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Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 16556

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

One Sunday morning in May we assembled on the barrack square at Aldershot for the last time. Every man was in full marching order. His rifle was the "Short Lee Enfield, Mark IV," his bayonet, the long single-edged blade in general use throughout the British Army. In addition to his arms he carried 120 rounds of ".303" caliber ammunition, an intrenching-tool, water-bottle, haversack, containing both emergency and the day's rations, and his pack, strapped to shoulders and waist in such a way that the weight of it was equally distributed. His pack contained the following articles: A greatcoat, a woolen shirt, two or three pairs of socks, a change of underclothing, a "housewife,"-the soldiers' sewing-kit,-a towel, a cake of soap, and a "hold-all," in which were a knife, fork, spoon, razor, shaving-brush, toothbrush, and comb. All of these were useful and sometimes essential articles, particularly the toothbrush, which Tommy regarded as the best little instrument for cleaning the mechanism of a rifle ever invented. Strapped on top of the pack was the blanket roll wrapped in a waterproof ground sheet; and hanging beneath it, the canteen in its khaki-cloth cover. Each man wore an identification disk on a cord about his neck. It was stamped with his name, regimental number, regiment, and religion. A first-aid field dressing, consisting of an antiseptic gauze pad and bandage and a small vial of iodine, sewn in the lining of his tunic, completed the equipment.

Physically, the men were "in the pink," as Tommy says. They were clear-eyed, vigorous, alert, and as hard as nails. With their caps on, they looked the well-trained soldiers which they were; but with caps removed, they resembled so many uniformed convicts less the prison pallor. "Oversea haircuts" were the last tonsorial cry, and for several days previous to our departure, the army hairdressers had been busily wielding the close-cutting clippers.

Each of us had received a copy of Lord Kitchener's letter to the troops ordered abroad, a brief, soldierlike statement of the standard of conduct which England expected of her fighting men:-

You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience. Remember that the honor of the British Army depends upon your individual conduct. It will be your duty not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness under fire, but also to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping in this struggle. The operations in which you are engaged will, for the most part, take place in a friendly country, and you can do your own country no better service than in showing yourself, in France and Belgium, in the true character of a British soldier.

Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind. Never do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted; and your conduct must justify that welcome and that trust. Your duty cannot be done unless your health is sound. So keep constantly on your guard against any excesses. In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both temptations, and while treating all women with perfect courtesy, you should avoid any intimacy.

Do your duty bravely.

Fear God.

Honor the King.



It was an effective appeal and a constant reminder to the men of the glorious traditions of the British Army. In the months that followed, I had opportunity to learn how deep and lasting was the impression made upon them by Lord Kitchener's first, and I believe his only, letter to his soldiers.

The machinery for moving troops in England works without the slightest friction. The men, transport, horses, commissariat, medical stores, and supplies of a battalion are entrained in less than half an hour. Everything is timed to the minute. Battalion after battalion and train after train, we moved out of Aldershot at half-hour intervals. Each train arrived at the port of embarkation on schedule time and pulled up on the docks by the side of a troop transport, great slate-colored liners taken out of the merchant service. Not a moment was lost. The last man was aboard and the last wagon on the crane swinging up over the ship's side as the next train came in.

Ship by ship we moved down the harbor in the twilight, the boys crowding the rail on both sides, taking their farewell look at England-home. It was the last farewell for many of them, but there was no martial music, no waving of flags, no tearful good-byes. Our farewell was as prosaic as our long period of training had been. We were each one a very small part of a tremendous business organization which works without any of the display considered so essential in the old days.

We left England without a cheer. There was not so much as a wave of the hand from the wharf; for there was no one on the wharf to wave, with the exception of a few dock laborers, and they had seen too many soldiers off to the front to be sentimental about it. It was a tense moment for the men, but trust Tommy to relieve a tense situation. As we steamed away from the landing slip, we passed a barge, loaded to the water's edge with coal. Tommy has a song pat to every occasion. He enjoys, above all things, giving a ludicrous twist to a "weepy" ballad. When we were within hailing distance of the coal barge, he began singing one of this variety, "Keep the Home Fires Burning," to those smutty-faced barge hands. Every one joined in heartily, forgetting all about the solemnity of the leave-taking.

