Give us again of the days gone by
A cheerier one or two,
Think of the lads with hopes so high
Whose quips and wiles we knew.
Lord! If we had not laughed with them
We had lost the half of our pay!
For the echo-less heart is a thing apart
And it goes by the Wearier Way.
To write, with even limited success, the history of any units which served in the Great War, the narrator would, I fear – and it is a large order – require to be a judicious mixture of George Borrow and Charles Lever ; the Borrow part of him to deal with the marching and roadside scenes, the wind on the heath, the clouds scudding before the breeze, the sunshine and the shade and the necessary little adventures of man on the move, whether solus or in column ; the Lever part, again, to treat of the tented field, the bivouac, the trenches, the camp-fire, the clash of arms, the cannikin’s clink, the songs the soldier sang, and of whatever takes the place (in these our present degenerate days) of broiled bones and devilled kidneys. Nay, more, one might with advantage add to the mélange a dash of such unblushing super-egoists as Benvenuto Cellini and Herbert of Cherbury, thereby sharpening the flavour of the literary diet while possibly interfering with the truth of the story. But I have no desire to hand out laurel wreaths to individuals as the ring-master throws pointed hats at the heads of the clowns : je prétends dire le bien et le mal sans dissimuler la vérité, giving you neither wild deeds of derring-do nor the joyous adventures of an Aristide Pujol. And thus it falls out that, as on principle one must eschew the Rabelaisian, Benvenuto and Lord Herbert have to be somewhat regretfully abandoned and their mutely proffered aid respectfully declined.
Here, then, if you choose to read on, you will find only the plain unvarnished tale of some Territorial Field Ambulances in France and Flanders ; differing in no way, doubtless, from other tales possibly told, probably untold- of similar medical units that served there. For most of the places named in this narrative have been, time and again, the locations of other Field Ambulances. One can say, therefore, to any brother O.C.. who turns over these leaves,
Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur,
whilst he, dubiously handling the book and adapting the words of the ancient and pious bishop, can reply, “And thus, but for the grace of God, goes the story I might have written.” For after all, we had of necessity the same outlook, the same environment, the same experiences, the same joys and sorrows. France and Flanders constituted our sole venue : camels, dust-storms, palm trees, pith helmets, oriental sunshine, did not come into our programme : we never
Heard the tinkling caravan
Descend the mountain road,
nor the East a-calling. But we certainly heard the West making a variety of curious noises, and we knew a lot about the many varieties of mud. Two things may be said against the story- one, that small beer is unsparingly chronicled : the other, that undue stress is laid on the cheerful side of war. Eh bien! But therein, if you look at it in the right way, lies proof of the truth of the yarn. What else, in the rest periods, was there to chronicle? Consider, too, how consistently and invariably small the average French beer always proved to be, even when thickened- as it frequently and improperly was – with bacillus coli. And as for cheerfulness, what officer who was là-bas can ever forget the extraordinary power of the men to make the best of and magnify any little gleam of sunshine that flashed into their dull, depressing, and often sordid, routine of mud and blood ; their ready response to a joke when there was, Heaven knows, little enough to jest over, and their constant good comradeship and good nature? Truly said Solomon – and has he not the more up-to-date backing of the lamented Coué? – “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.’
‘Tis easy to smile when the skies are blue
And everything goes well with you,
But the man who could grin
With his boots letting in,
With a boil on his neck
And its mate on his chin,
With I.C.T. at the back of each knee
And P.U.O. of 103,
Was the fellow who won the War!
And of all the fellows who won the war, none was stouter-hearted than the stretcher-bearer : none carried out his job more steadily and efficiently during the campaign. He was never treated to the limelight and he never asked to be : but he is well worthy of the highest tribute that can be paid to his pluck and his endurance. So it is mainly for him and his comrades that the yarn is spun, to ensure that in the years to come they may have a permanent record of their work and their journeyings abroad with that famous Scottish Division in which they took, and will always take, such a constant pride – the 51st (Highland) Division of immortal memory. Let me say here, also, that throughout the narrative I do not attempt to give any history whatsoever of military operations : I concern myself with our bit of the campaign only as it bore on medical work and R.A.M .C. matters. And the reason, by the way, that the story is written in the first person is solely because it is taken from a personal diary faithfully kept throughout not – to use Boswell’s phrase “’a log-book of felicity”’ but written, often enough, under curious and adverse circumstances. For many a time, with Pepys – to touch on only the minute of war’s varied worries – we had to say, “Up, finding our beds good, but lousy,” though without his addendum, “which made us merry,” seeing that the novelty of the stimulating jest soon wore off.
Technical, to a certain degree, the story must be not too technical, I hope, for the non-R.A.M.C. reader. The names and numbers of units to whom we handed or from whom we took over may seem a monotonous and oft-repeated detail: historical accuracy demands it. Monotonous, too, may be the itinerary of the various marches, but so they were laid down in orders. If a professional historian like our old friend Xenophon, with his constantly recurring, “thence he proceeded three stadia, ten parasangs, to the river” could not get away from it, who am I that I should complain of my burden, or without protest let others criticise the way in which I have unpacked my kit of recollections?
