Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 14 - Grimgribber Position-Drill

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IN the spring, according to Mr. Tennyson, the wanton lap-wing gets himself another nest, a brighter iris changes on the burnished dove, and a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. These are unanswerable facts ; but here is another vernal incident, which, probably because Locksley Hall was written before the institution of the volunteer movement, has been unnoticed by the poet. In the spring the gentlemen attached to the various rifle corps, whose ardour has been chilled by the dreary winter, and whose time has been consumed in festivity, suddenly recall the fact that the eyes of their country are earnestly fixed on them for its defence. I am proud to say that we of the Grimgribbers were, theoretically, early in the field. No one who knows Captain De Tite Strongbow will imagine that he would have allowed us to be laggards. This indefatigable young man has never relaxed in his exertions. After the presentation of our bugle, recorded in the previous chapter, the ardour of the members thawed, and the general voice resolved itself into a-dieu ; that is to say, half the men went to the Continent, and the other half to the seaside. Before we broke up, Captain Strongbow called a battalion drill, when the prevalent disorder showed itself in an eruption of moustaches of a week's growth, and in the bulging of Continental Bradshaws from uniform pockets. [-147-] Strongbow noticed this, and, as I may express it in the language of the Wardour Street Elizabethan drama, "advantaged himself of the occasion." He put us through some of the most difficult and most perspiration-causing movements in the Field Exercise Book, and then, having formed us into a square and faced us inward, he solemnly addressed us. He said that he grieved to find a general disposition for a holiday, a disposition by no means in accordance with that solemn pledge which we had given when we voluntarily placed our services at her Majesty's disposal. He mildly hinted that anyone declining to attend parade or drill when summoned, was guilty of perjury in its grossest form; and he asked us where we expected to go to? Through the dead silence which followed this appeal, the voice of the ill-conditioned Private J. Miller was heard, suggesting " Margate;" but the ribaldry had effect on none but a few hardened scoffers. However, it was useless attempting to stop the threatened exodus; and, after suggesting that those who visited the Continent should keep a sharp eye upon the foreign troops, "with whom they might be called upon to cross bayonets" (an idea which made a profound impression on Private Pruffle); and that they should take measures for becoming generally acquainted with the defensive works of such foreign fortresses as they might happen to come across ; and after recommending the stay-at-homes to attach themselves to the garrison of the seaport town where they might be staying, and pass an easy month of relaxation in attending three drills a day and perusing the Field Exercise Book in the evening, Captain .Strongbow dismissed us with a benediction.
    I do not believe that anyone, save Strongbow himself (who went first to Hythe and then to Shorncliffe, and passed the remainder of the autumn in endeavouring to improve the Armstrong gun), paid the smallest attention to the recommendation. Pruffle was seen with a wideawake hat [-148-] and a telescope on Southend pier. Lobjoit broke three colts and his own leg among the Yorkshire spinneys. Skull went to Worthing, and fell into a chronic state of sleep and seaweed. Private Miller, though he certainly visited Aldershot, only went for one night to assist at the military theatre in an amateur performance. We all went away and did cathedrals, and mountain passes, and ruined abbeys, and lay on beaches, and swam, and mooned, and enjoyed ourselves; and by the time we returned to Grimgribber we had nearly forgotten the existence of our noble corps.
    The Quakers were in ecstasies ; they knew it ; had they not prophesied it? "Friend, did I not tell thee?" etc. etc. All of which so roused the ire of De Tite Strongbow, that one day early in October, every dead-wall, tree, and post in Grimgribber blossomed with a blue-and-red announcement of a "Parade on the Common on Saturday next."
    The day came and the hour, but not the men; that is to say, there was not a very great muster. Parties of two and three came straggling up the lane, evidently intending merely to look on ; but they were spied by the vedettes posted by Strongbow at available situations, and immediately hailed by that energetic officer in stentorian tones and appealing phrases, all of which commenced: "Hallo you sirs!" The persons addressed, recognising the voice, generally feigned total deafness, looked round in a vacant manner, and commenced a retreat; but Strongbow was by their side before they had gone three paces, and by coaxing, wheedling, and bullying, induced most of them to proceed to the Common, so that at last two-thirds of our total number were present.
