Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'The streets were thick with people cheering like mad'

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in France, 1914

British soldiers were treated like heroes when they first landed at Le Havre in August 1914. As they marched north towards Belgium, locals couldn't do enough for the men who had come to protect them. The drama of those first few weeks of the Great War is recorded in the diaries of George Fairclough, a cavalryman with the 4th (Queen's Own) Hussars, who was one of the so-called 'old contemptibles' of the original British Expeditionary Force. Married with a young daughter, he had recently retired from the army but was recalled when war broke out and left for France almost immediately.

His early diary entries (below) describe the welcome he and his fellow troops received from the people of Belgium, how the men were involved in one of the first Allied encounters with the Germans...and how much he was missing his wife.

Sun 16th
Set sail at about 04.00 to go down the Channel.
Mon 17th
A beautiful day, we met a fleet of French ships, there were cheers on both sides, we expect to reach Le Havre tonight and disembark in the morning.
Tues 18th
We entered the harbour, a fine big place, and started landing the horses – a hard day’s work down in the hold. We marched to a station at 12.00 and then for the front – four more hours of hard work.
We left at 04.30, no chance to write to ‘C’ [George's wife Cissie]. I am forbidden to say anything about our movements and all letters are censored.
We travelled through Rouen, St Aveille to Visaburg, then marched to a camp some miles away. It was day time, Wednesday 19th by the time we got pegged down – had no sleep.
While marching through the towns the streets were thick with people cheering like mad, giving away flowers and all sorts of fruit, chocolate, tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, beer, wine, cakes and bread, they are vastly different to English people. I managed to send ‘C’ a postcard but I don’t know if it will arrive or not.
Fri 21st
It’s the 5th anniversary of our wedding; I suppose ‘C’ is thinking of it as well.

We crossed the frontier into Belgium; I could never dream that such a reception awaited us; the people simply vie with each other to do the most for us. If English people were only as good to their soldiers, the soldier would have a good time.
We halted in one village for an hour and a half and when we left there was scarcely a badge or a button in the regiment, all gone as souvenirs. Good luck to the Belgians.
We billeted in a village, all the troops were wearing Belgian colours in their caps.
Sat 22nd
Reveille was at 03.00 and we moved out at 07.00.
We engaged a German force at about 10.30. The artillery commanded what was probably the first skirmish of the campaign near a village of Mossberg [Maubeuge?]. Both German and English shells passed over our heads. There were four casualties in the brigade, but the enemy seemed to suffer a lot from our artillery. ‘D’ Battery had a night march. We passed through Mons at about 01.00 on Sunday morning. The entire town was alive and the people were giving the troops all sorts of refreshments.
You can read more of Sergeant Fairclough's diaries, along with his dramatic story from the Western Front, in my book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

No comments:

Post a Comment