We landed at Le Havre on 1st May, I915, a beautiful, clear, sunny morning, every man heartily glad to be at last on French soil. For even the many allurements of Bedford – kindly, hospitable Bedford, our war station since August 1914, whose name still recalls benefits bestowed, Bunyan, and the blistered feet of the military pilgrim’s progress – had not reconciled us to home service. Hard work we had done there, and in lecture room, field and hospital had learned many things – much of which we had to unlearn later in the bitter school of experience – but our Stay in England had been far longer than we had expected, and hope frequently deferred had made us yearn all the more for what we held to be our legitimate work across the Channel.
In bulk, mark you, we were an untravelled folk ; to most of the unit France was as yet a terra incognita. And as my party, with other divisional troops on that ancient Thames service paddle-boat, the “Golden Eagle” glided between the piers of Havre harbour, everything that savoured of the foreign – especially if it were feminine – was eagerly scanned and cheerily and audibly commented on. In response to a hail from a fellow countryman on the pier, our burly French pilot gave a shout from the bridge of “Oui! Oui!-Oui! Oui! Qui!” and seemed both astonished and annoyed when some five hundred voices took up the refrain and “Oui-Ouied” in chorus like a cargo of stout-lunged mice whose tails had been individually trodden on.
As the men fell in, a guide was waiting who led us round the quays of the historic old seaport to where the rest of the unit, with the transport, disembarked shortly afterwards from a Canadian cattle-boat, the “Mount Temple”. Ambulance and g.s. wagons, with limbers and water-carts, were rapidly swung out-board by crane ; donkey engines puffed and rattled officers – military and mercantile marine, British and French – exhorted, objurgated and gesticulated horses snorted, clattered and stumbled down the long gangways and were hooked in ; and the unit at long last marched off to the Rest Camp on the outskirts of the town. There, in all the discomfort characteristic of such places, we stayed till 11 p.m., when we set off for the goods station ; and. profiting by much home practice in that line, entrained with wonderful rapidity, men and horses being stowed away in trucks blazoned with the then novel but soon too familiar legend, “Chevaux 8, Hommes 40.”‘
At the station we were joined by our first interpreter who, during his stay with us, was in every sense the comrade, guide, philosopher and friend of all ranks absolutely just as intermediary between our allies and ourselves when questions of difficulty arose, and from the beginning entering sympathetically and heartily into our daily life. Lucky was the unit to whose members were interpreted not only the language but the soul of France! And our “interrupter’ proved himself eminently capable of doing both.
Travelling all night – and for May a singularly cold night it was – we stopped soon after daybreak at a road-side station to water the horses and get breakfast. Hot coffee laced with brandy-betterave brand, certainly not fine champagne, but palatable enough; it heated you and that was much – washed down sandwiches and biscuits or bread and cheese ; and I remember being destitute of tobacco there and getting a packet of Maryland cigarettes from a hospitable French officer – cigarettes whose novelty made the briefest of appeals to the British smoker’s palate. When the penny trumpet toot-toot of the guard’s horn at last warned all aboard and the cheery, noisy crowd had tumbled into the wagons, in bright sunshine and warm weather we spent a long, enjovable summer day journeying slowly north with many stops via Abbeville and Boulogne.
The country was looking its best, with the fresh greenery of spring and the fleurice (Scotice “‘fourish”‘ ) of the fruit trees. At every village level crossing were children with their shrill cries of “Cigarette! Souvenir! Biskeet!”, while if we stopped, women did a brisk trade in chocolate and fruit. Then gradually night fell, cold as before ; the laughter and talk ceased as, wagon by wagon, the men closed the sliding doors of the trucks ; a certain amount of broken sleep was got, what time we were not by the dim station lights trying to find out our whereabouts as we dragged wearily through ; and at 3 a.m., with the muffled drumming of distant gun-fire booming in our ears, we reached, in the chilly dawn, our detraining station, Merville.
Merville later to meet a sad fate at the desecrating hand of the enemy in April, 1918 – was then an undamaged, modern, small industrial town of 7,000 inhabitants, well laid out and flourishing, with an artistic little monument in its square, aux morts de 1870. Trekking briskly off at 4.30 a.m., we passed some time afterwards through the straggling village of Calonne-sur- la-Lys, and, after a march of about ten kilometres, reached our destination- – – Robecq, a little country town with a population of some 1,500. To most of us, I think, the sensations and impressions of that first march on foreign soil will always be vivid ; for at last we were in France and on active service. At last we were on the way to do what we had hitherto merely practised so long. Everything that for years was to be part of our daily life was then still novel – the long poplar trees lining the dusty highways ; the large crucifixes at communal boundaries ; the wayside shrines ; the type of houses in the villages and the monuments in their cemeteries, where especially did we look with surprise on the large,, black, band-box arrangements containing wreaths and portraits, so beloved of the French peasant.
At Robecq we took over the major part of the village school as hospital accommodation for Brigade sick and as billets for the men. Nearby was the old church, dedicated to Saint Maurice and dating back to the days of the Spaniards ; while in the space adjacent to it the transport was parked and the horse lines established. Then, when everything was fixed up “ship-shape and Bristol fashion”, those off duty started exploring their environment.
With its narrow, winding streets and old-fashioned houses, the little town was as picturesque as it was insanitary – rural France knows so well how to be both – and the curious groups of strolling Scots found, Quentin Durward-like, much to interest them and to criticise, while holding, like him, to the subconscious national motto of nil admirari. Firstly, the beer was too thin and the “vang blang” too sour ; until both, faute de mieux, became a somewhat expensively acquired taste for the rank and file. But the bread of the village baker, new and hot from his oven, found such favour in their sight and their bellies, that the civil population ran a risk of a shortage ; and, on urgent representation from the Mairie, next day’s Divisional Orders forbade its further purchase by the troops. Well, well! .”All is not good for the ghost that the gut asketh,” as “Long Will” Langland said and Army bread was no doubt better in the long run both for gut and for ghost.
