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   Chapter 11 XIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 23331

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


OFF FOR FRANCE.

"Sir! There is a cup of coffee ready for you, and your horse will be at the door in fifteen minutes."

I had thrown myself at ten o'clock on my cot, fully equipped for the first march on the way to France, and had slept soundly till roused at twelve forty-five by a knock on my door, followed by the voice of the orderly room sergeant.

I went to the door of my hut and looked out. The night was dark as a wolf's mouth. The stars in this northern latitude sparkled with unusual brilliancy.

On the evening of the 9th, I had been asked to go to the Headquarters of the Third Brigade, where General Turner, V.C., had informed me that my regiment would march out for France on the 11th.

There was great glee when this became known. The tents hummed with bustle and activity. Everybody got busy polishing and packing up. The spare kits and kit bags were to be left at Salisbury. Many of them would never be claimed.

It seemed almost impossible for us to get ready in time. We had not yet learned to march on an hour's notice, but we were told to cut down our baggage to the regular allowance.

We were not sorry to leave England for we had spent many disagreeable hours on Salisbury Plains with rain a dozen times a day, mud varying from ankle to knee depth, wet clothing and poor tents.

A few undesirables had crept into our Force at Valcartier where they had not been confronted with the wet canteen evil. When these chaps got to England they broke loose and had to be sent back to Canada. They should have been put through the wet canteen test before they sailed. It would have saved Canada a great deal of money. These men caused a lot of talk about the Canadians in London.

London was the Headquarters of a German lie factory and all kinds of yarns were circulated there about us. For instance, it was told about the Princess Pats that when they went to Flanders they failed to hold their trenches and had to be brought back to London and hidden away "somewhere" to cool their nerves. This was a shameless lie about one of the grandest corps ever raised for the British army, a corps that in holding the "warm corners" in the British line in six months had casualties of over 2,700 men, or about three times its effective strength. The deeds of this gallant corps at Ypres and St. Eloi will live forever in song and story, and the names of Lt. Colonel Farquhar and other gallant leaders will not be forgotten in the future annals of the British Army.

The people of Salisbury were sorry to see us leave for we had spent much money in the town.

The day before we marched out I had visited the city to pay up our bills, see about the storage of baggage and kits, and pay a visit before leaving to the ruins of old Sarum.

Contemplation of these stupendous ruins of a great people recall the fact that it was the Huns that destroyed the civilization of Greece and Rome. Always when the Hun absorbs sufficient civilization from his neighbor to make him efficient in the art of war he becomes seized with a military mania, the madness of Thor, and he seeks to destroy the civilized efforts of ages. Replacing nothing he thus plunges the world into darkness and barbarism. He destroyed the Graeco-Roman civilization and the world reverted to utter darkness for four centuries. Then Charlemagne came and there was a renaissance of civilization and law, and literature. Education and the arts again flourished, but after him came again the conquering Hun and then followed another long era of darkness and barbarism.

I rode out in front of the battalion and could just distinguish the dark outlines of two companies. The other two were getting ready and would march two hours later with Major Marshall in command.

With me was the Quartermaster, Captain Duguid, the Adjutant, Captain Darling, the Transport Officer, Captain Jago, and most of the train. We had a little difficulty in getting the men moving. I asked the transport officer the number of vehicles and animals and he told me he had eleven waggons. I rode to the cross roads, halted the regiment and ordered the transport to lead, counting them.

When I ordered the regiment to march, Captain McGregor's hoarse command "Form fours! right! left wheel! Quick March!" from the darkness, set the column in motion.

I took a final look at Lark Hill Camp and Salisbury Plains. The lights here and there on the Downs showed a glimmer of life. We had spent some happy days in the Lark Hill huts, the happiest we had spent in England.

I carried an electric torch in my hand and led the way. There was a slight frost that made the muddy road better for marching. The adjutant rode ahead to look after the transport, and Sergeant-Major Grant strode at my saddle bow. My horse kept dancing all the way on his hind legs, as if he too was glad to leave and anxious to be over in France. Soon in the distance ahead gleamed the lights of Amesbury, and after a while tall firs closed on either side of the road as we passed the gates of the Manor House of Amesbury.

These gates were built over a hundred years ago and were designed by a celebrated architect Inigo Jones.

In an hour we were at the station. As we approached I rode ahead into the station yard and found that our train had not yet arrived. The regiment marched on the entraining platform, and on looking over the transport I found that my spare riding horse, which was lame and carried my saddle bags, had been left behind on the roadside. I sent Private Gold, one of my orderlies, back to look them up, with instructions to bring them along with the second half of the regiment.

