Frank and Willie Neat enjoy a music-hall performance, and enlist in the Seaforth Highlanders

London, January, 1915.

     “Isn’t it exciting, Willie? Aren’t you glad you came along?” declared Frank Neat, rubbing his hands together with glee.

     William nodded as he watched the Highland band march down Croydon High Street, bagpipes wailing and kilts swirling.

     “In a couple of days we’ll be wearing uniforms just like that!” exclaimed Frank.

    The two young men had decided to spend a day or two taking in the sights and sounds of London before heading for the recruitment office. Their father, James, had pressed a bundle of crisp banknotes into Frank’s hand on their departure from Middlesbrough train station. Their mother, Christiana, had hugged them tearfully as had their sisters Mary Ann and Nellie. Their elder brothers, Lewis, almost forty years old, Charles and John had shook their hands vigorously and wished them luck. The sadness they both felt at leaving the bosom of their close-knit family had gradually lessened as they headed south towards the capital, staring out of the train window at the flatlands of Lincolnshire, the spires of Peterborough and the green banks of the River Ouse. Neither Frank nor William had ever ventured south of their mother’s hometown of Leeds.

     Now, having arrived in London only a few hours previously, they were drinking in the sights and sounds of the great metropolis. They had already noticed that the streets were full of young men like themselves, drawn to the capital like flies to a honeypot, all intent upon seeking adventure as soldiers in the fields of France.

     Frank and William had noticed large placards, advertising an event at the Empire Theater, Leicester Square, where a former Member of Parliament, named Horatio Bottomley, was going to address an audience of young men urging them to enlist. Frank and Willie had already decided to join up, but they still planned to attend this meeting, attracted not by the reputation of Mr. Bottomley but by the announcement that, as an added attraction, famous music-hall star Marie Lloyd would be performing. Every young man knew about Miss Lloyd’s daring and provocative performances of her popular songs, and the two new arrivals from Middlesbrough were determined not to miss the opportunity to catch her act.

     When they arrived at the theater, it was already packed and they were only just in time to squeeze into two of the few remaining seats. After all the seats were taken, men continued to surge into the theater, lining up along the back and even crouching in the aisles. A fussy gentleman with a large moustache, clearly the theater manager, made a vain effort to halt the flow of people. He muttered dire warnings about fire regulations before throwing up his arms in resignation and retreating to his office.

     The Honorable Horatio Bottomley, a short squat pugnacious-looking man, strode onto the stage and began to harangue the audience.

     “I want to assure you that within six weeks of today we shall have the Huns on the run!” he declared boldly. “We shall drive them out of France, out of Flanders, out of Belgium, and across the Rhine and back into their own territory. Then we shall give them a taste of their own medicine!”

     A roar of approval sounded from the audience of young men. William found himself thinking that, in spite of a somewhat unprepossessing appearance, Mr. Bottomley was a stirring and eloquent speaker. He drew waves of cheering and applause from the crowd with his promises of victory and glory, acutely sensing the patriotic mood of the gathering. There were rumors, however, that Mr. Bottomley was receiving a healthy fee for his rousing speeches, and was rapidly becoming a very rich man. Speaking for almost an hour he held the crowd in his spell, but was perceptive enough to detect the gradual shuffling of feet and shifting of bodies that indicated that it was time to give way to the more glamorous performer.

     A hush of anticipation settled over the theater as Bottomley gathered his notes and exited the stage, and there was a slight delay as the musicians of the orchestra took their places in the pit. Then suddenly from the wings stepped a short, brightly-dressed figure. Marie Lloyd was wearing a vivid pink dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat decorated with flowers, set at a jaunty angle on her brown curls. She smiled and winked at the audience of young men.

      “Hello, boys,” she called saucily. “My, what a lot of you there are!”

     Hoots and roars of laughter followed her greeting, and without hesitation she launched into a spirited rendition of her famous song, ‘A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good’. The crowd reveled in her outrageous winks and expressions and the suggestive tosses of her head as she delivered her risqué lyrics. The song ended to thunderous applause.

     As she changed position in the footlights, Frank realized with surprise that Miss Lloyd was no longer a young woman.

     “Why, Willie, she must be more than forty years old. She’s older than Lewis!” he murmured.

     “I believe she’s forty-five,” answered his brother. “But still quite a performer!”

     Frank nodded in agreement.

