Adventures of a Despatch Rider
by W. H. L. Watson
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Adventures of a Despatch Rider

Adventures of A Despatch Rider




William Blackwood and Sons

Edinburgh and London





To 2nd Lieut. R.B. WHYTE, 1st Black Watch, B.E.F.


Do you remember how in the old days we used to talk about my first book? Of course it was to be an Oxford novel full of clever little character-sketches—witty but not unkind: of subtle and pleasurable hints at our own adventures, for no one had enjoyed Balliol and the city of Oxford so hugely: of catch-words that repeated would bring back the thrills and the laughter—Psych. Anal. and Steady, Steady! of names crammed with delectable memories—the Paviers', Cloda's Lane, and the notorious Square and famous Wynd: of acid phrases, beautifully put, that would show up once and for all those dear abuses and shams that go to make Oxford. It was to surpass all Oxford Novels and bring us all eternal fame.

You remember, too, the room? It was stuffy and dingy and the pictures were of doubtful taste, but there were things to drink and smoke. The imperturbable Ikla would be sitting in his chair pulling at one of his impossibly luxurious pipes. You would be snorting in another—and I would be holding forth ... but I am starting an Oxford novelette already and there is no need. For two slightly senior contemporaries of ours have already achieved fame. The hydrangeas have blossomed. "The Home" has been destroyed by a Balliol tongue. The flower-girl has died her death. The Balliol novels have been written—and my first book is this.

We have not even had time to talk it over properly. I saw you on my week's leave in December, but then I had not thought of making a book. Finally, after three months in the trenches you came home in August. I was in Ireland and you in Scotland, so we met at Warrington just after midnight and proceeded to staggering adventures. Shall we ever forget that six hours' talk, the mad ride and madder breakfast with old Peter M'Ginn, the solitary hotel at Manchester and the rare dash to London? But I didn't tell you much about my book.

It is made up principally of letters to my mother and to you. My mother showed these letters to Mr Townsend Warner, my old tutor at Harrow, and he, who was always my godfather in letters, passed them on until they have appeared in the pages of 'Maga.' I have filled in the gaps these letters leave with narrative, worked the whole into some sort of connected account, and added maps and an index.

This book is not a history, a military treatise, an essay, or a scrap of autobiography. It has no more accuracy or literary merit than letters usually possess. So I hope you will not judge it too harshly. My only object is to try and show as truthfully as I can the part played in this monstrous war by a despatch rider during the months from August 1914 to February 1915. If that object is gained I am content.

Because it is composed of letters, this book has many faults.

Firstly, I have written a great deal about myself. That is inevitable in letters. My mother wanted to hear about me and not about those whom she had never met. So do not think my adventures are unique. I assure you that if any of the other despatch riders were to publish their letters you would find mine by comparison mild indeed. If George now could be persuaded ...!

Secondly, I have dwelt at length upon little personal matters. It may not interest you to know when I had a pork-chop—though, as you now realise, on active service a pork-chop is extremely important—but it interested my mother. She liked to know whether I was having good and sufficient food, and warm things on my chest and feet, because, after all, there was a time when I wanted nothing else.

Thirdly, all letters are censored. This book contains nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. When I described things that were actually happening round me, I had to be exceedingly careful—and when, as in the first two or three chapters, my letters were written several weeks after the events, something was sure to crop up in the meantime that unconsciously but definitely altered the memory of experiences....

We have known together two of the people I have mentioned in this book—Alec and Gibson. They have both advanced so far that we have lost touch with them. I had thought that it would be a great joy to publish a first book, but this book is ugly with sorrow. I shall never be able to write "Alec and I" again—and he was the sweetest and kindest of my friends, a friend of all the world. Never did he meet a man or woman that did not love him. The Germans have killed Alec. Perhaps among the multitudinous Germans killed there are one or two German Alecs. Yet I am still meeting people who think that war is a fine bracing thing for the nation, a sort of national week-end at Brighton.

Then there was Gibson, who proved for all time that nobody made a better soldier than the young don—and those whose names do not come into this book....

Robert, you and I know what to think of this Brighton theory. We are only just down from Oxford, and perhaps things strike us a little more passionately than they should.

You have seen the agony of war. You have seen those miserable people that wander about behind the line like pariah dogs in the streets. You know what is behind "Tommy's invincible gaiety." Let us pray together for a time when the publishing of a book like this will be regarded with fierce shame.

So long and good luck!

Ever yours, WILLIAM.


* * * * *

The day after I had written this letter the news came to me that Robert Whyte had been killed. The letter must stand—I have not the heart to write another.

























Adventures of A Despatch Rider.



At 6.45 P.M. on Saturday, July 25, 1914, Alec and I determined to take part in the Austro-Servian War. I remember the exact minute, because we were standing on the "down" platform of Earl's Court Station, waiting for the 6.55 through train to South Harrow, and Alec had just remarked that we had ten minutes to wait. We had travelled up to London, intending to work in the British Museum for our "vivas" at Oxford, but in the morning it had been so hot that we had strolled round Bloomsbury, smoking our pipes. By lunch-time we had gained such an appetite that we did not feel like work in the afternoon. We went to see Elsie Janis.

The evening papers were full of grave prognostications. War between Servia and Austria seemed inevitable. Earl's Court Station inspired us with the spirit of adventure. We determined to take part, and debated whether we should go out as war correspondents or as orderlies in a Servian hospital. At home we could talk of nothing else during dinner. Ikla, that wisest of all Egyptians, mildly encouraged us, while the family smiled.

On Sunday we learned that war had been declared. Ways and means were discussed, but our great tennis tournament on Monday, and a dance in the evening, left us with a mere background of warlike endeavour. It was vaguely determined that when my "viva" was over we should go and see people of authority in London....

On the last day of July a few of us met together in Gibson's rooms, those neat, white rooms in Balliol that overlook St Giles. Naymier, the Pole, was certain that Armageddon was coming. He proved it conclusively in the Quad with the aid of large maps and a dissertation on potatoes. He also showed us the probable course of the war. We lived in strained excitement. Things were too big to grasp. It was just the other day that 'The Blue Book,' most respectable of Oxford magazines, had published an article showing that a war between Great Britain and Germany was almost unthinkable. It had been written by an undergraduate who had actually been at a German university. Had the multitudinous Anglo-German societies at Oxford worked in vain? The world came crashing round our ears. Naymier was urgent for an Oxford or a Balliol Legion—I do not remember which—but we could not take him seriously. Two of us decided that we were physical cowards, and would not under any circumstances enlist. The flower of Oxford was too valuable to be used as cannon-fodder.

The days passed like weeks. Our minds were hot and confused. It seemed that England must come in. On the afternoon of the fourth of August I travelled up to London. At a certain club in St James's there was little hope. I walked down Pall Mall. In Trafalgar Square a vast, serious crowd was anxiously waiting for news. In Whitehall Belgians were doing their best to rouse the mob. Beflagged cars full of wildly gesticulating Belgians were driving rapidly up and down. Belgians were haranguing little groups of men. Everybody remained quiet but perturbed.

War was a certainty. I did not wish to be a spectator of the scenes that would accompany its declaration, so I went home. All the night in my dreams I saw the quiet, perturbed crowds.

War was declared. All those of us who were at Balliol together telephoned to one another so that we might enlist together. Physical coward or no physical coward—it obviously had to be done. Teddy and Alec were going into the London Scottish. Early in the morning I started for London to join them, but on the way up I read the paragraph in which the War Office appealed for motor-cyclists. So I went straight to Scotland Yard. There I was taken up to a large room full of benches crammed with all sorts and conditions of men. The old fellow on my right was a sign-writer. On my left was a racing motor-cyclist. We waited for hours. Frightened-looking men were sworn in and one phenomenally grave small boy. Later I should have said that a really fine stamp of man was enlisting. Then they seemed to me a shabby crew.

At last we were sent downstairs, and told to strip and array ourselves in moderately dirty blue dressing-gowns. Away from the formality of the other room we sang little songs, and made the worst jokes in the world—being continually interrupted by an irritable sergeant, whom we called "dearie." One or two men were feverishly arguing whether certain physical deficiencies would be passed. Nobody said a word of his reason for enlisting except the sign-writer, whose wages had been low.

The racing motor-cyclist and I were passed one after another, and, receiving warrants, we travelled down to Fulham. Our names, addresses, and qualifications were written down. To my overwhelming joy I was marked as "very suitable." I went to Great Portland Street, arranged to buy a motor-cycle, and returned home. That evening I received a telegram from Oxford advising me to go down to Chatham.

I started off soon after breakfast, and suffered three punctures. The mending of them put despatch-riding in an unhealthy light. At Rochester I picked up Wallace and Marshall of my college, and together we went to the appointed place. There we found twenty or thirty enlisted or unenlisted. I had come only to make inquiries, but I was carried away. After a series of waits I was medically examined and passed. At 5.45 P.M. I kissed the Book, and in two minutes I became a corporal in the Royal Engineers. During the ceremony my chief sensation was one of thoroughgoing panic.

In the morning four of us, who were linguists, were packed off to the War Office. We spent the journey in picturing all the ways we might be killed, until, by the time we reached Victoria, there was not a single one of us who would not have given anything to un-enlist. The War Office rejected us on the plea that they had as many Intelligence Officers as they wanted. So we returned glumly.

The next few days we were drilled, lectured, and given our kit. We began to know each other, and make friends. Finally, several of us, who wanted to go out together, managed by slight misstatements to be put into one batch. We were chosen to join the 5th Division. The Major in command told us—to our great relief—that the Fifth would not form part of the first Expeditionary Force.

