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Authors: Jon E. Lewis

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One man (Ginger Gilmore) found a mouth-organ, and, despite the fact that his feet were bound in blood-soaked rags, he staggered along at the head of the company playing tunes all day. Mostly he played ‘The Irish Emigrant,’ which is a good marching tune. He reminded me of Captain Oates.

An officer asked me if I wanted a turn on his horse, but I looked at the fellow on it, and said, ‘No thanks.’

The marching was getting on everyone’s nerves, but, as I went I kept saying to myself, ‘If you can, force your heart and nerve and sinew.’ Just that, over and over again.

That night we spent the time looking for an Uhlan regiment, but didn’t get in touch with them, and every time we stopped we fell asleep; in fact we slept while we were marching, and consequently kept falling over.

September 1st
– We continued at the same game from dawn till dark, and dark till dawn – marching and fighting and marching. Every roll call there were fewer to answer – some were killed, some wounded, and some who had fallen out were missing.

During this afternoon we fought for about three hours near Villers-Cotterets I think it was, but I was getting very mixed about things, even mixed about the days of the week. Fifteen men in my company were killed, one in a rather peculiar fashion. He was bending down, handing me a piece of sausage, and a bullet ricochetted off a man’s boot and went straight into his mouth and out of the top of his head.

We got on to the, road about 200 yards only in front of a German brigade, and then ran like hell for about a mile, until we passed through the South Staffs Regiment, who were entrenched each side of the road. I believe about six of the battalion were captured. Still we marched on until dusk, then on outpost again, and during the night the South Staffs passed through us.

September 2nd
– At 2 a.m. we moved off, and marched all day long. It was hot and dusty and the roads were rotten, but, as we got mixed up with hundreds of refugees, we were obliged to keep better marching order. About 6 p.m., to 8 p.m. we reached Meaux – I believe we did about twenty-five miles that day, but no fighting. We bivouacked outside Meaux, but I went into the cathedral when we halted near it, and thought it was very beautiful. Also I saw some of the largest tomatoes I have ever seen in my life, growing in a garden. I was rounding up stragglers most of the night until 1 a.m. and at 3 a.m. we moved off again.

September 3rd
– The first four or five hours we did without a single halt or rest, as we had to cross a bridge over the Aisne before the R.E.s blew it up. It was the most terrible march I have ever done. Men were falling down like ninepins. They would fall flat on their faces on the road, while the rest of us staggered round them, as we couldn’t lift our feet high enough to step over them, and, as for picking them up, that was impossible, as to bend meant to fall. What happened to them, God only knows. An aeroplane was following us most of the time dropping iron darts: we fired at it a couple of times, but soon lost the strength required for that. About 9 a.m. we halted by a river, and immediately two fellows threw themselves into it. Nobody, from sheer fatigue, was able to save them, although one sergeant made an attempt, and was nearly drowned himself. I, like a fool, took my boots off, and found my feet were covered with blood. I could find no sores or cuts, so I thought I must have sweated blood.

As I couldn’t get my boots on again I cut the sides away, and when we started marching again; my feet hurt like hell.

We marched till about 3 p.m. – nothing else, just march, march, march. I kept repeating my line, ‘If you can, force, etc.’ Why, I didn’t know. A sergeant irritated everyone who could hear him by continually shouting out: ‘Stick it, lads. We’re making history.’

The Colonel offered me a ride on his horse, but I refused, and then wished I hadn’t, as anything was preferable to the continuous marching.

We got right back that afternoon among the refugees again. They were even worse off than we were, or, at least, they looked it. We gave the kids our biscuits and “bully,” hoping that would help them a little; but they looked so dazed and tired there did not seem to be much hope for them.

At 8 p.m. we bivouacked in a field and slept till dawn. Ye gods! what a relief.

September 4th
– I was sent with six men on outpost to a small wood on our left front, and I had not posted the sentries more than half an hour, before an officer found two of them asleep. The poor fellows were afterwards tried by courts martial and shot.

About 3 p.m., we all moved off again, and came into action almost immediately, although I believe it was a food convoy that was mistaken for German artillery by our artillery.

Anyway no one I knew was hurt. It was said, however, that Jerry rushed his troops along after us in lorries.