New sights there were on every hand the town crier going round with his drum making unfollowable announcements to languid audiences of three or four : the people kneeling to M. le Curé as he passed in procession with the Host to a death-bed : and, after the death, the Cross of corn sheaves laid on the ground outside the door to notify the occurrence to the passer-by. On top of the centre of the cross was a little pyramid of clay, with a sprig of boxwood stuck in its apex. (I remember some time later seeing an unsentimental Tommy sitting on one of these crosses outside the estaminet at Le Hamel and tossing off his beer ; thus proving at one and the same time his thirst, his contempt. for folk-lore, his lack of imagination and his Protestant ancestry.)
In the yard of the baker aforesaid was a wheel fixed against the wall, like a mill wheel without the floats, and some seven feet in diameter, into which a large dog of mongrel mastiff breed, when he was free from pulling about the town his little cart laden with loaves, entered and stolidly set in motion a dough mixer inside the boulangerie. At a farm down a side street was a much larger wheel, where a horse placidly did his darg and supplied the motive power for a threshing mill.
Through the open half-door of a small barn could be seen an old peasant with a short and very dumpy flail methodically thrashing out his haricot beans, a feat that looked very easy to the onlooker until it was tried. For while grand-père, without any difficulty, brought the flail down with a heavy thump, missing his ear by an inch, the Scots novice – and I saw him do it – included the ear in the hearty blow meant for les haricots.
In the fields on the outskirts of the town you could see the full-uddered family cow harnessed to the plough, while gangs of boys were cutting the shoots off the pollarded willows lining the deep ditches, and tying them in bunches to be taken to buttress up the trenches. One evening I had a long talk with an elderly peasant on aagricultural methods, he, anxious to know the nature of our Scots soil and what crops we grew there, and I, with my slow-going French, more anxious than able to tell him. If he adopted Scots methods of agriculture on my instruction, I grieve for him, and perhaps more especially for his dependants. Still, we both enjoyed the conversation, and, after mutual felicitations and a petit verre at the cross-roads café, parted duly edified.
Roadside shrines there were in plenty, one dating back to the eighteenth century, and offering a hundred days indulgence from the Bishop of Arras to anyone saying the required number of Paters and Aves. It sticks specially in my memory, for opposite it in April, three years later, I was to dress the head of a wounded Australian, while our Divisional Headquarters, under the exigencies of shell fire and the Boche advance, were hurriedly leaving Robecq for Busnes.
My own billet, shared with four other officers, was in the house of the local tailor, a large, stout, kindly man, who told me there had been one of his craft in each generation of his ancestry for the past 345 years since 1570. and this he had documents to prove. I never doubted it, so I never saw the documents. The front door opened from the street on his little shop, where was our orderly room. The shop opened on the kitchen ; and the kitchen opened on a lean-to greenhouse facing his garden. Here, under glass, he sat cross-legged in the sun and plied his needle, always ready for a chat on things in general. A bachelor, his household consisted of a spinster sister with chronic rheumatic arthritis, and an unafflicted niece of eighteen. In hen-coops in the back garden he kept a choice selection of game-cocks, which he fought, on occasion, with needle spurs mounted in leather. “Was cock-fighting, then, legal in France?” “Ah non, Monsieur! Contre le loi, mais c’est toléré!” The law was evidently pleasantly elastic, and, equally evidently, he, as a sartorial sports-man, appreciated the privilege of being a citizen of such a model state.
To get to your bedroom you opened a door in the kitchen and at once commenced to climb a dark, winding wooden stair. I say “at once’ advisedly ; for strangers such as we were, not expecting the first step to be where it was, usually and unintentionally commenced the voyage en haut on hands and knees. Batmen carrying jugs of water lay down incontinently on the first three Steps and sent Niagaras coursing out on to old Mademoiselle’s kitchen floor, where she sat in her arm-chair beside the large stove like King Canute defying the tide : or later, descending with slops, did a water-chute from halfway up and burst harlequin-like through the door into the kitchen. But anything the old lady said – and she said a good deal – they did not understand. So there was no unnecessary unpleasantness.
It was in this town that next morning, I made a faux pas. Having been appointed to look after the sanitation of the place – in so far, at least, as our troops billeted there were concerned – I called, along with a battalion medical officer, to ask M. le Maire for a map reference as to where, if anywhere, some sanitation could be found. On entering the Mairie there were various inhabitants to be seen sitting, dressed in sober black, on forms against the wall. One came forward at our entry and we exchanged the usual preliminary courtesies. “Could I see M. le Maire?” “C’est impossible, Monsieur.” “Impossible? Nothing is impossible to a brave man. Napoleon showed us that!” (I thought this was a happy and appropriate local hit: I remembered it in my Marryat from boyhood’s days. Had not O’Brien said it to a French soldier- and gained what he asked for – when he and Peter Simple were escaping from a French prison?) And again came the suave, “C’est impossible, Monsieur!” “Impossible? Mais pourquoi?” “Parcequ’il est mort, Monsieu !”
Hence the black clothes! Hence the people collected for the funeral! Hence, now I came to think of it, the slow clanging of the church bell ! Naturally, I said that under the circumstances I would not insist on seeing the Maire ; and then, outside in the street my colleague and exchanged acrimonious remarks about the lack of intelligence of people, who, with a church bell tolling and inhabitants in funeral black sitting about, wished to interview obviously defunct civic dignitaries. He had a very caustic, bitter tongue, that M.O.
