The firefly haunts were lighted yet,
As we scaled the top of the parapet,
But the east grew pale to another fire,
As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman’s wire,
And the sky was tinged with gold and grey,
And under our feet the dead men lay,
Stiff by the loop-holed barricade
Food of the bomb and the hand grenade,
Still in the slushy pool and mud –
Ah, the path we came was a path of blood,
When we went to Loos in the morning.
During the summer months, in towns all over the United Kingdom, photographers were making handsome profits. On the eve of their departure for the front the first contingent of Kitchener’s Army were being photographed in droves, proud and a little self-conscious, for the benefit of their admiring families. Some enterprising firms set up make-shift studios at the gates of army camps and the newly fledged soldiers queued up to be photographed against teetering canvas backdrops of tasteful classical scenes. The exposure in daylight was necessarily long, the sitters emerged stiff and serious, but the results were mostly thought to be satisfactory and tens of thousands of photographs were proudly dispatched through the post or distributed personally on embarkation leave.
After the weary months of waiting, the impatient soldiers of Kitchener’s Army were only too glad to be marching out of camp, new rifles on their shoulders and slung beneath their packs the white linen bags of extra rations that marked them out as men bound for the front. The hour of departure was an ill-kept secret so there was always a good turn-out of well-wishers along the road, and even if civilians were not allowed into the railway station itself, the band that had played the departing warriors from camp was there on the platform to perform a farewell medley as they entrained for the journey. As the train got up steam the band invariably struck up the plaintive strains of ‘Home Sweet Home’ which, in the circumstances, was not an especially tactful choice, but the newly fledged Tommies, who had had quite enough of home sweet home during their long apprenticeship, were far too elated to observe the irony. Even officers renowned as martinets and drill-sergeants of terrifying mien succumbed to the excitement of the occasion and amazed their erstwhile victims by surging to the carriage windows to shake hands, to wish them luck and, wonder of wonders, to salute the cheering Tommies as the train moved off.
Between July and September more than one hundred and fifty battalions of Kitchener’s Army left for France. Not many of them had any experience of foreign travel and it was all strange and exciting. A hundred thousand letters home began in the same way,‘Dear Mother, I am living on a farm…’, but the homely picture this painted in the imaginations of families at home hardly fitted the reality, for the troops were not exactly living in comfort. But the farms of Flanders were ideally designed to house numbers of men and even if only the NCOs or occasionally the junior officers had the privilege of a room in the farmhouse itself, there was ample accommodation for the troops in the barns and pigsties that extended from both ends of the farmhouse and turned at right-angles to skirt a village road. In the middle of the square formed by the farm buildings there was invariably a muck-heap, an evil-smelling mixture of manure, rotting vegetation and the contents of crude privies which, over the course of the year, would mature to provide rich fertilizer for the fields in the spring. The Tommies skirted the middens with care and held their noses as they passed but after a time they got used to them.
At first while the divisions grouped they were a good way behind the firing line with only the grumble of guns in the distance to hint at what lay ahead, and across a hundred miles of France and Flanders every available building had been pressed into service to provide accommodation for the burgeoning British Army. The northernmost billet was in the farm and out-buildings of a Trappist monastery some miles beyond Ypres. If the silent monks moving imperturbably about their business in their white habits were disturbed by the presence of the British Tommies they gave no sign of it, and the Tommies of the headquarters troops, intrigued though they were by these strange companions, were only too happy to be there. It was a cushy billet, if only because the Trappists supported themselves by brewing a sweet beer, dark and strong, and since the normal channels of distribution had been disrupted, they were only too happy to sell it to the troops. The word soon spread and the men trudged long distances to buy beer from a hatch in the buttery wall. It kept them happy. The Battalion Medical Officer who was billeted in the monastery itself was less happy. He did not object to the sale of beer, but he took strong exception to the insalubrious pond which abutted the walls of the monastery. It was filthy, an obvious breeding ground for disease, and he was fearful of an epidemic among the troops. The Royal Engineers were peremptorily ordered to drain the pond and to remove the danger of infection. A few days later a notice appeared on the buttery hatch, laboriously written in English: ‘There Is No More Beer.’ The officers, who had also acquired a taste for Trappist beer, confronted the abbot. Why had the beer run out? The Trappists were a silent order and the abbot the only monk in the monastery with a dispensation to speak, but he was not a brilliant conversationalist. Unclasping his hands from his voluminous white sleeves, spreading wide his arms in a gesture of despair, he looked like some lugubrious bird of prey. ‘You have drained the pond,’ he said simply. There is no water to make beer. Therefore there is none.’ The MO was aghast. The Commanding Officer was consulted and the Royal Engineers were ordered to refill the pond, but to keep a close eye on future cleanliness. The beer flowed again – but some of the troops were heard to remark that it had lost something of its flavour!
