William was my great granddad. He was put on the front line in France where he was captured and held until the end of the war. On his return he received a letter from the King.
While slowly dying in hospital he documented his war times in several letters.
Around 2001, I was at my parents when they pulled out those letters. I could not put them down! That same night I transcribed and scanned them into one of my first websites. Here they are…
This begins the long promised account of my army life. I volunteered and attested on 11th December 1915, was placed back in the reserve and twice exempted because of my trade usefulness, but had to report on 12th Sept. 1917 after two days’ leave. I was sent from Ayr to Hamilton where I stayed for a week and was then sent on to Galashiels, where I was in training for three months.
It was a fine countryside where there is that much sung about river the Gala Water; there is also the Tweed flowing through the valley. While I was there I visited the town of Melrose and of course Melrose Abbey, a place with historical connections about Bruce’s period.
From Galashiels the Battalion went on to Methil, Leven, and Windygates, two Companies to each place with the exception of Methil; that was where my Company was stationed just ourselves. On the 13th of February our draft left for France where we arrived on the 14th at Boulongue and camped for a few days. Leaving Boulongue we went on to Calais and camped there for another few days. Our first night in Boulongue, Jerry (meaning the Germans) was over bombing us from his aeroplanes.
We left Calais and went on to a place called Godersveldt (that’s in Belgium), the Divisional Headquarters of the 8th Division to which the Battalion, the 2nd Battalion, the Cameronians, Scottish Rifles, were attached. We stayed another week there, and then the whole Headquarters Staff and drafts for the different Battalions of the Division were transfered to the Cambria, St. Quinten front, and after resting at a camp called Eddison Camp for a week I went to join the Battalion at a place called Beleau La Fontaine, where we arrived in the evening in time for the drawing of rations. The Battalion was to march off next morning to a place called Chaulnes.
The morning opened up with a snow storm and eventually we moved off after breakfast, stopping half way for dinner. You see, the army was supplied with kitchen boilers and ranges on wheels and while on the march the cooks could cook the dinner which was served hot. But you had to get it down quick for the cold was intense and then your dinner, if you didn’t get it down quick, became a mass of grease, which is anything but nice. However, we got it down and got on the move again. The cold was very keen and the roads were not very level and drifts formed with the snow into which we stumbled in the daylight.
After tea when we resumed the march in the dark, we sprawled and tumbled into the drifts. It was pitch black and no lights visible, but we arrived at our destination at last after many disapointments. After tea, every town we came to we thought was our destination, and when you have been marching all day with all your kit on your back and extra rations beside emergency rations, battling against wind and snow, you get some tired. And if you think a town you are coming to is your destination and you still march on, approach another town and again march on, and the same thing occurs again and again, you are not in an amiable turn of mind when you do arrive at camp especially when you have to go and draw your blankets which you find tossed out of the transports into the snow — and you have to hunt for yours in the dark and recognize them from 240 other bundles. Then you get back to your tent, stretch yourself out and try to get warm with wet blankets and wet ground. And rise very refreshed in the morning, perhaps.
In the morning after breakfast the Captain came round the tents and told the section commanders to take a couple of privates and look for dugouts. You know the French houses all have underground cellars below the house because they never trusted the German. So that they were somewhat prepared for shell fire when it came and many many lives were saved by this means in the German’s first week in 1914. Our company was allocated a street and we got a dugout, not a bad place under a villa. We got a stove into it and laid wood on the floor 3½” thick and altogether we made it quite comfortable.
We were attached to the engineers and were set to work at road making, one day road making and the next day practicing for the great retreat of March 1918. The business of the maneuvers was that Jerry had attacked and captured the first line trench, but we counterattacked and drove Jerry out and held the trench till night and in the dark quietly retired to another line as our scouts were supposed to discover that the Germans had brought reinforcements up. Our business was to get back and when Jerry attacked he would be wasting his ammunition on an empty trench until he discovered it when his infantry advanced. So much for our practice maneuvers which were practiced for a definite purpose of which you will hear something later on in another installment. We had also shooting practice and shooting competition every day. That also was for a purpose.
Altogether we spent three weeks in this kind of work and then one morning we got orders to march back to quarters at Baleu La Fontain. As we got near to Baleau we could hear Jerry’s guns going — he had started his last great effort. When we arrived at our billets his fire had become terrific and within an hour the Battalion was off up the line (up the line means up to the trenches) but they received orders from a dispatch rider to go back to quarters till morning. About 5 a.m. there was ah alarm sounded and everyone hurried out on parade and the orders were to parade in an hour to proceed up the line and this time there was no respite. When they marched off the men knew they were up against it this time.
I was left behind at headquarters with others as sanitary man. A Corporal and another lad and I were posted in orders as being attached to a Batallion of Engineers at a place called Ham, but by breakfast time Ham was in the hands of Jerry so that stunt was off for me. About 12 o’clock (mid-day) the Major (second in command of the Batallion) who was in charge of all the camp staff, posted orders to collect all the camp material and get it packed in the motor wagons and sent to Brigade stores and to parade at 6 o’clock at a given point in full marching kit. So that meant we were going somewhere for something.
It did not take long to pack the camp material in the motors as we had everything ready rolled up when the orders came up. so we just lay down and rested until it came near the time to parade which came all too soon, and then we were marched off to brigade Headquarters. We remained at Headquarters until midnight. All the companies were paraded and marched off in utter blackness. We had about 20 miles to march to our destination which was a place called Mattigy, the new Brigade Headquarters to which we had been attached. Here I’d better explain that the companies which were attached to Headquarters were mostly picked men as the work to be done was to be very exacting and trying. There were three companies, one of the Kings Royal Rifles, one of Rifle Brigade, and one of the Cameronians, Scottish Rifles. When we arrived at Mattigy, we immediately were sent to our quarters for a clean up and breadfast.
No sooner was breakfast over than we were off again, this time without our rifles. On the way we drew picks and shovels and then trecked on until we reached a bit of hilly country with a small wood or two dotted here and there behind some of which were some of our cavalry ready for any emergency. It was ideal countryside for the business we were up to. After the Engineer Officer explained to our Major what was wanted and laid out the work, we started on trenches and emplacements for Lewis guns and machine guns, so that when Jerry advanced (our boys had retired according to the prearranged practice) he was met by the fire of those guns. They were placed in such a way that they had the command of the places where Jerry must show himself.
