Extract from the diary of LCpl Walter Williamson, 6th Bn, 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment
[Williamson had sailed from Southampton the day before]
We awakened to find the boat in dock. It was a grey cold morning and not yet daylight. At the other end of the dock was a great hospital ship, lighted up from end to end, and the great red cross on its bulwarks outlined with lights. In the grey cold morning mist it looked almost phantom like. It was a huge ship and would perhaps hold three times as many wounded as ours would hold reinforcements. This caused uncomfortable mental calculations as to how long the British Army would last if the wastage and supplies bore any relation to this incident in the dock at Le Havre. Pat’s voice pulled me up with his “What about it?” “About what?” I asked. “Breakfast” he replied curtly. I had not heard him wake. I had heard him wake each morning for some months past, as he had a habit of saying his prayers rather vehemently before “Cookhouse”, but invariably some minutes later than “Reveille”. His opinion of “Reveille” was that it was unmusical, uncouth, and a barbaric custom, and the man who first blew it, and every man who has blown it since should have his brains dashed out with his own bugle. As it had not been blown this morning, he was up before it for the first time since he joined the Army. I had the good taste (and good sense) not to remark about it, and we went below to see what could be begged, borrowed, bought or scrounged in the way of sustinence. At a little bar down below we managed to secure a cup of coffee and a sandwich or two. The bar keeper’s chief business however, just then, seemed to be exchanging English currency for French at a rate of exchange that would have caused some excitement in the European money markets, and also accepting letters with a suitable fee, for posting when he returned to Southampton. Either the boat was sunk on the return journey, or this man must be comfortably retired from business, perhaps living affluently somewhere in the Isle of Wight, and thanking the gods that he got a job on a “Rooky” boat and not on a leave boat where such childlike simplicity and faith are not to be found.
The man has yet to be found who dared to offer such terms on a leave boat returning to France. Things must have been quiet that morning on the Western Front, as there seemed to be no hurry about getting off the boat, though officers had left the boat early, no doubt o find out at which part of the line the British Army was being most hard pressed, so that we could come up and save the situation.
During the morning the boat was attacked by numerous vendors of picture postcards, on which many of the trusting ones immediately scribbled the latest news and map reference, and handed back to the sellers with a few coppers to cover postage and thirst caused by licking the stamps. These gentlemen were however, quickly bustled off the boat again, but not before they had disposed of most of their stock-in-trade.
Later in the day we disembarked and heard with feelings of pleasure, that we were to go to a rest camp for the night. Up to that day we had no idea that Le Havre was a much bigger port than London or Liverpool, but by the time we were clear of the docks, we felt convinced of it. Perhaps it was that our conducting officer wished to have a good look round the docks, or even may have lost his way. Such a thing has actually been known to happen. The tedium of our exploration was relieved however by our first acquaintance with the blue coated poilus. They had charge of German prisoners working at the docks. Most picturesque old gentlemen they were in their long blue coats with the lapels on the skirts instead of at the collar. Some of them had evidently put on flesh since their campaigning days of 1870/1. They have evidently treasured their rifles and bayonets too, as they looked quite businesslike despite their antiquity. We really did envy them their beards, and we understood why they look so happy. The morning shave and chin inspections held no terrors for them.
On getting into the town itself, we were assailed by most of the youngsters in the immediate neighbourhood who demanded souvenirs in the shape of buttons, badges, biscuits and bully. It gave the idea that their knowledge of English was confined to words commencing with “B”, but on being told to “Allez toute suite” we found that they were quite well up in many other words culled from the British Army Vocabulary.
After marching some distance through the town, we halted for a rest outside a huge French Barracks which looked very inviting, but that was as far as the invitation got.
On the far side of the road was a little shop whose sign read “BOISSONS”. A few dared and dived for it, and N.C.O.’s were immediately sent in chase and they were brought out (after the N.C.O.’s had quenched their thirst). One poor soul who had not been, was heard confiding that he would have gone too, but thought “Boissons” was French for fish. His sorrow was alleviated however by those who had been, and declared that the sign should have read “POISONS”.
We were soon on the march again, leaving the business quarter behind, along to the residential outskirts, along the fine promenade, past the Kursaal (now being used as a hospital) and on to the foot of the hill of Ingouville. Wise authorities decreed that Rest Camps in France should invariably be situated at the top of a hill, the higher and steeper the better. This is to ensure that everyone who arrives is really in need of a rest. The Officer in charge of the draft had been unable to find any transport to convey his kit to the Rest Camp, and had been carried along in turn to the back of the procession, by men of the draft. It was a most inopportune moment for such a thing to happen as we were just pulling ourselves together for the last weary lap up the hill, but just then someone came along the ranks and asked if Pat and I had yet done turn at carrying the kit. We endeavoured to look as if he was speaking to someone else, but his query was too pointed and well directed to miss, so we pleaded guilty and expressed our pleasure at being allowed to assist in any way that might bring the war to an early and successful conclusion, Right the wrong of Belgium, roll back the invading Hun, and -er-carry the blessed kit. We were soon of the opinion that the officer had made a very big hole in his Kit Allowance, and had left nothing behind him. We discovered his name on the kit and wondered if he would provide for our wives and children, should either or both of us die from a broken heart before we reached that Rest Camp. We were saved from this fate, being relieved by two more unlucky mortals who did not seem as pleased to see the kit, as we were, to lose sight of it. Eventually we reached the top of the hill and found the Rest Camp.
The most noticeable features of a Rest Camp are its latrines and refuse incinerators, then one notices that the tents are in bad repair. We were numbered off into tents, care being taken to put sufficient men into each tent to prevent the canvas from shrinking. After being supplied with a meal we were informed that any letters for post would be collected for censoring in an hours time.
Then brains were racked as to what might, may, should or could be put in a letter. Was the officer married or single? Callous or sympathetic? Would it be wise to address the wife as pre-censorship days, or would it be wiser to address her as “Dear Mary Jane” and stand the chance of her thinking that you were quickly cooling off? Enough information however was a way to let interested persons know that we had safely crossed the channel, and that no submarine had interfered with our affairs sufficiently to cut our budding military careers short, in favour of Channel swimming.
After finding out that there was no chance of having a look round Havre, we made for the next place of interest – the Canteen. One locates a canteen in a camp by the direction of the traffic. On arriving there, an enquiry for “Bass” elicited the fact that “Beer only” was sold. The French barman evidently was under the impression that what we required was a fish shop. The beer itself was distinctly discouraging, so we went dry and tried the coffee in the dry canteen. When this excitement palled, we returned to our tent and got into our blankets for the night. Having been unlucky in the scramble for places, we were fixed up near the tent flap, and made a capital door mat for the latecomers.