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Podcast 6: Off To The Front

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We were loaded up with wine; bottles of wine everywhere. The lorries had more wine than they had equipment I think, in some cases. As a result of that, in fact, I have never drunk wine since…

Within days of the outbreak of war in 1914, armed forces across Europe were mobilised.  Over the following weeks, the men all made their way to the front lines. Henry Williamson, a private with the London Regiment, remembered how he felt when he heard he was off to the front.

When they [the orders] came through I remember in the tented lines on Crowborough Heath most of the fellows cheered and rolled over, rolled over and kicked their legs in the air and cheered and cheered and cheered, tremendously excited. I wasn’t excited, I was apprehensive; I didn’t believe the war was going to be over by Christmas, I had a feeling from having talked to chaps from Mons in the local hospital that it wasn’t going to be altogether a picnic.

Bill Haine had rather a hurried departure from Britain with his regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company.

By about six o’clock in the morning we were ready to depart and we did depart – by train from somewhere, I forget where we marched to. But without any by-your-leave, without any leave, or without anything, saying goodbye to one’s family or anything. I remember that I wrote a postcard when I was in the train and chucked it out of the window at the station hoping that it would be delivered to my people at home, that was all. And we arrived that evening at Southampton, that was on the 18th September 1914, and we embarked that evening. And, well, that was the start of things.

Soldiers were usually moved long distances by train. Charles Ditcham found the conditions on board very difficult.

Looking back now what amazes me is why they put ten people, fully equipped, in a compartment. It was absolutely – you were stifled, with all your kit and equipment, with ten people in a compartment. They didn’t feed us at all. They gave us a ration of a tin of bully and four biscuits. And that had to do you till you got to the other end. I mean, let’s be fair, I mean the odd people on the station used to pass you in a cup of tea.

William Holbrook was mobilised at the start of August 1914. He recalled his thoughts on the prospect of war as he prepared to leave home.

When we got to Cowes, waiting on the small boat to cross to Southampton, there was a periodical going at that time called John Bull. On the side of a house was a placard, an advert, advertising John Bull. The words were: ‘The dawn of Britain’s greatest glory.’ That’s all it had got on it nothing but just John Bull and ‘The dawn of Britain’s greatest glory’ – that was the whole side of a house. And as I was lying there for an hour or so, I thought to myself, I wonder whether it will be or not.

Somerset Light Infantry soldier Bertie Rendall was involved in a tragic accident while preparing to cross to France in winter 1914.

We reported to the staff sergeant. Then the sergeant pointed, as cool and calm and collected as you like, ‘There’s a little bit of cargo here boys got to be taken aboard, so get going. Two to a box.’ And he said, ‘There’s three and a half ton of .303 rifle ammo, to be carried up on her decks and right down below.’ Anyway, we steamed in and started off. And I was paired up with a young lance corporal; I never did know his name. This box that I had somehow I stumbled. And these boxes were about 9 inches square and they were near on a half hundredweight each. Now this box went on and stopped in the nape of this poor kid’s neck. Jammed between the box and the edge of the stair was his mouth and nose. When they picked the poor kid up he was gone.

Henry Mabbott went over to France early on with the 2nd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders.

So we went across on a paddle boat, we had 106 pounds on our backs and a lifebelt on top of that. I shouldn’t think we’d keep afloat with that lot. Going across there were a vast amount of destroyers tearing around all over the place. We ultimately landed at Boulogne; we went up on to the hill tops of Boulogne and pitched tents.

Many British soldiers had never been to France before. Laurie Field was excited when he first landed on foreign soil.

I was alright, some of the chaps were sick but I think we went from Folkestone to Le Havre. Yes, because we landed there and it was right on the top of the hill this camp, this place was, that we landed. When we got near the French, we said, ‘Oh look, there are two men over there, let’s hear some French.’ One chap called out, ‘What’s the matter you buggers?’ or something like that! They were Englishmen! I always remember that.

Doris Beaghan was on holiday in France when war broke out. She remembered the reaction in Le Havre to the arrival of the British troops.

It was absolutely incredible; the British Expeditionary Force was coming in. The soldiers were marching in of course all singing, the French people all excited, madly waving, dashing about, rushing up to the soldiers, pulling off their buttons as keepsakes, kissing them and, oh, terrific excitement, it was marvellous, and here they were.

Private John Seymour, Army Service Corps, was one of the many Allied soldiers who spent time at the camp at Le Havre.

Well we were told we could get up what time we liked; there would be no Reveille that morning. When we did get up there was a shop across the road, a little shop, sold everything, tobacco, and of course we made a raid on that. Well I wasn’t very keen on smoking but I had my share. But after the first draw, I didn’t like it and never touched a civilian cigarette after that!

George Ashurst of the Lancashire Fusiliers eagerly departed for Le Havre in November 1914. Once there, however, he wasn’t so keen.

We get off the boat eventually, everything, full pack and all the rest of it and we march off. It must’ve been about four or five mile up hill, it was murder! And then when we got there it was under canvas, the tents. And I’m sure they were that deep inside of tents with mud. Woodbines were sixpence a packet, to us soldiers! Of course we were there for a few days but we were all playing hard to get on a draft, it was that horrible there. The food was awful; the place was awful you know. We were all clamouring to go on a draft up to the front. We were clamouring, we’re asking and begging to go on a draft up to the front.

Getting to France was not the end of the journey. For some, such as James Gascoyne of the Royal Flying Corps, the actual move to the front proved to be an arduous task – although initially it had its compensations.

On one occasion we were travelling up – it was the first night I think – we’d got some of the vehicles, starting with the station workshop, which was heavily loaded, got stuck in the mud at the side of the road. There was quite a to-do then; everybody had to turn out to push this thing out and dig it out. We were all covered in mud. This went on for a long time; practically all the way up we were getting vehicles stopped and stuck in the mud. But the French people were absolutely marvellous. They assembled along the road and gave us terrific cheers, which by the way they didn’t give us when we came back. And we were loaded up with wine; bottles of wine everywhere. The lorries had more wine than they had equipment I think, in some cases. As a result of that, in fact, I have never drunk wine since.

German troops moving through Belgium to meet Allied forces also experienced difficulties on their journey, as officer K Lubinski explained.

The first marches which we had to do were terrible because it was very hot – all these days were scorchers. And we couldn’t eat, we couldn’t cook because we never knew where we would halt and if there was a halt how long it would be. Twice, I ordered my company to start cooking, and then the order came, unpile arms, and off we went and the whole food went into the ditch.

On the road, British private Edward Darby found the lessons he’d learned at school helped him get round the unsatisfactory menu he and his fellow soldiers received.

At Abbeville we went for a rest there, and in my schoolboy French I went into a café and I says I wanted some ‘du pain’. That’s bread and some milk; I got some milk and some ‘du pain’. Just as I was coming out of the shop, I walked bang into my officer in command of the convoy.‘What on Earth are you doing here, Darby?’ I said, ‘I’ve been in to get some good food. I’m fed up with bully beef and biscuits.’ He says, ‘Did you ask for that?’ I said, ‘Yes, in my schoolboy French.’ So he says, ‘Well, I haven’t had a square meal, I’ve been in the same position as you, you know. Fared a wee bit better than you, but do you think you could get me some of those buns…?’

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 7: Into Battle