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Chapter 2. With the British


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

With the British


WITH THE BRITISH

THE convoy sailed for the most part in double line under escort of the cruiser St. Louis. Little occurred beyond the usual rumors of a sortie by the German fleet-most of whom were supposed to have gotten through -or some sudden semaphoring from ship to ship and activity on the part of the St. Louis, later explained by the presence of a whale.

On the evening of the seventeenth an escort of seven British destroyers appeared, ducking and dodging through the spume like a school of porpoises, and at dusk of the nineteenth the Justicia was docked at Liverpool. The troops were disembarked between ten and eleven P.M., and, looking their last on the great ship which loomed above, incredibly vast in the smoky moonlight, were placed directly upon train for Dover. The journey was bitterly cold, and impressions of England were only cheered by the sight of an unusually pretty girl serving, coffee during a halt at Rugby about three A.M., and by a clear sunrise over a country white with hoar-frost and cherry-blossoms. Arriving at Dover about eight A.M. the troops were marched under packs to what appeared to be the summit of the highest hill in the neighborhood for breakfast, and then immediately back to the steamer. Nobody liked England; but the Channel presented a picture of her grip of the seas-wreathed in the smoke of innumerable destroyers, above which hovered aeroplanes and dirigibles on watch, and somewhere the distant firing of guns.

Reaching Calais in the early afternoon of April 20, the battalions were marched to different Rest Camps and billeted, rather crowdedly, in tents sunk a few feet under ground for protection from aerobombs. The baptism of fire, though very mild, was immediate. Shortly before midnight the siren wailed out its alarm over camp; then came the discharge of guns, the soaring scream of projectiles, the occasional soft "thut" of a bullet falling into the sand, and the shock of explosives beyond the canal in the city. From somewhere overhead amid the weaving and crossing search-lights, and the sparkling flash of shrapnel, could be beard the recurrent whirr of German motors-later so familiar a sound-but only the city of Calais paid whatever price was to pay.

Two days were spent in fitting and drawing gas-masks, steel helmets, and ammunition, and exchanging rifles for the British arm; and at noon of the twenty-third, leaving a few sick behind, the troops were marched to the station at Calais and carried by train some twenty kilometers to Audriq. From this point the battalions were marched to their different training areas-the First at Zouafque, the Second at Nordasque, the Third at Louches, and Regimental Headquarters at Tournehem. The marches were not long, varying from ten to fourteen kilometers, but, as bad been anticipated, the packs proved too heavy for all except the strong men. They carried at this time two blankets, shelter-half with pole And pins, -overcoat, slicker, extra boots and under-clothes, two days' rations, rifle, bayonet, canteen, and 150 rounds of ammunition, forming a pack which came down to the knees of the smaller men. It was a punishing march, accentuated in the case of the Third Battalion by the guide losing the way, and the beauties of spring in the French lanes were apparent to few accept those on horseback.

In these areas the battalions stayed for three weeks, making their first acquaintance with French villages and billets, with their distant picturesque charm and their nearby atmosphere of all-pervading manure heaps. Lieutenants and N. C. O.'s from every company were sent to specialist schools, principally for the Lewis Gun; the captains were sent on three- or four-day visits to the British front line south of Arras-a dreary stretch of half-dug trenches in the mud, rambling through shattered hamlets and golden flelds of dandelions, where the sniper fired across six or eight hundred yards of rusted wire-mostly German-and life was made equally unhappy by the enemy's minenwerfers and one's own six-inch "bows."

The writer was assigned to a part of the line held by the First Royal Berkshires and then taken over by the K. R. R.; and he was privileged to accompany a captain of the latter on his initial inspection of the front. It was a night of gusty rain and of utter darkness, but the British captain, a veteran of the South African War, treated it as though it were a pleasant afternoon, and No Man's Land as though it were his own front garden. He took up a pick helve, which he carried in lieu of a walking stick, and the two started forth. There was little difficulty in scaling the front parapet-one merely stepped out of it-but soon afterwards one's impressions became confused. They crossed belts of wire as though it had been an obstacle race; they skirted invisible shell craters almost on the run; they leaped chasm-like trenches on faith that there was a farther side; occasionally they stopped to listen, but for the most part they simply traveled, and at a speed seeming quite beyond reason. After perhaps an hour and a half there were voices; and, just as the writer was preparing to sell his life dearly, they dove through a blanket into the covered shelter from which they had first started, and the English captain began at once issuing minute instructions for the wiring of empty gaps in the line, for the improvement of certain lengths of trench, and for the relocation of some of his Lewis guns.

This was a time of anxious waiting for all in France. Two great German blows bad already been delivered that spring, and from the force of their impact the British army had reeled back defeated and all but crushed. The face of the war, brightening greatly during the last two years, had in a month become horribly changed. The future seemed more than doubtful; it seemed desperate. France had little left to bring to a losing war, and England, unconquerable England, awaited the next blow with a grimness akin to despair, and her mind already prepared for a peace which should bring no victory. This at least was the spirit encountered among the British troops' of whom a captain, wearing the ribbons of the M. C. and D. S. 0., with whom the present writer bad become intimate, said to him one day, as though encouragingly: "Now that you

Americans have come over I feel sure, sure, that you'll find we'll stick it out. Otherwise, I think we would have patched up some sort of a peace this spring, but now I'm sure that we'll carry on some way."

