Friday, May 17, 2013

A few Notes on my Career as a Soldier

Chapter 8. The March to the Rhine.

By Horace William (Bill) James

This little stint started on the 29th November 1918. It was a pretty solid little trip but very interesting and I am not sorry it fell to my lot to do it.  The first day we were up at 4-am., had breakfast etc., and were on the road by 7-am., and kept going until about 12-am when we pulled up at Haussy for the night and were put in an old cellar to sleep.  In the afternoon I had a bit of a walk round and had a look at some of the places where a lot of men lost their lives.  There were few civvies here and they had a bad time.

On the 30th November, we did four hours and finished up at Wagnes La Grand, a fairly small place well smacked up.  Slept in a house, had a fire and were fairly comfortable and also tired.  The next day 1st December 1918, we got as far as Saint Vaast, only a short march.  Our home this time was an open shed, very airy.  That afternoon I went into Quievy, three km from our town.  This is a fair sized place and very little damaged.  There were still a few shops but everything was a big price 1/3 for one candle.  We stayed in Saint Vaast all the next day so as to have a rest.  I managed to salvage some vegies and beetroot, which were very decent.  One of our boys had the bad luck to get killed with a lorry.

On the 3rd December, we got on the road again.  The King and Prince passed us just as we were leaving.  We had dinner on the road and pulled up at Maubeuge just before dark after a fairly solid march.  This was a bit knocked about and all the bridges were blown up.  There were a lot of people there and they gave us a good hearing as we came into the town.

New Zealanders salute the King

We slept in an old Chateau and again had a fire going, which was well needed.  The next morning I went into the town and had a look around.  At 12.30-am we got on the road again and at dark pulled up in Jeumont, another good-sized town on the border.  We had a good billet and in the evening I went for a walk around the town.

On the 5th December, 1918, we had a strike in the morning.  The boys refused to carry their packs, which resulted in a Battalion parade and the boss explaining the position, and finally they decided to carry on and we got on the road once more crossing into Belgium first thing at a town called Erquelinnes, which was well decked with flags etc., and there was a vast contrast to the country we had already passed through.  That night we stopped at Lobbes and had a little cottage to ourselves, so we were set.  After tea I walked four km to Thum, a very decent town with good shops and well lit up with electric light.  Paid four pence for a slice of bread.

The next day we had a spell.  I met Harry Ashton and we went for a buckshee train-ride.  The people here seemed to be in a much better condition, were well-dressed and looking for souvenirs instead of food, which was just as well as our rations were more than light.  One night we had to come at a fruit salad, but I landed a parcel, which eased the situation for that night.

On the 7th December, we left Lobbes after having small pieces of bacon for breakfast.  We had a fairly good march and stopped at Marchienne.  Got a good posy with some civvies who were very good to us and gave us plenty of buckshee coffee.  In the afternoon went into Charleroi, a very fine town well lit up.  We had a good look around and a good feed of steak and chips and went to a wax works show and got some very good cakes but they were a bit expensive.

The next day we did another big march to Tamines.  From 7am until 11.40 we were not out of a street, each village running into the next, the district being all big coal mines and very thickly populated.  We got a great hearing all along the road. That night I went for a walk round the town, bought a loaf of bread and had a great evening with some Belgium people.  There were 500 people murdered in this village in 1914.

The 9th December, we got as far as Tanes a very small place and we had a school to live in.  That night I went the 11 km into Namur, a very fine town and we had a good tea after having a very good look around we started for home but missed the train so had to pad the boot which was very hard and needless to say did not want rocking to sleep when we got there.  The next day we had the day off so I went back to Namur and had a look around the forts, river, etc., but made sure of a ride home this time.

On the 11th December, 1918, we had a short march to Daussoulx and got a good home for the night.  We had a look at some Gestaft sheds here and saw a lot of Fritz planes, including two Folkas. There were 225 machine guns left in these three sheds.  The next day we had a very wet trip to Pontillas, rained all the way.  Got a crook bivy but an old lady allowed us to dry our clothes.  She was very poor and more than pleased when I gave her some white bread.

