Read ENGLAND IN TIME OF WAR: CHAPTER II of The Relief of Mafeking, free online book, by Filson Young, on ReadCentral.com.

HOW THE ARMY LEFT ENGLAND

The few days that elapsed between rejoining and embarkation were spent by the Reservist at the depot barracks of his regiment, where he received his kit and underwent the small amount of drill necessary to remove the rust of civilian life. After that, the sound of reveille in the depth of a winter night; the sudden awakening; the hasty breakfast, eaten like a Passover feast; the long and noisy railway journey; the faint, salt smell of the sea, and the first sight of it through the rainy dawn. In the early days of the war I was present at many embarkations at Liverpool and Southampton, and they left an impression on my mind which will not easily be effaced. For, even to an onlooker, the embarkation of troops, with its sights and sounds of tragedy, is an affair that burns itself into the memory; one is dazzled and confounded by the number and variety of the small dramas that are enacted before one’s eyes; and the whole is framed in a setting of military system and circumstance that lends dignity, if that were needed, to the humble tragedies of the moment.

Only a few of the thousands who came to watch the departure of the Canada from Liverpool one December morning were allowed inside the dock shed; nearly all of those within the gate were sweethearts and wives and children of soldiers who had contrived to procure passes for them. Even in the shed the scene was one of extraordinary confusion. At intervals of about half an hour detachments were marched in and formed up at one end of the shed, where they left their bundles and heavy kit, and whence they were marched in single file up the gangway of the ship. With the exception of the Manchesters, all the troops were in khaki, and were easily distinguishable from the dark-coloured mass of civilians. Thus there was always a yellow pool of colour in the midst of the black mass, and all the morning a thin yellow line flowed from the pool to the ship’s gangway. As often as one looked, during the whole morning, there was a line of men in the act of ascending the gangway. One felt as though one had fallen asleep for a moment and dreamed, and waked again to find the same men in the same position, so little did the appearance of things change. It was really a picture that one looked at, for the colours and bold outlines remained constant; the eye at times grew used to the minute movement, and refused to notice that the picture was preserved only because the same things were being done over and over again by hundreds of different people. The same greetings as friends recognised the newly-arrived man, the same hurried words, the same faltering voices, the same desperate embraces, the same endless tramp from the formed ranks to the ship, the same tears. The absorption of so many acute personal emotions into one revolving routine was the most amazing part of it; the stream of discipline and system ran swift and deep here, drawing into its flood even the most sacred and intimate of human experiences, and turning into a pattern the parting of husband from wife and father from child. When at length one became used to the picture one began to notice the elements of its composition, and only in watching them could one gain relief from the overburdening sense of personality submerged in a system. The little dramas were very strange and very affecting. I can only give a few examples out of dozens that I watched.

As the troops came in at the door, marching four deep, the crowd formed on each side, and those who had friends in the detachment tried to get a prominent place in the front rank of the crowd, where they could attract the attention of the soldiers as they passed. The men were not hurried, and they were marching at ease, so there was generally time for a few words and a kiss or a hand-clasp before they were moved on. One wife, who was little more than a girl, had taken a good place on the edge of the crowd when her husband’s detachment began to file in. I heard her telling a friend that she had not said good-bye to “her lad,” as she wanted to see the last of him; it had been arranged that she was to be near when he passed so that he could give her a parting kiss. Oh, how anxiously she scanned the faces of the men as they swung into sight, throwing all her soul into her eyes!

Presently, “There he is!” she cried; “here, Jim, I’m here!”

The young man’s fine honest face had a look no less intent than hers, but it was turned away from her; he was searching as eagerly as she, but on the wrong side of the lane of people; and by one of those impish tricks that Fate plays upon us in acute moments, he never saw her, nor heard her voice above the cheers of the people and the blare of the band. It was a cruel thing; she was fast wedged in the crowd. Someone ran after the man and told him where she was, but before the sympathiser could reach him his company had been drawn up and he could not be allowed to fall out. And long before she was clear of the tightly packed throng he had passed on to the ship, where she could not follow him.