All through the night we marched, rocking about on our feet from the want of sleep, and falling fast asleep even if the halt lasted only a minute. Towards dawn we turned into a farm, and for about two hours I slept in a pigsty. I noticed the same thing about that farm that I’d noticed about most French farms. That was, although they seemed more intensively cultivated than English, farms, the farm implements were very old-fashioned.

September 5th
– Early on this morning reinforcements from England joined us, and the difference in their appearance and ours was amazing. They looked plump, clean, tidy, and very wide-awake. Whereas we were filthy, thin, and haggard. Most of us had beards; what equipment was left was torn; instead of boots we had puttees, rags, old shoes, field boots – anything and everything wrapped round our feet. Our hats were the same, women’s hats, peasants’ hats, caps, any old covering, while our trousers were mostly in ribbons. The officers were in a similar condition.

After the reserves joined we marched about twenty miles to a place called Chaumes, It was crowded with staff officers. We bivouacked in a park, and then had an order read to us that the men who had kept their overcoats were to dump them, as we were to advance at any moment. Strangely, a considerable amount of cheering took place then.

I discovered that the company I was in covered 251 miles in the Retreat from Mons, which finished on September 5th, 1914.

Corporal Bernard John Denore, 1st Royal Berks Regt., 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, 1 Army Corps. In Action at Battle of and Retreat from Mons; Battle of the Marne; the Aisne (about two months); First Battle of Ypres; in the Salient four weeks. Wounded at Zonnebeke (in seven places); in hospital at Boulogne, London and Reading
.

AN OLD CONTEMPTIBLE AT LE CATEAU
R. G. Hill

On August 5th, 1914, I reported to my regimental depot, being an Army Reservist. What a meeting of old friends! All were eager to take part in the great scrap which every pre-war soldier had expected. At the depot all was bustle, but no confusion. In the mobilization stores, every reservist’s arms and clothing were ticketed, and these were soon issued, with webbing equipment. About 300 men were then selected and warned to hold themselves in readiness to proceed to the South Coast to make up the war strength of the battalion stationed there. There was great competition to go with this draft, the writer being one of the lucky ones to be selected.

We entrained next morning. Then another meeting with old chums. That night, bully, biscuits, emergency rations, and ammunition, were issued. Surplus kit was handed in and next night the battalion entrained for an unknown destination. We eventually arrived in Yorkshire, and, after a fortnight’s strenuous training, left for the South of England again, to join our division. By this time we had welded together, and were a really fine body of men, hard as nails, average age about twenty-five, and every man with the idea that he was equal to three Germans! Splendid men, enthusiastic, and brave, going to fight, they thought, for a righteous cause.

We embarked for France and landed at Boulogne on the morning of August 23rd. What a contrast between us and the slip-shod undersized French territorials who were guarding the docks. In their baggy red trousers and long blue coats, they looked like comic-opera soldiers. We looked smart in our new khaki, and training had made us broad-chested and clean-looking. We disembarked and marched through the narrow streets of Boulogne singing popular songs. The enthusiasm of the French people was unbounded. They broke our ranks to shower gifts upon us, and many a blushing Tommy was kissed by men and women. A few hours in camp, where we had to be guarded by gendarmes to save us from excited female admirers, and we entrained, leaving buttons and badges behind as souvenirs. A tedious journey in horse trucks followed. The line was littered with empty bully tins and Woodbine packets, showing that British troops had passed that way before.

We detrained just outside Le Cateau station. The town was in confusion, as Mons had just been fought; refugees, troops, and ammunition columns creating a dust that choked us. Civilians offered us foaming jugs of weak beer, but discipline was so strong that to accept it meant a court martial.

We marched out of the town along a typical French road. Just when we were about all in, a halt was called for dinner, which we never had as an outburst of artillery fire was heard.

It must have been miles away, but we had orders to open out to artillery formation and proceed. We saw no enemy that day, and at night bivouacked in a cornfield, where we enjoyed a long-delayed dinner. We marched off in column of fours next morning at dawn in a new direction. At noon we halted, piled arms, and rations were issued – the last for many days. Men were told off to dig trenches on rising ground to our left.