But at this stage it may be as well to answer at once the inevitable question of the civilian reader – “What is a Field Ambulance?” If that genial – and frequently wooden-headed–individual “the man in the street” were asked, he would probably reply that it was a wagon for carrying wounded, either drawn by horses or propelled by petrol. And even people with the high intelligence of a Brigade Staff have been known in the days gone by to betake themselves to the telephone, give a map reference, and request that a “Field Ambulance” be sent there immediately, when all they wanted was an ambulance wagon.
But a Field Ambulance is not an ambulance wagon it is (or was) a medical unit of 241 all told, of which there were three to a Division ; each in its turn made up of three sections capable of acting independently when required. For a section contained in itself medical officers, stretcher-bearers, nursing orderlies, clerks, cooks, etc., with separate equipment (tentage, surgical instruments, drugs, appliances, dressings, etc. ) and horse and motor transport. The section idea was conceived with the view to mobile warfare ; and, as in France this never materialised to any great extent, the Divisional Field Ambulance as a rule worked complete.
Each Ambulance generally marched with its own Brigade, whose sick, then and in the “rest” periods of the Division, it was responsible for collecting and treating ; while in a push, one of the three units, plus the bearers (nominally one hundred each ), ambulance cars and horse wagons of the other two, dealt with the evacuation of the wounded from the Regimental Aid Post via the Collecting Post and the Advanced Dressing Station back to the Main Dressing Station, run by another of the Ambulances. Here Divisional treatment ceased and the wounded were transferred to the Motor Ambulance Convoy, administered by Corps, and carried back to the Casualty Clearing Station ; whence by Ambulance Train they went to the Base Hospital and thereafter by Hospital Ship to the U.K. The third of the Divisional Field Ambulances usually ran a Walking Wounded Collecting Station in the neighbourhood of the Main or the Advanced Dressing Station, to which the wounded who were able to walk found their way, a route thither having previously been marked out with fags and direction posts before the push.
Now, any Field Ambulance commander that I ever met usually had two chronic outstanding grouses. One was against the medical officers of the battalions in the line, who, absolutely illegitimately and backed as a rule by their commanding officers sometimes even by the G.O.C. himself when he had been “got at” tried during a push to use the Ambulance stretcher-bearers in front of the Regimental Aid Posts to eke out their Regimental stretcher-bearers, with a resulting check to the rapid evacuation of casualties back to the Collecting Post and Advanced Dressing Station. The other was against the Casualty Clearing Stations. These, excellent and efficient though they were, ranked without doubt as the spoilt children of the R.A.M.C. Constant demands were made by Corps to detail officers and nursing orderlies from the Ambulances for the purpose of assisting the C.C.S.s and it was frequently only with the greatest difficulty, and at the eleventh hour before a battle, that these parties could be recovered for their legitimate work with their units behind the front line. Further, when sent to the C.C.S., they were looked on as “nobody’s bairns” ,and too often given all the dirty work to do : in one such case a medical officer and twenty nursing orderlies were set to dig drain! Again, it was a common experience that no proper attempt was made at the C.C.S. to return promptly the Field Ambulance’s limited supply of hot-water bottles, Thomas’ splints and other special appliances – things always of the utmost value to us sent down with patients, nor to see that proper drying arrangements existed for dealing with blankets and stretchers soaked by the rain and mud of the long carry from the front line. As the war went on there was a great im provement effected ; for each motor transport driver was ultimately given a chit at the Main Dressing Station by the despatching N.C.O., detailing what special appliances went with the patients on his car ; and this chit had to be signed by the C.C.S.’s receiving N.C.O., So that a check was available. And when the Casualty Clearing Stations were at last awake to the fact that blanket-drying was not a troublesome side-show but an important factor in combating shock up the line, we had taken a step forward by which everyone benefited.
Still, great was the strife occasionally, and hotter natures made a vendetta of it ; I remember one occasion when it was carried on with the aid of bombs, but in this way only. All such articles were of course removed from the person of the wounded man before he left our hands but Tommy was a casual soul, and often carried an odd bomb or two inside the torn lining of his tunic pockets or otherwise bestowed about his person. Besides, human nature is fallible, and an overworked nursing orderly might be caught off his guard in a rush. So it happened one day that some patients found their way into a C.C.S. from the front line still bearing bombs about them. The O.C. of this C.C.S., instead of sending a friendly note of warning, chose, being a stickler for military etiquette, to complain through “‘the usual channels” ; and in due course a strafe from higher up descended on our devoted heads. But by good luck we had a friend in charge of an ambulance train evacuating cases from this station, and he was asked to look out for bombs on cases received therefrom. Sure enough in a few days he got them, and, also employing the usual channels, discomfited our foe on whom I called later to explain that as we were quits this kind of correspondence might, as the editors say, “‘now cease.” It did.