After years of strict peacetime soldiering, some of the regular NCOs who had nurtured Kitchener’s battalions through their training and come with them to France brought with them ideas of disciplined cleanliness which were not entirely appropriate to the new circumstances. During one Battalion’s first tour of initiation in the trenches, one such sergeant went so far as to put a soldier on a charge for what he regarded as a heinous crime. The unfortunate Tommy was standing stiffly to attention when the Commanding Officer happened to come round the corner of the firing bay. ‘What’s the matter, Sergeant?’ he inquired. The sergeant was bursting with righteous indignation. There’s a fly in this man’s butter, sir!’ The Colonel peered into the tin of butter lying open on the fire-step. Sure enough, there was a fly. He gazed at it for some moments then, turning to the NCO, he bellowed, ‘Sergeant. Arrest that fly!’ The soldier did not dare to laugh, nor did he dare to catch the sergeant’s eye, but that was the end of the matter.
The fledgling soldiers of Kitchener’s Army were sent into supposedly quiet sectors for their first initiation but there was still occasional shell-fire and there were unavoidable ‘wind-ups’ when machine-guns spattered and bullets whizzed past too close for comfort. In such moments the voice of a sergeant-major which had terrified them on the parade ground, and his gruff phlegmatic ‘Steady lads,’ was decidedly reassuring. But Kitchener’s Army was no stranger to trenches. They had dug trenches the length and breadth of the country until they were sick of the sight of spades and sandbags. But on the hills and meadows at home they had dug undisturbed by the presence of the enemy. Even now the enemy was invisible and despite repeated warnings it was easy to be overconfident.
Pte. F. Bastable, 7th Bn., Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regt.), 55 Brig., 18 Div.
Trench digging. That’s what we were trained for. If we didn’t know anything else, we knew about digging trenches. In fact we won a prize for it, two of my mates and me. When we were training on Salisbury Plain our Colonel offered prize money for digging a quick trench, and me and two mates of mine won it. I think we got five shillings each. But it was a different story when we got to France, and one of those mates of mine, Bill Beckington, was one of our first casualties. We went down to the Somme area, and the first two casualties in the whole battalion oddly enough were two brothers, and they weren’t even killed by the enemy. We had no proper baths or anything, so we used to go in a stream or a river and try to keep clean and have a swim at the same time, and these two brothers went out too far in the middle of the river and got caught in the reeds in the bottom and they both got drowned. After that the first casualty was my mate. It wasn’t very nice. The trenches had been fired on and they’d broke them all up and we had to go in there and make them up tidy again with sandbags. This was right in the firing line so we both went in there, Bill and me, and one had to hold the sandbag open while the other filled it up. We were just arranging it between us, and thought nothing of it – we were well used to digging trenches so either he said, or I said, ‘You hold the sandbag open while I put the earth in.’ Anyway, when we’d filled a few, Bill went up on the top with the sandbag to where the hole was all broke down to make it up. I was down below while he was standing up doing it and the bullets started coming over. I said to him, ‘Look out, Bill, they’ve got you spotted!’ Well, he didn’t bob down quick enough. The bullet just missed me and went to the back of the trench, made my ears whistle, the noise of it, and the next moment before Bill could say anything he got it right in the head. It blew his head open and his brains was all coming out. I was right next to him and his brains covered my tunic like the roe out of a herring.
I didn’t know what to think. To think we’d got five bob for doing that job before, and now Bill was finished like that. I couldn’t believe it. We went up the same night with the padre and gave him a proper burial – all the mates went up to see him buried. It was the first burial in our battalion. The padre said the prayers and some lads let off a round over his grave, it was near la Boiselle, not far away, not far from where he was killed. I couldn’t get over it! The first man killed in the battalion and it was my own mate. And all we was doing was sorting out the trench.
Bill Beckington was one of many casualties and there was sometimes panic at home when parents who had indulgently connived at young boys joining under-age were shattered by news from France. Young Ralph Langley was not quite eighteen when his brotherCharlie died of wounds, and the first he knew of it was when he was called out by the sergeant-major on the parade ground shortly before the Battalion was due to sail.
Rfn. R. Langley, 16th Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
I was in the 16th Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps – the Church Lads Brigade. We’d all joined up together in our local branch and after months of training I was dying to get to France. We were just on the point of going. Then this particular morning when we were on parade, the Sergeant-Major called out my name. ‘Langley! Step forward!’ The Sergeant was glaring at me. He had a paper in his hand and he said, ‘Langley.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘How old are you, Langley?’ I said, ‘Nineteen, sir.’ He said, ‘You’re a bloody liar! I’ve got a letter here from your mother. You’re under-age – and you’re out!’
I was absolutely staggered. They didn’t send me home, but I can’t describe what it was like staying behind in the barracks and knowing the Battalion would be going without me! Of course I didn’t know at that moment my brother had been killed. My mother had got frightened, you see – realised I was in for it too, and she wasn’t going to have that. They gave me leave to go home, and then I had to go back to the barracks, and stay there. It was awful seeing the Battalion go off. I was miserable. Really fed up. Of course the time passed and I got older and I had to go in the end. I was lucky to get back to my original battalion, but so many of them had been knocked out on the Somme by the time I joined them that if I’d gone out when the others went I might not be here now.
