through france to italy

 
 

1917

Our daily food issue was one tin of bully beef per man, army biscuits, jam, tea sugar and milk.  It seems strange that up to this point all our water had been heavily dosed with chloride and now we were left to get our water from any source we could.  In the event it came from the tanks in railway sidings, which were used to supply the engines.  The first need was for utensils in which to stock up with water, and also a fire and fuel. The  two gallon petrol can was the obvious answer. These were in plentiful supply on the lorries loaded at the back of the train, and we helped ourselves to what we needed. With the top of the can cut off, and holes punched in the sides and bottom, we had our wood-burning stove.  We took wood on board as we travelled along, fences, gates, empty wooden cases lying on railway platforms, hence the damage done to property along the route.  The other cans we filled with water and we kept them topped up as opportunity offered.


About the middle of the afternoon we set off. I remember thinking that I was already a long way from home, but now I was going to add still further to the distance.  By tea time we were at Calais, and as it was now getting dark, we prepared to settle for the night.  We had no lighting apart for the odd candle and these we had to use sparingly as we had no idea when we could get fresh supplies.  When we got down to sleep, we realised that the chevaux had all the advantages.  It was a hopeless mix-up of legs and bodies, and it was soon apparent that sleep wouldn’t come very easily.  If one moved, then everybody else had to move and throughout the night there was one or another wanting to “spend a penny”. This meant getting to the sliding door of the truck, treading on recumbent bodies there and back again.


Those trodden on cursed and hit out, and everybody else laughed their heads off. Almost as soon as we settled down again somebody else decided to answer the call and so it went on all through the night.  As we were laying on the floor of the truck, the bumping of the wheels over the joints of the rails was like a bang on the head with a hammer. It was a relief when daylight came and we could get up and with that, the problem of getting washed. We had to be ready to leave the train whenever it stopped anywhere near water, have a quick sluish and scramble back before the train moved off again.  We ran into Paris in the early morning so it had taken all night to travel less than two hundred miles from Calais.  This was just about typical of our rate of progress throughout the whole journey.  On the back and above our truck was a small brake cabin, and I bagged this, and spent all of my days up there. This gave me a wonderful view in all directions, and as we travelled further into the South of France, the views were superb.  Most of the others sat in the doorway of the truck, with their legs dangling outside, others rode on the buffers.  One or two had mishaps on the way but nothing serious.


We followed the River Seine and I remember passing through Troyes, Dijon and then Lyons.  From Lyons we travelled the Rhone Valley and this was like being in another world.  We were now far enough south to encounter warmer summer-like weather.
The rugged scenery of the Rhone Valley has to be seen to be believed, but what was more striking was the feeling that time had stood still for many hundreds of years.  In many of the small towns through which we passed were oxen pulling crude and heavy wooden carts, oxen harnessed to ploughs in the fields, and the sight of peasant women driving their herds of goats up the hillsides to the pastures.  I felt that time had turned back almost to biblical days, and it took some effort to bring myself back to the realities of the situation.  In any case oxen were still in common use in Northern Italy as a beast of burden, so it soon became commonplace to me. The only alternative was the horse and these were now in short supply and expensive because of the demand created by the war, and the tractor had not yet come into being.


By now we had gathered branches of trees and other greenery and fastened these to the outside of the trucks so the train was decorated from one end to the other, and looked really festive.  All day long we were singing our heads off, especially if we stopped somewhere where we could gather an audience.  That was no trouble as by now people down south knew of the movement of troops and at level crossings etc., they just stood around seeing us pass through.  The children called out “bisquit! bisquit!” and we threw them out by the handful. We were sick and tired of biscuits anyway.  We also used them as ammunition against railway signalmen. The signalmen leaned out of their boxes as we passed by, only to be met with a fusillade of biscuits.  The last thing we would see would be a clenched fist waving in the air.


