From 1st November 1914 until 31st
On board the S.S. ‘MAIDAN’ the Liverpool Scottish were also proceeding to France, and we rapidly intermixed, related various incidents to one another, and discussed War, at the same time wondering to where we were going.
I stayed on deck as we went out of the Solent, and had an opportunity to exercise my knowledge of Morse Code by reading the messages to our vessel as to her name and other particulars. Under the protection of a couple of destroyers we left the Isle of White behind after coming under the glare of the search lights several times. It was a beautiful night, and the sea calm, looking very fine with the reflection of the search lights on the water. After a time it became chilly and I went below to be served with some ‘Bully Beef’ (for the first time) and biscuits. Tea was also provided, but like many others, I could not touch it. It was not tea as we know it, but oil and tea leaves - by no means a pleasant combination. The ‘Dixie’ ( a big pot - not of a kind one sees in the City) was filled with cold water and a pipe from the engine room blew steam into the water in the pot, and in this way the water was boiled. Unfortunately the oil from the engines had made it’s acquaintance with the steam and every time tea was issued only a few men had any. Fortunately I had filled my water bottle at Southampton, but this did not last very long as one gets very thirsty through eating ‘Bully’ and others, who had not filled their bottles had a ‘nip’ of mine.
Somebody managed to get round the Steamer’s cooks (who were black men), to make some coffee for which a charge of 6d was made. By the time I had heard of this, their supply had run out, and when three or four of us asked for some, they served us with the water in which they had washed up the cups. We of course detected the fraud immediately, and loudly voiced our sentiments, but each of these gentlemen shook their noble head and could not (or did not want to) understand us. We were therefore 6d to the bad.
After this I thought I would try and get some rest, but my ‘sleeping apartments’ were not as comfortable as, for instance, the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps it may be interesting to know what accommodation was like on board a troop ship at that time.
The ‘MAIDAN’ was a cargo boat, and steps were provided for the purpose of getting down into the Holds which were the said ‘sleeping apartments’. Round the Holds of this boat there was a narrow gangway some three or four feet wide. On account of the shortage of room, we had to lie side by side in this narrow passage. There was very little dust on the floor, as the draught had blown it all away, so it was not as bad as it might have been. Most of us being taller than 4 ft, we found it by no means comfortable. There was a pipe running lengthways along the ground, on which one had to lie crosswise, which position was somewhat unpleasant. However sleep did come to me at last, but I was up fairly early next morning as it was too painful to be in ‘kip’ for any length of time.
We sighted land as daylight was breaking and at 7.30 am on Monday 2nd November we stopped outside Havre. It was a beautiful day and very hot. For some reason or other we did not go into Port this day. The view outside Havre was very fine, and we could see the people on shore waving to us and apparently getting excited, waiting for our landing. We lounged about on Deck all day but we were not very happy as we were thirsty and although we made gallant attempts to drink the ‘tea’, we could not master it, especially as we had not quite got our ‘sea legs’ and had a funny feeling in our ‘little Marie’s’. In the evening the Westminster’s and the Scottish combined and we had a jolly good concert on board, everybody joining in the choruses with great zest.
After the concert and more loitering, I ‘turned in’ and as I had had very little rest during the past night, I fell in a slumber quickly and did not wake until ‘Reveille’ which was at 6.00 am the next morning, when we found ourselves at the Quay-side.
At 7.00 am we disembarked and then had a fairly long wait until the transport was unloaded, and the inhabitants of the town gave us much needed ‘Café au Lait’ and hot rolls, to which we did justice. We marched through the town to the rest camp at the top of the hill behind the town, and on our way up were heartily cheered, and all manner of gifts were bestowed upon us. A woman with a big basket of flowers either gave them all away or pinned them on the men as they marched along. This shows the spirit of the people at that time. It seems that we were practically the first British troops landed at Havre, the previous base being St. Nazaire.
After a meal we were feeling much better, but permission could not be obtained to go into the town in case orders were received to move, but somehow or other I managed to wander out and was collared by a Lady and her daughter, and I had a long chat with them in French. I then had a knowledge of French , the style taught in schools, and the Lady being rather excitable spoke hurriedly for about half an hour, and I must honestly say that I hardly understood a word about what she was telling me. However I tried to look intelligent and now and then, when a pause presented an opportunity (which was by no means too often) I said “Oui c’est vrai” or “Non Madam”. The daughter rather entered into the fun of the business, being able to see that I could not gather much of what was being said, and when she did get a chance of speaking with me, she spoke slowly and distinctly, and I was able to understand her quite well. I got on nicely with the daughter.
We were to have stayed three days at the Rest Camp, but as the voyage had been fairly smooth and we were wanted up on the Line, we left Havre the next day, Wednesday 4th November at 3.30 pm, and again marched through the town to the Railway Station. On our way we passed the Kensingtons (13th London Regiment) who had just arrived from England. We waited on the station in the rain for about 5 hours, and in the meantime saw some Germ prisoners who were brought in, and we were struck by the youthfulness of them. I am not going to say that it was typical of the Germ army at that time, but the fact remains that there were some who were little more than boys.
At 9.15 pm our ‘train’ left Havre and perhaps it may be as well to define the word ‘train’ in this instance. It consisted of a number of carriages marked in white paint “pour 20 chevaux”, but thank goodness they had been well washed out, and about 40 ‘Hommes’ managed to get into each.
Again the sleeping accommodation left much to be desired, and the carriages being devoid of springs, we got the full benefit of the jerking of the train.
We passed through Rouen and at 7.30 am the next day the 5th November, the train stopped for half an hour near a small brook by the side of the line, so we had a good wash and felt much better for it. We had a meal of biscuits and ‘bully’ on the way which we washed down with Café au Lait, French Biere, or Wine which we managed to get at some of the stations at which the train stopped for water etc. Every time the train stopped there was a rush out of the carriage to a shop nearby and many of the villagers went short of bread, for we took no refusal. Many narrow escapes of missing the train could be reported, but as the train by no means exceeded the speed limit, one could, by a sharp walk, overtake it after the style of the S.E. & C.R.
