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   Chapter 1 JOINING THE BRITISH ARMY

A Yankee in the Trenches By Robert Derby Holmes Characters: 14753

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Once, on the Somme in the fall of 1916, when I had been over the top and was being carried back somewhat disfigured but still in the ring, a cockney stretcher bearer shot this question at me:

"Hi sye, Yank. Wot th' bloody 'ell are you in this bloomin' row for? Ayen't there no trouble t' 'ome?"

And for the life of me I couldn't answer. After more than a year in the British service I could not, on the spur of the moment, say exactly why I was there.

To be perfectly frank with myself and with the reader I had no very lofty motives when I took the King's shilling. When the great war broke out, I was mildly sympathetic with England, and mighty sorry in an indefinite way for France and Belgium; but my sympathies were not strong enough in any direction to get me into uniform with a chance of being killed. Nor, at first, was I able to work up any compelling hate for Germany. The abstract idea of democracy did not figure in my calculations at all.

However, as the war went on, it became apparent to me, as I suppose it must have to everybody, that the world was going through one of its epochal upheavals; and I figured that with so much history in the making, any unattached young man would be missing it if he did not take a part in the big game.

I had the fondness for adventure usual in young men. I liked to see the wheels go round. And so it happened that, when the war was about a year and a half old, I decided to get in before it was too late.

On second thought I won't say that it was purely love for adventure that took me across. There may have been in the back of my head a sneaking extra fondness for France, perhaps instinctive, for I was born in Paris, although my parents were American and I was brought to Boston as a baby and have lived here since.

Whatever my motives for joining the British army, they didn't have time to crystallize until I had been wounded and sent to Blighty, which is trench slang for England. While recuperating in one of the pleasant places of the English country-side, I had time to acquire a perspective and to discover that I had been fighting for democracy and the future safety of the world. I think that my experience in this respect is like that of most of the young Americans who have volunteered for service under a foreign flag.

I decided to get into the big war game early in 1916. My first thought was to go into the ambulance service, as I knew several men in that work. One of them described the driver's life about as follows. He said:

"The blessés curse you because you jolt them. The doctors curse you because you don't get the blessés in fast enough. The Transport Service curse you because you get in the way. You eat standing up and don't sleep at all. You're as likely as anybody to get killed, and all the glory you get is the War Cross, if you're lucky, and you don't get a single chance to kill a Hun."

That settled the ambulance for me. I hadn't wanted particularly to kill a Hun until it was suggested that I mightn't. Then I wanted to slaughter a whole division.

So I decided on something where there would be fighting. And having decided, I thought I would "go the whole hog" and work my way across to England on a horse transport.

One day in the first part of February I went, at what seemed an early hour, to an office on Commercial Street, Boston, where they were advertising for horse tenders for England. About three hundred men were earlier than I. It seemed as though every beach-comber and patriot in New England was trying to get across. I didn't get the job, but filed my application and was lucky enough to be signed on for a sailing on February 22 on the steam-ship Cambrian, bound for London.

We spent the morning of Washington's Birthday loading the horses. These government animals were selected stock and full of ginger. They seemed to know that they were going to France and resented it keenly. Those in my care seemed to regard my attentions as a personal affront.

We had a strenuous forenoon getting the horses aboard, and sailed at noon. After we had herded in the livestock, some of the officers herded up the herders. I drew a pink slip with two numbers on it, one showing the compartment where I was supposed to sleep, the other indicating my bunk.

That compartment certainly was a glory-hole. Most of the men had been drunk the night before, and the place had the rich, balmy fragrance of a water-front saloon. Incidentally there was a good deal of unauthorized and undomesticated livestock. I made a limited acquaintance with that pretty, playful little creature, the "cootie," who was to become so familiar in the trenches later on. He wasn't called a cootie aboard ship, but he was the same bird.

Perhaps the less said about that trip across the better. It lasted twenty-one days. We fed the animals three times a day and cleaned the stalls once on the trip. I got chewed up some and stepped on a few times. Altogether the experience was good intensive training for the trench life to come; especially the bunks. Those sleeping quarters sure were close and crawly.

