One Young Man On Trek
( Originally Published 1917 )
IT was on August Bank Holiday Monday that Sydney Baxter's battalion made its long journey south. He writes:
" We were up at 2 o'clock that morning, and for two solid hours were loading up the trucks with our transport, G.S. waggons and limbers. It was real sport and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A long row of flat trucks was lined up, and as each limber drew up the horses were unharnessed and we ran the limber right along the whole line of trucks until all were filled. The work completed, we detailed for our trucks. Every trenchman knows those trucks neatly ticketed.
Forty of us packed into a van did not permit even sitting down, and we were very tired after our exertions, but the change of surroundings and the knowledge that we were for a time far away from the reach and sound of shells was sufficient to keep us merry and bright. The journey was very slow, and when we reached Calais it was just twelve hours since we had had a breakfast cup of tea. A few of us decided to run up to the engine and get some hot water and make some tea on our own, but the majority hadn't got any tea tablets or cocoa, and we hadn't enough to go round at a sip each. The cookers were tightly packed on a truck at the rear, and there was no hope from that quarter. And then once again, just as on other occasions where a chance of a hot mug of tea seemed hopeless, and where we were apparently doomed to a comfortless time, the Y.M. was at hand. There, as we glided into Calais station, we espied a long covered-in counter displaying the familiar sign of the red triangle. The order quickly came down, and was more quickly put into execution, that men could get out and go to the canteen. I have never seen such a rush. We were like a disturbed nest of ants. I wondered how on earth those ladies would cope with us, but I under-estimated their resources. As we came up we were formed into a column of four deep, and only a few were admitted at a time. At the entrance was a pay box. Here we had our franc and 5-franc notes turned into pennies, that the exact money might be given over the counter to save any delay. When I passed up to the counter in due time, I found that the first sector was solely occupied in pouring out tea into our quart mess tins, further along buttered rolls and cakes were piled high upon large trays, and at the last sector cigarettes of all varieties, chocolate, and nougat were obtainable. It was a splendid array of good things served by the ladies of our own land. Though, of course, we needed and enjoyed the hot tea and rolls, it was as much joy to hear our own tongue so sweetly spoken. The change from the deep voices of our officers and comrades thrilled us, reminding us of sisters and sweethearts just a few miles away, across the Channel, and yet so far off, for there was little chance of leave for a long time. What a pretty picture those ladies made in the midst of the khakied crowd, passing quickly from one to another with a smile for all ! I am sure every one was over-stocked with chocolates and cigarettes., for we all kept returning to the counter to buy something just for the sake of a smile or a How are you getting on, Tommy ? ' from one of our hostesses. The whistle blew and we all made a rush for our trucks. The ladies stood in a body at the end of the platform, and as each truck passed waved and wished us good luck. The noise we made was deafening ; we cheered and cheered until the little group of England's unknown heroines on the platform passed from sight. Our hearts were very full.
" And so we passed down into the Somme district, the first English soldiers to hold that part of the line."
Here are a few typical extracts from Sydney Baxter's letters about this time.
" We are at rest after some days of trenches, and of course are not sorry to be able to walk about and get a brush up—apart from the catering side, which you can realise is no small item. The weather has been very good of late; and while we were in the trenches it was fine but cold, which makes life more comfortable. We had a new system of guards and work last time, and it was a treat. I never enjoyed a spell of trenches as I did that, although the time spent in work and other duties and guards was nearly twelve hours.
" Thanks for chocolate, which found a ready home. Girls are not the only ones who like chocs., judging by the amount that disappears here. Sorry my last letter was censored. I am ignorant of what information I could have given; possibly I had a grumbling mood on and was somewhat sarcastic about the many defects and inconsiderations in army life."
Later. " M DEAREST MOTHER,
Just a line to tell you I'm Ai By the time you get this our rest will be over, and we shall be entrenched. Thanks for socks. The stove is going a treat. We finished a fatigue at 4 o'clock this morning and made some porridge. It was great, and of course up in the trench it will be trebly handy_ We are taking up two big packets of Quaker Oats, and with the tea, cocoa, coffee, and oxo we ought to do well.
" Glad to hear about Herbert's wound. Sounds funny, no doubt, but he's lucky to get back at all, for he was at Ypres and it's hot there."
From a letter to a cousin in the United States.