We were working six hour stretches, six on and twelve off just tearing into it while working; about two hours for travelling made it about 8 hours each way. Our first spell we got through under difficulty. Jerry’s aeroplanes spotted us and started to bomb us, but our lads came along and there was a good air fight, first I’d seen. They looked like big birds chasing one another. Dinner came up and we then finished our spell and were relieved. We hopped back to quarters for our well earned rest (which we did not get).
We had just got tea and were settling down to sleep when orders came round — get out at once with full kit and rifles. German cavalry had broken through on our right and we were to be sent out to keep an eye on the lines of communication so that if they came up our way we would not be taken by surprise. While we patiently watched, our people were saturating everything with petrol – huts, food, stores of all kinds – and then they set fire to it all and it was some fire. Meanwhile the troops were flowing through Mattigy in thousands on their way to the next line.
When the crush had got well through the town, we were marched back up to where we had been digging earlier in the day and from there we made our way back down toward Mattigy but crossed to the other side of the road9 and about a half mile behind the trenches of the day previous we set to and dug fresh trenches for the Lewis and machine guns and when we were well on with our digging, the front line troops began to retreat past us.
By this time it was midnight, and the noise was terrific — the report of the big guns, bursting of shells, the crash of rifles, the crackling of Lewis and machine guns, explosions of ammunition set on fire with the petrol, the roar of the fire of the burning buildings, the galloping of horses, the hooting and rattling of motors, the rumbling of the big guns being drawn along by steam motor, the tramping of men1 the rattling of the field artillery galloping past, the shouting of men, the chuf-chuf of the motor cyclists, and the buzzing drum of the aeroplanes. It was some noise, but we worked steadily on and finished our job and from where we were, instead of going by road, our officer had studied his ground and we cut across-country to quarters in this fashion from the second trenches to the bridge.
We crossed the bridge and turned to the left along the banks and started to dig again. We had just finished and lay down to sleep when the bridge, or one of the bridges (there were two along-side), went up with a bang. It happened to be our battalion that was crossing, a company being on the bridge at the time, and of course there weren’t many left. Towards dawn, our Officer marched us to Brigade Headquarters for our new orders and directions. Our new destination was a place called Roy le Grand, the new Brigade Headquarters. When we got there we had a wash up, some breakfast, and then a sleep. We had orders to keep indoors so that if any Jerry planes came over, there would be nothing to tell him that there were British troops about. But there happened to be the usual scatterbrain who can’t see why they should do anything they are told to do or not to do, with the result that we were shelled out of the town and had to take to the open where we came under the aeroplane bombs.
We took to a plowed field until our scouts found a good place, but there we were lying in a plowed field for a couple of hours while Jerry dropped his bombs, but somehow when we lay down on the ground he lost sight of us, our clothes being the colour of the soil, and his aeroplanes moved over the top of and past us, and then his shells started. But by this time our scouts had found a steep bank on one side of the field on the side facing away from Jerry like this (see following map) so that when we got to the bank, Jerry’s shells went over the top of us or fell very short. This sort of thing went on until late in the afternoon, and then we changed our position and dug in at another part of the bank for the night (Saturday, 23-3-18). We were well sheltered again, dug in and made comfortable. They shelled us all night but couldn’t get us. There were some cattle in the field in front, and they didn’t even hit a cow, only they kicked up such an infernal row that we couldn’t get a sleep.
Morning came at last and stern hard work with it. We were just getting breakfast ready; I was cook by this time. I had to kindle a fire and get water in the boiler and watch the water till it came to the boiling point, put in a certain quantity of tea and sugar and some tins of condensed milk, and by presto the breakfast was ready.
I had got the fire well on the way and the water was steaming nicely when the orders came over — put on your kit at once and off we go to some new place in front and without breakfast and an appetite that you would have thought six breakfasts wouldn’t satisfy. But it didn’t matter, over we went, and then some real fun commenced.
You have heard about the great numbers killed, I daresay, and there was no exaggeration, I assure you. We crossed through the BELT OF TREES marked on the following map where you see the line of dots which are supposed to represent a row of trees dotted along at intervals of about six to ten feet between them where we lay down. Where the rows of trees are there is a drop of about three feet to the next field in front, like this:
A great many fields are similar and also it is not general to have fences or hedges or trees separating the one field from the other in France.
We established ourselves along the high field just at the edge ready for the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders falling back, which they did about half an hour after we took up our positions. Poor boys, they were in a terrible position – open country behind them to retire over and visible on the skyline to Jerry all the time they were retiring. Jerry trained everything on them.
The picture I saw, I wish I could paint it. The vividness of the shells bursting over the heads of these lads. You blinked your eyelids and where there were soldiers there was a gap and an odd man staggering about. Another shell and the same thing happens again and again and again. The rifle fire and machine gun fire was making inroads on the lines of the men until there was a long trail of bodies lying on the tract over which they had come, until they passed through our ranks and got behind the shelter of the BELT OF TREES where they were reformed and strengthened.
Meanwhile we had taken up the challenge with Jerry. Our Major told us to hold our fire till he gave the signal. He was going to give Jerry rope he said; Jerry didn’t know that we were there. He thought the Argyles were his mark and of course he was coming on in a straight line for us packed close. The Major said we could at 800 yards distance, and then the signal came and then was our turn with only rifles and Lewis guns and we let them rip. It stopped his goose stepping and when they tried to run from their sheltered spots we simply nipped them off at our leisure, and while we were doing it the Argyles were reformed and advanced through our lines and took up their old positions again.
digging the trench and throwing the soil in front to form a shelter. It was hard work I can tell you. We had to lie flat and push the spade along the ground, first lying on our back and then lying on our face as Jerry’s artillery had sighted us and was straffing or trying to do it. Then his snipers got on the job and got one or two boys. Then the Argyles fell back through us again and they got another smashing as they went and we were left to hold up Jerry. Our officer was plucky and we did our best, but two hundred were no use where a batallion couldn’t do it. But we did what it was that was intended we should do and that was done well, and we retired in sections of six men to shelter, where we formed up and marched on Roy le Petite (pronounce it pety). See following map.