From the start of the war the Church Lads Brigade, like the Boys’ Brigade and the Boy Scouts, was a fruitful source of recruits and many local branches like Ralph Langley’s had joined up as a body. It was natural that the lads who had not yet reached the statutory age for military service had no desire to be left behind. They had been positively encouraged to lie their way into the Army for although all such organisations laid stress on the virtues of upright manly honesty, the ideal of service and patriotism was no less important. Even in peacetime they were trained in rifle-drill and marching, not as a means of inspiring a belligerent attitude but because the founders saw these activities as a means of banding boys together and inculcating the all-important virtues of ‘obedience, reverence, discipline and self-respect’. The Boy Scouts’ more adventurous pursuits of tracking and patrolling had not included formal military drill, but scouting was also intended to instil the spirit of patriotism and duty that would impel young men to spring to the defence of their country in time of need and it was more than a year since the War Scouts’ Defence Corps had been formed. Thousands of scouts had joined it and even twelve-year-olds were enthusiastically training in rifle shooting, signalling, entrenching, army-drill, first aid and camp cooking, and busily preparing for the day when they too would be tall enough and strong enough (if not officially old enough) to exchange the khaki drill of the Boy Scouts’ uniform for the khaki of soldier of the King. Their founder, Lieutenant-General Baden Powell, had inaugurated the scheme, with the words, ‘An efficient boy of sixteen in the event of invasion would be worth a dozen grown-up men trained to do nothing in particular.’
Since the start of the war Boy Scouts had been permitted, indeed encouraged, to wear uniform to school and to undertake a variety of patriotic duties. They were to be seen everywhere, from the hallowed corridors of Government offices where relays of boys were acting as messengers, to the forecourts of railway stations or cycling along country lanes in the self-appointed pursuit of suspicious characters who might be German spies, frequently causing annoyance to innocent citizens going about their lawful business. But the zeal of the Boy Scouts was not easily diminished. They were mainly affluent youngsters, for the uniform in which they took such pride was not cheap. The less well off were more inclined to join fraternities whose ‘uniform’ of cap and belt was more easily affordable and in recent months there had been a huge upsurge in the number of boys aged twelve to eighteen who had enrolled in all such organisations. But a universal source of inspiration for both rich and poor alike was the Boy’s Own Paper, which was avidly read, even at third or fourth hand, by almost every literate boy in the land. For thirty years it had been a firm favourite, packed with thrilling adventure stories, with articles on science, on new inventions, on hobbies and leisure pursuits, and it was imbued with a healthy ‘moral tone’ that extolled the virtues of heroism and nobility, well-spiced with the thrills and danger that appealed to a boyish sense of adventure. With the advent of the war the ‘moral tone’ had soared higher than ever. Out went the jungle adventures, the narrow escapes from ferocious beasts, the quelling of treacherous native tribes, the tales of derring-do in remote outposts of the Empire. In came the young heroes, the barbarous guttural Germans, the noble martyred French, wicked Zeppelin crews, vile and devious spies. They featured in dozens of exciting lurid sagas to be rescued or outwitted, as appropriate, by a virtuous schoolboy hero. A favourite character was the master whose post as teacher of German in an educational establishment was merely a cloak for hisnefarious activities as a spy. It was always a public school, and the public school ethic with its stern message of moral duty oozed across every page and filtered through more mundane levels of society to impressionable schoolboys everywhere. So far as the Boy’s Own Paper was concerned they were all ‘England’s Boys’, and they were left in no doubt that a great deal was expected of them.
On many a college playing-field,
All fleet of foot, and strong of hand,
They speed the ball, the bat they wield,
And win the victory they have planned.
Across the sward they run the race,
The air is full of happy noise;
Supple of limb, and bright of face,
The pride of our country, England’s boys.
Hope of our country, England’s pride,
Boyhood of Britain, true and brave;
Where’er the sun shall travel wide,
Across the lands, above the wave,
The world shall know not, shall not trace
In Athens’ story, Sparta’s, Troy’s,
A fairer breed, a nobler race,
Than the pride of our country, England’s boys!
Under the circumstances, and under such a flattering depiction of their worth, even readers in Scotland, Ireland, or Wales were only too happy to be regarded as ‘England’s boys’ for the duration.
Those who allowed their minds to stray from the obligations demanded of them by the war to the wider question of civilian careers were dealt with briskly in the correspondence columns which, in the past, had been a willing source of advice: ‘We would help you if we could but due to the War there are no examinations for the most promising of the suggested careers. Your best plan is to join the Army and when the War is over you will have no difficulty in finding an opening’ And again: ‘You can get all the information you require at the nearest recruiting office. Go there at once. Your country needs you!’
The editor adopted a milder tone with the many anxious readers who pleaded for advice on developing puny muscles or even increasing their height in order to reach the standards required by the Army. A few eager correspondents were barely in their teens but, as the editor wrote with kindly encouragement, ‘You cannot begin too soon’ It was hardly surprising that so many impressionable readers of these high-minded sentiments had inveigled their way into the Army well below the minimum age and in almost every battalion of Kitchener’s Army there were baby-faced soldiers, sometimes as young as fifteen.