The next day was also very wet and we went to Antheit, a very small place.  We were put into private houses and had the time of our lives.  The people were very good and got a big fire going, gave us dry socks and clogs.  Madame then dried all our clothes and even washed our boots and socks.  That night she got some mattresses, sheets and quilts and made a real good bed for us and I hardly liked to get into it considering I had not had a decent wash for a fortnight and was more than chatty.  

The next day we went on to the bank of the Meuse and had a good bath and got some clean clothes.  That night we had a lot of fun even though the conversation was not the sweetest.  The next day they took me out shooting.  I had four men acting as dogs but my luck was out and we came home with an empty bag.  We had another good evening.  Madame cooked a good supper and also put on a lot of baked potatoes and salad for dinner.

On the 16th December, I went into Huy and had a look around and the rest of the day I spent making some souvenirs for Madame who cooked us a good dish of potatoes and cabbage for dinner.  We had another great evening and were again given a big supper, which was the end of three very decent days spell. On the 17th we left this village.  All hands were out bright and early to see us off and poor old Madame shed a tear when we left.

That night we stopped at Jemeppe and my feet were dead sore and blistered, the result of a new set of boots.  That evening I went into Liege, which is the best place I have seen so far, a real upto date city wth very fine buildings.  I should like to have seen a bit more of it.  Prices here were very high, a small apple tart cost me 1/25d.  The people we stayed with were very cool to us and did not seem at all pleased to see us.  

The next day we had a big march to Fagnes and my feet were more than crook.  Got pretty wet and was also a cold day.  Landed a hay loft that night and as soon as we got tea, got down to sleep.  The next day we got to Verviers, another very fine city.  After tea we went down the street for a look around but my feet were a bit too sore, as we had done 14 miles that day, so soon got on the way for my bunk.  The people gave us a great reception in this town.  The streets were packed as we marched through and we got plenty of (Alley Aussie!).   

The next morning I went down the street again for a while.  At 12 noon we got on the road again and went to Baelen and got into a schoolroom for the night.  Got a fine going – we got no blankets or coats that night and had to get on the road at 3.30-am the next morning so it was a case of lie down and wait. Sleep was out of the question even though I gave it a good go, but at 12.50 decided to shake up the fire again.  At 3.30 we had a slice of bread and then got on the road again. 

After about an hours march struck the German border.  We marched along this for a while and then crossed into Germany at the town of (maybe Aachen, IJ). Here we got a cup of tea and biscuits and got onto the train at 6-am on 21st December.  Our journey lasted until 12 o’clock when we pulled up at Schernfeld.  Had some more biscuits and chocolate.  At 1.30-pm we started on the road again.  Marched through Cologne, where the people were very interested but there were not many smiling faces and once a bottle dropped in front of us. 

We crossed the Rhine by the boat bridge playing the Regimental March and through Mulheim.  At 7.30-pm we landed at our destination, Leichingen, after doing sixteen miles and needless to say no one was feeling any too happy seeing we had not had a decent feed all day.  When the old tea went round, after the bugle had sounded, a few of the mob expressed their feelings very plainly.  That night we slept in the concert hall of a hotel.  I think I could have slept anywhere and did not get out too early.  The next day we shifted to a schoolroom and spent the day cleaning up, writing letters, etc. 

The Band playing somewhere in Germany

On the 24th   December, 1918, the town guards were posted up, the people taking a great interest in the proceedings.  On the 25th we got up at 10-am and went and played for the guards and then waited for dinner.  Cold mutton, plum pudding and tea, and for tea had cold bacon and tea, so we did not overeat ourselves but a lot of the boys got parcels which saved the situation and we had a good go in the cakes.  Boxing day parade as usual.  

On the 28th we got the day off to go into Cologne.  We got out at the station, went across the famous bridge and into the Cathedral, which is a very fine building (the bell of which was used up for munitions and weighed 27 tons).  We had not been in town very long when I threw-up in a shop and the next I remember was being taken to hospital, where I spent my New Years Day, which passed by the same as any other day except that I went to a picture show.  On the 2nd I left this institution and after spending a few hours in the town set sail for Leichingen.  

January 4th, 1919, I made a little journey into a town called  Solingen, a fair sized town very famous for its steel works and coalmines, but only having a couple of hours I did not see very much of it.  

25th January.  Went for a trip to Bonn.  Not a bad place but am not shook on the town. 