And the National Army bad never dreamed it. Their only thought had been that they might not be in time to share the victory with their Allies. But now they learned to listen to the dull orchestra of the guns at night, and to try to guess at their message. Rumor, unofficial but persistent, had said that when next the Germans struck all troops, trained or un-trained, were to be flung in their path-for all would likely be needed.

Captain Illingworth, an English officer of the 16th Sherwood Foresters, with his staff of specialist N. C. O.'s, was assigned temporarily to the regiment to assist in the instruction of the troops; and he rendered in this a very real service, though, as always heretofore, the lack of adequate training ground was keenly felt, and the French in this region were far from generous in making, such available. Yet thirty-yard rifle-ranges with reduced targets were improvised, where the men learned the use of their new weapons; and the Lewis Gun teams, four to each platoon, picked from the best material, took hold of their work with genuine enthusiasm, evincing the first real esprit de corps to be developed.

On May fourteenth, after three weeks of almost daily rain, the battalions marched again to Audriq, where they took train to Mondicourt, some 25 kilometers southwest of Arras. Here they were to be brigaded for training, and it was thought also for combat, with different battalions of Manchester and East Lancashire troops, of the Forty-second British Division. The First battalion at Couin, the Second at Henu, and the Third with Regimental Headquarters at Pas, were all within a radius of three kilometers. It was an impressive arrival, the short march from Mondicourt, before dawn on the fifteenth, through the sleeping, starlit village, with the nearer sound of the guns along the front, the climbing white caterpillar-lights, and, somewhere in the darkness ahead, a British band playing the troops magnificently in. They know how to use their music, the British, and it seemed strange that the regiment should leave America in the silence of the plague-stricken, to be escorted into the forward area with a brass band.

The three weeks here spent were probably the pleasantest in the army experience of any, either theretofore or thereafter. The country was beautiful, the weather immaculate, the training systematic and efficient. Save for the infrequent passage or seemingly unaimed arrival of a shell in the wheatfields, or the more frequent and important shortage in rations, there was little to mar the tranquillity of the summer days. The troops were quartered in large conical or small shelter-tents, as the ease might be, along the edge of the splendid beechwoods, and, if only they could have learned to like the British ration, British shoes, and British Tommy, might have been perfectly happy. But the first was too short, the second too flat, and the trouble with the last rather difficult to determine. Unfortunately the American soldier, probably barking back to the injurious history books of school-days, decided to hate him; yet the feeling does not seem to have been reciprocal, and nothing could have exceeded the hospitality, courtesy, and welcoming, painstaking kindliness of the British officers.

There were dinners given, principally by the East Lancashires, frequent and astonishingly elaborate banquets, with delicious food and excellent wines, with music and song and story; and the British officers came riding in on their splendid, well-groomed horses, with sparkling equipment; and the American officers joined them upon less striking steeds, with patched saddles borrowed from some muleteer, and strips of rusty leather knotted into the length of reins; and they gathered together under the leafy beechwood, carefree, or forgetful of care, while behind the sound of the singing, and the laughter, and the music, there hung, like a curtain across the distance, the steady thunder of the guns. Their stories never were of the war, nor did their songs refer to it.

Now I, friend, drink to thee, friend,
As my friend drank to me,
And as my friend charged me, friend, So 1, friend, charge thee.

That thou, friend, drink to thy friend,
As my friend drank to me,
And the more we drink together The merrier we'll be.

(Chorus, all together)

And the more we drink together The merrier we'll be.

Brave, gallant gentlemen, their division was heavily hit before the end of summer, and often one wonders how many are still left of that gay gathering.

The British Tommies gave open-air vaudeville performances in costume every week, at which all American troops were always made welcome; and when one day an American Company established a new record of rifle-fire on the bullet and bayonet course, the British Sergeant-Major in charge of the course spread the news with an enthusiasm and pride far beyond what he would have felt for a similar achievement by his own men. The writer captained a battalion rifle-team to victory against the team of a British battalion. The opposing scores were very close, the Americans winning by a narrow margin because two of their opponents had done very poorly. They were heartily congratulated on their victory and no whisper of protest was heard. Not till afterward, and quite by accident, did the writer discover that when, at the request of the British Major, he had given the signal for the British team to commence firing-and the match was solely one of rapid fire-these two members of the team had been waiting for a preliminary order to load their magazines. Rather than interrupt an American officer, unfamiliar with their technique, or insist upon an even break, they had started on a competition in rapid fire with empty magazines, and cheerfully accepted the resultant defeat; and though every member of their team knew it, none bad mentioned it.

At an American inter-company Sunday baseball game, Major-General Sully-Flood, a splendid type of British officer and gentleman, appeared as a very interested spectator, and at the conclusion of the game expressed a wish to take a turn at the bat. The American pitcher, a lean, loose-jointed Yankee, gave him a swift but straight ball, and the General knocked out something like a home-run. It was almost as good as an Allied victory.

