Friday, 14 September 2012

From jubilation to desolation, 1914

1914: Belgian crowds greet British Royal Marines at Ostend
The Western Front wasn't always a scene of stalemate and desolation, with its trenches, mud, and barbed wire. That only came towards the end of 1914 when exhausted armies began to dig in and defend their positions rather than continue with attacks. The Front was a far livelier place in the early months of the war when British troops were arriving to help their French allies take on the Germans, who had just invaded Belgium.

Soldiers were rarely in one place for long, which comes across clearly in a diary I've been reading by George Fairclough who was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Hussars, a cavalry regiment. As a regular soldier, he was part of Britain's small army of 'old contemptibles' who were first to arrive in Europe.

He describes how they were greeted with jubilation in August 1914: 'The streets were thick with people cheering like mad, giving away flowers and all sorts of fruit, chocolate, tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, beer, wine, cake and bread, they are vastly different to English people.'

A young Sgt Fairclough

Within days, however, such scenes were forgotten as the British began their retreat from Belgium after the Battle of Mons, closely pursued by the Germans which meant they had to watch their backs. Sgt Fairclough had a few close shaves: 'The first shell burst a little to my front left and almost cut the horse on my left clean in two without touching the man,' he wrote. 'The second shell struck a man in the troop in front and appeared to simply blow the man and the horse to pieces.'

He witnessed many more haunting scenes: 'I saw a Lt Colonel of the French Artillery in the market square, he had just been convicted of selling secrets to the Germans and was sentenced to be shot, he was led away, as I stood there, to be executed.'

Sleep became a luxury for the soldiers: 'We've been on the march since 03.00 this morning until 14.00 then camped down for a rest,' wrote Sgt Fairclough on August 30, 1914. 'The men and horses are busted, it's been a very hot day and I've only had about 15 hours sleep in the last eight or nine nights.'

Sgt Fairclough survived those first few months of the war, and the rest of the conflict too, including the first German gas attack at Ypres in 1915. Yet it was not the Germans who dealt him the blow that would affect him for the rest of his life ... it was his own officers.

But that's another story, to be told in my book through the bitter words he spilled out in letters to his wife at home.

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