Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Advance to Contact

Figure 1. Page out of pocket diary John Baber
kept with him and into which he made daily entries 

 Here is a transcription, of what even John admitted was his appalling handwriting.

"Tuesday Nov 3rd.
9 O'clock disembarked.
11 O'clock marched up to
rest camp up on Hill.
Black horse jibbed.
People seemed pleased
to see us.
Black horses gave us
the Dickens of a time.
AM 7 O'clock Tea - 1 biscuit.
PM 4 O'clock, Bread butter jam
& tea"

The black horses referred to were the horses that John's machine gun section used to pull the limbers that carried the battalions machine guns.

Writing in the 1960's John recalled, perhaps forgetting that first days climb up the hill from the harbour. The horses must have had a distressing time loaded in and out of a ship, very probably for the first time in their lives.

"But the horses were a dream.  Our Commanding Officer was at the head of a big London store.  He knew a lot about a few things and particularly horses, stalking and old brandy.  Those were the days when you still saw as many horses as motors in London and this store were rightly very proud of theirs, and in August 1914 we mobilised their horses with their drivers.  In the two limbers we had teams of matched light draught and in the wagon an equally splendid pair of heavy draught.  When we got to France we had to mount an armed guard over the horse lines every nigt to prevent them being pinched by the Australians or someone equally knowing."

Having spent their first night in France in a tented camp on top a a hill over looking L'Havre the battalion officers had the first of many concessions to the rapidly changing face of war. The smart leather Sam Browne belts they had been accustomed to wearing were handed in as well as their swords, to be replaced with webbing equipment similar to that worn by their men.

On the late afternoon the battalion marched back into L'Havre to the Gare Maritime.  In the town they learned from the morning papers that the London Scottish, the First Territorial Battalion to go into action had been involved in a fierce battle at Messines.

Arriving at the station, they saw their first Germans, a group of "mere boys, others bearded men, was being marched away under escort to a concentration camp."  [1]

Due to leave the station at 7pm, the train would eventually set off three and half hours later, getting to Rouen at Midnight.

"Wed Nov 4.
 Had a good culprits sleep under canvas & kit and valise, off again this afternoon.  Made some new limber arrangements.  Parade 3.15 pm intrained 9.30pm for St Omer.  Started 10.30 Horrible march over the cobbles.  Pack gave my shoulder gyp."

John had had his shoulder blade broken in a Rugby accident at Marlborough College, and this had led to his failing a pre-war medical when he had tried for a Regular Commission. He had hoped to follow his Grandfather Charles Barton, a Major General into the army.

He must have been very concerned by the pain he was feeling.  Would his shoulder hold up?

The Queen's Westminster's had travelled over with the Liverpool Scottish, and had had a concert on board the ship. John and his men must have enjoyed a song popular sung by the Liverpool Scottish, because he wrote it into his diary on the 4th November.

"Liverpool Scottish's Song

We don't care what becomes of us.
We don't care what becomes of us.
We don't care if we get wet through
We don't get what the German's say.
Anything or anywhere
Fore we're going to shoot the beggars in the morning
So tonight boy we don't care."

I wonder if his men were signing this as they passed through L'Havre on their way to the station?

Shortly after leaving on the train, they must have seen more German prisoners because John wrote.

"Saw some German prisoners.  One old man, one strong man, & the rest all boys, Poor little brutes!
Seats hurled from the window! Fortunately there was no line there."

They travelled on towards St. Omer along a very circuitous route, enlivened by the cheers and shouts of the French local population who had collected along the route to hand the troops bread, fruit and chocolate.

They eventually halted at Abbeville for a longer stop, and then again at Calais.  Here OXO was supposed to have been made available for the troops. The cooks de-trained and had just completed the heating up of the drinks, when unannounced the French train driver set off, leaving the cooking party on the platform, and the passengers without anything to drink.

"Thursday Nov 5.
Havre Rouen, Sergueux, Cabancourt, Aumale, Camaches, Oisemount, Longforet, Abbeville, Quanol, Vieton, Etaples, Le Tourquet, Dammes, Boulogne, Calais, St Omer,

Supplemented rations by bread & wine, Lovely day, country beautiful. Splendid picnic.  Abbeville an hours halt & so much food that we don't know what to do with it all, some guns returning damaged, also wounded."