We are now just about at the end of this rotten show.  We got orders to be held in readiness to move on the 1st March.  I refused to believe it thinking it was too good to be true but all the same felt very happy and have been doing some deep thinking the last couple of days and nights.  Today we have packed all our gear and are to leave at twelve tomorrow.  My stay here has not been a very exciting one.  I have spent night after night in my billet feeling very miserable and have developed a good bite and I think I would be fit for the rat house if I had to stay much longer.  But thank heavens we are just about to set now.  But in this outfit a man is never certain until he is on the road, but tomorrow will settle it and I hope it proves to be the day that I have been hoping for ever since I landed here.  

The great day has arrived.  We left Leichingen on the fourth about 1-pm after the usual wait and roll call etc.  The first stage was per motor lorry in as far as Cologne where we had another good wait before getting on the train.  A nice little snowfall just to keep things cool.  By five thirty we were nicely settled into cattle trucks and then moved off.  At 5-am the next morning we arrived at Huy once more and were given breakfast (extra light).  All that day we travelled very slowly and spent the rest of the day standing still.  We passed through Charleroi and reached Mons in the evening when it was snowing good Oh!  Here we got a drink of hot coffee and also some rations (biscuits and bully).  

The morning of the 6th February 1919, we reached Douai and got some tea cold this time for a change.  We also struck a canteen so got in a store of eatables.  The snow was still coming down and was getting pretty deep.  At midday we reached Arras and had a bit of fun snowballing some Froggies and building a snowman during a halt on the line.  Just outside Arras we passed a cemetery, well smacked up with a few trenches running through it.  That afternoon we passed some big frozen lakes and came through Albert, which was well smacked up.  Just before dark we pulled up for some rations and hot tea.  It had now started to freeze and was extra cold.  During the evening we arrived at Amiens where we had a good long wait.  

The next morning we were just outside Rouen, where we arrived at the station just before dinner and were very glad to get out of that truck.  We were marched to a Y.M. for some food and landed a pretty rough dinner.  After a bit of a spell we set off for Camp five miles away.  The going was pretty heavy on account of the snow but we had a bit of fun with every one who passed us on the road.  In the Camp we were put into tents, got some blankets, had tea and then got to bed.  It was now freezing hard so we double bunked with the beds and eleven blankets failed to keep two of us warm.  In the morning our boots, socks etc. were all frozen so it was like a contest to get them on.  

At 10-am we left the Camp and went over to a bath where we had all our gear put through a louse machine.  

From there we went into the NZ Base Camp for dinner.  Here we got issued with some clothing and in the evening I went into Rouen and went to a theatre after having a bit of a look around and landed home about 11-pm.  

At 3.30-am in the next morning we were pulled out for breakfast.  It was more than cold.  We were next lined up on the parade ground and then started on the road once more.  The march was a very greasy one and I think about half of the boys turned a flip.  We had a good long wait at the station but finally got going at 9-am for Le Harve where we arrived at 2-pm after a fairly good run in the train.  On arrival there we were marched to a rest Camp after the usual wait about.  Here they gave us two meals and then told us we were there for the night.  After settling down I went and found my old pal Len K. and spent the night with him.  

At 8.30-am we left Camp, marched a couple of miles and got on the boat by 11.30-am (The Countess of Devonshire).  Shortly after this she pulled outside the harbour and anchored.  During the early morning we crossed the Channel and then had another wait on the other side after an eight hours run.  

At 12 o’clock on the 11th we landed once more in Blighty at the port of Weymouth.  Here they gave us a cup of tea and cakes and then got on board the train about 2-pm.  We passed through Bristol, Birmingham and a lot of smaller places and finally pulled up at Brocton and marched out to the Camp.  Got another meal and into bed by 12-pm.  Needless to say was soon asleep and did not get up too early. 

18th February 1919.  We have now been in this Camp one-week and tomorrow we go on leave.  Since we arrived here we have done nothing except sign papers, clothing stats, etc.  Today we got fitted up with new clothes.  The food here is something exceptional and I have eaten as much for one meal as I would get for a day in France and am already getting fat.  I have met a few old friends including Rollie Taylor, Travis Smith, Barry MacDonald.  I expected to see Archie Fenton but learnt that he has left for NZ.  I went into Stafford one night for a dance with Rollie and had a good time. 

To be continued 

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