Journey to the Front Line

 
 

1917

 


                                              


When we had disembarked and sorted ourselves out, we were marched off to a transit camp high up on the hills at the back of Boulogne.  Anyone carrying a pound or two more than his regulation kit learned to regret it before we finally arrived at the camp. We spent one night there under canvas, and in the morning we marched down again, this time to Boulogne Station where we boarded a train.  We had no idea where we were bound for, so we set about making ourselves comfortable in anticipation of a long journey.  We had barely settled down when the train stopped and everyone was ordered off.  We had arrived at Etaples.  This was a big military base, and this was where a lot of sorting out was done to get troops to their rightful places.  Apart from the acres of tents there was nothing of interest here, so we hoped we wouldn’t be held up for very long. The blankets supplied to us were lice ridden, so we dumped them outside the tent and slept in our clothes.  The next day we, the RFC contingent, were off again and this time a longer journey to St.Omer.


The RFC had an airfield on the outskirts of St Omer.  It was not an operational airfield but it had large workshops where aircraft damaged at the front were brought back for repair and testing.  This was the age of wood, wire and fabric, and aircraft suffered plentiful damage from machine gun bullets and splinters from AA shells.  St Omer was  a lovely old town and I was particularly impressed by the cathedral. I stayed here for a little more than a week, so I had time to explore the old town and do a little shopping, mainly for fruit. Here I had my first insight into the intricacies of French coinage.  I discovered that many of the towns had a local note issue  usually of one franc denomination.  These were a bit of a
problem to us as we were likely to move at a moments notice, and it wasn’t easy to get them changed in other localities.  On the only Sunday evening I spent at St. Omer I went into the park where a British Army band was playing.  It was quite crowded with French people and British troops, and it seemed typical of a summer Sunday evening anywhere.  This was to be the last time that I would experience that feeling for a Sunday for a very long time.                                           


Each day a few of our draft were posted and all too soon my turn came.  Two of us went off together on a posting to a Squadron, I believe it was number seven.  We hadn’t the slightest idea where the squadron was located. We were given a railway warrant, so we went down to St. Omer Station and were directed by the  R.T.O to a civilian train which went as far as Baillieul.  Baillieul was quite a small town on the French/Belgian frontier, but in these times there was no frontier as such. All my movements after Baillieul would be in Belgium.   We made some enquiries at the station and were told that there was an R.F.C Airfield on the outskirts of the town. We made our way there and found that we were a bit out of our direction, and that number seven was twelve miles away. However they made us welcome, fed us and telephoned Seven Squadron to lay on transport. The transport didn’t turn up for three days, but we didn’t mind with food and a place to sleep laid on.


I was surprised to find that Bailleul was under fire from a German long range gun.  Every half an hour one came over.  The people didn’t seem unduly bothered and just went about their business.  I gained a great admiration for people who lived in the town not far from the fighting because their safety was always in peril.  In fact, in the following summer, Bailleul fell into the hands of the Germans for a time.


Eventually number seven collected us, and after one night at the airfield, I was taken up the line and posted to a battery of artillery.
Before going any further I will explain just what was to be my job with the artillery. The R.F.C used a type of very slow flying aircraft for observation work, and a lot of “spotting” was done by them for the artillery. The aircraft communicated with us in Morse code by wireless, and we passed on the signals  to the Battery Commander. It was a one-way only system, and we had to use ground signals to communicate back to the aircraft. Each ground station had its own call sign which had to be picked out from an absolute babble of signals from dozens of aircraft all working in the area.  In fact it always seemed that the signals you weren’t concerned with were louder than those you wanted. One important job was to range the guns on to a target with the aid of the aircraft observations. The clock face was used to indicate the direction of the shell burst in relation to the target, and concentric circles round the target at 25, 50, 100 200 etc., yards distance gave its position. Each of the four guns was ranged in turn and it often took two hours to get them all on.  Once they were on, the aircraft would go home, and the guns would plaster the target.  Everything was done in code but I expect the Germans knew what it was all about. There were two operators with each station, one on the Wireless receiver and the other to pass on the messages, usually by phone to the Battery Commander and to operate the ground signals.