Bill Worrell, who had never been nearer the playing-fields of Eton than a boat trip on the Thames near his home in Isleworth, had joined up starry eyed at the age of seventeen and suffered the humiliation of having his mother arrive at camp to fetch him home. Since Bill had merely left a note of farewell on the kitchen table it had taken the distracted Mrs Worrell some days to track him down and by then Sergeant Hubbard had taken a liking to him.
Rfn. W. Worrell.
Sid Hubbard had been in the Oxfordshire Constabulary. He was a man who looked every inch a sergeant-major – he had a waxed moustache and he was over six feet, and big with it. He must have weighed all of eighteen stone and he had a very commanding manner, but beneath it all he was a very decent bloke. I don’t know how my mother found her way to me, I think it was just chance, because the platoon was marching along, or trying to march, and suddenly there she was! She wanted to haul me out there and then and take me with her to see the Colonel. It was the very early days of the war, before we had uniforms or anything, and Sid Hubbard had been made our section commander and put in charge of our tent. So he took my mother aside and he spoke to her and I don’t know how he did it but he talked her round. He said, ‘Well, let him stay. We’ll look after him.’ He knew I was a kid and he always did keep an eye on me. He always called me Willie. To everyone else I was Bill. Before we left for France he was promoted Sergeant-Major and he was very regimental. In fact he was disliked by many blokes because he was so regimental, but he was a good sort – to me anyway.
Under the benevolent eye of Sergeant Hubbard, Bill had survived the training and emerged as a fully fledged member of the Rifle Brigade. In mid-August he had been in France for over a month and he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Rfn. W. Worrell.
When we went into the trenches at first at Laventie it was fine. Every part of the line wasn’t blood and shells and fighting and many parts were comfortable, cushy we called it. You just sat around in the trench and nobody wanted to do anything. The people on the other side were said to be Saxons and they didn’t want any trouble, so we all just carried on and it was all very new and interesting to us, and very, very novel.
When we came out of the line it was delightful, and of course I was top dog, because I had my schoolboy French and these other lads hadn’t any French at all, so when we got into the estaminets and other places, I could do the shopping for them and go into the patisserie and the grocer and get grub, which they couldn’t do. My platoon was in the racing stables and the concrete floor was a bit hard for sleeping on, but opposite the billet was the estaminet and the daughter, Julie, was the serving maid. Julie was really ‘magnifique’ – a big buxom girl with beautiful curves. She was nearly six feet tall and she must have weighed about twelve stone with a figure about 48–38–48 – inches of course, just like an hour-glass! Well, my fighting-weight was about seven stone, but I was first favourite with Julie, because I could talk to her and she could understand what I was saying, so when she was in difficulties with the troops she used to call on me to interpret. She used to call me her ‘petit anglais’ and her mother occasionally invited me into the kitchen for a bowl of soup after closing time, so I was in clover. We had a very pleasant sort of comradeship. Also I was young then and I wasn’t taking the liberties that the other fellows were taking. Most of these chaps were crude. They thought all Frenchwomen were very loose women and of course the women didn’t wear any underclothes. That was found out pretty quickly and the fellows used to take wicked liberties with Julie, patting her bottom under her skirt and that sort of thing. They didn’t do anything worse than that, but that was their game.
One pay day the estaminet was packed and Julie had to squeeze her way through the benches to serve the drinks. One chap, who was a real cad called Shaughnessey, was sitting opposite me and, as Julie passed, he put his hand under her skirt and patted her bare bottom on my side. Julie put the glasses down and without turning round to look she threw a vicious back-hander that caught me behind the ear and I went sprawling on the floor. Shaughnessey was roaring his head off thinking he’d got away with it. Of course immediately Julie had twigged what had happened she picked me up and then let rip at Shaughnessey, hit him over the head with her tray and then pushed him under the table and kicked him. That wiped the silly grin off his face! It was pandemonium. Poor Julie looked at my swelling ear and was ‘desolé’. She knew that I wouldn’t do such a dirty trick – at least, not in public – so, having put Shaughnessey in his place, she took me to Mama in the kitchen, who sat me in the best chair and said I must rest awhile and stay for soup. Well, I suppose I did put it on a bit, but feminine sympathy was in very short supply in France.
It was closing time and I could hear Julie chucking the troops out. Mama began filling the soup bowls and I began rubbing my turn in anticipation. Then, of all the blasted bad luck, in came the Provost Sergeant, Tim Arley. He was a big raw ex-Irish Guardsman who fancied his luck with Julie and he used to use his exalted rank to get into the kitchen after closing time. When he saw me sitting there he went berserk – grabbed me by the collar and the seat of my trousers and literally threw me through the back door into the stinking midden in the courtyard. I scrambled out, smelling of non-violets! But I had the small satisfaction of hearing Julie roaring that he was a big ugly cochon who was no longer welcome in Mama’s house. I almost felt like going back to interpret that for him! I scraped off the worst of the muck but it was days before even my best friends would come anywhere near me. The sequel came when I met Tim Arley at the reunion dinner in 1921. I gave him a nasty look and reminded him that he had insulted me in front of a lady in 1915. He pretended not to remember but as I turned away he said, ‘Phew. There’s a terrible whiff of a midden here all of a sudden.’ That did it! ‘Choose your weapons,’ I said. ‘Right,’ said he, ‘one pint of bitter and thank you very much.’ What could you do with a man so lacking in decency! Anyway, he was out of luck with Julie – he told me she never spoke to him again as long as he was at Laventie.
