Last One Over the Top ...

The Road to Mons

Despite his best efforts, Bertie finds himself astride a horse and heading straight towards enemy territory. The British Expeditionary Force and the German First and Second Armies sort of stumbled into one another around the coal-mining town on a sunny, autumnal Sunday, 23rd August 1914. Neither side was really sure what to expect - principally because neither side had fought anything more than enormously one-sided colonial wars in the previous forty years. European expansion in Africa was marked by well-trained and well-equipped infantry troops sweeping through land owned for millennia by the natives whom they rapidly dispossessed; all with the help of the famous Maxim Gun. The one exception of course was South Africa ... but that is a subject for another day.

The point was, that the British, French and German armies expected some degree of chivalrous interchange, possibly, as Bertie suggested, with a break for afternoon tea. In fact, Mons was the first battle of World War 1 that showed industrialised slaughter at its worst. 

However, as the troops moved forwards to their concentration areas, nothing was known of this, and there was a feeling of celebration in the air.

Now read on:

***


As the days began to creep forward to that dreadful Sunday, the 23rd of August, when the world seemed to explode in a ball of  flame, I began to dig my niche a little deeper every day, making myself indispensable as interpreter, and hoping that Donnelly and the chaps weren’t missing me. Couldn’t really get them out of my mind, as Spears and I were back and forth by car and horse to French Headquarters, and our own Divisional and Corps HQ, even as they were moving up to the concentration areas. Every road was a crush of men and horses; long lines of Tommies marched easily at first, along the tree-lined cobbled roads.  that cut, straight as an arrow, through the Northern French countryside. Units that had fallen out to rest loafed in the sunshine, or rested in the shade of the trees, tunics unbuttoned or jettisoned completely, but they all got off the road to let the next units pass through, the solid crunch of boots moving further north with every step. In the low-lying fields either side of the road, we could see Tommy at play: I still remember the bizarre image of a half-dozen highlanders, some with their torsos completely bare, others in shirt sleeves, but all with kilts flapping and sporrans flying as they played a game of football with an equivalent number of poilus. The French soldiers were similarly undressed, shirt tails flying in the sun as they tackled and ran, their little red képis pulled tight down on their head, wearing those ridiculous red trousers that should have gone in the bin when Napoleon carked it. The thump of the leather football was strangely muffled in the heavy, muggy air, but the rough Scots oaths and the rolling French rejoinder blended and mixed together perfectly naturally.

We had to find a spot at the side of the road to pull over to let a long line of Field Artillery pass, some pieces drawn by horse, but others by motor-lorry, the sunlight flaring and blinding off the shiny metal of their thick barrels. They rattled and groaned slowly along the road, with a clank of chain and the screech of straining leather. These were followed by Horse Artillery, each team of horses towing a gun carriage and light field piece. The gunners bobbed up and down happily on horseback, cool and relaxed in their shirt sleeves, and responded to my cheery wave with a salute of their own.

A little later on, we were passing through Damousies, or Obourg, or one of those places, when we pulled over to try and find a telephone to call Sir John’s HQ. The tiny twisting streets were choked with troops, mainly French this time, and with horses and townsfolk, all of whom had turned out to cheer their own chaps off to war. I narrowly missed being run over by a troop of French Cuirassiers who bounced past at the canter, their red trousers and gorgeous horse-hair helmets for all the world like the little lead soldiers I used to play with instead of learning my Greek. Spears and I ducked into the shade and relative peace of a little charcuterie in the town square, and I asked the shopkeeper if there was a telephone anywhere we could use. He gabbled excitedly at me and pointed with a stubby forearm towards the small railway station on the other side of the square. I threw my head around to check where he was pointing when I was suddenly seized in two hairy hands, and received a slobbering kiss on both cheeks. Spears got the same treatment, but to be honest, he looked more bemused than anything else. I was checking myself for garlic fumes, when the shopkeeper sputtered:

“Dieu vous benisse, messieurs,” he said, his eyes moist and his lips pulled in an enormous smile around his toothless gums. God bless you. “Merci. Merci beaucoup.”

“Made a friend there, Beauchamp,” says Spears grinning at me and mopping his chops with a big kerchief as we tried to pick our way through the carnival of advancing soldiers, horses and artillery. It was then I saw probably the most bizarre sight I think I ever saw in a long lifetime of bizarre sights. The far side of the square, in front of the station, was stuffed with the most exotic-looking troops I had ever seen: mahogany-brown and black faces, with open-necked, baggy shirts, flowing voluminous white trousers, and a jaunty little embroidered weskit, the whole ensemble topped off with a fez or a loosely coiled turban. They carried what looked to me to be ridiculously long rifles. Well, I’m afraid I goggled. Remember, I had never seen a black man before, and the only image that I had ever seen like this before was in an old well-thumbed picture book of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Well, it was either Ali Baba or the circus that had come to town, I thought, and my incredulity must have been writ large on my face, for Spears leaned in to me, and shouted in my ear over the din:

“Zouaves.”

“Bless you,” I shouted back, not really sure I heard him right.

“No, no, Beauchamp,” he roared back at me. “Zouaves. French colonial troops. Splice you and stick you on a spit soon as look at you.“ He shuddered. “Glad they’re on our side.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. Well, I’d seen everything. Or so I thought. I hung around in the shaded stone porch of the station office while Spears wrestled with an ancient wall-mounted telephone, trying to get through to Sir John. I left him to it, and was about to loaf back to the car when I saw a familiar face grinning in front of me.

“Hullo, Bertie,” says Spot, his arms draped around three, yes three (count ‘em) young lovelies, all laughing and one or two of ‘em throwing a flirty eye at me. One of them was even wearing Spot’s uniform cap on the back of her head. They all had the rather pale cast of factory girls rather than farm girls, and while none of ‘em could really compete with my Mathilde for looks – for – um - Oops, sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes, while none of them was a classic looker, they all looked ready for some fun, and judging by the wine fumes and the fact that they had just staggered from a little estaminet, I thought with an uncharacteristic stab of jealousy that Spot had his evening’s entertainment lined up for him.

“Essential supplies, what?” I joked. He gave a mad laugh and then staggered away. I’m still not sure if he was supporting them or they him. Wonder what his CO thought of a randy subaltern who was so intent on cementing Anglo-French relations? I didn’t have time to ponder over long, though, because Spears came flouncing back out of the station office with a look of thunder on his face, most unlike him, for he was such an even character. He turned on me in his fury and ground his teeth.

“I’ve just been on to communications,” says he, fuming. “And do you know who they put me on to?” I was too busy looking at Spot and his female companions as they disappeared in the bustle and the dust.

“H’mm, sorry?” I said, finally dropping back down to earth.

“I said - ,” says he looking at me now as if splitting me from nave to chaps was just about the best all round bally idea a chap could ever have, “ – do you know who they put me on to?”

“No.”

“Only bloody German field command!” says he, trumpeting his anger to the heavens. “There’s more chance of me having a cosy fireside chat with Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria than there is of me ever getting a chance to talk with my own commander.”

Well, I’m afraid I thought this was the funniest thing imaginable. I laughed and laughed and laughed. And when I was finished laughing, I guffawed. And after that, I roared, mainly with the pure nonsensical nature of all of us stuffed into this tiny corner of France, all going round in circles and getting mixed up in our own communications. It struck me as peculiarly bizarre, and I thought to myself that maybe the whole thing would end up so badly organised that everyone would storm off home in disgust before the first bullet was fired.


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I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.

 

I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.

I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.