CHAPTER II

STRAIGHT TO THE FRONT

The Machine Gun Section, having its own transport, traveled via Southampton, as there were better facilities for loading horses and wagons there than at the ports from which the remainder of the troops embarked. After we had everything aboard ship it was an even bet among the crowd as to whether we were going to France, the Dardanelles or Mesopotamia. There were other ships there, loading just as we were, some of which were known to be destined for the eastern theater; so how could we know? As a matter of fact, our officers did not know any more about it than the men.

On the dock I discovered a box containing blank post-cards given out by “The Missions to Seamen.” I wrote one to my mother and stuck it in a mail-box, on the chance that it _might_ go through. I had no stamps and didn’t really expect it to be taken up, but some one “with a heart” inscribed on it “O. H. M. S.,” and, sure enough, On His Majesty’s Service it went, straight to Indianapolis.

After having everything nicely stowed in the hold, Sandy McNab and I had to go down and dig out a couple of guns to mount on deck. It required quite a lot of acrobatic stunts to get down in the first place and then to get the guns and ammunition up, but we managed to finish the job just before dark and got the guns mounted, mine on the starboard and Sandy’s on the port side, before we steamed out. It was a black drizzly night and the cold wind cut like a knife, but we “stood to” until dawn, expecting anything or nothing. After an hour or so we didn’t care much what happened.

Everything was dark, not a light showing aboard ship or elsewhere until, about midnight, I saw a glow on the horizon, nearly dead ahead. As the ship’s lookouts said nothing, I did likewise, but I assure you I was mightily puzzled. I knew we could not be near enough to shore to see a lighthouse and, anyway, there was too much light for any ordinary shore signal. I finally concluded that it must be a ship burning and wondered what we would do about it, but the thing gradually took on the appearance of a gigantic Christmas tree and then I felt sure that I was going “plumb nutty.” I sneaked over to McNab’s side and found him in about the same frame of mind. We were both too proud to ask questions, so we simply stood there and watched–what do you suppose?–_a hospital ship!_ lighted from water line to truck with hundreds of electric lights; strings of them running from mast-head to mast-head and dozens along the sides, fitted with reflectors to throw the light down so as to show the broad green stripe which is prescribed by the Geneva Convention. Then we both laughed. Little did we think then that we would both be coming back to “Blighty” on just such a ship; Sandy within a few weeks and I more than a year later.

Before daylight we picked up a string of beacons, red and white, and dropped anchor. As soon as it was light we could see the harbor of Le Havre. I had been there before and recognized it quickly enough. Then we knew that France was our destination.

After waiting for the proper stage of the tide, the anchor was weighed, and with a lot of fussy little tugs buzzing about, now pushing at one end and then scurrying around to give a pull at the other, we finally tied up to the dock at our appointed place and prepared to disembark. The docks were thronged with men, mostly in some sort of uniform and all busy. Many of the French soldiers were wearing the old uniforms of blue and red, while others were clothed in corduroy. The new “horizon blue” had not yet been adopted. There were many English soldiers, mostly elderly men of the so-called “Navvie’s Battalions,” but among all the others, was quite a number whose uniform was the subject for much speculation until some one happened to notice that they were always working in groups and were, invariably, accompanied by a _poilu_ carrying a rifle with bayonet fixed. It was our first sight of German prisoners and it gave us a genuine thrill. The war was coming closer to us every minute.

Disembarking was nothing more than common, every-day, hard labor, relieved, occasionally, by the antics of some of the horses that did not want to go down the steep narrow gangway. It was the devil’s own job to get them aboard in the first place and equally difficult to persuade them to go ashore. Such perversity, I have noticed, is not confined to horses: the average soldier can give exhibitions of it that would shame the wildest mustang.

We had been living, since leaving Sandling, on “bully beef” and biscuits, but here on the dock we found one of those wonderful little coffee canteens, maintained and operated by one of the many thousands of noble English women who, from the beginning of the war, have managed, God knows how, always to be at the right place at the right time, to cheer the soldier on his way; working, apparently, night and day, to hand out a cup of hot coffee or tea or chocolate to any tired and dirty Tommy who happened to come along. If you have any money, you pay a penny; if you are broke, it doesn’t make the least bit of difference; you get your coffee just the same, and the smile that always accompanies the service is as cheerful and genuine in the one case as in the other. Many women of the oldest and most aristocratic families of England have given, and are still giving, not only their money but their personal labor to this work; making sandwiches, boiling tea, yes, and washing the dishes, too, day after day and month after month. You do not often hear of them; they are too busy to advertise. But Tommy knows and I venture the assertion that no single sentence or “slogan” has been as often used among the soldiers in France as “God bless the women.”

So we finally got everything off, wagons loaded and teams hitched up, and about mid-afternoon made our way through the quaint old city to a “rest camp” on the outskirts where we had time to wash and shave and eat another biscuit before we received orders that we were to march, at midnight, and entrain at Station No.–. It commenced to rain about this time and never let up until we had entrained the next morning.

That was a night of horrors. Sloshing through the mud, over unknown roads and streets, soaked to the skin. Oh! well, it was a very good initiation for what was to follow, all right, all right.