We landed in London on Saturday night about nine-thirty. The immigration inspectors gave us a quick examination and we were turned back to the shipping people, who paid us off,-two pounds, equal to about ten dollars real change.

After that we rode on the train half an hour and then marched through the streets, darkened to fool the Zeps. Around one o'clock we brought up at Thrawl Street, at the lodgings where we were supposed to stop until we were started for home.

The place where we were quartered was a typical London doss house. There were forty beds in the room with mine, all of them occupied. All hands were snoring, and the fellow in the next cot was going it with the cut-out wide open, breaking all records. Most of the beds sagged like a hammock. Mine humped up in the middle like a pile of bricks.

I was up early and was directed to the place across the way where we were to eat. It was labeled "Mother Wolf's. The Universal Provider." She provided just one meal of weak tea, moldy bread, and rancid bacon for me. After that I went to a hotel. I may remark in passing that horse tenders, going or coming or in between whiles, do not live on the fat of the land.

I spent the day-it was Sunday-seeing the sights of Whitechapel, Middlesex Street or Petticoat Lane, and some of the slums. Next morning it was pretty clear to me that two pounds don't go far in the big town. I promptly boarded the first bus for Trafalgar Square. The recruiting office was just down the road in Whitehall at the old Scotland Yard office.

I had an idea when I entered that recruiting office that the sergeant would receive me with open arms. He didn't. Instead he looked me over with unqualified scorn and spat out, "Yank, ayen't ye?"

And I in my innocence briefly answered, "Yep."

"We ayen't tykin' no nootrals," he said, with a sneer. And then: "Better go back to Hamerika and 'elp Wilson write 'is blinkin' notes."

Well, I was mad enough to poke that sergeant in the eye. But I didn't. I retired gracefully and with dignity.

At the door another sergeant hailed me, whispering behind his hand, "Hi sye, mytie. Come around in the mornin'. Hi'll get ye in." And so it happened.

Next day my man was waiting and marched me boldly up to

the same chap who had refused me the day before.

"'Ere's a recroot for ye, Jim," says my friend.

Jim never batted an eye. He began to "awsk" questions and to fill out a blank. When he got to the birthplace, my guide cut in and said, "Canada."

The only place I knew in Canada was Campobello Island, a place where we camped one summer, and I gave that. I don't think that anything but rabbits was ever born on Campobello, but it went. For that matter anything went. I discovered afterward that the sergeant who had captured me on the street got five bob (shillings) for me.

The physical examination upstairs was elaborate. They told me to strip, weighed me, and said I was fit. After that I was taken in to an officer-a real officer this time-who made me put my hand on a Bible and say yes to an oath he rattled off. Then he told me I was a member of the Royal Fusiliers, gave me two shillings, sixpence and ordered me to report at the Horse Guards Parade next day. I was in the British army,-just like that!

I spent the balance of the day seeing the sights of London, and incidentally spending my coin. When I went around to the Horse Guards next morning, two hundred others, new rookies like myself, were waiting. An officer gave me another two shillings, sixpence. I began to think that if the money kept coming along at that rate the British army might turn out a good investment. It didn't.

That morning I was sent out to Hounslow Barracks, and three days later was transferred to Dover with twenty others. I was at Dover a little more than two months and completed my training there.

Our barracks at Dover was on the heights of the cliffs, and on clear days we could look across the Channel and see the dim outlines of France. It was a fascination for all of us to look away over there and to wonder what fortunes were to come to us on the battle fields of Europe. It was perhaps as well that none of us had imagination enough to visualize the things that were ahead.

I found the rookies at Dover a jolly, companionable lot, and I never found the routine irksome. We were up at five-thirty, had cocoa and biscuits, and then an hour of physical drill or bayonet practice. At eight came breakfast of tea, bacon, and bread, and then we drilled until twelve. Dinner. Out again on the parade ground until three thirty. After that we were free.