After passing through Abancourt, Anmale, Martinville, Oisemond, Allery and Longpre, we arrived at Abbeville about midday where the train stopped for an hour, and it allowed us time to drop into a ‘magazin’ near the station and get some bread, cheese and chocolate in lieu of the usual ‘bully’ on which we had been feeding practically all the time since leaving England, except while we were at the Rest Camp.
After leaving Abbeville we ’carried on’ and passed Etaples and Boulogne, arriving at Calais about 9.00 pm. Here there was a deal of confusion. Having been on the train for a matter of 24 hrs. we got out of our carriages onto the line where hot Bovril was awaiting us which the transport officer at Calais had provided. We all thought we had reached our destination, and as at that time the Germs were not so very far from Calais we anticipated going into a scrap within a short space of time. It must be remembered that we knew practically nothing of the real conditions. We had not been stationary for more than three minutes, and were in the middle of our Bovril when the train commenced to move out of the station in the direction in which we had come, and we did not know whether we were backing into a siding or whether we ought to get into the train again. However a few boarded (I amongst them) but a considerable number stayed behind. Strangely enough we travelled at a very high rate of speed, and then came to the conclusion, which proved to be correct, that the engine had shifted to the other end of the train and we were continuing our journey, not having reached our destination. A number of rumours then started (the Army is full of them), the chief being, that whilst we were in the train the Germs had advanced and were near Calais, and we were being sent back in case the town fell completely into their hands, and we were not yet considered trained enough to take our place in the firing line.
I was fairly ‘fed up’ with travelling, and during this discussion fell into slumber, as also did most of the others. We woke after a couple of hours to find ourselves in a siding, but where, was a mystery. Eventually the word was passed down that we were at St. Omer, the headquarters of Sir John French and his staff. We were ordered to detrain, and enquiries were being made as to the number of men missing, when another train came in with the absentees, the Transport Officer at Calais having done the necessary with great promptitude. The carriages being emptied of our stores, bicycles etc., we fell in and left the station at 12.30 am next morning (or in other words in the middle of the night). Incidentally I led the Battalion with my cycle. We proceeded to the Infantry Barracks at the top of the hill, and after an issue of rum (for the first time) we ‘turned in’. These Barracks were by no means too clean or comfortable.
With regard to Rum, perhaps a few words would not be out of place.
The people who have voiced the opinion (from an armchair by the fireside at home, possibly) that the issue of Rum to men at the Front should be discontinued, surely do not know how necessary it is, and how often it is the means of saving life. When one has not a comfortable fire by which to sit, brandy balls will not suffice to keep out the cold, and Rum in its way takes the place of a fire in that it so thoroughly warms the body. Many a time when in the Trenches in the winter standing knee-deep in mud and water, the only thing which keeps a man alive is Rum. I have never come across and Infantryman who has been in the Trenches in the winter who is against the issue of Rum, but if there is such a one he need not have it. Personally I am not fond of it as a drink, but without it on a cold night conditions would be far worse than they are at present. It is quite true that before an attack a bigger issue of Rum is allowed each man ‘to get his back up’, but if the men don’t object, why worry? Let these fireside gentlemen try a ‘wee’ drop, and perhaps they may begin to like it.
After sleeping until about 7.00 am I went round to the Cathedral in the town. There is a beautiful side chapel designated ‘The Altar of Miracles’ and around the walls are tablets which have been erected by people in thanksgiving for some favour received. It is indeed a beautiful Cathedral, and being the first Continental Cathedral I had entered, I was struck by the difference in design and general appearance from our Cathedrals in England, many of which I have visited. When I entered, a service was in progress, and one might have imagined that a Requiem was being celebrated for there were so many people in black clothing and it was so noticeable. There was far more black here than I have seen since I returned to England. St. Omer evidently had already paid the price. Men too were more scarce in the Churches and Towns in France than in England.
On return to Barracks I saw Field Marshal Sir John French who had been talking with some of our men.
During the afternoon a party of the ‘Royal Irish Regiment’ attempted (and fairly well succeeded) in ‘putting the wind up’ our fellows. They had just returned from the firing line to reorganise, having been rather severely ‘cut up’. Many yarns were spun, the details of which I now know to have been doubtful. Since then however, I have told newcomers even worse (if possible), for somehow or other, when one soldier speaks to another about the War and personal experiences connected with it, each tries to outdo the other, and ‘Freshers’ are always so eager to hear tale of the Front, that the biggest liar always gets the largest audience. I have often collected a good crowd.
The various statements of the Royal Irish led us to believe that the War would be over within a month or two, or at any rate before Christmas, but it must be remembered that they had returned just about the time when the Germs had been driven back a good distance, and these men thought that they were still ‘on the run’. We were therefore rather anxious to ‘get into it’, for as we said to each other “It will be awful returning home without having done anything”. Our fears, however, were without the slightest foundation.
We learnt that the Germ Infantry had been at St. Omer, and were in possession of the Railway Station for a period of seven hours, until they met the British troops, when they hastily retreated, being only an advance guard.
The next day, Saturday 7th November, the Battalion marched, (signallers cycled), some 5 miles out of St. Omer in the direction of the firing line, (we were many miles from the trenches), and on a hill which we mounted, we could hear the roar of the guns very distinctly. They seemed plentiful, and I think we lost our anxiety about going to the Front. The Battalion dug trenches; The signallers waited for any work which might turn up, and looked after their bicycles. Aeroplanes were travelling overhead, flying very low, with red, white and blue rings plainly showing. We returned at 6 O’clock.
Early next morning, Sunday 8th November, we paraded and marched to a portion of flat country, where the Battalion did some ‘belly flopping’ for practice, which lasted all day. The signallers, as usual, did ‘na poo’. To give the stretcher bearers a chance of exercising their skill, it was arranged that now and then, a man should not rise from the ground, and be treated as a casualty. He would tell the stretcher bearers that he had been shot through the leg, for instance, and they would proceed to bandage his wound. He would then be allowed to stay behind, and do as much work as the signallers. As the day wore on, so many of the men failed to rise, that the S. B. could not cope with the work, and when the Commanding Officer saw the number who were being ‘treated’, he made each man rejoin his Company, and put them through some stiff training. After this incident it was left to the Company Officers to detail men as casualties.
The wind was blowing from the direction of the Firing Line, and the sound of the guns was much plainer. About 3.30 pm a violent bombardment started, which continued until after 6.00 O’clock.