Another incident of another kind. The North Lancashires were marching in, and an old man in the crowd was on the look-out for his son. He explained to everybody near him what a fine boy his son was, and how keen a soldier; how it had nearly broken the old man’s heart that his boy should leave him and go to the war, but how it would “do un good and make a mon of un.” Presently two soldiers appeared, half-carrying and half-dragging between them a young man who was so drunk that he could neither stand nor walk. His helmet was jammed over his eyes, but as he was dragged past us it fell off and rolled to the old man’s feet. I heard him draw in his breath sharply and murmur something as his face flushed; and then all the people round began to point and say, “That’s his son there, him that’s being carried”; and some God forgive them! laughed and joked at the old man. And he who had a moment ago filled our ears with the praises of his boy gazed after him with a look of bitter amazement and then went silently away. Another man who had missed seeing his wife before he had embarked caught sight of her from the ship’s deck as she stood upon the quay with tears in her eyes. There was no chance of his being allowed to pass down the gangway. But the husband in him knew no obedience to the stern order, and he dived clean off the stern of the steamer into the filthy water and swam, khaki and all, to the steps at the side of the dock. And you may be sure his wife was there to help him out, and she forgot her grief in her pride at his daring. So he held her in his arm for a moment (and had three ringing cheers from his mates into the bargain) before he was collared and marched back to restraint, dirty but glorious.

Here and there one saw men much the worse for liquor; and I have no words to describe the folly of those friends who thrust bottles of spirits into the soldiers’ hands as they passed through the streets. They did them a double cruelty, for the poor fellows, all unstrung by their partings, gulped the raw spirit thinking they drank courage; and so once or twice I saw poor women saying good-bye to staggering maniacs grim mockeries of the husbands they might never see again, the poor fools themselves at present oblivious indeed, but doomed to I know not what horrors of remorse on awaking. Happily, however, there were not many in this sad condition. Most of the men behaved with a fortitude and gentleness that was most touching. Indeed I find it hard to express my admiration of their bearing. There was none of the bluster of the armchair Jingo, none of the loud hectoring and swaggering and bravado that distinguish the carpet warrior. On the contrary, when they were talking of the war amongst themselves they had an air of quiet determination, of good-humoured banter, and of easy, serious confidence far more ominous for an enemy than any amount of fluent rant. After the world of politics, with its hair-splitting and word-mincing, it was good to be with soldiers the men who do the work. They knew no fine political shades, they bandied no epithets; England was at war and they were going to fight that was enough. And the spirit in which they fought all the world knows: every day during the war one read tales of devotion and heroism that became almost commonplace; it is even a commonplace to praise them. Yet one could not see the soldiers in this most trying duty of all, the laying down of home ties and interests (for I think the heroism of mere fighting is nothing to it), without feeling a pride in the moral discipline that makes it all possible, and under the authority of which Tommy is content to be as a child. And this childlike submission to discipline has its pathetic side, as when one saw the little family of mother and children grouped to see the last of its head. The children stood in wide-eyed amazement to see daddy the Reservist, who in the little household had been the emblem of all authority, now in the place of obedience, and taking directions from another man (not so big and strong as he) as to how he should stand and into what hole he should put the buckle of his strap. Thus even the father and the husband are absorbed in the soldier. It is a great price; and the way in which it was paid by so many was perhaps our firmest assurance of the stuff that is in our soldiers.

Early on the morning of departure a few hundred people mostly women stood on the pierhead of Canada Dock, watching the transport as she lay a short distance off in the stream with the Blue Peter at her fore and the St. George’s ensign hanging astern. The rain beat steadily down, loading the raw wind that blew out of the morning twilight, and the brown water broke sullenly to the send of a setting flood tide. The faces of nearly all the women were worn with weeping; now they wept no longer, but looked dully out to sea, while the rain ran down their soaking garments and splashed on the ground. A drunken soldier who had somehow got ashore the night before reeled helplessly on his wife’s arm, his head bruised and cut and his new uniform torn and filthy. But in the woman’s face there was a kind of fearful joy; she had rescued him from his pot-house satellites, and she thought she could keep him. Presently a tug came off from the transport with a picket to collect deserters he had to go. She sobbed and wailed, imploring the sergeant in vain; and she clung to her poor senseless husband as though she would never leave him. He hardly knew her; he laughed vacantly in her face when with streaming eyes she begged him to speak her name; then they took him away from her. As the tug steamed out I heard him singing.

