former benighted ignorance we might possibly have imagined that to stand at ease meant to put our hands in our pockets, to lean against the wall, or to lounge in any easy and comfortable manner but we now learned that, in order to stand really at ease, we should strike the palm of our left hand very smartly with the palm of our right, then fold the right over the back of the left in front of us, protrude our left foot, throwing the weight of the body on the right, and, in fact, place ourselves as nearly as possible in the attitude of Pantaloon when he is first changed by the fairy, minus his stick. It is an elegant and telling manoeuvre this, when properly executed, and possibly not very difficult of acquirement: but we did not fall into it all at once ; there was a diversity of opinion among us as to which was the proper foot to be advanced; and when that was settled, we were at variance as to which was our right foot and which our left; so that it was not until the sergeant had many times sarcastically assured us that "he couldn't hear them hands come smartly together as he'd wished-not like a row of corks a-poppin' one after the other, but all at once;" nor until the stiff corporal had paraded up and down behind us, muttering, in a low tone: "Them left feet advanced - no, no them left feet advanced," that we were considered sufficiently perfect in this respect, and allowed to pass on to grander evolutions. The same difficulty was attendant upon these. On being told to right face, two gentlemen, of diametrically opposed views on the subject, would find themselves face to face instead of being one behind the other, and neither would give way until they were set right by the sergeant.
    It was not until after some time that we hit upon the golden principle of drill, which is - NEVER TO THINK AT [-131-] ALL! Listen, pay attention to the word of command as it is given, and then follow your first impulse; it will generally be the right one. But the recruit who hesitates is lost. Under the present system the simplest movements are taught-not by example, but in directions composed of long sentences abounding in technical expressions, listening to which the unhappy learner, long before the sergeant has come to the middle of his direction, is oblivious of the first part, ignorant of the meaning of the last, and in a thorough fog as to the whole. These directions are learnt parrot-wise by the sergeants, and repeated in a monotonous and unintelligible tone; the men who make use of them know no more what they are saying than those who are addressed; and an example two minutes long does more good than an hour's precept. It is perfectly true that to the educated intelligence of the volunteers is due the superiority which, so far as rapidity of progress is concerned, they have shown over the ordinary recruits ; but a very slight exercise of this educated intelligence will suffice for most of the evolutions.
    When the command has been received on the tympanum, act upon it at once, without pausing to reflect. You will see many intelligent men bring upon themselves the wrath of their sergeant, simply because, in analysing and pondering on his instrflctions, they have missed the right time for action, and are half a minute or so behind the rest of their company. For instance, the command is given : "At the word 'Fours' the rear-rank will step smartly off with the left foot, taking a pace to the rear - Fours!" Or, in the sergeant's language: "Squad! 'shun! at th'wud 'Foz' the rer-rank will stepsma't lyoffwi' th' leffut, tekkinapesstoth' rare- Fo-o-o-res!" the last word being uttered in a prolonged and discordant bellow. A reflective gentleman in the rear-rank first translates this dialect into the ordinary language of civilised life, and then proceeds to ponder on its meaning; and when he has discovered it, he probably finds [-132-] himself deserted by his comrades, who have taken up a position a pace behind him, and an object of disgust to the sergeant, who, looking at him more in pity than in anger, says, in a hoarse whisper, "Now, Number Three, what, wrong agin!"
    When I remember the unique series of performances that inaugurated our first lessons in marching, I cannot imagine that we were then the same set of Grimgribber volunteers who defiled so steadily before her Majesty the other day, amidst the bravos of enthusiastic crowds. I think our original evolutions were even sufficient to astonish our sergeant, a man not easily overcome; for, at the conclusion of the first lesson, I observed him retreat to a distant corner of the parade-ground, strike himself a heavy blow on the chest, and ejaculate, "Well, if hever!" three distinct times. I recollect that two-thirds of our number had peculiar theories of their own, and that each trying his own plan led to confusion. For instance, the gentleman who would step off with his right foot, at the third step found his leg firmly wedged between the ankles of his precursor, and utterly lost the use of that limb ; the light and swinging gait which was admirably adapted for the pursuit of a country postman was found scarcely to tally with the sober, slodgy walk of two-thirds of the corps, who were accordingly trodden down from the calf to the heel, and who did not view the matter with all the equanimity which good fellowship should engender. A third step, of a remedial tendency, consisting of a wide straddling of the legs, and an encircling of the feet of the person immediately in front of you by your own, was not agreeably received by the sergeant, and had to be abandoned; so it was some time before we presented that unanimity of action which is necessary to satisfactory marching.
    But we stuck to it manfully, and progressed well. The sergeant, who at first seemed disposed to give us up in [-133-] despair, because he could not swear at us as was his custom, began to take an interest in us; and when we had overcome what he called the "roodymans" of drill, we took an interest in our instructions. We had a very stormy debate about our uniform, discussed every variety of gray and green, lost an exceedingly efficient member by declining to adopt what he called a "Garibaldi shako," but which, in plain English, was a green wagoner's hat with a cock's feather at the side; and finally settled upon a very quiet and inexpensive dress. Then, of course, after a very long delay, we received our supply of rifles from the Government, and all the difficulties of drill were renewed; but we overcame them at last, and even settled the great question as to which was the best and most intelligible word of command for shouldering arms- "Shalloo humps!" as given by the sergeant, or "Shoolah hice!" as dictated by the corporal. We decided for "Shalloo humps," and have stuck to it ever since.


    It is almost unnecessary to say that our formation has made an intense impression on the Grimgribber mind, and that the first day of our appearance in public was anxiously looked forward to. We had purposely kept ourselves unseen by any save our own immediate relatives, and the unveiling of the Great Mokanna never caused greater astonishment than did our first outburst, preceded by the drums and fifes of the United Order of Ancient Buffaloes. We filed out two by two from the lecture-hall, and marched away to a field in the neighbourhood, there to perform our evolutions. Grimgribber was present in its entirety-time richest and the poorest; the men of peace and fighting ruffians from the beer-shops ; crinoline petticoats bulged against drab shorts and white stockings short clay pipes leered over cashmere shawls. A roar of delight burst forth as we turned out; we [-134-] grasped our rifles firmly, raised our heads, inflated our chests and threw out our sixty left legs like one. It was a proud moment; but we were made to feel that, after all, we were but mortal, and the check we received was given to us by a very small boy, who looked at our ranks with a calmly critical eye, and hit upon a fatal blot. "Ah and ain't they all of a size, neither!" he exclaimed. His remark was greeted with laughter; for our tallest man is six feet one, and our shortest (whom we hide away in the centre of the company) is only five feet two. However, we bore up nobly; we felt that even the great Duke of Wellington had been insulted in the streets; and that we, who had not yet quite arrived at his eminence in military matters, ought to treat our aggressors with placidity and good humour. So we marched on to the field, and there went through all our evolutions with a steadiness and precision which entirely disarmed the boy, and changed him from a jeering ribald into an admiring spectator.
    So it has been ever since; we have made quiet and steady but efficient progress; our ranks have been swelled by daily additions; we are labouring away at our target practice long before the drowsy drabmen have moved from their pillows; and I hope that at the next time of writing I shall have to record that a prize at the meeting of the National Rifle Association has been gained by one of the Grimgribber volunteers.