Whilst London was watching the Lord Mayor’s Show on the 9th November 1914, we were out again for the day doing practically the same as previously. Already men were feeling the effects of the past few days and a number were ill. Among this number was Croxford who joined with me, and he was sent to Hospital. (Scarlet fever?)
At 8.00 am next morning, Tuesday 10th November, I left St. Omer with three other Signalling Cyclists and Major Cohen, on horseback, en route for Hazebrouck, to arrange billets for the Battalion which was coming on later in the day. The roads were awful, all the cobbles being slippery, there having been a fall of rain during the night. It was quite hard enough cycling, and it must have been much worse marching. On reaching Epeques we dismounted in reverence to a funeral which was passing at the time. A French funeral is very different to one which might be seen in English streets. A procession is formed at the house, and taking the lead is a man in Cassock and Surplice bearing a large Crucifix. Then a number of boys similarly dressed, the Priest praying, the coffin and a large number of people of the place who care to take part, and they all walk to the Church and then to the Cemetery. It is very impressive.
At 11.00 am we arrived at Hazebrouck, having travelled some 15 miles, and we entered the town and saw a sight which brought tears to my eyes, and I will never forget it.
From the direction of the Firing Line came streams of men, women and children, carrying all they could with them, having had to leave their homes. Very stained and weather-beaten, for they had been walking for a long time, having had to rush away from their houses, risking their lives from shell and rifle fire. They carried large bundles filled with articles (some had a blanket-full on their back) and they were crying enough to break their hearts. We got into communication with them, and they informed us that the Germs, who had taken all food and everything of value from them, were again advancing. Many of them had been in Germs’ hands for some time, and they told us many woeful tales. It is as sad a sight as one could possibly see.
The Germs had not so very long ago been at Hazebrouck and food was therefore very scarce. What had been left was sold in the shops at greatly inflated prices.
The Battalion arrived later and the Signallers showed them their billets.
At 9.30 am next morning, Wednesday 11th November, we departed from Hazebrouck, leaving one section of ‘E’ company behind on account of an outbreak of fever. We passed through the village of Borre, and arrived at Bailleul at midday. We were to have gone on further, but there was a strong wind and a drizzle, and the cobbled roads were proving too much for the feet, (I cycled) that the Colonel decided to put up here. The march had been very difficult inasmuch that the ranks had to be broken several times to allow A.S.C. Motor Transports to pass, the road being very narrow. This helped to make the marching harder.
The transport of the Battalion was missing, and a Signaller named Chamberlain and I were ‘told off’ to find them. We went a few miles back but could not discover any trace, and after staggering some villagers by asking them in French if they had seen anything of them, we found an Estaminet, where we drank of the ‘loving cup’ and dried our clothes. When we returned to Bailleul the transport had arrived and the men were in their Billets, in a Convent.
The Germs had left many indications of their arrival by the damage which the Town had sustained, broken telegraph wires, smashed doors etc., but there were no shell holes, as only a body of Infantry had passed through, the Artillery not having time to get up before they were driven from St. Omer, right back at the point of the bayonet.
It rained towards evening, and the Town was very miserable, so many people having left their Homes, and other than Soldiers, there was hardly anybody else in the streets. There was an Estaminet or two open, and we called in for a beverage, and were told that although the Germs had only been a week in the place, they had practically consumed every available drop of alcohol, the men paying nothing, and the Officers giving I.O.U’s! The proprietor of one establishment however, had managed to hide a quantity, which he said he had kept for the time when the ‘Soldats Anglais’ would drive the Germs out and all he had he was willing to give away to us for ‘rein de tout’. We did not take advantage of this offer, as he had lost so much money and other valuables, and we paid him a price.
At 9.30 am the next day, Thursday 12th November we again got on the move, and enroute passed through Steenwerck with it’s fine Church and spire; and Croix-du-Bac where the Church had been fired by the Germs and raised to the ground. Houses on the road were similarly treated, many of them being ruined beyond repair.
Erquingheim proved to be our destination, which we reached after being spotted by a Germ aeroplane (for we were now only two or three miles from the nearest point of the Firing Line) and for the first time became acquainted with shrapnel, but all the shells fell short and no damage was done. The distance we had travelled was about 12 miles and along the road we had passed many more refugees, but they were now a common sight and little notice was taken of them. It is so easy to forget trouble when one's self is not concerned, and we had other matters to think about.
As soon as arrived we were informed that as Lord Roberts was nearby, he was going to inspect us. We therefore had a quick dinner and prepared to make ourselves clean and smart and try to look like soldiers. We lined the streets, causing much excitement amongst the folk who were still there, probably because they were too old to move or had no money and nothing to lose, even if the Germs did get through again, and at two o'clock Lord Roberts came past, addressing a few words now and then to some of us. This was his last function, for on this day he contracted a chill, which led to his death two days later, not far behind the firing line. He died doing his duty, as such a Soldier would wish, and may be he rest in peace.
We were billeted in one part of a school, and another portion was crowded with refugees, men, women and children altogether, who were always asking us for food we could not eat, or which was left over. They were sent further back the next day and we took over their quarters after they had had a good clean out.
We were allowed in the village, but had to take a rifle with ammunition, on account of spies, shots having been fired at troops before, from houses in the neighbourhood. It rained later in the afternoon, but towards the close of the day I went out to the end of the village street and watched shrapnel bursting in the air near Armentieres (on the left of Erquinghem, about two miles from the firing line). Several buildings were on fire caused by incendiary shells, which the Germs had sent into the town. The bursting of shells at night when the clouds are low is a very fine sight, and would be full of interest if the results were not so tragic.
Our sleep was badly disturbed during the night by a heavy cascade which started in the early hours of the morning and continued up until late in the afternoon.
The battalion went out next morning and dug some trenches in front of the railway station. These were necessary, as the British only had one line of trenches, and none to fall back on should the Germs again advance. As soon as the rainy season set in seriously the second and third lines of trenches were swamped, and during the greater part of the winter we only had the one line, but it is practically impossible for an attack to be successful when there is so much mud, as the men get stuck and make a fine target for a rifle or machine gun. Whilst this digging was in progress the rain commenced and a strong gale sprung up, but the Signallers were snug and comfortable in a barn out of the way, but waiting in case they were wanted.
