The Plain Story of a Canadian
By Louis Keene
Canadian Expeditionary Force
With a Prefatory Note By
General Leonard Wood
Illustrated by the Author
Boston and New York
Houghton Mifflin Company
HEADQUARTERS SOUTHEASTERN DEPARTMENT CHARLESTON, S.C.
11th August, 1917
Captain Keene has made an interesting contribution to the literature of the present war in his account of service, which covers the experience of a young officer in the making and on the battle front,—the transformation of an artist into a first-class machine-gun officer. He covers the training period at home and abroad and the work at the front. This direct and interesting account should serve to bring home to all of us an appreciation of how much has to be done before troops can be made effective for modern war, the cost of unpreparedness, and the disadvantage under which troops, partially equipped, labor when they meet highly organized ones, prepared, even to the last detail, for all the exigencies of modern war. It also brings out the splendid spirit of Canada, the Mother Country, and the distant Colonies,—the spirit of the Empire, united and determined in a just cause.
This and similar accounts should serve to make clear to us the wisdom of the admonition of Washington and many others: "In time of peace prepare for war."
Many young Americans are about to undergo experiences similar to those of Captain Keene, and a perusal of this modest and straight-forward narrative will help in the great work of getting ready.
LEONARD WOOD, Maj.-Gen. U.S.A.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The Canadian, Johnnie Canuck, The American, And The ANZAC.
Bringing Up A Motor Machine Gun.
What's The Use?
A French Soldier.
Mr. Tommy Atkins.
The Plain Story of a Canadian who went
The Laurentian Mountains in the Province of Quebec are noted for their beauty, fine hunting and fishing, and are the stamping-grounds for many artists from the States and Eastern Canada. It was in this capacity that I was working during the hot summer of 1914. All through June and July I sketched with my father. Other than black flies my only worry was the price of my tubes of color.
We usually received our newspapers two or three days after publication; consequently we were poorly posted on worldly happenings. Suddenly the war clouds gathered and almost before we knew it they became so threatening that we grew restless, and even went in to the depot to get our papers so that we could have the news sooner.
The assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince and the subsequent events were exciting, but it was only when Russia sent that one word "Mobilize" to Serbia that we suspected serious results. Even the summer visitors from the States exhibited signs of excitement, yet they were skeptical of the chances of war; that is, war that would really affect us! My newspaper in Montreal wired for me to come down to do war cartoons and I left my father and hiked to the depot.
The Montreal train was crowded and conversation centered on the one topic, War; the English Navy's ability to maintain her rule of the seas, and what would Canada do. A young Austrian reservist two seats away was telling some people in a loud voice how much he wanted to get into it. He was going back to answer the call. And I had already begun to hear my country's call.
A newsboy boarding the train at a junction was overwhelmed and succeeded in getting twenty-five cents a copy for his papers.
Montreal teemed with suppressed anxiety and every hour fresh news was posted. Special bulletin boards were put up on store fronts. Already men in uniform were seen in the street. And men were trying to enlist.
The war fever was rising steadily; the chief occupation of Canadians in those days was watching the bulletin boards. Rumors of sea fights, ultimatums, disasters, and victories were common. The Kaiser seemed to declare war on the world at the rate of three countries a day.
On the night of August 4th, as I was putting the finishing touches on a cartoon, a friend burst into the room:—"Come out of here! Something must happen any minute now." We marched downtown,—everybody marched in those days; walking was abolished in its favor. One met demonstrations everywhere, large crowds of cheering men with flags, victrolas at shop windows played patriotic airs, and soldiers with civilians crowded before the bulletin boards singing the national anthems with great enthusiasm. The King had declared war and his message to the fleet had just been put up! Newspaper extras were given away by thousands and movies of the British Navy were shown on the street. Any one who thought the British could not enthuse, changed his mind then.
The audiences at the theatres and moving picture houses on receipt of the news rose simultaneously and sang the national anthems, then cheered themselves hoarse. These were the first days of the war. Several battalions of militia were called out and posted to protect the bridges and grain elevators. Battalions were raised overnight, and so many recruits came forward that men were refused by the score. England was immediately offered ten battalions. Then an army division was possible. The Militia Department suddenly became a hive of industry. Men with all kinds of business capacity tendered their services gratis, and the Canadian war machine, without the experience of previous campaigns, took shape. They worked night and day bringing everlasting credit on themselves. Banks offered full pay to their employees in uniform, and this example was widely followed. The principle prompting this action being, "It's our country; if we can't fight ourselves, we will help others to fight for her."
Existent camp sites were inadequate, hence new ones were necessary. We had a few, but none were big enough. We bought Valcartier, one of the best sites in the world, which was equipped almost over-night with water service, electric light and drainage. The longest rifle range in the world with three and one-half miles of butts was constructed. Railroad sidings were put in and 35,000 troops from all over the Dominion poured into it. Think of it,—Canada with her population of seven and one-half millions offering 35,000 volunteers the first few weeks, without calling out her militia. And even to-day the militia are yet to be called. Thus every Canadian who has served at the front has been a volunteer. England accepted an army division. Fifteen hundred qualified officers were told that they would have to stay and train men for the next contingent. But this was not fighting. They were dissatisfied. They resigned their commissions and went as privates. Uniforms, boots, rifles and equipment were found for everybody. Every man was trained as much as possible in the time allowed, and within six weeks of the declaration of war, guns, horses and 35,000 men were going forward to avenge Belgium.
With me the question of signing up was a big one. In the first place, I wanted to go; I wanted to go quickly. Several other fellows and myself had decided upon a certain battalion. But much to our disgust and regret we were informed that enlistments had stopped only a short time before.
Then came the announcement of the organization of the First Auto Machine Gun Brigade, the generous gift of several of Canada's most prominent citizens, and it was in this unit that I enlisted with my friend Pat, a six-foot, husky Scotchman, with the fighting blood of the kilties very near the surface. We were immediately transported to Ottawa in company with fifty other picked men from Montreal. At Ottawa the complement of our battery was completed upon the arrival of one hundred more men from Ottawa and Toronto. Here we trained until it came time for us to move to Montreal, and there the battery was embarked on board the Corinthian with a unit of heavy artillery. We sailed down to Quebec where we joined the other ships assembled to take over the First Canadian Contingent.
Corinthian, Wednesday, Sept. 30th, 1914.
MY DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER:—
We are now steaming down the St. Lawrence. No one knows where we are going.
Our fleet is a wonderful sight. All the ships are painted war gray—sides, boats and funnels. We are expecting to pick up the warships which are to convoy us across at Father Point, somewhere near where the Empress of Ireland was sunk.
Quebec looked very fine. The big guns were being hoisted into boats, horses embarking, and battalion after battalion arriving and going aboard. Those who came from Valcartier have had a rough time. They actually look as if they had come through a campaign. It gave me thrills all day to see these fine men come through the dock-gates with a steady swing. It is a magnificent contribution to any army. It's good to think of all these men coming at their country's call.
Some day, if I get back, I want to paint a picture of the fleet assembled at Quebec. The grays and greens looked really beautiful. Quebec, the city of history and the scene of many big battles, views with disdain the Canadian patriotism in the present crisis, and we had no send-off, no flags and no bands.
This letter will not be mailed for ten days, until we are well on the way over. We are crowded, and if we are going through the tropics we shall have a bad time; it is cold now, so we don't notice the congestion.
We had one hundred and forty horses aboard and two batteries of heavy artillery, besides our own armored cars. All the transports are crowded. We were passed by about ten of the other boats, and as they did so we cheered each other. The thin lines of khaki on all the ships will make a name for themselves. I'm proud I am one of them.
We've had a big dose of vaccine pumped into our arms to-day. This will be the last letter I send before I arrive, wherever we are going.
The Corinthian sailed from Quebec to Father Point, where a patrol boat arrived with orders. We then sailed into the Gulf, but toward evening we turned into the coast. When we passed Fame Point Light a small boat, which afterwards turned out to be another patrol boat, sailing without lights, flashed further orders to us. The Corinthian immediately turned round and headed back. The minute the patrol boat's signal light went out we were unable to distinguish it from the sea. The coloring is a good protection; even a boat, close to, sailing without lights, it is impossible to pick out. Apparently our orders were to cruise around until daylight and then sail for the Bay of Gaspe, and this morning at daybreak we sailed into that beautiful, natural harbor, which is big enough to accommodate the entire British fleet.