But, not to be beaten, I took my little sixpenny “Soldier’s French Conversation Book’ – -what a library of these things every fellow had then! – to our “interrupter” and asked him to write down, on the blank page at the end, the French for scavenger, broom, filth, gutter and barrow. And thus armed I started in search of the balayeur, so that with his balais he might brush up the immondice from the égouts and remove it in his brouette. When found, barrow, brush and all, however, little could be made of him. Was not he the only one? Were not his colleagues at the war? And his constant placid smile and his “Que voulez-vous, Monsieur? C’est la guerre!” helped him satisfactorily to account for all acts of sanitary omission.
Ultimately, after several ineffectual interviews, he developed the power of seeing me round a corner at five hundred yards ; whereupon he dived with his eternally empty barrow down a side road – I should imagine into the next commune. There he stayed until darkness set in and allowed him to return uninterrupted to sleep at Robecq. Peace to his ashes if he be dead! If living, to his ash-heaps, to his middens and to his dirty gutters! For, if not a sanitarian, he was at least a laughing philosopher, which, perhaps, is the next best thing to success in any sphere of life and, if he had never heard of Mark Tapley, he had, independently, developed his tenets.
We stayed in Robecq – where we were in the Indian Corps of the First Army – for eleven days, collecting Brigade sick, as aforesaid, and new experiences. During that time three of our officers, one from each of the Divisional Field Ambulances, were sent up to the 13oth Indian Field Ambulance, then opened out at Zelobes, to see work under active service conditions. Their collecting post was a series of dug-outs in an orchard at Croix Barbèe, whence to the R.A.P.s ran little trolley trains propelled by man power on wooden rails, each trolley holding two patients.
In the vicinity our field guns were banging away merrily, while a horse ambulance wagon stood among the trees waiting for its load. New as such an environment was, we were much struck by the sang froid of the horses, which, regardless of the guns, were browsing on the grass, swishing their loins with their tails, and occasionally jerking their heads round to bite at their sides when the flies annoyed them ; and all in the most natural, placid manner as if they had been brought up at the gun mouth. On the road to and from Zelobes were various villages, with churches, châteaux, shell-damaged estaminets and farmhouses all knocked about by enemy fire – our first close view of scenes the next four years rendered too familiar.
Night in the town of Robecq for those, at least, billeted on the main street – was always broken during our stay by the passage of troops. Over the rough cobbles went, with little break, horse, foot and artillery – Scots, English, Indian. To lean out of window on the premier étage at 3 a.m. and see dimly in the street below a halted, heated battalion, or hear the “W-o-oh!” of the drivers as the rattling of a battery’s wheels ceased, to give place for the moment to the occasional stamp of a hoof or the jingle of a chain, was to recall Erckmann-Chatrian and the descriptions of Private Joseph Bertha of Phalsbourg. If anyone who has served in France has not yet re-read his “Conscript” and “Waterloo” he will still find it worth his while ; for a new sympathy and a subtler camaraderie will develop with the home-loving and wordy little Alsatian watchmaker in his many trials and adventures.
When we bade farewell to the hospitable little town – to the English-speaking lady teacher at the school, who had held French classes for the men ; to the doctor’s widow with her lively record of a good man’s thirty years of hard and ill requited work in country practice ; to M. le Curé; to the hereditary tailor ; to my ally and, I trust (in spite of all that passed between us), my friend, the scavenger ; to many more ; we trekked northward at 10 a.m. in rear of our Brigade, via Merville, Neuf Berquin, Vieux Berquin and Merris to Strazeele, a village on the crest of a hill not far from Hazebrouck, and looking towards Bethune over a very pleasant prospect not unlike the Howe o’ the Mearns as seen from Cairn o’ Mounth.
We reached our destination by afternoon and again took over the village school as billeting and hospital accommodation, while the field in front of it accommodated the transport, the personnel of which bivouacked in the open, as in the main they did whenever opportunity offered – and very clever at the job they became – to the end of their service. With several other officers I was billeted in a newly built house belonging to the village priest. Him we did not see – the Huns had seen to that – but his ancient and voluble housekeeper pointed out the many things we were not to do, and gave us a list of domestic “don’ts” to which it was difficult to adhere.
Here we were in country which, at the outbreak of war and their first flush of “frightfulness” had been overrun by the enemy ; and a Boche grave in the market-place was used as a dump for the village filth, to emphasise duly the angry feeling of the community towards les barbares. In the neighbouring village of Fletre the curé had, on his refusal to detail mistresses for Hun officers, been shot by Von Kluck. So went the local story, anyhow, and few of the inhabitants of the district could speak of the enemy without spitting. A small way-side shrine on the outskirts of Strazeele had been deliberately desecrated, and the walls were covered with the obscene graffiti of foul-minded scribblers. To us all this was then new; but until the end of the war religious emblems and buildings seemed specially to call out the spite of “the blond beast,” and to excite a degenerate ingenuity in destruction and insult.
From Strazeele it was a short ride to Mont des Cats, a hill some four miles distant, crowned by a recent Cistercian Monastery built in 1892, a large part of whose outbuildings had been accidentally burned down some weeks before our arrival. From the hill one gained a commanding view of the surrounding country ; Hazebrouck, Poperinghe, and, above all, poor tortured Ypres. Three high buildings were then still visible above its smoking ruins, amidst which shells were continually bursting ; and various interested groups of French soldiers and civilians were beside us on the hill to watch the scene. One of the latter, a Stout lady with very badly inflamed eyes, traded on my courtesy and the entente cordiale to the extent of borrowing my binoculars, and left me in the unfortunate position of not being able to use them again that day until I had returned home and washed the eye-pieces with an antiseptic.
