BrassARCHIVES INDEX (new window)Memoirs of World War I
Richard Irving Dacre R.A.M.C.
 
Part 3 - FIRST STEPS IN FRANCE
 

At Le Havre we were met by all sorts of laws and restrictions. The way of the road was different, the horses were not used to the cobble stones and so we lost a horse going up that awful hill to the Camp, and there were a good many stragglers.

However, we got up and got the horses watered and fed and we went off to feed ourselves. It was snowing and very cold and we were in tents. Still, we were keen on war then and we pretended we liked it.

The next morning I had to go to the Remount Depot to get another horse in place of the one which had died. It was a long, tedious journey, but I was surprised when I got there that I was told to take any horse I liked with bridle and nose bag and that I only had to sign for it. I thought this was splendid and was a great contrast to the roundabout ways of obtaining anything at home.

At the Station we had breakfast and then started off. We left an M.O. behind - Roe. He had gone off to get food and drink and arrived too late to get into the train. The food arrived alright by the batman, who was a bit smarter. Roe afterwards turned up.

We passed through Abbeville where we were greeted by some English sisters. We thought at the time how splendid it was of these girls to be so near up the line. At Cassell  we disentrained and I lost another horse. It died very suddenly on the station. There was no need to bury it because the civilians took most of it away for food and undertook to bury the remains.

We marched over Cassell Hill - the only hill in Flanders - and billeted at Hardifort, our first billet in France. I was billeted upstairs over a pub or estaminet and I was rather surprised that there were no sheets on the bed. I learnt a good deal that night. Weber, my servant and groom, was an excellent fellow and made me extremely  comfortable.

The mess was in a farm. We were very badly off in those days for mess "stuff'. He had only brought out a plate, a mess tin, tin cup and composite knife, fork and spoon. All of these were necessary parts of our equipment. They are alright for a picnic but an unnecessary evil for campaigning in a country like France. I afterwards found out  that the roads of France were paved with "Christmas tree etceteras for officers serving in France". Many fortunes were made by persons selling the well-known "trench this and trench that" to fond Aunts and doting Mothers-in-Law. Many a heart would have been broken if these self-same people had seen to what use their "nice and useless" were put to.

We stayed at Hardifort for a day or two to get over our long and tiresome journey. Our next move was up to the line. That awful long, straight cobbled road was an eye-opener to many. Our men were magnificent, heavily laden with full equipment, and a man carried an extra pair of boots in those days, as well as a change of underclothing. They swung along forgetting their "tiredness" and their sore feet. Esprit de Corps carried those men through in those days. Their pals were with them and they were volunteers - Territorials come out to do a bit of soldiering. How different it became. It's awful when I look back upon that Division. Every man a man and fit too - and now half of them lying dead and most of the remainder the worse for the war.

Through Meteren, Flêtre, Caestre, I forget the order, we marched and halted for one night on the way. We passed Merris and Ultersteen and Bailleul. Here we saw the first signs of war. A shell hole in a house, a bullet mark on the wall and we were impressed. Through Bailleul we passed and were met by guides from various units of the 4th Division who were holding the line north of Armentières. We were going up to them for instruction in war. I remember sitting beside the road there and talking to two officers of the Royal Berks. One was Poulton Palmer - one of the nicest and best fellows in the world - the other was "Bossey" Challenor. The former was in great spirits, the latter very down. None of us really realised that we might get knocked out and I think Bossey had some idea that he was going to be knocked out the moment he entered the trenches. At all events he is alive and well to this day. Poor Poulton Palmer was killed very soon after. He was the first officer in the Division to be killed and the one man who could have been spared for better things. He was buried in a coffin at the corner of Plug Street Wood.

I left the transport at Ultersteen and went to Steenwerke to be attached to the 12th Field Ambulance for instruction. I only  remained there two days as I had to go back to the Transport to look after it. There, I was billeted at the Children's School and was looked after by Weber. There was plenty of work to be done and a good deal of riding. Trixie, my mare, was very out of hand these days and required a lot of exercise. Here I lost another of my horses - a beautiful chestnut, with a cracked coronet. I had lost three in as many weeks and I thought I was being badly done by. However, I got more used to it after that and I could lose an animal without a pang of regret. I was learning a lot in those days.

Soon after we took over the line from the 4th Division and settled down to trench life. We were entertained by the 4th Division and once went to see the "Follies". I was very impressed. I had never thought for a moment that such a show could be put up or even countenanced so near the line and I went with a sort of air of condescension and got an agreeable shock to find a real  Pierrot troupe with two girls attached. They were two girls from Nieppe and they had been taken on the strength of the Division. They were called "Vaseline" and "Glycerine". Their voices were atrocious, but they amused everyone immensely.

I went with another officer one day back to Nieppe, where Divisional H.Q.s were, to get some money from the Field Cashier. Whom should I see sitting at the 'receipt of custom' but Jack Bilderbeck. I was tremendously surprised and pleased to see him and thought what a wonderful thing it was to meet an old pal in a dreadful place like this. I saw quite a lot of him then and had dinner at the famous house of Jeanne one night in Armentières and motored back to the Dressing Station afterwards. Field Cashiers had a car in those days. In fact everyone had a car.

We played the 4th Division at Footer and beat them. It was a famous match and a great number of old internationals were playing. The Gloucester County line were in the 5th Gloucesters and did great work. Tyrrch, the Irish International, was playing against us and Poulton captained our side.

