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   Chapter 7 VIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 18560

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


SALISBURY AND THE STONES OF STONEHENGE

On Thursday, the 14th of October, orders came to disembark. All the ships of the Canadian fleet were there. We learned that we had been sent to Plymouth at the last minute and that train transport had to be provided for us. All kinds of rumours were afloat; one that we were to go at once to France, disembarking at Rouen, and then by train to the south of France; others said that we were to go to Egypt; and many said that was all right, if the Turks got into the war.

I went ashore with Company Sergeant-Major Radcliffe of my regiment, who is a Plymouth man. It was only when I got ashore that I learned that his bride-to-be lived in Plymouth. We drove all over the town and part of the country. This is Devonshire, the country of cider and cream. I tried them both; they are excellent. It felt good to get ashore, but the voyage was so pleasant that we were sorry to part with our good ship and our captain. We found that in England the people had been very much depressed by the war, but were recovering their spirits. The shipyards were busy, but there was hardly a home in Plymouth, Stonehouse or Devonport (three towns in one), but had some one afloat in the navy, keeping convoy, or keeping guard in the North Sea. I met the Editor of one of the Plymouth papers, a very fine man. From him I learned that the Mayor and Corporation of the town had arranged a public reception for the Canadians, but that Lord Kitchener had vetoed the proposal. He also told me of the loss of some ships on the East coast, and some German losses at sea, but said the censor would not permit publication even of our arrival. We were beginning to learn that there was a big man somewhere about who was doing things, and that his address was not far from the War Office. On the streets we met hundreds of young men route marching, some of them with arms, some in uniform, the majority without either. They were all singing "Tipperary" with its Celtic croon and minor tones. So far apparently, the war had not produced a great war poet or musician, nothing had been written anything like "Tommy Atkins" or "Soldiers of the Queen." Surely war songs were not all "Made in Germany."

Every square, and park and private lawn had its quota of soldiers drilling, all young men and all in deadly earnest. We learned also that the day we arrived some young men from Quebec, speaking French, and a Servian from Winnipeg had strayed ashore, and the announcement was made in the press that the contingent consisted principally of French Canadians and Servians who were coming to fight for the Allies. After the war is over I suppose someone will be giving the Chinese all the credit for what the Canadians did.

So far so good. We remained on board all day. The rivetters on board a huge Dreadnought, that was being built close by, chalked in huge letters on the plating a message for us, "Bravo Canadians." Our men, who were very good with semaphore signals, soon established a wireless connection with the shore and a very animated conversation was carried on between them all day. In the afternoon we presented Captain James with a memento of our voyage, expressing our pleasure in having such a good commander. We bought him the silver when we got ashore.

The next morning an officer came aboard from the staff, and we learned for the first time that General Alderson had been appointed to command the Canadian Expeditionary Force. We could see an officer on shore with a staff cap, who looked very much like General Hughes, but it turned out to be Colonel Davidson of Toronto. About noon our ship pulled into the dock, and the gangways were put out, and disembarkation began. We were ordered to move in two detachments, so I gave the right half battalion to Major Marshall with my blessing, and remained with the left half myself to see that all our stores were landed safely. We learned a good deal about transporting troops. One thing that should be looked after in future contingents is to see that each unit has its own waggons, horses and carts on its own ship. When we were embarked at Quebec our horses and waggons were taken away from us. The horses were put on board one ship, the harness on another, the waggons on another, the wheels on another, etc. It took weeks to sort everything out, and all the work done at Valcartier had been wasted.

Another thing, the men should not be sent abroad without a good equipment like the Webb. The Oliver equipment was a joke. With our facilities for producing good leather, canvas and woollen stuff in Canada there is no reason why we cannot produce an equipment just as good, if not better, than the Webb. All ammunition is now packed in clips in canvas bandoliers holding fifty rounds, and there is very little necessity for the big ammunition pouches with which equipments were burdened. An equipment made out of green chrome leather with as few straps as possible, or out of good stout drab canvas made in Canada and treated with a solution of soap and alum, so as to make it waterproof, would do just as well as the Webb. Fortunately our regiment had been given an excellent Webb equipment and it was expected the equipment for the rest of the force would be issued in England. The Division outside of our Brigade had been busy for several days staining their Oliver haversacks and kit bags with tea and making a very poor job of it.

The right half battalion shouldered their blankets, kit bags and knapsacks and started off for the station a mile away. Our rifles were boxed and would follow us. We left later on at six in the evening. It was dusk as we marched through Plymouth to the station where we had to wait an hour for our train to be made up. Soon quite a crowd gathered at the station, and everybody wanted to give my men bottles of whiskey and gin. I stopped it as well as I could, but a few who had not had a drink for two months fell by the wayside, not just then but later on. We should have tried out our men in Canada, and given them a free hand, so that the drinkers would be weeded out before coming over.