After filling our water bottles, we had just time to get outside of the wall of the town as Jerry cavalry had made a dash to cut us off. So we got outside and gave them some rifle music, then their infantry came up and then their guns got on to us so we were compelled to retire from the town and we luckily came across those old French trenches (See following map). There was only one drawback with them, they were a dead end. There was no outlet to retire along unless we came out of the trenches, and being only a company it was our undoing as you will see later on. Well now, we held them off and punished them severely too.
German cavalry had gathered behind a clump of trees and also behind the town and we suspected a charge coming. So the Officer gave directions and we waited and hadn’t long to wait either when he came out to have a run at us. Some men were directed to fire at the clump of trees with the Lewis guns and machine guns to scare them and it had the desired effect. They came out and endeavoured to get across to join with the cavalry behind the town, but they couldn’t come out as we had the corner of the town wall well marked so that both sections were well marked. They tried lying along the horses back, hanging over the side, but it served them to no purpose. If we couldn’t see a man we got the horse and then we got the man, and they lost some too.
By this time it was dying day and things were getting quieter until darkness fell, and then quietness. Rations were brought up and gobbled up in no time, sentries posted and then down to it. don’t think there was a good three hours digging to improve our position, and we were to be relieved in the morning. However, after fixing the trenches, we lay down and were scarcely down, we thought, when the word went round to stand to (that means to line along the trench ready for an attack). It wasn’t long until pandemonium raged furiously.
During the night the Germans had brought up big guns, and they were sending over everything they had, while our artillery had been taken back to a new line, and again we had to hold Jerry with rifle fire and Lewis guns. You will notice a break in the wall of the town (arrow on previous map). Jerry had a field gun there that tormented us a lot. It fired a low-trajectory shell, that is a shell that travels over the ground at about three and a half feet high, and they were just skimming the parapet of our trench. So we arranged among ourselves (after finding where the guns were) to get ready and as soon as Jerry fired and his shells burst, up we popped and fired, fired for all we were worth at the gap in the wall. We must have got something, for it was some time before the gun started again. But we gave it the same every time, bobbing down after we fired, until the gun was silenced, but they came at us from other directions and then we had a time of it.
The Officer was at Headquarters for orders and got cut off on his way back to us. Our flank sentries went down the trench at their respective ends to get into touch with the next lot and discovered that there was nobody there. Scouting further, our right sentry discovered Jerry breaking down the barrier that had been put up at that end of the trench the previous night, so the sergeant sent a Lewis gunner to watch them, and we held a consultation to see what was to be done. With few exceptions we determined to stick it, and then we set about sticking it with the exception of the few who went over the back of the trench. They didn’t get very far before they were riddled. We hung on and gave Jerry something.
In one of the spells we had at Jerry, a bullet struck the wooden stock of my rifle at the muzzle and stripped it off right down to my hands. Splinters and dust and muck flying in all directions and of course my eyes were in the road as usual and my old nose. I was stunned for a time and then in trying to open my eyes I found I couldn’t. They began to run with water and after a little they came alright. But my rifle was no use to me as I couldn’t hold it now there was no wood to protect my hand from the heat generated in the barrel with the constant firing. I had to hunt for another, but by the time I got one, Jerry had the lid on us. That means everything they had — rifles, machine guns, field guns, trench mortars, whiss bangs — it was pandemonium. Everything whissing overhead and expecting every minute something to drop into the trench and end it all. But our luck was otherwise.
Jerry came up under cover of his shell fire and dropped in to pay a friendly call. After a few palavers we settled down to it. By this time our guns had come up, and we were now sitting hobnobbing with Jerry, eating jelly pieces and smoking cigarettes. They were fine chaps. Like us, they had the experience of warfare at first hand, experience in advancing against a shower of bullets seeing their mates falling all around them. Their fighting spirit was dead. They had the idea that it was a flash in the pan, but the gradual retirement of our troops was having the effect desired on their officers. They believed they were having a great victory; later events will show whether they did have a victory or not.
I suppose you will have read that the German officers never led their men. I discovered that that was true. After we were captured I said we were hob-nobbing with the Jerry, but they had a certain number mounted along the trench keeping watch, and then our people put the lid on the trench. At the same time we saw lights flying over our heads. Looking over the trench we saw the lights land in a straight line about 20 yards from the trench. The German corporals shouted orders which were passed along the trench, and nothing was done.
About an hour and a half afterwards more lights passed over. We got up to see where they landed and what was to be done. They landed about 40 yards away, and were a different color from the first lights. Orders were shouted and every Jerry got on the move while a guard was left with us. They moved out to where the lights landed and lay down while Jerry’s guns were pounding our next line of trenches. Then another row of lights and Jerry advanced.
So the game continued, a different light for every move and wave after wave of men passed over the trench and no officer with them. The first line was guided by the lights and the others copied, following at their respective distances. It was well organized, but didn’t say much for the officer class. We saw them in numbers bringing up the rear (when we were being taken back to Roy le Petite) peering at their men through their field glasses and congratulating each other; seeing their men advancing and stepping over or by’ the side of the dead on their way forward.
We were marched into Roy le Petite into the courtyard of an inn, and were just in when the famous French 75s opened on the town. French planes came overhead and spotted some cavalry and signaled back bringing the shell fire on our shelter. We had carried the wounded in there too, and we did have some shells and some narrow escapes, so we shifted our position to a more sheltered place. When the place we had been standing at received several shell holes, we showed the red cross flag spread out and held by four men, and the firing died down.
Then we carried our wounded over the road into a church and we were no sooner in the church when the shells started to whiss around again. It is some sensation listening for the shells coming — there was just one kind, French 75s. You could hear the guns spank and then the song or whistle of the shell; behind it another spank and another whistle, and so on quicker than it takes time to tell. When they approached your shelter, they finished off with a whiss and a bang. Every spank and whistle you said will this one get something, but luckily there was no one hurt.
The last shell was a near stroke. The French churches are mostly built in the shape of a cross and we had carried the wounded into the head of the church where the spots are. The last shell came through at the shoulders of the place, marked x, and landed at the place marked with the dot. but it did not burst. It was a dud shell or we would have gone to kingdom come.
There were no Germans with us; they had all left the town. But when the shelling stopped they come in from the open, and we were gathered together, formed up, and marched off. We picked up German wounded on the way, made improvised stretchers, and carried them to the nearest dressing station. where many were found to be dead.