Our train was half an hour late, but when it backed in it did not take us long to load. The English open cars are coupled up close, and the open waggons that take our transport are all loaded from the end of the train the way circus waggons are loaded in America. We entrained horses and waggons in forty minutes. We startled the train people so that they all came to see me when we had finished to tell me how fast we had loaded. The railway transport officer came to my compartment and told me that he had been loading troops for four years there and he had never seen such a fast clean piece of work.

We had to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes before the train moved, as we were ahead of time. Our destination had not been given us. It was very cold in the compartment as there was no steam available, but the train rushed along, and soon we were in Salisbury. On we went west. Fortunately a long course of travel in Canada had given me the habit of sleeping sitting in my seat, and I took advantage of it. At dawn I woke up and found we were nearing Bristol of which Avonmouth is the seaport.

We arrived at our port of embarkation about seven in the morning. The green fields glistened with hoar frost and the distant hills seen through the haze were covered with snow. Through the gaps of the hills here and there could be seen the mounting flames of great blast furnaces. This is the region of coal and iron.

When we reached the station we could see the harbor filled with transports waiting to carry our Division to France.

I disembarked and asked for the R.T.O. who is the official in charge of the handling of the troops. I found that he was uptown having his breakfast. We had to wait about fifteen minutes till he arrived. Then he was apologetic and said he did not expect we would be on time. He then got busy calling for a fatigue party to unload the transport, but after he had blown off a little steam I pointed out to him that the fatigue party was waiting at the head of the column, and had been waiting for him for a quarter of an hour, and that they wanted to be shown to the unloading platform. Then he took a tumble that we "knew our job," and from that time on sugar could not have been sweeter. He told us that our transport was the Mount Temple, and showed me the ship, and in a very few minutes we had the men on board. They soon got busy and had the waggons slung into the hold. We found that on the evening before the five-inch gun battery and one unit of an ammunition column under Major McGee had gone on board. They had stowed the big guns in the lower hold, and they had enough lyddite stowed forward to insure a perfectly good explosion provided a submarine plugged us with a torpedo. Our adjutant and the steward soon had us in our cabins.

A couple of hours after we embarked Major Marshall came along with the left half battalion and reported a very successful entraining. The railway company, however, had provided a train with one coach too few, and four horses and eight mules had to be left behind to be brought by the next train. They were in charge of Sergeant Fisher, my transport sergeant, who was a very good man, one of my best non-commissioned officers. Sergeant Gratton, who had been my transport sergeant, took ill before we left Lark Hill. He had to be left behind eating his heart out like a lot of other good officers; non-commissioned officers, and men that I would have liked to have had with me, viz., Lieutenant Davidson, who had bronchial trouble and a bad knee, Lieutenant Lawson had bronchial trouble and a bad throat. Captain Marshall had pneumonia, Lieutenants Campbell, Kay and Wilson each had a touch of pneumonia. Lieutenant Art. Muir was recovering from bronchial pneumonia. Capt. Musgrave and Lieut. Malone, good steady officers, had to remain with the base company. Lieutenants Acland and Livingston had been sent several weeks before to help drill "Details" and reinforcements for the British troops in France, and they were both at Falmouth working hard putting some polish on the English Tommies. I wrote General Alderson before I left, asking him to let me have Lieutenants Acland and Livingston back, but got "no" for an answer. They were sent to Falmouth while I was in Glasgow at New Year's. If I had been in Camp I would not have parted with them.

48th Highlanders at Church Service Under Fire Near Messines, Rev. F.G. Scott OfficiatingToList

We got through loading early in the afternoon and later on the mules arrived in charge of Sergeant Fisher and were safely tucked on board. I had a little trouble keeping people off the dock who were intent on handing liquor to my men.

We were pretty well crowded up and I was informed that this ship had been wrecked once, but the good old C.P.R. flag was floating at the mast head and we took that for an omen of good luck, and it was. During the afternoon I told the men off to the life-boat stations and received the cheerful information that the ship was short a few life belts. I intended to have carried an inner motor cycle tube for my personal use, but forgot to take it along, so would have had to take my chances on a hen coop or a hatch if anything had gone wrong.

