Chapter 2 Behind British Lines


Julius Ochs Adler

Behind the British Front

FROM the time of our arrival at Calais until we left the British Sector, our work and our emotions might be summed up in one word-"Turmoil." We moved into the British rest camp as soon as we arrived and here we found a new language and certainly a new ration. For breakfast we had jam and tea; for dinner-jam, tea and meat; for supper-jam, tea, and cheese. We had expected bacon and eggs for breakfast and similar dishes for dinner and supper. We were not tea drinkers, and missed the good old Mocha. Major Bulger, with his constant sense of humor, was the only thing that saved the situation. However, the French estaminets were running wide open and our "dollar per" certainly came in handy in helping out the meager menu.

We walked about the streets in Calais and at last realized that we were part of an international army. We encountered British, French, Belgians and Portuguese, all members of the Allied forces with which we were to be associated in this war. Some of us who were historically inclined inspected the old forts built by the great Cardinal Richelieu as a defense against the English. Others sought the easily acquired dictionaries in an attempt to learn a new language. A curious mistake occurred among the French people on their first sight of our officers. The insignia of rank on the overcoat sleeve was taken for wound stripes and the officers became heroes at once in the eyes of their French friends. Of course the "Second Louie" was "S.O.L.": he had no stripes.

The rest camp was a target for the German bombers on their periodical trips to the coast and so often did they drop their bombs that some sergeant in the Regiment propounded the conundrum, "When is a rest camp not a rest camp?"

Each day developed some new problem, designed, we were sure, to bring about greater turmoil and confusion. We drew the British gas masks and helmets, and then had to turn in our trusty Springfields and take Lee-Enfields as substitutes. There was a reason for this, but how we did hate to give up the Springfields with which we had led the Division at target practice at Camp Upton!

The 1st Battalion had left Calais before we arrived, and on the 6th of May the remainder of the Regiment was loaded in small French cars and after a short ride detrained at Audricq. From there the Headquarters marched to Bonningues, where it joined the 1st Battalion; the 2nd Battalion went to Norbecourt, and the 3rd Battalion to Landretham.

The 2nd Battalion was out of luck, for after getting comfortably settled in its billets at Norbecourt, it was moved to Licques, and after settling there, in less than a week was moved again, to Audenfort.

Our training staff was from the British 39th Division, and Brigadier General Wyeth was in immediate charge of the training of our regiment. Schools were the rage. Rifle schools, machine-gun schools, bayonet schools-and each under a British instructor, to whose language we had to become accustomed . . . "Carry on," "Cheerio," "Smartly now, smartly ... .. Stand easy" ; but the one which seemed to fit the situation, insofar as we were concerned, was "Fed up." And there was rain, those downpours so typical of "Sunny France." A demonstration platoon showed us how to do everything, even to singing on the march.

At night we could hear the rumble of cannon in the vicinity of Kemmel Hill and "Wipers," and it was not long before our friend, the Boche, was notified of our arrival. His bombers first visited Division Headquarters near Eperlecques and here occurred the first eight casualties of the Division. A week later they dropped a bomb in the yard of the chateau used as Regimental Headquarters, but fortunately with no damage.

It was our first experience with the French billeting system, and with "Monsieur Cootie" with whom we were to become so intimately acquainted and who, insisted on occupying our beds with us. Barns, cow-stalls, and what we later guessed to be pigpens were used as billets. However, this was all a part of what we had been told to expect and I we were now beginning to find ourselves in this constantly growing turmoil of war.

The British here were not quite as optimistic as the major r we met in Folkestone, for here we were informed that we "had come too late," and that "they were only waiting to see what terms the Germans would give them." This did I not sound good to us, for we had come a long way to take part in this great adventure and we could not see it come to an end without getting in at least a lick or two.

Officers were sent in small parties to the British Front to get a taste of what a real war was. They were taken I as near the lines as possible in buses and when these could I not proceed any farther, hiking was in order. On one of these visits Captains Wolff and Johnson were detailed to visit the front and were taken to the trenches held by the New Zealanders in front of Bois-les-Artois. At Division Headquarters they were wined and dined in the usual Brit-ish manner. The next morning they were taken to Regimental Headquarters and again here they were treated most hospitably, and in company with runners started for the front line trenches. While on their way, they met another runner conducting a very important-looking officer.
"Whom have we here?" he stopped to inquire.
"The American Army," replied Captain Wolff.
"What a shame, one gas shell and the American Army would be annihilated !"
He was the Commanding General of the British Division
in that sector and had been making his daily round of the front lines.

Our visiting officers found the Englishman would not give up his tea habit and at four o'clock he stopped fighting. He must have his tea! The Boche -was a most discourteous fellow for interrupting this national custom.

