Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 3

Our Division being at length relieved, we retraced our steps across the immortal battlefields that compose the desolate wastes of the Somme, and after a brief halt at Albert we joined the battalion at the little French village of Francevilliers. Here and there were few traces of actual warfare, save for the ever present khaki and the endless procession of gun lorries and ammunition wagons that passed our billets. We were quartered in barns on each side of the main street, and during our period there, as always when out on rest, had our pleasant moments of relaxation. The mornings we always spent on an adjoining field, practising squad drill, musketry, and other routines of a peacetime soldier. This was never an agreeable programme and almost seemed an indignity to men who had experienced the “real thing” and objected to being treated as raw recruits. However it is easy to see the wisdom of it all. For apart from its usefulness in refreshing those who had become lax in drills and discipline it had a healthy influence on the mind, helping it to recover from the horrors it had witnessed during its term in the line. The afternoons were chiefly devoted to sports or minor parades, while after tea the time was entirely our own.

It was a straggling village, far from beautiful, but quaint and restful, and possessing that indefinable charm always associated with the French atmosphere. The majority of the shops are devoted to articles calculated to appeal to Tommy, chiefly chocolates, while there is a good muster of estaminets where he can look on the wine while it is red, also there are quiet farmhouses and homely cottages where one can drink delightful French coffee and exchange greetings in imperfect French or English with a “vision” of Parisian colour and vivacity. From the centre of the village, arose the stunted tower of a sweet little church, a giant crucifix looked down upon our parade ground, while “M. Le Cure down the street goes with his kind old face.”

Shortly afterwards we said good-bye to France and the battlefields of the Somme and began the trek to the new sphere of our operations – Belgium. The battalion marched to Albert, where we bivouaced in Station Square till midnight awaiting train. The October night was cold, so we lit fires, made tea and gathering round the warm bright flare we let ourselves “go” forgetting the past and evading the future in an intoxicating burst of song. Song is Tommy’s great medium for manifesting his soul and its victory over circumstances and environment. Through it he proclaims his triumph over physical fatigue and mental depression. It helps him to retain his self respect while performing the most menial of duties, keeps time with the gay rhythm of his feet on a route march, and proclaims his soul’s defiance of death and danger as he goes “over the top” into the jaws of hell. The embers of our fires were nearly dead when we entrained in one of those great troop trains that have swept so many thousands across the plains of France. As dawn broke we were passing through fields of refreshing green, amid some of the most beautiful of French scenery, catching here and there autumn tints from woods and forests, or the reflection of the morning sun in sparkling streamlets or still waters. No longer did the eye gaze upon a wilderness of craters and woods of blasted stems and stripped branches. Here nature was clothed in her proper raiment, filling the eye with her beauty and colour and the soul with her peace and restfulness. Her splendour chased away all memories of past horrors, and even the most worldly amongst us echoed words that we saw engraven on the hill slopes of Wimereux – “Gloire a Jesus Christ”.

We lived in the train for two days and nights, passing through towns whose names loom large in European history. At length we alighted at ——, from which we began the trek by road to Belgium, lasting several days. It is an interesting sight to see a battalion on the move. The commanding officer heads the cortege on horseback, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, and followed by their grooms. Then comes the band, in our case the Irish pipers, followed by a company of men headed by their O.C. The remaining three companies follow in the same order, but changing positions at the halts for rest in order to share the advantage of the band. Last, but not least, comes the domestic side of the battalion’s existence, the Quartermaster’s stores, the tailor’s shop, the bootmakers, the armourer, and most important of all, the procession of travelling kitchens, for it is a truism that an army marches on its stomach. As they pass a pungent odour assails the nostrils, for a savoury stew is being prepared for the midday halt. No matter how long and tiring the journey, there is something exhilarating in the swinging motion of a march, and a pleasure in the changing panorama on either side. Tommy holds his head very high too and experiences a strange thrill as he marches through the quaint cobbled streets of the beautiful old world town, bringing to their doors all the inhabitants, who gaze with a look of curious interest that ripens here and there into enthusiastic admiration. The spectators may not be so demonstrative now as formerly (everything becomes commonplace in time and thousands of the khaki-clad have passed the same way), but the admiration is still there.

At night the battalion is billeted in barns, in villages “booked” previously by a billeting party. Crude as our dwelling might be it has often been the background of a memory that will stick. I have stood at the barn door and gazed down on a smiling valley whose slopes were richly coloured with fields of maize or ripened corn, or again at a great ploughed landscape with the figures of peasants at work silhouetted against the setting sun, as depicted by Millet or described by Baxin. Memories also of vaulty interiors of fine old farm houses, with the polished French stoves jutting out from beneath the mantelshelf, supplying heat, and on which ever reposed the coffee pot, filling the atmosphere with its refreshing aroma. The walls, too, hung with the quaint old china plates, and at intervals portraits of the old race, while most prominent of all was the crucifix that looked down on the hardy farmer, his wife and their children, as they took their meals, and, most cherished memory of all, the little French mademoiselle of eight summers whose acquaintance I made at a well and who insisted on showing me the orchard, plying me meanwhile with questions in quite excellent English. Within a few days, during which our intercourse had ripened into friendship, we parted, and the picture of her waving farewell with all the sincerity of childhood as the battalion marched off will ever have an honoured place in my gallery of memories.

She went her unremembering way
She went and left in men
The pang of all the partings gone
And partings yet to be.

Towards the close of our trek the nature of the country changed from the slightly undulating to the less interesting stretches of flat land, marked here and there with innumerable windmills, and presently we crossed the frontier and were in Belgium. The roads differed little from the French, save in the Flemish names over the estaminets and the larger number of wayside shrines. The latter vary in kind from the more elaborate brick chapel with its altar and tastefully arranged flowers and candles to the humble little statue within a wall niche, or even fixed to the bough of some noble tree. They are all very impressive, most of all perhaps the great crucifixes that hang from the outside of every parish church, or stand towering at the crossroads, asking the age old question “Quo Vadis?” – “Is it nothing? to all ye who run by?” I am sure it has often been answered by the rude oath left unsaid and evil thought checked at the sight of these religious emblems. Flanders is the land of the crucifix, and even in the estaminets it is a prominent feature. Religion seems to enter into the every-day life of the people.

I promised to record my “reflections” upon Tommy’s attitude towards religion, and how it has been affected by the war, and this seems to be a good point at which to fulfil it. A casual observer, perhaps, would find little difference between the peacetime soldier and the war-time Tommy. Like Mr. Weller’s knowledge of London, Tommy’s speech has ever been “extensive and peculiar,” and if anything it is more descriptive in these days of long marches and working parties. As to conduct, well, foreign service brings its quota of temptations. Beneath all, however, there lies in the soldier’s temperament a bedrock of good nature and sound discipline. Tommy, though, is curiously sensitive of showing his better nature. It is more his mental attitude than anything else that has been affected. To a far greater extent than the people at home, he has been set “furiously to think” by the great happenings of this world war. Brought face to face with the great problems of life and death, with one foot often on the border line of a new existence, the supernatural has loomed larger upon his horizon than ever before. No atheist has ever gone over the top, but to my knowledge our boys have mounted the parapet with a prayer on their lips, and a rosary suspended from their necks. Early in the war, the Press was full of the vision that was alleged to have appeared in angelic form to our Tommies on the battlefield of Mons. It is strange enough to be believed, too beautiful to be untrue. That the firmer believers in the vision were the Tommies themselves is proof enough of how the war, in the Army at least, has crushed the materialism and enthroned the supernatural in men’s minds.

To be continued…

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