Starting la vie militaire as an innocent-minded and peaceful civilian, one had to learn as quickly as possible the noble art of “getting one’s own back” or perhaps more correctly of “not being left” : outlooks had to be changed and standards of values readjusted. This was especially the case in dealing with certain brass hats. I do not wield the two-handed battle-axe of Philip Gibbs and his clan in dealing with these people: I consider the class, as a class, much maligned. But there were, sans doute, some extraordinary individuals amongst them, and one had, on occasion, to fight with wild beasts at Ephesus.
Now it is, naturally, medical brass hats with whom I am chiefly concerned, and on them alone I could write a book ; not, mark you, to attack the Medical Service which, taken all over in France, was as sound as a bell – but to deal with the impossible people. Some of these were only the happy-go-luckier members of the ever delightful “Fenian Brigade”‘ ; some were merely amiable cranks. But a few others, had they been horses, one would have labelled as vicious. These last were out, not – so far as one could ever ascertain – to help, but to find fault, and, when they thought fit, to try to “break” any officer to whom they had conceived a dislike. But all of this class I met were fortunately amenable to appropriate and carefully thought out treatment.
One of them, whom I remember yet with maledictions mellowed somewhat by the passage of the years, dearly loved to descend suddenly on a Main Dressing Station when a push was on, and, oblivious of the fact that the O.C. had at such times to be on duty all over the place, express great wrath if that officer was not there in person to greet him respectfully on the threshold. From my office window overlooking the entrance I saw him one day jump from his car and dive into the old barn that was our Receiving Room, and immediately hastened across to meet him, arriving some thirty seconds after his advent.
“Well, you ‘re here at last, are you?” was his genial greeting.
“And now you are here perhaps you’ll tell me what that – fool there’ (pointing to an N.C.O. who was standing rigidly at attention and gazing into vacancy) “can ‘t, and that is what the devil these two barrels are used for?”
I gazed into a corner of the barn and saw there on trestles two small barrels which I had never in my life seen before. But it was no use to tell him that.
“We were using them for barley water, sir, but we found it didn’t keep well.”
“Then why the blazes couldn’t that fellow there tell me that at once?”’ And he consumed the unfortunate N.C.O. with his eyes. I, too, gazed at the culprit reproachfully for unnecessarily withholding information so evidently essential to the well-being of an inspecting officer.
When he had left after a tour of the show (where, curiously enough, seeing the mood he was in, he found fault with nothing else), I went to the N.C.O. and asked him what on earth the barrels were for and where they came from? He was an Englishman that I had on loan, and he answered :
“Most unfort ‘nit thing, sir, but these ‘ere empty barrels was below a tarpaulin in the corner, and I had just ‘auled the tarpaulin orf to see wot was there w’en ie came in.”
We conjointly examined the two derelict barrels with interest, and found one was labelled “Rum” and the other “Lime Juice!” They were at once removed and broken up for firewood, the sergeant very properly remarking, “Lucky job, sir, ‘e didn’t pursoo the subjick!”
Yes, he was a truly great man, that same happy warrior. Going round with him he would come, say, to the blanket store and rap out,
“How many blankets?”
It was, of course, impossible to say accurately without consulting the Q.M., as there was a constant come and go of such articles. But to reply “I’lil ask the Quartermaster, sir,”, was fatal. His answer would have been :
“The Quartermaster be – ! You should know all the Quartermaster knows and a sight more!”
So the result was that he always got an immediate answer of something like this: “Eight hundred and seventy-two, sir, and fifteen under repair” ; the sergeant-major chipping in with, “That ‘s right, sir” (gallantly running the risk of having his nose bitten off for intervening) ; and the war was a step nearer being won.
On another occasion, when we were running a Corps Main Dressing Station during a push, with a very numerous personnel to look after, and the place going like a fair, a certain high-up medical mandarin sent in a demand for an immediate report as to why it was that so many safety-pins had been indented for on the Advanced Depot of Medical Stores the week before, with whatever further information on the nature, quality, merits, demerits and ultimate destination of the safety- pins supplied could be given. Safety-pins! Name of a pipe! All my work was laid aside for two hours while concocted this report, and, with all humility, I can say truthfully that it was a work of art. The introductory paragraph, I recollect (and I managed to extend the report to two typewritten foolscap pages), ran thus :
“When considering the subject of safety-pins, it must always be borne in mind that the best are those which most nearly follow their prototype, the Roman fibula.'”
Then came a detail of (1) for what purposes we legitimately used safety-pins ; (2) the illegitimate demands made on M.O.s of Field Ambulances and battalions for safety-pins by combatant officers and others not entitled to such luxuries ; (3) the different manufacturers who supplied safety-pins ; (4) the manufacturer whose products seemed specially reliable (more or less true) ; (5) the number of safety-pins supposed to be in each box ; (6) the average number really in the boxes (probably true) ; (7) the average percentage of safety-pins which doubled up or became otherwise inefficient when used (possibly true) ; and so on to the bitter end, padded out with rolling Gladstonian periods, and really (although I say it who shouldn ‘t) reading uncommonly well, if you took it as merely rather hurried journalism. And I remember when, somewhat wearily, I handed it over to be typewritten, I could not help thinking that the Germans had really got it in the neck this time, and that we were at last beginning to get a genuine move on in a prolonged and sanguinary war.