I remember Chatham as a place of heat, intolerable dirt, and a bad sore throat. There we made our first acquaintance with the army, which we undergraduates had derided as a crowd of slavish wastrels and empty-headed slackers. We met with tact and courtesy from the mercenary. A sergeant of the Sappers we discovered to be as fine a type of man as any in the wide earth. And we marvelled, too, at the smoothness of organisation, the lack of confusing hurry....

We were to start early on Monday morning. My mother and sister rushed down to Chatham, and my sister has urgently requested me to mention in "the book" that she carried, with much labour, a large and heavy pair of ski-ing boots. Most of the others had enlisted like myself in a hurry. They did not see "their people" until December.

All of us were made to write our names in the visitors' book, for, as the waiter said—

"They ain't nobodies now, but in these 'ere times yer never knows what they may be."

Then, when we had gone in an ear-breaking splutter of exhausts, he turned to comfort my mother—

"Pore young fellers! Pore young fellers! I wonder if any of 'em will return."

That damp chilly morning I was very sleepy and rather frightened at the new things I was going to do. I imagined war as a desperate continuous series of battles, in which I should ride along the trenches picturesquely haloed with bursting shell, varied by innumerable encounters with Uhlans, or solitary forest rides and immense tiring treks over deserted country to distant armies. I wasn't quite sure I liked the idea of it all. But the sharp morning air, the interest in training a new motor-cycle in the way it should go, the unexpected popping-up and grotesque salutes of wee gnome-like Boy Scouts, soon made me forget the war. A series of the kind of little breakdowns you always have in a collection of new bikes delayed us considerably, and only a race over greasy setts through the southern suburbs, over Waterloo Bridge and across the Strand, brought us to Euston just as the boat-train was timed to start. In the importance of our new uniforms we stopped it, of course, and rode joyfully from one end of the platform to the other, much to the agitation of the guard, while I posed delightfully against a bookstall to be photographed by a patriotic governess.

Very grimy we sat down to a marvellous breakfast, and passed the time reading magazines and discussing the length of the war. We put it at from three to six weeks. At Holyhead we carefully took our bikes aboard, and settled down to a cold voyage. We were all a trifle apprehensive at our lack of escort, for then, you will remember, it had not yet been proved how innocuous the German fleet is in our own seas.[1]

Ireland was a disappointment. Everybody was dirty and unfriendly, staring at us with hostile eyes. Add Dublin grease, which beats the Belgian, and a crusty garage proprietor who only after persuasion supplied us with petrol, and you may be sure we were glad to see the last of it. The road to Carlow was bad and bumpy. But the sunset was fine, and we liked the little low Irish cottages in the twilight. When it was quite dark we stopped at a town with a hill in it. One of our men had a brick thrown at him as he rode in, and when we came to the inn we didn't get a gracious word, and decided it was more pleasant not to be a soldier in Ireland. The daughter of the house was pretty and passably clean, but it was very grimly that she had led me through an immense gaudy drawing-room disconsolate in dust wrappings, to a little room where we could wash. She gave us an exiguous meal at an extortionate charge, and refused to put more than two of us up; so, on the advice of two gallivanting lancers who had escaped from the Curragh for some supper, we called in the aid of the police, and were billeted magnificently on the village.

A moderate breakfast at an unearthly hour, a trouble with the starting up of our bikes, and we were off again. It was about nine when we turned into Carlow Barracks.

The company sighed with relief on seeing us. We completed the establishment on mobilisation. Our two "artificers," Cecil and Grimers, had already arrived. We were overjoyed to see them. We realised that what they did not know about motor-cycles was not worth knowing, and we had suspected at Chatham what we found afterwards to be true, that no one could have chosen for us pleasanter comrades or more reliable workers.

A fine breakfast was soon prepared for us and we begun looking round. The position should have been a little difficult—a dozen or so 'Varsity men, very fresh from their respective universities, thrown as corporals at the head of a company of professional soldiers. We were determined that, whatever vices we might have, we should not be accused of "swank." The sergeants, after a trifle of preliminary stiffness, treated us with fatherly kindness, and did all they could to make us comfortable and teach us what we wanted to learn.

Carlow was a fascinating little town. The National Volunteers still drilled just behind the barracks. It was not wise to refer to the Borderers or to Ulster, but the war had made all the difference in the world. We were to represent Carlow in the Great War. Right through the winter Carlow never forgot us. They sent us comforts and cigarettes and Christmas Puddings. When the 5th Signal Company returns, Carlow will go mad.

My first "official" ride was to Dublin. It rained most of the way there and all the way back, but a glow of patriotism kept me warm. In Dublin I went into a little public-house for some beer and bread and cheese. The landlord told me that though he wasn't exactly a lover of soldiers, things had changed now. On my return I was given lunch in the Officers' Mess, for nobody could consider their men more than the officers of our company.

The next day we were inoculated. At the time we would much rather have risked typhoid. We did not object to the discomfort, though two of us nearly fainted on parade the following morning—it was streamingly hot—but our farewell dinner was absolutely spoilt. Bottles of the best Moselle Carlow could produce were left untouched. Songs broke down in curses. It was tragic.


[1] This was written before the days of the "Submarine Blockade."



We made a triumphant departure from Carlow, preceded down to the station by the band of the N.V. We were told off to prevent anybody entering the station, but all the men entered magnificently, saying they were volunteers, and the women and children rushed us with the victorious cry, "We've downed the p'lice." We steamed out of the station while the band played "Come back to Erin" and "God save Ireland," and made an interminable journey to Dublin. At some of the villages they cheered, at others they looked at us glumly. But the back streets of Dublin were patriotic enough, and at the docks, which we reached just after dark, a small, tremendously enthusiastic crowd was gathered to see us off.

They sang songs and cheered, and cheered and sang songs. "I can generally bear the separation, but I don't like the leave-taking." The boat would not go off. The crowd on the boat and the crowd on the wharf made patriotic noises until they were hoarse. At midnight our supporters had nearly all gone away. We who had seen our motor-cycles carefully hoisted on board ate the buns and apples provided by "Friends in Dublin" and chatted. A young gunner told me of all his amours, and they were very numerous. Still—

For my uncle Toby's amours running all the way in my head, they had the same effect upon me as if they had been my own—I was in the most perfect state of bounty and goodwill—

So I set about finding a place for sleep.

The whole of the Divisional Headquarters Staff, with all their horses, were on the Archimedes, and we were so packed that when I tried to find a place to sleep I discovered there was not an inch of space left on the deck, so I passed an uncomfortable night on top of some excruciatingly hard ropes.

We cast off about one in the morning. The night was horribly cold, and a slow dawn was never more welcomed. But day brought a new horror. The sun poured down on us, and the smell from the horses packed closely below was almost unbearable; while, worst of all, we had to go below to wash and to draw our rations.

Then I was first introduced to bully. The first tin tastes delicious and fills you rapidly. You never actually grow to dislike it, and many times when extra hungry I have longed for an extra tin. But when you have lived on bully for three months (we have not been served out with fresh meat more than a dozen times altogether),[2] how you long for any little luxuries to vary the monotony of your food!

On the morning of the third day we passed a French destroyer with a small prize in tow, and rejoiced greatly, and towards evening we dropped anchor off Havre. On either side of the narrow entrance to the docks there were cheering crowds, and we cheered back, thrilled, occasionally breaking into the soldier's anthem, "It's a long, long way to Tipperary."[3]

We disembarked at a secluded wharf, and after waiting about for a couple of hours or so—we had not then learned to wait—we were marched off to a huge dim warehouse, where we were given gallons of the most delicious hot coffee, and bought scrumptious little cakes.

It was now quite dark, and, for what seemed whole nights, we sat wearily waiting while the horses were taken off the transport. We made one vain dash for our quarters, but found only another enormous warehouse, strangely lit, full of clattering waggons and restive horses. We watched with wonder a battery clank out into the night, and then returned sleepily to the wharf-side. Very late we found where we were to sleep, a gigantic series of wool warehouses. The warehouses were full of wool and the wool was full of fleas. We were very miserable, and a little bread and wine we managed to get hold of hardly cheered us at all. I feared the fleas, and spread a waterproof sheet on the bare stones outside. I thought I should not get a wink of sleep on such a Jacobean resting-place, but, as a matter of fact, I slept like a top, and woke in the morning without even an ache. But those who had risked the wool——!

We breakfasted off the strong, sweet tea that I have grown to like so much, and some bread, butter, and chocolate we bought off a smiling old woman at the warehouse gates. Later in the morning we were allowed into the town. First, a couple of us went into a cafe to have a drink, and when we came out we found our motor-cycles garlanded with flowers by two admiring flappers. Everywhere we went we were the gods of a very proper worship, though the shopkeepers in their admiration did not forget to charge. We spent a long, lazy day in lounging through the town, eating a lot of little meals and in visiting the public baths—the last bath I was to have, if I had only known it, for a month. A cheery, little, bustling town Havre seemed to us, basking in a bright sunshine, and the hopes of our early overwhelming victory. We all stalked about, prospective conquerors, and talked fluently of the many defects of the German army.

