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November 28th 1916 - Letter from George Sladden to his sister, Kathleen Sladden

28th November 1916
Correspondence From
George Sladden, In France
Correspondence To
Kathleen Sladden
Relationship to Letter Addressee
Text of Letter

In France

28 Nov 1916

My dear Kathleen

You have set me a severe task by your request that I should outline the course of a routine day. It is almost as difficult as writing a short story and preventing it from swelling into a novel before it is finished.

You remember Bright's comparison between himself and Gladstone? How he said that in his own speeches he was like a man following the coast and leaping from headland to headland; while Gladstone, whenever he came to an inlet or a stream, was not satisfied till he had followed each to its source. I share Gladstone's liking for tracking side issues and I am sure to be tempted to do too much of it in this letter. I daresay the inlets and streams would be interesting enough in their way but I don't think I should ever get round the coast if I tried to walk them all out.

Routine varies very much in accordance with time of year, nature of quarters, weather and other similar influences. The three mentioned are the main ones; in winter the hours of daylight being so short and artificial light being unobtainable, except to a limited extent, work starts later. If horses are in the open (which heaven preserve us from!), you are entirely at the mercy of the weather with regard to grooming. In any case, it is almost impossible to do much beside watering, feeding and rubbing or massaging for warmth before the damp and mist of the night has cleared.

Under cover (as we are now), these paralysing difficulties disappear or are far less marked. Still, want of light affects us even in stables. One needs to be able to see, partially, at all events, at first stables; for it is then that the need of grooming is greatest. One must have a light for the purpose. Consequently, winter reveille conforms to the time that the sun rises. We rise at an hour which allows of a first parade when the grey light of dawn is just beginning to spread. On the other hand, it brings some compensations. To attempt to have wagons clean is foolish and ridiculous, excess washing and oiling wagons is a job, then, that happens. Harness also takes less time to clean, for such high standard of cleanliness is not expected. To require a high polish on chains and other parts would be as foolish as washing wagons that live, move and have their being in many inches depth of mud. In summer, harness must wink at you; in winter it only required to keep it reasonably free from rust, with clean leather and well greased and so you see that against the shorter working hours we can set off some saving in labour. Now, then, I will begin at reveille and conduct you personally through our day.

Reveille is at 6 am, though there is little or no light till about 7; in fact I shall see the officer in a few days with regard to putting it later. One of the two men on stable picquet comes round and wakes everybody starting with the Cook and the Orderly troopers and finishing with me. Yes, it is true that I don't like early rising any more than I did. It is usual in the Army, as in everyday life, to share and wash directly after rising. But as the effect of washing is wholly destroyed if it is followed by cleaning stables and grooming the night's mud off a horse (it is a marvel how dirty nine horses out of ten make themselves every night) we leave these toilet operations till later. I have therefore arrived at a great proficiency in swift dressing; I can arise when the warning whistle is blown (by the OC - Orderly Corporal), be fully dressed and have my blankets folded and be out ready for the parade at the second whistle five minutes later. But I digress.

The parade only consists of a roll-call detailing duties for the day; then dismiss to stables and proceed to muck out, groom, water and feed. This is the time when we issue the fodder. Each man brings up a sack in which he draws the day's ration of oats for his horse or horses: hay is issued at each meal as required, the senior NCO in each stable details a man to fetch the allotted ration for the whole stable and the NCO divides it up. (Our horses are in stables by the way - all close together.) To save time, it is usual for one man to draw the hay for four or five horses: this means less ;time spent by men waiting to draw, and the men for whom the one is drawing clean up the standing of the one man's horse as a makeweight. It is in these little things that one reaps the benefit of having a Section of sensible men and a good spirt exists among them; it means that they all work harmoniously together and initiate such methods; of co-operative working as save much time and labour. No power on earth can force these methods if they are not adopted voluntarily. The distribution of the feeds is done by the senior Corporal, Banks. He is a jolly good man, very like Cyril and his thorough way of doing things.

