The Autobiography of a First World War Soldier - In France

A.J King

Eventually we reached Dover and spent the day there.  In the evening we embarked on a smallish coaster and escorted by two destroyers to reach Calais at dusk.  A short march brought us to our camp and we were told to ‘kip down’ for the night in a huge marquee.  We fell instantly asleep, but during the night was awakened wet through: a storm had sprung up and brought down the marquee and left us open to the weather.  Little damage was done and next day saw us encamped in bell tents and awaiting further instructions.

Nothing much occurred except  final medical inspection and just hanging around camp or bathing in the warm sea.

One day we were given new identity discs stamped with 12th Norfolk Regt.  This to us was a blow as we were considered as troopers or Hussars.  However we spent about nine days in Calais either playing pontoon, which I learnt for the first time to play, and as a banker was able to win 100 Francs which I promptly lost the following afternoon.  That put me off playing cards.  Apart from one or two visits by “Jerry” planes, nothing of much import happened at Calais.  We were all lined up one day and visited by a mounted Staff officer who informed us that we were to go forth to the front line and show the Germans the stuff British troops were made of, as well as having to listen to one or two of his feeble jokes that made some of the lowest types laugh, but the majority seemed to misfavour.

Into cattle trucks from Calais we travelled next day and eventually reached Abbeville during an air raid.  Next day again in cattle trucks we travelled past Amicus and later arrived at Flessels [Flesselles].  This I believe was a Brigade depot where troops were bedded down in strong chicken wire beds constructed in tiers in a barn.

Lorries left Flessels nightly with supplies for front line troops.

Within two days we found ourselves covered with lice that nested in the trouser seams.  After two days stay we made a long march up to the front area arriving late evening at devastated MERICOURT [Méricourt].  Here our names were called out and we were allocated to companies.  Mine B coy to a short distance away  MORLANCOURT, a wrecked village recently recaptured by the Norfolks.  ‘A’ coy. fellows went straight to the front line.  Our first night was on a ridge overlooking the front lines.  Here we stayed to marvel at the distant sight of bursting shells and a somewhat fireworks of bursting star shells of white, reds & greens.  What they meant we were to find out later.  We soon laid down on the ground to sleep, too tired to care much where we were.

I was soon awakened in the dark by an ex Boer War sergeant of the rough type and told to get some dixies of water, two of us to look sharp about it.  When I asked “from where?” he said follow the lines of bent tin.  These pieces of tin stuck in the ground did reflect some light that led us to coy. H.Q. and water.  Having negotiated that and returned loaded with water we laid ourselves flat again and slept easily until daylight woke us.

Tea and so called breakfast was supplied and soon we were off to our support lines just in front of Morlancourt below the ridge.  A few soldiers were there and our little lot increased their number to make up Coy. B to strength.

A captain and other officers with the ex Boer sargent were there too.  Our corporal a decent type and very friendly took us in hand and showed us the “ropes.”  He told us that the Norfolks had suffered losses at Morlancourt attack and hence our being rushed up from Calais to re-inforce them.  Not a great deal occurred for the first few days and we were gradually learning what life was like in the trenches – rather boring, with little to do or eat and judging where the next shell would fall and listening to them passing overhead.  In fact we became quite expert and eventually realised that we would not remember the one that hit us.  For two or three days the shelling prevented water and food coming to the lines.  Our planes came with some and dropped them in “no mans land” so we remained without food and water, except that collected overnight on our ground sheets in the form of dew.  A staff officer with only one arm arrived that morning, he was beautifully clean with highly polished riding boots and tailored uniform.  He told us to clean our buttons and boots and wanted to know if I had shaved that morning knowing that we had been without water for two days.  I told him that as I was only 18 yrs. I had not begun shaving as no hairs were visible.  I could also have told him that a Parliament order had stated that no “man” under the age of 19 years should be in the front line, but I was afraid that had I done so he would have had me up for insubordination and possibly court marshalled.  He was peeved enough over my catching him out with regards shaving non-existing hairs.

However, when he disappeared a few of the troops told him what they thought of him which revived their spirits and also ushered up water and supplies soon after.

One near miss for me was my water bottle needed re-filling and in the ruined village behind us a water well was available.  It was partly hidden by a 4 ft bank but no doubt visible from “Jerry’s” line for as I passed the embankment to get to the well a bullet wizzed past my head.  Another nearly caught another more experienced soldier who swore he’d get the swine.  Although he looked for the sniper he did not find him and we managed to get to the trenches quite unharmed.

Although my pay book gives service overseas from 3/8/18 to 18/10/18 this is not quite correct as I arrived in Calais on the 25th July 1918 in the 18th Hussars and consequently this later date refers to my transfer on the 3rd August to the 12th Norfolks.  The service book was made out at the 3rd Norfolk Dept. at Felixstowe after the war had ended and I was due for demobilisation.  Therefore those eight or nine days were spent in Calais and going up to Merricourt to join the Norfolks.  The next eighteen days were spent at support lines in Morlancourt.  We knew an attack by us was imminent and preparations were made for the event.

This page was added on 15/12/2016.

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