The men were in great good humor. They were singing like larks. Some of them had left newly married wives at home in England. One at least, one of my best men, was too much married as he had left two wives behind. He had joined the regiment in Toronto and had given his separation allowance to a wife in Paisley. When we got to Salisbury another woman wrote from Glasgow saying she was his wife and claiming the allowance. In an unfortunate moment he had taken a trip to Paisley and wife No. 1 had pounced on him while he was visiting wife No. 2 and there was a scene. She wrote to me threatening to have him arrested for bigamy. I saw this would not do as there were three interests demanding satisfaction. First, there was his duty to the King. It had cost a lot of money to train him and bring h

im so far. He would be no use to the King in gaol for bigamy and would be only a further expense to the country and a good soldier would be lost to the service. So I suggested to Wife No. 1 that she leave him alone till after the war if he gave her an assignment of his pay of twenty dollars a month. Like a sensible Scotch woman she saw the wisdom of Solomon in my suggestion and accepted it. Wife No. 2 received the separation allowance and the King got the services of a first class soldier and all three interests were satisfied.

We embarked for France with not a dozen men in the regiment with entries on their conduct sheets. A better behaved lot of men it would be hard to find. We had succeeded in instilling in them the iron discipline of duty which was to prove better than the discipline of fear. It was Napoleon who said, "Show me the regiment that has the most punishments and I will show you the regiment that has the worst discipline." He was right.

We sailed during the early hours of the morning. I got up early and after some breakfast went on deck. Colonel Burchall Wood of the Divisional Staff had joined us on the previous afternoon, and as he was my senior officer I reported to him, but he said he preferred to be my guest and for me to take command. The Captain who was a Welshman named Griffith told me he wanted a guard of fifty men fore and aft with loaded rifles to look out for submarines. We also mounted two machine guns on the bridge so we pitied the submarine that would come along. The Mount Temple could make ten knots in calm weather and the Captain told me that he intended, if a "sub." showed up, to go for it full tilt and run it down.

By ten o'clock we were well out in the British channel. The Welsh Hills were covered with snow and it was a delightful day, hardly a ripple on the surface. Two destroyers, Numbers "1" and "2," kept doing "stunts" back and forward ahead of us all day.

Before dealing with France or anything further, I desire to say that the Canadian Ordnance Officers were very hard worked and had to make "bricks without straw." The death of Colonel Strange made a vacancy which should have gone to Captain Donaldson, a Canadian, my Quartermaster, and no better or more experienced officer ever served the King.

A British officer, however, was called in to do the work. The difference between a British officer of the old school and the Canadian is that when the former is confronted with some work he says, "I'll call my man," that is a non-commissioned officer with a "red tape" training, to do the job. The Canadian takes the responsibility himself and sees that the matter is attended to.

The first evening was bright and clear and I tried my field glasses on the stars. The Captain told me the barometer was falling and that we were likely to have a change of weather.

The thirteenth is generally a tough day with everybody and this was no exception. I was aroused shortly after daylight by a loud noise, the banging of furniture and the sound of dishes rattling. Sure enough we were having a storm. The first officer was in the hall. His room was opposite to mine and he was trying to get in, but the drawers and chairs in his room had piled up against the door. I asked him what was wrong and he said he wanted a surgeon as he had hurt his leg. One of the boats had got loose and while fastening it he had his leg jammed. The boat had been carried away. The ship was going like a pendulum, swinging nearly forty-five degrees every jump. One minute I looked down on Major Marshall who was in the top bunk over on the opposite side of our cabin, the next minute the curtains on his bunk hung straight over my head. Then the ship would take a turn and stand on her head, and the roar of the screw told us there was still plenty of steam in the boilers. Then the screws would submerge and the shock would send a shiver all over the ship. We were in the "chops" of the channel all right. It looked as if the storm would get us if the submarines did not. I told the first officer that the doctor was in a room in the sick bay, and he was helped away limping along the deck. Captain Frank Perry came along as cheerful as a morning in June. He was Officer of the Day and a first class sailor. He came to my room to report that there was a big gale outside, that the men were all right, very few sick, that an artillery horse had broken out of his stall and that he was down and likely dead; also that the waggons were loose in the hold forward with one or two waltzing around. While he was telling this he had to sit on the floor of the cabin. He had split his oil cloth coat up the back, and a stray door speeding the parting guest had slammed on a very tender part of his body, making it difficult for him even to sit down. I laughed till my sides ached.

The admiralty stevedores had stowed the waggons in the hold and a mess they had made of it. I asked him if the big guns were lashed down, fearing that if one got loose in the lower hold it would go through the side of the ship like paper. He assured me that the big gun lashings held, and I ordered him to get a fatigue party and get baled hay and dump it among the waggons to stop the riot, then to lash the waggons. He departed on his errand.