There was one of the wounded, an old Jerry, who wouldn’t let any of us touch him or help him onto the stretcher. He waved his stick and sacramentoed and donner unt blitzened for all he was worth (he was swearing in German). When the boys were carrying him he started to hit them with his stick until the boys put the stretcher down and refused to take him farther. Then the officer told him he must stop it. A new set of boys picked up the stretcher and off we went again. By this time he was getting weak with his wound and the men got peace.
When we got to the dressing station there was the sorting out of the dead. Then we had to carry the bodies down to the area floor of a factory, where they were placed in rows and labeled, and there were some rows. After that business was done, we were marched into a factory square and into a corner. Some of the men got the wind up. They thought it all was up because they saw some Germans cleaning and oiling their rifles. They thought that they were a firing party, but it turned out that it was only a search party for knives and razors. Then the march was resumed.
We got ten minutes every hour to rest, and that went on all day until dark without any food. Then we slept in a ruined village where there wasn’t six inches of wall left standing. It was bitter cold but they allowed us to kindle fires. There was plenty of wood so we set to and got the fires going and crowded round in all sorts of positions to get some heat and fell asleep, rising stiff and sore to another days tramping without any food.
After some delay we set off on our days tramp, and what we could we would pick up in any ruined garden we passed. Sometimes we came across a bit of rhubarb but it was very short and just early enough for it, but it was something. Maybe a few overlooked leeks or some of the previous years turnips had grown immense tops which meant an armful to keep us going for some time. I don’t say there was much nourishment in these things, but they kept our jaws going and also helped to keep away the pangs of hunger.
The day went on towards its end as the first one went. This time we were put into a stable and byre among the smell and filth, but it was a shelter over us and warmer than lying outside. In the morning we clamoured for food when an officer came to have a look at us, and he would try what he could do.
By this time our numbers had increased considerably to about fifteen hundred (1,500) and it was no small item to feed that number. However, he managed some bread and explained he’d require to number us off so as to know how to cut the bread. So we formed up in fours and got counted. The bread was cut up into the desired number of pieces which came to the quarter of a slice to begin the day on. It was not much. I believe it only aggravated the hunger.
The days march began again and you would not have known us for the same lot of men, some with beards, others in various stages of growth, uniforms that were smart were covered with muck and road dust. You never saw such dust. It was inches deep, and with the men sweating the dust stuck to your faces and hands and you were like some ashpit cleaner.
By this time, German regiments were being rushed to the front and we looked very sorry sights to them. I’m sure they jeered at us plenty as they went past. But we were taking stock of their transport and horses and motors, and if their army was expecting success with yon conglomeration, they expected what was not for them.
They consisted of all sorts — the kinds you see in a circus. Donkeys, ponies, big horses, small horses, thin horses, yon horses you used to see between the shafts of a cab in St. Enoch Square, away at the knees. If they had taken the trouble to couple the horses, but they didn’t take time. They had a big horse and a don-key together; two skinny ones and two ponies in front; a big fat horse and an away-at-the-knees cab horse; oh it was some laugh. And every soldier walked with a walking stick. Some soldiering! On the way a few yards there were some horses that had been killed in battle, and the flies were round them in clouds.
We were fast approaching St. Quentin, a town where some very heavy fighting took place, and we thought that was to be our resting place for the night. But no, we had a bit farther to go where we did arrive in the small hours of the morning – a place called Bokain. We were put into a school and wearily we lay down to sleep without rocking on the hard floor.
Next morning we had to roll round onto our face and get on to our knees first and then stand up. You would scarcely believe it that such was the case. There were over a thousand men in the school, and when we lay down at night to sleep there was no room on the floor for another man. We were packed like herrin. The place was also verminous and filthy and it was not long before we were alive with Scots greys by the hundreds.
It was a regular thing after breakfast for everyone to chat; that was the name they gave to the process of picking your shirt, and it was a job every day I can tell you. Shirts were nothing. Our tunics and the seams of our caps were lined with eggs or nits. We used to heat a wire and go round all the seams, burning the eggs. Some of the lads were losing heart. One had died, and this sort of thing went on for three weeks.
Then we got on the move again back down the way we came to St. Quentin. We thought we were off to Germany, or Deutchland as Jerry calls it. We got to the station all right about an hour before dusk, but some alteration took place in the order and we were set on the march again acroos St. Quentin and it started to rain. To make matters worse, the German guide lost his way and we were halted on the roadway and had to wait until the guide came back with information, and that was three hours afterwards when we were drenched through and still raining. We sat down on the road with our backs against the trees and slept, even in the storm. We were done up.
When the guide came back we were roused and marched back to St. Quentin to an hospital of once upon a time which was now battered out of recognition, practically no roof and no windows. What Jerry took us there for was that we were walled in and could not escape. It was no protection for us. The wind whistled through and the rain poured in. The only places where the elements didn’t reach had been occupied before we arrived. When you put your nose inside the door of these places you were nearly suffocated with smoke, tobacco smoke and the smoke from the wood fire they had kindled. However we managed to get a room with half the roof off and no windows. No matter, we got down to it and went off to sleep until morning. We knew there was another march for us next day, so our motto was rest all you can and when you can.
Morning came as usual and we rose up stiff with cold. About eight o’clock we got served bread, one slice, and some kaffee and then on the march again. After about five miles my left leg gave way at the hip. It was sciatica I have discovered since, and it did give me some fun, I tell you.
A Hawick chap whom I chummed with while we were training gave me an arm along for a bit until it was too much for me and I pleaded with him to let me sit down. But no, he wouldn’t. He got another lad in the battalion, a Largo lad, to take my other arm and between them they humped me along. The Hawick chap, Scott was his name, said in his broad Hawic tongue, “Na, Na. We’re no gawn tae leave ye. They Uhlans wid jist pit their lance intae ye. Na, na, ye’r comin alang wi us,” and they humped me all the way to Ham. Ham was the place I should have joined the engineers but was prevented because of Jerry’s attack having started and the capture of Ham taken place. Now I was in Ham as a prisoner. Such is luck.
They marched us through the town and billeted us in stables along the banks of the canal, and we were thankful for the rest. They had managed to clear the stable and it wasn’t so bad, and there was some heat in it. After an hour or so we were taken round in companies of a hundred and got some soup and bread. By the time we got back to billet it was getting dark so we got down to it and slept as best we could. The morning was Sunday and we rested all day on two meals.