There were maneuvers and long marches, but the prize of them all was the "Battle of Watten." The Regiment received its orders to march, but no one could interpret them. Was it a permanent move, was it a maneuver, or was it a temporary change of base? Not knowing the answer, the only thing to do was to move everything, and some of the men tried to move it all in their packs. The march was about eighteen miles and we were supposed to take over " the trenches" immediately upon our arrival at our destination. It was the hottest day in May. Flat feet began to show up, men began to fall out, ambulances were busy and new vocabularies were being invented every minute. The best that can be said is that sometime during the night the battalions were in place, the "trenches" were taken over and a bogus counter-attack was repulsed.

Headquarters of the Regiment was, established in a small bedroom on Ferme-du-Ham, where the furnishings consisted of one bed, two chairs and a broken-legged table. A telephone was installed to the front line, and maps were spread out on the bed as the Colonel and his Adjutant, Captain Thacher, prepared to order proper counter-attacks against the assaults of the "enemy," which were represented by squads of "Tommies" under a most enterprising and energetic young Britisher.

Wires were kept hot with messages of bogus raids, machine-gun fire, grenade attacks; and then, to cap the climax, every general within twenty miles came in to inspect -the Division Commander, the Brigade Commander, the Commanding General of the adjacent brigade, the Commanding General of the British 37th Division; and, finally, when headquarters was beginning to congratulate itself that these visits had ceased, in walked General Plumer with his staff of glittering "Brass Hats." The General asked the Colonel if there had been many visits of inspection, to which the Colonel replied, "Yes, sir-it has been raining Generals all day." It took but a moment for the General to understand, but it apparently was a hopeless task to explain it to his staff. The General did not hear the last of it until he left the shores of France.

It was on this march that Major Bulger suffered a serious injury in a fall with his horse and was later evacuated. He did not join us again till after the Armistice. Captain Thacher was assigned to command E Company and, later, the 2nd Battalion, and Captain Wolff was appointed Adjutant.

We did not have an easy time during the entire period we were in the British Sector, but the "Battle of Watten" takes the prize for any three days during our whole stay in Pas-de-Calais.

Rumors were rife. A move was in the air which on the 6th of June became a reality. We bade good-by to our English friends and marched south, passing through the little towns of Wavrans, Lugy, Crepy, Mortringham, Lisbourg and Elnes. There was nothing in these towns to buy. They had been used for billets for three years and there was not a chicken in sight. "CEufs" were not to be had. On the 9th of June we entrained at Anvin in the famous "40 hommes et 8 chevaux." As a rule, two partly demolished passenger coaches were attached to these trains for the officers, but it was not unusual to see them vacating the coaches in a short time to take refuge in the "40 and 8's."

On our last day's march before entraining at Anvin we passed along the sunken road on the battlefield of Agincourt, a battle fought on the 25th of October, 1415. Here a young English officer who had made a study of this battle described it to a party of our officers. The English and French were drawn up in opposing lines about three hundred yards apart in plain sight of each other-archers, crossbow-men, knights in heavy armor, dismounted men-at-arms, and battle-flags by the score. Here was all the panoply of war. Fanfares were sounded and war drums rolled, challenges were given and accepted and both sides signified their readiness. Finally the English, under Henry the Fifth, became weary of waiting and moved to the attack. What chivalry ! What a spectacle ! And here we were in the twentieth century with every modern convenience and weapon of war preparing to fight from trenches and, from what the British had told us, chivalry was entirely lacking.

On the morning of the 10th we were awakened early and had our first taste of French coffee-and-rum. That was all the hot food we had that day; the rest of our meals came from "airtights" carried in the cars. On the 13th, Headquarters detrained at Hadigny, the 1st Battalion at Rambervilliers, the 2nd Battalion at Chatel-Nomexy, and the 3rd Battalion at Charmes. We had paralleled practically the entire Allied battlefront-through Saint-Pol, Doublens, Amiens, Clermont, Paris, Vitry, Commercy and Toul.

After a three-day march from the small village of Romont, through Fontenoy, Badminil, Vaxainville, Azerailles, Gelacourt and Baccarat, Regimental Headquarters was established on June 19th at Brouville, with the three battalions in camp at Camp de Grand Voivre, which we considered too good a name for what the men of the Regiment termed "Camp Mud." We had arrived in the Baccarat Sector, which had been used for the past three years to rest up tired and worn-out divisions of the Allied forces, and where we were to make our first contact with the enemy. We knew we had arrived at our destination, for the day following the establishment of Regimental Headquarters a German plane came over and dropped leaflets which read, "Good-by, 42nd Division. Hello, 77th."

We had spent practically two months with the, British, and at last we were in the trenches on the Western Front.
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