    The day will be for ever remembered by the Grimgribber Volunteers; on it .they were initiated into the mysteries of rifle-shooting; on it they laid the foundation of that system of skill which will, I doubt not, enable them to carry off the Queen's prize and a few other trifles at the forthcoming [-149-] Wimbledon meeting; on it they commenced the practice of a series of fearful gymnastics, compared with which the crank is a light and easy amusement, and the stone- excavating at Portland a pleasant pastime.
    We had executed our "company-drill" in a singularly fanciful manner, remarkable chiefly for its divergence from prescribed rule. Long absence from parade had rendered us rusty and entirely oblivious of the meaning of the various commands. Thus, at the word "fours," the rear rank, instead of stepping smartly back, remained perfectly stationary, while a pleasant smile overspread the faces of most of its members at what they considered the extraordinary conduct of the two or three knowing ones who moved. In wheeling, the difference of opinion between the men was even more plainly exemplified; for, while some clung close to the pivot man, others ambled away into the far distance, while the centre portion distributed their favours equally between the two, rushing sometimes to the one end, sometimes to the other; so that, instead of coming up "like a wall," as had so often been urged upon us, we serpentined about in a very graceful festoon, and resembled nothing so much as the letter S. From my ensign's position in the rear I had watched Captain Strongbow's face during the performance of these manoeuvres, and had every moment expected to see it overcloud ; but, to my astonishment, he remained perfectly calm, and, at the conclusion of the drill, he called us together, told us we should soon "pick up our movements," but that he had something of far greater importance in store for us. He here stated that it was most important that we should perfect ourselves in the practical portion of shooting; that he had already prepared four sergeants who would undertake to instruct various sections of the corps; and that on that evening the first meeting for position-drill would take place at his (Strongbow's) rooms. He hoped he should have a good [-150-] attendance, and concluded by telling us to bring our rifles, and not to eat too much dinner. What could that last caution mean? Alas, in a very few hours we knew its value!


SCENE - A barn attached to Captain Strongbow's house. Rather a bleak and cheerless place, with targets painted in black-and-white on the walls. A flaring lamp on a bracket lights only the end portion of the place. Some ten members of the coups, sergeants and privates, are lounging about, waiting to begin business. Captain Strong-bow, by himself, aiming at a painted target with marvellous precision.

Enter Private Miller, smoking a short clay pipe; he stares round at the painted targets on the walls, and then shouts in a hoarse voice: "Here y'ar! Now's your time ! Three shots for sixpence! Try your fortune at the Little Vunder, gents! Pint o' nuts for him as hits the bull's-eye!"
Captain Strongbow (aghast). For Heaven's sake, stop this most discreditable noise, Mr. Miller!
Miller (in broken and melodramatic tones). Pardon me, noble captain, but the sight of these targets reminded me of the Greenwich fairs of early youth!
   Strongbow. Pray, silence, Mr. Miller! It is impossible to get on if you indulge in buffoonery. Now, gentlemen. Fall in (Sergeants and privates range themselves in line.) I am about to put you through position-drill; a course of instruction which habituates for the correct position for firing, and teaches you the natural connection between the HAND and the EYE. What are you smiling at, Mr. Skull?
Skull. Nothing, nothing ; only Miller-
Miller; what?
Miller said that Mr. Mace in the last prize-fight taught Mr. Hurst the natural connection between the hand and the eye
[-151-] Strongbow. This is most disheartening Now I There are three practices. The first word of command in the first practice is, "As a rear rank standing at three hundred yards, Ready." On the word "Ready," make a half-face to the right, feet at right angles, grasp the rifle firmly with the left hand, fingers of right hand behind the trigger-guard, body erect, left side perpendicular, left breast over left foot, shoulders-
Private Pruffle. Stop, sir, pray stop (confusedly). I can't recollect half that ! I've a short memory I What did you say after making a face?
(Captain Strongbow repeats the instructions. All listen attentively, especially Private Miller, who places his hand behind his ear, bends forward and assumes the attitude of the stage savage expecting the "pale-face.". )
Strongbow. Now, as a rear rank standing at three hundred yards, ready! (all move except Skull). Did you hear me, Mr. Skull? Ready!
