Monthly Archives: February 2016

12 February 1916

H.Q.  138th Bde.

Very many thanks for a long letter from you which arrived last night.  With it came six or seven from Mother & a package from the M.T. Club.  This last contained a metal mirror in a neat leather case, on which are stamped the school crest & a suitable inscription – apparently a Xmas present to O.M.T.s at the front.  I think I can now account for all letters that mother has written though one or two may have gone astray just at Xmas time.  Yesterday morning we got up to find that is was raining – raining hard, typical Flanders war weather.  We struggled across from our Hotel to the train & sat down in the Restaurant car – this was the only way of securing breakfast as the train was not a corridor affair.  An uneventful journey as far as Amiens & then we had to try & find out where our people were.  All the news we could get was that they were at some point between Amiens & another place.  The train went express to the other place so we decided to go on to it & come back if necessary.  As it happened we saw our people detraining at a little station at which we did not stop.  Thanks to the railway smash of the day before they had got there before us instead of vice versa as was intended.  We eventually reached the other place, & finding that there was no train back until late in the afternoon, telephoned to the Division & got them to send a car along for us.  Meanwhile we had lunch at the local inn & then found the car waiting.

The other place turned out to be a fair sized town & possessed at all events one thing we wanted, namely a shop large enough to supply us with some decent “phizz” for tonight.  We bought two bottles & then sailed over here.  “Here” is a little village about 5 miles from a railway & possessing one chateau in which we live.  Like most French chateau it is as uncomfortable as it is magnificent.  It looks very fine but is very cold & draughty.  It is filled with odd bits of china & relics & curios which are not either valuable or ancient, but serve only to harbour dust & worry our servants, who live in constant terror of squashing something.

When we arrived here yesterday we found Col. Jones in the seat of the mighty surrounded by an officer or two & a man or two but no one else.  It appears that two of six battalions those two to whom the Government did not give a sea-voyage rest-cure have gone on somewhere to do a little work.  Jones was acting Brigadier & the other two battalions & the real Brigadier had not yet come up from the railway station.  My billet is at the Doctor’s house, very nice it is too – a beautifully comfortable bed, & a large airy room.

We had not been here very long when an order came that the men of one of the regiments were to go under canvas & be segregated.  Apparently there were a few cases of “flu” on board & somebody had got frightened, & imagined it to be some Eastern or tropical fever, very contagious of course.  The whole battalion therefore is, at gigantic expense, to be separated & disinfected.  Incidentally, some hundreds of men, straight from a hot climate & still wearing their thin clothing are to go under canvas in mid-winter in one of the wettest spots in Europe.  So instead of a few “flus” there will be some hundred or so “pneumonias” which will be very much worse.     The general arrived about 6 o’clock & with him some of the baggage.  About the rest of the baggage there seemed to be most hopeless confusion & to try & straighten things out a little I made a trip down to the station.  Everything turned out all right in the end, the only real difficulty was that there were several regiments arriving & not enough transport to clear away all their stuff.

I ran into one or two of the ——s: the regiment which contained Dickinson & Bates.  The latter is home in England now sick, the former as you know was killed.  There was one man of Dickinson’s Company there who spoke very highly of him. I think he was very popular.  We just managed to get the Mess stuff up to the Chateau in time for the cook to get dinner ready, & after that we most of us retired to bed pretty early.  I for one was very tired & slept very well.

Today has been much as one would expect for a first day in new billets.  There has been a good deal of bother about the various arrangements for the mighty disinfecting business & during the morning we were all kept pretty busy.  We have now settled down completely & Jones has gone back to his regiment.

This afternoon it cleared up a little & the sun shone so I got hold of a horse & went for a ride.  There was nowhere in particular to go so I just rode where the animal wanted to go.  We came across a very nice little village on the river with a rather fine looking church, full of flying buttresses etc quite a young Cathedral in its way.  There was also a large chateau.  Since tea I have been worrying around for billets & now it is time to go & get respectable for dinner so must close.  The account of your Zep scare sounds very exciting, I hope they keep away altogether.

