Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Battalion Moves Out

This excellent chapter comes from the book "The Amateur Army" by Patrick MacGill.

After many weeks of waiting his Battalion was finally given orders to go to France, here he vividly describes the process and the excitement of the moment.


Rumour had been busy for days; the whole division was about to move, so every one stated, except our officers, and official information was not forthcoming.

"You are going between midnight and five o'clock to-morrow morning," announced my landlord positively. He is a coal-merchant by trade.

"How do you know?" I inquired.

"Because I can't get any coal to-morrow--line's bunged up for the troops."

"No, he'll be going on Tuesday," said his wife, whose kindliness and splendid cooking I should miss greatly.

"Is that so?" I asked, feigning an interest which I did not feel. A sore toe eclipsed all other matters for the time being.

"The ration men have served out enough for two days, and it doesn't stand to reason that they're going to waste anything," the little lady continued with sarcastic emphasis on the last two words.

Parades went on as usual; the usual rations were doled out to billets and the usual grumbling went on in the ranks. We were weary of false alarms, waiting orders, and eternal parades. Some of us had been training for fully six months, others had joined the Army when war broke out, and we were still secure in England. "Why have we joined?" the men asked. "Is it to line the streets when the troops come home? We are a balmy regiment."

One evening, Thursday to be exact, the battalion orders were interesting. One item ran as follows: "All fees due to billets will be paid up to Friday night. If any other billet expenses are incurred by battalion the same will be paid on application to the War Office."

Friday evening found more explicit expression of our future movements in orders. The following items appeared: "Mess tin covers will be issued to-morrow. No white handkerchiefs are to be taken by the battalion overseas. All deficiencies in kit must be reported to-morrow morning. Bayonets will be sharpened. Any soldiers who have not yet received a copy of the New Testament can have same on application at the Town Hall 6 p.m. on Saturday.

"Where are we going?" we asked one another. Some answered saying that we were to help in the sack of Constantinople, others suggested Egypt, but all felt that we were going off to France at no very distant date. Was not this feeling plausible when we took into account a boot parade of the day before and how we were ordered to wear two pairs of socks when trying on the boots? Two pairs of socks suggested the trenches and cold, certainly not the sun-dried gutters of Constantinople, or the burning sands of Egypt.

Saturday saw an excited battalion mustered in front of the quartermaster's stores drawing out boots, mess-tin covers, blankets, ground-sheets, entrenching tools, identity discs, new belts,
water-bottles, pack-straps, trousers, tunics and the hundred and one other things required by the soldier on active service. In addition to the usual requisites, every unit received a cholera belt (they are more particular over this article of attire than over any other), two pairs of pants, a singlet and a cake of soap. The latter looked tallowy and nobody took it further than the billet; the pants were woollen, very warm and made in Canada. This reminds me of an amusing episode which took place last general inspection. While standing easy, before the brigadier-general made his appearance, the men compared razors and found that eighty per cent. of them had been made in Germany. But these were bought by the soldiers before war started. At least all affirmed that this was so.

Saturday was a long parade; some soldiers were drawing necessaries at midnight, and no ten-o'-clock-to-billets order was enforced that night. I drew my boots at eleven o'clock, and then the streets were crowded with our men, and merry and sad with sightseers and friends. Wives and sweethearts had come to take a last farewell of husbands and lovers, and were making the most of the last lingering moments in good wishes and tears.

Sunday.--No church parade; and all men stood under arms in the streets. The officers had taken off all the trumpery of war, the swords which they never learned to use, the sparkling hat-badges and the dainty wrist-watches. They now appeared in web equipment, similar to that worn by the men, and carried rifles. Dressed thus an officer will not make a special target for the sniper and is not conspicuous by his uniform.

Our captain made the announcement in a quiet voice, the announcement which had been waited for so long. "To-morrow we proceed overseas," he said. "On behalf of the colonel I've to thank you all for the way in which you have done your work up to the present, and I am certain
that when we get out yonder," he raised his arm and his gesture might indicate any point of the compass, "you'll all do your work with the spirit and determination which you have shown up till now."

This was the announcement. The men received it gleefully and a hubbub of conversation broke out in the ranks. "We're going at last"; "I thought when I joined that I'd be off next morning"; "What price a free journey to Berlin!"; "It'll be some great sport!" Such were the remarks that were bandied to and fro. But some were silent, feeling, no doubt, that the serious work ahead was not the subject for idle chatter.

A little leaflet entitled "Rules for the Preservation of Health on Field Service," was given to each man, and I am at liberty to give a few quotations.

"Remember that disease attacks you from outside; it is your duty to keep it outside."

"Don't drink unboiled water if you can get boiled water."

"Never start on a march with an empty stomach."