I expect that to the villagers living around this harbor all events will date from to-day—to-day, when the wonderful sight of twenty-five ocean liners drawn up in battleship formation in this quiet place, deserted except for an occasional visit from a river steamer or fishing craft, greeted their gaze.
Five gray fighting ships are mounting guard, and by their signals and pinnaces chasing backward and forward between the troopers are bossing the show. A corporal, a South African War veteran, as we looked at them, quoted Kipling's
"The liner she's a lady With the paint upon 'er face, The man o' war's 'er 'usband And keeps 'er in 'er place."
Towards noon a smart launch came alongside. Even at a distance the boys were quick to recognize our popular minister of militia, Sam Hughes, and a thundering cheer rang out. With him were several soldiers who threw bundles of papers aboard. These were printed copies of his farewell to the troops. His launch sailed by the ship, and then on to the next and so on, through the fleet.
Our orders forbade the display of lights or even striking of matches after 6 P.M.; consequently all lights were masked to-night on the vessels, except those on the Royal Edward. The minute her lights were put out the Bay resumed its normal condition, not even the outlines of the vessels being visible.
A press photographer on a launch has been taking pictures all the afternoon. Sailed at five o'clock this afternoon just as the twilight commenced. We sailed out in three lines. The convoy is now under way and we extend as far as can be seen in both directions. We have two military police patrols whose chief duty is to see that no matches are struck on deck. Bill, who smokes more matches than tobacco, has had to go below so often to light his pipe, that he has decided to do without smoking on deck. It is surprising how far a match struck in the dark will show. We noticed how matches struck on the other ships showed up last night. All our portholes are screwed down with the heavy weather irons and those of the second-class cabins are covered with blankets. The authorities are taking no chances.
We are having physical drills and lectures all day, and we are working just as hard on board as we would ashore. Our speed will not be more than nine knots; the speed of the slowest vessel regulating the speed of the whole fleet.
Matches are getting very scarce. We complained about the tea to the orderly officer to-day; milk is running out, so the tea is made with milk and sugar in. We asked to have the three separate, but we were told that if we complained we would have all three taken away. As a floor stain it's great, but as tea it's a failure.
We are quartered in the steerage part of the ship and our food is in keeping. It is really remarkable how they can consistently get that same coal-oil flavor in all the food.
War news is signaled from ship to ship by semaphore flags by day. It is posted up in the guard room daily. The news that the Indian troops landed in France on the 29th of September was the chief item on the bulletin yesterday. We're short on things to read. Scraps of newspapers are devoured, even to the advertisements. In our cabin we have a "Saturday Evening Post" of September 26th which is thumb-marked and torn, but it is still treasured. We were not allowed to bring anything besides our kit on board on account of the limited space.
Reveille blows at six o'clock and we have to answer the roll-call at 6.15. The idea is, that if the men get up and walk about, they are not so likely to get seasick, but in spite of that quite a number are sick. We have on board one hundred of our brigade; two hundred and sixteen heavy artillery and one hundred and forty horses, together with artillery officers and equipment. The horses take up the same space which in ordinary times is occupied by humans. Otherwise, we should have a great many more troops. Our destination is still a mystery. We're a fleet without a port.
Have just been ordered on fatigue to take a prisoner on deck for exercise. He is to be tried by court-martial to-morrow for striking a sergeant. All day he is kept locked up and only allowed out at night for exercise, under escort. The escort consists of two men and a non-com. While on this job we watched the signalers flashing the war news from the stern of our boat to the bridge of the next astern, the Virginian. The news is flashed at night by the lamps—short and long flashes. The news is picked up by wireless on the flagship, the Charybdis, at the head of our line and signaled back from ship to ship.
This is the list of the fleet. It is written here in the order in which they are sailing. Three warships are heading the fleet; the flagship is the H.M.S. Charybdis, commanded by Admiral Wemyss, who distinguished himself a few weeks ago in the Battle of Heligoland.
H.M.S. Diana H.M.S. Eclipse H.M.S. Charybdis Caribbean Megantic Scotian Athenia Ruthenia Arcadian Royal Edward Bermudian Zealand Franconia Alaunia Corinthian (The transport on which I was shipped.) H.M.S. Glory Canada Ivernia Virginian Monmouth Scandinavian Sasconia Manitou Sicilian Grampian Tyrolia Montezuma Andania Tunisian Lapland Montreal Laurentic Cassandra Laconia Royal George H.M.S. Talbot
The H.M.S. Glory, the vessel on our starboard beam, altered her course to-day and held up a tramp steamer. We could just see the two vessels through our glasses. Apparently everything was all right as the tramp was allowed to go on her way afterwards.
We are all given our boat stations. This afternoon a submarine alarm was sounded. Everybody on board, including the stewards, had to drop everything and chase to the boats. In the excitement a cook shot a "billy" of soup over an officer's legs, much to our silent delight.
Thinking it over, it will be remarkable if the Germans allow us to cross without making some attempt to sink a few transports. Besides the actual loss of the men, the demoralizing effect it will have on the recruiting would count a great deal. No man likes to be shot or drowned without a show.
I am writing this in my cabin, which is only nine feet by six feet and in which six of us sleep at night. Besides living in it we have to keep all our equipment clean, which is some job!
About eleven this morning a commotion occurred in the middle line. The cruiser heading it and the second ship, the Royal Edward, turned back. Also several other boats turned in their course. As we have very little excitement we hoped it might be a German attack, for we all want to see a naval battle. I looked at the cruiser through powerful glasses and saw sailors fixing up the starboard lifeboat, so we presumed that it was simply a case of "man overboard."
A big cruiser has joined our fleet and is acting as a flank guard about three miles away from our starboard side.
We have a great deal of physical exercise in spite of the rolling of the deck. This morning, while in the middle of it I was called away to dress and form part of an escort to the prisoner who was to be tried by field court-martial to-day. The court was very dignified, and it took a long time owing to the inexperience of the officers in such matters. It was the first court-martial I have seen,—the proceedings are strictly legal, being conducted according to the book, and with the officers wearing their swords. The poor devil expects two years.
We have been pitching and tossing a great deal to-day. Physical exercising on the sloping decks is becoming a mighty risky thing.
Quite a number of the transports have guns mounted on board so they are not entirely dependent on the cruisers. It looks as if we are sailing north of the usual trade routes. I have just heard that five more battleships are on the starboard beam. They came into sight early this morning, but have since been out of sight. We are sailing north of the trade routes.
The fleet is being increased. All ships are stopped. Those sailing west are allowed to go after being boarded; those going in the same direction as ourselves are made to fall into line, so there will be no danger of the news of our sailing reaching Europe ahead of us. If we continue to pick up ships sailing in our direction, the fleet will be enormous by the time we arrive at our unknown destination. We sailed two hundred and twelve miles the last twenty-four hours.
Two more transports have joined us. They came from Newfoundland. I hear that we now have forty-three ships in the fleet. We sail at ten cables' length apart, about one thousand yards.
We are getting into more dangerous water evidently. Early this morning the Royal George steamed up from the end of the line and took up a position at the head of the fleet, but in line with the battleship Glory about three miles away on the port. The Laurentic took up a similar position on the starboard. Both these ships are armored and have guns mounted on them. They are being used as scouts.
We all rushed up on deck to see a cruiser pass close to us this midday. It was a magnificent sight. She was either the H.M.S. Bristol or the H.M.S. Essex; her name was painted The bluejackets were massed on the decks forward and as she went by the marines' band played "The Maple Leaf Forever." We returned cheers with the sailors. It gives you a great thrill to see a British ship and to have the knowledge of what it represents. To be British is a great thing, and I'm proud to think that I'm going to fight for my country. When this war is over and men are talking round a table, it will be, "Where were you fighting during the war?" not "Did you fight during the war?"