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10 February 1916

Hotel Terminus Nord. Paris.

Fate again has arranged that we should spend one night here.  This time there was a connection that we ought to have caught with the greatest of ease, to be exact somewhere about 9. o’clock this morning: last time if you remember there was no connection so fate had no difficulty in delaying us; this time she had to make somewhat more elaborate arrangements.  These arrangements took the form of a very neat little railway accident at 5.30.a.m. at a tiny village station at which we arrived up to time at 5.40a.m.

After writing yesterday’s letter, the one on the ship, Viccars & I went on shore & made a few arrangements for our journey.  He then returned to the ship & I to a tea-shop.  Just as I was leaving I ran into my old friend the French “Commandant” who talks English & of whom I have I think written a word or two before.  We talked for some time & before parting exchanged names & addresses.  I always said that he was an aristocrat & he turns out to be M. Le Vicomte de Terny de Preaux.

We found the train very full but as the authorities had booked us the corner seats we were all right.  Almost as soon as the train had started we had dinner, not a great success but still something to eat. We then settled down to make ourselves as comfortable as possible in the circumstances & went to sleep.  At 5.40am we woke to find that the train had stopped & it was snowing.  Snow was lying quite thick on the ground & it was cold.  We stopped for an hour & showed no signs of going on at all so at last some of us got out.  The cause of our delay was the above mentioned railway smash.  It appeared that something had run into something else & blocked both lines.

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The drawing made in the notebook, showing the train carriages across the lines

As you may observe it is a most complete jam.  No one was hurt & only wagons & trucks were concerned.  No proper break down gang was obtained but a few men set to work with a few jacks & looked like being all day at their job.  However as it turned out there was one man who really knew his job & by midday he had got all except one of the trucks either re-railed or completely clear of the line.  The operations round the one remaining truck were being conducted by an individual in a fur coat who appeared to be about as much use as a common grasshopper. It took him three hours to get the truck back, & doing so he improved the situation by bodliy uprooting some 20 yards of hitherto undamaged permanent way.

At last at 3.40, exactly ten hours late we got underway.  We had not had a particularly pleasant day, food was a difficulty.  The restaurant car had left us at Dijon & we had to depend entirely on a minute café in one of the minutest of little French villages – we managed to get a few things but nothing very much.  Arriving at the station we drove at once to this hotel so as to be near the station from which we are making a rather early start tomorrow morning.  We then decided to dine at the Café de Paris & get a shave en route. The latter turned out to be impossible, but we put our pride in our pockets and dined unshaven.  Curiously enough only three tables away was sitting an officer with whom I was interred in the Mont ds Cats Monastery hospital at the time of my tooth pullings.  After dinner we went to a Revue at the “Follies Bergere” – I believe that is spelt right but am by no means certain.  It was quite a good show & one man in particular who had a very stiff part indeed, on almost the whole time & in a different part, & different costume every few minutes, who was far better than anyone I have ever seen in England.  Tomorrow then we go on, & by tomorrow evening ought to be settled in. All we know at present  is that none of our people are actually in the trenches, but how soon they will be going that we know not.  Whether or no the Brigadier will have arrived it is impossible to say: it all depends upon whether he was behind or ahead of our little railway smash.

9 February 1916

S.S.  Megantic

My luck still holds good.  As you probably remember I managed to escape the discomforts of troop train when we came down here by coming out with an advance party.  I am also going to escape them going back.  Viccars & I are going along tonight by the P.L.M. express, sleepers & diners etc.  The General & the last of the Brigade, who were here, cleared off this morning, but we shall get their billets & everything ready for them: for though we start six hours later we shall arrive probably a day & a half sooner.

After tying up at the quayside yesterday, we were greeted with the joyful news that there was a mail waiting for us.  I got several letters, dated form January 16th 17th 20th 22nd 24th 26th – a very pleasant surprise.  Probably two more will be waiting for me when we get up into the line.  I can only find in them one question that requires an answer & that was whether I had received a photo of myself from Dad.  I did get one but cannot say that I care much for it.  Talking of photos I am rather anxious to know whether those taken here ever turned up.