" I have sent you one or two photos which may be of interest, and which may be useful to check the strafe Englands of the German who comes to your office. Ask him, if in these pictures the Huns look as if they believe they're winning, and then compare them with those of our boys and of the Frenchies in the trenches, and with those of our wounded. My ! there's just all the difference between them !
" I also send a French field service card, so you now have an English and a French one. I'm afraid a Russian card is out of the question, unless I get sent near them in the Balkans; and when I think of that I also think of a ditty that we sing, which runs:"
I want to go home, I want to go home,
The Johnsons and shrapnel they whistle arid roar;
I don't want to go to the trenches no more. I want to go home,
Where the Allemands can't get at me,
Oh my I don't want to die; I want to go home.
" You'd better not show this to that German or else he'll believe we mean it as well as sing it. We have a rare lot of ditties. We often sing across--.` Has anyone seen a German Band,' or I want my Fritz to play twiddly bits on his old trombone.' We really have a good bit of fun at times; other days are—crudely, but truthfully putting it—' Hell.' The first month I had out here was such. You heard of Hill 6o back last April, and the second battle of Calais. It was during that time that I lost my friend, with whom I joined. Since we were thirteen years old we've been inseparable. Only 40 per cent. of the draft I was on are left, and in my pocket I have a long list of churns whom I shall never see again in this world. It seems wonderful to me that I should be spared whilst so many better men go. Naturally I am thankful, especially for mother's sake, that I have escaped so far. Only once during the eight months out here have I been more than ten miles from the firing line, and ten miles is nothing to a gun.
" Well, now I must knock off for dinner, the variety of which never changes. You've heard of Stew, stew, glorious stew '; perhaps, however, beer was the subject then. Well, resume at the first possible moment; for, in the Army, what you don't go and fetch you never see, and then again, first come first served, last man the grouts."
" Here we are again ; I was last for dinner, but didn't do badly by reason of it. I am writing this at a house which our Chaplain has put at our disposal. It's quite a treat to sit on a chair and write at a table, after sitting on the ground with knees up and a bad light.
" The trenches are in a rotten state now owing to the heavy rain and the snow. It's like walking on a sponge about eighteen inches deep. Squelch, squelch you go and not infrequently get stuck ; parts are knee deep in water, and icy cold water trickling into your boots is the reverse of pleasant or warm. Then the rain trickles through the dug-out roof—that caps it. I really don't think there can be anything more irritating than the drip, drip in the region of the head. Then of course your hands are covered in mud, for as you walk along you need your hands to keep your balance, and the sides are all muddy as well. You come inside then and eat your quarter of a loaf for breakfast and go without for tea—the usual ration is one-third of a loaf, which generally is found sufficient. We get jam, too, and bacon daily, butter three times a week, and stew for dinner every day in trenches or not.
" Our sergeant took us to the whizbangs concert party last night. It was Ai—one chap makes his fiddle absolutely speak. He played that Volunteer Organist and parts of Henry VIII., the basso sang Will the Wisp,' and most of the other songs were old 'uns. I tell you, you wouldn't believe we had such things a couple of miles behind the line.
" On Sunday I went to church. It was the hall that the concert party use. Right glad we were to sing the old hymns again, for we only get one Sunday in two months down here on rest. We had five bandsmen to keep us in tune, and, with a good sermon, the evening was both enjoyable and helpful. Afterwards we came back and I had a discussion with two others on Christianity, the work of the Church, Salvation Army, Y.M.C.A., and other such organisations. It was very interesting, for one of them was an out-and-out atheist who was under the impression that Christians were all hypocrites, cranks, and prigs."
The last extract from a letter to Sydney Baxter's office.
" My ! I should like to be back working at the business in any department. I reckon I shall not be much good the first six months, knowing practically nothing of what has happened since this time last year, However, no doubt, they'll find me a job somewhere. They'll certainly find me very keen. They say this life spoils you for the office, but I shan't be sorry to return to it. Mind you, I feel very much fitter and stronger in eyesight, less neuralgia and headache than before; but I shall go in for more fresh air and bring up the balance that way.
" The trenches are in a lively state now, all mud and water; however, now November has come I expect they will generally be in a damper state, and so we shall have to get used to it, as we had to last March.
" It has rained every day, and I can tell you we've been very fed up at times. It's hard to see the funny side of things when soaked through, caked in mud, and tired, but we feel different already after a couple of nights in our blankets and a few square meals.
" I am keeping very fit, although the last spell knocked me up a bit; but a little rest will do wonders, and I shall be full of fighting strength again and ready for the Hun.