Personal recollections of a little reported unit of the British Army
This book is one of many first-hand accounts written by soldiers about their experiences in the First World War. Originally titled ‘From Mons to Loos’ this gives readers little specific indication of the book’s contents. It of course concerns the period from the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, when the ‘contemptible’ little British Army fought its historic, dogged retreat from Mons, through the epic battles of the Marne and Aisne and First Ypres to the Battle of Loos in 1915. By this time the Western Front had become a stalemate of opposing trenches. However, what the original title doesn’t tell us, is that the book specifically concerns the activities of the Army Service Corps (later the RASC) whose task it was, using horse drawn transport, road and rail, to deliver everything the men in the firing line needed—from bullets to bread. The ASC’s talent for the task led to the affectionate nickname which likened them to a well known cartoon character of the period. This astonishing account—told by one of its officers—of the war ‘fought’ by those British soldiers in Belgium and France who rarely, if ever, pulled a trigger, but who were nevertheless constantly at risk from enemy fire. They were a largely unsung body of men, lacking nothing in courage or dedication to their task, who often gave their lives in the service of their comrades of the fighting regiments and without whom the war would have been impossible to fight. Very few accounts of the ASC exist and Stewart’s book, by virtue of the obscurity of its original title, has been largely overlooked in bibliographies of books about the corps.
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It was a starlight night, the moon had not yet risen, and we passed in the dark the objects on the road so familiar by now,—the same shell blown walls, the same dead horses and the same old smells,—till we came without adventure on to the open road near the river bank.
Suddenly a rifle shot broke out in the still darkness ahead, followed by a terrific roar of musketry. Another of the oft-repeated German attacks on our trenches was being made,—so often in the last few days had the enemy in overwhelming numbers tried to push our men into the river that flowed at their backs. On every occasion, however, had that wonderful British infantry repelled the attack and forced the Germans to draw back, leaving their dead and wounded in countless numbers strewing the narrow valley of death between the opposing trenches.
From our position the whole hill top reminded me of a grass fire seen flickering across the veldt on a South African night.
The German bullets that missed the hill now came flying amongst us and over our heads. The Prussian infantry when charging have a trick of shooting from the hip, with the result that the bullet flies high, and is therefore more dangerous to those some distance ahead than to those close in front.
The German artillery on the hill of Condé now joined in and shelled the bridge approaches where we were, in order to keep off any reinforcements we might be sending forward to our hard-pressed infantry.
Fortunately for us these shells were oversighted about a hundred yards, and the shrapnel, bursting with its blinding flash and sharp detonation, threw its leaden pellets some little distance to our right.
Under these most unpleasant conditions our work continued. The Army Service Corps soldier in his rather humdrum occupation has often to run the risks of his purely fighting brother of the line without participating in any of the glory or excitement which fall to the lot of the latter. The A.S.C. driver is shot at without the satisfaction of being able to shoot back, but he carries on his work with the most extraordinary coolness and phlegm, often under the most trying conditions. It is only when his horses are hit that he displays any sign of excitement, for he is, as a rule, devoted to the animals placed in his charge.
Suddenly a star-shell bursts right above us, throwing its brilliant light over the working parties, over the plank bridge, and the now completed pontoon bridge higher upstream, and over all the approaches to the river on both banks.
This bright illumination only lasts a few seconds, and after its blinding glare the night seems blacker than ever.
The uproar gradually lessens, and finally dies down to a spasmodic burst or two and a few individual rifle shots.
The German bugles are now plainly heard, but whether sounding the rally or a fresh charge it is impossible to say: if the latter it does not materialise, for the night from now onwards is quiet except for a sniper at work, or the occasional shot of some soldier whose nerves will not allow him to rest, and amid the dark forms stretched on the ground in front of his trench he sees a phantom figure creeping forward to grip him by the throat.
What the casualties are in front we do not know, but we ourselves have not escaped scathless. One man has been shot in the spine as he stooped over a sack of oats, another poor fellow must have been hit in the head by a piece of flying shrapnel as he crossed the plank bridge, for he and his load disappeared with a dull splash into the river below and were no more seen.
As for my poor friend S——, his disappearance on this night has been an unsolved mystery. From the time we arrived at the bridge-head he was never seen again. Perhaps he too was hit as he crossed the river, and the dark waters of the Aisne closing over him have hid him from sight. He was officially returned as “missing.”
Crossing to Vailly I went to report to Brigade Headquarters. What a horrid sight the little town presented. Great heaps of fallen masonry and charred woodwork showed where once a well-built house had stood; farther on were a row of roofless villas, with great gaping holes in their walls; while down by the river bank was a terrace of little cottages, of which only the smoke blackened outside walls now remained. The streets were littered with stone and bricks, slates and fragments of glass, overturned vehicles and dead horses. The whole atmosphere was tainted with the odour of burning and the disgusting smell of putrefying flesh.
Nearly all the inhabitants of Vailly had left before the British occupation, but one or two people still remained,—some because, poor creatures! they had nowhere else to go. One such unfortunate family of father, mother, and five children, very poor peasants, occupied a little cottage by the river bank. Here they huddled together during the frequent bombardments, praying, I have no doubt, to their God, the All Mighty and the All Merciful, to protect them. A German shell entered that cottage on this night, and when the dust and debris of the explosion had cleared away there was but the mother with one child left alive. What had the other poor innocent little children done that they should have met so terrible a fate?
I had some difficulty in finding Brigade Headquarters, as they had moved since my last visit, and were now occupying a large barn, of which half the roof was missing. The general greeted me in his usual kindly manner, but he and his staff were grave and anxious; the losses had been very severe during the strenuous fighting of the last few days, and reinforcements were badly needed. Fortunately these were now arriving; not only had I seen the 6th Division, but fresh drafts for the depleted regiments were also hourly expected.
On the 20th September, thanks to the timely arrival of the 6th Division, it was possible to relieve some of the troops who had been in the trenches now continuously for a week, and were showing signs of exhaustion. Two of the battalions of my brigade were consequently withdrawn on this night, 20th-21st September, other troops taking their places.
On the following night, 21st-22nd September, the other two battalions were likewise withdrawn, and the whole brigade was concentrated at Courçelles by the morning of the 22nd.
Here officers and men enjoyed four days’ complete rest. Considering the terrible time they had been through in the trenches, it was wonderful how cheerful they all were; their morale was certainly not impaired.
About this time, too, the horse transport companies of the Train which had been billeted in Braine were ordered out of the town, and with some artillery and other mounted units bivouacked in the fields between Braine and Courçelles. Here the men built themselves some very comfortable straw and brushwood shelters covered with waterproof sheets or sacking.
On the Courçelles road we daily carried out the loading of the Supply waggons.
On the night of the 26th September the brigade moved out again to its former position on the outskirts of Vailly, relieving another brigade in the trenches. The smells on the road were now much less disagreeable, as the dead horses had been removed.
The fatigue parties engaged on the unpleasant task of burying these carcasses found the body of a soldier of the Royal Scots Greys lying beside his horse. How long, we wondered, had this poor fellow been lying there. Night after night we must have passed him by, unconscious of his presence.