By the middle of the afternoon we were tied up, & then proceeded on shore.  I had to see to some officers’ kits & then get some food for the journey.  Both these jobs were satisfactorily completed & the rest of the day I spent in the town.  Viccars & I dined together at the Novelty & went to the Music Hall afterwards.  I knew the town so well that I acted as a sort of guide to all and sundry.  As we were not due to depart until this morning we slept on the boat & had breakfast also on board. The General & his train left fairly early & at the last minute it was decided that I should stay with Viccars, otherwise I should now be in a horrible train.  We returned once more to the ship & had lunch & now are going to leave it permanently.

I do not know exactly to what part of the line we are going but we have heard the number of corps & army & it is somewhere in a region that we have never previously visited in our rambles through France. I have great hopes that the country there is not quite so wet or so flat as that in which it has been so far our evil fortunes to have to fight.

On Saturday if we can settle down by that time we are going to have a bust.  I shall beg borrow or steal some “phizz” from somewhere & try to get a good dinner going.  After all it is only once that one can be 21.  Viccars is now waiting so must fly.

7 February 1916

S.S. Megantic

Today has been a very ordinary affair & there is nothing special to relate in connection with it.  The usual morning parade, the usual meals, followed by the usual recreation & the usual arguments as to our exact position on the map.  I have polished off another novel, rather a good one The Golden Butterfly, by no means new I gather from reading it.  As there is neither date of writing nor of publication it was impossible to find out when it was written.

One rather curious thing happened during the morning.  There is a notice in standing orders that the ships time will be observed daily & this we have been trying to do.  This morning my watch showed the time as 10.10. – as I had set it half an hour before there was no reason to doubt its correctness.  By chance I glanced at the saloon clock, this showed the time as 11. All the other clocks agreed with it so once more my watch was altered.  Speculations were now flying about as to the cause of this curious business, & some began to imagine that we must have put about during the night & gone a hundred or so miles back towards the East.  Lunch time came, at least it came by my watch.  Imagine our annoyance when we discovered that the ships clocks now all agreed that it was only ten minutes past twelve.  This was too bad.  We searched out the stewards & demanded an explanation.  This was it, apparently the clocks are worked by electricity but owing to the vibration they show a slight difference after two or three days.  At 10. O’clock therefore the current was shut off & all the clocks were put on to 11.0 at which hour the current was switched on again & all started together to the tick.

It is very curious how differently people behave on board ship to what they do when carrying out their ordinary occupations on terra firma. Senior Colonels & Brigadiers run madly about playing deck tennis.  All sorts of sedate cross-grained & livery majors sing comic songs at the concerts.  The various ranks seem to mix very much more together than would ever be possible in the field or even in the Mess.

Last night we had the Welsh Singers again to provide us with music both during & after dinner: tonight they are having a rest.  Tomorrow all being well we should reach our destination sometime about midday & ought to get on shore before it is dark.  We are all hoping for just a day or two in Marseilles by way of a last farewell to civilization before going back to the mud, muck & muddle of that Flanders fighting.  But so far we have no news of what we shall do; soon now this fact ought to be completed & we return once more to leave, letters, newspapers & mud.

Feb 8  So here we are back once more in Marseilles.