Our train came in about eight o'clock and we were told our destination was Patney Station, and that our camp was near the station. Off we started and arrived at Patney about one o'clock at night. The men enjoyed the run very much. At every station as we passed the people gathered and cheered themselves hoarse till we all thought we were real heroes. We made only about two stops till we came to Patney, one at Exeter which is one of the oldest towns in England dating from the Roman occupation. This city was the Iscea of Vaspasian's time. It was always a fortified city, previous even to the Romans, and boasts of a beautiful cathedral.

The other stop we made was at Newton Abbot. Here William of Orange was first proclaimed King of England, if I remember right, on a stone in the market square.

At Patney station we found on the station platform Major Marshall and several officers, among them Captain McGregor. They informed us that on the way up a number of the men of "A" Company (Captain McGregor's) had been taken ill, with ptomaine or some other form of poisoning, and were in a bad way. We suspected at once that some one had handed them something. We found thirty-five of them down with colic and very severe pains. Blankets had been laid in the station for them, and Dr. MacKenzie, our surgeon, did not take long getting busy attending to them. He informed me that he did not consider any cases serious, although the poor fellows were suffering much pain. We marched the left half of the battalion over the track on an overhead bridge, and found our right half waiting for us, and for transport waggons which were supposed to be on hand, to take our kit bags and blankets. The night was as dark as a wolf's mouth and the dim lights of a few lanterns showed the men standing in solid lines between the green walls of the hedges of an English lane.

A traction transport arrived and the men began hoisting their kit bags into the two large vans that constituted this traction outfit. Several county policemen were on hand to guide us to our camp which we were told was eleven miles away. That was cheerful. There was no transport for the kit bags and blankets of my half battalion, so that after a while Marshall got all his kits aboard and said good-bye and started off into blank space with his half battalion less the thirty-five sick left at the station. The pipes struck up bravely, "We'll take the High Road," the marching-out tune of all Highland Regiments, and soon the black darkness swallowed up the end of his detachment.

The prospect of a night march of eleven miles was not very cheerful for the rest of us. We stood about on the road waiting for another traction engine and waggons to get our kits carried for us. One hour passed, no transport, two hours, no transport. We heard that our transport had gone to Lavington station by mistake, and was on the way back for us. At a quarter to three the officers and non-commissioned officers decided that we had better start and get to camp carrying our own kit bags and blankets. The men said they would rather go than sit around waiting for morning, so a constable with a lanter

n and a bicycle volunteered to guide us. I gave the command to shoulder kit-bags and blankets and we were off. Each man carried his knapsack and complete equipment, three blankets, a rubber sheet and a kit bag, full of boots, clothing and all like effects. Some of the men were carrying fully one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five pounds. Sergeant-Major W. Grant slipped up alongside of me at the head of the column, and we marched out into total darkness. At first it was so dark that a person could almost feel it. The road was firm and flinty under foot, and pretty soon some one started up "The Army of to-day is all Right," and everybody joined in the chorus. We set a slow pace, stepping short and easy so that the end of the column in charge of Captain Warren could keep up. A wonderful man was young Warren, never tired, always cheerful, always knowing what to do. We were blessed with two good field officers in Captains Darling and Warren. At the end of fifteen minutes we halted between two hedges and rows of tall trees. The policeman told me the men could sit against the banks of the hedges, so that first rest was good. In ten minutes we were off again. The road seemed to wind in and out in serpentine curves. The land on either side was taken up with truck and vegetable farming.

In spite of the darkness it was an ideal night for marching, neither too hot nor too cold. The men were standing up to the marching well. After about another quarter of an hour Sergeant Hermitage, my Orderly Room Sergeant, ran up from the rear to tell me to halt the column, as a man had slipped into a culvert and was stuck in the mud. In fishing him out the Sergeant had got stung with nettles. This made him hot. It did not mend matters when I suggested that his country was getting even with him for wearing kilts. However, we slowed up. This going was splendid practice as we would no doubt have plenty of night marching of this kind in Flanders. The men stood up to the march with their heavy loads splendidly, thanks to the excellent physical training they had undergone on board ship. At the first halt a number lit up cigarettes, and as soon as they started a chorus of coughs showed where the seductive weed was getting in its deadly work on the lungs and bronchial tubes. The Commanding Officers passed the word along to try and not smoke, and not to use the water bottles, and the men did their best for the rest of the march. About an hour before we came to our camp we ran full tilt into a traction train and I commandeered it at once. I turned it around and got the men to load their kit bags into the big vans, which they did most cheerfully, as this lightened their loads. When we reached the great Salisbury Plains, after a steep climb, it was cold and foggy, the kind of weather to take the courage out of a man, about five o'clock in the morning. It was daylight when we reached our tents. There was hot tea ready for the men, and it did not take us very long to roll up in a blanket on the ground and go to sleep.

