A hundred years ago today, war declarations were going off like gun-shots all over Europe and young men were wondering what might befall them - imagining glory, fearing pain and horror, trying to decide what they might do if… Certainly never foreseeing anything to remotely match the forthcoming reality.
Something people wonder about when considering the period before the war is the role and effect of various working-class boys' organisations in preparing the way for the remarkable rush of volunteerism that followed. My father, FootSoldierSam, was a keen Boy Scout and his full account of his childhood (Part 1 of 9 in his memoir) has a lot to say about the movement founded by ex-Boer War soldier Baden Powell in 1908. So:
Remembering that in this early phase of the book, he wrote about himself in the third person as "Tommy", this is what got his attention and drew him into joining the Scouts, in Edmonton, north London, some time in 1910: "At about this time, on one of the very rare occasions when he stayed out after dark, he saw something that thrilled him: simply a boy standing under a lamp-post, with the gas light shining down on him, looking at a book – but wearing a uniform Tommy had never seen before. A hat with three dents in it and a wide brim; a bright-coloured scarf tied around his neck and hanging down the front of his shirt; short trousers held up by a belt; long socks and short boots; and in one hand he carried a staff, a pole. Tommy had to find out who he was, what he belonged to, and why he dressed like that. He couldn’t bring himself to approach the boy and ask him, but he soon found out that he must have been an early member of the Boy Scouts."
Thus entranced, he soon persuaded his parents - who were just emerging from the depths of poverty which had assailed the family during my father's childhood - to let him join. After growing up wearing rather odd homemade clothes, he loved the smartness of the uniform and soon the Scouts became part of the fabric of his life, particularly because the Scoutmaster, Mr Frusher, was also the vicar who both ran the church choir and gave piano lessons (free to poor boys) which Tommy/Sam took up too. But above all he loved Scouting. And it gave him a whole new range of skills.
"Life had been hard and grim. Now very pleasant pastimes came to occupy many is his out-of-school hours and he began to enjoy the company of other boys under happy conditions, free from the pressures of schoolwork and the overseeing of the form teacher. He experienced more tolerance and kindness from the Scoutmaster and his assistants, this being a voluntary organisation… Troop members had a complete gym available to them for one hour every Thursday night, and several hours on Saturday afternoons. Vaulting horses, parallel bars, and rings stood or hung eight feet apart in rows the length of the hall…
"The Scouts demanded discipline – particularly self-discipline – of all. Any who rebelled against it, especially more senior boys, found themselves quickly turned out of the Troop. The Scoutmaster, Mr Frusher, believed that an older boy who elected to rebel against accepted rules of conduct would contaminate younger members and must be got rid of… He introduced new subjects to the Troop’s training schemes: so Tommy learnt signalling, semaphore and Morse code (the last, he particularly liked). Using flags — one for Morse, two for semaphore — and, at night, signal lamps, they sent messages across fair distances. Furthermore, after training at the church hall on Saturday afternoons, Tommy and other seniors could go to a rifle club where, for half an hour, they practised shooting on a covered range about 300 yards long, using old Army rifles (surplus from the Boer War, fitted with Morris tubes which allowed them to fire .22 ammunition). Supervisors checked their scores and entered them on competition cards. They paid a nominal sum for bullets used, but some kind person unknown had paid for their club membership. Dear old Frusher, they guessed…"
Later, my father recalls, he came to see the connection – more or less coincidental, he always felt – between these activities and the imminence of war: "Meanwhile, August of 1914 was not far off and a holiday with his Scout Troop an often anticipated treat to come.
"Scouting, Tommy realised, had taught him a good deal that would be useful to a soldier. He could help erect a tent, use a rifle, and communicate efficiently by semaphore or Morse code or a simple field telegraph. As a Patrol Leader, he had acquired the ability to stand up in front of a group of lads and give brief orders.
"Tommy, while savouring the excitement and deep interest he felt when observing the soldiers’ encampment, felt no desire to join them. As far as he knew, drummer boy was the only Army job he might be eligible for."
And a hundred years ago next week, for the British, what had long seemed inevitable became official: war.