On the 15th May our motor transport joined us with seven ambulance cars, and next evening amid drizzling rain the Division Started south via Neuf Berquin and La Gorgue to Vieille Chapelle, which we reached at 5 a.m. It was a tiring march in the dark, with many pro- longed halts and no falling out for rest. Further, the orders were silence and no smoking, to avoid noise and lights which might attract aircraft. Guns were booming steadily in the distance, and the horizon was lit up by a steady series of gun flashes.
The checking of the forbidden cigarette during halts led to occasional misunderstandings, as many of the men had, even then, luminous wrist-watches, and “Put out that cigarette!” often got the reply in injured tones, “It’s not a cigarette, sir ; I’m only looking the time!” When halted and on a hill the column ahead was dotted irregularly with glow-worm-looking specks of light, due to the desire of all ranks to see at what rate Father Time was stepping out. Surreptitious smoking, of course, there was ; but to detect tobacco one had to trust to the nose rather than the eyes.
Much has been written on the question of the “Angels of Mons’ and the hallucinations produced by exhaustion. During that night march, towards daybreak, several of us had like experiences – lakes spreading away from the roadsides ; battlemented castles with gigantic warders standing to arms; ghostly bodies of troops silently marching parallel to us.
All the time we were looking forward to our billets with rest and food and when at last we separated from the main body, met our billeting party who had gone on ahead, and made for our destination, it was no agreeable surprise, an hour after dawn, to find that “our lodging was the cold, cold ground” of a muddy field, with some ruins and roofless farm buildings at the entrance to it. The in-going track was so cut up with previous traffic that we had to man-handle the transport and ambulance wagons along it, through mud at some parts well up to the axles ; and, this done, we looked dismally enough at the landscape and each other, finding little comfort in either view.
The field, however, was fringed with pollarded willows, and the “hooks, reaping” and axes being got out of the wagons, we – most illegitimately – set about cutting the shoots off the trees and laying them on the ground ; while the men benefited by previous training, and showed adaptability and ingenuity in knocking up bivouacs with their ground-sheets and tarpaulins. These, floored with the willow shoots, were soon full of blanketed, tired and wet occupants, snatching an uneasy slumber on an empty stomach, what time the cooks took possession of the ruined buildings and set about pre- paring a meal.
It was one of the lesser iniquities of the campaign that field-cookers were not issued to Field Ambulances, in spite of continual representation to the authorities on the subject ; for while the infantry and other branches of the Service, during and at the end of a march, were readily supplied with hot food, the Field Ambulance men had to wait until the cooks, struggling against manifold difficulties and working with the primitive regulation dixie outfit, could get a meal ready. This, however, merely en passant: a grouse of the Red Cross against Red Tape which was always with us, cribbing, cabining, confining, and curse-causing, to the end of the war.
When the men were fed and once again safely under cover for more sleep, several of us, tired and hungry, set out for what remained of Vieille Chapelle, and found a fairly intact estaminet, where we got some hot coffee and bread. The place, close and stuffy to a degree, with its smell of vegetable soup, stale caporal and coffee, was at least warm ; and while waiting for our food we got an uncomfortable quarter of an hour’s nap on hard wooden chairs tilted against the wall. (There is a trick in this that you won’t know unless you have country-doctored for years. Take two chairs and place them face to face : tilt one back against a wall in a corner : get on to it and tilt the seat of the other up to meet it. Then put your legs on number two and stick your feet against the back of it. In this way can some sleep be got.)
Later, we strolled down the road to a partially ruined school, which was the Dressing Station of an Indian Field Ambulance, and tried to slumber on some straw on the stone floor of one of the unoccupied rooms ; but it was too cold and soon had to be given up as a bad job. so we returned to camp, knocked up a bell tent, and consoled ourselves with tobacco and some vin blanc from the estaminet, until our tired batmen had had their sleep out and could give us a meal of sorts. For in these early days our officers’ mess arrangements were primitive in the extreme, and slowly evolving from chaos as we gradually realised that the campaign demanded considerably more than the outfit for a somewhat prolonged picnic.
It dried up a little by afternoon, and two things happened- we had our introduction to shell fire and sent our first parties off to do Advanced Dressing Station work, as the Highland Division was taking over the sector held by the 7th Division. While squatting in our allotment of Flanders mud the preliminary “whizz” was followed by the inevitable succeeding “bang” and a shell burst in a field across the road in front of us. We were gazing in dull surprise at the smoke clearing away, when another shell burst in the field behind us; and a pessimistic authority amongst our officers rapidly informed us that this was what was technically known as “bracketing”, and that the third and succeeding shells would land in our midst. This cheerful news naturally aroused a keener interest ; but grâce à Dieu, like most prophets, he was absolutely wrong ; and shells three, four and five burst on a road leading to a canal bridge which seemed to be the Hun gunner’s objective.
A little later orders came in to despatch a party of bearers to an A.D.S. at Richebourg St. Vaast, and two officers went off with a couple of bearer sub-divisions. Gun-fire up the line was continuous and heavy and lasted all night, our immediate neighbourhood getting intemittent attention. The A.D.S. was situated in a three parts ruined farm building, the less damaged rooms of which were cleared as dressing and store rooms. A båttery of R.F.A. was immediately behind and hard at work, while the Boches were hammering the houses in the Rue du Bois across the fields on the other side. Altogether, even the most bigoted optimist could not deny that Bellona was getting busy over her job of work.
