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Bullets & Billets Part 12

"What's topping?" I asked.

"Why, we're going to have about ten day's rest; we clear off out of here to-morrow to a village about three miles away, and our battalion will billet there. Where we go after that I don't know; but, anyway, ten days' rest. Ten days' rest!!"

"Come and split one at the Faucon d'Or?"

"No thanks, I've just had one."

"Well, come and have another."

CHAPTER XXVI

A PLEASANT CHANGE--SUZETTE, BERTHE AND MARTHE--"LA JEUNE FILLE FAROUCHE"--ANDRe

On the next morning we left Bailleul, and the whole of our battalion marched off down one of the roads leading out into the country in a westerly direction. The weather was now excellent; so what with a prospect of a rest, fine weather and the departure from the Wulverghem trenches, we were all very merry and bright, and "going strong" all round. It seemed to us as if we had come out of some dark, wet under-world into a bright, wholesome locality, suitable for the habitation of man.

Down the long, straight, dusty road we marched, hop yards and bright coloured fields on either side, here and there passing prosperous looking farms and estaminets: what a pleasant change it was from that ruined, dismal jungle we had so recently left! About three or four miles out we came to a village; the main road ran right through it, forming its principal street. On either side small lanes ran out at right angles into the different parts of the village. We received the order to halt, and soon learnt that this was the place where we were to have our ten days' rest. A certain amount of billets had been arranged for, but, as is generally the case, the machine-gun section have to search around for themselves; an advantage really, as they generally find a better crib this way than if somebody else found it for them. As soon as we were "dismissed," I started off on a billet search. The transport officer was again with me on the same quest. We separated, and each searched a different part of the village. The first house I went into was a dismal failure. An old woman of about 84 opened the door about six inches, and was some time before she permitted the aperture to widen sufficiently to allow me to go inside the house. A most dingy, poky sort of a place, so I cleared off to search for something better. As I crossed the farmyard behind, my servant, who had been conducting a search on his own, suddenly appeared round the corner of the large barn at the end of the yard, and came towards me.

"I've found a place over 'ere, Sir, I expect you'll like."

"Where?" I asked.

"This way, Sir!" and he led the way across a field to a gate, which we climbed. We then went down a sort of back lane to the village, and turned in at a small wicket-gate leading to a row of cottages. He led me up to one in the centre, and knocked at the door. A woman opened it, and I told her what I was looking for. She seemed quite keen for us to go there, and asked if there was anyone else to come there with me. I told her the transport officer would be coming there too, and our two servants. She quite agreed to this, and showed me the rooms we could have. They were extremely small, but we decided to have them. "Them"

consisted of one bedroom, containing two beds, the size of the room being about fourteen feet by eight, and the front kitchen-sitting-room place, which was used by everybody in the house, and was about twice the size of the bedroom. I went away and found the transport officer, brought him back and showed him the place. He thought it a good spot, so we arranged to fix up there.

Our servants started in to put things right for us, get our baggage there, and so on, whilst I went off to see to billets for the machine-gun section. I had got them a pretty good barn, attached to the farm I first called at, but I wanted to go and see that it was really large enough and suitable when they had all got in and spread themselves. I found that it did suit pretty well. The space was none too large, but I felt sure we wouldn't find a better. There was a good field for all the limbers and horses adjoining, so on the whole it was quite a convenient place. The section had already got to work with their cooking things, and had a fire going out in the field. Those gunners were a very self-contained, happy throng; they all lived together like a family, and were all very keen on their job.

I returned to my cottage to see how things were progressing. My man had unrolled my valise, and put all my things out and about in the bedroom.

I took off all my equipment, which I was still wearing, pack, haversacks, revolver, binoculars, map case, etc., and sat down in the kitchen to take stock of the situation. I now saw what the family consisted of; and by airing my feeble French, I found out who they were and what they did. The woman who had come to the door was the wife of a painter and decorator, who had been called up, and was in a French regiment somewhere in Alsace.

Another girl who was there was a friend, and really lived next door with her sister, but owing to overcrowding, due to our servants and some French relatives, she spent most of her time in the house I was in.

The owner of the place was Madame Charlet-Flaw, Christian name Suzette.

The other two girls were, respectively, Berthe and Marthe. Ages of all three in the order I have mentioned them were, I should say, twenty-eight, twenty-four, and twenty. The place had, I found, been used as billets before. I discovered this in two ways.

Firstly: On the mantelpiece over the old stove I saw a collection of many kinds of regimental badges, with a quantity of English magazines.

Secondly, after I had been talking for some time, Suzette answered my remarks with one of her stock English sentences, picked up from some former lodgers, "And very nice too," a phrase much in vogue at that time.

The transport officer, who had been out seeing about something or other, soon returned, and with him came the regimental doctor, who had got his billets all right, but had come along to see how we were fixed up. A real good chap he was, one of the best. All six of us now sat about in the kitchen and talked over things in general. We were a very cheery group. The transport officer, doctor and myself were all thoroughly in the mood for enjoying this ten days' rest. To live amongst ordinary people again, and see the life of even a village, was refreshing to us.

