Civilians into Soldiers: 3

Bill Easterby was no taller than myself but about twice as broad and although he worked at a rough job, as a barge-man on the River Thames, he was a gentle soul and a wonderful friend.

I cannot remember ever during our War service hearing him use a swear word. I didn’t swear myself then but later when encumbered with a couple of stripes I found swearing a necessary qualification for the job. “Please hurry up chaps!” had no effect, but “Get a bloody move on you lazy buggers,” worked the trick.

His training was given by regular soldiers. Girls used to congregate along the fence to ogle the real soldiers.

During musketry instruction we would lie in the prone position for hours, loading and ‘snapping’ the trigger on dummy rounds. The instructor always took us near to the fence and when we heard the order “Carry on snapping” we knew without looking up that the gallant sergeant had ‘clicked’ and that for the remainder of the session we would be left to our own devices, shooting hordes of imaginary Germans.

Having been taught the rudiments of squad drill and musketry we were one day marched off to Leasowe Castle, there to ‘fire our course’ on the rifle range on the foreshore. At the Castle we were formed up outside the main entrance and the NCO warned us with some apprehension that we were to be inspected by the Regimental Sergeant Major. We were not as yet aware of the awful majesty of RSM’s and so were not particularly interested until his figure suddenly appeared on the castle steps.

He was a wonderful figure of a man, his presence the acme of soldierly bearing, his uniform correct in every detail, his moustache waxed to poke forward like threatening lances. Why he should take such an immediate dislike to the lot of us I did not understand, but he did, and was at some pains to make his dislike of us quite clear, beyond all possible doubt. He blasted off with such an explosion of blasphemous invective that it seemed he must drop with apoplexy. Leaving out the swear words he didn’t actually say much but the gist of his remarks left us with the feeling that the ‘wedding group’ photograph on our parent’s side-board at home was a fake.

The meeting was brief and he parted from us with the quip that although we had broken our mothers’ hearts we could not break his and if we really wanted to live to get to the Front we’d better keep clear of him. I made a mental note that RSM’s were not my cup of tea and that I would avoid them at all costs in future.

He soon became bored with squad drill and rifle exercises and when asked if anyone wished to volunteer for the Front he immediately stepped forward. Within a few days they were issued with rifles and ammunition and on their way to Southampton docks.

We set sail after dark and from that moment we were on active service. There were no lights showing, there was no smoking and having been told to make no noise there was no singing, not that we felt inclined to sing just then. There was something eerie about that ship sailing out into the night, even the usually irrepressible comics were reduced to whispers.

Of course, we had no idea where we were going and when we were at last allowed on deck it was early morning and the ship was at anchor in harbour. The sunshine was brilliant, the air warm. The water of the harbour was like a sheet of translucent yellowy green glass. The wheeling, screeching gulls and the sunlit town forming a backdrop to the shipping of the harbour made a picture to be remembered. All seemed so quiet and peaceful that it seemed impossible that the reason for our being there was War.

Map showing relative positions of Southampton (England) and Le Harvre, Rouen, Paris and Lille (France)

We learned from the sailors that we were in Le Havre and as none of us had been abroad before we were greatly interested in the strange sights and sounds.

Disembarking from the troop ship they went up river to Rouen.

At Rouen we once more disembarked and marched to a large military camp. The most memorable thing about this route march was the great reception given us by the people, who cheered us, shook our hands and patted us on the back as we marched by. One French ‘lady’ showed her enthusiasm and other things as well by riding a bicycle with her legs on the handlebars. This acrobatic gesture of entente cordiale was much appreciated by the Tommies and was appropriately applauded as an indication that the whispers about French ladies being rather playful were true.

Having settled in camp we were occupied the next morning with a ‘spit and polish’ parade followed by the inevitable kit inspection and then much to our surprise we were given a few hours leave to see the sights of Rouen. After fifty years the only thing I remember about Rouen is that I could not bring myself to use the Gents convenience as it consisted of a trough with a low shield which left the upper part of the body exposed to all passers by. I decided to wait until I got back to camp.

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917) British poet.