On Monday morning we set off again. My leg wasn’t quite so bad to start with, but it began to go after about five or six miles and gradually got worse. But I got a club a bit of the way and I managed not so bad till we got to the place where we got soup, a place called Churchy, pronounced Kurchy.
We set off again after an hours rest. and I don’t know how I managed to get to the next place, a place called Fresnoy le Roy. There was no room for us and we had to go on to a place called Damery (Damery was the place where George Morton got wounded when they were pushing Jerry back just before the armistice). We managed to get into a dugout below the ruins of a chateaux (pronounced shato). There was no light, but it was warm and comfortable. We had some straw and hay to help to soften the hardness of the ground.
After about two days they took the names of the men who had worked at a trade where a hammer was used. Forty were selected and sent off in a motor away back the ground we had marched (I happened to be one of the selected.) to break up the camps that had been vacated. We picked up a lot of stuff that came in useful.
At night we motored back to Churchy (mentioned on the march) and put up for the night in a church using the pews as beds. 1 slept under the alter, the best bed in the billet; plenty of straw and a blanket and my big coat and I was kept as warm as a pie. With no walking to do and the warm billet my hip and leg got a chance to get better.
The driver of the motor was a prisoner like ourselves. He had run into Jerry in the dark, tried to wreck the motor, and then made off, but was again unlucky and got captured. Discovering he was a motor driver, they put him into his own car and gave him this job. He used to stop at all gardens and we got off and we got carrots, leeks, spring onions, cabbage and greens and we had a vegetable feed.
At six o’clock we were wakened and in about a half hour we got the shout to fall in with our tins. It seemed an eternity till we were served; we were just about dropping with hunger and fatigue. Such a large breakfast, a slice of bread, very dark bread it was too and heavy, and a spoonful of jam, or as Jerry called it, marmalaad (pronounce the a’s broad as ah).
It resembled neither jam or jelly; it was like a mixture of all the fruits boiled to pulp. Of course, there were no skins or stones and I think there must have been a good mixture of mangle wurzel in it. That’s a thing the shape of a carrot but white of flesh, almost like sugar beet. In fact it would pass for white beet as there were rings on the flesh. The result tasted sweet and so tasted the bread.
Then we got a leiter of a concoction they called kaffee. This was barley in the rusk that had been roasted along with caffein, an element that the Germans extracted from coffee. That was the reason that they could sell coffee for export cheaper than any other country. They made use of the caffein for flavoring sweets and many other things as well as laying in a stock for the war years. Proof positive that they were prepared for war and meant it. And remember that when we left the last German camp, our last meal consisted of bread and kaffee, so that they must have had a very large stock or stocks of caffein. And then, according to coffee merchants, the extraction of caffein from the coffee extracts the best part of the coffee.
Well now, that consisted our breakfast (a leiter is barely a pint). There was nothing for us to do, and then everything was uncertain. However, we got out our shaving glasses and had a look at our faces. We were a sight, with the dust sticking and the hair on our face, our jaws clapt in, gaunt and miserable. Across the top of my nose where the splinter had struck from my rifle when it was smashed there was a black splatch. That was the first time I knew that I had been cut. It’s a good job it was not an inch either way.
To go on with the story, I produced my scissors and started to trim my beard, and it took some time. I was about goggle eyed by the time I finished, and then as many wanted a loan of them because patience had made a very close job. After one trial, the others gave it up; it was too slow for them. I then went in search of water and got a little from the French woman that stayed in the house attached to the school, but separated from us by wire netting. She poured it through into our steel helmets which we made our wash hand basin. It acted as a food basin for some as well. I hung on to may mess tin all the time.
After a wash I felt refreshed and then it was dinner time, or mitags as Jerry called it. There was the usual wait and crushing about and then we got it, a leiter of soup made with shredded cabbage that had been preserved in vinegar they called sauerkraut, very wattery stuff it was. Then for a few nights we got another leiter of their kaffee, no bread. Two meals per day and a drink muck at 9 o’clock at night. That was our first day in a prison camp.
Next morning we had breakfast at 7, one leiter of muck, I mean kaffee, bread one slice, and two inches of sausage. Dinner about 2 pm, soup one leiter consisting of boiled dried potatoes. Dry potatoes are a food our army used for feeding horses. The P0tatoes are sliced up and dried in the sun which preserves them for any length of time. Well, that was dinner; at 9 o’clock we had our leiter of ‘muck’, I should say kaffee.
Every day was much the same. Except for dinner we had no change. At dinner another day we had barley soup, not the pearl barley but the large coarse barley. Another day we had dried vegetable soup, horrible stuff. Another day ruebencraut, that is, turnip and carrot preserved in vinegar then washed and boiled into soup, another horrible concoction. I think I’ve enumerated all the various concoctions served for food, all slush, nothing solid. And we were getting weaker every day.
After about eight (days) or so we went back to Damery and there was no room for us, so we had to move back to the place we called at on the march down, Fresnoy le Roy, where we were put up in a large markee tent, the 40 of us, and that was our place of residence for about a month.
While at Fresnoy we had various kinds of work to work at. They sent us down to the railway about 4 or 5 kilometres away to unload rails, sleepers, wood, window frames, doors, all kinds of tools, food stuffs, etc. We had to do the distance six times a day, and then there was a lot of walking with the things we unloaded from the trucks to the various huts to be stored, and the walking knocked my legs away again.
I went sick and got three days light duty in camp. went sick again and got another few days, and then I got a job in camp chopping firewood for the cook. As it was all wood that was burned, there was always plenty to saw and chop. Then sometimes we done a bit of digging in camp, leveling the ground and patching up the brick building that accommodated the rest of the boys until it wasn’t in half bad condition. Some of those what were going out to the rauhead and were working with the foodstuffs used to bring in some barley and dried potatoes. I would cook it for them coming in at dinner and teatime and I used to get some for my trouble. You see the working hours were the same in camp as those that went out, so that we had always time to cook something while they were marching back to camp.
After work stopped the German soldiers used to come to the wire fencing and bargain for anything you had that was useful. Cardigan jackets were greatly in demand, boots, razor strops. belts, socks, and the usual demand was food in exchange. The offers were usually a loaf for a pair of boots, or cardigan, a half for a razor strop, and a bit for a belt or socks. It showed the way the wind blew. A British soldier never went short of boots, you could get a pair of boots when you wanted them. Why in Blighty you had a working and a mashing (marching?) pair, aye and a working and a mashing suit.