Later on my senior in the Corps, through whose hands it passed, and who was a thoroughly decent chap – he had Celtic blood in his veins rang me up on the phone and said :-
“I say! I got that report on the safety-pins.”
“Never knew so much about safety-pins before!’
“It should settle him though.” (Pause) Oh, by the way, send me a copy of your next novel when it comes out, will you?”
Mais que voulez-vous? A la guerre comme à la guerre! To do it was, of course, painful in the extreme, but what else could you do? If you were to be left in peace and the work carried through, that kind of chap had to be spoon-fed on flapdoodle simply to get him out of the road ; he asked for it all the time, and the wise man gave it to him – in judicious doses.
I remember another senior genius in the Medical Service finding quite unwarranted fault with an officer in charge of a scabies ward at a Divisional Rest Station.
“What are you in civil life?”
“An oculist, sir.”
“An oculist ! Great Heavens ! An oculist in charge of a scabies ward?” (Then to me.) “What the devil do you mean by putting an oculist in charge of scabies?”
“Only one other officer available, sir.”
“Then, hang it all, put him on”
“Very good, sir ; he’s a lecturer on physiology”
I thought he was going to throw three separate kinds of fit and then burst. But he only turned an empurpled visage on me and said solemnly :
“Now look here, this kind of thing’s got to stop! D’ye hear? D’ye understand? Got to stop -got to stop at once ! You’ll look out an officer who’s a dermatologist – a fellow who’s made a special study of skins – chap who has done that sort of thing for years- years, mark you! And a junior officer with specialist qualifications too! Got that? – I’m going to collect all cases of scabies together at one centre, and these men are going to be in charge of them! See to it!’ And in an atmosphere of “dammits” and growls he worked his sulphurous and saluted way to his limousine and departed.
Now you see “these men,” as far as we were concerned, simply did ‘t exist . that was the worry of it: they weren’t there! But Napoleon I. said that difficulties exist for the purpose of being overcome, and Klausewitz gave us the dictum, “In war do the best you can .” What annoyed me mostly on this occasion was that I was only acting A.D.M .S. for the real man on leave, and he had just gone the day before it was not my pidgin : however, I supposed I could make a dermatologist or two out of nothing just as well as the next fellow, if I took the matter up seriously.
It so happened that in one of our medical units was an officer – a most efficient and gallant officer – who in the piping times of peace was a dentist. I went to him and told him that I meditated turning him into a dermatologist, and that I was genuinely sorry that I had to do this. It made me feel like a magician changing a princess into a rabbit. I also reminded him that he had known me well for years, and I was sure he would bear me out in saying that, en civile, camouflage, bluff, casuistry, special pleading and Jesuitical reasoning were absolutely foreign to my nature. I reminded him also of the developmental connection between teeth and skin, and that really, to a man with a scientific mind and the wider outlook, the ultimate difference was so slight that, if a brass hat who knew nothing about either asked him about skins, he could quite properly reply that he had been doing “that kind of thing'”‘ all his professional life. But I told him I put no pressure on him : if he had a conscience he must not muzzle the thing to oblige me these were matters for personal decision. I only asked him to remember that we were in the Army and that there was a war on. And next I hied me to a very smart young Canadian M.O., at that time attached to us, to whom I said :
“Don’t correct me if I am wrong! I understand you were for two years house physician at Montreal Skin Hospital. On this understanding, or misunderstanding, I have appointed you assistant dermatologist at the Combined Scabies Station. The decision is final.”
Well, the dentist and the Canuck, being sportsmen, took the show over and ran it with great efficiency and success ; so efficiently that they were kept at the job long after they were thoroughly fed up with it. Two days after it was opened the great man came round to inspect.
“Ugh !” he grunted, as I met him at the door of the building, “what kind of a show have you got?”
“Very good indeed, sir.”
“Humph ! That’s for me to say, not you! Got these skin men to look after it?”
I seized the opportunity to dodge the question and to introduce the officers to him.
“Know anything about skins?” he growled at the senior.
“I ought to, sir.”
“Ought to? Why the devil ought you ?”
“Done this sort of thing for twenty years, sir”’
“And what about this fellow?”
°Montreal Skin Hospital, sir,” drawled the Canuck, diplomatically avoiding any unnecessary misstatement of facts.
“Humph!’ And then he turned to me. “And you were fiddling about with oculists and lecturers on physiology while you had these other fellows up your sleeve the whole I time! Organisation! The right man for the right job! It’s what I’m teaching and preaching and you won’t take it in! Just you remember this business in future as an example of what can be done when you put your mind to it.’;
And I said, “Very good, sir!” And I felt it too.
