Whilst trawling the local paper for information about Carshalton in the First World War, I came across an article published in March 1918 titled ‘Reflections of a Rifleman.’ It was written by Lance Corporal Joseph Fowler, C Company, 1/18th London Regiment (London Irish Rifles). I have been unable to find out a great deal about Joseph; he was born in Norwood in 1898, the family moving to Camberley by 1911, at which point Joseph was in school. He certainly comes across as well educated in his writing. It seems he went overseas in 1917, as most of his article covers the events of 1918. Whilst he does not go into a great level of detail about the fighting, I think his account gives a certain amount of insight into life in the trenches.
The London Irish Rifles fielded two battalions who served overseas; the 2nd Battalion saw much of its action in the Middle East, so its fair to say Joseph served with the 1st Battalion. Part of the 47th (2nd London) Division, its battle honours include Festubert, Loos, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Le Transloy, Messines, Ypres, Langemarck, Cambrai, and in 1918 St Quentin, Bapaume, Ancre, and Albert.
The memoir is quite long so I will split into several posts.
The world conflict that began with tragic suddenness in August 1914, was a rude awakening to an age that had long slumbered in peace and security. I know that I succumbed to the tendencies that surrounded me, and as far as my humble position in life would allow I sought the paths of slothful ease, forgetting that the rough road of strenuous days is more fruitful of real happiness. Then the war came and corrected our vision. The theologian has moralised much on this point, drawn conclusions which, as I am not a preacher, and this is not a pulpit, I am not justified in introducing here – though I may agree with him! Many of us felt as Keats felt first reading Homer: – ‘like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken’. Men were compelled to think and prepared to act; ideals too long dormant were awakened; and for them the erstwhile careless and selfish were prepared to live labourless days, and if necessary make the supreme sacrifice of their lives. The new spirit was contagious, and moved strangely not one nation but an Empire of nations. The world was in the melting pot, and was to be chastened by fire. Think of the principle involved, and the cause that fired the imaginations and touched the hearts of millions, then wonder not that men were stirred! The false doctrines of pseudo professors had to be eradicated; the demon of militarism to be crushed; the small nations of Belgium and Servia, ruthlessly ravaged by a cruel power, needed defenders; Ireland and Poland had been promised self-government; and throughout the world Right was to be enthroned. Men were inclined to echo Wordsworth’s lines on the French Revolution: – ‘Bliss were it to be alive, But to be young were very Heaven’.
And thus borne aloft on the breast of the mighty wave that was sweeping the country from end to end, I donned the khaki. In the pages which follow I relate the incidents that I have witnessed, the impressions they made, and the reflections they gave rise to, during my year of active service in France and Belgium.
I do not expect the reader to endorse all my “reflections” but I beg the liberty to pen them, hoping they will be of interest to many. I can at least claim that I have described with accuracy actual experiences of my daily life, adding merely the thought they awakened in my mind, set down honestly and without any attempt at journalistic effort. These pages were mostly written in dug-out, in the trenches, within a few hundred yards of the German front line, and amid the deafening sound of bursting shrapnel and heavy shells. The reader must not look for the sequence of a narrative, though where possible I have so written, but merely for reflections culled at random from the storehouse of memory. Some are humorous, most of them tragic, but all human. With this apology I proceed to my task.
My training at Winchester was full of incident, and in normal times a very readable volume could be produced from the material it supplied, but the public is no longer interested in the “soldier in the making” but rather in the life lived, and work achieved, by the finished article.
I find it hard to describe the dominant emotion that moved me as our draft marched down from Morn Hill Camp, through the quaint rambling streets of historic Winchester, on to the station to entrain for Southampton. Our pipers, playing spirited Irish airs, went before us, our hats were decked with green streamers, and cheers and good wishes accompanied us all the way, every element calculated to fire the Celtic temperament. Many of them sang some out of sheer delight, with the blood of an adventurous race coursing through their veins, others to hide the range of their thoughts and the depths of their feelings. At Southampton there was just time for a slight repast and to pen a card home, with the fatal message that we were going to the wars. The journey across was uneventful, but fatiguing, and most of us were glad when the boat slowed into the harbour of ——- about midnight. Considering that this seaport had but recently been visited by hostile aircraft, the harbour was quite brilliantly lit up, and the coloured lights of the many ships reflected in the waters was pleasing to the sight. We leaned over the boat-side, conversing with our intimates, or thinking our thoughts, drinking in meanwhile the picturesque scene. At length the first streaks of dawn showed themselves, and as it grew lighter our attention was transferred to the quays which were fast becoming centres of bustling life.