Finally the 4th Division departed for the Salient and we were left to our own devices. At that time, there was a front line trench, a support trench, and the same sized unit in reserve or rest. In front there was a row of knife-rests with some barbed wire. Between that defence and the sea there was nothing, except the Hospitals and A.S.C. Our Artillery was practically silent and consisted of D.P. 15 pounder A.F. guns and it was said that they were captured from the Boers at Paardeburg and that the ammunition came from China. A famous story is told about the Infantry ringing up the Artillery for some support. After a long time the answer came back that they had lent the ammunition to A. Battery, who couldn't pay it back because some fool had lost the round. Why the Boche didn't push us off the face of the globe, God only knows.

The Field Ambulance moved up to Romarin where we had our Headquarters and Transport. I was billeted in a farm with Capt.Scott Williamson and M. Chaillou the interpreter. The horses were in various outhouses and lean-tos. We made a bath by sinking a tarpaulin into a small stream.

From this place I was sent up to the advanced Dressing Station at the Convent in Plug Street. I was with Major Moxey and Smythe. We collected the wounded and sick from the whole o the Divisional front and evacuated through the Field Ambulance at Romarin to the Casualty Clearing Stations at Bailleul. The Convent was quite near the line and our beds were put beneath the windows so that any stray bullet might not harm us.

There were two Sisters of Mercy who occupied the upper part of the house and they were nursing a civilian girl who had had a shrapnel bullet through her foot. I used to go and dress this foot. For this  she made me a small pink handkerchief case with "Souvenir de Ploegsterte May 1915" worked on it.

Life was not very strenuous these days; most of our casualties were fellows who had been sniped through the head. My job was to go up to the various Regimental Aid posts to see that our Bearers were at their work. One night I was over Hill 63 going down to Plus Douve Farm with a Lt. Roe when a bullet sang overhead and - as we were not used to that sort of thing - we both ducked: unfortunately in the same direction. Our heads met and for the moment we both thought we were hit. We both sat in the road and felt our heads with our hands to see where the blood was. We had a good laugh when we each discovered the other in this ridiculous position.

Plus Douve Farm was famous in this war because on the walls were drawn many of Bairnsfather's famous pictures. He drew them in charcoal from the fire. Over the fireplace was a girl. One wall held a Scottish girl with kilts; another a girl, déshabillée, brushing her hair. In another room was a man's nightmare of the two shells passing over the bed and a crying boy was in another. Bairnsfather was in the Royal Warwicks at that time and most of his early works were taken from that neighbourhood.

Another famous person of this war was Tina of Bailleul. She lived in the Rue d'Occident and kept a small estaminet. We often used to go into the room or court at the back reserved for officers and drink a dreadful mixture called a 'Tina'. She was a wonderful  girl - very vivacious - and she could speak English like a native. She had a large card with a great many regimental badges on it. Many rumours went about that she was a spy: but then everyone was a spy in those days.

On April 11th the Boche launched their first gas attack. Even down at Plug Street our eyes were watering from the effect of Chlorine, which was used in a cloud. At this time the French Colonials bolted leaving a large gap and our fellows were driven back by sheer weight of numbers. The Empire was saved that day by the prompt attack made by the 50th Division,Territorial, who had only just landed in France, and the Canadians. I think it was the 1st Canadian Division.

This attack put the Boche on his guard and he had to wait some time before he could make up his mind what to do. In the meanwhile the gap was filled. From that date onwards anti-gas measures were thoroughly gone into and a great many changes were made. Masks were followed by various forms of helmets and the box respirator was evolved.

The Casualty Clearing Station was filled up with these gas cases. We didn't know much about it in those days and the relief which we could give to these fellows was very little. The scene of gasping, coughing, agonised men was very terrible, and one of the scenes which I shall never forget.

Time went slowly but surely on. We never worried the Boche and in return he didn't worry us. On the 9th of May we were supposed to create a diversion for the fellows down at Festubert. We tried to trick the Boche by firing a few guns, pulling old harrows about the roads - sending parties up to the trenches singing and talking and sending them back quietly.

In the morning we started a battle and that was the first time I came under real shell fire. I was very frightened and shaky but I managed to carry on all right and to do my job. They set fire to the village, more especially round the church and left our part pretty much alone. It was great fun watching the shells send the bricks flying out of the tower of the Church. We had a good many wounded on that day. They were put in a small shelter at the back of the house. Major Moxey, who was down at H.Q., came tearing back when the shindy started and he thoroughly enjoyed falling on his stomach whenever a shell came over from Bocheland. He was very good that day and gave us a deal of help. Smythe was with me at the time.

After the show was over and every thing was quiet, the A.D.M.S. and the Colonel came up. I felt a little bit hurt that I wasn't shaken by the hand and given the V.C. straight off, as I felt that I was a bit of a Knut after being shelled.

Later on we moved our Advanced Dressing Station back to H.Q. at Romarin and occupied the estaminet at the Cross Roads. We stayed here for some time and enjoyed an easy life. We were never shelled and the wounded were very few. I occupied an attic with Padres Meek and Helm, and Roe who had the bed. We ate some dinners at Armentières and drank some Tinas at Bailleul and then we were relieved by a Canadian Division. After handing over we departed one night for a long trek South. It was done mostly at night owing to the heat of the day and so that enemy aircraft should not see us. The moon was very bright and a great part of the journey was done along the canals. The Transport was rather a trial again, as it straggled and made me very irritable. However, we always managed to get there in the end.

At last we arrived at the end of our journey and we bivouacked just below the village of Couin in a wood. After resting a few days, Scott Williamson and I were sent up to Sailey-au-Bois to take over from the French Ambulance. This was our first introduction to French methods. I don't think I have ever seen anything so filthy in all my life. The Ambulance was in the Curet's house next to the Church, where we were greeted with six six-inch shells, one of which killed a French soldier. The French idea of treating all the lightly wounded first and leaving the badly wounded till last was very contrary to our own ideas. All the refuse and dirty dressings were thrown out the window into the back garden which seemed to be one large latrine. The stench and flies were appalling.

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