Orders came in the afternoon that we were to move that night. I sat up until twelve, and gained as my reward some excellent hot tea and a bit of rather tough steak. At twelve everybody was woken up and the company got ready to move. We motor-cyclists were sent off to the station. Foolishly I went by myself. Just outside what I thought was the station I ran out of petrol. I walked to the station and waited for the others. They did not come. I searched the station, but found nothing except a cavalry brigade entraining. I rushed about feverishly. There was no one I knew, no one who had heard anything of my company. Then I grew horribly frightened that I should be left behind. I pelted back to the old warehouses, but found everybody had left two hours ago. I thought the company must surely have gone by now, and started in my desperation asking everybody I knew if they had seen anything of the company. Luckily I came across an entraining officer, who told me that the company were entraining at "Point Six-Hangar de Laine,"—three miles away. I simply ran there, asking my way of surly, sleepy sentries, tripping over ropes, nearly falling into docks.

I found the Signal Company. There was not a sign of our train. So Johnson took me on his carrier back to the station I had searched in such fear. We found the motor-cycle, Johnson gave me some petrol, and we returned to Point Six. It was dawn when the old train at last rumbled and squeaked into the siding.

I do not know how long we took to entrain, I was so sleepy. But the sun was just rising when the little trumpet shrilled, the long train creaked over the points, and we woke for a moment to murmur—By Jove, we're off now,—and I whispered thankfully to myself—Thank heaven I found them at last.

We were lucky enough to be only six in our compartment, but, as you know, in a French IIIme there is very little room, while the seats are fiercely hard. And we had not yet been served out with blankets. Still, we had to stick it for twenty-four hours. Luckily the train stopped at every station of any importance, so, taking the law into our own hands, we got out and stretched our legs at every opportunity.

We travelled via Rouen and Amiens to Landrecies. The Signal Company had a train to itself. Gradually we woke up to find ourselves travelling through extraordinarily pretty country and cheering crowds. At each level-crossing the cure was there to bless us. If we did not stop the people threw in fruit, which we vainly endeavoured to catch. A halt, and they were round us, beseeching us for souvenirs, loading us with fruit, and making us feel that it was a fine thing to fight in a friendly country.

At Rouen we drew up at a siding, and sent porters scurrying for bread and butter and beer, while we loaded up from women who came down to the train with all sorts of delicious little cakes and sweets. We stopped, and then rumbled slowly towards Amiens. At St Roche we first saw wounded, and heard, I do not know with what truth, that four aviators had been killed, and that our General, Grierson, had died of heart failure. At Ham they measured me against a lamp-post, and ceremoniously marked the place. The next time I passed through Ham I had no time to look for the mark! It began to grow dark, and the trees standing out against the sunset reminded me of our two lines of trees at home. We went slowly over bridges, and looked fearfully from our windows for bursting shells. Soon we fell asleep, and were wakened about midnight by shouted orders. We had arrived at Landrecies, near enough the Frontier to excite us.

I wonder if you realise at home what the Frontier meant to us at first? We conceived it as a thing guarded everywhere by intermittent patrols of men staring carefully towards Germany and Belgium in the darkness, a thing to be defended at all costs, at all times, to be crossed with triumph and recrossed with shame. We did not understand what an enormous, incredible thing modern war was—how it cared nothing for frontiers, or nations, or people.

Very wearily we unloaded our motor bicycles and walked to the barracks, where we put down our kit and literally feel asleep, to be wakened for fatigue work.

We rose at dawn, and had some coffee at a little estaminet,[4] where a middle-aged dame, horribly arch, cleaned my canteen for me, "pour l'amour de toi." We managed an excellent breakfast of bacon and eggs before establishing the Signal Office at the barracks. A few of us rode off to keep touch with the various brigades that were billeted round. The rest of us spent the morning across the road at an inn drinking much wine-and-water and planning out the war on a forty-year-old map.

In the afternoon I went out with two others to prospect some roads, very importantly. We were rather annoyed to lose our way out of the town, and were very short with some inquisitive small boys who stood looking over our shoulders as we squatted on the grass by the wayside studying our maps.

We had some tea at a mad village called Hecq. All the inhabitants were old, ugly, smelly, and dirty; and they crowded round us as we devoured a magnificent omelette, endeavouring to incite us to do all sorts of things to the German women if ever we reached Germany. We returned home in the late afternoon to hear rumours of an advance next day.

Three of us wandered into the Square to have a drink. There I first tried a new pipe that had been given me. The one pipe I brought with me I had dropped out of the train between Amiens and Landrecies. It had been quite a little tragedy, as it was a pipe for which I had a great affection. It had been my companion in Switzerland and Paris.

Coming back from the Square I came across an excited crowd. It appears that an inoffensive, rather buxom-looking woman had been walking round the Square when one of her breasts cooed and flew away. We shot three spies at Landrecies.

I hung round the Signal Office, nervous and excited, for "a run." The night was alive with the tramp of troops and the rumble of guns. The old 108th passed by—huge good-natured guns, each drawn by eight gigantic plough-horses. I wonder if you can understand—the thrilling excitement of waiting and listening by night in a town full of troops.

At midnight I took my first despatch. It was a dark, starless night; very misty on the road. From the brigade I was sent on to an ambulance—an unpleasant ride, because, apart from the mist and the darkness, I was stopped every few yards by sentries of the West Kents, a regiment which has now about the best reputation of any battalion out here. I returned in time to snatch a couple of hours of sleep before we started at dawn for Belgium.

When the Division moves we ride either with the column or go in advance to the halting-place. That morning we rode with the column, which meant riding three-quarters of a mile or so and then waiting for the main-guard to come up,—an extraordinarily tiring method of getting along.

The day (August 21) was very hot indeed, and the troops who had not yet got their marching feet suffered terribly, even though the people by the wayside brought out fruit and eggs and drinks. There was murmuring when some officers refused to allow their men to accept these gifts. But a start had to be made some time, for promiscuous drinks do not increase marching efficiency. We, of course, could do pretty well what we liked. A little coffee early in the morning, and then anything we cared to ask for. Most of us in the evening discovered, unpleasantly enough, forgotten pears in unthought-of pockets.

About 1.30 we neared Bavai, and I was sent on to find out about billeting arrangements, but by the time they were completed the rest had arrived.

For a long time we were hutted in the Square. Spuggy found a "friend," and together we obtained a good wash. The people were vociferously enthusiastic. Even the chemist gave us some "salts" free of charge.

My first ride from Bavai began with a failure, as, owing to belt-slip, I endeavoured vainly to start for half an hour (or so it seemed) in the midst of an interested but sympathetic populace. A smart change saw me tearing along the road to meet with a narrow escape from untimely death in the form of a car, which I tried to pass on the wrong side. In the evening we received our first batch of pay, and dining magnificently at a hotel, took tearful leave of Huggie and Spuggy. They had been chosen, they said, to make a wild dash through to Liege. We speculated darkly on their probable fate. In the morning we learned that we had been hoaxed, and used suitable language.

We slept uncomfortably on straw in a back yard, and rose again just before dawn. We breakfasted hastily at a cafe, and were off just as the sun had risen.

Our day's march was to Dour, in Belgium, and for us a bad day's march it was. My job was to keep touch with the 14th Brigade, which was advancing along a parallel road to the west.[5] That meant riding four or five miles across rough country roads, endeavouring to time myself so as to reach the 14th column just when the S.O. was passing, then back again to the Division, riding up and down the column until I found our captain. In the course of my riding that day I knocked down "a civvy" in Dour, and bent a foot-rest endeavouring to avoid a major, but that was all in the day's work.

The Signal Office was first established patriarchally with a table by the roadside, and thence I made my last journey that day to the 14th. I found them in a village under the most embarrassing attentions. As for myself, while I was waiting, a cure photographed me, a woman rushed out and washed my face, and children crowded up to me, presenting me with chocolate and cigars, fruit and eggs, until my haversack was practically bursting.

When I returned I found the S.O. had shifted to the station of Dour. We were given the waiting-room, which we made comfortable with straw. Opposite the station was a hotel where the Staff lived. It was managed by a curiously upright old man in a threadbare frock-coat, bright check trousers, and carpet slippers. Nadine, his pretty daughter, was tremulously eager to make us comfortable, and the two days we were at Dour we hung round the hotel, sandwiching omelettes and drink between our despatches.


[2] This was written in the middle of October.

[3] We became bored with the song, and dropped it soon after for less printable songs.

[4] The word used in Flanders for a tavern that does not aspire to the dignity of "restaurant" or "hotel."

[5] The Bavai-Andregnies-Elouges road.



We knew nothing of what was going on. There was a rumour that Namur had fallen, and I heard certain officers say we had advanced dangerously far. The cavalry was on our left and the Third Division on our right. Beyond the Third Division we had heard of the First Corps, but nothing of the French. We were left, to the best of our knowledge, a tenuous bulwark against the German hosts.

The 14th Brigade had advanced by the Andregnies road to Elouges and the Canal. The 13th was our right brigade, and the 15th, at first in reserve, extended our line on the second day to Frameries. The Cyclists were reconnoitring north of the Canal.

The roads round Dour were of the very worst pave, and, if this were not enough, the few maps we had between us were useless. The villages of Waasmes, Paturages, and Frameries were in the midst of such a network of roads that the map could not possibly be clear. If the country had been flat, we might at least have found our way by landmarks. It was not. The roads wandered round great slag-heaps, lost themselves in little valleys, ran into pits and groups of buildings. Each one tried to be exactly like all its fellows. Without a map to get from Elouges to Frameries was like asking an American to make his way from Richmond Park to Denmark Hill.