Tommy is a prosaic chap. This was never more apparent to me than upon that pleasant evening in May when we said good-bye to England. The lights of home were twinkling their farewells far in the distance. Every moment brought us nearer to the great adventure. We were "off to the wars," to take our places in the far-flung battle line. Here was Romance lavishly offering gifts dearest to the hearts of Youth, offering them to clerks, barbers, tradesmen, drapers' assistants, men who had never known an adventure more thrilling than a holiday excursion to the Isle of Man or a week of cycling in Kent. And they accepted them with all the stolidity native to Englishmen. The eyes of the world were upon them. They had become the knights-errant of every schoolgirl. They were figures of heroic proportions to every one but themselves.

French soldiers are conscious of the romantic possibilities offered them by the so-called "divine accident of war." They go forth to fight for Glorious France, France the Unconquerable! Tommy shoulders his rifle and departs for the four corners of the world on a "bloomin' fine little 'oliday!" A railway journey and a sea voyage in one! "Blimy! Not 'arf bad, wot?" Perhaps he is stirred at the thought of fighting for "England, Home, and Beauty." Perhaps he does thrill inwardly, remembering a sweetheart left behind. But he keeps it jolly well to himself. He has read me many of his letters home, some of them written during an engagement which will figure prominently in the history of the great World War. "Well, I can't think of anything more now," threads its way through a meager page of commonplaces about the weather, his food, and his personal health. A frugal line of cross-marks for kisses, at the bottom of the page, is his only concession to sentiment.

There was, however, one burst of enthusiasm, as we started on our journey, which struck me as being spontaneous, and splendid, and thoroughly English. Outside the harbor we were met by our guardians, a fleet of destroyers which was to give us safe convoy across the Channel. The moment they saw them the men broke forth into prolonged cheering, and there were glad shouts of-

"There they are, me lads! There's some o' the little old watch dogs wot's keepin' 'em bottled up!"

"Good old navy! That's w'ere we got 'em by the throat!"

"Let's give 'em 'Sons of the Sea!'"

And they did. They sang with a spirit of exaltation which Englishmen rarely betray, and which convinced me how nearly the

sea and England's position as Mistress of the Seas touch the Englishman's heart of hearts.

"Sons of the sea,

All British born,

Sailing the ocean,

Laughing foes to scorn.

They may build their ships, my lads,

And think they know the game;

But they can't beat the boys of the bulldog breed

Who made old England's name!"

It was a confession of faith. On the sea England can't be beaten. Tommy believes that with his whole soul, and on this occasion he sang with all the warmth of religious conviction.

Our Channel voyage was uneventful. Each transport was guarded by two destroyers, one on either side, the three vessels keeping abreast and about fifty yards apart during the entire journey. The submarine menace was then at its height, and we were prepared for an emergency. The boats were swung ready for immediate launching, and all of the men were provided with life-preservers. But England had been transporting troops and supplies to the firing-line for so many months without accident that none of us were at all concerned about the possibility of danger. Furthermore, the men were too busy studying "Tommy Atkins's French Manual" to think about submarines. They were putting the final polish on their accent in preparation for to-morrow's landing.

"Alf, 'ow's this: 'Madamaselly, avay vu dee pang?'"

"Wot do you s'y for 'Gimme a tuppenny packet o' Nosegay'?"

"'Bonjoor, Monseer!' That ain't so dusty, Freddie, wot?"

"Let's try that Marcelase again. You start it, 'Arry."

"Let Nobby. 'E knows the sounds better'n wot I do."

"'It 'er up, Nobby! We gotta learn that so we can sing it on the march."

"Wite till I find it in me book. All right now-

Allons infants dee la Pat-ree,

La joor de glory is arrivay."

Such bits of conversation may be of little interest, but they have the merit of being genuine. All of them were jotted down in my notebook at the times when I heard them.

The following day we crowded into the typical French army troop train, eight chevaux or forty hommes to a car, and started on a leisurely journey to the firing-line. We traveled all day, at eight or ten miles an hour, through Normandy. We passed through pleasant towns and villages lying silent in the afternoon sunshine, and seemingly almost deserted, and through the open country fragrant with the scent of apple blossoms. Now and then children waved to us from a cottage window, and in the fields old men and women and girls leaned silently on their hoes or their rakes and watched us pass. Occasionally an old reservist, guarding the railway line, would lift his cap and shout, "Vive l'Angleterre!" But more often he would lean on his rifle and smile, nodding his head courteously but silently to our salutations. Tommy, for all his stolid, dogged cheeriness, sensed the tragedy of France. It was a land swept bare of all its fine young manhood. There was no pleasant stir and bustle of civilian life. Those who were left went about their work silently and joylessly. When we asked of the men, we received, always, the same quiet, courteous reply: "à la guerre, monsieur."