What a difference in the footwear of the two countries. The Jerrys were wearing anything in the way of boots and they were very poor quality. They were pegged boots; Jenny knows what that is. They were not hand sewn, machine sewn or riveted with rivets. They were riveted with wooden pegs or rivets which stood alright until they got into the wet trenches. That made them still better but when they were dried up, the leather shrunk and the pegs shrunk with the result that the pegs slackened in the holes and the sole dropped off and they were left without shoes. So you can see why they were anxious to get a pair of British boots.
The Wellington boots the Jerrys wore at the beginning of the war had been condemned by this time and they were copying the British style, and were also starting to use puttees with them. The men knew the difference when marching. The old style had to be wide at the heel to let the foot in. When the foot was in, it lifted at the heel when you lifted the foot and in putting the foot down it moved down with the result that the men’s ankles were always sore. But the new style laced tight at the ankle and there were no chinned ankles.
The old style German soldier’s boot and the new
We got orders to move camp one morning and we moved out to a place called Hattencourt (Hattencoor). This place had been a prison camp for Germans not many weeks before in the hands of the British. They had been housed in bell tents, but there was no room for us. There was another batch of prisoners in the tents so we were put into a place that was built of railway sleepers. The sleepers were driven into the ground and a few sheets were nailed over the top. There was no door on the doorway and we could see daylight through the roof, however it was a shelter of some kind.
All this time since we arrived at Fresnoy le Roy we had come under the fire of our own and French guns at night and aeroplane bombs. I got a shrapnel bullet beside my head one morning that had come through the roof. I lost it in the scramble at the armistice time.
Experiences were much the same at first in this camp. We went to the same place to work at the railway. After a time we got split into sections of about 20 men and all went to different jobs. Sometimes we went to clear up houses in Fresnoy as billets for German soldiers as they were making it into a rest camp. Some days we were on the roads doing our scavenger with mud scrapers, scraping the mud off the road, sometimes leveling the road with pick and shovel (Jerry – pickle unt shofle). Sometimes we went to a dump where they stored all sorts of material that they had gathered, metal of all discriptions, shell cases, all sorts of iron railing from ruined French houses, cycles, etc., in fact everything that could be made useful. Such was the shortage of material they were labouring under. It was just like an old rag, bone and metal merchants yard.
I went sick again. My feet and legs swelled so that I couldn’t walk, and I got some days rest in camp. After that I got a job as water carrier for the cooks with a mate. A nice light job but few of the mates stuck it long until the last one, a London boy, who stuck it out to the last. I used to click for cigarettes or a cigar for drawing water for a Jerry driver, and I swapped them for bread.
The well was outside the camp and we had a bit to walk to get out of the camp, and there was no escort with us. We just came and went as we pleased. We used to pull the young and fresh dandelion leaves and young nettle leaves and made nettle tea, putting the leaves between our bread along with the dandelion leaves and made a sandwich, toasting the bread of course first, and it was a fine tasty bit. I’ve also made nettle soup, getting a bone or two from the cook. I split them and boiled them in water, gathering some turnip tops and potato skins from the cook house after thoroughly washing them put them in with the nettle leaves and boil them all together. It was a filling feed. Sometimes we got Scotch thistle leaves and boiled them, but they were not palatable. Sourocks (soorocks) grew about a foot high in France and the leaves branched out to a bush so we had quite a chew at them.
After about a month we were all sent down to Damery to help the Damery company to finish the roads. They were widening the roads and ditching the sides to give him, Jerry I mean, freedom of moving about and bringing up ammunition, etc. in his next big push.
You know the French roads were very narrow in the country, and no ditches so that in the wet weather the rain just gathered on the road and they became a river of mud. In the dry weather they were inches deep in dust. You will have an idea that they wanted ditching badly so as to give the traffic freedom of movement. The method followed was chipping the side of the road with a broad nosed pick so as to make a natural run for the water. Then we cut the bank sides back two feet or three feet whatever was required in this fashion. It improved -the roads, but if he had known that he was not doing it for himself, but he didn’t. It came in very useful for the allied advance and helped them to advance more rapidly than Jerry wished.
I’ve no doubt the French had willfully kept these roads as they were, knowing that Germany would attack them some time. The French knew that bad roads would hinder the German advance and it did, because alongside the old roads there were new roads temporarily made and badly made, too. Also, where the road and fields alongside were level, the road was any width showing the crushing and rushing there had been to get along; and then from 1914 what an army of men must have been kept behind to work on the roads, another hindrance you see. The French were not quite asleep before 1914.
About ten days and we all went back to Hattencourt, Damery company included. The widening of the roads was the job here again. About this time we were vaccinated, and the Medical Officer put in a report about us being in a bad state. And then every other day there was a batch sent away to Germany, some to hospital camps and some to the headquarters camps. They would only be there a short time and then drafted to other camps for working purposes. So the interpreter held on to me as he wanted me for camp shoemaker.
The work was not so hard now on account of the medical report. We had a certain task measured of f and working in pairs, changing pick and shovel, when we finished a stretch we soon got through. Over a stretch, when one was using the pick there was a rest for the shovel until the pick had got some soil to shovel and then the shovel works on, and of course the pick finishes first and rests until the shovel finishes. Then the shovel hands over his instrument for the pick and goes on and the former pick hand rests on until there was something to shovel. So that there was ten minutes rest for each out of a half hour stretch, and then we could finish our task about eleven o’clock. When finished we were marched back to camp and had a wash and a rest before dinner, and that finished us for the day.
One morning about the middle of June we had our picks and shovels and marched off to work when about half a mile or so away from camp a cyclist came after us with orders to return to camp. When we got back a big batch of French prisoners were there to take our place. We got orders to pack up and move in an hours time – we were going to Germany. This time, on the hour, we passed out of the camp on the road for Germany. We were glad to leave the place at the last as a few days before a new officer (don’t forget to say officeer with two ees or as many as you like so long as yourmake the e e e s prominent). He was a brute beast; he never spoke, he snarled1 sowe said farewell with gladness.