Compared to the innocent enthusiasts of Kitchener’s Army now pouring into France, men like Frank Moylan who had been at the front for several months were old hands, but, although the new men had a lot to learn and it would be months before hard seasoning would turn them in the eyes of the Army into useful soldiers, even now the Army was glad of them. There was a lot more territory to cover. The British had now taken over a line that stretched across the downlands of the Somme to meet the right of the French Tenth Army, and on its left they had extended their front from the la Bassée Canal across the coal-fields where the trenches ran among spoil-heaps and mining villages. In front of the trenches of the 47th London Division was the looming black pile they called the Double Crassier.
Cpl, F. Moylan, 1/7th (City of London), Bn., London Regt., 140 Brig., 47 Div.
Let me explain the position of the front line. There was a communication trench leading back to the mining village, a sort of model place, with a brick wall round it and a hole had been knocked in the wall, that’s where the communication trench ended, and there were all the miners’ cottages there. There was a wide road and these cottages were on a slope each side, most of them with the furniture still in, and little gardens, and if you were in support you were in these houses. We had a company commander, Captain Green, and we used to think he was a bit of a martinet. These cottages had red-tiled floors and he made us clean them while we were in there. Of course you couldn’t move out in the daytime, and it kept us occupied, but they had an obsession about cleanliness, these officers. Even the brigadier, Brigadier-General Cuthbert, ordered brooms to be taken from these houses up to the front line and we had to actually sweep the trenches! And not only that, but there was a sandbag pinned up in each fire-bay, stuck to the side of the trench with a spent cartridge, and this was for rubbish to keep the trench tidy. We used to call him ‘Spit-and-Polish Cuthbert!’ That was his nick-name. Of course, in the summer months when it was comparatively dry it was easier to keep the trenches in good order than it was later on when we had all the mud.
Anyway, when you were in support you were back in these cottages and they all had gardens and they were full of soft fruit, blackcurrants, raspberries, gooseberries, and naturally we wanted to get at them. The only way you could do that was to open the back door and lie flat on your tummy and crawl down the garden and reach up for the fruit. You couldn’t stand up because it was on a slight slope and the slope faced the German line and the wall didn’t hide you because you were above the wall because of the slope. If you stood up you could see the German trench, but nobody was fool enough to stand up. We used to crawl out into the garden when the officers weren’t about to gather this fruit. There were young carrots too and young turnips and they were all just about right, and we used to pull them up and cook them. Of course we couldn’t make smoke, but sometimes we got hold of dry fuel that would flame and if we had none and we could get hold of newspaper that would do. (I discovered you could boil water and make tea on one newspaper. You would roll it up and twist it round into tight sticks and that was one useful thing I learnt. I can still do it!) It was fairly quiet there in August so long as you didn’t attract the attention of the Germans, but I had one nasty experience. I wasn’t company runner, but this day when we were in the front line I had to take a message back to Battalion Headquarters which was in these cottages, a beautiful sunny day it was. I went along this communication trench and I was coming to that hole in the wall and all of a sudden about six whizz-bangs came – one after the other. Not one of them dropped in the trench, just nearby, but by Jove, that made me lie low for a bit. After it was quiet I got up, started going along a bit and it happened once more. Still they didn’t drop one in the trench. Then it suddenly dawned on me. They were very profligate with their ammunition and there were balloons, observers, and if they saw some movement it was the old idea: ‘If it moves, shoot it.’ I was extremely careful about my movements until I got through that hole, believe me, and I was very careful indeed going back again.
Not far ahead of the trenches, easily visible on rising land behind the German line, was the small mining village of Loos. It was an insignificant place, familiar to no one but the local inhabitants of the region, but within a few weeks the name of Loos would be blazoned in the headlines of newspapers round the world. It was here among the pit-heads and the slag-heaps that the British Army was to make its next desperate push.
The planners were busy but it was summertime and although the August weather was unpredictable and a few warm days were often succeeded by a period of rain and thunder storms, the intermittent sunshine was heartening. Barnyard billets, so draughty and inhospitable in winter and chilly spring, were pleasantly cool on summer days. Drilling, parades and route-marches, endured with sullen stoicism in inclement weather, seemed less arduous, and off-duty in the long pleasant evenings even Tommies with nothing to spend in the local estaminets could pass the time pleasantly enough lounging in a field, leaning on a farm gate, or strolling in the pleasant countryside. Some even helped gather in the sumptuous harvest and the women and girls who had been left to run farms single-handed were happy to repay them with an acceptable jug of cider or rough wine. And there were entertainments. Most battalions out of the line took the opportunity of holding traditional field days and sports days just as they did in peacetime and they kept the troops amused and in high spirits.