The officer with the chilblains is also a case of interest, although the hero of that tale was a dear, kind-hearted old chap. But I think his very arteries were made of red tape, and a Divisional or a Corps order was to him as unchangeable a decree as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. He was a good enough administrative officer, but all the medicine he had ever known had, long ago, run out of the heels of his boots. We were carrying on a Divisional Rest Station at the time, an institution where sick and slightly wounded were taken in for treatment ; and if, after seven days, they were not fit to return to the line, were sent back to the C.C.S., being, ipso facto, struck off the strength of the Division. Well, one day a young officer came in who had nothing more or less wrong with him than very severe chilblains, and who was extremely anxious not to go further back, as he had temporary rank in his unit which he would thereby lose, while his O.C. was equally desirous of his rejoining.
But on the seventh day he was still unfit to go up the line, So we kept him on, gave his chart a touch of temperature, and trusted to luck. On the ninth day round came our old friend, buzzed cheerily through the wards, and then came to the case of chilblains, whose chart he glanced at.
“Oh, hang it all! Look here now! This is too bad! Nine days! Surely you know the order about seven days being the maximum stay here? Send him down by to-night’s convoy.”
“I think, sir, we should exercise great care about removing this officer it is an acute case of erythema pernio” (And let it be known to the laity that this is merelv the Latin name for chilblains.)
“Oh, bless my soul! I didn’t know that though! We would need to be a bit careful here- Eh? What ? But look here – he has got no temperature to speak of !'”
“Some of the very worst cases haven ‘t, sir.”
“Oh, well, glad you told me about this. What was it you said he had? Oh! Keep a careful watch on him! Take no risks! That wouldn ‘t do at all!” And off he went, obviously musing.
Some days later he turned up, breezy and cheery. As he went up the corridor he said : “And what about that acute case of ? You know that fellow with the? The case we couldn’t move? How is he?”’
“Much better, sir. I think he’ll come round all right now”
“Dashed good job we didn’t move him, eh?”
I respectfully agreed. And two days later Captain Erythema Pernio rejoined his battalion.
Of course every man has his fads, even the very best of us. I should not be at all surprised if some men who served under me thought that I had a few trifling weaknesses of that sort myself. One of my seniors was perhaps the most efficient, kindly, courteous, helpful officer whom I ever met in the Service. But he was death on thermometer-breaking, and at his conferences a most thorough explanation had to be given of all indents sent to the Advanced Depot of Medical Stores for such articles. The M.O.s of Field Ambulances, battalions, and other units, had to see to the filling in of weekly returns with the headings (1) Number of clinical thermometers broken. (2) By whom broken. (3) How broken, etc., etc. And I always remember the story told by one southron medical orderly, pouring out his soul on the form through the medium of a stubby pencil. “Under foloing circstances. Patent had thermomter in mouth when a shell burst in his visinty So he chewd on it.” Which he chewed on – the shell, the thermometer, or the vicinity likely bits of them all – is not clear, but the “patent’s” conduct, “under the circstances,” was excusable.
And then there was the incident of the rats that was not a medical brass hat, though, but a “Q-monger.” The iron rations of our unit had disappeared gradually, and our Quartermaster indented for 241 – our total number- at one go-off, a somewhat wholesale order. And then “Q” started a correspondence which ran :
“Reference your indent of 1 for 241 iron rations. It is not understood how all your iron rations have disappeared. Please explain”
“To which the Q.M. replied :
“Reference your (1). These rations have been lost mainly through the action of rats”
What he meant was that the rats had in many cases eaten through the linen bags in which the iron rations were carried, and that the tins had fallen out through the holes so caused while the men were on the march or in billets. (It was really a bit thin.) However, in came :
“Reference your (2). Please explain how rats can eat through tin”
Here the Q.M., with a troubled mind, brought the correspondence to me, and we tried them with :
“Reference your (3). It is pointed out for your information that the rat prevalent in the district is not the small black rat, but the large, grey Hanoverian rat.”‘
The correspondence ceased and we got the rations handed over – “Q”‘ had evidently not got a good text-book on natural history at hand.
“Ay, there’s queer folk in the Shaws!” And that reminds me of less important people and the tale of “Wee Ginger,” which is another kind of story altogether. Divisional Headquarters were at one time in a collection of huts set on a wind-swept hill, approached from the main road by a duck-board track set in a sea of mud. From 10 a.m. to noon I had held a medical board on men claiming to be unfit for continuing in the line and at 12.30 I was going over the papers bearing on the cases seen. Suddenly the door of my “Armstrong” was opened and a man literally “blew in” ; for, as he turned the handle of the door the wind vigorously finished the operation and jerked him into the hut, all my papers whirling off the table. I asked him somewhat hastily, what in the wide, wide world he thought he wanted? He was a little man with large spectacles fixed in a clock-face visage, a Scottish bonnet roguishly cocked a-jee on a mop of red hair, a kilt well below the knees of a pair of Harry Lauder legs, and a general air, probably assumed, He saluted slowly, like a of childlike simplicity. mechanical toy, and asked me with mild interest :
“Are you the Boord?”