Six days later the Ambulance moved to new quarters, trekking through the ruins of Vieille Chapelle to a hamlet on the other side of La Couture. Shells were whining overhead as, in the gloaming, we reached our destination – an orchard where we started erecting bivouacs in the rapidly gathering darkness. After a bit the shelling got hotter, and as some landed in the next field, causing casualties to the troops there, orders were given us to fall in again ; and, folding our tents like the Arab, we silently stole away for another venue, Le Vert Lannet. This we found a kilometre or so further on, up a side road leading to a canal ; and off this road, in the kindly semi-darkness of a summer’s night, we once more turned into an orchard, sweet-smelling and ghostly white with apple blossom, knocked up our tents and bivouacs afresh, and slept through what remained of the night as best we could for the incessant gun-fire.
In the morning it shewed up as a pretty little spot, with a small one-storied farmhouse facing the orchard, while behind was a field where a deep and wide ditch gave facilities for bathing and washing clothes, both by now pretty necessary operations.
All day it was close, warm and sultry ; so in the afternoon, with two tubs borrowed from the farmer’s wife, the Quartermaster and I went down to the waterside for our ablutions. As we filled our tubs from canvas buckets, a bull-frog, hidden in a bunch of the plentiful yellow iris lining the banks of the ditch, was raucously applauding the ineffective efforts of a cuckoo to outrival a big gun in the wood beyond- an attempt futile but none the less gallant-while up above, high in the blue, an observation balloon of the earlier pattern hung like an old- fashioned horse pistol with a shortened barrel. It was pleasant to sit drowsily in the tepid water, with only your head and shoulders visible above the tub’s rim to the out- side world (like the children reassembled successfully by St. Nicholas after they had been cut to bits, whose effigies are found at the saint’s feet in so many rural French churches), and think, like the Glasgow man, “how guid a thing it was to be alive and weel”
Alas, for our dolce far niente! Appears suddenly from nowhere a stout middle-aged female I And leading, by a rope, a cow whose appointed grazing ground was evidently a few yards from my bathing stance! There, anyhow, the lady unconcernedly drove in the usual big iron staple to which she tethered her cow, and, seating herself on the grass, began leisurely to knit a long grey stocking. I turned “eyes left” to see how the Q.M. was taking it ; but he must have observed her approach from afar, for his tub was already vacant, and his half-dressed form was dimly discernible in a thick clump of bull- rushes. I pondered bitterly- for had he not treacherously failed to share his observation with me? – whether he was liker the great god Pan “down in the reeds by the river’ or an enlarged edition of the infant Moses.
A timid fluttering of “eyes right” again still showed the solid, stolid female. Abandoning my first inspiration of rapidly turning everything upside down and crawling off snail-like with the tub on my back, as savouring of cowardice in the face of the enemy, I tried, being in the Army, to recollect precedents for necessary action, and Mr. Pickwick’s little difficulty with the spinster lady at Ipswich flashed across my brain. In somewhat similar circumstances had he not, to announce his presence, coughed? I coughed, therefore – a little nervous cough – but as the song goes :–
Aye I saw her sittin’ and knittin’,
And aye my heart went tittin’ and flittin’.
A louder bark on my part, and later a storm suggestive of coque-luche (Scotice “kink-hoast”) had no further effect : gentlemen coughing in tubs were evidently not any novelty to her, c’etait Phabitude du pays, peut- être – for how much did l’ha bitude du pays always account in the course of our wanderings.
But the kindly cow, working round in her grazing orbit, gave momentary cover from the lady ; and, grabbing wildly at my garments, I dashed from my tub and told the Q.M. my private opinion of him in the decent obscurity of the bull-rushes. Later, clothed and independent, we passed her as we made for the orchard, but our “bonsoir” remained unreturned. She was either a deaf mute or a practical joker : possibly both. France was so often a country full of surprises.
On the night of 22nd May, when the Division joined with the Indian Corps in a movement on the south of La Quinque Rue, the constant gun-fire up the line and the more occasional loud bursts of shells near us were blended into one terrific chorus by a mighty thunder- storm, the rain playing havoc with the apple blossom, and showing too well the weak spots in tent and bivouac but as the morning broke bright and sunny everything dried quickly, while the only record of successful Hun gunnery, so far as we were concerned, was the smack of a shell splinter on the boot sole of one of the motor transport drivers.
Next afternoon over twenty-five shells landed in our vicinity, and, as we had no cover except canvas, the experience was not pleasing ; while a day later the inhabitants of the estaminet at the foot of our road were shelled out and came up to our farmhouse for shelter. One was an old man of seventy-six, a sufferer from weak heart and asthma, who arrived in a pitiable state of breathlessness and exhaustion: another was a terrified two smaller children whom she dragged with her up the road. And all this seemed the more out of place that it was a lovely, warm, sunny day, with Nature at her best.
Supplying relays of bearers to the Advanced Dressing Station at Richebourg St. Vaast, visiting it and the neighbouring town of Bethune, and drawing medical material from the Advanced Depot of Medical Stores at Lillers were the chief excitements of our stay, over and above the intermittent shelling of our locality. Lillers, at that time intact, a town of about 8,000 inhabitants and chef lieu de canton, was busy and thriving, with good shops ; and, especially on market days when all the country folk were in with their goods, an interesting enough place in which to wander about. The old church dated back to the XIIth century, and owed its origin and importance to the possession of the bodies of two Irish saints, Lugle and Luglien, who had been assassinated in a neighbouring forest about the end of the VIIth century. Above the chief altar was a large figure of Christ carved in oak, called the Christ du Saint-Sang, the name being due to a characteristic legend that, when the Low Countries revolted against Philippe II, a Huguenot fired his arquebus at the figure and blood thereupon ran from the wound.