In the evening a visit was paid to the local Estaminet where Mademoiselle Alice made us nice and comfortable.
The guns started again early the next morning, but we were getting used to them by this time, and it affected our sleep only slightly. The weather being finer, aeroplanes were busy, and for a large portion of the day, we were staring open-mouthed at the sky, watching small puffs of smoke as shells burst around the aeroplanes.
Sunday, 15th November saw me at my duties at the small village Church, where the youngsters had an opportunity of shouting enough to seriously injure the lungs of an ordinary individual. But at all the services I attended in France, the congregation, and especially the boys, seemed to make a point of shouting as preached to the accompaniment of the boom of the guns a couple of miles away, and on the whole it helped to make the service very impressive. Every now and again one could feel the Church actually shaking when a big gun was fired.
After the British troops had driven the Germs back through Erquinghem, a few Germs had remained in the Belfry of the Church with a supply of food, machine guns and rifles, and when a body of soldiers past, shots were fired. At first it was not discovered from whence the firing proceeded. The Germ artillery were also very smart in catching bodies of men who might be marching up the road. The hands of the clock having been seen to move rapidly, a search was made and these men were found in the tower, having used the hands for signalling in Semaphore, which accounted for the fact that the main body of the Germs knew so well when troops were moving, and through an aperture in the clock they had fired when men were passing. I will not say what became of these men, but when I was there the clock face was shifted to one side, so preventing further tampering.
From six o'clock, for a period of about 30 minutes, a deafening cannonade was started by the guns, and we watched the flashes as they were fired, standing in awed groups, wondering when it would end.
Monday, 16th November, was rather quieter, although Amentiers was heavily shelled intermittently. I was on cycling duty all day in the rain. Some cottages were set on fire by the Germs, the shells killing all the inhabitants. Part of the Battalion moved up, preparatory to entering the trenches for the first time, but the company with which I was, stayed behind.
The remainder anticipated going to the trenches today, and at 7.00 am I went to Church to prepare myself for the worst. Then during the morning however, orders came out that of the Battalion left behind, except my company (for although I was a Signaller I had been with the company for the sake of convenience since leaving England) were to go to the trenches that night, and that we were to be isolated on account of another man having a touch of fever. We could have "bitten our heads off" with disappointment when seeing the men leave for Griespot, and the trenches at Bois Grenier, a distance of four or five miles. However, we had to be content during the day with watching aeroplanes being shelled. Our work was physical drill.
Orders were received the next day that no man was allowed out so as not to spread any illness, and that we would have a medical inspection every day. I had to go out being on cycling duty, so I did not have such a bad time. During the afternoon a spy was brought in to us. He had been caught in the act of shooting our men not far behind our own lines. He did not live long to tell the tale.
The next day we went for a route march in the snow to keep us in a fit state of health. Our first casualty was also reported this day, and strange to say the man who was killed (through the falling in of his "dug-out") bore the same name as mine but Brooks. The similarity of names caused a fright at home, but upon inquiries being made at our headquarters in London happiness was again restored to the family bosom, but, unfortunately, it informed them vividly that I had got into the danger zone, and I had so far managed not to let them know that I was near the firing line.
In the evening we had a good concert round the fire.
It was very cold to-day and snowing fast, but we turned out and practised range-finding. In the evening there was a gorgeous sunset. I might mention that never have I seen finer sunsets than in this part of France. In the trenches, one having plenty of time in which to look round, perhaps the sunsets are more noticeable than in England, but I think that the country being so flat has an effect of making it possible to see such fine sunsets.
We continued doing the work mentioned above with very little variation until the end of the month, by which time we were absolutely 'fed'. On one of our route marches we noticed a dog working a mill, and another pulling a small cart, and other incidents showed us how in France, dogs are used for purposes such as we would not think of in England.
Our transport was a mile or two back, and every day some men had to be on guard there. A farm was a short distance away but too far for sleeping, so we had to make our beds in a haystack, and although it certainly was my first experience of so sleeping, I would recommend it in the face of a better substitute not being available. Of course the rats were rather unpleasant but one can get used to them, as we had to in the trenches. At any rate I was by no means pleased when called at 2.00 am to turn out for a couple of hours' guard.
On Saturday 28th November the men whom we had left at Hazebrouck turned up, having been declared free from any infection. They had taken the train to Steenwerck and so avoided they very unpleasant march. They rested for a short time at Erquinghem and then went on to the trenches, so once more we cursed our luck.
We cannot honestly say that we were well trained soldiers, and as a matter of fact we were rather surprised that the Battalion had so quickly been sent up to the front, instead of (as anticipated) on lines of communication. As an illustration; one man who was loading his rifle preparatory to leaving for the trenches was holding it with the barrel pointing upwards instead of to the ground. He pressed the trigger and a bullet flew out which narrowly missed the head of the Colour Sergeant, who I am afraid had rather a fright at having his baptism of fire before it was expected.
During the night the Germans made themselves very objectionable and started shelling near to us. We did not turn out, but the 'Buffs' (East Kent Regiment) were shelled out of their billets where they were having a well earned rest from the trenches.
I had to cycle next day into Armentieres on duty, so got an opportunity of looking over the town and cathedral. There were very few people left in Armentieres at that time, (but they returned before I left France for Belgium in May 1915 as they no doubt felt sure that the Germs would not get the British out of their trenches) and considerable damage was done to the Cathedral and other churches, (there are six or seven large churches here) which at the time I thought was very serious. Since having seen Ypres, however, it strikes me that Armentieres has so far been very fortunate inasmuch that the firing line in parts is not more than a mile or so away from the town, whereas at Ypres I should estimate the nearest point of the Germ line would be three miles.
Our men who had gone to the trenches on 16th November, came out early this morning and I met some of them in Armentieres and they gave me their opinion of the war in language which I will not repeat here, but I did not feel so sorry that I had not yet gone to the trenches. They had had about half-a-dozen casualties and had been in the trenches for 14 days, which, considering the weather was rather stiff for the first entry, but at any rate their opinions had greatly changed and none wanted another spell in the trenches for some time.