I'm in a gun-cleaning squad every afternoon. To-day I cleaned the machine gun on which I'm second gunner. We treat our machine guns as if they were pets. No one will ever be able to say that my gun is dirty. It will probably be my best friend some day.
The finding of the court-martial was read out to us on full parade this afternoon. First the "Heavies" were lined up on all sides of the deck, then the "Mosquitos," as the Machine Gunners are called, lined up inside; the prisoner between an escort was led up in the center. It was wonderfully impressive. I felt that I was to witness the condemning of a fellow soldier to a number of years of hard labor. Over the whole assembly there came a deathlike silence and the finding of the court was read to us by an officer, the sentence being thirty-six days!
The second steward told me that it took two hundred carpenters twelve hours to tear down the cabins and fix up horse fittings. First the authorities made arrangements to ship a thousand troops on this ship. We're crowded as we are now with only three hundred odd. I hate to think what it would have been like with a thousand.
Early this morning a large man-o'-war came up on the port at a speed that made everything else seem to stop. We have now battleships on all sides. This ship, although a long way off, looks tremendous. She is one of the latest super-dreadnaughts.
I was on guard last night when one of the cruisers came alongside to TALK to the captain about having lights showing in some of the ports. I enjoyed it immensely, for I discovered that the British Navy, true to tradition, was still able to maintain its high level of profanity. The ship is in pitch darkness and there is no moon. On deck it's almost impossible to walk it's so dark. Tonight is supposed to be the night on which the Germans are going to make a raid. I am going to sleep on deck so that I shall not miss anything. I'd hate to miss the chance of seeing a naval engagement. I can't see how the Germans can possibly let a chance go by. A nervy cruiser could sink any amount of ships. If the British Navy were up against us they would have had a cut in before now.
Slept on deck last night. Nothing happened except that early this morning a French cruiser joined us, and I got covered with smuts from the smokestack.
The Admiral has received one hundred and twenty-six words of war news, but will not let us have them. Probably they're disastrous. We break up to-night or to-morrow. It's scarcely likely that the whole fleet will be taken to one port at the same time.
That super-dreadnaught passed down the columns to-day. She is of tremendous size and travels at high speed. She is probably the Queen Mary.
Expect to see land Wednesday.
Blowing a gale. All day the spendrift has been blowing over. The decks have been too wet for parades, thank God! All the way over we have had physical exercise, sometimes as much as four hours a day. We're all in fine physical condition.
To-day we were allowed to wash our clothes. I can see the advantage of khaki now. Even after working hard on my clothes, my underwear is still dark white. The rails were covered with underwear and socks when the storm started. Now every square inch below is used for drying clothes. Even the electric lights are festooned. We have a final kit inspection to-morrow and then we pack for disembarkation. We are only about one hundred miles from the "Bishop's Light."
It has been a very long voyage and we have been very cramped. All our equipment has to be carried in our cabins. Try sleeping six men with all their outfit in a cabin nine feet by six feet. The ship carpenter has a standing job to repair our cabin. We have rough-housed so much that his attention was continually necessary. The trip has been so long that we are now beginning to hate each other. I went down in the stoke-hole and the engine-room. Even amongst the whirling machines it was more peaceful than in our quarters. It seems months since I was in Montreal last.
Dear Old England in sight!
We're passing the Lizard now.
The kit has all been inspected and we hope to land to-morrow some time.
We're lying in the historic harbor of Plymouth; arrived here about two hours ago. We're surrounded by fast little torpedo-boat destroyers, which are chasing round us all the time like dogs loosened from a chain. The breakwater has searchlights mounted on each end and fixed lights are playing from the shore. As the lights occasionally flash up the ships in the bay, it is as bright as day. Nobody is allowed ashore, not even the officers. We may go on to Southampton, only we must get there before five at night. After that time nothing is allowed in.
Sailed at daybreak on to Devonport. Most of the transports are now lying in pairs at anchor in the harbor. We're close to the shore. We can see naval "jolly boats" and pinnaces sailing back and forth. On one side are lying the H.M.S Powerful and another boat, both of which in their day were the pride of the Navy. The Powerful was the boat which made such a name for herself in the Boer War. Now both of these vessels are training ships and obsolete so far as this war goes.
All our haversacks have been boiled in coffee to stain them khaki.
One of the Navy steam launches came by and we asked them to get us newspapers. They came back with a bundle and we nearly had a riot trying to get at them.
It was only to-day that we heard of the fall of Antwerp, the atrocities of Belgium, and the treachery of Maritz in Cape Colony.
We shall be getting off in a few hours and this may be the last I shall write for some time. I have put in a great deal of time during the voyage writing and have done so under difficulties. Sometimes the cabin has been torn in pieces, and often arguments, carried on by leather-lunged opponents of "Kultur," have made this work hard.
We hear that some paper published an account of the sinking of twenty of the ships. This rumor is false, and it's a beastly thing for the newspaper to do, but you must remember to discount all news a great deal.
Still on board and we shall probably be here for a few days more. My, it's galling to be so near to the land and yet to be cooped up in our crowded quarters. Crowded launches and steamers are sailing round the liners. All day long cheering crowds come out to see us. Last night another liner called Florizel, with the First Regiment Newfoundland troops, tied up to us. They were a fine-looking lot of men. We told them we had no tobacco; they threw dozens of tins of their tobacco and cigarettes over to us. We fought for them. I got the remains of one tin with most of the contents spilt. Still, as many of us haven't had a smoke for three days, we appreciated it. Several cruisers have come in to-day, and there seem to be dozens of submarines and torpedo boats cruising around all day. The reason we did not go to Southampton is that five German submarines were waiting for us.
The transports are unloading at the rate of five or six ships a day. It will probably be our turn on Sunday. The fleet looks splendid at night now that we have most of the lights on. All night the steel riveters are at work on three battleships that are being built close by. Near us are several "wooden walls." One is a ship of Nelson's, the Queen Adelaide. Every boat, tug, lighter and motor boat here is the property of the Admiralty.
We are probably going to Salisbury Plain for two months. We are the first Expeditionary Force to land in England from the dominions or colonies, but others are on their way. The sailors from the training ships serenade us in boats with bands and play "O Canada," "The Maple Leaf Forever," and all day long on one ship or the other we hear "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Every one is singing it; without doubt it is the song of the war. To-day we got a bundle of papers. We read them right through to the advertisements. Cigarettes and matches are at a premium and food is running out on board. The strain of staying here is becoming too great. We're all disagreeable and insubordinate. The guard room is already full and will soon need enlarging.
On guard to prevent the men of the two ships (our own and the Florizel with the Newfoundlanders) coming over to visit each other. At ten o'clock at night I got the tip that a bunch of men were going to make a break for shore and I was asked to go. I had just come off sentry and was dressed for shore. We all met up forward, hailed a police boat, climbed down a rope ladder across two barges unloading shells and into the police launch. When I got in I found that I and one other fellow were the only privates; all the rest were sergeants and corporals, thirteen altogether, unlucky number. The police sergeants asked me if we had passes. I said, "You bet," and we sailed away from the ship right under everybody's nose. We landed and then took a car to Plymouth and went on the Hoe, which has been in absolute darkness since the beginning of the war. Girls were very interested in us and took most of our collar badges and buttons as souvenirs. One man asked me to give him a cigarette as a souvenir.
We met an English captain in a tobacconist's and he invited us up to the barracks. Two of us went. I was one. To get there we had to go on a street car. We had just sat down when up the stairs came my Lieutenant McCarthy. When he saw me he said, "How the hell did you get here?" "Oh, just swam across." "Well, if you get caught it'll be the guard room for you." I said, "Never mind, we'll have company." He is a pretty good sport. We went to the barracks, had a session with the captain, then went to the quay, picked up the rest of the men, and sneaked on board. I got to bed at three and had to get up this morning at six o'clock to go on guard.
Sunday, very tired. On guard all day, two hours on, four off. It's very unfortunate having a Sunday guard, because in the ordinary way we have to attend church parade in the morning and after having listened to a sermon and sung "Onward, Christian Soldiers," or, "Fight the good fight," we are free for the day, whereas guards stay on twenty-four hours.
