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   Chapter 3 BACK TO CANADA—I DON'T THINK

Private Peat By Harold Reginald Peat Characters: 8438

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was seven in the evening before we were ready to start. At that hour we quietly slipped our anchor and glided out of the harbor. We all thought we would be in France before midnight. The trip across the Channel in ordinary times is not often more than two and a half hours. We had no bunks allotted to us, and didn't think that any would be needed. We all lay around in any old place, and in any old attitude. I, for one, devoted most of the time during that evening to learning the art of putting my equipment together. The majority of the boys were at the old familiar game, poker.

We had not been on this transport very long when we had our first introduction to bully beef and biscuits. Bully beef is known to civilians the world over as corned beef, and to the new Sammy as "red horse." But even bully beef and biscuits aren't so bad, and our thoughts were not so much on what we were getting to eat as on when we were getting to France.

As the hours went by we more and more eagerly craned our necks over the deck rails, trying to pierce the darkness of the deep for one flash of light that might mean France hard ahead. But nothing happened, and one after another the watchers dropped off to sleep.

When dawn broke we woke and rubbed our eyes. We were mystified and not a little mortified. Where was France? There was nothing but water, blue as heaven itself, around us. We were still at sea, and still going strong.

The hours of that day dragged out to an interminable length. No one spoke of the matter-the question of land in sight was not discussed. Some of the boys went back to poker. Others decided to be seasick, and subsequently wished for a storm and the consequent wrecking of the ship, with a watery death as relief.

Bully beef and biscuits at noon; bully beef and biscuits at our evening meal, and no sight of land. Night came. The more hopeful of us did the craning business over the deck rails for a few more hours. The pessimistic, deciding France had ceased to be, returned to poker. We slept. We woke. We watched the sun rise-over the sea!

About noon that day after the ration of bully beef had gone its round and we, in consequence, were feeling pretty blue, there was a group of us standing around doing nothing. Suddenly Tom King came rushing up in great excitement. He had had an idea.

"Say, you fellows, I don't care a darn what any of you may say, I believe these blinkin' English are sick of us and are sending us back to Canada!"

No such luck. Before sundown that evening we sighted land. We steamed slowly into the port of St. --. This is a large seaport town near the Bay of Biscay, on the southwest coast of France. Why in the world they wanted to take us all the way round there, I don't know. I was told that we were among the first British troops to be landed at this port.

As soon as we disembarked from the boats that evening, before we left the docks, we were issued goat-skin coats. The odor which issued from them made us believe that they, at least in some former incarnation, had belonged to another little animal family known as the skunk. Ugh! The novelty of these coats occupied us for a while, and if a sergeant or a comrade addressed us we answered in "goat talk": "Ba-a-a, ba-a-a-a...."

It was apparent that the secrecy of troop transportation which held in England held also in France. The populace could not have known of our coming, for there was no scene, nor was there a reception. We were to meet with that later on.

Here, however, we did meet the French "fag." When Tommy gets one puff of this article of combustion he never wants another. It is one puff too many. Of course our first race was to buy cigarettes-but, napoo!

Before entraining we were all shocked by the dreadful tidings that the transport carrying the Forty-Eighth Highlanders had been sunk. This news was soon discredited and the truth was established when the Forty-Eighth came up the line in a few days and reported that they had heard we, the Third, had been sunk and all drowned. Apparently it was a part of certain propaganda to publish that all transports of British soldiers were destroyed. So far none had even been attacked.

The evening of ou

r arrival we boarded the little trains. To our surprise and to our intense disgust, we had not even the passenger coaches provided in England and Canada. I say little trains, because they were little, and in addition the coaches were not coaches, but box cars. Painted on the side of the "wheeled box" was "Huit chevaux par ordinaire."

But these are not ordinary times, so instead of eight horses they put forty-eight of us boys in each car. Forty-eight boys all my size might have worked out well enough, though in full fighting trim even I was quite a husky, but the average Canadian soldier is a much bigger man. Take into consideration what we have to carry. There is our entrenching tool which we use for digging in. To look at it the uninitiated might well think that it was a toy, but, as I learned afterward, when bullets are flying around you by the thousand you can get into the ground with even a toy-or less.

There is our pack. A soldier's pack on active service in the British Army is supposed to weigh approximately forty-five pounds, but when the average Tommy lands in France his pack weighs nearer seventy-five pounds than forty-five. Tommy does not feel like throwing away that extra pair of boots, two or three suits of extra underwear, and so many of the little things sent from home or given him just before setting out for France. As a consequence when he arrives in France he carries a very heavy load, though it does not stay heavy for long. After being on a route march or two the weight will mysteriously disappear. Then Tommy carries one pair of boots, one suit of underwear, one shirt, one pair of socks, and they are all on him.

There is a mess tin to cook in, wash in, shave in and do all manner of things with. There is the haversack in which is stuffed a three-day emergency ration. The emergency ration of the early days of the war was much different from the emergency ration of to-day. These rations are intended to be used only in an emergency, and, believe me, only in an emergency are they used. There was compressed beef-compressed air, we called it; there were Oxo cubes and there was tea. In addition there were a few hardtacks.

Then there is the bandoleer, and the soldier on active service in this war never carries less than one hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition at any one time, and sometimes he carries much more. As a final, there is our rifle and bayonet. At that time of which I am speaking we Canadians carried the now famous, or infamous, Ross rifle. This weighed nine and three-quarters pounds.

With all this equipment to a man, and forty-eight men to each small box car, it doesn't demand much imagination to picture our journey. We could not sit down. If we attempted it we sat on some one, and then there was a howl. We tried all manner of positions, all sorts of schemes. In the daytime we sought the roof of the cars, or leaned far out the open doors. If the country had not been so lovely, and if all our experiences had not been new and out of the ordinary, there would have been more grousing.

The second day on the train-we were three days and three nights-while passing through a city near Rouen, we had a glimpse of our first wounded French soldiers. It seemed as though war came home to a lot of us then for the first time. I was fairly sick at heart when I saw one Frenchman with both arms bound up, and with blood pouring over his face. I understood that these wounded men were coming back from the battle of Soissons. From the glimpses we caught of them in their train they seemed a funny lot of fighting men, these poilous, with their red breeches, their long blue coat pinned back from the front, the little blue peaked cap, and their long black whiskers. I was horrified at the whole sight. For the first time I asked myself, "What in the world are you out here for?"

There must have been many of the boys who indulged in the same vein of thought, to judge by the seriousness of the faces as we proceeded and left the French hospital train behind.

On the evening of the third day, as we pulled slowly into the station at Strazeele, we could hear in the distance the steady rumbling of the big guns at the front.

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