Polite language is not adequate to describe the loading of our train: getting all the wagons on the dinky little flat-cars and the horses aboard. The horses fared better than the men for, while they were only eight to a car, we were forty or more; and in the same kind of cars, too. They look like our ordinary cattle cars but are only about one-half as big. Forty men, with full equipment, have some difficulty to crowd into one, let alone to sit or lie down. And, of course, everything we had was soaked through. When I come to think of it, the strangest thing about the whole business was that there were no genuine complaints. The usual “grousing,” of course, without which no soldier could remain healthy, but I never heard a word that could have been taken to indicate that any one was really unhappy. While we were loading, our cooks had managed to make up a good lot of hot tea and that helped some. We also got an issue of cheese and more bully and biscuits and, after filling up on these, everybody joined in a “sing-song” which continued for hours.

This subject of soldier’s songs would make an interesting study for a psychologist. Not being versed in this science I can only note some of the peculiarities which impressed me from time to time.

The first thing that one notices is the fact that the so-called soldier’s songs, written by our multitudinous army of “popular” song-smiths to catch the fleeting-fancy of the patriotically aroused populace, are conspicuous by their absence. No matter how great a popularity they may achieve among the home-folk and even the embryo soldiers, during the early days of their training, they seldom survive long enough to become popular with the soldiers in the field. When in training, far away from the field of battle, soldiers appear very fond of all the “Go get the Kaiser” and “On to Berlin” stuff and are not at all averse to complimenting themselves on their heroism and invincibility, with specific declarations of what they are going to do. Sort of “Oh, what a brave boy I am,” you know. But as they come closer to the real business of war, while their enthusiasm and determination may be not a whit less, they become more reserved and less prone to self-advertisements; so, as they _must_ sing something, they fall back on the old-timers, such as _Annie Laurie_ or _My Old Kentucky Home_ when they feel particularly sentimental, and for marching songs, any nonsensical music-hall jingle with a “swing” to it will serve.

Our crowd was what might be called “a regular singing bunch” and had a large and varied repertoire, including everything from religious hymns to many of that class of peculiar soldier’s songs which although vividly expressive and appropriate to the occasion are, unfortunately, not for publication. Among the most popular were _The Tulip and the Rose_, _Michigan_ and _There’s a Long, Long Trail Awinding_, together with several local compositions set to such airs as _John Brown’s Body_ and _British Grenadiers_. You might hear _Onward, Christian Soldier_ sandwiched between some of the worst of the “bad ones” or _Calvary_ followed by _The Buccaneers_. You never heard that last one, and never will, unless you “go for a soldier.”

I’ve heard men singing doleful songs, such as _I Want to Go Home_, when everything was bright and cheerful with no sign of war, and I have heard them, in the midst of the most deadly combat, shouting one of Harry Lauder’s favorites, as _I Love a Lassie_. I once saw a long line “going over the top” in the gray of the morning, and when they had got lined up, outside the wire, and started on their plodding journey which is the “charge” of now-a-days, one waved to his neighbor who happened to be on a slight ridge above him and sang out: “You tak the High Road an’ I’ll tak the Low Road.” And immediately the song spread up and down the line; even above the tremendous roar of the guns you could hear that battalion going into action to the tune of _Loch Lomond_.

So, you see, there is a difference between “songs about soldiers” and “soldier’s songs,” the latter being the ones he sings because they appeal to his fancy and the former including the long and constantly growing list of cheaply-sentimental airs intended for home consumption. The difference between the two classes is as great as that between war as it really is and war as the people at home think it is. This is a difference which will never be understood by any excepting those who have been over there. Those so unfortunate as to be unable to learn it at first hand will be forever ignorant of the real meaning of war. There is no language which can adequately describe it; no artist can paint it; no imagination can conceive it. It is just short of the knowledge of one who has died and returned to life. So, by all means, let us have songs if they serve to cheer or amuse any one, whether at home or abroad.

It will probably do the soldier no harm to have people think he is a “little tin god on wheels” any more than it will hurt him to be belittled by the sickly mollycoddling name of “Sammie,” no matter how deeply he resents it. It is astonishing to me that our newspapers persist in the use of this appellation in the face of the fact, which they should know, that it is obnoxious to the American soldier himself. Would they call a Canadian or Australian or Scotch soldier a “Tommy”? If they do, I advise them to hide out and do it by telephone. Such sobriquets, to be of any real value, must come spontaneously; perhaps by accident; possibly conferred by an enemy. They can never be “invented.”

But, to get back to our story. This country through which we passed is an historical pageant,–from the very port of Harfleur, which figures largely in the stories of both Norman and English invasion, all the way up the valley of the Seine. Who could see Rouen, for the first time, without experiencing a thrill of sentiment as the memories of Jeanne d’Arc, Rollo the Norman, Duke William, Harold and many others come forth from their hiding-places in the back of one’s brain? Although we passed through without a stop, we could see the wonderful cathedral and the hospice on the hill and, crossing the river, we had a fleeting glimpse of the delightful little village of St. Adrien, with its curious church, cut out of the face of the chalk cliff; where the maidens come to pray the good Saint Bonaventure to send them a husband within the year.