6 February 1916

S.S. Megantic

Last night we had a pleasant surprise.  The band cannot of course be allowed to play for fear of attracting the submarines but in spite of this we had music with dinner, & better music in my opinion than the band could have produced.  We have on board with us a regiment that has its home in Wales, & has also a Welsh choir.  They need no piano, a violin is quite sufficient to keep them in tune.  During dinner last night they appeared & sang to us various things from their repertoire.  Men of Harlech started the programme followed by Land of Our Fathers & ending with Abide With Me, all most excellently rendered.  To my mind the finest item of all was “Jesus Lover of my Soul” to a tune that I have heard somewhere before but cannot remember where.  It is a Welsh tune, I believe, & is undoubtedly very fine indeed when sung by male voices.  Today is Sunday & as we have a padre on board we had a Church Parade.  For the first time for I am ashamed to say how many months I had a chance of getting to a celebration.  At 7.0 this morning in the saloon, Ashley our Brigade Chaplin held a service – it had to serve for use for Advent, New Year, Xmas & Ephipany.  Previous Sundays have for some time found me in railway carriages or on board ship with no service.  Now that we are getting back we can hope for better things in the near future.  Other Church parades took place in the course of the morning followed at 10.30 a.m. by our usual daily inspection.  This time the Brigadier came & had a look at us, & we of course felt duly honoured in consequence.  The rest of the day has been spent in reading with a few intervals of golf & quoits by way of exercise.  The weather is not so good now, it is calm enough, but has started raining & this is of course a discomfort to a certain extent.  It is also beginning to get colder & we shall soon have to resume our discarded underwear.  By the way I forgot to mention in any of my epistles that on the day before we left our so-called “desert” camp at Alexandria I actually bathed in the sea, & not only bathed but thoroughly enjoyed it.  The water was warm, there is no other word for it, the day was hot & I could have stopped in for hours without getting cold.

It is a curious thing that neither on this voyage nor on the way out have I ever felt really fit.  It is not that I am sea-sick, there is practically no motion on the boat at all, but my head feels as if it might quite well belong to somebody else, & I am always tired.  I never feel really fresh except perhaps for the first two hours after waking in the morning.  It may be that this appalling & never ceasing vibration is the cause of it: that & the stuffiness of the saloons. We have to shut out all the lights & in doing so we usually manage to shut out all air as well.

If this voyage goes on very much longer this letter will develop into a volume of history, it has enough pages already – goodness knows when you will find time to read it all.  There is so much time on one’s hands here that I am writing letters to everyone whom I think I have left in the lurch lately.

5 February 1916

S.S. Megantic

This morning a strange thing happened.  Coming from my cabin at 7.30 I found a large number of officers already up, all looking rather annoyed & rather foolish.  Breakfast is at 8, an early hour, too early for many who had consequently complained about it, & yet here were some of the complaint makers actually up half an hour before time.  The truth was not far to find.  An average speed of sixteen knots causes an alteration in the ship’s time of 40 minutes per day.  Coming out the 40 minutes were split into 4 lots, ten each, the clock was put forward 10 minutes every six hours.  Not so on this ship.  Here the clock is altered only at midnight when it is put back its full 40 minutes all in one go.  All these officers had forgotten this detail & were now paying for their forgetfulness by having to wait half an hour for their breakfast.  Some seemed really quite annoyed about it.

At the present moment the Saloon library is attracting my chief attention, they have got several good books, which I have wanted to read for some time.  Yesterday I devoured a book on literary criticism by Conan Doyle, a novel of Merriman’s called “Burlash of the Guard” & half a volume of Bret Hartes Poems.  Today I have just finished the “Witness for the Defence” by Mason & am now trying to raise sufficient courage to wade into “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy.  I have never yet read anything by this last gentleman & I want to see what he is like.  As far as our voyage is concerned today has differed very little from yesterday,  We had our usual morning parade & again the general found that it was such a long walk all round the quarters that he had no time to come & see my little crowd in the “after island”.  We waited for some time & then got a message to dismiss.

Duty once over we gave up our time to pleasures.  Golf, tennis & quoits were all going strong, thanks to the untiring energy of the ship’s quartermaster, who walks about all day armed with innumerable pieces of chalk: with these in an incredibly short space of time he can mark out anything from a tennis court to a golf links.  We pitch about just a little at times, but not enough to disturb anyone, scarcely enough in fact to deflect the quoit.  Last night for some unknown reason I did not sleep as well as I ought to have done & so have just put in another two hours in a corner of the smoking room.  It is now almost time to go to dinner, after which event I shall go early to bed & hope for better luck tonight.

