In the British Army then and now, the Non-Commissioned officers (Corporals, Sergeants and Sergeant Majors) were very much the backbone of any regiment. They were responsible for much of the administration and the day-to-day training. They were the link between the other ranks and the officers of the regiment, thus ensuring (hopefully) discipline and order in the ranks.
Given their responsible role, it was expected that NCOs would have a reasonable level of education and one would expect this to be reflected in the type of men who made up the NCO component of the East Riding Yeomanry, particularly the more senior ranks. Whilst promotion from Private to Lance Corporal or Corporal from the ranks was quite common, demotion back down again (mainly due to disciplinary offences) is also regularly noted in service/pension records. Attainment of the rank of Sergeant or Sergeant Major was correspondingly more difficult, there being fewer such posts and they required more experience to reach them.
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Analysis of the professional background of NCOs has been attempted using a modified version of the scheme used for the 1911 census. This categorised each man using a 20 point system, based on their known employment.
About 535 men ended their ERY service as NCOs, ranging from Lance Corporals (the lowest and often very temporary rank) up to Regimental Sergeant Majors (plus a few wartime Warrant officers). There is no available information on professions for nearly half of these (249). Of the remainder (286 men), as with the overall profession analysis for the regiment as a whole (see Professions) category 1 (agricultural workers) emerge on top, with 69 individuals. After that category 9 (miscellaneous crafts / manufacturing industries), category 12 (transport/communications) and category 13 (wholesale/retail trades) are pretty much equal on 34, 34, and 35 men respectively. Totals for all the other categories are very small. There are notably very few NCOs from category 17 (general labourers) and equally not many from a professional background either (category 16 â€“ just 9 individuals)
The data suggests that the ERY's NCOs were generally successful tradesmen / merchants, or relatively prosperous farmers. A reasonable level of education (but probably not higher level), and some financial resources would certainly have been advantages.
Being a newly formed unit of the Territorial Force in 1902, the East Riding Yeomanry had to look for experienced NCOs from other regiments or retired soldiers who could be persuaded to re-join the colours. This included a sizeable number of transfers from the Yorkshire Hussars.
This gave the ERY a core of time-served professionals to counterbalance the fact that the majority of the private soldiers (and indeed some officers) had limited or no previous military experience.
Given that a fair percentage of these were men who had served in the Boer War (and in some cases had joined the army considerably earlier), it is not surprising that a fair few of these men did not serve actively during the war, although a number were retained in staff or training roles with the 2/1st or 3/1st ERY.
As with many of the officers and the men, often pre-war NCO's had (or formed) close social bonds. Sergeants Jack Lee Smith and Frank Wood (both future officers) were cousins and close friends and Lee Smith was best man at Wood's wedding.
Social and training roles
Pre-war in particular, we often find the ERY's non-commissioned officers taking a leading role in the social life of the regiment. For example, in 1912, there was a Yeomanry dance at the Assembly Rooms in Kingston square, Hull. The masters of ceremony for the dance were Sergeant Major Jack Lee Smith and Quartermaster Sergeant E. Thomas, with a number of other NCOs amongst the stewards. As they had to greet important guests â€“ wives of officers and important dignitaries, certain standards of organisation and etiquette would have been expected.
Likewise, the regimental shooting teams tended to be stuffed full of NCOs.
Pre-war, inter regimental rifle competitions were a regular feature of the social calendar and filled many column inches in local newspapers. There were also trophies available for shooting contests held within the ERY â€“ some of these can be seen in photographs, proudly on display at the Walton Street headquarters in Hull. For example in the Beverley & East Riding Recorder for 9th October 1909, there is mention of a commanding officer's cup, open to the four best shots in each squadron. Both the winner and the runner up were NCO's â€“ Sergeant Major Thomas Crowe and Sergeant Bernard Hudson respectively.
The ERY seems to have had a fair degree of success in the inter-regimental competitions and there are numerous images of pre-war NCO's sporting marksmanship badges on their sleeves. Leaving regimental pride aside, these were skills that would stand the regiment in good stead when the war years arrived.
On a more serious note, NCOs would be responsible for much of the planning and organisation of the annual camps, once the initial orders had been sent out by the relevant officers. For example at the 1903 camp (at Escrick park) copies of the regimental orders had to be obtained from Sergeant Major Goldie. These orders would have covered all manner of details, including what equipment and clothing each soldier was expected to bring with him.
Specialist training would often be directed by an experienced NCO, sometimes on attachment from another regiment. For example, Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Frank Wood noted in his memoirs that in early 1915, Sergeant Major (William Charles) Muddiman was seconded from the 3rd Hussars to train men from the ERY with Maxim machine guns. Muddiman had led the MG section in his parent regiment before the war and had also been a musketry (as rifle shooting was called in the army) instructor.
A few examples of these pre-war NCOs will illustrate some of their characteristics:
NCOs could often be unpopular with the rank and file troops. They would have been expected to push the men hard in training and even more so in a combat role. Verbal and perhaps also physical abuse would have been employed on occasion, where it was felt necessary. The army would have argued that this was required to maintain unit discipline, but perhaps sometimes it overstepped reasonable behaviour. Leonard May in his memoirs mentions a Sergeant Major called Rickerby, who was from Driffield and was in May's view 'a big bully of a man.' He considered himself lucky to be transferred to another squadron.
As with the officers, the war must have given greater opportunities for aspiring 'rankers' to gain promotion, though there was never quite the same social gulf between being a private and being an NCO as there was between the officers and rest of the regiment.
Indeed, service records show numerous instances of NCO rank being lost due to military misdemeanours â€“ the rank of Lance Corporal in particular was very precarious and easily lost.
One interesting feature in analysing the careers of the NCOs is to what extent they were able (assuming that they were interested in so doing) in progressing to officer rank. A couple of examples have already been mentioned above. The available evidence for the ERY would suggest that this was a highly unusual occurrence pre-war. During the First World War, those ERY non-commissioned officers who did step up were twice as likely to become officers elsewhere as they were to stay within their regiment. Pre-war there were few officer vacancies to fill. But the creation of the 2/1st and 3/1st ERY during the war and the retirement of some older officers did (in theory) create a lot more opportunities for ambitious NCOs. See The Officers for more details.