His Majesty the King was near Erquinghem on 2nd December and he inspected some of the Westminsters just after they had come out of the trenches in mud arrayed, so he saw to a certain extent what Londoners were doing for him and our country.
We were to be isolated until 14 days after the last outbreak and were informed on Monday 7th December that provided no other man was ill, we would be going into the trenches on 9th December.
To have some stiff exercise before going into the trenches, we went for a route march today and it commenced to rain, so that we got a good soaking. During the afternoon it cleared up, and as I was feeling rather miserable, being wet and cold, I found an excuse for a cycle ride into Armentieres, and had a good look round another part of the town which before I had not seen. On returning I heard that there was an opportunity of a warm bath (which I had not been able to have since I left England) and three of us got out of billets to find a brewery which had been converted into a bathing establishment, and we were informed that a few coppers to the R.A.M.C man in charge would permit of us having a bath, although actually only parties were allowed, when about 10 or a dozen men could get into a tub together.
We walked four or five miles and dusk came on, but we could not discover the bath-house. We had to give it up in the end, and 'turned about' to be met with rain, beating heavily against our faces, and a stronger gale which made it impossible to hear another's voice. Added to this it was pitch dark. Such a night I have never before experienced. We did not know our way, and it took us about four hours to get back to Our billet, and when we did we had to sleep through the night in our wet clothes.
We were told definitely on Tuesday 8th December that we were to go nearer the firing line that day, and before long, into the trenches, and our hearts beat high. At 3.30 pm we started out and marched to L'Armee, where we met the rest of the Battalion.
L'Armee, a village, was too small and unsafe to stay in, so we found a farm nearby for the night, and to this we proceeded.
After tea the company (without the singers) had to go to the trenches for four hours digging under fire, and I am sorry to say that two men did not return, they having already ended their experience of War rather quickly and tragically.
We "turned in" in a small loft capable of holding about 20 men, and at 2.00 am about 40 others came back from digging and had to sleep with us. However, we squeezed in and although it was a bitterly cold night and raining hard, I do not think I have ever been so hot before in my life, so it had the advantage of keeping out the cold. Rum had been served out, and the heat of the place made some of the men rather groggy, and when they had to get up during the night for Guard, or other reasons, much jumping on legs was occasioned, which of course roused everybody in the Barn and at times the atmosphere was quite thick through the fluency of the language.
We got up next morning rather later than was usual, and this foretold that we were for the trenches that night. The whole Battalion went to the Baths, and to use a soldier’s expression, "That did it." Let me explain, and at the same time apologise for mentioning a matter which is very unpleasant, but nevertheless quite true, and an important feature in the discomforts which one has to undergo at the front.
After the bath, the dirty clothes are given in and "clean" washing issued out to all the men. For a short time all is well. On the march back one gets rather warm and a careful observer will notice a large amount of wriggling and scratching going on, and then the men realise that they are "chatty" or "crumby." Of course at first it is exceedingly unpleasant and repulsive, but like so many other things, one has to get used to this state, and once started it is almost impossible to get rid of these objectionable livestock. For eight months I was in this state.
After dinner there was plenty for the signallers to do, as we were off to the trenches that night, and by the time I had finished my cycling duty, the Battalion had left. I was rather in a "stew" and made inquiries as to the direction taken and managed, on my cycle, to catch up with my Company about half a mile behind the firing line. I was told that I had to go back, find the dressing station (First Aid Post) leave my cycle there and come to the trenches with the Stretcher Bearers, who knew the way.
On arriving at the Dressing Station I was instructed where to put my cycle, but the Stretcher Bearers had gone, and I was stranded. Over the wire I was informed that on account of the fever scare I was not to go to a signalling station, but to remain with the company, and that as there was a shortage of men, I was to come down that night. My directions were as follows:-
"Straight up the road until a barrier of two carts is reached, and 50 yards past the barrier there is an opening in the hedge which leads on to a field. By going at right angles with the road, a farm would be sited, and then inquire again."
It was now about 8 PM, and I started with full pack, 250 rounds of ammunition (which weigh very heavily), rifle, blanket (wrapped in my waterproof sheet) slung over my back, and overcoat on, for it was raining; feeling well loaded. There was a slight fog, and it was pitch black, except that now and again a flare would shine dimly through the mist, dying out, and making the darkness still more intense.
I proceeded along the road past Chappelle d'Armentieres, and bumped against the barrier, thereby knowing that I was on the right track. The bullets were flying around, and being alone, I did not feel quite comfortable. I was very warm, so I halted behind the carts for a rest, during which time, the Durham Light Infantry, who we relieved, came from the trenches, and one or two stragglers told me that one of our officers had been shot going up, and a few seconds later he came along on a stretcher. This did not make me feel any more comfortable, and I began to wish that I had somebody with me.
I pulled myself together, and got on until I came across the opening of which I had been told, and entered. My first few steps took me knee deep in mud, and being such hard work over the ploughed fields in this condition, I was perspiring freely. I dared not get off the beaten track in case I should miss the farm. After a distance which seemed terribly long and hard (for every time I heard a rifle shot I "ducked", which made my pack and blanket shift into a most uncomfortable position) at last, through the fog, I spotted the farm. I took shelter behind a wall which had a good share of shell holes, and then I heard some very queer noises proceeding from the other side. After a few seconds it stopped - was it somebody in pain who had been hit? - And again it started, so I went round to investigate and, joy of joys, I found a soldier filling a rum jar with water from a very old and rusty pump.
I enquired the way to the part of the trenches which were being occupied by the Queen's Westminsters. His reply to the effect that he had never heard of them, rather upset my dignity. I told him that we were relieving the Durham Light Infantry, and he directed me to follow by the side of a communication trench, which was full of water and did not permit of one using it, for five hundred yards; and I would then arrive at my destination.
I found that the communication trench (or rather ditch) which I had been following, broke off in two directions about 50 yards from the farm, but as he said that we were on the right, I followed on what I afterwards discovered was an old front line trench. However, I did not know this at the time, and continued on my way.