On, past the field of Crécy, across the Somme which was to us only a name at that time but to become “an experience” at a later date, we made our slow progress across northern France. At a certain junction we were joined by the rest of the battalion which had traveled from England by a different and shorter route.

In the early hours of the morning we came to our stopping place, St. Omer, which was then the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in France. We did not tarry, however, but before daylight were on the march–eastward. We stopped for a couple of hours, near some little town, long enough to make tea, and then went on again. This was the hardest day we had had. Every one was overloaded, as a new soldier always is, and, moreover, our packs and clothing had not dried and we were carrying forty or fifty pounds of water in addition to the regulation sixty-one-pound equipment. Then, too, the roads were of the kind called _pavé_; that is, paved with what we know as cobble-stones or Belgian blocks. On the smooth stone or macadamized roads of England we would not have minded it so much, but this kind of going was new to us: ankles were continually turning, our iron-shod soles eternally slipping on the knobbed surface of the cobbles and, take it all in all, I consider it the hardest march I have ever done, and I have made forty-eight miles in one day over the snow in the Northwest, too.

About dark we were halted at a farm and told that we were to go into bivouac and would probably remain there for a week or more. Now, one characteristic of the good machine gunner is that he is always about two jumps ahead of the other fellow, so, there being a big barn with lots of clean straw in it, we just naturally took possession while the rest of the troops were patiently waiting for the Quartermaster to assign them to billets. Of course we had a fight on our hands a little later but, by a compromise which let the signalers and scouts come in with us, we were enabled to hang on to the best part of the place. From names inscribed on the beams we learned that the Princess Pat’s had once occupied the same place, and from the people who lived there we heard tales of how the Germans had carried off all their stock when they made their first great advance. All this was the next day, however, as we were too tired even to eat that night; we simply dropped on the straw and slept.

Next morning was bright and fair and everybody got busy, drying kits, overhauling and cleaning the guns and ammunition and fixing up our quarters for the promised week’s rest. About four o’clock in the afternoon we were ordered to form up and march to a place about two miles distant, where, we were told, General Alderson, Commander-in-Chief of the Canadians, was to give us a little talk.

We arrived at the appointed place ahead of time, and while we were lying about waiting we had our first glimpse of real war. It was a long way off and high up in the air but it was a thrilling sight for us. A couple of German airplanes were being shelled by some of our anti-aircraft guns, and as we watched the numerous shell-bursts, apparently close to the planes, we expected, every moment, to see the flyers come tumbling down. However, none was hit and they went on their way. It was only later we learned that it is the rarest thing in the world for an airplane to be brought down by guns from the ground. I suppose I have seen several hundred thousand shots fired at them and have yet to see one hit by a shell from an “Archie” and only one by machine-gun fire from the ground. The majority of planes destroyed are shot down by machine guns in combat with other flyers.

When the General finally came, he looked us over and told us what a fine body of troops we appeared to be, and just for that, he was going to let us go right into the front line, instead of putting us through the usual preliminary stages in reserve and support. Of course we felt properly “swelled up” about it and considered it a great compliment. We did not know, what we now know, that they were about to start the big offensive which is known as the Battle of Loos and that the British had not enough troops in France to be able to afford such luxuries as reserves. It was a case of everybody get in and “get your feet wet.”

As we were to march at daybreak, we had a busy night getting our scattered belongings together and repacked. This was our first experience of what shortly became a common occurrence and we soon learned that, in the field, a soldier never knows one day where he will be the next, and thus he is always “expecting the unexpected.”

We moved out at dawn and had another heart-breaking march as the weather had turned very warm. Through Hazebrouck and numerous small towns we continued our eastward way to Bailleul, stopping there for an hour’s rest. Our section happened to be right in the market square so had a good opportunity to see some of the principal points of interest in this famous and ancient city. The Hotel de Ville with its curious weather-vane of twelfth-century vintage and the Hotel Fauçon particularly interested me: the former because I had read of it and the latter because it had real beer on ice. This is the place which Bairnsfather speaks of as the hotel at which one could live and go to war every day and I afterward did that very thing, for one day; leaving the front-line trenches in the morning, having a good dinner at the Fauçon and being back in the front line at night. That happened to be Thanksgiving Day; November 25, 1915.

After our rest we continued on our way and arrived at the little town of Dranoutre, in Flanders, about five o’clock in the evening and went into bivouac. On this day’s march we saw more evidence of war. Here and there a grave beside the road; occasionally a house that showed the effect of shell or rifle fire and, almost continually, firing at airplanes, both Allied and German.

At our camp we found detachments of the East Kents (The Buffs), and the Second East Surrey Regiment, from whom we were to take over a sector of the line. They said that it was comparatively quiet at that point but had been pretty rough a few months earlier.

The Machine Gun Section went in the next morning, two days ahead of the infantry, and the East Surreys remained during the two days to show us the ropes. They were a splendid lot of soldiers and I am sorry to say that when they left us it was to go to Loos, where they were badly cut up at the Hohenzollern redoubt. We never connected up with them again.

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