The major noticed one of the sergeants coming on board this morning at six o'clock. The idiot missed us this morning and of course that dished us. The sergeants got in wrong. As I am only a private, and therefore ignorant and simple according to the military code, and, being with non-commissioned officers who are supposed to possess superior intelligence, I got away with it. The sergeants have had to do sentry on the same ladder we went down.
Everybody is as disagreeable as possible. We are lying in midstream and can see the town. Can you imagine anything more galling than that?
While I was on guard the Vicar of Plymouth came aboard and held service. He said that the last time a Vicar of Plymouth preached to warriors was just before Drake sailed to meet the Armada.
Thank God! moving at last. We've moored up to the docks just opposite two magnificent dreadnaughts. Naval men are handling our cargo, our kit bags are packed and we are ready to disembark.
Near our ship's stern is a barge full of ventilators and spare parts of ships which are taken away when ships are cleared for action. Some of the rifle racks were marked Cornwall and I noticed a davit post with the name Highflyer, the boat that sank the Kaiser Wilhelm after she had been preying on the shipping off South Africa. When a ship is cleared for action, all inflammable fittings, such as wooden doors, ladders, racks, extra boats, and davits, etc., are discarded. If the order to "clear the decks for action" comes at sea, overboard go all these luxuries. It is calculated that the cost of "clearing decks" on a cruiser is five thousand dollars.
Some of our stuff was unloaded yesterday, and when the ship moved a guard was placed over it. When the corporal went down the gangplank with the relief, Pat and I walked down behind as if we were part of the same, right by the officers. We had a devil of a job to get through the dock gates, a suspicious policeman and sentry on guard. We told the sergeant of the police a pitiful story, saying that we hadn't had anything to eat for three days, and finally he relented. "All right, my lads, only don't 'swing the lead' in town." We got into Devonport and went to the biggest hotel. Before they had time to throw us out we ordered breakfast of real food. It was fine after the ship's grub. After sitting there ten minutes, the general commanding the district came in and sat behind us. He stared. Two privates in the same room as the general!! But all he said was, "If you boys can fight as you eat, you'll make an impression." Then we visited some other places!
We went back to the docks and went over the super-dreadnaughts, Tiger and Benbow, the biggest war vessels in the world. The Tiger's speed on her trials was 37.5 knots an hour.
After we had seen enough, we went back to the ship and tried to look as if we had been working with one of the fatigue parties on shore. It worked!
We marched off the ship midday and then I had to go on guard again all night. That was the first time we were allowed ashore to see the town, and I was on guard, so if I hadn't slipped ashore on the two occasions mentioned, I should not have seen it at all.
It rained all night, and when I was off guard I slept on the top of one of our armored trucks, under a tarpaulin. It's wonderful how we can sleep now anywhere, and we often have our clothes on for three days at a time. Many a time I sleep with all my equipment on. Get wet and dry it by keeping it on. We all have to do it. The idea of pajamas or baths as necessities seems funny. At one time I would sooner go without breakfast than miss a bath. Now I make sure of the breakfast.
We are going to drive our cars through England to Salisbury Plain. We started this morning and drove through Devonport. Cheering crowds everywhere. All our cars wear the streaming pennants: "Canada With the Empire," which pleased the people a great deal.
As we rode through the streets people showered gifts upon us, such as cakes, chocolates, newspapers and apples, and everywhere made lusty demonstrations. The people of Taunton, as soon as they heard that the Canadians were coming, turned out the barracks and we were met by all the officers, who came in to talk to us. One second lieutenant, after studying me for some time, said, "Isn't your name Keene?" "Yes," I replied, "but how do you know?" "I went to school with you fifteen years ago." His name was Carter; he was in the Second Dorsets. That night he got me out of barracks for a couple of hours, and we hashed over the schoolboy reminiscences. The people of Taunton were arranging a dance for us, but nobody was allowed to attend. The major believes in putting us to bed early; his theory being that a man can't drive cars well after a party, and he couldn't keep the drivers in alone.
Ladies from Taunton, of the pleasing English type with beautiful complexions, handed round all sorts of rubbish, jam puffs, and other things which belong to the time before we joined the army.
Traveled all the morning. Everybody turned out to see us. The Brigadier-General wired ahead, and hastily prepared placards, still wet, were hanging from the windows,—
God Bless the Canadians Loyal Sons of The Empire
The gathering of the Lions' whelps
and in one case the haste was so great that "God Save the King" was hung upside down.
Everybody wants my badges and buttons, and some men in the unit have not one left. Hence I have requisitioned an order for a hundred to meet the demand.
All over the country you see "Kitchener's Army" drilling. In one case we passed about a hundred of them. When they saw us they broke ranks and shook us by the hands. The people of England are much impressed with our speed in coming over. Old men and women shouted, "God bless you, Canadians!" while tears trickled down their cheeks.
I read this notice in one little shop,—
At noon every day the church bell will ring a few chimes and everybody is asked to stop whatever he is doing and offer this prayer, "Oh, Lord, help our soldiers and sailors to defeat our enemies, and let us have Peace."
(Signed) The Vicar.
Recruiting notices ten feet by six feet with the sentence "Your King and Country Need You" are to be seen everywhere in shops, on barns, trees, and even church doors.
Motorists and cyclists are warned to pull up whenever requested or the results may be serious. Most of the motors have O.H.M.S. plates above the number plate.
We billeted in a village school; all slept in our blankets on the floor. Left the school and cleaned up before the kids came for their lessons next day.
Salisbury Plain. Arrived to-day. This part is called Bustard and takes its name from the small Bustard Inn, Headquarters of General Alderson, General Officer Commanding. Troops are here in thousands and we are no novelty. The roads are torn up. Mud is two feet deep in places. All through the day and night motor lorries, artillery and cavalry are traveling over the ground. Aeroplanes are circling overhead and heavy artillery are firing. We see the shells bursting on the ranges every day.
Always raining. Everything is wet, and I am sleeping in a rotten tent which leaks. Still, we are all so fit that what would kill an ordinary man doesn't worry us much.
We all get three days' leave and are trying by every means possible to wangle another day or two. Many men have to see dentists, and lots of men have grandparents in Scotland who display signs of dying suddenly. If the excuse is good enough, we get four days and sometimes five. I have a sweetheart in Scotland, but if that is played out I have to work something else.
Wonderful sight from where I am now. Miles of tents, motors and horse lines on this desolate moorland. No houses; only camps and a few trees which have been planted as wind screens. The soil is very poor, too poor for farming. It is government property and it is only used for troops. We are ten miles from a railroad. We are so isolated that we might be in Africa, except that it's so cold.
The papers are starting an agitation to get the Canadians to march through London, and are asking why they should be smuggled in and then shut up on Salisbury Plain. They want to see us, AND WE WANT TO SEE LONDON!!
Our ambulance car has been used every day since we came here, taking wounded from one hospital to another. The rest of our cars have been used to carry German prisoners.
One of the spies caught on the ships is said to have been shot. Several were arrested; two were caught in Devonport while we were there, one in a Canadian officer's uniform.
Am spending seventy-two hours' leave in London. Got leave through this telegram which is from "the girl I'm engaged to":
Disappointed. Met train. Please do come. Leaving for Belgium soon. Love.
She is a Red Cross nurse. This is a new one and it worked. McCarthy sent it to me.
London is very dismal. No electric signs, and the tops of all the street lamps are painted black so that the lights don't show from above. However, we managed to have a good time, in spite of it all. The Germans say that the Canadians are being held in England to repel the invasion.
The facilities for bathing are not very extensive. I rode into Salisbury, a distance of seventeen miles, yesterday, on top of some packing-cases in a covered transport wagon, for a bath, the first since I was last on leave. We get a Turkish bath in town for thirty cents. After that we had a large juicy steak and then started our seventeen-mile trip back through the pouring rain. Every other mile we got down and helped the driver swear and push the car out of the mud, vast quantities of which abound on the Salisbury roads, believe me!!