2nd Lt. F. Best.
The greasy pole over the corner of a muddy pond afforded great mirth, the competitors being dressed in the regulation Army Service Corps swimming costume of honest underpants. The entire population of the village formed up round the water to spectate. The most shouting event of all, however, was the band race. Here all the players were formed up at the starting point and were handicapped according to the nature of their instruments. Triangle and cymbals started at scratch, tuba well forward, and so on, with the big drum ahead. The conductor started them all playing ‘Come Lasses and Lads’ which is the Staffs march-past and he instructed them to continue until I dropped my stick. I let the bandsmen play on for at least fifteen bars or so, and on dropping the stick at an unexpected moment, the whole mass moved forward at a run while the harmony groaned and slid all over the scale. I was doubled up with laughing at this point, but I learnt that the tenor trombone just overhauled the big drum in the last five yards! Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.
With so many more men in France baths were becoming a problem but the Army did its best. They had commandeered breweries up and down the line where as many as a dozen men at a time could bathe in relays in the great vats filled with warmish water and until now it had been possible to provide each man with a bath once every week or ten days. Now, with so many more battalions demanding bathing facilities, the troops were lucky if their turn for a bath came round once a month. It was a sore trial for the Tommies emerging hot and sticky and dirty from a stint in the fly-ridden trenches to take up temporary abode in a fly-ridden farm where the scent of the farmyard midden could be cut with a knife. The 6th South Staffs solved the problem by using the only facilities that were readily available on the farm. One officer had the idea of lining a farm cart with a haystack tarpaulin and filled it with water from the farm pump. The ‘bath’ could only hold three men, four at most, and they were not exactly able to wallow in comfort. It took a long, long time for the men of even a single company to be bathed, the water got blacker and blacker and had to be frequently changed, but at least they were able to scrape off the worst of the dirt and it was marginally better than nothing.
In spite of the sticky heat in the narrow confines of the earthen walls and the discomfort of sudden rain storms that at least had the minor advantage of temporarily laying the dust, life in the trenches between bombardments passed quite pleasantly in the summer months. Tommies with no immediate task to perform could lounge and slumber on the warm firestep or, taking a turn as look-out, gaze through the trench periscope discreetly poked above the sandbags across the desolate expanse of No Man’s Land where the weeds and long grass mercifully hid the bodies of the dead, to that other mysterious line of sandbags that marked the parapets of the enemy trenches.
Capt. F. O. Langley, 6th Bn. (TF), South Staffs Regt., 137 Brig., 46 Div.
Our predominant feeling is one of intense curiosity as to what exactly is happening behind those black and white sandbags over the way. Are the Germans at this moment paraded there, being harangued by their officers before attack? Or are 90 per cent of them asleep and the other 10 per cent yawning. Does the spiral of blue smoke ascending to the sunny heavens indicate a deadly gas preparation or the warming up of a tinned lunch? Are there ten thousand Germans there or ten? One of my men writes naively to his sweetheart: ‘There’s millions of Germans here, but they’s all behind bags.’ On the other hand Lieutenant Collinson, whose dashing spirits demand an attack, contends that the whole line opposing us has been deserted by the soldiery and is now held by a caretaker and his wife. The caretaker does occasional shooting while his wife sends up the flares.
The tenderfoot Tommies of Kitchener’s Army were just as fascinated by the German line, and there was brisk competition for a turn at the periscope. It was weeks before the novelty began to pall and the existence of the invisible Germans was taken for granted.
Occasionally in the quietest sectors there were visitors – curious politicians during the parliamentary recess and once, to the astonishment of the Tommies, a party of bell-bottomed sailors, fresh-faced from service in His Majesty’s ships, brought on a conducted tour of the front with the idea of increasing esprit de corps between the services by giving the sailors a glimpse of life in the trenches. It did not appeal to them much and they were not slow to assure the Tommies that they were welcome to it. There were parties of civilians from factories, cloth-capped and taciturn, for it was part of Lloyd George’s strategy as Minister of Munitions to organise tours of the front for representative groups of trade union leaders and munition workers. Nothing, he calculated, was more likely to inspire industrial workers to eschew strikes and spur them to greater efforts than the opportunity to see for themselves how badly munitions were needed.
