The following are taken without alteration from daily enties made in an Army Book 129 whilst Dr. Helm was the medical officer attached to the 2nd Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
I mobilised with the 2nd Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 5th Division, stationed at Portobello Barracks, Dublin.
On August 14th 1914 at 5 p.m., we left the barracks for the last time, on our way to the quay. I shall never forget the cheering crowds lining Grafton Street and the bridges. (I wondered at the time how many of the men would come back with the Battalion. Little did I think that within four months, hardly any of them would still be present.)
We embarked on the S.S. Buteshire, an old cargo boat, which ordinarily carried rails to New Zealand. There was no accommodation for officers and we had to sleep on the deck, without any shelter. Luckily it was beautiful weather and the trip round Le Havre was very enjoyable. We arrived there on the night of the 16th, disembarked and had a few hours sleep in a shed. We entrained the next morning and left at 8 p.m., arriving at Landrecies at midday on the 18th.
Our food on the train consisted chiefly of sardines and French bread but we thoroughly enjoyed it. All were as cheery as possible, regarding the future with absolute equanimity, in fact looking on the whole thing as the realisation of the dream of every soldier.
The small village where we detrained was afterwards to become famous in connection with the magnificent stand of the Guards on the Retreat.
We marched to Maroilles that afternoon, where we spent two happy days. The men were given a splendid time in the farms in which they were billeted. People gave them as much butter and milk as they wanted, also fruit and eggs. In fact too much, as I as M.O. found out to my cost.
It was difficult to realise all this time, that in a few days time we were going to be in the midst of the bloodiest war that has ever been known.
The day we started again we were going through the beautiful Foret de Mormal for the greater part of the time. That night we stopped at Houdain, the Officers Headquarters' Mess being in a jolly chateau, where we were royally treated to champagne by the owner.
Up early next morning and off again towards Belgium and the Germans. About 11 o'clock, we crossed the frontier and entered the most hideous type of country I have ever been in, coal mines, slag heaps, and miners' cottages sprinkled about in the utmost confusion.
About 2 p.m. we reached Boussu, a place about one mile south of the Mons-Conde Canal. This was as far as we were destined to go, although we did not know at the time. The inhabitants were overjoyed to see us as they thought they were now free from the advancing terror. They brought out all they had in their houses in the way of cigars, drinks etc. and gave them to the Tommies. The scene was very different the next night when we left the town, going in the opposite direction.
Our Battalion was billeted in a brewery; all us officers shared a loft which was quite dry but unfortunately was full of rats. As soon as we arrived, the rest of the Brigade were sent off to dig trenches along the canals as it was reported that a German Army Corps was approaching us from the direction of Brussels. (This eventually turned out to be Four Corps. The French had given us wrong information.)
The next morning, August 23rd, all was quiet until 1 p.m. when a shrapnel shell burst over the billet. This was the first warning we had that Huns had arrived and it was my first experience of being under fire. The Brigade, was now holding a section of the canal and K.O. Y.L.I, were in reserve and we were at once ordered up to closer quarters. As we marched along the road, the shelling was all on our right but bullets were now coming unpleasantly close. However, we got to our destination, a field about two hundred yards behind the canal, without any casualties. There we lay, flat on our bellies, until evening. Meanwhile, heavy rifle fire was going on all along the line. Bullets and shells were thick and near.
The K.O.S.B.s in front of us were losing rather heavily and about 5 o'clock we went to reinforce them. Our Machine-gun Officer, Lieut. Pepys, was sent across the canal to fire from the upper storey of a small cottage. He did terrific damage to the Germans, as we heard afterwards, before he was killed. The fire then slackened down and as soon as it was dark, the order came to retreat. First of all, the bridges had to be blown up. An R.E. Subaltern laid his charge which, however, refused to go off and he did one of the bravest things I have ever seen: he took his revolver and fired point black at the charge. Again it refused and the bridge was left intact.
The Retreat, one of the most famous in history, had now begun. I had to stay behind the others to bring up a few wounded and I must say it was rather a nervy business as there was nothing between us and the enemy. Their bugles started and call was taken up all along the line. I can remember it distinctly and frequently whistle it to myself. I eventually found the Battalion at Boussu; It was then having a scratch meal of bully-beef and biscuit in which I joined. We were soon off again, going no-one knew where. After four hours, we lay down in a corn field for two hours' sleep and then on again. Just as day broke we were to fight a rearguard action, having found ourselves at a place called Wasmes. The whole district was a mass of slag heaps and the Battalion was placed on three of these. My troubles then began, as I had to find a suitable place for a Dressing Station. After consulting with the Colonel, I chose a cottage behind the middle slag heap. This was quite a good place but as luck would have it, a Howitzer Battery came and placed itself about 200 yards away; this I knew would draw fire but it was too late to move away then.
I brought the Maltese cart with the medical equipment down and unharnessed the horse. I had the surgical dressings etc. brought into the cottage. No sooner was this finished than there was a fearsome crash close by; on looking out I found a shell had burst right in the middle of the battery horses. I rushed down and found a most horrible mess. Several of the horses had been blown to pieces but luckily only two men injured; these I dressed and brought up to my cottage. A gunner officer who was there, on my invitation came up to the cottage for some food; the eternal bully-beef and biscuits eaten with the aid of a pocket knife. As soon as he had left, the Stretcher Bearers brought in two cases from the slag heaps. After this I sat down to write up a few notes but was not allowed to do this as the cottage next door was sent sky high by another shell. I thought it was high time to clear out, but where to go?
Time was not be wasted so we started off, the Stretcher Bearers bringing the wounded. The driver of the cart brought the horse, the cart and the medical panniers being left for the time being. The shells were coming over pretty rapidly then, but we managed to get into a village about a quarter of a mile away. The Brigade by that time had started to move back and I saw I was in danger of losing my cart and panniers, so I decided to make an attempt to get them.
The driver and I, with the horse, started off again and got within about 200 yards of the cottage when over came a shell which burst in the field, not more than ten yards away. We flung ourselves on our faces and escaped with the exception of being covered with dirt. On we went to harness the horse, load the cart and came back at the gallop.
I found the Battalion already marching along the road, which was in a fine state of confusion. Artillery, transport, infantry, all going along together. We were told that the Germans were hard on our heels, but nothing more was seen or heard of them that day.
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