Chapter 35

Peace Comes at Last

 

It was a strange feeling to be free, free to walk about, to play football, to roam around Mons and Manbeuge.

Everywhere, the Royal Engineers were gathering up German rifles, emptying out bullet magazines and tossing the weapons, thousands and thousands of them, into great heaps. Yet other units were removing hundreds of guns of every calibre, shells and their fuses, mines, machine-guns, grenades and every form of transport into marked-out enclosures.

Germans in hiding, bewildered at the silence, came out of ruined houses (one came down the chimney of our quarters), woods and deep undergrowth. Half a dozen came out of a tank that was hidden in a ditch. It was fully loaded with fuel, ammunition and eight cannon.

At one spot on the Mons Road I stood in contemplation. It was the place where our regular troops faced the Germans in 1914. Where our infantry, heavily outnumbered and in a hopeless position, saw the 'Angel of Mons', the phantom force which they felt had appeared to support them. The regulars defeated the Uhlans and Guards, the cream of the German forces.

I met an English-speaking Mons cloth merchant who visited Fife on his annual sales trips before the war and discussed the apparition over his city that day. He said that all the townspeople had always kept loft-fulls of captive white doves for eggs and meat, just as countryfolk in Fife kept chickens. Before the war, he said, it was an ordinary sight to see large flocks of doves circling round the high church steeple when they were released for exercise and forage feeding.

His personal first-hand account for what happened next was of a natural and fear-driven reaction and not of the supernatural manifestations so many had claimed from their ignorance of the local habits. When the battle began the householders opened the cages to let the birds free, reasoning that most would return unharmed after the battle. The creatures cowered in their lofts because of the unfamiliar sounds and smells around them and until the sudden and simultaneous explosions from hundreds of guns signalled the start of the battle. All of the birds rose and followed their instinctive behaviour of circling higher and higher around the church spire in great confusion for a few minutes until they found their bearings and then flew off in every direction. The light flashing on their white feathers must have been construed by the soldiers as the 'Angel'.

For me the war had finished where it started some four years and four months earlier. To me it was a sobering thought that millions were dead, sacrificed to defeat an arrogant nation.

At home, my father had a huge map of the war fronts. I had arranged with him to use a letter of the alphabet to denote a sector. When I wrote home I would begin each sentence with a first letter that traced my movements between sectors since my last letter, like so:

 Dear Mum and Dad,

A fine parcel arrived today; before I forget; Calm reigns as we are resting; Do you know, the meat cubes kept me alive. Every letter fills me with cheer. And so on....

 In this way my parents knew that I had been in sector A and moved through C, D and E and knew the truth of how the war was going rather than the War Office propaganda version.

I also kept a coded diary and at home, my father cut out newspaper articles dealing with action zones where I fought. Whilst in hospitals and on leave home, I marked up everything interesting and at the end of the war I drew up all my war experiences into a diary which I donated to the Imperial War Museum some sixty-five years later, when I felt that the facts in it could no longer hurt anyone. In a letter from London, Mr Roderick Suddaby, Head of the Museum's Department of Documents kindly said,

 Your contemporary record of your service in the Royal Field Artillery, written under the stress of war, would certainly be of value to the historians who use this museum.

 After the Armistice our duties were light. Guns were polished, men were rested, horses exercised and food was plentiful.

The day came to go on a long journey. It took a fortnight of pleasant going to reach our destination. Our orders were made plain by our colonel who said, 'The 24th Division Artillery, with infantry and other units is to garrison the town ofAntoing, near Tournai, in Belgium.'

I was supplied with a new horse and along with an officer, the Quartermaster Sergeant and an interpreter, we formed the advance guard, sent to select suitable billets for men and horses. Each midday all twenty-four battery advance guards met the Colonel's Aide-de-camp at a given spot. He allocated a section to each battery and so the rest of the billeting was easy. Accommodation was always comfortable, with excellent cooking arrangements.

I noted some of the places we passed through, such as Valenciennes, a city with many ruins. We passed Aniches, once a large mining town where the Germans had destroyed pit machinery and flooded the coal mines. On to Leward which had been used as an internment camp for Russian prisoners. We skirted around Douai where many historic buildings were left in ruins. Through the centre of Marchiennes, its renowned great forests now only had tree stumps as the Germans had used all the trees for their war effort. Near to this fine city was the remnants of a Concentration Camp.

Then we journeyed on through Orchies, famous for the great stand made by the inhabitants against the Uhlan Cavalry in September, 1914. I recalled what I had been told by a soldier who had been there: the brave people assisted our troops and met the Hun hordes with picks, shovels, scythes, shot-guns, pokers and old swords. For this hundreds of civilians were later shot against Orchies church as a reprisal. Landas was a pretty village and the HQ of the German horse hospital during the war.

In a siding, on the Lille to St Amand railway line, curiosity made us look into some abandoned German railway wagons. One we looked at was filled with brass candlesticks, door knockers, nameplates, lamps, household ornaments and other metal objects. All had been stolen by the Germans from city homes to aid their war effort.

Tournai was a lovely unmarked city and to our dismay our destination, Antoing, was a dusty, dirty township, headquarters of the giant Portland Cement Works. Every day everything that did not move was covered by a greyish dust.

Apart from this annoyance we now led a quiet and interesting life. My turn came for leave after Christmas lunch, 1918. Three days later I was excited to be back at my home in Scotland.

Demob was official in January, 1919 and my life as a soldier was over at the end of March.

 NOTE: Appendix 1, Part 6, 'Jottings from the spiritual side of the army', reveals how moral conflicts between compassion and killing were rationalised by soldiers.

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