The supply of ammunition had improved, but only slightly, and now that the British troops were committed to fighting another great battle on the western front, more – much more – was needed. But after the huge expenditure of shells in the defence of Ypres and the assaults on Aubers Ridge and Festubert, the stocks in France were building up again. This time there should be enough. And this time there would be a new weapon. The Germans’ use of gas, although it was loudly denounced by the civilised world, had swept away the rules which the allies had rigidly observed. Now the game was tit-for-tat, and the British Army was preparing to give the Germans a taste of their own medicine. Early in August they began to issue the troops with new gas-helmets that were vastly superior to the earlier primitive model – a simple bag of flannel shirting worn tucked into the collar of the tunic and with a ‘window’ of transparent mica. It had not been particularly satisfactory. The mica eyepiece had been prone to crack and admit fumes and the helmet itself was suffocating after more than a few minutes, but the new pattern was an improvement. It had glass goggles instead of the mica panel and a tube to breath through, or rather to exhale through for the breath had to be drawn in through the nose and blown out through the tube. This was a tricky operation and the technique took some practice to perfect. To the delight of the Tommies of Kitchener’s Army the tube had an unfortunate tendency to produce noises of suggestive vulgarity which convulsed the schoolboy element in the irreverent ranks.
Pte. F. Gowland, 10th Bn., Worcestershire Regt., 57 Brig., 19 Div.
We were on one of those alleged rests when gas-bag no. 3 was issued, and of course, in the interests of military discipline, gas-mask drill by numbers was the order of the day. Our sergeant was a man called Rawlings, one of those gentlemen with a very red face, a large moustache and a pronounced ‘chest’ hung low. He always seemed rather short of breath, but Sergeant Rawlings liked things done right, and having been initiated into the mysteries of the new gas-drill he proceeded to give us a demonstration. First he showed us the motions in excellent style. Unfortunately however he managed to end up with the wretched thing on backwards and of course this produced an immediate epidemic of mirth in the company. The sergeant snatched off his mask, roared for silence and growled threats about insubordination, but noticing that the Company Commander was approaching he started again. This time he got it right and breathed as he had carefully instructed us. His first inhalation produced a deep growl, ‘ur—r—rgh’,followed as he exhaled through the tube by an extremely high and wavering ‘peep’ and finally there was a barrage of ‘urghs’ and ‘peeps’ as he struggled to get it right. The officer looked startled, and beat a hasty retreat in the direction of the mess. Seeing that his demonstration was not being taken in quite the right spirit, Sergeant Rawlings got completely out of tune and lost his grip on the mouthpiece and the whole bag began to inflate and deflate violently. Our demoralisation was now complete and we were doubled up with laughing. The sergeant unmasked hurriedly and gave us a right dressing-down.
When order was restored the whole company donned their masks and the resulting musical effect was beyond description! Every valve seemed to have some peculiar characteristic. Some made a deep gurgle, others a shrill scream, and the snorts and grunts and wails had to be heard to be believed. Poor Sergeant Rawlings. That parade was doomed to failure. But we got the hang of it in the end.
For months now every Battalion Headquarters had been inundated with orders demanding the transfer of men with special skills, now serving in the ranks, who could be more usefully employed elsewhere. GHQ had trawled for mining engineers, for telephonists, for draughtsmen and cartographers, for blacksmiths, carpenters, for men who were qualified in dozens of trades or professions. Now, in the hope of starting up gas manufacturing plants in France, or even floating plants offshore, they were demanding chemists. In the 4th Gordon Highlanders and in U Company alone there were at least half a dozen chemists, but once again the Colonel put his foot down and barked, ‘Nil return’. The weary Adjutant, sick of the usual formula, relieved his feeling by sending a sarcastic reply to Divisional Headquarters: ‘Unable to supply chemists, but we have a contortionist if required.’ Someone at Divisional Headquarters had a sense of humour and the answering signal put the Adjutant on the spot. ‘Contortionist is ordered to report forthwith for duty with Divisional Concert Party.’ But the Adjutant had the last word: ‘Regret contortionist was wounded last night and has been evacuated.’
Not many officers of the administrative branch of the Army had time to indulge in facetious banter. They were working at full stretch with the reshuffling and reorganisation of divisions as more and more men arrived and with the formation of new ones. In August, after the arrival of some second-line battalions and the newly formed Welsh Guards, it was at last possible to create a division formed exclusively of Guards battalions. Delighted though the Guards battalions were there were some sad partings. Since their arrival nine months earlier the 1st Battalion, the Hertfordshire Regiment, had been serving and fighting with the 4th Guards Brigade and as ‘mere’ Territorials they were extremely proud of the fact.
CQMSG. Fisher, 1st Bn. (TF), Hertfordshire Regt., 6 Brig., 2 Div.
