A Soldiers tale of the Great War
'Tales of the First British Expeditionary Force to France'
'Impressions of a Subaltern'
Told by "Casualty" (Name of Soldier Suppressed)
With the British Army in August 1914
I — When The First Battalion Swung Out
No cheers, no handkerchiefs, no bands. Nothing that even suggested the time-honored scene of soldiers leaving home to fight the Empire's battles. Parade was at midnight. Except for the lighted windows of the barracks, and the rush of hurrying feet, all was dark and quiet. It was more like ordinary night operations than the dramatic departure of a Unit of the First British Expeditionary Force to France.
As the Battalion swung into the road, the Subaltern could not help thinking that this was indeed a queer send-off. A few sergeants' wives, standing at the corner of the Parade ground, were saying good-bye to their friends as they passed. "Good-bye, Bill;" "Good luck, Sam!" Not a hint of emotion in their voices. One might have thought that husbands and fathers went away to risk their lives in war every day of the week. And if the men were at all moved at leaving what had served for their home, they hid it remarkably well. Songs were soon breaking out from all parts of the column of route.
In an hour the station was reached. An engine was shunting up and down, piecing the troop trains together, and in twenty minutes the Battalion was shuffling down the platform, the empty trains on either side. Two companies were to go to each train, twelve men to a third- class compartment, N.C.O.s second class, Officers first. As soon as the men were in their seats, the Subaltern made his way to the seat he had "bagged," and prepared to go to sleep. Another fellow pushed his head through the window and wondered what had become of the regimental transport. Somebody else said he didn't know or care; his valise was always lost, he said; they always make a point of it.
Soon after, they were all asleep, and the train pulled slowly out of the station.
When the Subaltern awoke it was early morning, and they were moving through Hampshire fields at a rather sober pace. He was assailed with a poignant feeling of annoyance and resentment that this war should be forced upon them. England looked so good in the morning sunshine, and the comforts of English civilization were so hard to leave. The sinister uncertainty of the Future brooded over them like a thunder cloud.
Isolated houses thickened into clusters, streets sprang up, and soon they were in Southampton.
The train pulled up at the Embarkation Station, quite close to the wharf to which some half-dozen steamers were moored. There was little or no delay. The Battalion fell straight into "massed formation," and began immediately to move on to one of the ships. The Colonel stood by the gangway talking to an Embarkation Officer. Everything was in perfect readiness, and the Subaltern was soon able to secure a birth.
II — Crossing The Channel On Transports
There was plenty of excitement on deck while the horses of the regimental transport were being shipped into the hold.
To induce "Light Draft," "Heavy Draft" horses and "Officers' Chargers" — in all some sixty animals — to trust themselves to be lowered into a dark and evil-smelling cavern, was no easy matter. Some shied from the gangway, neighing; others walked peaceably onto it, and, with a "thus far and no farther" expression in every line of their bodies, took up a firm stand, and had to be pushed into the hold with the combined weight of many men. Several of the transport section narrowly escaped death and mutilation at the hands, or rather hoofs, of the Officers' Chargers. Meanwhile a sentry, with fixed bayonet, was observed watching some Lascars, who were engaged in getting the transport on board. It appeared that the wretched fellows, thinking that they were to be taken to France and forced to fight the Germans, had deserted to a man on the previous night, and had had to be routed out of their hiding- places in Southampton.
Not that such a small thing as that could upset for one moment the steady progress of the Embarkation of the Army. It was like a huge, slow-moving machine; there was a hint of the inexorable in its exactitude. Nothing had been forgotten — not even eggs for the Officers breakfast in the Captain's cabin.
Meanwhile the other ships were filling up. By midday they began to slide down the Solent, and guesses were being freely exchanged about the destination of the little flotilla. Some said Bolougne, others Calais; but the general opinion was Havre, though nobody knew for certain, for the Captain of the ship had not yet opened his sealed orders. The transports crept slowly along the coast of the Isle of Wight, but it was not until evening that the business of crossing the Channel was begun in earnest.
The day had been lovely, and Officers and men had spent it mostly in sleeping and smoking upon the deck. Spirits had risen as the day grew older. For at dawn the cheeriest optimist is a pessimist, while at midday pessimists become optimists. In the early morning the German Army had been invincible. At lunch the Battalion was going to Berlin, on the biggest holiday of its long life!