The chief object of interest to the average Tommy was the French sentry, rather a slovenly figure, it must be confessed, with his rifle slung behind his back, its long unhealthy looking bayonet towering above his head. Tommy greeted him with such French phrases as he had learned from a printed slip presented to him at Southampton, and the sentry smilingly nodded his head in recognition. On landing we rested awhile on the quays, and then marched through the town and beyond it, along the seemingly interminable military road on to the great training camp at ——-. There was much to interest us as we marched along, everything bearing the stamp of novelty. We passed at intervals batches of German prisoners working on the roads, some of them ceasing their task for a moment to gaze at us, others working on with sullen indifference. Youngsters ran along beside us vending chocolates, or begging souvenirs, and bidding us in excellent English to “Left, right. Left, right.” Then for nearly a mile of railway were huge mountains of shells, growing bigger each moment through the efforts of a small army of workers.
At length that cobbled, poplar-lined road came to an end at the little town of ——. We turned down a lane which brought us to the beginning of the series of camps that line the great hill up from the town. Here everything was English and khaki, and we seemed to have left France far behind. It was a huge British colony and a triumph of organisation hardly surpassed in all my subsequent experience. Almost immediately on arrival we were medically examined, and issued with gas masks, waterproof sheet, rifle, and other accessories, after which we were quartered in tents on the hillside, where we rested for the remainder of the day – the first day “on active service”. For the next three weeks we carried out a set daily programme. We marched up each morning to the great parade ground which surmounted the hill, each camp sending its quota. The parade ground was divided into sections for the divisions, and when filled with some 15,000 troops was a most imposing spectacle. Men were gathered together there from the farthest point of the Empire and the uttermost bounds of the earth.
The day was spent on the training fields, bayonet fighting, bombing, wiring, firing, passing through a gas chamber, and such like. Then, after mustering once again upon the parade ground, we marched back down the slope of the hill to our camp. The evenings we had to ourselves, and the camp was full of life, presenting every aspect of human nature. All the clubs and canteens were open, and men followed their bent. Every writing table at the Y.M.C.A. was filled, while it took half an hour at least to reach the counter for a cup of tea or cocoa or other purchases. Out in the open, on the hillside, were groups of men sitting tailor fashion on the ground indulging in a game called “House”, the only gambling game allowed by the authorities. The Church hut and Wesleyan hut had each their “Quid Room” for meditation, while in his chapel, in the dim light of the sanctuary lamp, the Catholic Tommy knelt before the altar in fervent adoration. Later on I shall have occasion to comment on the extraordinary revival of religion among the soldiers.
Every evening a draft or drafts, varying in size, left the camp for up the line – often the only line from which travellers do not return. Within three weeks our own momentous time arrived, and at but a few hours notice we were told to prepare for departure that same evening. We were once again medically examined and then paraded, inspected by officers of high rank, and addressed in solemn words of Christian consolation by the chaplains. Then followed the long march to Havre, where we entrained for an unknown destination. Outstretched upon the floor of the huge cattle trucks, we were soon asleep, and the train was steaming into Rouen in the early morning before we awoke. The approach to Rouen is very beautiful, with the broad river flowing past the tree covered slopes, crowned by a stately church that look down on the city. We detrained and spent a few hours in a rest camp there, but were not allowed to visit the town, or the glorious cathedral with its memories of the sainted maid of Domremy. We encountered in the rest camp a detachment of Bengal Lancers, and were much impressed by their majestic bearing and the courtesy of their manners. Then, entraining once more, we travelled at a slow rate for nearly two days, passing through Saleux, St. Roch and Amiens, amongst other towns, reaching Albert late at night, where we alighted. Long before we reached Albert we saw from the train the distant flash of guns on the horizon, and heard with a strange tremor the first muffled sound of thunder that rose at last into a giant sound and knew that we had reached the war zone.
To be continued…