A little while afterwards the Canada’s siren began to wail and squeal with a horrible mockery of painful cries. The tugs backed clear of her, and lent their shrill voices to the discordant concert. Presently the water astern of the transport turned from brown to foaming white, and her masts began to move past the farther shore. There was a faint sound of cheering from her, but she was soon out of sound and sight, and still the women stared into the mist that had enfolded her, as though their wishes might draw her back again. But in a little while they turned towards home and a world that had changed its face.

On another day I went down to Liverpool to see the Majestic depart with troops for the front. The weather was consistently unkind. The Canada had sailed in a whirl of rainy fog, and the departing passengers of the Majestic looked across a little inky strip of water to a land that was cloaked with snow. It was bitterly cold on the landing-stage, and all the interest of the scene could not keep the bitter wind from whipping one’s face and numbing the feet. The wooden planks resounded not more with the tramp of marching feet than with the hard stampings of people who were trying to restore circulation. There were no very poor people on the stage. The space opposite to the ship was occupied chiefly by the friends of officers and by the troops themselves, and certainly it seemed kinder to the men to prevent the dreadful scrambling for farewells that took place when the Canada sailed. But a sea of anxious faces pressed against the barriers at either end of the reserved space, and no doubt there was much bitter envy of us in the enclosure, who had so much better an opportunity, and perhaps so much less reasonable a claim to the front places.

Outwardly this departure seemed very different from that of the Canada. It was not so sordid, if one may use the term; the vessel did not slip away furtively from a dock in the small hours of the morning, but departed in open day from the more accessible landing-stage; and although the weather was chill and bitter, it had not that infinitely dreary effect upon the spirits that one associates with a soaking downpour. Here were all the pomps and circumstances of farewell the blowing of bands and wavings of caps and great shouts of a multitude that must give vent to acute emotions. Yet, different though the outward circumstances were, they only accentuated the likeness that lay beneath. Good-bye is good-bye, whether we say it at a carriage window or shout it across a strip of harbour water; whether a crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” or a mother whispers “Don’t forget me.” And at the sailing of the Majestic, with all its dignity, one saw the same tragedies repeated over and over again, until one’s heart sickened of it all, and one would gladly have come away. Of course it was not among the officers and their wives that one saw these things; people used to self-control keep their griefs to themselves, and perhaps a very inexperienced person would have been deceived by the smiles on women’s faces and the cheery chaff of men. Even here there were things to be seen at the last moment, but I confess that I turned my back when the saloon gangway was about to be removed; some things are sacred even from the man whose business it is to describe what he sees.

It was after the two thousand troops had all been embarked that the friends of the men were admitted to the stage, and the dismal, though enthusiastic, part of the affair began. Before that everything was business and order. As the men arrived they were provided with hot coffee and meat pies, which they drank and ate with every sign of pleasure. Some of us who were very cold envied them for that moment. The forward gangway was for about an hour occupied by men who did nothing but pass rifles from the quay to the ship; it was a formidable sight, this stream of deadly weapons that flowed on board. Up another gangway enough cordite to blow up the whole of Liverpool was being gingerly carried in small cases. But this hour or two of embarkation, in which so much really happened, left little impression on my mind. It simply was one more illustration of the admirable efficiency of discipline for which our army is famous. It was when the gangways were removed and the crowd began to pour on to the stage that the affair became human; and the half-hour that elapsed between that time and the moment when the mist finally hid the ship wrote itself much more deeply on my memory.

