We have followed Saracens scrum-half Sydney Sylvester in earlier blogs, including ‘Sydney Sylvester Joins Up!’ as he volunteered for duty in 1914 with the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. This body of men had quickly acquired the nickname ‘The Stockbrokers’ Battalion’, due to the very high percentage of recruits drawn from the financial services sector in the City of London.
When last we saw Sydney, he was assembled with his new volunteer comrades in the ‘Ditch’ at the Tower of London, listening to an inspiring send-off by Earl Roberts, who made clear to all that he felt that “This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in times of piping peace. We are engaged in a life and death struggle and you are showing your determination to do your duty as soldiers..”
Sydney and the rest of the fledgling Battalion were marched off to Liverpool Street Station, from whence they were transported to their training barracks in Colchester.
It was from here, 100 years ago to the day, that Sydney penned his postcard to his mother, younger brother Norman and family in New Southgate, to assure her all was well as he trained for deployment into France with the Battalion.
For a genuine insight into life as a recruit in the 10th (Service) Battalion in 1914-15, David Carter’s “The Stockbrokers’ Battalion in the Great War”, published in 2014, offers some wonderful insights and poignant images from this era. Carter has painstakingly researched this period of training from the diaries and correspondence of the volunteers and their officers, offering remarkable clarity into the daily lives of Sydney and his comrades.
Shortly after their arrival in Colchester, George Wilkinson recorded the structure of their day in a letter home…“Reveille goes at 5:30, Coffee and biscuits 6:00, Physical Exercise 6:30 – 7:30, Breakfast 0800 Drill 9-12 noon, Parade 2:00, Drill 2:00 – 4:00, Tea 4:30 free from 5pm”. By the 21st September, the companies were being sent out to the outlying districts around Colchester, to train on army procedures and to commence musket practice. As Carter points out, a number of the contemporary sources make note in their correspondence of the general improvements to the physical fitness of the recruits, as the constant drills, exercise and training marches continued in the Christmas period.
Wilkinson goes on to record his participation in Swedish Drill in October 1914, plus the Battalion’s initial introduction to digging trenches on November 2nd “which we all prefer to Drill“.
Finally, there was considerable excitement when, on 27th December, the Battalion finally received their issue of the latest rifles for combat, which Wilkinson records “we pat and fondle to an extraordinary degree“!
Sydney Sylvester would have been released for 5 days leave over Christmas, which was allocated to the companies in rotation. However, the New Year saw the Stockbrokers’ work-rate being raised significantly. David Carter quotes Percival Sharp on 25th January, noting that ‘B’ Company completed a route march “covering 20 miles taking five and three-quarter hours” before watching their colleagues “beat 8 Battalion Norfolk Regiment two goals to one in a football match“.
Ironically, 100 years later in 2014, historians continue to discuss and debate the role of men in the 1st Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, in the celebrated but somewhat clouded stories of the ‘Christmas Truce’ football match against the German soldiers in No-Man’s Land, Wulverghem, Belgium.
The novelty of military training was, however, beginning to wear thin for some. George Young, just a few days later, wrote to his mother that “we are simply doing the same old things which are now becoming frightfully tedious“….However, night marches, full-scale attack exercises and extended hours on the rifle range were all gradually honing the skills of these volunteers and preparing them for the challenges ahead.
So it was that, in the midst of all this constant activity and training, Sydney Sylvester found the time to pen a few words to reassure his mother that he was in good health “I will write you a letter soon but we have so busy, especially with night work….Love to yourself, Norman and all….your loving son, Sydney”
On 21st February, the war suddenly moved a little close to the Stockbrokers, as a Zeppelin raid dropped a bomb on the city, though no casualties were reported.
On the 23rd February, the Battalion relocated by train to Andover to complete their training, prior to embarkation to France and the Front.
We shall follow Sydney and his colleagues as they deploy to France in the next blog.