It is Sunday afternoon. Most of the men in camp are asleep or reading. Outside it is raining. It seems to be always raining, and occasionally we have such a thick fog that even a trip to get water is exciting before you can get back to your own lines.
Owing to our camp having become a swamp we have had to move our quarters to drier ground. Moving the tents is not a big job, but rebuilding the cook-house is! I figure that when I leave the army I shall have a few more professions to choose from. For example, I'm a pretty hefty trench digger; then as a scavenger I am pretty good at picking up tin cans and pieces of paper; also I'm an expert in building things such as shelters from any old pieces of timber that we can steal; then as a cook I can now make that wonderful tea that I wrote you about, besides many other things which we didn't realize that we had to do when we enlisted.
To-day the paper says "Fair and Warmer." We could do with some of that. Years ago, before I joined the army and lost my identity, I rather liked occasionally getting wet in the refreshing rain; but now the trouble is that we are always wet and have nowhere to dry our things, except by sleeping on them.
Our major has an original scheme of training men in the ranks to qualify for commissions, sort of having half a dozen embryo officers ready. I have been picked as one and have to study in all my spare time. It means a great deal more work, but it's very interesting and the sort of thing I would like to do. We start to-day.
We began our instruction on the machine gun to the officers and the men who are up here for a special course; I have a boozy lieutenant, who doesn't care a hang, and a bright non-com. Some of the officers we brought over make good mascots.
It was fine to-day. We were even able to open up the tent flap to dry the place a bit. To-day the major congratulated me on the Christmas card I designed for the unit.
Our classes of instruction to the "alien" officers finish to-morrow. Both the men I was instructing passed.
The adjutant is very anxious to put us through our officers' training course quickly.
We are now recognized as the specialist corps in the machine-gun work with the Canadian Division, and he is anxious that we shall be ready to take commissions when casualties occur. Every battalion of infantry has a machine-gun section attached, and we have the job of training the officers and sergeants of these sections.
Owing to the bombardment of the east coast, several of our battalions are under orders to move at a moment's notice. It is thought that the bombardment was simply a ruse to draw the British fleet away from around Heligoland.
The newspaper boys in Salisbury, when you refuse to buy an "Hextra," shout "Montreal Star" and "Calgary Eyeopener," and all the shopgirls and barmaids in Salisbury say, "Some kid," "Believe muh," "Oh, Boy!"
I had been granted Christmas leave at the last minute, and as it was awkward to telegraph to Northwich, I arrived after a long journey, lasting sixteen hours, ten minutes ahead of the letter I'd sent saying I was coming. My arrival soon spread over the town. A Canadian—this was a rather unique thing for Northwich, a little Cheshire town. Out of a population of about eighteen thousand, two thousand men have joined the colors. The men in uniform from the works are all receiving half pay. The other men who are staying are working twelve hours a day and give up part of their pay so that the jobs of the soldiers will be open when they come back. Thirty-five Belgian refugees are being kept here. Money to keep them for twelve months has been subscribed. One huge house has been taken over as a hospital with twenty-three nurses, all volunteers from Northwich. Everybody has done or is doing something in the great struggle. The young ladies in this neighborhood have no use for a man who is not in khaki, and with customary north of England frankness tell them so.
I expect that you know that the Government has sent around forms to every house asking the men who are going to volunteer to sign, and men long past the military age have signed the papers, "too old for the war service, but willing to serve either at home or abroad voluntary for the period of the war." Others have offered to do work to allow young men to go, to keep their jobs for them. This shows the spirit that permeates England. There is only one end and that MUST be the crushing of the Germans. I don't believe people have any idea of the number of men who are at present under arms, and still the posters everywhere say that we must have more men.
I wonder if you know that the Germans are shooting British prisoners who are found with what they consider insulting post-cards of the Kaiser, and even references to His All Highest in letters are dangerous. As we are nearing the time when we shall go across I thought I would mention it.
We expect to leave England somewhere around January 15th. We have been living in the mud so long that we are getting quite web-footed.
This is a war Christmas. People are too excited and anxious to celebrate it. I wonder what sort of a Christmas the next one will be! What a terrible Christmas the Germans must have had in Germany. They admit over one million casualties. Fancy a million in less than five months. During the Napoleonic wars, which extended over twenty years, six million died, and yet one side in this war already admits one million.
The Canadian ordnance stores have been given instructions that all equipments down to the last button must be ready by the 15th of January. That date seems to be the favorite one. I believe it is the commencement of big things; a move will then be made to embark large numbers of troops across to France.
All our telegraphic addresses were taken when we came away on leave in case it were decided to send units over before our term of leave expired.
A German aviator flew over Dover yesterday and made a fierce and terrible bomb attack on a cabbage patch. Terrible casualty in cabbages. Berlin must have designs on a bumper crop of sauerkraut.
Back in camp. It was hard to come down to it. Our blankets and clothes left in the tent were mildewed, clammy, and partly submerged. Our feet are wet and we are again soldiers, dirty and cold.
Traveled down in the train with thirty-six men of the Canadian contingent who had formed an escort for fifty-six undesirables who have been shipped back to Canada. It seems strange when men are needed so badly to ship them back because they are a bit unruly or get drunk too often. They will all come back with future contingents. Six of them made a dash for it at Liverpool. Three of them got away altogether.
It snowed yesterday. Last night the camp looked beautiful; the tents lit up through the snow in the moonlight made a pretty picture, a suitable subject for a magazine cover, but mighty uncomfortable to camp in.
In a gale last night many tents were blown down. We spent all day putting them up again. The cook house, a substantial frame building, has also blown down again.
When I got back I found a Christmas hamper, a bunch of holly and a small box of maple sugar and packet of cigarettes from the Duchess of Connaught with her Christmas card. All parcels for the troops came in duty free. Our postal system is very efficient. We get our letters as regularly as we would in a town.
People send us so many cigarettes that we sometimes have too many. I wish we could get more tobacco and fewer cigarettes. If you remember during the Boer War the authorities tried to break the "Tommy" of his "fags" by giving him more tobacco. Now they really seem to encourage cigarette smoking, although it really doesn't matter; the same things which are harmful in towns don't have the same bad effects when we are living in the open.
All leave is up by the 10th of January for everybody, officers and men.
The Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry have gone to the front to the envy of everybody. It is a splendid battalion with fine officers. They have been lying next to our lines and we have made many friends with the "Pats."
Cerebro-spinal meningitis has broken out, and in spite of all efforts to check it, seems to be gaining ground. Several officers have died with it, and I believe that four battalions are quarantined. We have to use chloride of lime on the tent floors and around the lines. My friend Pat calls it "Spike McGuiness." The worst of a disease like this is that a patient never recovers. Even a cure means partial paralysis for life. I believe that Salisbury Plain is known for it, and I hear that all the ground that troops are now occupying is to be ploughed up when we leave. As far as that goes we have ploughed it up a bit already, but a systematic ploughing will make it more regular. The subsoil is only four inches, then you come to chalky clay. The tent-pegs when they are taken from the ground are covered with chalk.
I think that the Canadian Contingent has had a pretty raw deal. We're not even included in the six army divisions which are going to France by the end of March. Wish I had joined the "Princess Pats," who are already there. We want to fight.
We're having a beastly time as compared with the Belgian refugees and the German prisoners in England. We're beginning to wonder if we are ever going to the front. There is now some talk of billeting us in Bristol. We've been under arms nearly five months and should be good fighting material by now. With a similar number of men the Germans would have done something by this time.
All the last week the selected few of us have been working separately on a course of work to qualify us for commissions. We have had to study hard every spare minute when not drilling each other.
Several dogs have attached themselves to us; sometimes they find themselves on a piece of string, the other end being in a man's hand. One of these, a big bull terrier, sleeps in the canteen. The beer is quite safe with him there, but two nights ago the canteen tent, after a great struggle, tore itself off the tent-poles and went fifteen feet up in the air like a balloon, then collapsed. The dog, I regret to say, did not stay at his post, so a quantity of beer will have to be marked down as lost. This same bull has a pal, a white bull terrier, who came out with the officers' class the other morning. We had not been drilling more than fifteen minutes when he came back with a large rabbit. We stewed it at night. It certainly was good.