Miller. Don't you hear, Skull? Ready! Present! Fire! (kicks Mr. Skull just above the calf of his legs and nearly brings him to the ground).
Strongbow. Try that again ! (motion repeated several times). Now, at the word "Present," without moving the body, head, eye, or hand in the slightest degree, throw the rifle smartly to the point of the right shoulder, at full extent of the left arm-
    Lobjoit (a coarse person). Gammon!
Strongbow. What, sir?
Lobjoit. Stuff; sire! Can't fling a rifle about without moving your hands! Don't believe in that!
Strongbow. Pray don't interrupt; it's all correct; done at Hythe; perfectly possible. Now - P'sent!
(Five men throw out their rifles bravely to the front, three bring up theirs slowly and sneakingly, two boldly support their elbows on their knees, and look as if they were performing a rather meritorious action than otherwise.)
[-152-] The position-drill proceeded, but it was very hard work. We speedily noticed that when Strongbow had any instruction to give, he invariably chose the time when we were at the "Present," ie. when the strain upon our muscles in holding out the rifle was tremendous. After two seconds you would perceive the muzzle of the extended rifle begin to quiver in a very singular manner, then the body of the gentleman holding it would begin to rock about from the knees upwards, and finally, when he received the grateful command to "ease springs," he would give vent to an exclamation something between the ejaculation of a pavior, and the "characteristic 'hugh' of Mr. Fenimore Cooper's Indians, and add, " Gad, I'm nearly done up!"
    The art of comporting oneself as a "rear rank standing" having been acquired, we were initiated into the mysteries expected from a "front rank kneeling;" and these gymnastics proved even yet more serious and invincible. For a gentleman of large frame, and accustomed to a well-stuffed easy-chair, to have to sit for five minutes on his right heel, and that alone, is by no means an easy matter; but the difficulty is considerably aggravated when he has to perform, while in this attitude, feats of manly strength in connection with throwing out a rifle to the full extent of his left arm. He has then to take aim at the target on the wall; and about this time, and just when he begins to puff dreadfully, he will hear a stentorian shout from the instructor: "What are you doing, sir? restrain your breathing! restrain your breathing, for Heaven's sake!" The unhappy man endeavours to do this and to follow all the other directions given him in the slowest time, thus : " P'sent ! to-oo-ooo!  thre-ee-eee! fo-o-war! f-'ive! " until at the end, when he is called upon to spring smartly up to "Attention!" what with breath-holding and extra exertion, he resembles a boiled lobster in colour, and is shaking in every limb.
    The judging-distance drill is an equally humorous but [-153-] considerably less fatiguing evolution. Its object is to enable the soldier to note the difference in the appearance of men at different distances : a happy result, which is apparently accomplished by sending several of the persons to be observed completely out of the range of any but the sharpest sight. Points are thrown out at certain allowed distances up to three hundred yards, and the men under instruction are told the distance, and made to observe the appearance of the points. Then the "points" are sent out at unknown distances, and the men have to give their opinion of the distance at which these "points" are placed, the answers being noted in a register. We had some little difficulty at first in preventing the "points " from running away altogether, or slipping into the public-house when the instructor's back was turned. The guesses of some of the men were perfectly miraculous in their inaccuracy ; and it was observed that whenever Private Miller whispered his ideas on distance to the sergeant, that functionary would be convulsed, and rendered so oblivious of decorum as to attempt to write without any ink, and to make futile scratches on his register. It was afterwards discovered that the ill-conditioned Miller, instead of giving his ideas of distance, was whispering the latest riddle in the ears of the instructor. Even he, however, owned to the value of the judging-distance practice, declaring that after a few lessons he should be able to recognise, and consequently to avoid, his tailor, if he saw him at the other end of Pall Mall.
    So we progressed through our difficulties, until we numbered some excellent shots among us. We are to be inspected by Colonel McMurdo very shortly, to take part in the Wimbledon rifle contest and in the grand review, where we shall have plenty of opportunities of distinguishing ourselves. I shall not fail to chronicle our movements.