Nights we would go into Dover and sit around the "pubs" drinking ale, or "ayle" as the cockney says it.

After a few weeks, when we were hardened somewhat, they began to inflict us with the torture known as "night ops." That means going out at ten o'clock under full pack, hiking several miles, and then "manning" the trenches around the town and returning to barracks at three A.M.

This wouldn't have been so bad if we had been excused parades the following day. But no. We had the same old drills except the early one, but were allowed to "kip" until seven.

In the two months I completed the musketry course, was a good bayonet man, and was well grounded in bombing practice. Besides that I was as hard as nails and had learned thoroughly the system of British discipline.

I had supposed that it took at least six months to make a soldier,-in fact had been told that one could not be turned out who would be ten per cent efficient in less than that time. That old theory is all wrong. Modern warfare changes so fast that the only thing that can be taught a man is the basic principles of discipline, bombing, trench warfare, and musketry. Give him those things, a well-conditioned body, and a baptism of fire, and he will be right there with the veterans, doing his bit.

Two months was all our crowd got at any rate, and they were as good as the best, if I do say it.

My training ended abruptly with a furlough of five days for Embarkation Leave, that is, leave before going to France. This is a sort of good-by vacation. Most fellows realize fully that it may be their last look at Blighty, and they take it rather solemnly. To a stranger without friends in England I can imagine that this Embarkation Leave would be either a mighty lonesome, dismal affair, or a stretch of desperate, homesick dissipation. A chap does want to say good-by to some one before he goes away, perhaps to die. He wants to be loved and to have some one sorry that he is going.

I was invited by one of my chums to spend the leave with him at his home in Southall, Middlesex. His father, mother and sister welcomed me in a way that made me know it was my home from the minute I entered the door. They took me into their hearts with a simple hospitality and whole-souled kindness that I can never forget. I was a stranger in a strange land and they made me one of their own. I shall never be able to repay all the loving thoughts and deeds of that family and shall remember them while I live. My chum's mother I call Mother too. It is to her that I have dedicated this book.

After my delightful few days of leave, things moved fast. I was back in Dover just two days when I, with two hundred other men, was sent to Winchester. Here we were notified that we were transferred to the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment.

This news brought a wild howl from the men. They wanted to stop with the Fusiliers. It is part of the British system that every man is taught the traditions and history of his regiment and to know that his is absolutely the best in the whole army. In a surprisingly short time they get so they swear by their own regiment and by their officers, and they protest bitterly at a transfer.

Personally I didn't care a rap. I had early made up my mind that I was a very small pebble on the beach and that it was up to me to obey orders and keep my mouth shut.

On June 17, some eighteen hundred of us were moved down to Southampton and put aboard the transport for Havre. The next day we were in France, at Harfleur, the central training camp outside Havre.

We were supposed to undergo an intensive training at Harfleur in the various forms of gas and protection from it, barbed wire and methods of construction of entanglements, musketry, bombing, and bayonet fighting.

Harfleur was a miserable place. They refused to let us go in town after drill. Also I managed to let myself in for something that would have kept me in camp if town leave had been allowed.

The first day there was a call for a volunteer for musketry instructor. I had qualified and jumped at it. When I reported, an old Scotch sergeant told me to go to the quartermaster for equipment. I said I already had full equipment. Whereupon the sergeant laughed a rumbling Scotch laugh and told me I had to go into kilts, as I was assigned to a Highland contingent.

I protested with violence and enthusiasm, but it didn't do any good. They gave me a dinky little pleated petticoat, and when I demanded breeks to wear underneath, I got the merry ha ha. Breeks on a Scotchman? Never!

Well, I got into the fool things, and I felt as though I was naked from ankle to wishbone. I couldn't get used to the outfit. I am naturally a modest man. Besides, my architecture was never intended for bare-leg effects. I have no dimples in my knees.

So I began an immediate campaign for transfer back to the Surreys. I got it at the end of ten days, and with it came a hurry call from somewhere at the front for more troops.

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