“Am Í the what?”
“Are you the Boord?”,
“There was a Board here at 10 o’clock. Were you summoned to it? If so, why do you turn up at 12.30?”
“Weel ye see, sir, I can explain that tae. I was tel’t doon in the toon there that the Boord wis up here ; but when I was hauf wev up a’ thae duck-boords I says to masel’ ‘There canna be a Boord up here!’ Sae I went awa’ back to the toon again to speir if I wis richt, an’ they said Ay’-an’ a lot mair tae- an’ syne I had a’ the wey tae traivel back again, ye see, and that’s the wey I’m late ye see, sir, for if I had keepit up thae duck-boords the first time .”
“’All right, that’ll do! Seeing you are here, what’s wrong with you?”’
“Weel, it’s just like this, sir ; I’m ower wee for the job! When we’re marchin’ I’m aye fa’in ahint. Noo ye see, on the ither side o’ the watter, afore T cam’ oot here, there wis a sargint- Oh, an awfy fine felly, that Sargint !- and when the big chaps wis stappin’ out he aye says, Noo haud on, boys, or we’l1 be lossin’ Wee Ginger!’ (That’s what they ca’ me, ye see, sir. ) But the sargints here’s no that kind ava, an’ I dinna ken hoo often they’ve lost me ; they’re aye daein ‘t !”
He was about five feet two, and the tale sounded as if it might be lamentably true. Then I asked him :
“What did you do in civil life?’
“Weel noo, there ye are! Ye see, I wis a birdstuffer in Glescy and that wis nae trainin’ ava for this kin’ o’ a’ job!”
Which was incontrovertible so he got a fresh start in military life at the A.S.C. laundry. And I do not know whether they lost “Wee Ginger” there or not, or what sad tale of a tub he told, perchance, to the next “Boord’ he encountered.
At another Board a sallow individual, claiming to be the possessor of many complicated ailments, stripped for examination. A rapid glance at his salients gave the information that he was a true son of Abraham. Asked, with a stethoscope applied, to say “One, one”, he responded with “Von! Von!” Now, it is always good to use the tongue of these with whom you speak, so I enquired : –
“Vat vos you ven you vos in thivil life?”
“I vos a vatchmaker in Vitechapel.”‘
A puzzling individual was the Sassenach who gave his pre-war occupation as “’Airdresser and new-lide hegg merchant.” I have often meditated over him since. How did the coalition work? Did he chop up the hair-cuttings as a stimulating diet to his hens for egg production? And did he then use the resulting eggs for the manufacture of hair-lotion? And did the vicious circle result in profit?
How little thought each man is giving
To how his brother makes his living!
Someone has very properly remarked that the true liaison between the British and the French armies was the Scottish troops. The statement is curiously true – for two reasons. One is that many of the English had never got away from the “d – foreigner” idea of the Napoleonic wars : the other, that the sentiment of the “Auld Alliance”‘ persisted strongly amongst the French, both military and civilian. I trust that it now exists more strongly than ever and that it will last for all time.
Less, of course, the Gunners, R.E., M .G.C., A.S.C.. and R.A.M.C., the 51st Division was a kilted division. I think it was Max O’Rell who gave as a reason for the Scots wearing kilts that their feet were too big to get into trousers. And we all know Joffre’s classic criticism of the garb of old Gaul; So I need not – fortunately- quote it. But I once overheard in Picardy a somewhat Joffrian explanation given by an R.A.M.C. private to a French lady, of why his unit, then billeted in a village amongst kilted troops, did not also wear the courte jupe. The lady’s knowledge of English was on a par with his knowledge of French, so the conversation started by her pointing to his slacks and ejaculating “Anglais?”
“Na, na!” said he, “Ecossy!”
Whereupon she indicated a passing Jock and stated her case briefly “Ecossais -Voila ! Vous Anglais!'”
“Ach . The kilt!” he replied : “Na, na : owre muckle bendin’ aboot oor job, wifie! Com pree!”
I do not think she did, and perhaps as well. But the honest woman, as she set off up the road, must have gathered from the laughter of his comrades that there was some “dooble ong-tong” in the answer.
It often took the expatriated Scot some time before he understood enough of the language to feel quite at home in this new country. “Napoo” was perhaps the first expression he fully grasped when disappointed in his visit to shop or estaminet, always in search of something to fortify the inner man.
“C’wa man, Jock ! See, here s an estaminit
Lat’s gung inside an’ try. man!
We’ll mavbe pet twn oofs any some ham in it,
An’ a bottle o” beer forbye. man!”
Rut, alns for the pair I I can hear them swear
As they learo the place. adamnin’ it! “
Och ay t Oui, ouit Napeo . Fee-nee!
To the crows with her giddy estaminit!”