I spend my time visiting the stables to keep an eye on things generally. Look at any horses that had minor ailments the day before and see how they are going on; see any fresh trouble that is reported or that I notice; keep an eye on the condition of the horses so as to have their feeds altered if necessary, and on their cleanliness, so as to see that grooming is not being scamped; look out for foot trouble (very quick to develop when mud is plentiful) and so on. At 7.15 we water. This is a short job here, for there is a stream at the end of the field with a pump and trough adjacent. Sometimes watering is a long job, especially in dry weather. There was one time when the available watering place in our area broke down and we had to do a journey of three miles; to get to a supply. Horrible waste of time, doing that three times in a day; but things are better organised now than they were in those days. When all are watered, each man stands; to with his nosebags ready and at the word the nosebags are all put on. It is very necessary to feed simultaneously, for horses get very jealous of each other if kept waiting and there is more danger of damage and kicking or biting at feed time than at any other time. The ration of hay is left ready for each horse and one man of the picquet remains on duty in each stable to remove the nose-bags and put the hay down as soon as nose-bags ;are off. Then away everybody for breakfast at 7.20. Here beginneth the saga of the Cook. He is a treasure. I generally pay him a flying visit during my tour of the stables; but there is no need. Everything is always in perfect order, everything is always punctual; there is always one dixie of tea ready and sufficient bacon cooked for the men who are going out early with wagons. However, I go there, just as a matter of routine, and, because fire is good for cold hands these mornings. The latter is the more potent reason.

But as regards the Cook, he is scrupulously clean in his cook-house, his utensils and his person; he has much initiative in devising expedients, and he never finds any amount of trouble too much for him to undertake. And, lastly, he cannot give notice! I think he is as nearly as can be the ideal cook.

For purposes of messing, the men are divided into messes of eight. If they choose to sub-divide further that is their own affair; generally they do, and they feed; mostly in parties of four, a very convenient number. All rations that don't require cooking are divided up and issued to the messes. The rest go to the cookhouse and are there converted into breakfast, dinner and tea. The meals are served out by the OC who blows three blasts on a whistle to announce the readiness. One man usually draws for each little group of co-feeders: the groups are too well known for anybody to get a double ration having it drawn by two different men; anyway there is practically no tendency towards that sort of meanness. I go, now and then, and watch the meals being served out, but there is little need. Now and then I get a complaint about quality or quantity of food. Naturally things are not always quite perfect, but the general standard is so high that scarcely anyone troubles to grouse at an occasional failure. I need hardly say, though, that we have the usual one or two accredited grumbles who would think they had failed in their duty if they suffered the smallest grievance in silence. They are ALWAYS the worst workers, men of this class.

Breakfast consists of a pint of tea per man, a rasher of bacon or ham and bread, butter and jam - the last three depending in quantity upon the size of the ration (which varies a bit) and upon the appetites of the previous day at teatime. Bread averages three-quarters lb per man a day except when there is a hitch or when “something big” is preparing or taking place. Then bread disappears except for a few loaves, running to about 1 oz per man (I never can understand why they trouble to send up such small quantities), the rest is biscuit. Butter (or margarine) averages about three-quarters oz per man per day. If the bacon ration is small, there is a complementary increase in butter. Jam (which is replaced once a week by dried fruit) is 3 oz per man a day; but if the 1 oz a day of cheese is varied, the jam varies in inverse proportion.

While the troops are having their breakfast (I feel I am introducing a true touch of Sir Walter Scott), we will proceed to introduce our reader to the Sergeant's Mess. The Sergeant messes with his three semi-Corporals - Banks, Pattison and Percy Williams, the farrier. Percy is the most important member of the Mess and he merits description. Age 37; profession, employee of NH Insurance; appearance, dissipated; character, exemplary, a vegetarian, a teetotaller and a non-smoker, yet he will eat vegetables or bread soaked in gravy, will drink champagne because he likes it, or other things occasionally if he is with a stranger who wants to drink and to whom Percy does not want to explain that he is TT and therefore etc etc, and will smoke a cigar if it is offered him. And lately he has smoked one pipe per day to see whether it is a habit worth acquiring. In short, a highly original, independent and wholly likeable man. Being, in Army parlance, a "tradesman", he does not attend parades. His job is to do all shoeing as the necessity for it arises. The conjunction of this fact and a Primus stove produces the happiest consequence for the Sergeant's Mess. Percy acts as a sort of supplementary cook for us: fries bread in the bacon fat to eat with the bacon at breakfast, makes toast if we have a coke brazier burning in cold weather, as at present; and almost always turns out something hot for supper. So skilful has our long campaign made him at cooking and foraging that he makes our existence at least three times as comfortable as it used to when we were inexperienced. If there is anything cookable about, Percy will have it; he can turn out something appetising in the most hopeless of surroundings; and he can smell paraffin (the breath of life of a Primus and no means easy to find here) miles away.