I must have gone nearly a mile before I came to the conclusion that something was wrong, and I became desperate. The "whiz" of the bullets told me that I was going parallel with the trenches, so I struck off at right angles across a field, hoping to meet somebody. I had not gone more than 50 yards when I saw a light. My heart beat rapidly, - where was I? Were these the British or German trenches? I laid down flat in the mud and listened, and heard such language which perhaps at ordinary times might make me blush, but now it was like the sound of sweet music. I went nearer making such remarks as "I say, old chap" very quietly for I did not know where the Germs were, and I was "some windy". No notice was taken of my remark, for I was outside the trench and no doubt I spoke to softly to be heard. I went nearer and put one foot inside the trench when a gruff voice shouted "who the - - - hell are you?” I explained that I was in the Queen’s Westminster rifles, but that did not seem to satisfy him as he had never heard the name of our regiment. After explanations and a chat with an Officer who gave me a tot of rum, I was informed that I would have to go about a mile to the left, and that, as the trenches in parts were full of water, I had better get out again and walk along the top. Once inside, I did not quite like the idea of being on top again, but as there were some men about, it was not so bad. The Germs, I was told, were some four or five hundred yards in front.
I got out and crossed some fields, being challenged several times, and asking if I was going in the correct direction, when at last I came across my Battalion about 10.30 PM saying a sincere prayer, and heaving a sigh of relief.
I had the only "dug-out" left, and it was very badly built, the bottom being under the level of the remainder, the result was about three inches of mud and water. At that time I did not know the way to construct a good "dug-out" (or "buggy-hutch" as it is called) otherwise I might have built another, although the ground being so wet, and there being no wood available then, as there is now for such purposes, I might not have made a great success of it. However I got my waterproof sheet on the ground, and was thankful to get my pack, blankets, and equipment off my back.
No sooner had I done this when I was told that I was on ration fatigue and had to go out of the trenches twice again to the farm, and bring in a sack of coke and a tin of tea. By this time I was wet through to the skin, and it was near midnight, and I thought that I would be able to get some rest, but I was deceived for, on my return, I had two hours Guard to do. At 1.30 am I was detailed to form one of a party to relieve others who were trench digging out in front. A new trench was being made as our present one in places had 6 ft of water in it. So, as soon as I had finished my guard, about 2.00 am, I went about 50 yards in front of our line in the rain and mist to help in the making of a new trench.
I had done some digging in England which permitted an occasional rest, but when digging under fire it is a different tale altogether. In the previous party two men had been hit, and we had to dig deep enough to get into the hole under cover, and then make up the line. We dug with feverish haste, and were getting on well, when the man next to me, (who happened to be the fellow I had slept next to in the Erquinghem schools) was shot, and he died before the Stretcher Bearers had got him to the Dressing Station. But this naturally made a dig harder than ever until I thought that my arms would drop out of their sockets. We had to get to a certain depth before dawn for the trench had to be improved, and when the Germs spotted in the morning that we had been working, they would make a point of firing heavily all the next night in the hope of catching the working party. We therefore kept going until about 4.30 am when we went back to our old trenches and turned in for a rest. I had got nicely off to sleep (in spite of the wet) when at 5.15 am we were roused for the "stand to" which takes place before dawn and sunset each day, as this is the time it is most likely for an attack to be delivered.
We "stood down" after a couple of hours, and then had to clean our rifles and swords which in every case were covered with mud and rust. This is by no means an easy job when one's supply of rifle rag is scarce and muddy. It was now 8.00 am and we started on "bully", biscuits, jam, and water (we had no wood to light a fire to boil Tea) which we consumed together with a fair supply of mud. After breakfast and inspection of rifles the trench had to be cleared and the water bailed out as much as possible, and portions which had fallen in during the night and to be banked up. I then went on Guard for an hour which brought us near dinner-time. By way of a change the menu was altered to biscuits, "Bully", water, and Jam. After dinner I had a couple of hours rest until the evening "stand to" and then we had tea of jam, biscuits, mud, water, with a drop of rum, (another change of diet). During the night I did two hours digging, and four hrs Guard, for which considering the "night" started at 4.00 pm gave me more rest.
It rained during the afternoon and I was beginning to feel the cold which was very severe. As a matter of fact these trenches were the worst I have ever been in whether winter or summer, so perhaps there is some excuse when I say that by this time I was very miserable and as anxious to get out of the trenches as I had been to get in, although my occupation had been so short a time.
This is the general outline of what took place every day, with a few casualties, for until 14th December, when at 1.15 am the germs started a heavy cannonade of shells and rifle fire on our right which necessitated our being on guard or through the night. Further German artillery set fire to two farms in our immediate area which gave such a glare that it prevented the men from bringing up the rations for the next day as they had to come overland, the communications trenches being flooded. As a matter of fact during the winter the communication trenches are very seldom used as travelling is so difficult, and even in the summer men prefer to walk across fields to the front line rather than use the communications trenches, as there are so many twists and turns in a communication trench that very often the distance is doubled. The turns (or "traverses") are to prevent a shell, should it burst in the trench, from going right along the line. These traverses being about 10 ft one from the other, the damage of the shell would be confined to this space.
During the night I had rather a narrow shave. My rifle, with bayonet fixed, was pointing through my loophole and when I moved a couple of yards away to get at the mug of rum which I was sharing with the man next to me, a bullet hit my rifle smashing both my sword and barrel. If I had been standing behind, I would not like to say where the destination of the bullet would have been.
The next day we had more rain and the trenches were flooded. During the afternoon I took off my greatcoat to scrape the mud away from which was adhering and making the coat weigh very heavily. I must have lifted it slightly in the air for I had just put it on top of my dug-out, when, - "ping" - it was hit by a bullet which embedded itself a foot of two in the mud. I dug that bullet out to keep as a souvenir, but when I returned to England, it was left in my pack, and I have not recovered it.
A large number of men by this time were suffering from such complaints as Rheumatism, Frost Bite, Trench Feet, and suchlike, which caused them to be removed from the trenches and many got back to England. The cold had been very intense, and we had been standing in water, at times up to our hips, whilst the rest of our clothing was soaked through. We had slept in this state, and had no wash since entering the trenches, so it can hardly be wondered at that there was illness about. Now that I look back and think of my first experience of the trenches, which was certainly the worst, I really cannot understand how I am alive to tell the tale. Apart from the risk of being shot, being in wet clothes for so long a period is serious, and when at home on a rainy night, one takes elaborate precautions against cold if the feet get slightly wet, whereas out there no notice whatever can be taken of the elements. It is marvellous that we did not all have Rheumatic Fever at the very least, and although I did have a touch of Rheumatism, it was not serious enough for me to have to leave the trench but only added a little more misery to my already unhappy condition.