"Remember that a dirty foot is an unsound foot. See that feet are washed if no other part of the body is. Socks should be taken off at the end of the march, be flattened out and well shaken. Put on a clean pair if possible, if not, put the left sock on the right foot, and vice versa."

"Remember, on arrival in camp, _food before fatigues_."

"Always rig up some kind of shelter at night for the head, if for no other part of the body."

At twelve noon on Monday the whistles blew at the bottom of the street and we all turned out in full marching order with packs, haversacks, rifles and swords. I heard the transport wagons clattering on the pavement, the merry laughter of the drivers, the noise of men falling into place and above all the voice of the sergeant-major issuing orders.

Yet this, like other days, was a "wash-out." All day we waited for orders to move, twice we paraded in full marching kit, eager for the command to entrain; but it was not forthcoming. Another day had to be spent in billets under strict instructions not to move from our quarters. The orders were posted up as usual at all street corners, a plan which is adopted for the convenience of units billeted a great distance from headquarters, and the typewritten orders had an air of momentous finality:

The battalion moves to-morrow.

Parade will be at 4.30 a.m.

Entraining and detraining and embarking must be done in absolute silence.

I rose from bed at three and set about to prepare breakfast, while my cot-mate busied himself with our equipment, putting everything into shape, buckling belts and flaps, burnishing bayonets and oiling the bolts of the rifles. Twenty-four hours' rations were stored away in our haversacks all ready, the good landlady had been at work stewing and frying meat and cooking dainty scones up to twelve o'clock the night before.

When breakfast, a good hearty meal of tea, buttered toast, fried bacon and tomatoes, was over, we went out to our places. The morning was chilly, a cold wind splashed with hail swept along the streets and whirled round the corners, causing the tails of our great coats to beat sharply against our legs. It was still very dark, only a few street-lamps were lighted and these glimmered doubtfully as if ashamed of being noticed. Men in full marching order stamped out from every billet, took their way to the main street, where the transport wagons, wheels against kerbstones, horses in shafts, and drivers at reins, stood in mathematical order, and from there on to the parade ground where sergeants, with book in one hand and electric torch in the other, were preparing to call the roll.

Ammunition was served out, one hundred and twenty rounds to each man, and this was placed in the cartridge pouches, rifles were inspected and identity discs examined by torch-light. This finished, we were allowed to stand easy and use ground-sheets for a shelter from the biting hail. Our blankets were already gone. The transport wagons had disappeared and with them our field-bags. I suppose they will await us in ---- but I anticipate, and at present all we know is that our regiment is bound for some destination unknown where, when we arrive, we shall have to wear two pairs of socks at our work.

We stood by till eight o'clock. The day had cleared and the sun was shining brightly when we marched off to the station, through streets lined with people, thoughtful men who seemed to be very sad, women who wept and children who chattered and sang "Tipperary."

Three trains stood in the sidings by the station. Places were allotted to the men, eight occupied each compartment, non-commissioned officers occupied a special carriage, the officers travelled first-class.

Soon we were hurrying through England to a place unknown. Most of my comrades were merry and a little sentimental; they sang music-hall songs that told of home. There were seven with me in my compartment, the Jersey youth, whom I saw kissing a weeping sweetheart in the cold
hours of the early day; Mervin, my cot-mate, who always cleaned the rifles while I cooked breakfast in the morning; Bill, the Cockney youth who never is so happy as when getting the best of an argument in the coffee-shop of which I have already spoken, and the Oxford man. The other three were almost complete strangers to me, they have just been drafted into our regiment; one was very fat and reminded me of a Dickens character in _Pickwick Papers_; another who soon fell asleep, his head warm in a Balaclava helmet, was a tall, strapping youth with large muscular hands, which betoken manual labour, and the last was a slightly-built boy with a budding moustache which seemed to have been waxed at one end. We noticed this, and the fat soldier said that the wax had melted from the few lonely hairs on the other side of the lip.

Stations whirled by, Mervin leant out of the window to read their names, but was never successful. Cigarettes were smoked, the carriage was full of tobacco fumes and the floor littered with "fag-ends." Rifles were lying on the racks, four in each side, and caps, papers and equipment piled on top of them. The Jersey youth made a remark:

"Where are we going to?" he asked. "France I suppose, isn't it?"

"Maybe Egypt," someone answered.

"With two pairs of socks to one boot!" Mervin muttered in sarcastic tones; and almost immediately fell asleep. He had been a great traveller and knows many countries. His age is about forty, but he owns to twenty-seven, and in his youth he was educated for the church.
"But the job was not one for me," he says, "and I threw it up." He looks forward to the life of a soldier in the field.

Our train journey neared the end. Bill was at the window and said that we were in sight of our destination. All were up and fumbling with their equipment; and one, the University man, hoped that the night would be a good one for sailing to France.

If we are bound for France we shall be there to-morrow.

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