Yes, the last line is bowdlerised: I frankly grant the necessity of so doing. On occasion the genial Jock had some excuse for his verbal carelessness, and he sometimes could put forward the excuse pretty well, as I shall try to show.
Many will remember Martinsart and the conditions prevailing there in 1915. Four g.s. wagons from each Divisional Field Ambulance were detailed to assist the pioneer battalion in the construction of a road over the hill just beyond the village. The weather at the time was atrocious, and the place where the horse-lines and bivouacs were pitched was a veritable sea of mud. So bad was it that it reached to the horses’ bellies when they left the road, and they had practically to swim across the field to their stance about four hundred yards away near a battery of 4·7’s. The bivouacs were in constant danger of being submerged, and the effort necessary to reach a little shed where the men’s cookhouse was situated was no small one. One day, while watering horses at a big tank in the village, a shell burst near at hand and a horse swung round with a jerk and toppled into the tank. A staff officer passing at the time “nearly chewed the head off” the driver (the words are the man’s own) for “contaminating the water!” But the poor old horse had the best of it, for he got a much needed bath.
Rats, too, were there in battalions. So numerous were they that the men used to go out after dark with sticks and lay about them indiscriminately, and in the morning usually found a dozen or so lying dead. No place was safe to keep the rations from them even when a wire was run from one end of the bivouac to the other, and they were hung thereon in a bag, these little indefatigable tight-rope walkers got at them. One humorist declared they ate up his hairy jacket and all his tobacco, and that he heard them playing at night on a derelict and damaged set of bagpipes that were lying in the “bivvy.” Which is as may be.
And he it was (and this is what I am working up to) who, when reproved by a passing chaplain moved to dire wrath by the lurid language emanating from a shelter, ventured a quaint excuse. “It’s no muckle godliness ye’ll find here, sir, but the Lord’ll maybe forgie me, for I practise the next best thing at hame”,’ “Oh!” said the angry padre, “what ‘s that?” “Cleanliness, sir! I’m a scaffey wi’ the Aiberdeen Corporation!”
As a linguist–using the term comprehensively – Jock seldom stuck. From my bedroom off a farm kitchen in the Somme I once overheard two diplomats interviewing the lady of the house, who, incidentally, did not understand a word of English, much less Scots.
“Bong swarr, wifie!”
“Hae ye ony pum-de-tairs, mistress?”
“Pommes de terre ? Non, non! Napoo!”’
“Och, awa’ wi’ your napoo! I ken ye’ve some spuds . I saw ye peelin’ them yestreen!”
“You hae a try at her, Tam!”’ said number one and Tam had a try. He decided for the pathetic touch, and started off in a wheedling tone,
“Noo look here, wifie, it’s no for oorsels we’re seekin’ tatties, na, na ; it’s for a camarade o’ oors, sick in billets, puir sowl, an’ a tatty’s the ae thing he’s fairly greetin’ for!”
“But even this sad – and, I fear, imaginary – story did not, curiously enough, get through the old lady’s defence, and only drew forth another negative.
“Och, come on, Pete! The auld besom winna gie’s ony . lat’s try some ither gait ! Bong swarr, wifie!”
And off went the two disappointed potato-hunters. Coming into the kitchen, I asked her :-
“The men billeted here do not trouble you?’
“Au contraire, monsieur : toujours très convenables!” And then she told me how number one regularly drew water for her from the well, while number two had that morning washed down her door-step for her. “Always kind and polite, monsieur! And had I pommes de terre they certainly would get them!”
And who, when memory is releasing its roll of films, does not remember the innumerable treks, each unit, with its inevitable attendant train of mongrel dogs (our own total once rose to fifteen, embracing every variety from a mighty mastiff to the little prolific black and tan terrier bitch beloved of the M.T.), passing through the winding streets of village after village, dotted with estaminets (“A 1’Aube, , , “Point du Jour,” “Aux Pêcheurs, ‘ etc. ) and débits de tabac, with gables and windows embellished either with notices calling up new “‘classes” of the French Army, or with other war time posters? Prominent everywhere was “Taisez vous! Méfiez vous! Les oreilles ennemies vous ecoutent ”, (Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui!) And this, the home newspapers told us, was best translated :
There was an old owl sat on an oak,
The more he heard the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why not imitate this old bird ?
(All very well for the ancient bird of wisdom! But was the rash speaker’s information always valuable to the foe? Did not the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu, long, long ago, lay down the golden truth -”He who speaks does not know : he who knows does not speak”‘) Other posters there were the artistic “On les aura !” chief of . the series advertising French War Loan or those of tombolas for the Croix Rouge, in one of which a man of ours actually won a hundred francs, and liquidated it, to his own downfall.
