Bullets & Billets Part 1

Bullets & Billets.

by Bruce Bairnsfather.


_Down South, in the Valley of the Somme, far from the spots recorded in this book, I began to write this story._

_In billets it was. I strolled across the old farmyard and into the wood beyond. Sitting by a gurgling little stream, I began, with the aid of a notebook and a pencil, to record the joys and sorrows of my first six months in France._

_I do not claim any unique quality for these experiences. Many thousands have had the same. I have merely, by request, made a record of my times out there, in the way that they appeared to me_.




[Illustration: G]

Gliding up the Seine, on a transport crammed to the lid with troops, in the still, cold hours of a November morning, was my debut into the war.

It was about 6 a.m. when our boat silently slipped along past the great wooden sheds, posts and complications of Havre Harbour. I had spent most of the twelve-hour trip down somewhere in the depths of the ship, dealing out rations to the hundred men that I had brought with me from Plymouth. This sounds a comparatively simple process, but not a bit of it. To begin with, the ship was filled with troops to bursting point, and the mere matter of proceeding from one deck to another was about as difficult as trying to get round to see a friend at the other side of the ground at a Crystal Palace Cup final.

I stood in a queue of Gordons, Seaforths, Worcesters, etc., slowly moving up one, until, finally arriving at the companion (nearly said staircase), I tobogganed down into the hold, and spent what was left of the night dealing out those rations. Having finished at last, I came to the surface again, and now, as the transport glided along through the dirty waters of the river, and as I gazed at the motley collection of Frenchmen on the various wharves, and saw a variety of soldiery, and a host of other warlike "props," I felt acutely that now I was _in_ the war at last--the real thing! For some time I had been rehearsing in England; but that was over now, and here I was--in the common or garden vernacular--"in the soup."

At last we were alongside, and in due course I had collected that hundred men of mine, and found that the number was still a hundred, after which I landed with the rest, received instructions and a guide, then started off for the Base Camps.

[Illustration: "Rations"]

These Camps were about three miles out of Havre, and thither the whole contents of the ship marched in one long column, accompanied on either side by a crowd of ragged little boys shouting for souvenirs and biscuits. I and my hundred men were near the rear of the procession, and in about an hour's time arrived at the Base Camps.

I don't know that it is possible to construct anything more atrociously hideous or uninteresting than a Base Camp. It consists, in military parlance, of nothing more than:--

Fields, grassless 1 Tents, bell 500

In fact, a huge space, once a field, now a bog, on which are perched rows and rows of squalid tents.

I stumbled along over the mud with my troupe, and having found the Adjutant, after a considerable search, thought that my task was over, and that I could slink off into some odd tent or other and get a sleep and a rest. Oh no!--the Adjutant had only expected fifty men, and here was I with a hundred.

Consternation! Two hours' telephoning and intricate back-chat with the Adjutant eventually led to my being ordered to leave the expected fifty and take the others to another Base Camp hard by, and see if they would like to have them there.

The rival Base Camp expressed a willingness to have this other fifty, so at last I had finished, and having found an empty tent, lay down on the ground, with my greatcoat for a pillow and went to sleep.

I awoke at about three in the afternoon, got hold of a bucket of water and proceeded to have a wash. Having shaved, washed, brushed my hair, and had a look at the general effect in the polished back of my cigarette case (all my kit was still at the docks), I emerged from my canvas cave and started off to have a look round.

I soon discovered a small cafe down the road, and found it was a place used by several of the officers who, like myself, were temporarily dumped at the Camps. I went in and got something to eat. Quite a good little place upstairs there was, where one could get breakfast each morning: just coffee, eggs, and bread sort of thing. By great luck I met a pal of mine here; he had come over in a boat previous to mine, and after we had had a bit of a refresher and a smoke we decided to go off down to Havre and see the sights.

A tram passed along in front of this cafe, and this we boarded. It took about half an hour getting down to Havre from Bleville where the Camps were, but it was worth it.

Tortoni's Cafe, a place that we looked upon as the last link with civilization: Tortoni's, with its blaze of light, looking-glass and gold paint--its popping corks and hurrying waiters--made a deep and pleasant indent on one's mind, for "to-morrow" meant "the Front" for most of those who sat there.

As we sat in the midst of that kaleidoscopic picture, formed of French, Belgian and English uniforms, intermingled with the varied and gaudy robes of the local nymphs; as we mused in the midst of dense clouds of tobacco smoke, we could not help reflecting that this _might_ be the last time we should look on such scenes of revelry, and came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to make the most of it while we had the chance. And, by Gad, we did....

A little after midnight I parted from my companion and started off to get back to that Base Camp of mine.

Standing in the main square of the town, I realized a few points which tended to take the edge off the success of the evening:

No. 1.--It was too late to get a tram.

No. 2.--All the taxis had disappeared.

No. 3.--It was pouring with rain.

No. 4.--I had three miles to go.

I started off to walk it--but had I known what that walk was going to be, I would have buttoned myself round a lamp-post and stayed where I was.

I made that fatal mistake of thinking that I knew the way.

Leaning at an angle of forty-five degrees against the driving rain, I staggered along the tram lines past the Casino, and feeling convinced that the tram lines must be correct, determined to follow them.

After about half an hour's walk, mostly uphill, I became rather suspicious as to the road being quite right.

Seeing a sentry-box outside a palatial edifice on the right, I tacked across the road and looked for the sentry.

A lurid thing in gendarmes advanced upon me, and I let off one of my curtailed French sentences at him:

"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"

I can't give his answer in French, but being interpreted I think it meant that I was completely on the wrong road, and that he wasn't certain as to how I could ever get back on it without returning to Havre and starting again.

He produced an envelope, made an unintelligible sketch on the back of it, and started me off again down the way I had come.

I realized what my mistake had been. There was evidently a branch tram line, which I had followed, and this I thought could only have branched off near the Casino, so back I went to the Casino and started again.

I was right about the branch line, and started merrily off again, taking as I thought the main line to Bleville.

After another half-hour of this, with eyes feverishly searching for recognizable landmarks, I again began to have doubts as to the veracity of the tram lines. However, pretending that I placed their honesty beyond all doubt, I plodded on; but round a corner, found the outlook so unfamiliar that I determined to ask again. Not a soul about. Presently I discovered a small house, standing back off the road and showing a thin slit of light above the shutters of a downstairs window. I tapped on the glass. A sound as of someone hurriedly trying to hide a pile of coverless umbrellas in a cupboard was followed by the opening of the window, and a bristling head was silhouetted against the light.

I squeezed out the same old sentence:

"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"

A fearful cataract of unintelligible words burst from the head, but left me almost as much in the dark as ever, though with a faint glimmering that I was "warmer." I felt that if I went back about a mile and turned to the left, all would be well.

I thanked the gollywog in the window, who, somehow or other, I think must have been a printer working late, and started off once more.

Chapter end

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