One of the mechanics has forged an Iron Cross which has been presented to the dog in recognition of his services.
I doubt if I shall ever be able to sit up to a table again regularly. I would much sooner sleep on the floor, and I have found, when on leave, that I preferred sitting on a hearthrug to a chair. Even while writing this I am lying on my blankets. My pipe is burnt down on one side from lighting it from my candle.
To-day being Sunday and as there were only two of us left in the tent, the others being on leave, we gave it a thorough spring cleaning. It needed it! By some oversight the sun came out to-day, so that helped. We also washed up all our canteens and pannikins with disinfectant.
The infantry are bayonet-fighting and practicing charges every day. If you want a thrill, see them coming over the top at you with a yell; the bayonets catch the light and flash in a decidedly menacing fashion. They practice on dummies, and are so enthusiastic that they need new dummies almost every lesson.
Every man, on becoming a soldier, becomes a man with a number and an identification disk. My number is 45555 and my "cold meat ticket," a tag made of red fiber, is hanging round my neck on a piece of string.
We're packing up and expect to go away next week. Of course, it may be another bluff, but somehow I think we really are going now, as we have been fitted out with a "field service-dressing," a packet containing two bandages and safety pins, which we have to sew into the right-hand bottom corner of our tunics. We have also been given our active service pay book, a little account book in which we have our pay entered. We don't get paid much in the field. We carry this book instead.
It seems always cold and wet. We are very hardened. We look tough and feel that way. I haven't had a bath for a month. Since I have been soldiering I have done every dirty job that there is in the army, and there are many. Often when a job seemed to be too dirty and too heavy for anybody else, they looked around for Keene and Pat.
"On guard." Writing this in the guard tent, when we are not actually on sentry. We keep all our equipment on, as we are liable to be called out at any minute. We sleep with our belts and revolvers in place.
A quarter guard is three men and a noncom. The men do two hours on and four off. When it comes to a man's turn he has to be on his beat no matter what the weather is like during the day or night. The cold is pretty bad and occasionally it snows. Some units have sentry boxes, but we haven't. We use a bell tent. I was called this morning at five o'clock to do my sentry from five to seven. The small oil stove which serves to heat the guard tents had evidently been smoking for an hour, and over everything was a thick film of lamp-black. Everybody thought it a great joke until they looked at themselves in the mirror and caught sight of their own equipment. We must come off guard as clean as we go on. I got out quickly and left them swearing and cleaning up.
From five to seven is the most interesting relief. I had first to wake the cooks at five o'clock and then I watched the gradual waking up of the camp. At six o'clock I had to wake the orderly sergeants and then far away in the distance the first bugle sounded reveille, then it was taken up all around and gradually the camps all over the Plains woke up. Men came out of the tents, the calls for the "fall in" sounded, and the rolls were called and the usual business of the day commenced. The change from the deadness of the night with its absolute stillness all takes place in a very short time. To a person with any imagination it seems rather wonderful. You must remember that we can see for miles, and in every direction there are hundreds of tents. Each battalion is separate, and they have great spaces between them; still wherever you look you can see tents.
I wonder if I told you that aeroplanes are all the time flying over our camp. With characteristic British frankness they always have two huge Union Jacks painted on the undersides of the wings. We have become so used to them that we scarcely trouble to look up unless they are doing stunts.
The frost makes a fine grip for the cars; when the ground freezes over we can take the cars anywhere, but unfortunately it thaws again too quickly. As we are a motor battery we are of course a mile from the road, and sometimes it takes an hour and a half to get on to it.
It is a howling night, wind and rain galore. I'm wondering how long the tent will last. I have been out three times already to look at the tent pegs. How often it has been so since we first came on to these plains. If you are living in tents you notice the changes in weather more than under ordinary circumstances, and every rain-storm has meant wet feet for us. But now we have been given new black boots, magnificent things, huge, heavy "ammunition boots," and the wonderful thing is they don't let water in. They are very big and look like punts, but it's dry feet now. I can tell you I am as pleased with them as if some one had given me a present of cold cash. At first they felt something like the Dutch sabots. They seemed absolutely unbendable and so we soaked them with castor-oil. Once they become moulded to the feet they are fine. Of course they are not pretty, but they keep the wet out.
We have had new tunics issued to us of the regular English pattern, much more comfortable than our other original ones, and then instead of the hard cap we now have a soft one, something like a big golf cap with the flap on to pull down over the ears. These are much more comfortable. They have one great advantage over the old kind—we can sleep in them. We can now lie down in our complete outfits even to our hats. Once I considered it a hardship to sleep in my clothes. Now to go to bed we don't undress; we put on clothes.
I managed to get a pass to Salisbury on Saturday and went to the local vaudeville show. In the row in front of me were several young officers of the British Army, and it was striking what a clean-cut lot they were. England is certainly giving of her best. They were not very much different from any others, but at the same time they are the type of Englishmen who have done things in the past and will do things again. They are all Kitchener's Army. Thousands of men who have never been in the army before threw up everything to go in the ranks. You see side by side professors, laborers, lawyers, doctors, stevedores, carters, all classes, rich and poor, a great democratic army, drilling to fight so that this may be a decent world to live in.
At present it is almost impossible to use each man in his own profession as they do in Germany, but sometimes the non-commissioned officers work it out in this way.
Sergeant to squad of recruits:—
"Henybody 'ere know anythink abart cars?"
"Yes; I do. I own a Rolls Royce."
"Olright; fall out and clean the major's motor bike."
One patriotic mother who had a son who was a butcher did her best to get him to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, because he was proficient at cutting up meat and would feel quite at home assisting at amputations.
Now that we are approaching the time for our departure to France we are hearing that favorite farewell to all men going to the front, "Good-bye, I'll look every day for your name in the casualty list."
The "Princess Pats" have already been in action. They had a hard fight and many of them have been put out of business. We envied them when they went away and still do, although it only seems yesterday that we were lying together here and now a number of them are lying "somewhere in France."
The jam-making firm of Tickler was awarded a huge contract for the supply of "Tommy's" daily four ounces of jam; either plum and apple were the cheapest combination or else the crop of these two fruits must have been enormous, because every single tin of jam that went to the training camps, France, Dardanelles, or Mesopotamia, was of this mixture.
We became so tired of it that we used the unopened tins to make borders of flower-beds, or we used them to make stepping-stones across puddles. Eventually the world's supply of plums and apples having been used up, the manufacturers were forced to use strawberries.
In the army all food is handled by the Army Service Corps, and as soon as they found real jam coming through they took it for their own and still forwarded on to us their reserve "plum and apple." The news got around amongst the fighting units: result—the Army Service Corps is now known as the "Strawberry Jam Pinchers."
Reviewed by King George V, and it was indeed a very impressive sight. Although there were only twenty thousand troops, they seemed endless. During the time that the King was on the parade ground in company with Lord Kitchener, two aeroplanes kept guard in the sky. Our K. of K. is a big, fine man who looks the part. An inspection by the King is always a sure sign of a unit's impending departure. He traveled down on the new railway which had just been built by the defaulters of the Canadian Contingent.
At the last minute I managed to get weekend leave and went to London. No Canadians there! I caught sight of a military picket, sergeant and twelve men, looking for stray ones, though. Another picket held me up and made me button my greatcoat. I did! It isn't clever to argue with pickets at any time!
The train was three hours late. Troops' trains were occupying the lines. From Bulford we walked home in a hail-storm. Got in about five o'clock just as the reveille was blowing in the other lines. They were just leaving for the front, and had made great fires where they were burning up rubbish and stuff they couldn't take with them. Tons of it! Chairs, mattresses, and tables. When we move, everything except equipment has to be discarded. We can't do anything with extras. We have to cut our own stuff down to the very smallest dimensions. I walked through the lines afterward of other battalions who had left, and I saw fold-up bedsteads, uniforms, equipment, books, buckets, washing-bowls, cartridges and stoves of every conceivable kind and shape; hundreds, from the single "Beatrice" to the big tiled heaters. Some tents were half full of blankets thrown in, others with harness. All the government stuff is collected, but private stuff is burnt.
