Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Journey to France November 1st 1914

Figure 1. Machine Gun Section, Queen's Westminster Rifles, October 1914.
This photograph appears to be one of a number taken at various locations in
Leverstock Green immediately before embarkation.
This photo was probably taken at Wells Farm outside the barn
where the men were billetted.

The Queen's Westminster Rifles had not expected to be sent to France until the Spring of 1915. Indeed as recently as the 17th of October John Baber and his fellow officers had been regretting that they would miss out on the events in France.

However during October 1914 the British Expeditionary Force fought the Battle of La Bassée, [1] which had started on the 10th of October and would continue until the 2nd of November 1914  suffering yet more serious casualties to those already sustained by the rapidly diminishing regular army since the outbreak of the war. 

Having blocked the German armies assault on Paris on the Marne, the French and British armies were having to deploy towards the Channel Coast to cover a rapidly widening front, as the German's had moved their forces towards the north in an attempt to outflank the French & British Army.

Fighting rapidly spread to the north with the 1st Battle of Ypres starting on the 19th of October. Armentières had fallen initially into German hands, however counter attacks forced them back through Houplines.

Figure 2. Map Showing the approximate position of the front line in October 1914
during the Battles of La Bassée and 1st Ypres. [2]

Faced with very heavy casualties, and rapidly diminishing reserves of regular troops, the British Expeditionary Force needed to find additional forces to fill the rapidly extending front line trenches.

British casualties in the fighting between 14 October and 30 November were 58,155 (7,960 dead, 29,562 wounded and 17,873 missing). The army had arrived in France with 84,000 infantry. By the end of the First Battle of Ypres, the BEF had suffered 86,237 casualties, most of whom were infantry.  The French suffered around 50,000 casualties during the battle.[3]

The Queen's Westminster Rifles were to be amongst the very first Territorials to enter the line.

John Baber's pocket diary records the start of the journey to France.

"Sunday Nov 1st

Left Well Farm
Entrained Watford
in 2 parts.
Long stop Addison Rd
Embarked 5.30 pm
Sailed 9.30
Smooth Crossing
Warm night
Liverpool Scottish on own
Boat. Very good cot
No escort, lights out. Where
is the submarine which
Sank that old union."

At Southampton Docks the battalion found itself in company with the Liverpool Scottish, who travelled on the Maidan, an 8,000 ton steamship of the Anchor-Brocklebank Line. The Maidan was one of nine vessels in convoy who left Southampton at 6.30pm on the night of the 1st of November. The men felt very exposed as they passed the Isle of Wight as the ships were lit up by searchlights from the shore intended to stop German naval raids on the Solent anchorage.

Figure 3.  Men of the Queens Westminster Rifles arriving at Le Havre
on S S Maidan on the morning of 2nd November 1914.

John Baber recorded the arrival at Havre.

"Mon Nov 2nd
arrived off Havre
8 o clock
entered harbour
no we didn't
we missed the
tide. Splendid
Entered harbour 11 PM.
More transports
Belgian refugees

In a letter written to his mother he wrote..

Nov 3 Tuesday
Dear Mother,
    Marching to Watford we entrained to Southampton: from here I must omit names, as expected.  However, we sailed in the Maidan, on Sunday evening & arrived at our destination in France early next morning.
We are now under canvas on a high hill overlooking the sea, for all the World like Dover.  It is called a rest camp & we hope to revisit it again.  Rays [4] cousins were on board our transport.  Riding from the harbour to our camp, I could not help over hearing many embarrassing critisms.  However they were all very good natured.
1st Female. C'est un jolie officier.
2nd Female.  Oui, mais un bébé.
It is really quite hot here & beautifully sunny.
Tell Dad to examine my pass-book fairly regularly, as in the possible event of us being engaged & of myself being captured, I might convey the information by giving a cheque to the German Red Cross.
Please send my spare of boots at once & add Plasmon & one Times a week to my weekly list.
I have changed my pony & am now riding quite a nice little nag, by the name of Belinda.  Although the Censor of course is under the seal of the confessional, it is rather embarrassing to know that ones letters will all be read & therefore mine will probably leave much to be desired, both in quality & in quality.  I have received Dad's letter & the receipted bill.  I can still manage the latter business.  We had a calm crossing with all the lights out & no escort.  I don't think anybody felt quite confident that there was not a submarine awaiting us.

Your loving son
John Baber.

Bob Brookes, a Private in the QWR also wrote an excellent account of the crossing, he however had experienced a considerably less comfortable journey. An extract from a much longer account is set out below.


On board the S.S. ‘MAIDAN’ the Liverpool Scottish were also proceeding to France, and we rapidly intermixed, related various incidents to one another, and discussed War, at the same time wondering to where we were going.

I stayed on deck as we went out of the Solent, and had an opportunity to exercise my knowledge of Morse Code by reading the messages to our vessel as to her name and other particulars.  Under the protection of a couple of destroyers we left the Isle of White behind after coming under the glare of the search lights several times.  It was a beautiful night, and the sea calm, looking very fine with the reflection of the search lights on the water.  After a time it became chilly and I went below to be served with some ‘Bully Beef’ (for the first time) and biscuits.  Tea was also provided, but like many others, I could not touch it.  It was not tea as we know it, but oil and tea leaves - by no means a pleasant combination.  The ‘Dixie’ ( a big pot - not of a kind one sees in the City) was filled with cold water and a pipe from the engine room blew steam into the water in the pot, and in this way the water was boiled.  Unfortunately the oil from the engines had made it’s acquaintance with the steam and every time tea was issued only a few men had any.  Fortunately I had filled my water bottle at Southampton, but this did not last very long as one gets very thirsty through eating ‘Bully’ and others, who had not filled their bottles had a ‘nip’ of mine." [5]

The battalion had had sing-song on the deck to pass the time before they could disembark.

John Baber remembered the first days in France in an account he wrote during the 1960's.

"We landed at Havre, and after we had off loaded gear and horses I found myself leading my little section to the Camp.  Sitting on my pony, all tied up with swords, holsters, revolvers, hay net, picketing peg and whatnot, I cocked a rather conceited eye at the interested passers by. Seeing remarkably good looking young women approaching, I prepared to receive a smile, but all that happened was that one said to the other "Ah, quel bebe!"

[1] See for a good introduction to this battle.
[2] From"A Soldier's Sketches Under Fire" by Harold Harvey. Available from Harvey served in Houplines during October 1914, stablising the front line the Queen's Westminster Rifles would enter a month later.
[3] From
[4] Ray, R.S. Dickinson.
[5] From This diary gives a very vivid picture of what life was like for the other ranks in the QWR, and is fascinating to compare with John Baber's account of life as an officer.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Hello - just poking around looking for information about WWI landings at Le Havre and came across your blog. I'm writing novels with WWI as a backdrop so interested in first hand accounts and such. Just thought I would say thank you!