I cannot locate several of the places listed, so that it is quite possible that John was writing them down as he heard the names called out.

At St. Omer the battalion left the train and moved into the some barracks in the centre of the town.  Here they met survivors from the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, who had been withdrawn from the fierce battles in the dash to the Sea that was going on between Arras, Ypres and Nieuport.

"Nov 6th
On reaching St Omer I waited with D Coy to detrain Transport not getting to the Caserne Paris Barracks till after 4AM. Royal Irish Rifles in our Barracks. Am told the Germans have just ended a gigantic attack & that we have practically only Reserve men left."

No doubt curious to get a first hand understanding of how well these new reinforcements from the Territorial Army were prepared Sir John French, the Commander in Chief turned up quite unannounced and visited the men.

"He came into the barracks quite alone, and chatted to several of the men who were standing in the square.  None of them recognised him; in fact, after he had left, one of the men said that a "general of sorts" had been in the barracks and had been looking around."

French went on to visit the Officers Mess and spoke to the officers. On the following days the battalion was put through a series of exercises, and on the 7th of November dug a line of reserve trenches on high ground about six miles to the east of St. Omer. A practise attack was put in on the 9th, which must have been

"Sat Nov 7th.
Battn out digging (Lof D) Orders to move tomorrow cancelled in evening.  Arrival of LRB, 13th Vics & others.  Why aren't we moving?  The intelligent peasant? Drew tools from OC ammunition transport.  Acques.  Saw new shell cap?  Colassale!" [Sic.]

"Sunday Nov 8th
Apparently our orders been cancelled because Terr: Battns wanted more training before going up.  I did one or two attack practises today. Country to open for MG to be of much use.  Major Needham (Our Brig'dd Major) said that we were by far the best Terr Battan he had ever seen.
Dined at Hotel de France.  I watched his German prisoners!  Was the Mayor's friend a spy?"

John Baber had an elder sister Frances Baber, at home in London, to whom he wrote frequently.

Often these letters were quite different in tone, to those that he wrote to his mother or father. He referred to her as Frank.

"Monday Nov 9
Dearest Frank

Breakfast is over & I have a spare 1/2 hour before work.  It is good to be over here, I think that the freshness & change, which always accompanies a trip across the water, have probably saved us all from becoming stale.  I have several odd jobs to do, which entailed my taking the section to neighbouring villages, but my Parisian accent so far, has prevented me from losing my way!  It is very odd having to look after some 20 helpless Britishers instead of being dependant on my family for conversational support. Yesterday we were doing some field work when I noticed a rascally looking fellow listening very carefully to what I was saying so I told him to "allez vous en, vite, vite, vite."

I followed him & found him examining a rifle further along; so I had him shadowed by your friend Corporal Roche, & finally he was arrested & marched back to the town.  He proved to be the most intimate friend of "Le Maire," who nearly fainted with horror.  However it served the beggar right for being to darned inquistive.  A lot of the peasants round here are in German pay, the brutes.

We are at present doing the same work here, as at Leverstock Green, but to the tune of continual boom-boom-Boom-boom-boom- in the near distance.  We have no orders but I expect we shall soon be "sent up", (as it is called here). Yesterday the sky was full of our aeroplanes.  I was talking to a Flying Corps man yesterday.  He says he loves war!  One & a half hours work a day & the rest of the time spent however he likes, is what he told me.  He was to say the least of it modest.  All regulars here love to pull our mens legs, & to pour out lurid stories of war; it is very funny, our new Brigade Major said yesterday that we were by far the best Territorial Battalion he had ever seen, & he has seen the pick of them out here. 

In his short diary for the following day John records

"Monday Nov 9th
Companies find out tonight [...... illegible] to go up 'next day.
Brigadier came to look us up & wish us luck!  1st March.
Tuesday away fairly early, very damp & cold, OK.  that pavee. billets for night at Hazebrouck D'd good bed.  No guns."

[1] Henriques.