I am by no means mentioning all our casualties for then this would be too painful reading, but worthy of mention was a stretcher bearer who was killed on Thursday 17th December by a shell, whilst attending to a wounded comrade.
We were relieved from the trenches in the evening of the Friday 18th December by the Royal Fusiliers, after a period of nine days which was quite enough for me.
At this time we were attached to the 7th Division until our brigade could make arrangements for us to join them, and we had no sooner got into billets (empty houses full of shell holes) in Chappelle d'Armentieres when a great deal of activity sprung up opposite the part of the line held by the Second Division and we had to "stand to" which meant another night without taking off our boots and clothes and sleeping in equipment, as if in the trenches.
The next morning we took off our wet clothes, had a good wash, scraped the mud off our jackets, overcoats, puttees, cleaned rifles, opened parcels from home and had a good feed. (Letters and small parcels are delivered in the trenches when possible). When in the middle of these undertakings the Germs shelled the billets occupied by "A" Company and a shell fell in the middle of a room in which a rifle inspection was being held, killing three or four and wounding others. It is not only in the trenches where there is danger, but anywhere near the firing line, and one is never sure of his life from the time first going to the trenches, until one leaves for a real rest, which in our case was not granted whilst I was with the Battalion in Flanders, a period of nearly 10 months.
Our clothes were useless even after the mud had been scraped off, therefore next day, Sunday 20th December, we were issued with new clothing and boots and felt more comfortable than we had for a long time. At 4.00 pm we were called up to act as reserves to the firing line, and marched to a barn 50 yards behind the front trenches and slept there during the night, leaving. before dusk next morning.
Tuesday 22nd December saw me back with the Signal Service Section and I was very thankful, for I did not want another turn in the trenches such as I had gone through and I felt sorry for the other men who were not as fortunate as I. It was not very long before I started on my signalling duties, in the afternoon being detailed to go with one company who were to be reserves in the Farm where I had been with my Company two days previously, and I took my cycle in case there was an attack, no Telegraph wires being laid on at this point of the line. My duty if an attack were made, would be to fetch reinforcements. I started out about an hour after the company, another cyclist having gone with them. I passed the railway line at Chappelle d'Armentieres and turned to the left down a road running parallel with the lines. About half way along the length of this road one came under range of rifle fire, but having now got used to bullets being nearby, and being on my cycle, I did not have uncomfortable feelings such as I had before. As a matter of fact I was feeling very happy and contented as I had rejoined the Signal Section, and I quite enjoyed the sensation of cycling under fire for the first time. It is full of excitement as is apparent from the following. I turned to the right at the end of the road, and the farm for which I was making was a matter of a 100 yards along (I knew my way this time). The road I took ran parallel with the trenches, and at this point the Germs were not much more than 60 to 70 yards away. After slackening slightly to turn the corner, I commenced to get up speed (as it is not advisable to waste time in these conditions) when the Bosches sent up a starlight which fell a few yards behind me.
I was instantly spotted as my handlebars reflected the light, and I was thrown in bold relief. I immediately applied my brakes and threw myself into a ditch and the side of the road and remained whilst the Germs opened a heavy rifle fire in the direction in which I was. I had time to think, and I decided to wait for 5 or 10 minutes in case they should re-commence, and this proved to be the case, for after a pause of some 30 seconds they started again. However they did no harm, and 10 minutes later I mounted and got safely to the farm where I "turned in" on some straw and spent a very comfortable night in spite of the noise as the bullets hit the other side of the stone wall. We left just before daylight and, with the other cyclists, I went to the Signallers' billet and rested again until dinner-time.
At night we were for the trenches again, and I went to headquarters which was in the cellars of the Farm I mentioned when I first went to the trenches. Headquarters is where the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant stay, and the chief signal station of the Battalion is there. A wire runs from Battalion headquarters to Brigade headquarters, and also lines are laid on in the other direction to each Company in the trench. It is always best to be on Headquarters Signal Station as invariably the Office has been built by the Royal Engineers, fitted with spaces for instruments, and is usually "comfortable". Often headquarters is in a cellar of a house or farm as in this case, whereas a station in the trench is an ordinary "dug-out" where perhaps one has to work the "buzzer " lying on one's back, which is by no means conducive to speed or accurate working. My experience in the trenches proves that the signallers "dug-outs" are the best, for when one Battalion relieves another the same "dug-out", which in the first place has been chosen for signalling on account of its being dry and roomy for working purposes, is handed over to the in-coming signallers, whereas any "dug-out" available the other men have to take, and to a certain extent the signallers worked together to have a good "dug-out".
I was on duty on the trench lines from 5.00 pm to 9.00 pm and had plenty to do to keep myself occupied. At this time none of the section knew the Morse Code well enough for rapid working, and in Our spare time we used to practise, for when there are several long messages and one cannot get them through much quicker than six or eight words a minute, it is going to take a considerable time to finish the work. By the time I left the Battalion, we were working at a speed of 20 to 25 words a minute.
With regard to messages, it is not always a case of urgent military matters being wired through, but such as "Tell Mr blank his breakfast is ready" etc. It is also possible for a person to hand a telegram in at the Signal Office in the trench for an address in London or any part of the world (Germany and her allied countries excluded) paying the prescribed fee, which will be delivered however with a fair delay, as the message has to go through the Signal Offices of the Battalion, Brigade, Division, Army Corps, and other stations before it gets well away from the fighting area.
I had a full night's rest as I had been on duty the night before, and except for a certain amount of artillery activity on the part of the Germs, it was fairly quiet.
I was on duty again from 8.00 am to midday on Thursday 24th December (Xmas eve) and in the afternoon I crawled behind a hedge and got to some cottages where we had left our cycles, and gave mine a clean up, which was very necessary. It was a beautiful sunny day, and very clear. There was a factory behind the houses and this could be reached without any great difficulty. It had been badly shelled. A high chimney had been hit, the shell having made a large hole near the top, but otherwise it was sound.