About ten o'clock on the morning of August 23rd I was sent out to find General Gleichen, who was reported somewhere near Waasmes. I went over nightmare roads, uneven cobbles with great pits in them. I found him, and was told by him to tell the General that the position was unfortunate owing to a weak salient. We had already heard guns, but on my way back I heard a distant crash, and looked round to find that a shell had burst half a mile away on a slag-heap, between Dour and myself. With my heart thumping against my ribs I opened the throttle, until I was jumping at 40 m.p.h. from cobble to cobble. Then, realising that I was in far greater danger of breaking my neck than of being shot, I pulled myself together and slowed down to proceed sedately home.

The second time I went out to General Gleichen I found him a little farther back from his former position. This time he was on the railway. While I was waiting for a reply we had an excellent view of German guns endeavouring to bring down one of our aeroplanes. So little did we know of aeroplanes then, that the General was persuaded by his brigade-major to step back into shelter from the falling bits, and we all stared anxiously skywards, expecting every moment that our devoted aviator would be hit.

That evening Huggie and I rode back to Bavai and beyond in search of an errant ammunition column. Eventually we found it and brought news of it back to H.Q. I shall never forget the captain reading my despatch by the light of my lamp, the waggons guarded by Dorsets with fixed bayonets appearing to disappear shadowy in the darkness. We showed the captain a short-cut that avoided Bavai, then left him. His horses were tired, but he was forced to push them on another ten miles to Dour. We got back at 10, and found Nadine weeping. We questioned her, but she would not tell us why.

There was a great battle very early the next morning, a running-about and set, anxious faces. We were all sent off in rapid succession. I was up early and managed to get a wash at the station-master's house, his wife providing me with coffee, which, much to my discomfiture, she liberally dosed with rum. At 6.30 Johnson started on a message to the 15th Brigade. We never saw him again. At 9.15 three despatch riders who had gone to the 15th, George, Johnson, and Grimers, had not returned. I was sent. Two miles out I met George with Grimers' despatches. Neither of them had been able to find the 15th. I took the despatches and sent George back to report. I went down a road, which I calculated ought to bring me somewhere on the left of the 15th, who were supposed to be somewhere between Paturages and Frameries. There were two villages on hills, one on each side. I struck into the north end of the village on my left; there was no road to the one on my right.[6] I came across a lot of disheartened stragglers retreating up the hill. I went a little farther and saw our own firing line a quarter of a mile ahead. There was a bit of shrapnel flying about, but not much. I struck back up the hill and came upon a crowd of fugitive infantry men, all belonging to the 13th Brigade. At last I found General Cuthbert, the Brigadier of the 13th, sitting calmly on his horse watching the men pass. I asked him where the 15th was. He did not know, but told me significantly that our rallying-point was Athis.

I rode a little farther, and came upon his signal officer. He stopped me and gave me a verbal message to the General, telling me that the 15th appeared to be cut off. As I had a verbal message to take back there was no need for me to go farther with my despatches, which, as it appeared later, was just as well. I sprinted back to Dour, picking my way through a straggling column of men sullenly retreating. At the station I found everybody packing up. The General received my message without a word, except one of thanks.

The right flank of the 13th has been badly turned.

Most of our officers have been killed.

Some companies of the K.O.S.B. are endeavouring to cover our retreat.

We viciously smashed all the telegraph instruments in the office and cut all the wires. It took me some time to pack up my kit and tie it on my carrier. When I had finished, everybody had gone. I could hear their horses clattering up the street. Across the way Nadine stood weeping. A few women with glazed, resigned eyes, stood listlessly round her. Behind me, I heard the first shell crash dully into the far end of the town. It seemed to me I could not just go off. So I went across to Nadine and muttered "Nous reviendrons, Mademoiselle." But she would not look at me, so I jumped on my bicycle, and with a last glance round at the wrecked, deserted station, I rode off, shouting to encourage more myself than the others, "Ca va bien."

I caught up the General, and passed him to ride on ahead of the Signal Company. Never before had I so wished my engine to turn more slowly. It seemed a shame that we motor-cyclists should head the retreat of our little column. I could not understand how the men could laugh and joke. It was blasphemous. They ought to be cursing with angry faces,—at the least, to be grave and sorrowful.

I was told that Divisional Headquarters would be established at Villers-Pol, a little country village about ten miles west of Bavai and eight miles south-east of Valenciennes. I rode to St Waast, a few miles out of Bavai, and, finding there a cavalry colonel (of the 2nd Life Guards, I think), gave him all the news. I hurried on to Jenlain, thinking I might be of some use to the troops on our right flank, but Jenlain was peaceful and empty. So I cut across low rolling downs to Villers-Pol. There was nobody there when I arrived. The sun was shining very brightly. Old women were sleeping at the doors; children were playing lazily on the road. Soon one or two motor-cyclists dribbled in, and about an hour later a section of the Signal Company arrived after a risky dash along country lanes. They outspanned, and we, as always, made for the inn.

There was a mother in the big room. She was a handsome little woman of about twenty-four. Her husband was at the war. She asked me why we had come to Villers-Pol. I said we were retreating a little—pour attaquer le mieux—un mouvement strategique. She wept bitterly and loudly, "Ah, my baby, what will they do to us? They will kill you, and they will ill-treat me so that never again shall I be able to look my husband in the eyes—his brave eyes; but now perhaps they are closed in death!" There was an older, harsh-featured woman who rated the mother for her silliness, and, while we ate our omelette, the room was filled with the clamour of them until a dog outside began to howl. Then the mother went and sat down in a chair by the fire and stopped crying, but every now and then moaned and clasped her baby strongly to her breast, murmuring, "My poor baby, my poor baby, what shall we do?"

We lounged about the place until a cavalry brigade came through. The General commandeered me to find his transport. This I did, and on the way back waited for the brigade to pass. Then for the first time I saw that many riderless horses were being led, that some of the horses and many of the men were wounded, and that one regiment of lancers was pathetically small. It was the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, that had charged the enemy's guns, to find them protected by barbed wire.

Sick at heart I rode back into Villers-Pol, and found the Signal Company hastily harnessing up. Headquarters had been compelled to go farther back still—to St Waast, and there was nobody, so far as we knew, between us and the Germans. The order caught George with his gear down. We made a marvellously rapid repair, then went off at the trot. A mile out, and I was sent back to pick up our quartermaster and three others who were supposed to have been left behind. It was now quite dark. In the village I could not find our men, but discovered a field ambulance that did not know what to do. Their horses were dead tired, but I advised them strongly to get on. They took my advice, and I heard at Serches that they left Villers-Pol as the Germans[7] entered it. They were pursued, but somehow got away in the darkness.

I went on, and at some cross-roads in a black forest came across a regiment of hussars. I told them where their B.H.Q. was, and their Colonel muttered resignedly,

"It's a long way, but we shall never get our wounded horses there to-morrow." I put two more companies right, then came across a little body of men who were vainly trying to get a horse attached to a S.A.A. limber out of the ditch. It was a pitch-black night, and they were bravely endeavouring to do it without catching a glimpse of the horse. I gave them the benefit of my lamp until they had got the brute out. Two more bodies of stragglers I directed, and then pushed on rapidly to St Waast, where I found all the other motor-cyclists safe except Johnson. Two had come on carts, having been compelled to abandon their motor-cycles.

George had been attached to the 14th. He had gone with them to the canal, and had been left there with the Cornwalls when the 14th had retired to its second position. At last nobody remained with him except a section. They were together in a hut, and outside he could hear the bullets singing. He noticed some queer-looking explosives in a corner, and asked what they were for. He was told they were to blow up the bridge over the canal, so decided it was time for him to quit, and did so with some rapidity under a considerable rifle fire. Then he was sent up to the Manchesters, who were holding a ready-made trench across the main road. As he rode up he tells me men shouted at him, "Don't go that way, it's dangerous," until he grew quite frightened; but he managed to get to the trench all right, slipped in, and was shown how to crawl along until he reached the colonel.

N'Soon and Sadders were with the 13th. On the Sunday night they had to march to a new position more towards their right. The Signal Section went astray and remained silently on a byroad while their officer reconnoitred. On the main road between them and their lines were some lights rapidly moving—Germans in armoured motor-cars. They successfully rejoined, but in the morning there was something of a collision, and Sadders' bicycle was finished. He got hold of a push-bike alongside the waggons for some distance, finishing up on a limber.

Spuggy was sent up to the trenches in the morning. He was under heavy shell fire when his engine seized up. His brigade was retreating, and he was in the rear of it, so, leaving his bicycle, he took to his heels, and with the Germans in sight ran till he caught up a waggon. He clambered on, and so came into St Waast.

I had not been in many minutes when I was sent off to our Army H.Q. at Bavai. It was a miserable ride. I was very tired, the road was full of transport, and my lamp would not give more than a feeble glimmer.

I got to bed at 1 A.M. About 3.30 (on August 24) I was called and detailed to remain with the rear-guard. First I was sent off to find the exact position of various bodies posted on roads to stem the German advance. At one spot I just missed a shell-trap. A few minutes after I had left, some of the Manchesters, together with a body of the D. Cyclists who were stationed three miles or so out of St Waast, were attacked by a body of Jaegers, who appeared on a hill opposite. Foolishly they disclosed their position by opening rifle fire. In a few minutes the Jaegers went, and to our utter discomfiture a couple of field-guns appeared and fired point-blank at 750 yards. Luckily the range was not very exact, and only a few were wounded—those who retired directly backwards instead of transversely out of the shells' direction.

