Ch 23: Hughie’s WWI Letters – “Stepping Out” in France

Northampton War Hospital, England,    12.8.1918    As I consider myself top of the morning again, I reckon it is nearly time I started to give you an account of myself over the last eight months… after I stepped over to France last February.

It was raining when we stepped off the paddle steamer at Le Havre – the landing port of all troops entering France.  From the first, we marched through Le Havre to our Base Reinforcements Camp, seven miles on foot through deep mud.  Luckily the weather broke and our two day stay in camp was more pleasant than expected.  (But with) more equipment and weight to carry, off we went back through Le Havre to the station – or rather goods sheds.

Packed in trucks and an all night trip didn’t appeal to us at all, but, come to think of it, that was quite pleasant compared to some of the travelling we did afterwards.  In Rouen early next morning, we marched to rest camp and had four hours leave to have a look at the old city.   I dived straight to the Cathedrals.

Massive front facade of Rouen Cathedral

I simply cannot describe just how wonderful these old places are.  Great steeples and Biblical figures set in pillars – a mass of statuary.  I think the ‘Froggies’ must have thought I was from the bush.  I could only gape in wonder, and yet these places, or such as these, are being destroyed day after day by a nation that is trying to ram ‘Kulture’ down our throats.

Inside Rouen Cathedral


I often wondered just why I came over to this war, but I have only to see one of these cathedrals and the surrounding buildings and imagine myself back in Australia, under conditions similar, and I become as patriotic as ever.

I was reluctant to leave  Rouen but we left this city early in the afternoon, travelled all night and found ourselves at Etaples at daybreak.  A few hours here and it was back to the line at Hesdigneul-lès-Boulogne where I got the brightly coloured sketch I sent home.  A few more miles and we found our Reinforcements Camp at Desvres.  Two days here and a motor ride to the Battalion about eight miles away.  I managed to book myself down for the same company as Snowy and was nearly killed with the extravagance of the welcome he gave me.  A few hours to settle down and off I was dragged to partake of a Blowout.

Next day I was sent to a Lewis gun school and managed to get in the same platoon as Snowy.  Ten glorious days of bonny weather and, then, a ‘stir’ one morning found the (time here) at an end.  We were told we were going forward as Fritz had started to push.  A couple of days march, five days on and off trains brought us to Castre Fernand (?).

After a few miles march, we were billeted outside Steenvoorde, about five miles behind our front line touching the Belgian border.  A night’s rest, a short march and then 30 miles per Motor Bus found us at Ebblinghem from where we marched to billets at Rechinkem (?).  Two days rest and another stiff march to St Omer, then packed in trucks like sheep, heading south.  Things were very bad down the Somme and Australians were being rushed headlong to take the place of a broken army.

Next morning we started out to stop Fritz per foot.  Nobody seemed to have any idea where we were going to find him.  Every body we met seemed to be possessed with just one idea – to get away as far and as fast as possible from the Somme.  Two days later, our Infantry came across the ‘flighty joker’ making his way merrily towards Amiens.  Our 40th Battalion was the first to meet him and there and then proceeded a beautiful dustup.  This (40th) Battalion is reckoned on being the hardest set of ‘Knuts’ in our 3rd Division and Fritz came across a snap (met his match).  Soon our Division was dug in and ready for anything.

Two days later the 4th Division pulled in on our right and then the 2nd on the left.  Our whole Battalion was working like slaves digging trenches for miles behind the new front line.  We were billeted at Heilly and used to walk five miles through mud and slush every night till we had the country a network of trenches.  On our tenth day on the Somme, our Company moved forward to Buire, a village about 300 yards from Fritz.  I spent nine days at this place doing outpost work, took part in stopping a rush of Fritz’s, moved back to Ribemont and took up more pioneering.

After eight weeks in the line our Division was to be relieved and towards the end of our time, our 10th Brigade decided on a hop-over and so we (the Pioneers) had to connect up the new ground taken.  We got into our front line about 11 o’clock and stayed there.  Fritz evidently got wind of the stunt somehow, because he put a barrage down on us and we sat in this until nearly daybreak, when we sneaked off home.  Next night we had another go.  Saw the infantry go over the top and followed them.  Then we were digging for life until each man had a hole deep enough to afford him some protection.

Next morning we moved out for our “spell”.  The spell consisted of a march of about 15 kms., drill every morning and an occasional bit of trench digging.  Our billets were right in Daours, the subject of the picture I sent lately to Tot.  While in this place Fritz started shelling and got a good many Pommies, but none of our boys; why? for the simple reason, we always look for the deepest cellar in every billet we take, and I am beginning to think that is why our losses are fairly light.     (To be Continued)


About davidveitchyoung

I'm interested in my family history, in horticulture, in travel and videography..
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