On June sixth, and most regrettably just as these British units were about to return to the line in expectation of taking with them the battalions of the 307th, with whom they had more than equally divided their limited training grounds, all British equipment was ordered turned in, including rifles and. the now beloved Lewis Guns, and the regiment marched west. The suddenness of this change at the moment of coming action was mortifying in the extreme, for it seemed almost like desertion in the face of the enemy. There might well have been a little jeering from the British, but there was none. Instead, to their honor be it said, a British band, hurriedly assembled, played them out upon their way; and with generous courtesy Major-General Sully-Flood stood at a crossroads to salute and shake hands with the officers as they passed, and to wish them the best of luck. Their true sporting spirit taught the British how they themselves would have felt under like circumstances; with instinctive generosity they attributed a like viewpoint to their friends, and one loved them for it.

A four-day march was made to the entraining points at Longpre and Saint Remy, the First Battalion halting at Gezaincourt, Berna-ville, and Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher, the Second at Longueville, Vacquerie, and Famechon, and the Third at Candas, Bemeuil, and Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher. The first day's march only was severe, some twenty-four kilometers, at the end of which rifles and ammunition were issued from trucks. The men's packs had been reduced by one blanket, and it had been possible to get rid of the worst of the flat-footed to special duty, so the march was not unpleasant, and speculation was rife as to wither it was leading. The wide valley of the Somme, with its intricate maze of canals and lagoons glittering in sunshine through the foliage of innumerable lines of poplars, was a picture to cherish.

The journey by train led west and south, skirting Paris, then southeast to the Moselle, where, the regiment was detrained at Chatel and Thaon on the night of June eleventh.

Save for the cold of the nights and the inevitable discomfort of cattle-cars, it was a memorable journey. The civilian population of every town flocked to windows and gardens to wave and cheer to "les Americains"; at every halt the loveliest in the land seemed to have been gathered to give out coffee and flowers along the station platforms; and at one mo-mentary stop outside a tunnel a particularly sweet-looking French girl was found, by chance or otherwise, picking flowers beside the, track. Having been kissed by one soldier, she continued generously along the length of the train, showing little or no favoritism, and, as the train moved on through the tunnel, her figure, in black silhouette against the diminishing arch of sunshine, kissing her band again and again into the darkness, left a picture such as is good for fighting men to carry with them. Detraining toward midnight, the battalions moved, the First to Longehamps and Girecourt, the Second to Bult, the Third to Sercoeur and Dompierre, and Regimental Headquarters to Padoux. To show the contrast in hospitality of the people in this region to that accorded the troops in the north, a letter written at this time is worth quoting in part:

"Being mounted, I rode ahead through the darkness two or three miles to Vaxoncourt, where my company and another were to spend the rest of the night, for it seemed unlikely that any arrangements had been made for billeting the men. The village, on a little rocky hill surrounded by streams, was sound asleep, and I rode through its silent streets looking in vain for any light. Then, knocking with my whip at a shutter, I was told by a surprised and sleepy voice where the mayor lived, and pounded also at his shutter. The mayor slept well, but finally thrust out a nightcapped bead to ask what was the matter. I told him that five hundred American troops were coming to billet in his village, but be said it was not possible that such a thing should happen, for it was after one o'clock. I explained that never -the less I bad only distanced them by the gait of my horse, and wanted him to help me arrange billets for them. He retired muttering, more dazedly than in ill-humor, and soon appeared in ulster and wooden sabots with a lantern. We went through the village, waking every one with the good news that the Americans were coming, till we had something like a full town-meeting gathered with lanterns in the public square. They treated it rather like a fete, every one lending a hand, pulling out wagons from the barns, setting ladders to the lofts, making up beds for the officers, and standing with lanterns at their doorways to welcome their allotment; so that when the column arrived, about half an hour behind me, they were marched straight to billets without a pause. I got a splendid room overlooking the meadows and orchards at the edge of town, where, in the morning, a beaming old woman brought me in a great bowl of hot milk and coffee, fresh bread, and a precious little dish of sugar-staunchly refusing to be paid for it. We left at noon the same day, all the inhabitants who were not working in the fields coming to wave us good-by and offer flowers.

"At Dompierre, where we arrived that afternoon, the feeling seemed to be just the same, though, on account of an epidemic of mumps in the village, we bad the men pitch shelter -halves in the flat meadows along the stream. I spent the next morning riding about looking for drill-grounds, as we expected to be here a week, and then called on the mayor. I told him that in order to beat the Boche the men had to be drilled and trained, and that the only available ground seemed to be the recently harvested hay-meadows along the bottom of the valley, though this would rather interfere with their growing a second crop. He said they were community meadows, and if I thought them necessary for drilling the troops that was probably a better use to put them to than growing hay; after all, we were at war, and the village did not want to be paid for them. We had him and the cure' and the town greffier to dinner a few nights later, and it was delightful to see them, with a glass of champagne in one hand and a slice of white American bread, which they insisted was gateau, in the other, beaming at us as they tried to beat time and join in our songs."
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