The feeding on this ship is certainly very good & what is almost as important, the waiting is perfect.  There are not I believe quite as many stewards as the ship would carry in peace time, but there are enough to keep things from standing still.  Sometime during tonight we shall in all probability, pass Malta, though we shall not put in there this time unless something untoward happens.  As you can well imagine the good people who are going home on leave are by no means anxious to waste a day or even an hour en route, and we are making as fast & straight as we possibly can for our port.  The latter half of the voyage is the more interesting in a way because one can see glimpses of land at intervals all the way: this end, that is to say from Alexandria to Malta there is absolutely nothing to break the monotony of the sea except an occasional school of porpoises.  One thing I did hope to see in these waters & that was a flying fish or some kind of water animal that does not inhabit the English Channel: unfortunately, we have seen nothing of the sort either on this or the outward voyage.  It is very obvious that one will have to make another voyage to the East after this war is over, there is so much we have left unseen in our short trip.

 

4 February 1916

S.S. Megantic

Before going to bed last night I had the misfortune to run into our ship’s Adjutant Godsall, who informed me of the one thing which I most particularly desired to remain in complete ignorance, the early morning parade.  Officers in command of units, he said, will have a private parade tomorrow morning, to fix boat stations, you will command the H.Q. people who will be on the boat deck.  The time of parade for the boat deck people is 6 a.m.! arrangements had accordingly to be made to be called, these last as it turned out were quite unnecessary, for at  5.55 our siren let forth a succession of the most appaling blasts, apparently to signify to the people on shore that she was ready to sail.  Unable to sleep through such a din I arose & put on a few clothes, leaving the very chic blue collar of my pyjamas showing above my jacket, to make the G.O.C. jealous.  After many peregrinations I was allotted two boats into which my people were to get in the event of the order being given to abandon ship.  These were changed three times, & in the end we fetched up on what was called the after island, a sort of isolated little boat deck in rear; this we have got to ourselves.  Various orders were read out & we then retired to dress, to the accompaniment of further blasts on the siren, to which no one on shore seemed to pay any attention.  At about 10 o’clock we at last began to get a move on, & in accordance with orders we all donned our life belts, with which it seems we are never to part company until the end of the voyage.  At 10.30 while the ship was still in the midst of a swarm of ships & on our way out of the harbour we had an inspection parade, a daily affair, when the Brigadier, who is O.C. troops, walks round & has a look at everybody & everything; we of course were all drawn up at our boat stations.  On this occasion the General found so much to occupy his attention below, that he had not reached us by 12.30 & we then dismissed; we hope for better luck tomorrow as I personally have a complaint to make.  Our biscuit tin, that is to say the tin on board the boat, in which we are to be rescued when torpedoed, is full of weevilly biscuits.  If he wont listen I shall have a meeting & hang someone from the yard arm – that ought to liven things up a little; voyages are apt to be devoid of excitement on board these days.  After parade I played one set of tennis with Thomson of the Monmouth’s & managed to beat him, after a terrible set which got as far as six games all.  After lunch we had another set & played on for the rest of the afternoon, with intervals of quoits at which I am now getting most proficient.  We adjourned for tea & having had a cup or two I am now writing this, meanwhile, as to our voyage; we started as I said at 10. a.m. & at 10.45 we dropped anchor again in the harbour & waited; this was apparently because two naval people paid us a visit, & as soon as they had gone we cleared out.  We are now going along at a good pace, the sea is just sufficiently disturbed to cause a slight movement on the boat, & the movement is just sufficient to cause the Brigadier to keep to his cabin.