The steward brought me in some Bovril and biscuits, and Major Marshall, who also kept to his bunk on my advice, began feeding upon hard tack to get into trench practice. Bye-and-bye Perry came back and reported that Sergeant McMaster had fallen and broken his arm. Capt. MacLaren was up and he was a good surgeon and hastily set the injured limb. The sergeant had fallen and struck his elbow on the iron deck. The men were all wearing their English boots with heavy iron nails in the soles and they did not hold well on a steel deck. I took a few looks out at the sea and it was a daisy. I saw the Captain who came in and reported very bad weather, but he hoped to clear Cape Ushant. Captain Perry reported that the ship was making about half a knot an hour sometimes, sometimes not making anything, wouldn't steer, and half the time in the trough of the sea, if there was any trough to be found, for a cross gale had turned the sea into pyramids. He also informed me that everything had been made fast, that the men were cheerful and that there were no German submarines in sight, and the storm continued with terrible violence all day. The destroyers had sped as soon as we had left the British Coast. Several times during the day the ship took to her beam ends and the crew thought she would not come back, but she did. I took a bite in bed and stayed there all day. Perry looked after the rations and feeding of the men.

I woke up about seven the next morning and still the ship was swinging. Captain Perry came in to say that they had made a good night, another boat had gone by the board and also a bit of the rail. The horse belonging to the artillery was dead. About nine o'clock I got up, and at ten went the rounds of the ship and saw the Captain who told me we were bound for St. Nazaire in Western France. This place had been used as a British base before the retreat of the Germans from the Marne.

The weather moderated during the day, and on going the rounds I found the men cheerful and that most of the horses had been moved into the centre of the ship which was some improvement. My horses were all well except the big mare whose leg still gave her trouble. In the afternoon the sun came out and it got so warm that we could go about without overcoats. We were 300 miles south of Salisbury Plains. No wonder the swallows follow the summer. We were not as low yet as the latitude of Sault Ste. Marie. What would it be when we got to the latitude of Toronto?

During the day several ships passed us going in the opposite direction. They were all tramp or troop ships. I forgot to say that the first day out near the Irish Coast we saw a great three-masted full-rigged ship in the distance. She was a magnificent sight with all sails set. What a great sight a fleet of these sailing vessels must have presented in the days of Nelson. Now ships only showed low black platforms and smoke stacks. No novelty nor romance about them.

In the evening the Captain said we would soon see the light houses on the French Coast. As soon as it became dark we could see in the sky the double flashes of a great light at Belle Ile forty miles away. This is one of the most wonderful lights in the world. The sea was still high, but we were making good time. The Captain told me we would not make the harbour till the following afternoon at four o'clock when the tide was up. We came into the estuary of the Loire and halted, waiting for a pilot. Then the ship began to roll in earnest. I was up on the bridge with the signalmen, and one minute we were up in the air and the next the black sea yawned beneath us. I had my sea legs by this time. There were two or three lights bobbing about and a very powerful lighthouse light cast a baleful gleam every five seconds. The officer of the deck said we were about twenty miles from our destination and that we would hardly get in until after four in the morning when there was high tide, and if not then, not until the afternoon. Bye-and-bye we saw a light bobbing up and down in the swell and he said that was the pilot. He missed the ship the first round but came about to lee, and in the dim light we saw a cockle shell of a boat with two men in it. In a few minutes a line was thrown to them, the ladder was let down over the rail, the pilot grasped the rungs and began his perilous climb. He was a French sea dog and hung on like grim death and managed to get on deck safely. He went into the wheel house and I went to bed.

I got up early the next morning to see what was doing. I learned that they were going to move the ship to the docks before noon and that we would start disembarking right away. The river Loire was in flood and no tide was necessary to give a sufficient depth of water.

It was a glorious morning and pretty soon we were on the quay. It was a typical French sea port, not very prepossessing, but a busy place. French soldiers of all kinds were about, some on duty, some with their arms done up in slings, some of them apparently loafing. About noon two puffing tugs got us through the lock and tied up to a wharf. A Canadian transport officer and admiralty man came on board. We were told as soon as we were ready we could start unloading, and as soon as the "brows" (the sloping platform or gang planks for the horses) were in place we could start taking off the horses. It did not take us long getting ready. Pickets were put out on the quay and various fatigue parties manned the horses. My big mare was pretty lame but my other horse was in good shape. We had escaped the perils of the Bay of Biscay and were now in Western France. Towards evening I asked the transport officer what time we would take the train, as we had been told we were to go up country. He said that as soon as we had unloaded he would be able to tell me, as he would then order a train from the French. I then learned that the French had a wonderful system of moving troops. When you want to move troops in France you tell them and they supply you a certain number of box cars, a guard van, an officer's car and a certain number of cars to handle your men, horses and waggons. They tell you what time you are to move out, and you have to be ready to the minute. If you have not finished loading, the train moves just the same. There is no fussing among the French, but a deadly efficiency in all things.

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