The Subaltern, still suffering from the after-effects of inoculation against enteric, which had been unfortunately augmented by a premature indulgence in fruit, and by the inability to rest during the rush of mobilization, did not spend a very happy night. The men fared even worse, for the smell of hot, cramped horses, steaming up from the lower deck, was almost unbearable. But their troubles were soon over, for by seven o'clock the boat was gliding through the crowded docks of Havre.
Naturally most of the Mess had been in France be-tore, but to Tommy it was a world undiscovered. The first impression made on the men was created by a huge negro working on the docks. He was greeted with roars of laughter, and cries of, "Hallo, Jack Johnson!" The red trousers of the French sentries, too, created a tremendous sensation. At length the right landing-stage was reached. Equipments were thrown on, and the Battalion was paraded on the dock.
III — Landing in France — Tommies in Havre
The march through the cobbled streets of Havre rapidly developed into a fiasco. This was one of the first, if not the very first, landing of British Troops in France, and to the French it was a novelty, calling for a tremendous display of open-armed welcome. Children rushed from the houses, and fell upon the men crying for "souvenirs." Ladies pursued them with basins full of wine and what they were pleased to call beer. Men were literally carried from the ranks, under the eyes of their Officers, and borne in triumph into houses and inns. What with the heat of the day and the heaviness of the equipment and the after-effects of the noisome deck, the men could scarcely be blamed for availing themselves of such hospitality, though to drink intoxicants on the march is suicidal. Men "fell out," first by ones and twos, then by whole half-dozens and dozens. The Subaltern himself was scarcely strong enough to stagger up the long hills at the back of the town, let alone worrying about his men. The Colonel was aghast, and very furious. He couldn't understand it. (He was riding.)
The camp was prepared for the troops in a wonderfully complete fashion — not the least thing seemed to have been forgotten. The men, stripped of their boots, coats and equipments, were resting in the shade of the tents. A caterer from Havre had come up to supply the Mess, and the Subaltern was able to procure from him a bottle of rather heady claret, which, as he was thirsty and exhausted, he consumed too rapidly, and found himself hopelessly inebriate. Luckily there was nothing to do, so he slept for many hours.
Waking up in the cool of the evening he heard the voices of another Second-Lieutenant and a reservist Subaltern talking about some people he knew near his home. It was good to forget about wars and soldiers, and everything that filled so amply the present and future, and to lose himself in pleasant talk of pleasant things at home. The dinner provided by the French caterer was very French, and altogether the last sort of meal that a young gentleman suffering from anti-enteric inoculation ought to have indulged in. Everything conspired to make him worse, and what with the heat and the malady, he spent a very miserable time.
After about two days' stay, the Battalion moved away from the rest camp, and, setting out before dawn, marched back through those fatal streets of Havre, this time deserted in the moonlight, to a sort of shed, called by the French authorities a troop station. Here as usual the train was waiting, and the men had but to be put in. The carriages could not be called luxurious; to be frank, they were cattle- trucks. But it takes more than that to damp the spirits of Mr. Thomas Atkins. Cries imitating the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep broke out from the trucks!
The train moved out of the depot, and wended its way in the most casual manner through the streets of Havre. This so amused Tommy that he roared with laughter. The people who rushed to give the train a send-off, with many cries of "Vive les Anglais," "A bas les Bosches," were greeted with more bleatings and brayings.
IV — -Quartered in a Belgian Water-Mill
The journey through France was quite uneventful. Sleeping or reading the whole day through, the Subaltern only remembered Rouen, passed at about midday, and Amiens later in the evening. The train had paused at numerous villages on its way, and in every case there had been violent demonstrations of enthusiasm. In one case a young lady of prepossessing appearance had thrust her face through the window, and talked very excitedly and quite incomprehensibly, until one of the fellows in the carriage grasped the situation, leant forward, and did honor to the occasion. The damsel retired blushing.
At Amiens various rumors were afloat. Somebody had heard the Colonel say the magic word "Liege." Pictures of battles to be fought that very night thrilled some of them not a little.
Dawn found the Battalion hungry, shivering and miserable, paraded by the side of the track, at a little wayside station called Wassigne. The train shunted away, leaving the Battalion with a positive feeling of desolation. A Staff Officer, rubbing sleep from his eyes, emerged from a little "estaminet" and gave the Colonel the necessary orders. During the march that ensued the Battalion passed through villages where the three other regiments in the Brigade were billeted. At length a village called Iron was reached, and their various billets were allotted to each Company.