Whilst so engaged an aeroplane hovered over us. It had no distinguishing mark, and we thought it was French, but were soon disillusioned; as it scattered coloured lights over us. Too late, we opened fire. Soon large black shells were bursting in the beet field just in front of our improvised position. Rain then started, the shelling ceased, and a regiment of our cavalry came galloping up and jumped over us in our hastily constructed trench. We stayed there till nightfall, incidentally wiping out a small Uhlan patrol that blundered upon us. When we withdrew we could hear the jingle of accoutrements of many men approaching. That night we seemed to march round and round a burning farmhouse.

Day broke, and we were still dragging our weary limbs along in what seemed to us to be an everlasting circle. At last the word came to halt and fall out for a couple of hours’ rest. We had been marching along a road with a high ridge on the right and cornfields on the left. High up the ridge ran a road parallel to ours, on which one of our regiments had been keeping pace with us. We had no sooner sunk down in the cornfield on our left than shrapnel began to burst over us. Our officers were fine leaders. ‘Man the ditch on the road,’ came the order.

In the meantime the battalion on the ridge had been caught napping by a squadron of Uhlans, who charged them while they were falling out for a rest. Our eager young officers went frantic with excitement. On their own initiative they led us up the hill to the rescue of our comrades. With wild shouts we dashed up. At first the ground was broken and afforded cover for our short sharp dashes. We then came to a hedge with a gap about four yards wide. A dozen youngsters made for the gap, unheeding the advice of older soldiers to break through the hedge. Soon that gap was a heap of dead and dying as a machine gun was trained on it. We reached an open field, where we were met with a hail of shrapnel. Officers were picked off by snipers. A subaltern rallied us and gave the order to fix bayonets. A piece of shrapnel carried half his jaw away. Upwards we went, but not a sign of a German. They had hidden themselves and waited for our mad rush. Officers and sergeants being wiped out and not knowing where the enemy really were, our attack fizzled out. A Staff officer came galloping amongst us, mounted on a big black charger. He bore a charmed life. He shouted something unintelligible, which someone said was the order to retire.

The survivors walked slowly down, puzzled and baffled. They had attained nothing, and had not even seen the men they set out to help. We lost half the battalion in that wild attack.

Then came our turn to do something better. The survivors, under the direction of a capable major, dug in and waited to get their own back. A battery of our eighteen-pounders started to shell the ridge. Suddenly shells started falling round the guns. One direct hit and a gunner’s leg fell amongst us. The battery was wiped out. Tired and worn out, we waited. Towards afternoon shrapnel played on us, fortunately without serious result. Then it was our turn to laugh. German infantry were advancing in close formation. They broke at our first volley. Something seemed to sting my leg. I found a shrapnel bullet had ploughed a shallow groove down the fleshy part of my thigh. The enemy advanced. Another volley and they broke again. My leg began to pain me, so I hobbled along the road to a house which was being used as a dressing station. A long queue of wounded men were waiting to be dressed, whilst a crowd of thirst-maddened unwounded were crowding round a well in the garden. Despairing of medical aid, I begged a field dressing, and, catching sight of a sunken road, turned into it, and dressed my wound.

In this sunken road, I found battalion headquarters. At dusk they retired, I with them. I learnt afterwards that all our wounded were captured that night, and small bodies of our troops, trying to retire in the darkness, had fired on each other. This was our part in the Battle of Le Cateau.

Then began the retreat. I must have fainted, for I remember hobbling along with some chums, and next I found myself tied to the seat of an ammunition limber. We came to a village jammed with retiring troops, where an artillery officer bundled me off. Fortunately some of my own regiment passed, and, seeing me lying in the road, helped me along. My leg seemed easier and I was able to proceed at the pace my footsore companions were going. It was nightmare marching. Our party was now about 150 strong. Sleep was out of the question, and food was begged from villagers. Reaching St. Quentin, we had great hopes of rest, but were told that we were surrounded. We lay down to die through sheer weariness, but a Staff officer rounded us up, and got us out just as the enemy entered. Tramp, tramp, again. Engineers told us to hurry over the bridge at Ham, as they were just about to blow it up. A little scrap a bit further on, then Noyon, where we snatched a night’s sleep.

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