While discoursing on this subject, I may well dispose of the very important affairs of the canteen. Canteens are not entirely a new growth; they have existed from very early days in the war. But it is only in the last few months that they have developed so much to form the important feature they now form. Branches of the EFC exist in almost every important centre. From these can be supplied Divisional Canteens which are opened in some convenient place whenever a Division gets established in any area. Many battalions also (ours is one which run their own Canteen, supplied from either one or both of the bigger affairs. We use the EFC mostly to supply ours. This means frequent visits of a wagon and, as the EFC is always situated in some "shopping" town, it gives a splendid facility for buying things, other than the Canteen offers, through the agency of the spare driver. Thus we can get bread, butter, carbide for our little lamp, paraffin for the stove and so on. The Canteen supplies tinned goods, tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate, pickles, sauces, soap, candles, boot-saddle or metal polish and such things. Prices are reasonable and a man who has his 1/- a day to spend on himself can do a great deal with it to vary his grub and lighten the monotony of rations.

Now to return to the main subject. After breakfast comes washing, shaving and cleaning billets. And about this time the wagons for various duties start to go out. Always a post wagon; generally one to Ordnance Depot; others for canteen, perhaps, or coal, or coke or wood or to take dirty underclothes to the Divisional laundry and collect clean stuff, or to cart Officers' kits about when they go to Schools of Instruction or on leave, or to carry stuff to the Salvage Depot, or to fetch material from the RE Dump for improving billets or roads. All sorts of jobs like that. They don't all occur every day, except on occasional days of wrath; and sometimes we get a day when only three or four teams go out. It will show you about our average of work to tell you that last month we averaged ten pairs a day and eight single horses a day - the latter for riding. This, of course, includes the night teams to take up rations.

When "Big pushes" are on, we do much more than this. For then there are interminable loads of bombs and ammunition to be carried. Last September and October we must have averaged 15 or 16 pairs a day and riding horses in addition. And jobs there are all long and heavy ones. So you see how important it is to keep every horse fit and well if possible; for there are only 20 pairs available for draught work.

At 9 am is Officers' Parade when he inspects the men, reads any orders or speaks to the Section about any matter he wishes to mention. Men required for duties or fatigues such as digging rubbish pits or cleaning up the place are detailed and then dismiss to stables. There is the day's manure to be carted away, completion of grooming on horses that were wet earlier, harness to be cleaned, horses to be taken to the farrier for shoeing, and so forth.

Directly after dismissal to stables, I attend to the dressing or other veterinary treatment of any sick cases. The treatment of sick cases is really in the hands of a Veterinary Officer and a Vet Sergeant under him who are assigned the charge of the horses of all units in the Brigade. In practice they act advisorily; if one works in with them well, they leave things pretty much in the hands of ourselves. The Vet Sergeant comes round every morning and the Vet Officer about every other day. Every now and then the Acting Director Vet Service (who is the Divisional Head) comes and has a look round. He is a dear old fellow with whom I get on very well. He has a very uncertain control over his Hs. "Are you getting good 'ay, Sergeant? And 'ow are the hoats now?” Except for misplacing Hs, he speaks perfectly well. But he is a most fatherly old chap and a very clever Vet.

Other less frequent visitors are the DDVs (the Army Crops brass hat corresponding to the ADVs of a Division), The Brigadier and the GOC Division. They are all liable to turn up at unexpected and undesired moments. Luckily even brass hats are human, however little they may have that appearance, so it is almost unknown for them to come along before such a time as allows things to be put into decent order.