I made the eleven miles carrying my great coat, sword and equipment, and how I blessed my boots. Not a chafe nor an ache, they were just splendid. From three o'clock till seven ten is not bad for eleven miles on a pitch dark night. We all knew very little of what happened for the rest of the day. Captain Donaldson saw that the officers' luggage was sent in, and by the evening we were quite comfortable, and had a good sleep on Saturday night.

The first work we did on our arrival at Salisbury Plains was to attend an open air church service on Sunday. All the photographers of the London papers were on hand to get snapshots of us. We were warned to be careful of suspicious characters, and some of the gentlemen with cameras were questioned closely. We at last had leisure to look about us. Salisbury Plains, where we had been sent for our training, is in Wiltshire and is a chalk plateau, high up in the middle of England. It is noted for its historical associations and its bad climate. Two great trunk line railways run, one on the north, the other to the south of these Plains which are fully twenty-five miles from north to south and twenty-five miles from east to west. Most of the land is taken over by the Crown for military purposes, but at the cross-roads there are still small English villages nestling in the hollows, whilst on the Plains themselves the game and shooting privileges still remain in the hands of the Lords of the Manor.

The country is very much like the foot-hills of the Rockies near Calgary in appearance. The slopes are generally to the north. We were not by any means the first armed men to tread the heath here. There is no part of England so rich in legend and history. We could see ruins and monuments on every side.

In the middle of the Downs, within plain view of our camp, there arose the most ancient ruins in the British Isles, and the most interesting prehistoric edifice in the whole of Europe-Stonehenge. To speak of Stonehenge or to try to conjure up its past is to deal with people who lived on these plains and enjoyed their cruder methods of civilization and religion in a period more remote than that in which the great Pyramids of Egypt were fashioned. Here in a circle, about one hundred feet in diameter, are reared a series of great pillars of granite, a stone which cannot be found within hundreds of miles from the spot, in fact the north of France is the nearest. Each slab is about twenty feet in height and they are fashioned rudely in the form of a temple. It is said that in the design geometrical figures were used, and that some sun cult was practised by those who reared them, for the sun's shadow passes through various points only on Midsummer and on May Day. The Druids are supposed to have used this as the great shrine of their faith, and worshippers came from all over Europe every year to take part in the religious ceremonies. Be that as it may this country must have been the centre of a very powerful Celtic or British race, for here and there over the Plains are piled up huge barrows, said to be the burial places of ancient kings. A barrow or tumulus is about fifteen to twenty feet high and seventy to a hundred feet in diameter. A great many tumuluii are dotted here and there over the Plains. The next people to these Druidical Celts to occupy these plains were Britons and the ruins of some of their villages are still to be found. Then came the Romans, and as usual they left their mark. North of the stones of Stonehenge, about a quarter of a mile, is still to be found the ruins of a chariot race course recalling scenes from "Ben Hur." Over one end of the course, oaks, centuries old, have grown. Not far away, about a mile and half east of Stonehenge, there is the huge earthwork walls of Vespasians' Camp. From here it is said the Great Roman General marched to the conquest of Palestine. About four miles south, crowning a high hill, there are the ruins of Old Sarum, at one time a Roman City. From the ramparts of Sarum, each of them a day's march away, can be seen the ruins of seven great Roman Camps. The Romans occupied Britain about four hundred years, a period more remote than if we count from now back beyond the Discovery of America. Everywhere are marks of their civilization, showing that the country during their occupation must have been rich and populous. No less than four of their generals left these Plains to assume the Imperial purple. What stirring times those must have been. Past old Sarum wound the road to Bath where the rich Romans and Britons were carried by slaves on their litters to take the medicinal waters of that ancient well, now found to contain that marvellous nerve-stimulating mineral-radium. Every stone, every hill on these Plains could tell a wonderful story.

After the Romans came the Saxons, and good King Alfred was not unknown to these Plains while he was moulding his Kingdom and driving out the Danes. The Norman Conqueror then came and took Sarum as one of his strongholds. And it is admirably suited for defence even to-day. He established a See or Bishopric at Sarum which later was removed to the City of Salisbury. Sarum then declined and ran to seed, and was gradually abandoned. It registered a last kick, however, when its half a dozen voters, as it was the most noted of the "Rotten" Boroughs, won immortality by sending to Parliament a young Coronet of Horse, Pitt the Elder, afterwards Lord Chatham. It then ceased to be anything but a geographical expression. If you seek the remainder of the history of this remarkable spot, look for it in Salisbury Cathedral, one of the most charming specimens of late Gothic architecture to be found in the world. There you will find the tomb of William Longsword and other brave crusaders. You will find that Oliver Goldsmith lived in Salisbury, and there wrote the novel "The Vicar of Wakefield," and that Gay wrote the "Beggar's Opera," at Amesbury, the village that lies a few miles east of Stonehenge. But of all that we saw that which impressed us most were the Roman ruins, recalling the iron discipline of those unconquerable legionaries, and the great monuments of our Celtic ancestors, the sublime stones of Stonehenge.

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