The H.Q. of the rear-guard left St Waast about 5.30. It was cold and chilly. What happened I do not quite know. All I remember was that at a given order a battery would gallop off the road into action against an enemy we could not see. So to Bavai, where I was sent off with an important despatch for D.H.Q. I had to ride past the column, and scarcely had I gone half a mile when my back tyre burst. There was no time to repair it, so on I bumped, slipping all over the road. At D.H.Q., which of course was on the road, I borrowed some one else's bicycle and rode back by another road. On the way I came across Huggie filling up from an abandoned motor-lorry. I did likewise, and then tore into Bavai. A shell or two was bursting over the town, and I was nearly slaughtered by some infantrymen, who thought they were firing at an aeroplane. Dodging their bullets, I left the town, and eventually caught up the H.Q. of the rear-guard.

It was now about 10.30. Until five the troops tramped on, in a scorching sun, on roads covered with clouds of dust. And most pitiful of all, between the rear-guard and the main body shuffled the wounded; for we had been forced to evacuate our hospital at Bavai. Our men were mad at retreating. The Germans had advanced on them in the closest order. Each fellow firmly believed he had killed fifty, and was perfectly certain we could have held our line to the crack of doom. They trudged and trudged. The women, who had cheerily given us everything a few days before, now with anxious faces timorously offered us water and fruit.

Great ox-waggons full of refugees, all in their best clothes, came in from side-roads. None of them were allowed on the roads we were retreating along, so I suppose they were pushed across the German front until they fell into the Germans' hands.

For us it was column-riding the whole day—half a mile or so, and then a halt,—heart-breaking work.

I was riding along more or less by myself in a gap that had been left in the column. A cure stopped me. He was a very tall and very thin young man with a hasty, frightened manner. Behind him was a flock of panic-stricken, chattering old women. He asked me if there was any danger. Not that he was afraid, he said, but just to satisfy his people. I answered that none of them need trouble to move. I was too ashamed to say we were retreating, and I had an eye on the congestion of the roads. I have sometimes wondered what that tall, thin cure, with the sallow face and the frightened eyes, said about me when, not twelve hours later, the German advance-guard triumphantly defiled before him.

Late in the afternoon we passed through Le Cateau, a bright little town, and came to the village of Reumont, where we were billeted in a large barn.

We were all very confident that evening. We heard that we were holding a finely entrenched position, and the General made a speech—I did not hear it—in which he told us that there had been a great Russian success, and that in the battle of the morrow a victory for us would smash the Germans once and for all. But our captain was more pessimistic. He thought we should suffer a great disaster. Doubting, we snuggled down in the straw, and went soundly to sleep.


[6] I had no map with me. All the maps were in use. Looking afterwards at the map which I obtained later in the day, I am unable to trace my route with any accuracy. It is certain that the Germans temporarily thrust in a wedge between the 13th and 15th Brigades.

[7] A small patrol of cavalry, I should imagine, if the tale I heard at Serches be true.



The principal thing about Le Cateau is that the soldiers pronounce it to rhyme with Waterloo—Leacatoo—and all firmly believe that if the French cavalry had come up to help us, as the Prussians came up at Waterloo, there would have been no Germans to fight against us now.

It was a cold misty morning when we awoke, but later the day was fine enough. We got up, had a cheery and exiguous breakfast to distant, intermittent firing, then did a little work on our bicycles. I spent an hour or so watching through glasses the dim movement of dull bodies of troops and shrapnel bursting vaguely on the horizon. Then we were all summoned to H.Q., which were stationed about a mile out from Reumont on the Le Cateau road. In front of us the road dipped sharply and rose again over the brow of a hill about two miles away. On this brow, stretching right and left of the road, there was a line of poplars. On the slope of the hill nearer to us there were two or three field batteries in action. To the right of us a brigade of artillery was limbered up ready to go anywhere. In the left, at the bottom of the dip the 108th was in action, partially covered by some sparse bushes. A few ambulance waggons and some miscellaneous first-line transport were drawn up along the side of the road at the bottom of the dip. To the N.W. we could see for about four miles over low, rolling fields. We could see nothing to the right, as our view was blocked by a cottage and some trees and hedges. On the roof of the cottage a wooden platform had been made. On it stood the General and his Chief of Staff and our Captain. Four telephone operators worked for their lives in pits breast-high, two on each side of the road. The Signal Clerk sat at a table behind the cottage, while round him, or near him, were the motor-cyclists and cyclists.

About the battle itself you know as much as I. We had wires out to all the brigades, and along them the news would come and orders would go. The —— are holding their position satisfactorily. Our flank is being turned. Should be very grateful for another battalion. We are under very heavy shell fire. Right through the battle I did not take a single message. Huggie took a despatch to the 13th, and returned under very heavy shrapnel fire, and for this was very properly mentioned in despatches.

How the battle fluctuated I cannot now remember. But I can still see those poplars almost hidden in the smoke of shrapnel. I can still hear the festive crash of the Heavies as they fired slowly, scientifically, and well. From 9 to 12.30 we remained there kicking our heels, feverishly calm, cracking the absurdest jokes. Then the word went round that on our left things were going very badly. Two battalions were hurried across, and then, of course, the attack developed even more fiercely on our right.

Wounded began to come through—none groaning, but just men with their eyes clenched and great crimson bandages.

An order was sent to the transport to clear back off the road. There was a momentary panic. The waggons came through at the gallop and with them some frightened foot-sloggers, hanging on and running for dear life. Wounded men from the firing line told us that the shrapnel was unbearable in the trenches.

A man came galloping up wildly from the Heavies. They had run out of fuses. Already we had sent urgent messages to the ammunition lorries, but the road was blocked and they could not get up to us. So Grimers was sent off with a haversack—mine—to fetch fuses and hurry up the lorries. How he got there and back in the time that he did, with the traffic that there was, I cannot even now understand.

It was now about two o'clock, and every moment the news that we heard grew worse and worse, while the wounded poured past us in a continuous stream. I gave my water-bottle to one man who was moaning for water. A horse came galloping along. Across the saddle-bow was a man with a bloody scrap of trouser instead of a leg, while the rider, who had been badly wounded in the arm, was swaying from side to side.

A quarter of an hour before the brigade on our right front had gone into action on the crest of the hill. Now they streamed back at the trot, all telling the tale—how, before they could even unlimber, shells had come crashing into them. The column was a lingering tragedy. There were teams with only a limber and without a gun. And you must see it to know what a twistedly pathetic thing a gun team and limber without a gun is. There were bits of teams and teams with only a couple of drivers. The faces of the men were awful. I smiled at one or two, but they shook their heads and turned away. One sergeant as he passed was muttering to himself, as if he were repeating something over and over again so as to learn it by rote—"My gun, my gun, my gun!"

At this moment an order came from some one for the motor-cyclists to retire to the farm where we had slept the night. The others went on with the crowd, but I could not start my engine. After trying for five minutes it seemed to me absurd to retreat, so I went back and found that apparently nobody had given the order. The other motor-cyclists returned one by one as soon as they could get clear, but most of them were carried on right past the farm.

A few minutes later there was a great screaming crash overhead—shrapnel. I ran to my bicycle and stood by waiting for orders.

The General suggested mildly that we might change our headquarters. There was a second crash. We all retired about 200 yards back up the road. There I went to the captain in the middle of the traffic and asked him what I should do. He told us to get out of it as we could not do anything more—"You have all done magnificently"—then he gave me some messages for our subaltern. I shouted, "So long, sir," and left him, not knowing whether I should ever see him again. I heard afterwards that he went back when all the operators had fled and tried to get into communication with our Army H.Q.

Just as I had started up my engine another shell burst about 100 yards to the left, and a moment later a big waggon drawn by two maddened horses came dashing down into the main street. They could not turn, so went straight into the wall of a house opposite. There was a dull crash and a squirming heap piled up at the edge of the road.

I pushed through the traffic a little and came upon a captain and a subaltern making their way desperately back. I do not know who they were, but I heard a scrap of what they said—

"We must get back for it," said the captain.

"We shall never return," replied the subaltern gravely.

"It doesn't matter," said the captain.

"It doesn't matter," echoed the subaltern.

But I do not think the gun could have been saved.

About six of us collected in a little bunch at the side of the road. On our left we saw a line of infantry running. The road itself was impassable. So we determined to strike off to the right. I led the way, and though we had not the remotest conception whether we should meet British or German, we eventually found our way to 2nd Corps H.Q.

I have only a dim remembrance of what happened there. I went into the signal-office and reported that, so far as I knew, the 5th Division was in flight along the Reumont-Saint-Quentin road.

The sergeant in charge of the 2nd Corps Motor-cyclists offered us some hard-boiled eggs and put me in charge of our lot. Then off we went, and hitting the main road just ahead of our muddled column, halted at the desolate little village of Estrees.

It now began to rain.

Soon the column came pouring past, so miserably and so slowly,—lorries, transport, guns, limbers, small batches of infantrymen, crowds of stragglers. All were cursing the French, for right through the battle we had expected the French to come up on our right wing. There had been a whole corps of cavalry a few miles away, but in reply to our urgent request for help their general had reported that his horses were too tired. How we cursed them and cursed them.

After a weary hour's wait our subaltern came up, and, at my request, sent me to look for the captain. I found him about two miles this side of Reumont, endeavouring vainly to make some sort of ordered procession out of the almost comically patchwork medley. Later I heard that the last four hundred yards of the column had been shelled to destruction as it was leaving Reumont, and a tale is told—probably without truth—of an officer shooting the driver of the leading motor-lorry in a hopeless endeavour to get some ammunition into the firing line.