We were marched to Churchy of previous note and billeted in a factory and stables overnight. In the morning we marched to the railway and entrained in enclosed goods wagons and off we went for two days and stopped at a place called Fresnoy le Grand where there was a large camp capable of holding ten thousand. While on the railway we got a meal every eight hours.
We were two days here and saw a lot of sergeants that were prisoners with us at Bohain and Fresnoy le Roy, but were taken away some time before; there were so many of them tried to escape. What a crowd was here. It was the early hours of the morning before we got served with supper, mid day next day before we got breakfast, and midnight before we got our next meal and rations for our next journey.
Another three days in train, at first through devastated France and Belgium into Germany. That was traveling slightly north by west and then south through Germany. What a change of scenery, no damage to be seen and plenty of trees of all kinds. You could scarcely believe that you had just left the war area so recently. It was such a change and looked so restful we crowded round the door watching the scene as it rushed past us.
Then we entered Alsace Lorraine and arrived at a place called New Briesach (New Brysack); it is in Alsace Lorraine. We were marched to an old military fort in the hillside. We went down a few flights of stairs into the bowels of the earth to our billets where we existed for two or three days and got sorted out into companies of usefulness, that is according to trades and occupations. And then another entraining and the journey resumed into Germany.
New Briesach was an old stronghold in Alsace. It is surrounded by a moat and a twenty foot high wall. Of course the moat is dry now and the drawbridges have been replaced by bridges. The moat would be about fifty feet wide. However, we left there and resumed our journey to Germany.
We entrained in an ordinary train this time and traveling was now pleasant. The countryside was beautiful. We were now traveling through the valley of the Rhine. The railway was built along the side of the hills on one side of the valley and on the other side was the Alsatian mountains, the Rhine flowing through the center of the valley. The vines were systematically planted in rows up the sides of the hills from the railway and down the hill right out into the valley.
At intervals there were stretching out across the valley a row of trees. They were fruit trees of various kinds, a line of cherry trees, vines, a line of apple trees, vines, a line of pears, vines, and then cherries again. That was the system.
It was the most fruit I ever saw, a whole days traveling up the valley and all fruit. All this time the Rhine was coming closer to our side of the valley. Then after traveling with the river a bit we crossed to the German side and left the beauty of the valley behind us.
We then had a bit of coal and ironwork country to pass over before we came to scenery again. It was just like the black country at home, bleak, dreary, dirty, smokey, and then we struck agricultural country.
Then we arrived at Frieburgh, the famous inland health resort and very fashionable city. Certainly as a city it was a place of beauty, splendid buildings, grand streets laid with square block stones and the sides edged with small chips, pavements laid with tiles and mosaic work. A big number of the buildings were built of doulton ware butwere all one shade in one street and a different shade in another with a number of statue busts of the Kaiser stuck in niches (of course). I’ll refer to Frieburgh later on in the course of my narrative.
We shunted and -eh, shunted and ah, shunted and then we went on to our destination, arriving at Haltingen, our destination, three hours later, a nice little town lying at the foot of the black forest hills and about six kilometres, or four miles, from the borders of Switzerland and only about 4½ miles from Basle in Switzerland. In fact you could hear the church bells ringing on Sundays and it made you think of home.
We had a fine view from one side of the camp. There was the view out across towards the Swiss hills and mountains looking southeast; looking southwest you viewed a fairly level part of Alsace and in the background the Alsatian hills over which we used to view some very beautiful sunsets and over which we heard the French guns advance in the later part of our stay at that place.
The work here was different. After a weeks rest we were marched off one morning to a village called Eilmendingan. On the skirts of the village there was a large number of huts and stores ranged alongside the railway. This was called a magazine. There was everything to be had at this magazine from food stuffs to tables’, chairs, pots, pans, grates, ranges, stoves, etc. etc. This was their system of control of all goods. The military had to get his order chit signed by the controller, then he proceeded to the magazine, got what he signed for whether hay, straw, or moss litter for their horses, or vegetables or potatoes or other foodstuff for the army. The civilian shopkeeper had to go through the same routine.
The work we had to do was the loading up of hay bales and bags of flour, etc. for these people who came for stores. When a goods train arrived we had to unload it and pack the goods in the stores and then pack hay and stores and straw to send down the line for the army, and that meant going at it like slaves until the trains were sent off.
Some time was spent on a big job by a big party of us and that was the removing of the hay bales from one place to another place about 200 yards distant. The bales had drawn damp and were wet below, so to get them removed to safety was necessary as the great heat of the summer would cause fire. The stacks of bales were built to a height of about 30 feet, about 40 to 50 feet broad, and about 50 yards long, afterward covered with a wood roofing sloping off toward the sides, the wood afterward being covered with tarred and sanded paper.
Well we were set to on the job taking four men to carry the large bales which were about 5 feet long by 2½ feet by 2 feet. That gives you an idea of the strength we had left. One man could carry a bale at any time if he had been fed and in condition. There were several of the strongest tried it for a time, but could not keep it up. There were some small bales, a mere handful you could manage, middle sized flat bales two handled them, but the big ones we wouldn’t carry unless four were on them. The large ones Jerry called gross and the wee ones were called klinie.
There were many men collapsed under the work. The lifting of the heavy bales from the ground to your shoulders was no easy task. If the bales had been on the level of our shoulders, we could have done all right. But the stooping to lift them from the ground on to your shoulders was as much as we could manage, and then the 200 yards walk to face after that, it was more a staggering shuffle than a walk, and not telling how many times we dropped the bale on the road.
By and by as the stack gained in height, a gangway was built with bales to the height of the stack, and as the stack got higher the gangway got longer and higher accordingly. And of course, we had to tumble off the gangway occasionally. Hunger was playing its part by this time along with the work and the walk to work in the summer heat. There were men in a state of utter collapse, not fit for anything; they were sent to hospital in Frieburgh.
I spent ten days on two occasions in the camp sick rooms, a place fitted up and used for men who went sick (as we said in the army). That was if you felt off the mark you went on sick parade and were marched to the doctor, but on this occasion it was slightly different. When the company were ordered on parade, those who were going sick paraded behind and the Feldt Webel or Sergeant Major came around and the interpreter explained what was the matter with you. If he thought it was trivial, he would point you to join the company to go to work at 9 o’clock. The Medical Sergeant was in attendance and your troubles explained. If he thought you were requiring a rest he would give you a tonic and say three days confined to camp, but if you had a temperature he took you into the Revere (the name given to the camp sick rooms).