In the army you soon realize that you have to make yourself comfortable your own way. I don't hesitate to take anything. If I have on a pair of puttees which are a bit worn and I find a new pair,—well, I just calmly yet cautiously annex them and discard the old ones. We found a barrel of beer had been left by one of the other units, so we carefully carried the prize to our lines and then tapped it. Zowie! It was a beer barrel all right, only it was filled with linseed oil.
Thank the Lord!! Under a roof, sitting on a real chair; tablecloth, plates; and I'm dry. We have come to Wilton (of carpet fame) and I'm in a billet. I have a real bed to sleep in. Last night I lay on the floor of a mildewed tent; couldn't sleep on account of the cold. To-night I sleep between sheets, and the wonderful thing is that I'm not on leave.
We drove our cars down here, each of us hoping that we would never again see Bustard Camp, Salisbury Plain, as long as we lived; it had been our home for five months. Yesterday we felt like mutiny; to-day every one is smiling. As soon as we were "told off" Pat and I went to our billet, a nice clean little house close to the center of the town. The owner is a baker. I felt kind of uncomfortable with my boots and clothes plastered up with mud, but the good lady said, "Don't 'e mind, come in, bless you; I've 'ad soldiers afore. The last one 'e said as 'ow he couldn't sleep it were so quiet 'ere."
I had a wash (this is Friday night), the first since Wednesday morning. The idea of having as much water as you want, without having to go a half mile over a swamp, pleased me so much that I used about six basinsful in the scullery.
When the lady of the house asked us what we would like to eat, we both fainted. I'm afraid we're going to get spoiled here. Couldn't sleep at first. Cold sheets and having all my clothes off—too great a strain! Had breakfast and then drove our cars to the canal, where we scrubbed and washed them down inside and out.
This afternoon I've been into every shop I could find, chiefly to talk to people who are not soldiers. Even went into the church to look around and listened to the parrotlike description of the place by the sexton.
Everybody is happy, and although it has rained ever since we have been here, we haven't noticed it yet. I may say there are four or five kids, and the whole house could be packed into our front room. Still, "gimme a billet any time."
I have just received the news that I have been given a Second Lieutenancy in the Motor Machine Gun Service, Royal Field Artillery, and I go into camp at Bisley at once. I am very glad that before being an officer I have been a private, because I now have the latter's point of view. I am going to try hard to be a good officer; promotion always means more work and responsibility,—so here goes.
I have been very busy lately training my new section, and we are now part of the 12th Battery, Motor Machine Guns, 17th Division British Expeditionary Force, leaving to-day for the "Great Adventure."
Somewhere in France. At last we are here. We landed at a place the name of which I am not allowed to mention, and were then taken by a guide to a "Rest Camp" about two miles from the docks. If they had called it a garbage dump I shouldn't have been surprised. You would be very much surprised with the France of to-day. Everybody speaks English; smart khaki soldiers in thousands everywhere.
Already I have seen men who have been gassed and the hospitals here are full of wounded. Our troops are arriving all day and night and marching away. English money is taken here, but French is more satisfactory as you are likely to get done on the change. The officers have a mess here just as in England. Actually we are farther away from the firing line than we were in camp at Bisley; but we leave to-day on our machines going direct to it. There was a transport torpedoed just outside; they managed to beach her just in time. The upper decks and masts are sticking up above water.
Since I last wrote anything in this diary we have ridden over one hundred and ten miles by road towards the firing line. All day yesterday it poured. The country was beautiful, ripening corn everywhere, the villages are full of old half-timbered houses, the roads are all national roads built for war purposes by Napoleon, and run straight; on either side are tall, poplar shade trees, so that the roads run through endless avenues.
At night we stayed in a quaint village inn. The men all slept in a loft over their machines. Our soaked clothes were put in the kitchen to dry, but owing to the number of them, they just warmed up by the morning. One officer has to follow in the rear of every unit to pick up the stragglers. I had to bring up the rear of the column to-day—result: I didn't get in until early in the morning, only to find the other subalterns "sawing wood."
Yesterday was the French National Day. We were cheered as we rode along, and women and children smothered us with flowers. In the morning a funeral of two small children passed us. Our battery commander called the battery to attention and officers saluted. The priest was two days overdue with his shave—soldiers notice things like that, you know.
To-day we continued our ride; the weather was much better—dried our clothes by wearing them. Strange to run through Normandy villages and suddenly come across British Tommies—many of them speaking French. A Royal Navy car has just passed us; our navy seems omnipresent. I saw an old woman reading a letter by the side of an old farmhouse to some old people, evidently from a soldier, probably their son. It reminded me a great deal of one of Millet's pictures. Every one thinks of the war here and nothing but the war; it's not "Business as Usual."
We stay here one night and move away to-morrow. We can hear the guns faintly.
The three section officers, myself and two others, are sleeping in a hut together. It is one of these new collapsible kind, very convenient. We are now all in bed. Outside the only sound we can hear is the sentries challenging and the mosquitoes singing.
All males are soldiers in France, even the old men. They look very fine in their blue uniforms, but I have a prejudice for our khaki Tommies. We get good food as we travel, but pay war prices for it. Cherries are now in season; we don't pay for them, however.
Rode another sixty miles to-day. A car smashed into the curb, cannoned off and ran over me, busting my machine up. The front wheel went over my leg. My revolver and leather holster saved me from a fracture, but I got badly bruised up. I was very scared that I should not be able to go "up" with the Battery. It would be almost a disgrace to go back broken up by a car without even getting a whack at the Boche. Had to ride later on another machine twenty-five miles through the night without lights, in a blinding rain.
Everything interesting. Should like to have a camera with me. I had to post mine back. So many things are done in the British Army by putting a man on his honor. They just ask you to do things. They don't order you to do it. It was that way with me; they merely "asked" me to post my camera back.
Great powerful cars rush by here all day and all night, regardless of speed limits. Every hour or so you see a convoy of twenty or thirty motor lorries in line bringing up ammunition or supplies, or coming back empty. Every point bristles with sentries who demand passes. If you are not able to answer satisfactorily, they just shoot. The French soldiers have magnificent uniforms; the predominating color is a sort of cobalt blue. To see sentries, French and British together, they make quite a nice color scheme.
Officers censor all letters. I censor sometimes fifty letters a day. One man put in a letter to-day, "I can't write anything endearing in this, as my section officer will read it." Another, "I enclose ten shillings. Very likely you will not receive this, as my officer has to censor this letter." Of course we don't have time to read all the letters through. We look for names of places and numbers of divisions, brigades, etc., but I couldn't help noticing that one of my men, whom I have long suspected of being a Don Juan, had by one mail written exactly the same letter to five different girls in England, altering only the addresses and the affectionate beginnings.
The village in which I am now was visited last September by twelve German officers who came through in motor cars; the villagers cried, "Vivent les Anglais," for not having seen an English soldier they took it for granted that the "Tommy" had come.
Everybody goes armed to the teeth. I have my belt, a regular Christmas tree for hanging things on, with revolver and cartridges on even while I'm writing this. We carry a lot, but we soon get used to it.
The corn is being cut now. Through the window opposite I can see it standing in newly-stacked sheaves. These places are the favorite sketching grounds of artists in normal times, and I often wonder if they ever will be again.
We return salutes with all the French and Belgian officers. It is difficult sometimes to distinguish them. I got fooled by a Belgian postman, and then went to work and cut a French general.
The nearer we get to the firing line the finer the type of soldier. They are the magnificent Britishers of Kitchener's First Army. It makes you proud to see them marching by, dirty and wet with sweat. I watched two battalions come through; they had marched twenty miles through the sun with new issue boots; a few of them had fallen out, and other men and officers were carrying their equipment and rifles; many of the officers carried two rifles.
I am now well within sound of the guns. A German Taube was shelled as it came over our firing line yesterday. One man was lying on his back asleep with his hat over his eyes, when a piece of shrapnel from one of the "Archies" hit him in the stomach—result: one blasphemous, indignant casualty. From the road I can see one of the observation balloons, a queer sausage-shaped airship. We may be moved up into the thick of it at any time now.
