Loosing at Loos: 3

I had been very frightened all that day but now at last having actually reached our objective I nearly collapsed with fright.

What was supposed to be a trench was nothing but a line of ploughed up earth with a ditch full of dead and dying men of both sides.

To stand up meant certain death so we had to crawl over the bodies of dead and wounded lying several deep in places. There were bodies with limbs missing, trunks without heads, bodies with great gaping wounds. We had to crawl over men still writhing in agony and I felt terribly sick. An officer, revolver in hand, came striding along the ditch ignoring the machine-guns and as he passed me I saw that he had been shot through the head. He was foaming at the mouth as he mumbled something unintelligible. He was dead on his feet and a little way further on he fell face down and was quiet.

Ordered to move further along I crawled over more gruesome objects that only a short time ago had been men. I had by now steeled myself to ignore the writhing of those we crawled over but I was beaten when I came to a man whose flesh had been blown away leaving his bowels and other organs exposed like pictures I had seen in ambulance books. This was too much for me and I had to take the risk and stand up long enough to stride over him before crawling on again. I became filled with a surge of revolt and anger and together with other men, cursed with foul words the stupidity of those who continued to throw away good men to take a trench which did not exist any more. The major, when he got through the tunnel, took one look at the ditch and ordered us back and so, a few at a time, we crawled back to our own line. All our officers were now gone except for the major and there were only a handful of men and NCO’s left.

Despite being completely exhausted they somehow got through the rest of that night. The shelling never ceased though it was less intense. Just before dawn they were told to move out as fresh troops arrived. Passing the incoming troops, all big chaps, Irish Guards, Harry felt sorry to think that still more good men were going to be thrown away.

Looking back after all these years, the Loos Battle was so utterly stupid that I worried if I am remembering it right. But no, the piles of dead, German and British in that ‘ditch’ is no old mans dream, they were there all right.

At an identification parade the following morning Harry’s name and regimental number were taken incorrectly, so he was reported missing. His parents were distressed and his father lost weight whilst he was officially ‘missing’. Several days later they were joined by a new draft just out from England and Harry was made batman to a first Lieutenant who he disliked. He decided to get away from him as soon as possible. To his relief his next spell of duty was away from the Front.

Map showing relative positions of Marseille (France) Alexandria (Egypt) and Salonica (Greece)

It was a very long train journey, taking us through many French towns and finally we arrived at a large city, Marseilles. We marched through the city down to the docks and embarked on a ship which had had as its last passengers a load of mules!

I was a bad sailor and the stench in that boat made me feel ill before we set sail. I saw a light-house on a rock as we left the harbour and very soon after that I lost interest in the scenery and became terribly sea-sick. I was still feeling very sick at dawn next morning but I struggled on deck thinking I might feel better if I got away from the stench of mules below decks. Looking around I found to my delight that we were nearing land. The light-house coming into view was very much like the one I’d seen on leaving Marseilles. I commented on the likeness to a member of the crew. “Too true mate,” he replied, “it is like Marseilles and it ruddy well should be because it is Marseilles! We’ve been going round in circles all night dodging a Jerry submarine”. My heart sank not because of the submarine, but for thinking I had gone through all that for nothing!

When we had been on the way for some hours the second time, I began to feel better and had some of the food I had not previously been able to face. We reached our destination without further incident and found we were disembarking at Alexandria. Lined up on the docks we were greatly interested in the strange sights, sounds and smells.

We marched through Alex’ and out into what we thought was desert. Sand was everywhere and marching over it was very exhausting. Near to our camp there were groups of date palms and it was not long before some of the troops were scaling the trees to help themselves. Soon there came into the camp a number of native gentlemen in their flowing white robes, shouting and gesticulating wildly. The date palms growing in the desert were their property and they had no intention of sharing their fruit with British Tommies except at a price.

The brigade was to parade for General’s inspection, which, if past experience counted for anything, meant that we were soon to embark on some new adventure. We were issued with topees and yards of thin, light khaki material which was to be wound round the topee to give added protection from the sun. These were called pugarees and were wound round in slightly overlapping layers, twisted into folds to form a certain number of pleats, according to the army division. Ours had to have four pleats, one front, one rear and one at each side. There was a great to-do trying to get these contraptions right and old ‘India Wallahs’ were in much demand to give expert advice. We batmen got busy getting our officers uniforms, boots and equipment in ‘spit-and-polish’ order, neglecting our own, knowing that we were, so far as the parade was concerned, ‘not for it’.

However his RSM resented the batmen being excused certain duties, so he made sure everyone was on parade. Harry had just ten minutes to get dressed and ready.

After a time the General and his staff appeared and knowing that soon we would get the order “General salute. Present arms!” I began to wonder if I could manage to get through the drill without knocking off the unaccustomed topee which seemed to have assumed the size of a bell tent. I got through that part without catastrophe and was beginning to feel more confident when we got the order “Slope arms. Quick march!” Off went my topee and before I could do anything about it the battalion moved forward kicking my topee each time they took a step forward. I heard the RSM shouting something terrible about “that man in the white vest!” It was very hot but that was not why the sweat was pouring down any red face. I still feel hot when I think about it to this day.

Our expectations following the General’s inspection were realised all too soon and we found ourselves once more marching through the sand and back to the docks where we again embarked on a troop ship.

We set sail after dark not knowing where we were going to land up. For once I was not sea-sick on the voyage and was able, when we made landfall, to enjoy the beauty of the sun on a green sea with a glorious cloudless blue sky and far away across the water a romantic looking town with white mosques and minarets. We disembarked at Salonika and marched from the docks away through the town and so out into the hills surrounding it.