There were four rooms. The two largest were used for patients, one with eight beds and the long room with 18 beds. They were not single beds; they were all double but one. By double beds I mean one bed above the other; they were the same kind of bed as we had in the camp. (A sketch shows that the top and bottom bunks were made of unplaned boards 7 inches broad.) The Doctor visited the Revere on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The Doctor was a good sort. He was an Alsatian, and that means he was practically French.
To come back to the beds, we had a pallias filled with fine wood shavings. The shavings came in bales. They were finer than straw and the pallias was woven paper cloth, and you filled the pallias yourself with shavings. Once in the fortnight we went to Muihousen in Alsace for a bath. We got up at four in the morning, carried our pallias to a hollow about a couple of miles away, emptied them and when they were all emptied, the shavings were set on fire. Of course the scots greys and cross breeds were destroyed also. Back to camp for breakfast and then it was a general pick up of all our goods and then the march to the train for Mulhousen.
The first two occasions we went for that bath we got no food until we returned about 12 midnight, and that was from 6:30 am breakfast. The baths were all right. The place had been an engineering work. The first place we went into was the heavy machine shop cleared out of machinery in one corner of which there was a valuable deposit office. Of course our valuables were photos, pocket books, and pipes and tobacco boxes. You see, everything had to go through the fumigation and anything other than cloth was spoiled with the intense heat they had to go through. After puting your valuables away you got a metal check with the number of your slot and you wore your check round your neck.
Then you proceeded to an outside iron stair in another building about four floors high and climbed up the outside stair and that was some task to get up the stair. It was the first stair we had climbed since captured, so that with weakness and the weight of our blankets and pallias we had some job. We had to go up the way a child does when it finds it can go up a stair, one step at a time and the same foot lifted up the step every time, also assisting ourselves by pulling on the iron railing up the side of the stair. However, we got to the top in time and in the room we went into we stripped.
We were issued with an iron coat hanger with a spring running along the centre on which you slipped your underclothing and trousers. Your jacket and coat you put over the shoulders of the hanger. You slipped the spring in place and your clothes were secure. Along with the hanger you got another four metal discs with a number, all the same number of course. One you put round your neck, and the other three one you fix on your coat hanger, another you fix on your boots and braces and belt, another you fixed on your blankets and pallias.
You remember I said that we got no food from breakfast till we arrived back at camp late at night or early in the morning. After the first one or two occasions, we gathered (question) as many potatoes as we could get, perhaps a carrot or turnip or a mangel wurzel and before puting our blankets in for steaming, we put the potatoes, etc. in a cloth, rolled them in the heart of our blankets and pallias, then we passed all our clothing in for fumigation.
The next process was the passing into the bath rooms. As you passed you were thoroughly examined for vermin and skin trouble then you had your hair cut right short from back to front. Some who were very bad with nits had all the hair burned off their bodies with some chemical process and head as well. It burned the hair of their heads and left them as bare as a billiard ball. Next was the bath. You were handed two cloths and a towel and soap such as it was and sometimes only. Then you slipped into the cubicle in which there was a hot and a cold spray and you enjoyed it.
Passing out, you filed along to the end of the room, handed in your cloths and towel, passed an examination again for any sores and also to see that you were well washed and no vermin about you. You were then handed a dressing gown and you passed down the stairs to the ground floor which was heated with steam pipes. There you got a pair of wooden slippers, just soles with cloth straps to hold them on so that we were fairly comfortable until the clothing arrived from fumigation. Then you dressed and passed into another room where all the boots were all laid out in rows.
You went up and down the rows until you came to your own, and you showed your check for them. When you got your clothing they shouted the numbers attached and of course you were holding your extra number and patiently waited to hear it called. When called you claimed your bundle.
You remember in a previous page I spoke of rolling up potatoes inside the blankets and also turnips, etc. Now was the time you unrolled the blankets and your potatoes, etc. were steam cooked. You sat down outside and enjoyed your meal, keeping something for later on, on the train on the way back to camp as it was a slow journey back, often stopping for hours at a junction, ultimately arriving at camp dog tired. We had to fill our beds with the shavings in the dark and get to bed as best we could. No smoking was required to send us to sleep. Next day work as usual. I was twice on the sick list about ten days each time, and the months were wearing on.
There was a bakery in the town baking for the whole area. The bakers were all soldiers who were convalescent and a number of prisoners went along every day to work there. This was a good job as you got a number of spoiled loaves to divide among the number. A fresh batch of men each forenoon and afternoon were sent, so that each man had a turn about once a week. The names were taken in turn from the roll.
The work consisted of unloading logs of wood and stacking or building them up round one side of the grounds. It was wood fuel that was used for baking. Two men were on chopping the logs, splitting them lengthwise and then half them through the middle. That was all they done. These men were constant there every day on that job. Sometimes we had to unload flour from the wagons to the store, and that was a hard job because none of us were very steady on our legs, but we stuck it. There were two men in the wagon puting the bags ready for the men to carry off.
In turn a man would slip into the back of the wagon and filled his pockets with flour and filled his trousers legs also. We were wearing the German long legged boot and the trousers were tucked inside and tied at the bottom so that the legs acted as a bag. Then they got back to camp there was a lot of rolly polly baking, but it was not very appetising, just salt and water mixed with the flour. It was heavy as lead. I couldn’t go it at a11, but I made biscuits and they were much better as they were baked and were just water biscuits.
When out at the magazine one day, I met with an accident. We were packing stores in a wagon for Jerry’s front line and a lad was working with me who had been shot through the eye, the bullet coming out of the ear so that he was both blind and deaf on one side. I was on top of the stores packing them in place and he was throwing them on top. I shouted to him to hold on a minute, but he didn’t hear me as I was on his deaf and blind side. Up came the store before I got right out of the way, and it pinned my wrist against a bolt end in the wagon. The end just sliding off the wrist bone went into the soft part of the wrist.
Continuation next week.
I hope you are all well. I feel I am improving and with the autumn weather now it is the natural body building season. 1 hope to make more progress, but the time is slipping in now 7 months today since I came into hospital. Had Jean and her Hubby seeing me on Saturday.
W. B. McCreath – 1882