Chapter Sixteen

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David glanced at his watch. Eleven forty-eight, still twelve minutes. He went back to the JH Steward table to look at field equipment. After a short perusal, he picked up an electric lamp. "This is our most popular item, Sir, the Orilux electric signalling and reading lamp. It serves as a torch as well," the agent said as he pointed to the features. "The incorporated telegraphy key makes it more useful than other torches."

"Does the Army issue us with electric torches?"

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"Does the Army issue us with electric torches?"

"No, Sir. They're still issuing candles. The Orilux dry cell will last ten to twelve weeks with regular use."

"And the price?"

"A guinea for the lamp with cell and bulb. Extra dry cells are a shilling thruppence, and spare bulbs are one and six."

"Are you the sole agent for these?"

"We're the manufacturer, Sir. We make all of these." He pointed to the items displayed on his table. "Besides these telescopes, binoculars, barometers and compasses, we make a broad range of scientific instruments, weapons sights and slide rules."

David switched the light on and examined the strength of its beam, then worked the Morse key. "This seems a good way to attract enemy fire. Have you a simple torch without the telegraphy key?"

"We had one, Sir, but for the extra shilling, most selected this model. We've discontinued the simple model."

"May I order one, plus two spare dry cells and an extra bulb?"

"We have a supply with us, Sir. You can carry them away now, if you wish."

David did a quick mental calculation. "That's twenty-five shillings, then. I've nothing with me but a few bob and some Swiss Francs."

"We set up here the full day, every Wednesday now, Sir, with ample stock to meet demand. The noon hour and after four o'clock are open times, the remainder of the day is reserved for new intakes."

"Do all the merchants do the same?"

"Yes, Sir, and our numbers continue increasing."

"Thank you, I'll be back toward the end of the course." David turned and walked along the row of tables. That would have been valuable to know earlier, every week. I must have missed Lieutenant Condon's mention of it.

"Five minutes, Gentlemen," a voice sounded. "Muster outside at noon for the march back."

At twelve minutes past noon, they were halted in the quadrangle, and before being dismissed, they were told to muster in the same place at one fifteen. While most of the group set off around the wing toward the mess, those with rank badges still on their sleeves headed toward their quarters. "You going to shave it off?"

David looked at the man beside him who had spoken. "Lieutenant Condon confirmed again I may keep it. He said he'd handle the Sergeant-Major." He glanced at the insignia on the man's sleeves. "You're taking down your Sergeant stripes?"

"Seems I've only just stitched them on. Events are moving so quickly these days." He extended his hand to shake. "I'm Derek, the Middlesex Regiment, you sound Canadian."

"David, the British Columbia Regiment, or I was. Now with the Pioneers. Where were you, France or Belgium?"

"Belgium, outside Ypres. We had pulled back to reserve a few days before the chlorine was launched."

"We were among those who relieved you. We were moved to the trenches a few days before the gas."

"I heard you tell the Sergeant-Major you were hit by shrapnel."

"Three days after the first gas attack, as we scrambled to hold the gap left by the French." David pointed to Derek's stripes. "That must be a field promotion."

"After we lost one of our Platoon Sergeants at Saint-Julien two months ago."

"Saint-Julien." He stroked his beard. "That's where I got these scars. The beard hides them well." They entered their quarters wing and walked along the corridor.

"Difficult to see from a distance with your blonde hair. Nearly the colour of your skin." He laughed. "With my black hair, I look like I need a shave by mid-afternoon."

As they approached the end of the corridor, Derek pointed to a door. "This is mine. See you in the mess."

"Mine's the next one. I'll be having my lunch here to save a confrontation with the Sergeant-Major in case Lieutenant Condon hasn't had an opportunity to speak with him."

"We can take lunch here? I wasn't aware. How does that work?"

"My batman told me about it." He looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching. "Here he comes now."

Tompkins halted in front of David and saluted. "Good afternoon, Sir."

"Good afternoon, Tompkins. I'll be taking lunch here. Would it be possible for you to bring lunch for two?"

"I can easily do that, Sir."

David looked at Derek. "Will you join me? We can continue our conversation, and you won't need to rush with your chevrons."

Derek nodded. "My pleasure, thank you."

"I should be back in less than ten minutes, Sir." Tompkins saluted, turned and departed.

David unlocked his door opened it and motioned to Derek. "Come in, I've some small scissors you can use."

Derek stepped in and surveyed the small suite. "You're alone in here. I've one roommate, though most of the others I've spoken with have three. It appears you received a field commission."

"Apparently. It was news to me when I arrived. Did you manage to arrange for everything on the fourth week list?"

"I've an appointment for measuring at Matheson and Son. They're just outside the gate. And you?"

"I've ordered boots, a Sam Browne and a cap. Tompkins is arranging the measuring for my uniforms."

"You called him a batman. We call them valets in our regiment. Officially they're listed as officer's servant. Where's the term batman originate?"

"One of the men in our tent when we first arrived in Belgium was the batman to our Platoon Commander. He told me the name was corrupted from beast man, the groom who cared for the officer's horse and saw to other needs." David took the scissors from a pocket in his hanging satchel and handed them to Derek. "Will you be taking your issued uniforms with you when you go back?"

"Most certainly. Many officers are wearing them at the Front now. Silly isn't it how we make it so easy for Fritz to target them. More silly is that many back here still wonder why the officer casualty rate is so much higher than that of the men."

"My unasked question as I listened to the presentation, is why must we dress for show, rather than for purpose and safety. What good will mess dress or a swagger stick do us in the trenches?"

"Mine also. I think we must more broadly ask that question. The sales prattle coming from the clothiers made it sound as if we were being prepared for the social circuit."

David nodded. "So much of this is still stuck in pre-war thinking. We need to cause changes to that." 

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