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[Much of the detail here are excerpts from the text of "The regimental roll
of honour and war record of the Artists' Rifles (1/28th, 2/28th and 3/28th
battalions, the London Regiment T. F.) Commissions, promotions, appointments and
rewards for service in the field obtained by members of the corps since 4th
August, 1914" ]
THE FIRST BATTALION.
On the 2nd August, 1914, the 2nd London Division T.F. to which the Artists were allocated as Army Troops, assembled on Salisbury Plain for their annual camp. At midnight the Division was recalled post-haste to London and on the 5th August was mobilised for active service and placed on duty the same day. Within a fortnight it moved out to its War Station in Hertfordshire, minus the Artists, who were left behind, much to their chagrin "to help in the defence of London." Quartered successively at Manchester Street Schools, Lord's Cricket Ground, and the Tower, they presently rejoined their Division in the country but had not been there a week when at less than 48 hours' notice the Battalion was embarked overseas, landing in the critical period at the end of October, 1914.
On their way up to Ypres they were dramatically halted at Bailleul by a Staff-Officer (as it happened, an old Artists Adjutant, Col. Romer) with an urgent message from the Commander-in-Chief who wished to see them. They de-bussed and were visited by him there. The result of an historic interview between him and Colonel May was that a few days later some 50 "other ranks," public school and University men who had taken to heart Lord Roberts' warning and trained in peace time, were rapidly given some practical tips, promoted to Second Lieutenant and the next day went straight into action (still wearing their Territorial private's uniform and Artists badge with the addition of a "pip") against some of Germany's most famous Regiments, in command of seasoned regular soldiers of the immortal Seventh
The experiment of thus attaching Artists to the Old Contemptibles as "Probationary Officers" having proved successful, a further batch was called for and orders were issued by the G.O.C. directing the Battalion to be transformed into an Officers' Training Corps to be drawn on from time to time to supply Officers, the remainder being retained as a fighting unit to be used as occasion demanded. He thus refers to the matter in his first Despatch.
" I established the Battalion as a Training Corps for officers in the field. The cadets pass through a course, which includes some thoroughly practical training as all cadets do a tour of 48 hours in the trenches, and afterwards write a report on what they see and notice.
They also visit an observation post of a battery or group of batteries, and spend some hours there. A Commandant has been appointed, and he arranges and supervises the work, sets schemes for practice, administers the school, delivers lectures, and reports on the candidates. The cadets are instructed in all branches of military training suitable for platoon commanders. Machine-gun tactics, a knowledge of which is so necessary for all junior officers, is a special feature of the course
of instruction. When first started the school was able to turn out officers at the rate of 75 a month. This has since been increased to 100. Reports received from Divisional and Army Corps Commanders on officers who have been trained at the school are most satisfactory."
Earl French has since on several occasions written and spoken on this subject in generous terms and in particular at a recent reunion of survivors, when he said :
" I shall never, never forget the first visit I paid to the Artists after they landed in France, or the wonderful impression they left on my mind of the possibilities which were in that Corps of furnishing a want which was so terrible to all of us at that time, the supply of officers. What really influenced me in trying the experiment I had
to try was the appreciation I had of the splendid material of which I saw you were composed, and of the marked aptitude of Colonel May and those who helped him for organizing and commanding such a Corps. Just at the period I am speaking of we had suffered fearful casualties, and the proportion of losses in officers was higher than in any other rank, and it was going on every day. I was really positively at my wits' end, suffering almost agony, to know where I could get officer reinforcements. You all know how any fighting force must deteriorate, and deteriorate badly, unless this supply of officers is kept up properly and regularly.
Well, in this trouble and difficulty the Artists came to my help, and I shall never forget as long as I live the courage, the determination, the skill, the organizing power which they displayed in trying to meet my wishes. By day and by night, almost under the enemy's guns, and very often under close rifle -fire in the trenches, they commenced, they carried on, and they developed this work to the very highest standard of efficiency, and they showed clearly what men of energy
and skill could do in this direction when they knew how. They taught us, indeed, a very great lesson, among the many lessons which all we regular soldiers had to learn in the war. We never knew what the possibilities were before. We used to talk about it taking two years to train an artillery driver, and, above all things, we said we could not turn out officers under a certain considerable length of time. Well the Artists showed us we made a mistake there, because they turned out a most efficient body of officers, and kept up everything they said they would. From that moment they became the model for and an example to that large number of training establishments all over France, which to the end of the war turned out officers with the utmost speed and the utmost efficiency. What they suffered in doing
it is recorded in this book which I now hold in my hand (Artists Rifles Regimental Roll of Honour, 1914-1919), and I may recall at this moment, without frivolity, the fact that these boys, all of them, looked death straight in the face, laughing and smiling, and that the Artists earned at that time the sobriquet of 'The Suicide Club'. That, perhaps, is the highest honour that could be paid to them."
The School in France was originally run entirely by Colonel May and his Officers and Sergeants, but presently, as the enemy pressure relaxed, he had the advantage of the assistance of Regular Officers (one of whom was appointed "Commandant of School") and gradually as additional candidates for commissions began to arrive from other regiments, the two units were worked as separate organisations.
In April, 1915, quarters were changed from Bailleul to St. Omer and a new Commandant to the school was appointed, which from that date became "G.H.O. School." Thereafter Artists who came out in drafts, together with selected N.C.O's. from Cavalry, Artillery, Canadian and other units sent up for instruction in Infantry work, were first trained in "the Colonel's Class" and on passing out went on to this School until July, 1916, when the Battalion was specially authorised by Earl Haig to send candidates approved by their C.O. direct to Commissions.
Another branch of their early activities was the staffing of the Machine Gun School at Visques, near G.H.Q. , which was started by a Hythe Instructor (Major Baker-Carr), who had one Hythe Sergeant to assist him. They trained as assistants 16 men from the Artists, who in their turn trained others of their comrades, until eventually multitudes of little groups (each of eight Officers or N.C.O's. temporarily withdrawn from the trenches) were daily to be seen dotted all over the parade ground keenly studying the intricacies and tactics of the weapon, expounded to them by an Artists' Sergeant who had specialised in the subject. A large proportion of
such Instructors afterwards passed on to Commissions in the M.G. Corps, Tanks, R.F.C., and other units where their expert knowledge was invaluable.*
Reinforced from time to time by strong drafts, the special task of supplying and training Officers thus undertaken by the Artists kept them at G.H.Q. (where as "Headquarters Battalion" they were also entrusted with multifarious other and responsible duties) for about 2 years. During this period there were of course considerable changes in personnel. The bulk of the original N.C.O's. and men had soon obtained Commissions, while senior Captains had been promoted to command Battalions in the field, and many junior Officers had been attached or transferred to regular Regiments.