We arrived in France on 5 November, Guy Fawkes Day, right in the middle of the First Battle of Ypres, and of course we ended up in that battle before it finished. But at first we had no idea where we were going. We went up by train to St Omer and the rumour was that we were picked to be bodyguards to the Commander-in-Chief, because St Omer was General Head-quarters. But we were spread out in billets round the town and after a few days drilling and so on, we were told that we were to make a practice attack across some fields. There were ever so many officers there to watch us, all mounted, some of them with red tabs. What had happened was this. The old English formation for a Brigade was three Battalions, but to line up with French formations our Brigades were increased to four Battalions and the 4th Guards Brigade needed another Battalion to make them up. So the Brigade Commander, and the Divisional Commander, who was Major-General Home, had come to look us over to see us doing this attack and to see if we were any good. Of course, we only found this out afterwards. Anyway we did this practice attack and they were there with our Colonel and all these officers from GHQ, and they watched us march in and they watched us do this dummy attack. Apparently we hadn’t been at it very long when the General of the Guards Brigade said to our Colonel, ‘Well, they’re good enough for me. They’ll do. I’ll have them.’ Next day we left to join them at Ypres, and before we went we had a parade and our Colonel spoke to us and told us about this and said what an honour it was and that he hoped that we would live up to it, etc. etc. So there we were in the 4th Guards Brigade, which was the 2nd Battalion Coldstreams, the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards – and us,the 1st Battalion the Hertfordshire Regiment. Territorials! I think we did prove ourselves. I think they thought a lot of us. The Guards were marvellous soldiers but I reckon we kept up with them. They used to call us the ‘Herts Guards’. The Guards had been well blooded by the time we got there because they’d been through Mons and the battles after that, but that was the first a lot of them had seen of fighting service even though they were well trained and well disciplined.
Everyone has the idea of a Guardsman, but they were human like the rest of us. I remember during the Battle of Festubert the Guards Brigade attacked and we happened to be the supporting battalion in the brigade and we had to follow in. The Guards took two lines of trenches and we had to go in after them and occupy and hold the trenches they’d taken. The Germans had been overrun as the Guards went forward and some of them were in shell-holes and they were sniping at us as we came up. One of the snipers caught my officer, Lieutenant Daish, and the bullet went through one side of his jaw and out the other, so he was out of it. I was platoon sergeant then so I had to take over the platoon and carry it through the Battle of Festubert, so we went in to occupy these Germans trenches that the Guards had just taken while the Guards went on moving forward. That was the holding line. If the Germans attacked we’d got to keep them back. These are our trenches now. You don’t have them!’ That was the idea. I went into one of the dug-outs and I found two Germans in there and one was fairly badly wounded and the other, strange to say, was a Swede. Lots of people don’t know that during the First World War the Swedes were very favourably disposed to the Germans. I said to the Swede, ‘What the hell are you doing in the German Army?’ He said, Τ believe they’re in the right.’ Anyway I got some stretcher-bearers up and they made this Swede carry the wounded German back. That was the routine.
Now, I don’t always like to tell this, but it’s perfectly true. I went further along and looked into the next dug-out and there was a Guardsman in there. They talk about the psychology of fear. He was a perfect example. I can see that Guardsman now! His face was yellow, he was shaking all over, and I said to him, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Your battalion is out in front. What are you doing back here?’ He said, ‘I can’t go. I can’t do it. I daren’t go!’ Now, I was pretty ruthless in those days and I said to him, ‘Look, I’m going up the line and when I come back if you’re still here I’ll bloody well shoot you!’ Of course I had plenty to do because you had to reconnoitre the line and reverse the defences, so it took quite a while to get that going, and when I came back, thank God, he’d gone. He was a Coldstream. A big chap six foot tall. He’d got genuine shell-shock. We didn’t realise that at the time. We used to think it was cowardice but we learned later on that there was such a thing as shell-shock. Poor chap, he couldn’t help it. It could happen to anybody. But at that time you either did your job or you didn’t. There was no halfway house. I’ve seen chaps go, but I’ve never seen anybody go like that. It was horrible. A day or two later we heard that a Guardsman had been shot for cowardice. I often wondered if it was that chap.
But the Guards were wonderful soldiers – marvellous, second to none! Still I think we proved ourselves. I think they thought a lot of us.
A few nights before they left the 2nd Division the Grenadier Guards gave a dinner in Béthune to bid farewell to the divisional staff and Colonel Page-Croft of the 1st Herts was a guest of honour. There were many speeches and many toasts – not least to the ‘Herts Guards’. The Colonel of the Grenadier Guards proposed it in a speech of fulsome praise and Colonel Page-Croft made a suitable reply, but he could not resist concluding with the words, ‘I suppose now we will have to go and try to raise the standard of some other Brigade.’ This remark was greeted at first with boos and cat-calls, but then the Guards rose to their feet and applauded for a full two minutes.
On 19 August the three Guards Battalions marched away. The route was lined with detachments from the remaining battalions of the 2nd Division but, as Colonel Page-Croft proudly remarked, ‘A company of the Herts was given pride of place.’ General Home in command of the 2nd Division took the salute, and the brass band played a rousing medley of military marches to speed the Guards on their way. The Hertfordshire men cheered louder than anyone else as the three Guards battalions marched past and they were more than gratified when the Colonel of the Grenadiers gave the ‘Eyes right’ as his battalion approached and saluted them as they went.
The Territorials had earned their spurs. All of them had done well, and more than well. It was no exaggeration to say that the war would have gone badly without them. But the war went on. Their task was not over but henceforth, with more men in the field, it would be lightened. As the summer crept towards autumn the strength of the British force on the western front was substantially increased and the Commander-in-Chief kept an eye on the swelling numbers with satisfaction. His command was beginning to look something like an army.