At this moment my wife, Sarah Barker, and I are in Belgrade, Serbia visiting sites associated with the first days of the First World War. The massive fortification at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, and the vast plane that spreads out across what was then Hungry gives a good idea of the Serbian defense at the start of the war. In the years that followed Serbia, like much of Europe, suffered the horrors of war, which its fortification could not withstand.
While no one was certain when war in Europe would break our, or even which countries would take part, it was certain that there would be a war. Germany was fully armed, equipped, and staffed. It had a conscripted army trained and ready for battle. The countries of the Balkans and Austria likewise had small armies at the ready. France had plans for offensive and defensive action. England was similarly prepared.
Germany and Austria only awaited a pretext. The killing of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife was that pretext. On July 28, 1914 Austro-Hungry fired the first shots of the war against Serbia.
This turned out to be the moment of truth for my Vickers teams, the Ruffians and the Victors, for on August 4 King George V declared war on Germany.
The Vickers teams who went to Belgium had to have enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force at least six months before the war in order to complete their training. Many had been in the army for several years already. They brought their training to the field of battle. They meet, train, compete, and are gotten ready for war.
On the Firing Range and Fields at Hythe and Grantham
(from Chapter Two, The Angel of Mons)
The soldiers trained. The squads practiced maneuvering in open country, ranging through every kind of terrain. They raced in full service kits. Calisthenics. Stamina, dexterity, speed. Built their bodies. And minds. Among the recent recruits—six months in training boys and men became soldiers. The veterans, who had a natural contempt for recruits, overcame it, and even came to like them. Those new to His Majesty’s army grew accustomed to the routines and rigors of army life. Their fear of their instructors and the veterans diminished. They knew they could depend on each other.
Catchpole complained, “I’ve been drilled to death. I dream about the weapon’s parts. They dance before me, singing and cavorting. They replace the lovely girls of my dreams, the delights of the dance hall, much to my regret.”
His colleague in mischief, Palmer said, “Drilled to distraction. I have forgotten everything else about life. I will kill Germans just to get even for the torments I have already endured. If not for them, I would be living a life of ease, posted to some sweet place in the colonies, eating well, playing cricket, better yet, polo, going to parties, romancing the ladies, lazing in the tropical sun.”
On the firing range the instructors timed each action, scored each shot, each man, each team, for speed and accuracy always needing improvement.
In the field the soldiers practiced sighting, elevating mechanisms, searching fire, distribution of fire, searching with distribution, fixed fire, correcting measurement error fire, volume of fire, accuracy of fire, sustained, indirect, overhead, and plunging fire. The Vickers trainees rehearsed enfilade and frontal fire, known distance, field, and combat fire, extended drill order firing, and control. The gunners fired in formation and at formations. They fired by squad, platoon, and company. They practiced as squad and platoon skirmishers, squad in column and platoon in column, platoon advancing in thin lines, squad and platoon rushes. Fired at every formation in every likely terrain. Mastered spotting hidden and lurking targets. Their eyes sharpening, their senses awakening to signs of enemy presence and movements.