With another man I went to have a look round the factory for "souvenirs" such as Shell heads or anything of interest. Of course we should not have been near the place, but it was interesting. Whilst looking at the furnace, my chum, who knew something of factories, mentioned that if we got through the furnace we would be able to go inside the chimney and being a clear day, we might get a View behind the German lines. I suggested that he should lead the way so he crawled through the grate and I followed. We looked up through the chimney and saw the sky, and inside the chimney there were rungs placed at certain intervals, so we commenced climbing with the idea of reaching the shell hole above. My chum went first, and well I knew it, for at every step he took I got a supply of soot and dust. We reached the shell hole, and with a pair of field glasses saw the Germs a mile or so behind the firing line, some working, others walking or cycling, carts with rations or wounded men passing along the roads in rear of their lines. Altogether it was a very interesting experience.
We came down singly so as not to let the one underneath get too much soot, and returned to headquarters for a wash and brush up, which was very necessary. But we had just got back, when the Germs sent over about a dozen shells near the factory, but they did no damage. Evidently we had been spotted and the Bosches thought that it was an observation station, and every now and again they would send a few shells at the factory, so we were instrumental in wasting the Germs ammunition. At any rate I hope that we chose for our observation stations cleaner places than this chimney.
Towards evening the Germs became very hilarious, singing and shouting out to us. They said in English that if we did not fire they would not, and eventually it was arranged that shots should not be exchanged. With this they lit fires outside their trench, and sat round and commenced a concert, incidentally singing some English songs to the accompaniment of a bugle band. A German officer carrying a lantern came slightly forward and asked to see one of our officers to arrange a truce for tomorrow (Xmas day)
An officer went out (after we had stood at our posts with rifles loaded in case of treachery) and arrangements were made that between 10.00 am and 12 noon, and from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm tomorrow, intercourse between the Germs and ourselves should take place. It was a beautiful night and a sharp frost set in, and when we awoke in the morning the ground was covered with a white raiment. It was indeed an ideal Christmas, and the spirit of peace and goodwill was very striking in comparison with the hatred and death-dealing of the past few months. One appreciated in a new light the meaning of Christianity, for it certainly was marvellous that such a change in the attitude of the opposing armies could be wrought by an Event which happened nigh on 2000 years ago.
25.12.1914 (Xmas day)
During the night two men were reported to be missing and I had to go out early in the morning on my cycle to try to find them. I went to the Dressing Station in Chappelle d'Armentieres a mile or so away, but they had not been there. Later in the day the Bosches told us that two men the night before had walked into their trench in a state which proved that they had "drunk of the loving cup, not wisely, but too well". We asked that they should be returned to us, but they refused on account of the fact that these men had seen the position of their machine guns. They promised, however, to wire to their headquarters, and see what could be done in the matter. Later we were informed that it had been decided to intern them in a Civilian Camp, and not treat them as prisoners of war, so as this seemed fair and the only course open we left it at that.
At 9.00 am as I was off duty I received permission to go to Mass at a Church which I had discovered whilst hunting for the missing men. This Church was terribly shelled, and was within the range of rifle fire, as was clearly proved by the condition of the wall facing the trenches, and no effort had been made to clear the wreckage, as to attempt this would have been fraught with danger. A priest, however, had come in from Armentieres to minister to the few people who were still living in the district. In this Church which would hold about 300, there were some 30 people, and I was the only soldier. It was indeed a unique service, and during a short address which the priest gave I was about the only one who was not crying, and that because I did not understand much of what was being said.
I returned to headquarters and went on duty from noon to 2 PM, during which time I partook of my Christmas Fair which consisted of "Bully", "Spuds", Xmas pudding, and vin rouge, which latter we found in one of the cellars on the farm.
In the afternoon I went out and had a chat with "our friends the enemy". Many of the Germs had costumes on which had been taken from the houses nearby, and one facetious fellow had a blouse, skirt, top hat, and umbrella, which grotesque figure caused much merriment. Various souvenirs were exchanged which I managed to send home. We also had an opportunity of seeing the famous Iron Cross which some of the men wore attached to a black and white riband. These crosses are very well made and have an edging of silver. The man's name is engraved on one side, and the reason of the award briefly stated on the other. I have also a number of Germ signatures and addresses on a fly leaf of my "Active Service Pay Book" and it was arranged that at the end of the war we would write one to the other if we came through safely.
The Germs wanted to continue a partial truce until the New Year, for as some of them said, they were heartily sick of the war, and did not want to fight, but as we were leaving the trenches early next morning, and naturally did not want them to know, we insisted on the truce ending at midnight, at which time our artillery sent over to them four shells of small calibre to let them know that the truce, at which the whole World would wonder, was ended, and in its place, death and bloodshed would once more reign supreme.
At 4.30 am next morning we were relieved in the trenches and marched a distance of 3 or 4 miles to Houplines which proved to be our "home" for the next five months. We were billeted in a flax mill which was not at all comfortable, but just now it was impossible to have a better resting place.
We had come to Houplines to join the 18th Brigade in the 6th Division, as previously we had only been temporarily attached to the 7th Division. During the day I was on cycling duty, so was unable to make up for the little sleep I had had the night before.
The next day, Sunday 27th December, I went to the Church, which, considering the firing line was not more than half a mile away, had not suffered very badly from shells, but being in a hollow was no doubt its safeguard. The Church is alongside the river Lys, which at this point separates France from Belgium. I looked over the narrow breach and for the first time saw the noble country which has so bravely defended its integrity.
There was a large congregation, for by this time a number of people had returned to their homes, and although many of them were uninhabitable on account of their having been shelled; this small town on the whole had not suffered very considerable damage.
The next day I managed to arrange with the guard on the bridge to allow me to cross over to Ploegsteert (Belgium) to get some cigars, which were of better quality and cheaper than those obtainable in France. During the day it poured with rain, so I stayed in and we had a concert round the fire which lasted until it was time to get into "Kip".
During the evening of Thursday 31st December 1914 we received an invitation from the artillery to a concert which they had arranged to take place behind the guns, and the Battalion accepted it. This concert was quite unique and good, and a few minutes before midnight we sang "Auld Lang Syne" and "God Save the King", and so the Old Year passed out.
What would the New Year bring forth?