Each village much like another ; differing somewhat, perhaps, in the amount it had been knocked about, or in the age and picturesqueness of its church. One might contain the Headquarters of the Division whose area we were crossing ; or be less important in possessing only those of a brigade or a battalion. And yet very few were without interest if one set oneself deliberately to dig it out. It was enough, often, when all were settled in at the end of a day, to stroll in the dusk through some to the casual and fed-up observer- dead-and-alive hamlet, and think how generation after generation of toil-worn folk like those one saw had lived and moved and had their being here, had made this their local habitation and here gained their name. For it was often in the smallest hameaux that one found the true Jacques Bonhomme. Loves, jealousies, hates, ambitions all were here : the churchyard- or the curé – told of sorrows and tragedies. Folk-beliefs were always ascertainable : quaint rustic tales could be told to sympathetic ears. Here was a British name, twisted to suit French lingual powers ; for had not the great-great-grandfather of the present possessor of it been a sergeant in Wellington ‘s army who had stayed behind at the behest of Cupid ? Or again, one discovered a purely Protestant village – rara avis in terris – where a common anti-papal ancestor’s will had for monetary reasons involved the inter-marriage of his descendants, to their great mental and physical hurt.
Sad, more or less, the villages always were : black was the common wear of the women-folk; while the men were either bent with age, or, if youthful, weak in body or mind, left behind solely because they were unfit material for the strong hell-broth of war.
And the burial places. Everywhere in the war area the communal cemetery had been crowded out, and new ground broken ; full, row upon row, of neatly regimented mounds with the little white-painted wooden crosses at their head.our la France.
Of great beauty, too, were many of the village names. Owen Wister says rightly :- .”All France is musical with names ; names sonorous that chant like legends, or gay, that trip like the dances of old jongleurs : names full of overtones, where the vowels and syllables fall into cadences so melodious, that to read them aloud is like a song.” Bellinglise was his favourite : mine, I think, of them all, was Fleury-la-Rivière.
And then, after a night in some such place, spent more or less comfortably as Fate might decree, bundle and go again at an unearthly hour in the morning on the old tinker ‘s trail. As the sun got higher and higher and our spirits rose with it, songs and choruses to the accompaniment of penny whistle or mouth organ burst out at intervals from the marching men : while, if we had pipers to lead us, who does not recall the response of the French cow to the shrilling of Caledonian music! When Corydon fluted to his Phyllis, Allan Ramsay tells us :-
E’en the dull cattle stood amazed
Pleased with the melody.
But these were phlegmatic Scottish kine! The cow of la belle France, with all the Gallic vivacity of her owners, went one better ; and shewed her pleasure, not by stationary amazement, but by prancing, tail-up and with evident appreciation, to the “Pibroch of Donuil Dhu,” or to what she considered the even more appropriate air of “The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre.”‘
By night again we might be once more in the devastated area : hawks and magpies the only birds and rat-ridden ruins again our environment. Even there in remnants of garden or orchard were the poppies, the marguerites or the blue cornflowers, unexpected little oases of beauty in the desert of destruction. And your evening Stroll was devoted to poking about here and there amongst desolate hearths with a stick and murmuring :
This was the house that Jacques built.
This was the roof that covered the house
That Jacques built.
and cursing the war and all its many hellish ways. One could talk, too, of cellars further forward still, amongst even greater devastation, where, as Walpole said of Rome, “the very ruins were ruined.”‘ Therein one sought shelter for advanced posts of all descriptions creepy-crawly, verminous and damp ; but safe enough when the roofs were propped a bit, and always getting safer the more the shattered house above was knocked down, and the head-cover thereby grew. It is a wonder we did not see ghosts in these places, in the older buildings at least, for they must have been there to see. And many a restored villa or château will run the risk, in its after history, of khaki-clad and mud-covęred spectres intruding upon its below-stairs life.
As you went up by. Windmill Farm
An’ down by the shemmin croo
You came to the edge o’ Dead Man’s Wood
An’ there was the old shattoo,
A heap o’ bricks an’ a cellar stair
With the rest o’ the show napoo ;
Yet it was a Relay Bearers’ Post An’ sheltered a tidy few.
A cracked old bell still hung on the wall
An’ often some silly cuckoo
Would tip it a-jangle by way of a joke
When he found nothing better to do,
While the rest o’ the blighters would chortle out
Toot sweet! We ‘re a-comin’, Mossoo ‘
A-shammin’ as they was the domey-steeks
O’ the Count o’ the old shattoo.
For a ruddy aristocrat owned it once
Till, all in horizon blue,
He Ieft his bones away in the South
Done in by a Jerry oboo.
Ay, he left his bones, but he left no wite,
No kids, an’ o’ francs tray poo,
For he ‘d gone the pace when he was alive
As a lot o’ them Frenchies do.
You mark my words when I prophesy,
The things as I say bein’ true,
If it’s ever rebuilt in the years to come
(I speak o’ the old shattoo),
The domey-steeks a-sittin’ downstairs
Will huddle and squeal Mongjoo !
When a ghostly chorus answers the bell,
Toot sweet! We’re a-comin’, Mossoo
So now, an it please you, gentle reader, let us have done with character sketches, generalities and the methods of Silas Wegg, and, in more chronological detail, to our muttons.