I scooted back and told the others that our captain was still alive, and a little later we pushed off into the flood. It was now getting dark, and the rain, which had held off for a little, was pouring down.

Finally, we halted at a tiny cottage, and the Signal Company outspanned.

We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the wet by hiding under damp straw and putting on all available bits of clothing. But soon we were all soaked to the skin, and it was so dark that horses wandered perilously near. One hungry mare started eating the straw that was covering my chest. That was enough. Desperately we got up to look round for some shelter, and George, our champion "scrounger," discovered a chicken-house. It is true there were nineteen fowls in it. They died a silent and, I hope, a painless death.

The order came round that the motor-cyclists were to spend the night at the cottage—the roads were utterly and hopelessly impassable—while the rest of the company was to go on. So we presented the company with a few fowls and investigated the cottage.

It was a startling place. In one bedroom was a lunatic hag with some food by her side. We left her severely alone. Poor soul, we could not move her! In the kitchen we discovered coffee, sugar, salt, and onions. With the aid of our old Post Sergeant we plucked some of the chickens and put on a great stew. I made a huge basin full of coffee.

The others, dead tired, went to sleep in a wee loft. I could not sleep. I was always seeing those wounded men passing, passing, and in my ear—like the maddening refrain of a musical comedy ditty—there was always murmuring—"We shall never return. It doesn't matter." Outside was the clink and clatter of the column, the pitiful curses of tired men, the groaning roar of the motor-lorries as they toiled up the slope.

Then the Staff began to wander in one by one—on foot, exhausted and bedraggled. They loved the coffee, but only played with the chicken—I admit it was tough. They thought all was lost and the General killed. One murmured to another: "Magersfontein, Dour, and this—you've had some successful battles." And one went to sleep, but kept starting up, and giving a sort of strangled shout—"All gone! All gone!" When each had rested awhile he would ask gently for a little more coffee, rub his eyes, and disappear into the column to tramp through the night to Saint Quentin. It was the purest melodrama.

And I, too tired to sleep, too excited to think, sat sipping thick coffee the whole night through, while the things that were happening soaked into me like petrol into a rag. About two hours before dawn I pulled myself together and climbed into the loft for forty minutes' broken slumber.

An hour before dawn we wearily dressed. The others devoured cold stew, and immediately there was the faintest glimmering of light we went outside. The column was still passing,—such haggard, broken men! The others started off, but for some little time I could not get my engine to fire. Then I got going. Quarter of a mile back I came upon a little detachment of the Worcesters marching in perfect order, with a cheery subaltern at their head. He shouted a greeting in passing. It was Urwick, a friend of mine at Oxford.

I cut across country, running into some of our cavalry on the way. It was just light enough for me to see properly when my engine jibbed. I cleaned a choked petrol pipe, lit a briar—never have I tasted anything so good—and pressed on.

Very bitter I felt, and when nearing Saint Quentin, some French soldiers got in my way, I cursed them in French, then in German, and finally in good round English oaths for cowards, and I know not what. They looked very startled and recoiled into the ditch. I must have looked alarming—a gaunt, dirty, unshaven figure towering above my motor-cycle, without hat, bespattered with mud, and eyes bright and weary for want of sleep. How I hated the French! I hated them because, as I then thought, they had deserted us at Mons and again at Le Cateau; I hated them because they had the privilege of seeing the British Army in confused retreat; I hated them because their roads were very nearly as bad as the roads of the Belgians. So, wet, miserable, and angry, I came into Saint Quentin just as the sun was beginning to shine a little.



On the morning of the 27th we draggled into Saint Quentin. I found the others gorged with coffee and cakes provided by a kindly Staff-Officer. I imitated them and looked around. Troops of all arms were passing through very wearily. The people stood about, listless and sullen. Everywhere proclamations were posted beseeching the inhabitants to bring in all weapons they might possess. We found the Signal Company, and rode ahead of it out of the town to some fields above a village called Castres. There we unharnessed and took refuge from the gathering storm under a half-demolished haystack. The Germans didn't agree to our remaining for more than fifty minutes. Orders came for us to harness up and move on. I was left behind with the H.Q.S., which had collected itself, and was sent a few minutes later to 2nd Corps H.Q. at Ham, a ride of about fifteen miles.

On the way I stopped at an inn and discovered there three or four of our motor-cyclists, who had cut across country, and an officer. The officer[8] told us how he had been sent on to construct trenches at Le Cateau. It seems that although he enlisted civilian help, he had neither the time nor the men to construct more than very makeshift affairs, which were afterwards but slightly improved by the men who occupied them.

Five minutes and I was on the road again. It was an easy run, something of a joy-ride until, nearing Ham, I ran into a train of motor-lorries, which of all the parasites that infest the road are the most difficult to pass. Luckily for me they were travelling in the opposite direction to mine, so I waited until they passed and then rode into Ham and delivered my message.

The streets of Ham were almost blocked by a confused column retreating through it. Officers stationed at every corner and bend were doing their best to reduce it to some sort of order, but with little success.

Returning I was forced into a byroad by the column, lost my way, took the wrong road out of the town, but managed in about a couple of hours to pick up the Signal Co., which by this time had reached the Chateau at Oleezy.

There was little rest for us that night. Twice I had to run into Ham. The road was bad and full of miscellaneous transport. The night was dark, and a thick mist clung to the road. Returning the second time, I was so weary that I jogged on about a couple of miles beyond my turning before I woke up sufficiently to realise where I was.

The next morning (the 28th) we were off before dawn. So tired were we that I remember we simply swore at each other for nothing at all. We waited, shivering in the morning cold, until the column was well on its way.

At Oleezy the Division began to find itself. Look at the map and think for a moment what the men had done. On the 21st they had advanced from Landrecies to Bavai, a fair day's march on a blazing day. On the 22nd they had marched from Bavai to the Canal. From the morning of the 23rd to midday or later on the 24th they had fought hard. On the afternoon and evening of the 24th they had retired to the Bavai-Saint-Waast line. Before dawn on the morning of the 25th they had started off again and marched in column of route on another blazing day back to a position a few miles south of Le Cateau. The battle had begun as the sun rose on the 26th, and continued until three o'clock or later in the afternoon. They plodded through the darkness and the rain. No proper halt was made until midday of the 27th.

The General, who had escaped, and the Staff worked with ferocious energy, as we very painfully knew. Battalions bivouacked in the open fields round Oleezy collected the stragglers that came in and reorganised themselves. The cavalry were between us and Saint Quentin. We were in communication with them by despatch rider. Trains full of French troops passed westwards over Oleezy bridge. There were, I believe, General d'Amade's two reserve divisions. We had walked away from the Germans.

We rode after the column. On the way we passed a battalion of men who had been on outpost duty with nothing but a biscuit and a half apiece. They broke their ranks to snatch at some meat that had been dumped by the roadside, and gnawed it furiously as they marched along until the blood ran down from their chins on to their jackets.

I shall never forget how our General saw a batch of Gordons and K.O.S.B. stragglers trudging listlessly along the road. He halted them. Some more came up until there was about a company in all, and with one piper. He made them form fours, put the piper at the head of them. "Now, lads, follow the piper, and remember Scotland"; and they all started off as pleased as Punch with the tired piper playing like a hero.

Oving or the Fat Boy volunteered to take a message to a body of cavalry that was covering our rear. He found them, and then, being mapless (maps were very scarce in those days), he lost his way. There was no sun, so he rode in what he thought was the right direction, until suddenly he discovered that he was two kilometres from Saint Quentin. As the Germans were officially reported to be five miles south of the town he turned back and fled into the darkness. He slept that night at a cottage, and picked up the Division in the morning.

I was sent on to fill up with petrol wherever I could find it. I was forced to ride on for about four miles to some cross-roads. There I found a staff-car that had some petrol to spare. It was now very hot, so I had a bit of a sleep on the dusty grass by the side of the road, then sat up to watch lazily the 2nd Corps pass.

The troops were quite cheerful and on the whole marching well. There were a large number of stragglers, but the majority of them were not men who had fallen out, but men who had become separated from their battalions at Le Cateau. A good many were badly footsore. These were being crowded into lorries and cars.

There was one solitary desolate figure. He was evidently a reservist, a feeble little man of about forty, with three days' growth on his chin. He was very, very tired, but was struggling along with an unconquerable spirit. I gave him a little bit of chocolate I had; but he wouldn't stop to eat it. "I can't stop. If I does, I shall never get there." So he chewed it, half-choking, as he stumbled along. I went a few paces after him. Then Captain Dillon came up, stopped us, and put the poor fellow in a staff-car and sent him along a few miles in solitary grandeur, more nervous than comfortable.

Eventually the company came along and I joined. Two miles farther we came to a biggish town with white houses that simply glared with heat.[9] My water-bottle was empty, so I humbly approached a good lady who was doling out cider and water at her cottage door. It did taste good! A little farther on I gave up my bicycle to Spuggy, who was riding in the cable-cart.

We jolted along at about two miles an hour. For some time two spies under escort walked beside the limber. Unlike most spies they looked their part. One was tall and thin and handsome. The other was short and fat and ugly. The fear of death was on their faces, and the jeers of our men died in their mouths. They were marched along for two days until a Court could be convened. Then they were shot.

