After Christmas 1915 the Division was sent to Salisbury Plain, where we were in barracks at Tidworth and fired our musketry course on the nearby ranges. An epidemic of flu struck down many of us and I was carted off to hospital, to be cheered daily by the mournful sounds of a band detachment accompanying a firing party to the military cemetery. Infantry Training had its appropriate section on the honours to be accorded to the dead – “H’on the h’arrival at the Cemetery, Mortuary, or Dead-‘Ouse, the troops will h’assume a dejected h’attitude” was the order read out by the Sergeant-Major in command.
While at Tidworth I was sent on a Stokes mortar course, having been to Bisley the previous summer to learn about machine guns. The Vickers and the lighter Lewis guns were only just being issued to the troops in France, so we spent our time on the old Maxim. The final stage of the course involved range practice – No. 1 picked up the gun, No. 2 the tripod, and No. 3 carried a box of ammunition. All the equipment was extremely heavy and we arrived panting after doubling several hundred yards from firing point to firing point.
The Stokes mortar was a primitive weapon consisting of a steel tube with base plate and two legs which could be adjusted to provide the requisite angle for range. The projectile was a steel cylinder at one end of which was inserted a 12 bore blank cartridge, while at the other end was a mechanism similar to that used on the Mills bomb. One cut a length of fuse to the appropriate length, fixed a detonator at one end and a .22 cartridge on the other, inserted the cartridge into the firing mechanism, which was then screwed down into the projectile. To fire the mortar the projectile was partially inserted into the muzzle, the safety pin pulled out, and sliding down the barrel the 12 bore cartridge was impaled upon a striker and “off she went”. But things did not always work smoothly and on one occasion a ham-fisted operator pulled out the safety pin and let the firing lever loose before it had entered the barrel. The cartridge misfired and we leaped from the trench just before the mortar exploded.
By this time the Battalion was making good progress with its training and we had got over the loss of many of our best N.C.O.s and men who had been posted to the 1/8th Battalion to replace “Home Service only” volunteers. I had an excellent Platoon Sergeant, by name Tolley – soon to be promoted Company Sergeant Major – and an equally good Platoon Corporal. But the future of the Division was as yet undecided and it was rumoured that we were to be sent to India. The war in France had become static and seemed to have reached a stalemate, with both sides facing each other in line after line of trenches. In D. Company we were not too happy with our Company Commander, so when we heard that the Royal Flying Corps needed pilots Harold Pilkington, who had joined at the same time as me, decided we would apply to be seconded. After some hesitation on behalf of our C.O. and Captain Vigors the adjutant, our applications were forwarded and within a few weeks we were being interviewed at the Air Ministry by Captain Charteris, a charming ex-Regular Cavalry officer responsible for picking material thought suitable to be trained as pilots. I was asked about my weight and whether I had “a good pair of hands”. As I was not a lightweight and hated horses, I came away rather despondent about my prospects. But all was well and in April 1916 I received orders to proceed to the preliminary training centre at Wantage Hall, a Hall of Residence of Reading University taken over by the R.F.C. I suppose there were about a hundred officers on the course; some had seen service overseas, some were newly commissioned into the Corps, and others seconded from their units at home. In some ways I was sorry to leave the Battalion; we had a very nice lot of officers and, if I had known it at the time, the 61st Division was to go to France before I had finished my training in the R.F.C. Curiously enough only one of the original 2/8th officers was killed in action – Lance Evers, who had won the M.C. and bar and who survived until just before the Armistice. The life of a subaltern in World War I was hazardous and many of my contemporaries at school, including my youngest brother – an Ensign in the Coldstream Guards – were to fall before the war ended.
At Reading we studied engines, air-frames, theory of flying, Morse, and other subjects relative to the training of a pilot. Preparations were being made for the great offensive on the Somme and the R.F.C. was being rapidly expanded.
After six weeks at Reading I was posted to No. 5 Reserve Squadron at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham and I rode home on my newly acquired Red Indian motor bike for a brief leave – very excited at the prospect of actually taking to the air.
The aerodrome at Castle Bromwich was large enough to hold three units – a B.E.2c squadron preparing to go overseas, a flight of Avros and R.E.7s and at the north end the Mess and hutments of No. 5 R.A.S. where we were housed. Initial flying training was carried out in Maurice-Farman biplanes – the “Longhorn” having a front elevator supported by booms and the “Shorthorn” with rudder and elevator on the tail-plane. Both models had 70 h.p. air-cooled V-8 Renault engines, and the pilot and pupil sat one behind the other in an open nacelle which extended forward of the planes. The Maurice-Farman was not a difficult plane to fly and at ground level would do its 60 m.p.h.