We had a pretty easy afternoon, and all had tea in that kitchen, after which I went out and round to look up my old pals in A company. They had, I found, got hold of the Cure's house, the village parson's rectory, in fact. It was a square, plain-looking house, standing very close to the church, and they all seemed very comfortable there. The Cure himself and his housekeeper only had three rooms reserved for themselves, the rest being handed over to the officers of A company. I stayed round there for a bit, having a talk and a smoke, and we each of us remarked in turn, about every five minutes, what a top-hole thing it was that we had got this ten days' rest.

I then went back to our cottage, where I had a meal with the transport officer, conversing the while with Suzette, Berthe and Marthe. I don't know which I liked the best of these three, they were all so cheery and hospitable. Marthe was the most interesting from the pictorial point of view. She was so gipsy-like to look at: brown-skinned, large dark eyes, exceeding bright, with a sort of sparkling, wild look about her. I called her "La jeune fille farouche" (looked this up first before doing so), and she was always called this afterwards. It means "the young wild girl"; at least I hope it means that. The doctor came back again after dinner, and we all proceeded to fill the air in the small kitchen with songs and tobacco-smoke. The transport officer was a "Corona Corona"

expert, and there he would sit with his feet up on the rail at the side of the stove, smoking one of these zeppelins of a cigar, till we all went to bed.

There was an heir to the estate in that cottage--one Andre, Suzette's son, aged about five. He went to bed early, and slept with wonderful precision and persistence whilst we were making noise enough to wake the Cure a hundred yards away. But, when we went to bed, this little demon saw fit to wake, and continue a series of noises for several hours. He slept in a small cot alongside Suzette's bed, so it was her job, and not mine, to smack his head.

Anyway, we all managed very comfortably and merrily in those billets, and I look back on them very much as an oasis in a six months' desert.

CHAPTER XXVII

GETTING FIT--CARICATURING THE CURe-- "DIRTY WORK AHEAD"--A PROJECTED ATTACK--UNLOOKED-FOR ORDERS

Military life during our ten days was to consist of getting into good training again in all departments. After long spells of trench life, troops get very much out of strong, efficient marching capabilities, and are also apt to get slack all round. These rests, therefore, come periodically to all at the front, and are, as it were, tonics. If men stayed long enough in trenches, I should say, from my studies in evolution, that their legs would slowly merge into one sort of fin-like tail, and their arms into seal-like flappers. In fact, time would convert them into intelligent sea-lions, and render them completely in harmony with their natural life.

Our tonic began by being taken, one dose after meals, twice daily. In the morning the battalion generally went for a long route march, and in the afternoon practised military training of various kinds in the fields about the village. My whole time was occupied with machine-gun training.

Morning and afternoon I and my sections went off out into the country, and selecting a good variegated bit of land proceeded to go through every phase of machine-gun warfare. We practised the use of these weapons in woods, open fields, along hedges, etc. It was an interesting job. We used to decide on some section of ground with an object to be attacked in the distance, and approach it in all kinds of ways.

Competitions would follow between the different sections. The days were all bright, warm and sunny, so life and work out in the fields and roads there was quite pleasant. Each evening we assembled in our cheerful billet, and thus our rest went on. My sketching now broke out like a rash. I drew a great many sketches. I joked in pencil for every one, including Suzette, Berthe and Marthe. I am sorry to say I plead guilty to having cast a certain amount of ridicule at the Cure. He was so splendidly austere, and wore such funny clothes, that I couldn't help perpetrating several sketches of him. The disloyalty of his parishioners was very marked in the way they laughed at these drawings, which were pinned up in the row of cottages. Sometimes I would let him off for a day, and then he would come drifting past the window again, with his "Dante" face, surmounted by a large curly, faded black hat, and I gave way to temptation again.

He didn't like soldiers being billeted in his village, so Suzette told me. I think he got this outlook from his rather painful experiences when the Germans were in the same village, prior to being driven north. They had locked him up in his own cellar for four or five days, after removing his best wine, which they drank upstairs. This sort of thing _does_ tend towards giving one a bitter outlook. He preached a sermon whilst we were there. I didn't hear it, but was told about it simultaneously by Suzette, Berthe and Marthe, who informed me that it was directed against soldiery in general. His text had apparently been "Do not trust them, gentle ladies." A gross libel. I retaliated immediately by drawing a picture of him, with a girl sitting on each knee, singing "The soldiers are going, hurrah! hurrah!" (tune--"The Campbells are coming").

I'm afraid I was rather a canker in his village.

One day, my dear old friend turned up, the same who accompanied me on leave to England. He didn't know we were having our rest, and searched for me first behind Wulverghem. He there heard where we were, and came on. He was rather a star in a military way, and could, therefore, get hold of a car now and again. I was delighted to see him, as it was possible for me to go into Bailleul with him for the afternoon. We went off and had a real good time at the "Faucon d'Or." We went out for a short drive round in the evening, and then parted. He was obliged to get back to somewhere near Bethune that night. The next day I was just starting off on my machine-gun work when an orderly arrived with a message for me. The Colonel wanted to see me at headquarters. I went along, and arriving at his house found all the company commanders, the second in command, and the Adjutant, already assembled there.