Just before Noyon we turned off to the left and halted for half an hour at Landrimont, a little village full of big trees. We had omelettes and coffee at the inn, then basked in the sun and smoked. Noyon was unattractive. The people did not seem to care what happened to anybody. Perhaps we thought that, because we were very tired. Outside Noyon I dozed, then went off to sleep.

When I awoke it was quite dark, and the column had halted. The order came for all except the drivers to dismount and proceed on foot. The bridge ahead was considered unsafe, so waggons went across singly.

I walked on into the village, Pontoise. There were no lights, and the main street was illuminated only by the lanterns of officers seeking their billets. An A.S.C. officer gave me a lift. Our H.Q. were right the other end of the town in the Chateau of the wee hamlet called La Pommeraye. I found them, stumbled into a loft, and dropped down for a sleep.

We were called fairly late.[10] George and I rode into Pontoise and "scrounged" for eggs and bread. These we took to a small and smelly cottage. The old woman of the cottage boiled our eggs and gave us coffee. It was a luxurious breakfast. I was looking forward to a slack lazy day in the sun, for we were told that we had for the moment outdistanced the gentle Germans. But my turn came round horribly soon, and I was sent off to Compiegne with a message for G.H.Q., and orders to find our particularly elusive Div. Train. It was a gorgeous ride along a magnificent road, through the great forest, and I did the twenty odd miles in forty odd minutes.

G.H.Q. was installed in the Palace. Everybody seemed very clean and lordly, and for a moment I was ashamed of my dirty, ragged, unshorn self. Then I realised that I was "from the Front"—a magic phrase to conjure with for those behind the line—and swaggered through long corridors.

After delivering my message I went searching for the Div. Train. First, I looked round the town for it, then I had wind of it at the station, but at the station it had departed an hour or so before. I returned to G.H.Q., but there they knew nothing. I tried every road leading out of the town. Finally, having no map, and consequently being unable to make a really thorough search, I had a drink, and started off back.

When I returned I found everybody was getting ready to move, so I packed up. This time the motor-cyclists rode in advance of the column. About two miles out I found that the others had dropped behind out of sight. I went on into Carlepont, and made myself useful to the Billeting Officer. The others arrived later. It seems there had been a rumour of Uhlans on the road, and they had come along fearfully.

The troops marched in, singing and cheering. It was unbelievable what half a day's rest had done for them. Of course you must remember that we all firmly believed, except in our moments of deepest despondency, first, that we could have held the Germans at Mons and Le Cateau if the French had not "deserted" us, and second, that our retreat was merely a "mouvement strategique."

There was nothing doing at the Signal Office, so we went and had some food—cold sausage and coffee. Our hostess was buxom and hilarious. There was also a young girl about the place, Helene. She was of a middle size, serious and dark, with a mass of black lustreless hair. She could not have been more than nineteen. Her baby was put to bed immediately we arrived. We loved them both, because they were the first women we had met since Mons who had not wanted to know why we were retreating and had not received the same answer—"mouvement strategique pour attaquer le mieux." I had a long talk that night with Helene as she stood at her door. Behind us the dark square was filled with dark sleeping soldiers, the noise of snoring and the occasional clatter of moving horses. Finally, I left her and went to sleep on the dusty boards of an attic in the Chateau.

We were called when it was still dark and very cold (August 30). I was vainly trying to warm myself at a feeble camp fire when the order came to move off—without breakfast. The dawn was just breaking when we set out—to halt a hundred yards or so along. There we shivered for half an hour with nothing but a pipe and a scrap of chocolate that had got stuck at the bottom of my greatcoat pocket. Finally, the motor-cyclists, to their great relief, were told that they might go on ahead. The Grimers and I cut across a country to get away from the column. We climbed an immense hill in the mist, and proceeding by a devious route eventually bustled into Attichy, where we found a large and dirty inn containing nothing but some bread and jam. The column was scheduled to go ten miles farther, but "the situation being favourable" it was decided to go no farther. Headquarters were established by the roadside, and I was sent off to a jolly village right up on the hill to halt some sappers, and then back along the column to give the various units the names of their billets.

We supped off the sizzling bacon and slept on the grass by the side of the road. That night George burned his Rudge. It was an accident, but we were none too sorry, for it had given much trouble. There were messages right through the night. At one in the morning I was sent off to a Chateau in the Forest of Compiegne. I had no map, and it was a pure accident that I found my way there and back.

The next day (Aug. 31) was a joyous ride. We went up and down hills to a calm, lazy little village, Haute Fontaine. There we took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a blackberry lane. It was the hottest, pleasantest of days, and forgetting all about the more serious things—we could not even hear the guns—we filled up with the softest, ripest of fruit. Three of us rode together, N'Soon, Grimers, and myself. I don't know how we found our way. We just wandered on through sleepy, cobbled villages, along the top of ridges with great misty views and by quiet streams. Just beyond a village stuck on to the side of a hill, we came to a river, and through the willows we saw a little church. It was just like the Happy Valley that's over the fields from Burford.

We all sang anything we could remember as we rattled along. The bits of columns that we passed did not damp us, for they consisted only of transport, and transport can never be tragic—even in a retreat. The most it can do is to depress you with a sense of unceasing monotonous effort.

About three o'clock we came to a few houses—Bethancourt. There was an omelette, coffee, and pears for us at the inn. The people were frightened.

Why are the English retreating? Are they defeated?

No, it is only a strategical movement.

Will the dirty Germans pass by here? We had better pack up our traps and fly.

We were silent for a moment, then I am afraid I lied blandly.

Oh no, this is as far as we go.

But I had reckoned without my host, a lean, wiry old fellow, a bit stiff about the knees. First of all he proudly showed me his soldier's book—three campaigns in Algeria. A crowd of smelly women pressed round us—luckily we had finished our meal—while with the help of a few knives and plates he explained exactly what a strategical movement was, and demonstrated to the satisfaction of everybody except ourselves that the valley we were in was obviously the place "pour reculer le mieux."

We had been told that our H.O. were going to be at a place called Bethisy St Martin, so on we went. A couple of miles from Bethisy we came upon a billeting party of officers sitting in the shade of a big tree by the side of the road. Had we heard that the Germans were at Compiegne, ten miles or so over the hill? No, we hadn't. Was it safe to go on into Bethisy? None of us had an idea. We stopped and questioned a "civvy" push-cyclist. He had just come from Bethisy and had seen no Germans. The officers started arguing whether or no they should wait for an escort. We got impatient and slipped on. Of course there was nothing in Bethisy except a wide-eyed population, a selection of smells, and a vast congregation of chickens. The other two basked on some hay in the sun, while I went back and pleased myself immensely by reporting to the officers who were timorously trotting along that there wasn't a sign of a Uhlan.

We rested a bit. One of us suggested having a look round for some Uhlans from the top of the nearest hill. It was a terrific climb up a narrow track, but our bicycles brought us up magnificently. From the top we could see right away to the forest of Compiegne, but a judicious bit of scouting produced nothing.

Coming down we heard from a passing car that H.Q. were to be at Crepy-en-Valois, a biggish old place about four miles away to the south the other side of Bethancourt. We arrived there just as the sun was going to set. It was a confusing place, crammed full of transport, but I found my way to our potential H.Q. with the aid of a joyous little flapper on my carrier.

Then I remembered I had left my revolver behind on the hill above Bethisy. Just before I started I heard that there were bags of Uhlans coming along over the hills and through the woods. But there was nothing for it but to go back, and back I went. It was a bestial climb in the dusk. On my way back I saw some strange-looking figures in the grounds of a chateau. So I opened my throttle and thundered past.

Later I found that the figures belonged to the rest of the motor-cyclists. The chateau ought to have been our H.Q., and arriving there they had been entertained to a sit-down tea and a bath.

We had a rotten night—nothing between me and a cold, hard tiled floor except a waterproof sheet, but no messages.

We woke very early (September 1st) to the noise of guns. The Germans were attacking vigorously, having brought up several brigades of Jaegers by motor-bus. The 15th was on our left, the 13th was holding the hill above Bethancourt, and the 14th was scrapping away on the right. The guns were ours, as the Germans didn't appear to have any with them. I did a couple of messages out to the 15th. The second time I came back with the news that their left flank was being turned.

A little later one of our despatch riders rode in hurriedly. He reported that, while he was riding along the road to the 15th, he had been shot at by Uhlans whom he had seen distinctly. At the moment it was of the utmost importance to get a despatch through to the 15th. The Skipper offered to take it, but the General refused his offer.

A second despatch rider was carefully studying his map. It seemed to him absolutely inconceivable that Uhlans should be at the place where the first despatch rider had seen them. They must either have ridden right round our left flank and left rear, or else broken through the line. So he offered boldly to take the despatch.

He rode by a slightly roundabout road, and reached the 15th in safety. On his way back he saw a troop of North Irish Horse. In the meantime the Divisional Headquarters had left Crepy in great state, the men with rifles in front, and taken refuge on a hill south-east of the town. On his return the despatch rider was praised mightily for his work, but to this day he believes the Uhlans were North Irish Horse and the bullets "overs"[11]—to this day the first despatch rider contradicts him.

The Division got away from Crepy with the greatest success. The 13th slaughtered those foolish Huns that tried to charge up the hill in the face of rifle, machine-gun, and a considerable shell fire. The Duke of Wellington's laid a pretty little ambush and hooked a car containing the general and staff of the 1st Cavalry Division. The prisoners were remorsefully shot, as it would have been impossible to bring them away under the heavy fire.