Midday, water and feed takes place, at 12.30, and when that is done it is close on dinner time. Almost everybody flocks first to the farmhouse for a coffee or a beer, both of which they sell, though if you want coffee it is well to take your own sugar, for the farm people find it hard to get. Many men carry an envelope or a small tobacco tin full of sugar permanently on them to meet this need. The farm people are nice, open-hearted people who allow their kitchen to be flooded with men so that they themselves can scarcely move and who supply coffee or beer or friten potaten right up to the limit of their ability to go on serving, and are always cheerful and obliging and never put out in the slightest at the hordes of men who infest their place. There is the old farmer, De la Notte (I wonder if he comes of the same stock as the De la Nottes who came to England and became Dilnot?) and his wife, their three daughters, Marie, Ann and Bertha, stout, active girls who doi heaps of work and are always cheerful. Bertha is a chubby, merry girl who is a great favourite and gets sadly teased but gives as good as she gets. They all speak English pretty well. It is an extraordinarily picturesque sight of an evening to see the low-pitched, dark-toned kitchen dimly lit by one hanging lamp and various candles here and there; the stove standing out with the farm-folk crowded close round it, sitting or attending to the cooking of potaten; the rest of the room filled with men, some at the long table down the side opposite the stove, some in small groups, some reading, some writing, a few games of cards going on, and the haze of smoke over all. A typical Rembrandt picture in every detail - except the khaki.

Dinner is at 1 o'clock and, although it is limited in variety, our paragon cook manages to ring the changes pretty well. And he is skilful enough in husbanding resources and adding extras here and there to prevent recourse to bully beef except now and again. Of course he has to use Machonchie (or corresponding) ration often enough - fresh meat ration only serves for about half requirements on an average but he manages to make it pretty palatable. We keep a small mess-fund going, either by means of a levy or by the periodical share-out of canteen profits, and this provides a few extra vegetables or a sweet of some kind. Rice and dried fruits are issued occasionally and sometimes flour for a duff; to these he can add tapioca or custard made from powder purchased from the canteen or macaroni. Most of the meat is made into "gippa", but there is a roast for one or two messes most days, cooked in an improvised oven made of an empty 5-gallon oil-drum. And on days when there has been an issue of mutton sufficient to provide the whole Section, you will find him with a row of joints hanging on strings which he industriously turns and bastes as they roast in front of an open hearth fire. Some cook!

We don't have any set parade in the early afternoon. We use it to carry out such improvement works as are required and for this purpose take ads many available men as are wanted according to the amount of material there is to deal with. At present we are making up the approach roads which are very bad. We bring down bricks each night from [dash] by the returning empty ration wagons, or if the Battalion is in reserve down here we send up wagons at night to get them. Men not required on the working party work on their own account or not just as necessary. At 4 o'clock everybody falls in for afternoon stables except those going up with the ration column. This leaves at 4.30 these dark days and the horses for duty have, consequently, to be fed early. I personally get less duty on ration columns than I used to as a Corporal. The Officer usually takes the column up and when he is out I now always remain in charge. I only go up when he takes a rest or when there are two columns to go up in a day. So I get more spare time in the evening than I used to, and fewer short nights. Still there is generally some writing work to be done - returns to make, pay sheets to draw out, duty rosters to be entered up and so on, so I am glad to have fairly free evenings.

The new stable picquet relieves the old one at 6.30 after tea which is at 5 o'clock. I have a look round the stables at some odd time before turning in; though I don't always do this now, for there is very rarely any trouble with either horses or picquets; both know how to behave themselves!

Thus finishes the day for (no it doesn't, there is rum ration to issue at 8.15), and after a bit of supper I turn in generally about 10 o'clock. Supper we do for ourselves. Sometimes it is merely bread and cheese, but this cold weather we usually have something hot - friten potaten cooked in the house or porridge or Welsh rarebit cooked on the primus. Tonight we have had fresh herring. They are obtainable now and then in [dash] where the canteen wagon has been today. The first fresh fish I have had out here - delicious!

There! I think that gives a rough idea of our day at present time. Of course it leaves out a heap because one simply can't touch of the things that happen from time to time, something different every day, to keep us active. By the way, I have forgotten one important thing. We have a football and a wonderfully strong football team. We engineer a match most Sunday afternoons and this season we have up to the present an unbeaten record. We beat the remainder of our own battalion and also the teams of two other of the battalions of this Brigade; also a neighbouring RGA crowd who "fancied themselves". Pretty good for a team picked from 50 men.

I daresay Father might like to see this letter. If so, perhaps you will forward him the complete screed. I am so glad it is finished! You can't imagine how bored I have been with it sometimes. I will try and write again soon.

Love from

Original envelope missing; letter contained in an envelope addressed to George's widow, Mrs M M Sladden (Peg), who went to live at Seward House.
Type of Correspondence
18 sheets of notepaper
Location of Document
Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service
Record Office Reference