"Dirty work ahead," I thought to myself, and went into the Colonel's room with the others. Enormous maps were produced, and we all stood and listened.

"We are going to make an attack," started the Colonel, so I saw that my conjecture wasn't far wrong. He explained the details to us all there, and pointed out on the maps as many of the geographical features of the forthcoming "show" as he could, after which he told us that, that very afternoon, we were all to go on a motor-bus, that would come for us, down to the allotted site for the "scrap," to have a look at the ground.

This was news, if you like: a thunderbolt in the midst of our rural serenity. At two o'clock the bus arrived, and we, the chosen initiated few, rattled off down the main street of the village and away to the scene of operations. Where it was I won't say (cheers from Censor), but it took us about an hour to get there. We left the motor-bus well back, and walked about a couple of miles up roads and communication trenches until we reached a line of trenches we had never seen before. A wonderful set of trenches they were, it seemed to us; beautifully built, not much water about, and nice dug-outs. The Colonel conferred with several authorities who had the matter in hand, and then, pointing out the sector in front which affected us, told us all to study it to the best of our ability. I spent the time with a periscope and a pair of binoculars drinking in the scene. It's difficult to get a good view of the intervening ground between opposing lines of trenches in the day time, when one's only means of doing so is through a periscope. Night is the time for this job, when you can go in front and walk about. This ground which we had come to see was completely flat, and one had to put a periscope pretty high over the parapet to see the sort of thing it was. It was no place to put your head up to have a look. A bullet went smack into the Colonel's periscope and knocked it out of his hand.

However, with time and patience, we formed a pretty accurate idea of the appearance of the country opposite. Behind the German trench was the remains of a village, a few of the houses of which were up level with the Boche front line. A great scene of wreckage. Every single house was broken, and in a crumbling state. This was the place we had to take.

Other regiments were to take other spots on the landscape on either side, but this particular spot was our objective. I stared long and earnestly at the wrecks in front and the intervening ground. "About a two-hundred yard sprint," I thought to myself. We stayed in the trenches an hour or two, and then all went back to a spot a couple of miles away and had tea, after which we mounted the motor-bus and drove back home to our village. We had got something to think about now all right;--the coming "show" was the feature uppermost in our lives now. Every one keen to get at it, as we all felt sure we could push the Boches out of that place when the time came. We, the initiated few, had to keep our "inside" information to ourselves, and it was supposed to be a dark mystery to the rest of the battalion. But I imagine that anyone who didn't guess what the idea was must have been pretty dense. When a motor-bus comes and takes off a group of officers for the day, and brings them back at night, one would scarcely imagine that they had been to a cricket match, or on the annual outing.

Well, the "tumbril," as we called it, arrived each day for nearly a week, and we drove off gaily to the appointed spot and saturated ourselves in the characteristics of the land we were shortly to attack.

In the mornings, before we started, I took the machine-gun sections out into the fields, and by mapping out a similar landscape to the one we were going to attack, I rehearsed the coming tribulation as far as possible. My gunners were a pretty efficient lot, and I was sure they would give a good account of themselves on "der Tag." We practised bolting across a ploughed field, and coming into action, until we could do it in record time. My sergeant and senior corporal were both excellent men.

The whole battalion were now in excellent trim, and ready for anything that came along. A date had been fixed for the "show," and now, day by day, we were rapidly approaching it. It was Friday, I remember, when, as we were all sitting in our billets thinking that we were to leave on Sunday, a fresh thunderbolt arrived. A message was sent round to us all to stand-to and be ready to move off that evening. Before the appointed day! What could be up now? I was full of enthusiasm and curiosity, but was rather hampered by having been inoculated the day before, and was feeling a bit quaint in consequence. However, I pulled myself together, and set about collecting all the machine gunners, guns and accessories.

We said good-bye to the fair ones at the billets, and by about five o'clock in the evening the whole battalion, transport and all, was lined up on the main road. Soon we moved off. Why were we going before our time? Where were we going to? Nobody knew except the Colonel, but it was not long before we knew as well.

CHAPTER XXVIII

WE MARCH FOR YPRES--HALT AT LOCRE--A BLEAK CAMP AND MEAGRE FARE--SIGNS OF BATTLE--FIRST VIEW OF YPRES

We marched off in the Bailleul direction, and ere long entered Bailleul.

We didn't stop, but went straight on up the road, out of the town, past the Asylum with the baths. It was getting dusk now as we tramped along.

"The road to Locre," I muttered to myself, as I saw the direction we had taken. We were evidently not going to the place we had been rehearsing for.

"Locre? Ah, yes; and what's beyond Locre?" I pulled out my map as we went along. "What's on beyond Locre?" I saw it at a glance now, and had all my suspicions confirmed. The word YPRES stood out in blazing letters from the map. Ypres it was going to be, sure enough.

Chapter end

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