Bethune, although even then considerably damaged by shell fire, was a historic and still pleasant old town. With over 15,000 inhabitants, when we knew it, and surrounded by well laid out boulevards and highly cultivated marshy fields (known locally as houches). it was in existence as far back as 984 A.D. It, too, had its miracle for in 1184, when a plague was devastating the countryside, St. Eloi appeared to two blacksmiths and enjoined them to form a charitable association and provide, free of all charge, decent burial for the dead. Was it not so? Who knows! But at any rate La Confrèrie des Charitables with its many curious traditions was still in existence in 1915.
I doubt me much, however, whether many of our khaki Gallios cared for any of these things. To most Bethune meant that one could sit in that excellent (and ultimately wrecked) café, Le Globes drink bière de la Meuse and watch with interest the gay, gallant and nattily dressed officers of our ancient allies, as they met, saluted, laughed and exchanged news and cigarettes in La Place.
And if gay, gallant and well-bedecked, so much the more appropriate ; for was not this once the adventure country of “The Three Musketeers?” Not far from here had Madame ‘s head fallen to the axe of the red headsman of Armentières. Had D’Artagnan swaggered in amongst us, flung his rapier on the table and called for and quaffed at one draught a litre of Spanish from a silver flagon, I, for one, would have been little surprised. Spanish wine in a silver flagon – Yes! But I often wondered later how the gay Gascon would have liked rum in a tin mug, or what he would have said and how he would have faced up to four years of trench warfare? Quien sabe?
In a few days we trekked to Les Choquaux, a hamlet some kilometres behind Locon, billets being in a large farmhouse there, with bivouacs and horse lines in a field adjoining. These were pre-salvage days, and in this field were hundreds of well-finished ammunition boxes, with copper fittings, left by the previous occupants. Many of these cases had been smashed up for firewood : but out of what were still intact several of our men built comfortable shacks, a job as easy as playing with a child’s box of bricks. With a tarpaulin as roof they made excellent dry-weather shelters, and the usual fancy titles of “Ritz”, “Hotel Cecil” etc., were soon in evidence over the door-ways. Here again our occupation was collecting Brigade sick and taking them to the Casualty Clearing Station near Bethune, overhauling equipment, doing sanitary work, and supplying reliefs to our Advanced Dressing Station. Bathing parties went daily to the neighbouring canal, and life was pleasant and uneventful.
One night a Hun spy, dressed as a Canadian, was caught near this canal by a Gordon ; and some Canucks, still seeing red over the crucifixion outrage, came up and asked, “Can we have him?” “O, fairly!” said the obliging Jock, “fat eese’ hae I for him?” If he had not the Canadians certainly had ; and Mr. Boche went promptly west. So the yarn- ben trovato, anyhow – ran, to the obvious satisfaction of all who heard it and passed it on. For if “what the soldier said” was not evidence according to Mr. Justice Stareleigh, it was always – out of court and in the field – good ”gup” over a pipe and a drink ; and, throughout the campaign, we “never spile’t a story by considerin’ gin ’twas true”
On the evening of the last day of the month we moved to Pierre au Beure, a little hamlet some two or three kilometres from Calonne-sur-la-Lys ; a short march in dusk, and ultimately darkness, as we did not get in till 10 p.m. Here we found our new A.D.S. was fixed at an estaminet in the hamlet of Le Hamel, with a Bearer Relay Post ahead of it in the cellar of a demolished house at the entrance to the ruined village of Festubert ; a fairly lively spot. We were now in the Fourth Corps of the First Army, with our Division in the line in front of the village. The weather kept good, and our men, bivouacked in the orchards, were fit, well and in good fettle.
And it was here, if my memory does not play me false, that a jar of rum got served out amongst the horse transport, surreptitiously, without authority, and by night, resulting in a fracas next day with injury to the feelings and forefinger of a stout lady of the district. She came in tears to me with her bleeding digit and my heart bled in sympathy. But yes! The malefactors were Ecossais! And of our unit? Mais oui! Sans doute! Two had entered her cottage asking for water wherewith to dilute something in a bottle . And she with a kind heart sympathetic to the allies and could not all the neighbours testify to her well-known kindness of heart? – had given it. Not content with water, one of the malefactors had further asked for bread, and when she said no – for was the bread not needed for her offspring? – had seized her loaf and started cutting it with his knife. And not only the loaf- Ah! No! – but her now bleeding finger which called to Heaven, as she did to M. le Commandant, for justice! And much more to the same effect.
But o, the eternal feminine! When two men were identified and run in, down she came to plead for their release! It had been an accident, and she herself much at fault. For had she not snatched at the loaf while he was cutting it nothing would have gone wrong! And was not her own husband also a soldier? Were not les règles militaires très strictes? Who knew what consideration her husband might, even at the moment of speaking, himself require? Wingéd words few like a chattering cloud of starlings, and it was more difficult to get rid of her on her new errand of mercy, than on her original one of vengeance. But the rigour of next morning’s orderly room was, I trust, duly modified by the memory of her copious tears.
I remember, too, that I was billeted in a little farmhouse with an ultra-religious family, although in spite of that the house was well-kept and clean. But any time you passed through the kitchen to get to your room, you found the family engaged in voluble prayers ; and one dear little chubby soul of six used to disengage her face from her hands, open one eye, and- praying audibly all the time – watch your progress as you stepped respectfully and quietly through the kitchen. It was extremely disconcerting, and tended to make you stumble against the noisier portions of the furniture in your painful efforts to be unobtrusive.
