Back in rest billets our peace of mind was rudely disturbed by the order “Parade zero six hundred hours full marching order!” “What’s up?” was the question on all our lips and when we set out next morning we all expected to march back towards the Front Line.
We were very puzzled therefore when we found ourselves marching miles away from the line. When the rain came down and we saw many more troops moving in the same direction. The “What’s up?” changed to “Something’s up!” Later, wet and tired, we found our battalion formed up as a part of the whole brigade. After waiting for what seemed hours our worst fears were realised when we got the order “General salute – Present Arms!”.
So that was it. Inspection by General ‘X’ followed by a pep talk consisting of a string of worn out phrases which didn’t fool us one little bit. We knew damned well we just were not a “fine body of men.” We were a lot of weary, browned off, civilians, trying our best to be soldiers. We also knew that having had General’s inspection our next job would most certainly be something well nigh impossible like taking a few hundred yards of trench off the enemy in the face of massed machine guns! Next day we started a forced march in the direction of Loos.
It was a gruelling march and towards mid-day men started to drop out on the road-side. Not yet nineteen, five foot six inches tall and nine stones in weight, I had never up to that time fallen out on the line of march and I was determined not to do so now.
One man marching next to me much bigger and much older, was in great distress and trying hard to keep going so I took his rifle and later when he was almost done in I took his pack also. Many other men were also carrying two rifles.
When we went out of the line last I had taken in my boots to be repaired and had been loaned a temporary pair which were too small. Owing to our sudden departure I had failed to get back my own boots and now I was beginning to suffer. My feet became raw and I was limping badly but still determined to keep going. My heart had been way down in my mutilated feet but now I sensed that we were nearing camp and it jumped back to its proper place. Reaching the point where we turned off the road, my feet finally gave out. I dropped out of the ranks, took off my boots, slung them round my neck by the laces and finished the last few hundred yards on my hands and knees. We had a day’s rest in billet and having had my damaged feet attended to and having managed to get fresh boots, fortunately old ones which had been resoled, I was able to walk without limping. Next day we marched towards Loos and rested near a small town behind that sector.
Now we could hear the sound of a heavy bombardment and that night we saw the sky lit up with flames from our batteries, the thunder of the battle continuing throughout the night. Early next morning the captain sent me with a message to battalion HQ in the town and on the way I passed a very smart, boyish looking young officer who acknowledged my salute with a smile.
About an hour or so later, on my way back to my quarters, I passed the same officer and this time I recognised him as the Prince of Wales. I was very surprised to see him there well within range of the heavies, as was to be seen by the large number of buildings that had been damaged by shell fire. Delivering an answer to the captain’s message I mentioned that I thought I had just seen the Prince along the road. He replied “Yes, he’s here alright and the powers that be are having the devil of a job to keep him out of the line.” Later I heard men talking of having seen the Prince actually in the trenches so that he was very popular with the men.
It was quite clear to us by now that we were in for another big attack and judging by the noise of battle it was going to be no picnic. I managed to contact Bill Easterby in ‘A’ Company quite a few times, not being quite so restricted in my movements now as I was attached to company HQ and the captain would always let me off the hook when he could.
“Well Sir, it looks as though we are for it again!”
“The lads don’t seem to be too windy.”
“No, most of them haven’t been in a good scrap yet.”
Talking it over we thought that possibly a quarter of the battalion had been in heavy action and the remainder had so far experienced nothing more than normal trench duty.
I do not remember much of the town of Loos itself, although I have a faint recollection of slag heaps, ruined buildings and pit-head gear. Just outside the town we encountered many families trudging along the side of the road with all their worldly possessions stacked on carts, barrows, even old prams, having grimily hung on till the last moment. Now however, they had been forced to forsake their homes. An elderly couple passing from their cottage gate on to the road witnessed a shell make a direct hit on the roof of their old cottage. They hesitated, putting down their bundles and I shall never forget the look on their faces as they saw their old home go up in smoke and dust. As I got my last glance of them the old man put his arm round the old lady and gently led her away.
After some time they came within sound of machine-gun and rifle fire, entering the Front Line trench they found themselves under heavy shell fire.
As this was going to be no ordinary tour of the line, all batmen and other HQ details not essential for the running of the battalion were returned to company duty, and so I found myself with my platoon manning the Front Line. We hardly had time to get settled down to the terrible conditions when we got the order to fix bayonets and await three blasts from the officer’s whistle and then over the top.