One Young Man On Active Service
( Originally Published 1917 )
SYDNEY BAXTER was sent with his unit to Rouen. He writes:
" We were tightly packed in a small tent at Rouen Camp. The following morning and afternoon we were busily engaged in being fitted out with extra equipment and ammunition, and so did not have time to look around. We had great hopes, however, of seeing the city in the evening, but we had to Stand by ' and on no account leave camp. This was horrible. The tents were too dark to play cards, we had no reading matter or letters to answer, and once more seemed doomed to an evening of deadly dreariness. However, we decided to patrol the camp, my chum and I. As we walked off together we little dreamed that exactly one month from that day he was to be called upon to pay the supreme sacrifice of all. We walked round that camp, feeling that in each other we had our only link with home, with past associations_ We did not speak much. Each had his own thoughts, each was subconsciously leaning on the other for support, for the coming unknown experiences. It was a cold March evening, and for want of anything to do, and in the hope of getting a little warmth, we decided to. go back to our tent and turn in. I have tried to give an idea of how we were feeling; it can be summed up as tired and cold and a bit homesick.
" It was just then that we spotted a tent with the sign of The Red Triangle: We had visions, of hot tea. An oasis in the desert could not have been more welcome. We entered the large tent; it was very full, and a long line. was patiently awaiting the. turn for purchasing. There was no shouting, no pushing or elbowing to get up to the front and be served first. The tent was really and truly a haven of peace such a welcome port of call. On the small tables were magazines and ' Blighty newspapers, paper and envelopes were given for the asking, and a gramophone was grinding out the tunes we all loved. We sat at one of the. tables, so thankful for such a change of scene., and for the warmth of the hot tea. The same welcome, the same homely atmosphere, were here as in the other Y.M. centres. One felt, eve was made to feel, that his was the right to enter and stay and enjoy himself each in his own way, and that is why the Y.M. is so popular, and why both the taciturn and the jocular find their way by common consent to these Y. M. C. A_ tents."
In a few days came the order to proceed to Ypres. He writes:
" We swung round into the station yard, and were allotted to our compartments, fondly imagining we should be off in a few minutes. We took off our equipment and other paraphernalia, and settled down for our journey. A minute or so afterwards the order was passed down that the trian would not start before 7 o'clock, and that men might leave their compartments but not the station. Here was a fine look-out. It was only about 2 o'clock, and we had to look forward to at least five hours of weary waiting, without anything hot to drink and only bully and biscuits to eat. It was not a. pleasant prospect, you will agree, but apparently it was nothing out of the usual, for the 'Association of the Red Triangle ' was ready and waiting for us, and had a large canteen, run entirely by ladies, on the station. Here we were able to provide for our journey, fill our water-bottles with tea and our haversacks with ham, rolls, and fruit. This was the best refreshment room I have been into, and it was our last glimpse of English ladies for many months. These ladies are doing a splendid and most self-sacrificing work, for their hours are long and their duties heavy. I wonder if it has ever occurred to them how much their presence meant to us boys ? For many they were the last seen of the womanhood of our race."
I wonder too. Will any of those ladies read these lines ? I hope so I'd like them to know what their presence meant to just one of the boys they have been serving so well. They will have their reward. I should like them to have just one word of a Tommy's thanks now.
" In our little compartment of six two were killed within a month and one wounded; the other three survived until the first of July, when one was killed, one was taken a prisoner of war, and I was wounded and rendered unfit for further service. When at last our train started, amid rousing cheers for the ladies and a fluttering of white handkerchiefs from the little group on the station platform, we seemed to leave the last of civilisation behind.
" Before midnight we were under shell-fire in the Infantry Barracks of Ypres."
He writes to his mother
" My word we were tired at the end of the journey. We are stationed in the military barracks of the city, and have had a chance of looking round the town. The buildings, especially the cathedral, arc very much damaged. The only discomforts are the lack of food and the absence of money to buy it. Both G. and I landed here without a penny, but managed to borrow enough to buy a loaf. We know now what it is to be hungry; we have lb. of bread a day only, and no milk in the tea, so you can see that what you want you must buy, and it's terribly expensive here, 6d. for a loaf, etc. But we shall be paid in a day or so. The only things which are really necessary, and which we cannot get here, are candles and Oxo cubes, Although I don't want to be a burden to you, I should like you to send z lb. of candles and some cubes. The candles are used for boiling water or tea, etc., in the trenches, and it is the only way we can get anything hot. Of course anything in the way of food is acceptable, but I can understand that you have enough to do without extra trouble and expense. Anyway, should any kind friends wish to send, please let them do so.
" We are two miles from trenches, and shall be going in on Sunday. A few shells are knocking round, but we take no notice and sleep well. Well, don't worry. We are in comfortable billets and with very decent fellows, and they have shared their bread, etc., with us."
I shall not attempt to picture Sydney Baxter's daily life in the terrible salient of Ypres in any detail, but that I may prove my words that he was a typical soldier let me quote just one letter received at this time.
"My OWN DEAR MOTHER,
" I have not been able to write before as we have just come out of the trenches after being there since Monday. Thanks very much for sweets and letters. They are very acceptable indeed. Thanks for P.O. We have now been paid, and so shall be all right. Chocolates, handerchiefs, etc., are fine. Neither George nor I felt anything peculiar when coming under fire as I expected we should. We were all right in the trenches, which are very good indeed. They are a bit different to what I expected, but of course they vary. It seems to me safer to be in the trenches than out ; however, it is bad luck if you are hit. No one was killed in our company all the time we were in, and only three wounded, so you will see there is not much to worry about; and with some pay and parcels which I have received, and about twelve letters, I feel much better."
Sydney Baxter often mentions his chum in this record and 1 think the following extract from George's letter about this time may well be inserted here. The two boys were inseparable until the last and absolute bodily separation between the living and the dead.
" Everything is going on all right with us. We have finished our first taste of trench life, and on the whole it was rather enjoyable. We went in last Monday and came out late on Saturday. The first two or three days were wet, so our opportunities for sleep were few, especially as at our part of the trench there were no dug-outs and our sleep had to be obtained in the open air. In fact, until the fourth day I only had one hour's sleep, and on the last day I managed about five hours. The chief trouble was trying to boil water, but we managed by cutting a candle into small pieces and putting this, with a piece of rag, into a tin, using the rag as a wick.
" Our five days and nights were on the whole fairly quiet; in fact, during the day hardly any shots were exchanged, most of the firing being done at night. During the day it was impossible to look over the trench, as we were only fifty yards from the Germans, so we considered it advisable not to exhibit too much curiosity in case our health suffered thereby. At night time the Germans use star-shells to illuminate the proceedings, and they always seem nervy and think we are going to attack their trench. If we start firing a little more than usual they think it is the signal for an attack, and they blaze away like fury. We had a good example of this on our last night in the trenches.
" Someone started firing, someone else took it up and in no time the noise was like the final end-up of fireworks at the White City. From that it got much worse, and I suppose they really thought we were going for them, so their artillery sent us a few shells; but they did no damage. Eventually they seemed satisfied that we were quite safe, so they wound up the proceedings.
" There is one lot here who, whenever they go into the trenches, shove their hats on their rifles, wave them about, and then shout across to the Germans to come out in the open and have a proper fight. Whenever this happens the Germans lie low and hardly fire a shot.
" One advantage of being so close to the Germans is that they cannot shell us without damaging their own trench as much as ours, so that, although we heard plenty going along overhead, we had none very near us."