An article written by one of the Old Contemptibles

As soon as I was able, I started to carry out my intention to enlist and was surprised after applying to join three separate regiments including the Middlesex, the East Surrey and the H.A.C., to be rejected in each case on medical grounds. Apparently the military training in those days centred on proficiency with the rifle or gun for which good sight was essential, and having been born with astigmatism my sight was defective.

However, having heard of a Mechanical Transport Unit being formed at Acton, and having had experience in the motor trade, I applied and was accepted, and enlisted at the Old Scotland Yard in Whitehall on the 14th October 1914.

This Mechanical Transport Unit became No. 323 Company A.S.C. and were billeted at Wildcroft, Putney Heath, where we started training: we were taken to Grove Park to be issued with our uniforms and kit.

When war was declared in 1914 the Army was in the middle of the process of converting from horse drawn to mechanical transport, and there must have been an urgent requirement for personnel as we had only just started our preliminary training when we were ordered to proceed on active service in France.

Our convoy paraded about the 27th October and proceeded to Avonmouth where we boarded a converted cattle boat named The Artist which had been swilled out to make it comfortable(?) for us. The weather was rough and most of our chaps were sick in the fo'castle, so I preferred, to sleep on deck in spite of the weather.

We landed at Boulogne and proceeded to St. Omer where we parked for the night. As we were about to proceed on our journey I noticed a Staff car entering the town with a high ranking officer in the back seat, and recognised "Bobs", Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, I heard later that he had. died of pneumonia soon after, The route to our destination near Vlamiertinghe lay through Haz├ębrouck, which was then the head-quarters of the Second Army, where we halted to unable some necessary mechanical repairs to be made.

Our convoy included a section of Motor Cycle Dispatch Riders of which I had become one, and news of our arrival in the town must have become known because a message was received for the services of a Despatch Rider front Headquarters, and I was detailed for the job.

I was ordered to report to Surgeon General Porter, the Director of Medical Services, and when I arrived at his office he explained that there had been some action in the area of Ypres, and he particularly wanted information regarding casualties to be collected from units which had been involved. The General provided me with a map and pocket torch, and gave me three dispatches which he wanted delivered, and replies thereto obtained, as soon as possible. The General explained that there was straight road. to Ypres passing through Poperinghe and Vlamertinghe, and the units I had to contact were stationed just on the other side of Ypres off the Menin road.

I remember when I set off it was drizzling with rain and I found the road very greasy, making riding very difficult, and when it became dark of course we were not allowed lights. I think I must have been too interested to be worried about my task as, after all, I was only really a civilian in uniform at the time.

My first introduction to modern warfare was when I reached the town of Ypres and heard the whistle and crack of a shell, and I will try to describe my memory of the scene as I passed through the Square on what I think must have been the 31st October. The town must have been shelled several times before, as many of the buildings had been damaged or destroyed and the rubble had cascaded down, although the road had been kept clear. The wooden beams of the buildings had been burning and were still smouldering, and a light wind was making them glow giving a rather eerie effect. I passed a gun battery: one of the horses had been hit and the team were cutting the traces and pulling the poor animal away from the road where it was kicking its life away. That very fine building the Cloth Hall, which was the centre of the Flemish weaving industry, had also been damaged.

When I reached the Menin road I made enquiries and located the Command units I had to find after some difficulty: I then had to wait for some time for the replies I had to collect, and I was able start my return journey in the early hours of the morning. As I was returning through the town of Ypres Jerry was still lobbing the odd shells over. I was dead tired, and when I saw what must have been a First Aid Post, one of the RAMC men called me over and offered me a mug of tea, for which I was very grateful. They also had an enamel basin containing rum, and thinking it would buck me up I drank a dose. As it was Army rum, 100% proof, and I wasn't used to alcohol, in a few minutes I became drunk, and have no recollection of how I got back to my billet, but I collapsed in the road outside and my mates picked me up and put me In my "kip" where I awoke several hours later and was horribly sick.

And so ended my first introduction to modern warfare which wasn't a bit like my idea of Spion Kop or the Relief of Ladysmith.

Other incidents of a similar nature occurred in the Ypres salient until the 22nd. November, by which date I became entitled to the Mons Star with Bar, a decoration of which I am very proud.

Throughout my period of active service in the Ypres Salient I remained on the strength of the original Mechanical Transport Company, and drew my army pay from them, although much of the time I was "seconded" or on loan to various Brigade or Divisional, Headquarters as a Dispatch Rider responsible for delivering dispatches to their operational units in the forward area and collecting replies which, presumably, contained the required information.

These duties, travelling on roads frequently being damaged by shellfire and having a very treacherous surface in wet weather, made life a bit "hairy" at times. I came to know the roads and surrounding country of the Salient better than those of my home town. The duties of a Dispatch Rider were risky and arduous, but were nothing in comparison with the ordeal suffered by the men who manned the front line trenches, and the conditions under which they existed, I occasionally saw from a distance. Did those who lived at home and slept in a dry bed ever realise how much they owed to these men?

For those who are interested in the history of our country I would recommend them to read "The Mons Star" by David Ascoli, published by Harraps, which will enable them to understand the debt this country owed to that splendid body of men who formed the British Expeditionary Force during the first vital months of the 1914-1918 war. They were the "salt of the earth" and I was very proud to have had the privilege of serving with them although in a humbler capacity.

Back to top