Chapter 16

Rough Awakening in France

 

The crossing from Southampton to Le Havre was rough. The City of Benares was a cattle boat and it had the smell of cattle. Down below, where the horses were stabled, the stench was high.

We were part of the newly-formed 24th Division, one of the most complete to reach France. We numbered 23,000.

I had crossed the River Tay in the ferry boat and enjoyed the trip; also I had sailed in a fine ship down the River Clyde to Rothesay. It was pleasant, but the channel crossing was a nightmare.

Before embarking we were warned to keep quiet on the voyage. It was anything but quiet. Through a haze of being very seasick and wishing to die, I was just aware of a hubbub composed of hostile horses kicking, stamping and whinneying in terror, sick soldiers on deck being soaked by sea spray and cursing, naval ratings manning depth charges and guns, sailors assisted by fit soldiers on the look-out for U-boats and officers trying to shout instructions above the storm. The grunts and groans from seasick soldiers heard over submarine hydrophones must have been enough to frighten any U-boats away!

We knew our orders on landing and everything was carried out with military precision. Drivers took the horses to a given point, guns and limbers to an area near the horses, stores and equipment to a huge dockside store and boxes of ammunition to an Ammo depot. The whole operation was completed in less than three hours.

After the horses were groomed and fed and all items checked the welcome bugle call was sounded with the familiar tune, 'Come to the cookhouse door boys.' Again the field kitchen was in action serving us pie, roll and bacon and pints of tea. During the meal each man was handed one small bag of iron rations and a small kit of field dressings (bandages, sticking plaster, iodine and two safety pins).

It took us eight days by train and road to reach our battery positions at Reichbourgh. We were in another world, far removed from Salisbury Plain and an eternity from Balmullo, my home.

As we moved forward we came under fire from German 5.9 guns. The ground was pitted with thousands of shell holes, the air had the smell of powder and death and there were trenches, dugouts, barbed wire, blasted houses and trees. We were in the war.

We were hardly settled in our first position when we were ordered to move to a devastated sector called Tonbiers Leap (Annequin).

Infantry were moving up to the front. Engineers were busy on blasted roads, erecting wire entanglements. Wounded were carried on stretchers to advanced dressing stations and our unit was moving forward under heavy and light shell fire.

I had felt squeamish at Salisbury Plain on seeing a dead rabbit killed by shell fire. Now before us lay the dismembered or mangled bodies of men. All we could do was to look, feel terrified and go on. We soon learned to suppress our feelings even when comrades died horrifically.

We worked like Trojans to get the guns in position. An elderly seasoned artilleryman, who was wounded at Mons, would shout, 'Duck for this whizz-bang shell,' or, 'To hell with that one, it's too high.'

Our CO, Captain Bell, a Fifer, was a skilled soldier. Once the guns were operational, he moved to the frontline and directed the fire. We shelled the enemy for sixty hours, sometimes thunderous salvos (all guns firing at once), sometimes terrifying timed firing (ten seconds apart). It was indeed our baptism of fire.

The enemy fire was accurate, so accurate that we were compelled to lie in a trench for an hour. Then there was a lull and two of our spotter planes would fly overhead. Elsewhere balloons with wickerwork gondolas for the observers would be launched to spot enemy positions, only to be shot down and then we would see the airman parachute to the ground, if he was quick enough. Instructions from all of these recces were communicated to all units.

We heard the gallop of horses and to our surprise they were our own drivers with limbers to remove the guns to a new position. It was a surprise. So too was the welcome grub - a loaf between three and a tin of bully (corned beef) between two.

As we moved to the rear we enjoyed our meal. The dry bread tasted sweet, so also the corned beef. We halted near a sunken road, while Captain Bell and Sergeant-Major Lyon, galloped towards Hulluich Plain in the teeth of shell fire.

A shell burst below the Captain's horse and both were killed instantly. They were only nine hundred yards from the front line.

The late Captain's plan was to take his guns close to the front line to blast enemy machine guns and trench mortar emplacements. Lieutenant Piers-Clark assumed command and decided to follow the original plan. He moved our guns two hundred yards to the right front of Vermeils. The Battle of Loos was on and we were proud to support the infantry who were having a tough time.

 

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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.