And it was at Pierre au Beure also, down at the canal, that I saw The Man who Searched for Something. Coming along the tow-path one fine morning, I noted from afar a mother-naked man who dived into the water, remained under as long as he could, and then reappeared gasping and puffing. By the time I got up to his stance he had done this three times, and with raised hands was again making ready to go in. When- as he fixed me sideways with a moist and glittering eye – I asked him why he thus behaved and what he sought to do, he explained, edentulously and in the dulcet tones of Glasgow, that he had lost his teeth there “las’ nicht when dookin” and, having marked the spot, he had now returned by daylight for salvage operations. I watched an ineffectual fourth effort and left him under water for the fifth time ; but my pious hope was that St. Mungo, who had to thank the fish for returning Queen Langueth’s ring from the water, would in due time pay sympathetic attention to his distressed fellow-townsman’s submerged denture.
Here, too, it was that a complaint came in from a supersensitive lady, living in a house at the canal side, to the effect that she could not look out of her back windows without having her finer feelings shocked by the sight of our uncostumed men bathing. We sent her a polite message that the difficulty could be met on all such occasions by her seizing the opportunitv to enjoy the purely pastoral landscape visible from the front of her establishment.
The route to our A.D.S. at Le Hamel from Pierre au Beure ran through a series of narrow winding roads to Locon, and then across the La Bassee Canal in the direction of Festubert. In the beautiful summer evenings it was a fine run to go up with the rations and medical stores. The A.D.S. itself, in a dirty little estaminet where the owners still hung on and conducted a desultory business, had little of the romantic; but the return trip in the dark was a series of rapid impressions of camp fires lighting up the swarthy faces of turbaned Indians squatting in the orchards ; of our headlights flashing on the bayonets and glittering teeth of Sikh and Ghurka sentries ; of the little roadside shrines at the corners bright with votive lights ; of cottage windows, open for air and buckshee mosquitoes, shewing officers in their shirt sleeves poring over maps or writing their home letters close to a solitary, guttering candle.
And then on 11th June we moved to the village of Locon, to act as a Main Dressing Station. A Divisional push was imminent ; and, in an orchard opening off the main street, we laid out our lines and ran up the canvas necessary for our work, with a large dwelling-house as accommodation for wounded officers, and the village school for sick cases ; while the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance was also busy rigging up an old brewery further up the street for the reception of casualties.
In the evening, four days later, our attack came off ; an attack dismissed curtly in official history with the words, “on the night of the 15th June, east of Festubert, we took a mile of trenches but failed to hold them.” But that brief Statement meant heavy casualties to the Highland Division ; meant that for us and for the 3rd H.F.A. we had by 18th June conjointly handled over 1,200 wounded, and that a set of Territorial orderlies, most of whom had previously never seen any wound worse than a cut finger, had, with only odd snatches of sleep, faced up unflinchingly for three days and nights to some of the worst sights that mortal man could see. And the knowledge that they were efficiently dealing with their cases was enough reward to them for the many years of pre-war Territorial training and hard work.
It was, of course, an experience to be repeated time and again in the future ; but the first “opening out for wounded” and the first appreciations of our work will always linger specially in the memory of those who took part in it. For we received later the appreciation of the D.M.S. Army “of the smooth working of the medical units during the recent operations,” and of the D.D.M.S. Corps of “the excellent work done by all ranks of the Medical Service of the Division. The Field Ambulances had to work under very trying conditions, but all difficulties were admirably overcome, and the manner in which the work was done is worthy of the highest commendation” And all ranks duly “sat up and took notice,’ knowing that they were now a practical bit of “It.”
We stayed in Locon until 26th June, busy with Brigade sick and the treating of scabies cases one of the minor curses of war – which latter were isolated near the schoolhouse in the loft of a barn, the only approach to it being up a very long and shaky ladder placed against the outside of the building. The main difficulty was the supplying of sufficient hot water for baths ; and half a dozen lessiveuses – the big, metal, covered tubs used locally to heat water for washing clothes – were procured from Lillers and built into improvised brick ovens . the “bathroom” being a windowless and shell-damaged house. To get all the patients bathed and inuncted was a day-long job ; but this improvised lessiveuse method held sway until Divisional Rest Stations later got on to a firmer footing, with properly built spray-baths attached for the benefit of all such cases.
Here, too, we first tackled the problem of attendance on the civilian sick, work which was kept up wherever we went in France and Belgium until – and for months after – the Armistice. My first patient was a young woman suffering from a wound in the ankle accidentally caused by an English soldier monkeying with a revolver. Her husband was in the south, a brancardier de La Croix Rouge, one of our own craft. She was a grateful and emotional little soul; and my orderly and i were, after each dressing, entertained to a glass of wine and a tearful résumé of her previous history.
Old Madame D., my landlady, who had a truly Rabelaisian wit, kept me au fait as regards the village life and the few merits and many demerits of her neighbours. Hers was a clean house and a comfortable billet ; but she – good housewife as she was – cordially disliked our national habit of sleeping with open windows as tending, by the resulting courant d’air, to damage her white curtains. After she thought I was asleep she would steal into the garden, and from the outside silently insert a ghostly hand to pull the two halves of the window together. Later, with equal silence, I rose and reopened them, and then in the morning had to be “bright and early” so as to close them once more before she quietly came round amongst her cabbages to reconnoitre. Kindly and humorous old dame! I wonder how it fared with you and your little dwelling in the Rue de Bethune when Locon was again over-run and totally destroyed by the Hun in 1918?