     Marie Lloyd sang another of her famous songs, ‘When I Take my Morning Promenade’, and then, leaning over confidentially towards the audience and favoring them with the full radiance of her toothy smile, she declared,

     “Thank you, boys, for that wonderful reception. You warmed the cockles of my…” she paused for a moment and winked again, “my ‘eart. Now I’d like to do a new song specially written for this occasion. It’s called ‘Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On’. And I ‘ope that after you’ve ‘eard it you’ll all march straight to the nearest recruiting office and take the King’s shilling for, as you know, our boys in France badly need the ‘elp of every one of you. Yes, I mean you, darling,” she continued pointing to a tall man in a flat cap. “And you, sir!” She pointed directly at a man in a suit and bowler hat.

     And then it seemed to Frank that she was staring straight into his eyes.

    “And definitely you, you ‘andsome rogue!” she said rolling her eyes and throwing her head back to laugh.

     As Frank blushed scarlet, Marie launched into her song. It was a playful yet irresistible appeal to every hot-blooded man in the theater to win his girl’s admiration by becoming a soldier.

     “I didn’t like you much before you joined the army, John,” sang Marie with gusto, “But I do like you, cockie, now you’ve got yer khaki on…”

     By the time Marie Lloyd had completed her mesmerizing performance, every man in the audience would have donned a uniform and marched to the ends of the earth for her. She exited the stage to thunderous applause, liberally punctuated with hoots and whoops.

     “That settles it!” whispered Frank to his brother as they drifted out of the theater in the midst of the swarming crowd. “Tomorrow morning sharp it’s off to the recruitment office for the two of us.”

     Although the two brothers arrived outside the recruitment office of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders bright and early, there was already a sizeable line of men snaking out the door and halfway down the street. They found themselves standing directly behind an amiable young fellow from a village in Northumberland, just north of their own home-town.

     “Why aye, lads,” said their companion. “I was doon the pit, hackin’ oot the coal when I thought to meself, gan doon to London and join up. It’s better ‘an spendin’ all day doon in the dark. At least tha’ll be oot in the fresh air! Where’s ye lads from?”

    “We’re from Middlesbrough,” said Frank.

     “Why, that’s a canny place,” said their friend warmly. “My name’s Joe Crawford. I come from Ashington.”

     “I’m Frank Neat, and this is my brother, Willie,” said Frank. They all shook hands and continued their conversation as the line moved slowly in through the doors of the recruitment office.

    At last they drew near to the desk where a couple of soldiers were taking names. A young boy, directly in front of Joe, stepped up to face the sergeant at the desk. The sergeant eyed him suspiciously.

     “How old are you, son?” he growled.

     “Well, please, sir, I’m really sixteen years old, but I’m big for my age, and I grew up in the country. I can handle a rifle,” the boy said, his voice a mixture of anxiety and eagerness.

     The sergeant looked at him kindly and said in a patient voice,

     “Now look, son, first of all don’t call me ‘sir’. That’s for officers. ‘Sergeant’ will do. And you know that sixteen is too young to enlist. So clear off and come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen!”

     The teenager stood nonplussed for a moment, and then a light dawned in his eyes.

     “Oh yes, that’s right, nineteen. Come back tomorrow when I’m nineteen. Thank you, sergeant!”

     The sergeant gave a swift wink as the boy turned to go.

     “Should be home with his mum,” he muttered and beckoned Joe forward.

     The initial taking of names and birthdates was soon over, and Frank, Willie and Joe soon found themselves sitting outside an office, waiting for their medical examination.

     “I heerd that you need to have a thorty-five inch chest to be accepted, lads,” confided Joe. “So fill thy lungs and puff out thy chest when it’s thy turn!”

     A man with a downcast look on his face came out of the office buttoning his shirt.

     “Why, what’s the matter, hinnie?” asked Joe.

     “He says I’ve got tuberculosis,” said the man. “They won’t accept me.”

     “Poor bugger!” muttered Joe as the man disappeared down the hallway.

     Joe entered the office and emerged a few moments later, smiling broadly. He gave the two Neats a thumbs up sign, and leaned against the wall to wait for his two friends.

     In spite of any misgivings they might have had, both Frank and Willie were pronounced sound physical specimens by the examining doctor, a gruff Glaswegian, who poked and prodded them and listened to their lungs through a stethoscope.

     An hour later the three friends stood in a group of twelve recruits and holding up their hands, swore to fight for King and Country. Each man was issued one shilling and nine pence ration money and travel warrants, and ordered to report to 5th Seaforth Highlanders HQ in the town of Bedford the following day.

The above is an extract from a novel about the experiences of my two great-uncles who enlisted to fight in the First World War. I will be posting further extracts in the future.

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