The sky ahead looks none to promising, but at events I think we are going to have it considerably better than last time.  There is a bit of a swell, nothing at all like the tempestuous rollers through which we ploughed on the Aronda.  Things are very different on this boat to what they were on that.  Here we have machine guns mounted at every possible corner, a whacking great 4.7 gun in rear (aft I mean) & a firing party armed with rifles always on duty on deck.  Besides this there are always military officers on watch as well as the naval authorities & we are determined first not to miss seeing any visitor, secondly not to miss hitting it when it is once seen.  At the present moment we are wobbling a lot vibrating vigorously & to this is due the somewhat curious patches of scriggly handwriting.  The lounge is rather far forward & consequently we feel it more than we should when we were amid ships

3 February 1916

S.S.Megantic

Here we have another new experience.  A first class passenger on a large transatlantic liner, is hardly what one would expect to be doing in the middle of a Sanguinary war.  But we are lolling in the easy chairs of a luxuriously furnished saloon, while the Brigade band helps us to digest a most excellent seven course dinner.  Presently we shall retire to our state rooms, not cabins, & sleep completely surrounded by the latest patent inventions for surrounding American millionaires in luxury.  And all this at the expense of H.M. Government, all we have to pay for is what we drink.

This certainly is a good boat, large fast & very comfortable.  On board with us is the Divisional Staff & a large number of officers who are having their first leave after several months on the “peninsular”.  The Gallipoli show is always known as the “peninsular”; similarly one talks of the “Gulf” & the “Canal” – we only have the “Salient”.

I am sharing a state room with Escombe the signaller, he has the lower berth & I the upper berth: I of course had the choice & mindful of the old “look-out” story could only do as I did.  Bosworth rejoices in a 2nd class berth & will doubtless do himself very well indeed.  At dinner tonight, the same arrangement will doubtless hold good throughout the voyage, I sat next to the Adjutant, & 2 other Monmouths, in fact we had a small table to ourselves.

There is only one defect that we have so far discovered, the absence of a piano.  This is a great pity as there are several pianists & plenty of people who are willing to sing.  As I shall post this letter at the end of the voyage, & it will in all probability therefore reach you before the others that I wrote in Alexandria, I had perhaps better explain just briefly why I am on a boat at all.  It is thus.  I just reached my own people again when the powers that be decided that it was time we returned whence we came: fortunately only half the infantry had crossed so it was not so bad as it might have been, had there been the whole Division to trans-ship back again.  A full description of all out intermediate doings will doubtless reach you in time & I cannot write it all down again.  This is the result.  We are all on this boat, sitting at the present minute in Alexandria harbour, & tomorrow morning we sail.  Our destination has not been officially told us but there seems to be little doubt but that this letter will be posted in the selfsame town in which I spent much money & did little work for nearly a month after Xmas.

We were originally intended to sail this afternoon but were prevented from doing so by a very simple little affair.  All the skill of the authorities failed entirely to discover any method, any combination of ropes, slings, & pullies, any manipulations of cranes & derricks, whereby the G.O.C. car could be hoisted on board, without damage, or loss of some such essential part as a few spokes.  For nearly 2 hours the car stood on the quay while one general, two A.D.C.s, 2 Captains, a fatigue party of men to represent the junior service, the chief officer, the boatswain, 3 A.B.s & seven Lascars, to represent the Senior service, tried to invent some way of solving the problem. If the ropes were firm enough to support the weight of the car, the mudguards got crushed as soon as the car left the ground.  If on the other hand the ropes were so arranged as not to touch the mudguard the military authorities declared that the whole thing was insecure & complete ruin was all that they could expect; in the end a compromise was effected & the car was got on board with only a slight damage to the mudguard.  But it was now too late.  All these harbours now have their closing times, that is to say the hour when the boom is drawn across the entrance to keep off the prying eyes of inquisitive submarines.  That hour had almost come & so we are staying here tonight.

Last night, owing to a very early move this morning the whole of the staff slept in the town & left us to stay in camp & bring along the men.  I too had a small jaunt in the town, as finding Pullinger wandering about, we had dinner & tea together, the former at the Majestic, the latter at the “Savoy” Hotel.  In between these two important events we wandered about trying to find a shop where we could pick up some small souvenirs of this country to send home.  I managed to find a couple of little things, one for you & one for Dini & shall send them along when I get a chance to do so.  Of course there is always the possibility, if all these rumours are true that I shall bring them along to you myself.  At all events I hope so.