I have been over into Belgium to-day: crossed the frontier on my motor bike; the roads are terrible, all this beastly "pave" cobblestones; awful stuff to ride over on a motor cycle. Shell holes on both sides of the road, and I saw three graves in the corner of a hop garden. All along the road there were dozens and dozens of old London motor buses, taking men to the trenches. They still have the advertisements on them and are driven by the bus-drivers themselves. Three hundred came over with their own machines. They are now soldiers. The observation balloon I mentioned yesterday was shelled down to-day.
I am writing this in an old Flemish farmhouse, and the room I'm sitting in has a carved rafter ceiling, red brick floor and nasty purple cabbage wallpaper. All the men of the house with the exception of the old man are at the war; one son has already died. The Germans have been through here. They tied the mayor of the town to a tree and shot him. The trenches have been filled in, all the wreckage cleared, and they have a new mayor.
It is not yet 7 A.M. I am an orderly officer and have to take the men out for a run at six. I came back and bought a London "Daily Mail" of yesterday from a country-woman. We are at least three miles from the town, but they are enterprising enough to bring papers to us at this time in the morning. A "Daily Mail" costs four cents.
Since I last wrote I have been up to the front line. Everything is different from what you imagine. The German trenches are easily distinguished through glasses; their sand-bags are multi-colored. Shrapnel was bursting over ruins of an old town in their lines. When you look through a periscope at the wilderness, it is difficult to imagine that thousands of soldiers on both sides have burrowed themselves into the earth. The evidence of their alertness is shown by their snipers, who are always busy whenever the target is up.
A battery of eight-inch howitzers was opening fire. Our battery commander, hearing this, sent us up. The guns, big fellows, were well concealed. They were painted in protective colors and covered with screens of branches to prevent aerial observation. In the grounds all over the place were dug-outs, deep rabbit burrows, ten or twelve feet down, into which everybody went immediately. The Germans started their "hate." The firing is done by hand cord; other big guns are fired electrically. An enormous flash, an ear-splitting crash, a great sheet of flame from the muzzle, and two hundred pounds of steel is sent tearing through the air to the "Kultur" exponents. The whole gun lifts off the ground and runs back on its oil-compression springs. These guns are moved by their own caterpillar tractors which are kept somewhere close by. In three quarters of an hour they can get them started on the road. The ground for these emplacements was the orchard of a chateau. While we were there a whistle blew three times, an order shouted; immediately the guns were covered up and the men took cover. The enemy had sent an aeroplane to locate them. If they could once find them, hundreds of shells would rain on this spot in a few minutes. At a few yards' distance I couldn't see the guns myself. The "Hows" were firing at a house in the German lines which had been giving trouble. In three rounds they got it and then started in to "dust" the neighborhood. Of course, the firing is indirect. The officers and men who are with the guns don't see the effects. Apparently they fire straight away in the air. The observation is done by the forward observing officer in the fire trenches who corrects them by 'phone.
After the appointed number of rounds had been fired, we adjourned to the chateau, a fine house, marble mantelpiece, plaster ceilings, gilt mirror panels, etc. It has still a few pieces of furniture left, no carpets, most of the windows are smashed; shells have visited it, but chiefly in splinters. I saw one picture on the wall with a hole drilled in by a shrapnel bullet which had gone clean through as though it had been drilled. It hadn't smashed the glass otherwise. From a window of the room, which the officers use as a mess, a neat row of graves is to be seen. Outside there are great shell holes, most of them big enough to bury a horse. Suddenly a shriek and a deafening explosion occurred in the garden. "Sixty-pound shrapnel! Evening hate," said an artillery sub. We left! We had been sent up to see the guns fire and not to be fired at.
To go home we had to pass a village completely deserted, a village that was once prosperous, where people lived and traded and only wanted to be left alone. Now grass is growing in the streets. Shops have their merchandise strewn and rotting in all directions. On one fragment of a wall a family portrait was still hanging, and a woman's undergarments. A grand piano, and a perambulator tied in a knot were trying to get down through a coal chute. To wander through a village like this one that has been smashed up, and with the knowledge that the smashing up may be continued any time, is thrilling. Churches are always hateful to the Germans. They shell them all; bits of the organs are wrapped around the tombstones, and coffins, bones and skulls are churned up into a great stew. In some of the villages a few of the inhabitants had stayed and traded with the soldiers. They lived in cellars usually and suffered terribly. British military police direct the traffic when there is any, and are stationed at crossroads with regular beats like a city policeman.
While traveling to another part of the line we had an opportunity of seeing the "Archies" (anti-aircraft guns) working. They were mounted on lorries and fire quite good-sized shells. They fired about fifty shots at one Taube, but didn't register a bull. Later in the evening from a trench we had the satisfaction of seeing another aeroplane set on fire, burn, and drop into the German lines like a shot partridge. Aeroplanes are as common as birds. Yesterday a "Pfeil" (arrow) biplane came right over our lines and was chased off by our own machines. The enemy's aeroplanes have their iron cross painted on the underside of their wings and are more hawkish-looking than ours. They are more often used for reconnoitering and taking photographs than for dropping bombs.
We are being moved up closer to the firing line. I have been made billeting officer. I went to headquarters; a staff colonel showed me a subdivision on a map. "Go there and select a place for your unit." The place was a wretched village of about six houses, all of which are more or less smashed about, windows repaired with sacking and pieces of wood. All of the inhabitants have moved except those who are too poor. Every square inch is utilized. I managed to get a cow-shed for the officers. It looks comfortable. On the door I could just decipher, written in chalk, by some previous billeting officer,—
2 Staff Officers 6 Officers 2 Horses
Billeting chalk marks are on almost all the shops and houses up from the coast to the front.
The field which we are expecting to put the men into belonged to a miller who lived in a different area. We went to see him. He couldn't speak English or French, so I tried him with German. While we were talking, I noticed some non-coms watching us very intently and was not surprised to find one following us back down the road. When he saw our car he came up and apologized for having taken us for spies. They are looking for two Germans in our lines wearing British uniforms, who have given several gun positions away. Two days ago the enemy shelled the road systematically on both sides for half a mile when an ammunition column was due. It was quite dark before we left; the sky was continually lit up by the star shells, very pretty white rockets, which light up No Man's Land. The enemy has a very good kind which remains alight for several minutes.
Our days of comfortable billets are over, I am afraid. Unless you are working hard, it is miserable here,—wrecked towns, bad roads, shell holes, smells, dirt, soldiers, horses, trenches. The inhabitants are a poor, wretched lot. Many of them are thieves and spies. We are right in Belgium, where flies and smells are as varied as in the Orient.
Wherever we travel by day or night we are constantly challenged by sentries and have to produce our passes. We stopped in one darkened shell-riddled town and knocked up an estaminet; we got a much finer meal than you can get at many places farther back. We talked to the woman who kept it and asked her if she slept in the cellar. "Oh, no! I sleep upstairs, they never bombard except at three in the morning or nine at night. Then I go into the cellar." This woman was a very pleasant, intelligent person, most probably a spy. Intelligent people generally leave the danger zone.
Marching through the sloughed-up mud, through shell holes filled with putrid water, amongst most depressing conditions, I saw a working party returning to their billets. They were wet through and wrapped up with scarves, wool helmets, and gloves. Over their clothes was a veneer of plastered mud. They marched along at a slow swing and in a mournful way sang—
"Left—Left—Left We—are—the tough Guys!"
Apparently there are no more words to this song because after a pause of a few beats they commenced again—
They looked exactly what they said they were.
Windmills, of which there are a good many, are only allowed to work under observation. It was found that they were often giving the enemy information, using the position of the sails to spell out codes in the same way as in semaphore; clock-hands on church towers are also used in the same way.
I saw a pathetic sight to-day. A stretcher came by with a man painfully wounded; he was inclined to whimper; one of the stretcher-bearers said quietly to him, "Be British." He immediately straightened himself out and asked for a "fag." He died that night.
We had a terrific bombardment last night; the ground shook all night and the sky was lit up for miles. The Boches used liquid fire on some new troops and we lost ground.