We arrived at the station at Marseille and it looked as if we might be there for some time.  About a dozen who still had money to spend made their way to the main concourse where there was a buffet.  They were hardly out of sight when the train started off.  We scrambled aboard but a dozen or so were left behind.  Most inconvenient for them because all their worldly possessions were on the train.  It was quite some time before we saw them again.  In fact we had taken up our position on the Italian Front and had been in action about two weeks when out of the blue, with sheepish grins on their faces came the lost dozen.  We gave them a rousing welcome, especially as one of them was a barber, and we needed his services badly. But the dozen men were not our only loss. In France literally hundreds of dogs had attached themselves to the troops and we had at least six with us on the train to start with.  Whenever the train stopped they were put off and collected up when we started again.  Sometimes one had wandered too far and had to be left behind.   At Marseilles not one was left.


After Marseille we began to run into the most wonderful scenery of the Riviera, and by the afternoon we had reached Nice.  Here the train stopped for about two hours and we were allowed to go onto the beach.  At this time there was a fairly large colony of English people living at Nice and they made quite a fuss of us.  Among other things they supplied us with post cards to write home and undertook to post them for us.  This was the only opportunity we had to write home over a period of several weeks.  By the time we passed through Monte Carlo it was dark, but in the moonlight, the white buildings in Monte combined to look like a giant Christmas cake.  I can still remember the feeling of excitement that we all shared at seeing this wonderful coastline.  It was something we had all heard about, but never really expected to see.  It was something only for the rich in those days,
but can now be shared by most. How times have changed! We settled down for the night, but later the train stopped and there was so much shouting and general excitement we had to investigate.   We found we at the French/Italian frontier station at Ventimiglia.  We were being handed over from the French to the Italian Railways. Three miles further along the line was the town of Bordighera.  Although I didn’t know it then, I was destined to return a year later and get to know both Bordighera and Ventimiglia very well.  We missed
seeing much of the Italian Riviera as it was night time, although I did see it on a later journey.


The next morning we arrived at Genoa.  I found Genoa and its neighbourhood interesting because of all the shipbuilding activities and the railway seemed to run almost underneath the keels of the ships being built. After Genoa we ran into the Plain of Lombardy.  This stretches across the north of Italy, and “plain” is the operative word.  For hundreds of miles the scenery is flat and dull, and after all we had seen this was a bit of an anti-climax. How we endured the rest of the journey I just don’t know.  Moreover as we travelled north and east we left the balmy weather behind and moved into the North Italian winter with frost and cold winds. Eventually we arrived at a small wayside station where we stopped and unloaded the guns, transport and all our stores. We still had a five day journey by road in front of us.  We did about thirty miles each day and spent the night mostly in village schoolrooms or other suitable accommodation sleeping in straw, on stone floors.  The Battery split up into two sections.  One section started off very early and marched to the half-way mark of the journey and at about this point the transport caught up and those riding the first half, marched the second half, and the first section then rode to the stopping point for the night. Food was still a problem, we were not getting any bread, and in fact didn’t for several more weeks, but we did get a cooked breakfast and a hot evening meal.  To get a wash we had to smash the ice in any nearby ditch and hoped the water wasn’t too contaminated.  While on this march and ride we saw nothing of any other British troops, but I think the whole seven divisions were now moving forward under command.  The Italians had taken a bad beating and there was some doubt if they could hold on until we arrived.


The roads were very narrow and poor, and were never intended for the heavy stuff that we were using. Invariably there were ditches both sides and if a lorry or gun got too near the edge, the road caved in and the vehicle finished up in the ditch. We spent a lot of time sweating and straining on ropes to get on to hard road again. Our journey ended at a little village near the River Piave, just north and east of Venice. The village was deserted and had been badly smashed by artillery fire. It was only 400 yards from the trenches anyway. To the left of the village was rising ground called the Montello Ridge and it was in a cleft in the Ridge where we were to place the guns.  We moved off the road and made our way towards our position. I think we could be seen by the Austrians who were the other side of the river, because out of the blue, came a burst of shrapnel just to the side of us. We all went down flat while the bits and pieces zipped into the ground all round us. Nobody was hit, but we really had arrived.


                                

    


          Tom Herbert’s Story  - WW1 Begins  -   Work and Play  -  R.F.C. 1917  -  Barrack Life -

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