The boys soon learned the meaning of the phrase, "à la guerre." It became a war-cry, a slogan. It was shouted back and forth from car to car and from train to train. You can imagine how eager we all were; how we strained our ears, whenever the train stopped, for the sound of the guns. But not until the following morning, when we reached the little village at the end of our railway journey, did we hear them, a low muttering like the sound of thunder beyond the horizon. How we cheered at the first faint sound which was to become so deafening, so terrible to us later! It was music to us then; for we were like the others who had gone that way. We knew nothing of war. We thought it must be something adventurous and fine. Something to make the blood leap and the heart sing. We marched through the village and down the poplar-lined road, surprised, almost disappointed, to see the neat, well-kept houses, and the pleasant, level fields, green with spring crops. We had expected that everything would be in ruins. At this stage of the journey, however, we were still some twenty-five miles from the firing-line.

During all the journey from the coast, we had seen, on every side, evidences of that wonderfully organized branch of the British military system, the Army Service Corps. From the village at which we detrained, everything was English. Long lines of motor transport lorries were parked along the sides of the roads. There were great ammunition bases, commissariat supply depots, motor repair shops, wheel-wright and blacksmith shops, where one saw none but khaki-clad soldiers engaged in all the noncombatant business essential to the maintenance of large armies. There were long lines of transport wagons loaded with supplies, traveling field-kitchens, with chimneys smoking and kettles steaming as they bumped over the cobbled roads, water carts, Red Cross carts, motor ambulances, batteries of artillery, London omnibuses, painted slate gray, filled with troops, seemingly endless columns of infantry on foot, all moving with us, along parallel roads, toward the firing-line. And most of these troops and supply columns belonged to my own division, one small cog in the British fighting machine.

We advanced toward the war zone in easy stages. It was intensely hot, and the rough, cobbled roads greatly increased the difficulty of marching. In England we had frequently tramped from fifteen to twenty-five miles in a day without fatigue. But the roads there were excellent, and the climate moist and cool. Upon our first day's march in France, a journey of only nine miles, scores of men were overcome by the heat, and several died. The suffering of the men was so great, in fact, that a halt was made earlier than had been planned, and we bivouacked for the night in the fields.

Life with a battalion on the march proceeds with the same orderly routine as when in barracks. Every man has his own particular employment. Within a few moments, the level pasture land was converted into a busy community of a thousand inhabitants. We made serviceable little dwellings by lacing together two or three waterproof ground-sheets and erecting them on sticks or tying them to the wires of the fences. Latrines and refuse pits were dug under the supervision of the battalion medical officer. The sick were cared for and justice dispensed with the same thoroughness as in England. The day's offenders against discipline were punished with what seemed to us unusual severity. But we were now on active service, and offenses which were trivial in England were looked upon, for this reason, in the light of serious crimes.

Daily we approached a little nearer to our goal, sleeping, at night, in the open fields or in the lofts of great rambling farm-buildings. Most of these places had been used for soldiers' billets scores of times before. The walls were covered with the names of men and regiments, and there were many penciled suggestions as to the best place to go for a basin of "coffay oh lay," as Tommy called it. Every roadside cottage was, in fact, Tommy's tavern. The thrifty French peasant women kept open house for soldiers. They served us with delicious coffee and thick slices of French bread, for the very reasonable sum of twopence. They were always friendly and hospitable, and the men, in turn, treated them with courteous and kindly respect. Tommy was a great favorite with the French children. They climbed on his lap and rifled his pockets; and they delighted him by talking in his own vernacular, for they were quick to pick up English words and phrases. They sang "Tipperary" and "Rule Britannia," and "God Save the King," so quaintly and prettily that the men kept them at it for hours at a time.

And so, during a week of stifling heat, we moved slowly forward. The sound of the guns grew in intensity, from a faint rumbling to a subdued roar, until one evening, sitting in the open windows of a stable loft, we saw the far-off lightenings of bursting shells, and the trench rockets soaring skyward; and we heard bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire, very faintly, like the sound of chestnuts popping in an oven.

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