We jogged on to Nanteuil, all of us very pleased with ourselves, particularly the Duke of Wellington's, who were loaded with spoils, and a billeting officer who, running slap into some Uhlans, had been fired at all the way from 50 yards' range to 600 and hadn't been hit.

I obtained leave to give a straggler a lift of a couple of miles. He was embarrassingly grateful. The last few miles was weary work for the men. Remember they had marched or fought, or more often both, every day since our quiet night at Landrecies. The road, too, was the very roughest pave, though I remember well a little forest of bracken and pines we went through. Being "a would-be literary bloke," I murmured "Scottish"; being tired I forgot it from the moment after I saw it until now.

There was no rest at Nanteuil. I took the Artillery Staff Captain round the brigades on my carrier, and did not get back until 10. A bit of hot stew and a post-card from home cheered me. I managed a couple of hours' sleep.

We turned out about 3, the morning of September 2nd. It was quite dark and bitterly cold. Very sleepily indeed we rode along an exiguous path by the side of the cobbles. The sun had risen, but it was still cold when we rattled into that diabolical city of lost souls, Dammartin.

Nobody spoke as we entered. Indeed there were only a few haggard, ugly old women, each with a bit of a beard and a large goitre. One came up to me and chattered at me. Then suddenly she stopped and rushed away, still gibbering. We asked for a restaurant. A stark, silent old man, with a goitre, pointed out an estaminet. There we found four motionless men, who looked up at us with expressionless eyes. Chilled, we withdrew into the street. Silent, melancholy soldiers—the H.Q. of some army or division—were marching miserably out. We battered at the door of a hotel for twenty minutes. We stamped and cursed and swore, but no one would open. Only a hideous and filthy crowd stood round, and not one of them moved a muscle. Finally, we burst into a bare little inn, and had such a desolate breakfast of sour wine, bread, and bully. We finished as soon as we could to leave the nightmare place. Even the houses were gaunt and ill-favoured.

On our way out we came across a deserted motor-cycle. Some one suggested sending it on by train, until some one else remarked that there were no trains, and this was fifteen miles from Paris.

We cut across country, rejoined the column, and rode with it to Vinantes, passing on the way a lost motor-lorry. The driver was tearing his hair in an absolute panic. We told him the Germans were just a few miles along the road; but we wished we hadn't when, in hurriedly reversing to escape, he sent a couple of us into the ditch.

At Vinantes we "requisitioned" a car, some chickens, and a pair of boots. There was a fusty little tavern down the street, full of laughing soldiers. In the corner a fat, middle-aged woman sat weeping quietly on a sack. The host, sullen and phlegmatic, answered every question with a shake of the head and a muttered "N'importe." The money he threw contemptuously on the counter. The soldiers thought they were spies. "As speaking the langwidge," I asked him what the matter was.

"They say, sir, that this village will be shelled by the cursed Germans, and the order has gone out to evacuate."

Then, suddenly his face became animated, and he told me volubly how he had been born in the village, how he had been married there, how he had kept the estaminet for twenty years, how all the leading men of the village came of an evening and talked over the things that were happening in Paris.

He started shouting, as men will—

"What does it matter what I sell, what I receive? What does it matter, for have I not to leave all this?"

Then his wife came up and put her hand on his arm—

"Now, now; give the gentlemen their beer."

I bought some cherry brandy and came away.

I was sent on a couple of messages that afternoon: one to trace a telephone wire to a deserted station with nothing in it but a sack of excellent potatoes, another to an officer whom I could not find. I waited under a tree eating somebody else's pears until I was told he had gone mad, and was wandering aimlessly about.

It was a famous night for me. I was sent off to Dammartin, and knew something would go wrong. It did. A sentry all but shot me. I nearly rode into an unguarded trench across the road, and when I started back with my receipt my bicycle would not fire. I found that the mechanic at Dammartin had filled my tank with water. It took me two hours, two lurid hours, to take that water out. It was three in the morning when I got going. I was badly frightened the Division had gone on, because I hadn't the remotest conception where it was going to. When I got back H.Q. were still at Vinantes. I retired thankfully to my bed under the stars, listening dreamily to Grimers, who related how a sentry had fired at him, and how one bullet had singed the back of his neck.

We left Vinantes not too early after breakfast,—a comfort, as we had all of us been up pretty well the whole night. Grimers was still upset at having been shot at by sentries. I had been going hard, and had had only a couple of hours' sleep. We rode on in advance of the company. It was very hot and dusty, and when we arrived at Crecy with several hours to spare, we first had a most excellent omelette and then a shave, a hair-cut, and a wash. Crecy was populous and excited. It made us joyous to think we had reached a part of the country where the shops were open, people pursuing their own business, where there was no dumbly reproaching glance for us in our retreat.

We had been told that our H.Q. that night were going to be at the chateau of a little village called La Haute Maison. Three of us arrived there and found the caretaker just leaving. We obtained the key, and when he had gone did a little bit of looting on our own. First we had a great meal of lunch-tongue, bread, wine, and stewed pears. Then we carefully took half a dozen bottles of champagne and hid them, together with some other food-stuffs, in the middle of a big bed of nettles. A miscellaneous crowd of cows were wandering round the house lowing pitifully.

We were just about to make a heroic effort at milking when the 3rd Div. billeting officer arrived and told us that the 5th Div. H.Q. would be that night at Bouleurs, farther back. We managed to carry off the food-stuffs, but the champagne is probably still in the nettles. And the bottles are standing up too.

We found the company encamped in a schoolhouse, our fat signal-sergeant doing dominie at the desk. I made himself a comfortable sleeping-place with straw, then went out on the road to watch the refugees pass.

I don't know what it was. It may have been the bright and clear evening glow, but—you will laugh—the refugees seemed to me absurdly beautiful. A dolorous, patriarchal procession of old men with white beards leading their asthmatic horses that drew huge country carts piled with clothes, furniture, food, and pets. Frightened cows with heavy swinging udders were being piloted by lithe middle-aged women. There was one girl demurely leading goats. In the full crudity of curve and distinctness of line she might have sat for Steinlen,—there was a brownness, too, in the atmosphere. Her face was olive and of perfect proportions; her eyelashes long and black. She gave me a terrified side-glance, and I thought I was looking at the picture of the village flirt in serene flight.

I connect that girl with a whisky-and-soda, drunk about midnight out of a tin mug under the trees, thanks to the kindness of the Divisional Train officers. It did taste fine.

The next day (September 4th) I was attached to the Divisional Cyclists. We spent several hours on the top of a hill, looking right across the valley for Germans. I was glad of the rest, as very early in the morning I had been sent off at full speed to prevent an officer blowing up a bridge. Luckily I blundered into one of his men, and scooting across a mile of heavy plough, I arrived breathless at the bridge, but just in time. The bridge in the moonlight looked like a patient horse waiting to be whipped on the raw. The subaltern was very angry. There had been an alarm of Uhlans, and his French escort had retired from the bridge to safer quarters....

I shared Captain Burnett's lunch, and later went to fetch some men from a bridge that we had blown up. It seemed to me at the time that the bridge had been blown up very badly. As a matter of fact, German infantry crossed it four hours after I had left it.

We had "the wind up" that afternoon. It appears that a patrol of six Uhlans had either been cut off or had somehow got across the river at Meaux. Anyway, they rode past an unsuspecting sleepy outpost of ours, and spread alarm through the division. Either the division was panicky or the report had become exaggerated on the way to H.Q. Batteries were put into position on the Meaux road, and there was a general liveliness.

I got back from a hard but unexciting day's work with the Cyclists to find that the Germans had got across in very fact, though not at Meaux, and that we were going to do a further bunk that night. We cursed the gentle Germans heartily and well. About 10.30 the three of us who were going on started. We found some convoys on the way, delivered messages, and then I, who was leading, got badly lost in the big Villeneuve forest—I forgot the name of it at the moment.[12] Of course I pretended that we were taking the shortest road, and luck, which is always with me when I've got to find anything, didn't desert me that night.

At dead of night we echoed into the Chateau at Tournan, roused some servants, and made them get us some bread, fruit, and mattresses. The bread and fruit we devoured, together with a lunch-tongue, from that excellent Chateau at La Haute Maison—the mattresses we took into a large airy room and slept on, until we were wakened by the peevish tones of the other motor-cyclists who had ridden with the column. One of them had fallen asleep on his bicycle and disappeared into a ditch, but the other two were so sleepy they did not hear him. We were all weary and bad-tempered, while a hot dusty day, and a rapid succession of little routine messages, did not greatly cheer us.

At Tournan, appropriately, we turned. We were only a few miles S.-E. of Paris. The Germans never got farther than Lagny. There they came into touch with our outposts, so the tactful French are going to raise a monument to Jeanne d'Arc—a reminder, I suppose, that even we and they committed atrocities sometime.


[8] I do not know who the officer was, and I give the story as I wrote it in a letter home—for what it is worth.

[9] It must have been Guiscard.

[10] August 29th.

[11] Stray bullets that, fired too high, miss their mark, and occasionally hit men well behind the actual firing line.

[12] Foret de Crecy.



The morning of September 5th was very hot, but the brigades could easily be found, and the roads to them were good. There was cheerfulness in the air. A rumour went round—it was quite incredible, and we scoffed—that instead of further retreating either beyond or into the fortifications of Paris, there was a possibility of an advance. The Germans, we were told, had at last been outflanked. Joffre's vaunted plan that had inspired us through the dolorous startled days of retirement was, it appeared, a fact, and not one of those bright fancies that the Staff invents for our tactical delectation.

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