On the 26th June we trekked to Estaires and took over the Institut Libre du Sacré Cour in the Rue du Collè ge. with the horse lines in a field across the street. The Division was then in the line in front of Laventie, and we were dealing with wounded and sick officers and infectious cases. The Institute was a large Catholic seminary, three stories high, with good accommodation for patients and orderlies, the officers’ mess being in the theatre on the top flat – a large room which we also used in the evenings to hold occasional and very successful concerts for the men. The rector was a youngish priest, expecting soon to be called up for combatant service. But, unfortunately for us and himself in addition, he was an “early bedder” and much disturbed physically and mentally by the noise the Army Pattern British boot made on the feet of our personnel as they nightly retired to their dormitory over his head. “Ah! Quel tapotage!” And pathetic indeed was the wording of his numerous written complaints!
Another interesting co-adjutor was the janitor, an old man with a lame leg got from a Prussian bullet in 1870 ; a curio picked up- as he loved to tell at length – while saving the life of an officer.
Much work we did there in the sanitary line: field work of our own (chiefly–to keep down flies evolving methods of burning horse manure, of which, like the construction of tribal lays, there are a hundred different ways) ; combined with – salus populi suprema lex – lifting and mending the long and badly choked drains of the establishment.
Here, too, one of our officers, with the requisite staff, was detailed to institute and look after Divisional Baths, as trench life with its mud and the impossibility of changing shirts, underclothing, etc., resulted in the troops being attacked by “undesirables” ; while billet life rarely furnished an adequate supply of water for complete private bathing. Everyone who was là-bas will remember the familiar scene in the rest areas,
A simmer’s day, the auld barn wi’
The orchard at the back.
The sunlicht tricklin’ throw the leaves
Fell flickerin’ on the wa’
An’ the flourish o’ the apple trees
Was floatin’ doon like snaw,
While ilk a man o’ oor platoon
Sat strippit to the waist,
An’ seekin’ owre his flypit sark
To see wha ‘d catch the maist.
Later on this baths-and-laundry job fell Into the hands of the Army Service Corps, but at the beginning of the war it was R.A.M.C. work. One big bathing establishment was, therefore, quickly set a-going at La Gorgue, where an old factory of two Stories was secured for the purpose.
The various units were notified of the days and hours when they could use the baths, and the commanding officers had to intimate a day in advance to the officer in charge of the baths how many men would be sent. It was essential, also, that strict punctuality should be observed in the matter of attendance at the hour specified for the baths officer had to work out how long it would take to bathe the numbers of men coming forward and what supplies of fresh shirts and underclothing would likely be required, as these had previously to be indented for by him.
The bathing party of a unit was marched in, and the men went to a room where they stripped. Each man ‘s dirty shirt and underclothing a – almost always lousy – were made into one bundle, which was taken to a disinfecting chamber. (Luckily, at the old factory there was a room capable of being heated to a temperature of 240°F which served the purpose without a new installation.) The bundles were then sent off to be washed and mended by a staff of French women for reissue, when ready, to other troops. Uniforms (tunics, trousers, kilts, etc.) were made into a second bundle and carried off to be turned inside out and carefully ironed along seams or pleats so as to be louse-free for the wearers after bathing was finished.
The men having bathed (which was done in the large ground floor room running the whole length of the building, by using ordinary wash-tubs set in rows and filled with hot water by a hosepipe from two big tanks heated by steam ), went upstairs to another room where the clean rig-out of shirts and underclothing was now ready. Thence they passed to a third room where their uniforms, thoroughly ironed (and mended where required by a staff of nimble-fingered needlewomen ), were handed out to them. They then dressed and went outside to a large shed for a cup of coffee with bread and butter ; and, at last, cleaned, clothed, fed and in a better mind, were marched off to rejoin their units. In a working day of ten hours a thousand men could be thus dealt with.
It was a great sight to see the sheer physical enjoyment a man got from making himself clean again :–
They gave me a bath and I wallered
For Gawd ! I needed it so.
And it was curious, too, to note the innate conservatism of the individual in the matter of his own belongings, and his active objection to being dealt with on communal principles. One man, perhaps, had discarded a fancy shirt sent out from home by wife or sweetheart, and loudly expostulated against a system which involved his loss of it in favour of some unknown soldier later on ; while another, in similar case, would swear in revenge his new issue was lousy. Hence the tale of the worthy who said of his shirt, “I’d rather hae the auld ane : I kent them better!” Making new acquaintances was tiresome he preferred his old familiar “ friends!”
But to be “officer in charge of baths” steam heated, worried, groused at throughout a long working: day, and always liable himself to be attacked by the minute enemy he fought, was no sinecure.
I do not think that Estaires was popular with the men, for the orders were that troops had to be confined to their billeting areas, and one soon exhausted the limited resources and estaminets of the Rue du Collège. The town itself, a place of some 7,000 inhabitants, was not of marked interest, unless, as at Merville, when filled with the peasantry of the district on market day ;: but the Hôtel de Ville had a square belfrv of the XVIth century and the church was also old, dating back to the XVth century, with some good stained glass. La Gorgue and Lestrem were practically parts of Estaires, and the chief industry was linen manufacture.
One memory that I have of the place was the taking, in an ambulance wagon, of a piano, hired from the beadle of the kirk, to an open-air concert of the 5th Gordons at their camp on the La Bassée road, some seven kilometres outside the town. This was held in a field on a fine summer evening, and as darkness fell the audience could be seen only as a semi-circle, several rows deep, of glowing cigarette ends. In the morning the site had been shelled, and between songs the guns boomed a perpetual chorus in the distance. On the road home, at a late hour, we were held up by a sentry at the bridge crossing the Lys canal, and in response to his challenge the car drew up and the reply, “Ambulance wagon!” was shouted. Inside the car our capable corporal cook (and pianist) seized the opportunity of the halt to burst into a joyous rag-time ; and the sentry’s face was a study as, open-mouthed, he let us pass – the uncanniest ambulance wagon up to date in his experience of such vehicles.