The Subaltern's Company settled down in a huge water-mill; its Officers being quartered in the miller's private house.
A wash, a shave and a meal worked wonders.
And so the journey was finished, and the Battalion found itself at length in the theater of operations.
I have tried in this chapter to give some idea of the ease and smoothness with which this delicate operation of transportation was carried out. The Battalions which composed the First Expeditionary Force had been spread in small groups over the whole length and breadth of Britain. They had been mobilized, embarked, piloted across the Channel in the face of an undefeated enemy fleet rested, and trained to their various areas of concentration, to take their place by the side of their French Allies.
All this was accomplished without a single hitch, and with a speed that was astonishing. When the time comes for the inner history of the war to be written, no doubt proper praise for these preliminary arrangements will be given to those who so eminently deserve it.
V — At Madam Mere's — Before The Storm
Peace reigned for the next five days, the last taste of careless days that so many of those poor fellows were to have.
A route march generally occupied the mornings, and a musketry parade the evenings. Meanwhile, the men were rapidly accustoming themselves to the new conditions. The Officers occupied themselves with polishing up their French, and getting a hold upon the reservists who had joined the Battalion on mobilization.
The French did everything in their power to make the Battalion at home. Cider was given to the men in buckets. The Officers were treated like the best friends of the families with whom they were billeted. The fatted calf was not spared, and this in a land where there were not too many fatted calves.
The Company "struck a particularly soft spot." The miller had gone to the war leaving behind him his wife, his mother and two children. Nothing they could do for the five Officers of the Company was too much trouble. Madame Mere resigned her bedroom to the Major and his second in command, while Madame herself slew the fattest of her chickens and rabbits for the meals of her hungry Officers.
The talk that was indulged in must have been interesting, even though the French was halting and ungrammatical. Of all the companies' Messes, this one took the most serious view of the future, and earned for itself the nickname of "Les Miserables." The Senior Subaltern said openly that this calm preceded a storm. The papers they got — Le Petit Parisien and such like — talked vaguely of a successful offensive on the extreme right: Mulhouse, it was said, had been taken. But of the left, of Belgium, there was silence. Such ideas as the Subaltern himself had on the strategical situation were but crude. The line of battle, he fancied, would stretch north and south, from Mulhouse to Liege. If it were true that Liege had fallen, he thought the left would rest successfully on Namur. The English Army, he imagined, was acting as "general reserve," behind the French line, and would not be employed until the time had arrived to hurl the last reserve into the melee, at the most critical point.
And all the while, never a sound of firing, never a sight of the red and blue of the French uniforms. The war might have been two hundred miles away!
Meanwhile Tommy on his marches was discovering things. Wonder of wonders, this curious people called "baccy" tabac! "And if yer wants a bit of bread yer awsks for pain, strewth!" He loved to hear the French gabble to him in their excited way; he never thought that reciprocally his talk was just as funny. The French matches earned unprintable names. But on the whole he admired sunny France with its squares of golden corn and vegetables, and when he passed a painted Crucifix with its cluster of flowering graves, he would say: "Golly, Bill, ain't it pretty ? We oughter 'ave them at 'ome, yer know." And of course he kept on saying what he was going to do with "Kayser Bill."
One night after the evening meal, the men of the Company gave a little concert outside the mill. The flower-scented twilight was fragrantly beautiful, and the mill stream gurgled a lullaby accompaniment as it swept past the trailing grass. Nor was there any lack of talent. One reservist, a miner since he had left the army, roared out several songs concerning the feminine element at the seaside, or voicing an inquiry as to a gentleman's companion on the previous night. Then, with an entire lack of appropriateness, another got up and recited "The Wreck of the Titanic" in a most touching and dramatic manner. Followed a song with a much appreciated chorus —
"Though your heart may ache awhile, Never mind! Though your face may lose its smile, Never mind! For there's sunshine after rain, And then gladness follows pain, You'll be happy once again, Never mind!"
The ditty deals with broken vows, and faithless hearts, and blighted lives; just the sort of song that Tommy loves to warble after a good meal in the evening. It conjured to the Subaltern's eyes the picture of the dainty little star who had sung it on the boards of the Coliseum. And to conclude, Madame's voice, French, and sonorously metallic, was heard in the dining-room striking up the "Marseillaise." Tommy did not know a word of it, but he yelled "March on" (a very good translation of "Marchons") and sang "lar lar" to the rest of the tune.
Thus passed peacefully enough those five days — the calm before the storm.