One gangway was left open, and stragglers and men who at the last moment had stayed away for an hour with their wives and children were hunted out and hurried up it. At the shore end there were many painful scenes, which people with a little imagination may picture for themselves. Fortunately a farewell is a brief thing, and leaves only aching hearts; people could not stand a sustained agony like that of the last moment. It is the price we pay for our powers of memory and forethought; the charger, going perhaps to a bloody and cruel death, steps willingly enough up plank; the drunken man sings his good-bye; only the sober and alert taste the fearful sting of parting. Even the people who had kept up a great show of callousness had the mask suddenly and for the moment plucked from their faces; young subalterns with rather watery eyes and very loud voices ran swiftly up the plank, and brave women who had a smile even to the last for their husbands turned a different face shorewards. One could not help contrasting the weight of the burden for those who went away and those who stayed behind; for the men and for the women; for those who were going to fight, to die perhaps, but still to do something, and for those who had nothing but their thoughts to be busy with. Pessimistic as this view may seem, it is the true one; the event described as an “enthusiastic send-off” is essentially a melancholy function, and the relief afforded by the antics of a few intoxicated men does not make it less so. It is strange, indeed, how important a part is played by the whisky-bottle in the farewells of the poor. I have seen it passed round family circles at the last moment like some grotesque sacrament; have even overheard husband and wife almost quarrelling in their desire to press the comforter each upon the other. “Here, take it with you, Sam.” “No, Missus, you ’ave it; I can get some off Tom.” “No, lad, take it I’ll throw it after you if you don’t.” Chance generally stepped in to kill the ghost in the bottle, throwing it to the ground and spilling the contents. I saw one little boy, aged about four, run up to his daddy at the last moment with a gorgeous present in the shape of a glass pistol (a delicate reference to his profession) full of spirits; it had a cork in the barrel, and I suppose you fired it down your throat. Amid all these scenes the officers displayed an unvarying tact, coaxing the men on board and not unduly hastening their farewells; but for all that there were many violent and tragic scenes.

Just before the last gangway was run ashore a little woman came up, crying and almost breathless, and begging to be allowed to say good-bye to her husband, who was at the other end of the gangway, not allowed to come down. The orders were absolute no one must go up to the ship. Then the woman broke out into a great wailing and sobbing, praying the quartermaster on her knees that he would let her go half-way up the gangway; but he was as firm as a rock. Then she came to the edge of the landing-stage and cried quietly, all alone in that vast crowd, now and then calling broken words of endearment to the man who stood a dozen yards away from her across the strip of black water. Discipline is heavy, and crushes; it is also sharp, and sometimes cuts cruelly and deeply. But in the midst of her amazing grief she found time to call some cheering words across to her husband: “Keep your heart up, lad, and think of me and the children as loves you.” He, poor soul, looked thunder at his sergeant, and raged and swore; but he was a unit in a mass he kicked against the pricks, and he knew it.

At last the gangway was removed, and a kind of quietness fell upon the crowd, waiting for the next harrowing sensation. It came in a succession of those minute incidents that burn themselves into the memory of people whose nerves are on the rack. The splash of a hawser into the dock; the deep notes of the engine-room telegraph, and the clicking reply upon the bridge; the spinning of the wheel as a quartermaster tests the steering engine; the clack and spit of winches, and finally the thrilling shout of the foghorn, whose echo leaves you trembling all these things have a painful significance, and they bite and grip into the heart. As the ship began to move a band on the shade-deck struck up “Auld Lang Syne,” and immediately the floodgates were unlocked. Tears started again into bitterly dry eyes, handkerchiefs were waved, people shouted, sang snatches of song everyone made a sound of some kind, and contributed to the great unrestrained noise of human beings in distress and excitement. Above it all rose the hooting of foghorns and sirens, while the band made its noise too thump and throb of drums, scream of pipes, and red-hot flare of brass instruments. Sea-birds, seeing the ship about to depart, flapped and hovered about it by the score, adding their shrill cries to the tumult; and high on his flying-bridge stood the captain, shifting his telegraph from “stand by” to “ahead,” holding up or moving his hand, but not uttering his voice. It was a striking picture, in which he stood as an image of a Fate by which all men were for the moment helplessly crushed down.

It was at this moment that something happened which I, for one, had been expecting. One of the many men who were perched in the rigging or outside the rails lost his hold, and in the same second was wriggling in the water. It conveys some idea of the pitch to which the crowd was strung up to say that the noise did not increase and hardly changed its character. I suppose people turned from cheering to shouting, but the big sound was still the same, and since the bands-men were high up and in the middle of the deck they saw and knew nothing and went on playing. But something else impressed me far more deeply; indeed, I think that I can never forget it. Quite close to me was standing the man’s wife holding a baby, and as the man’s face turned towards us in his floundering she said calmly, “God, it’s my George.” And the little boy, not understanding, repeated gleefully and senselessly, “It’s dadda; it’s dadda.”

I looked at the woman’s face; her cup had been full before; she had drunk her fill of grief; and this new horror, her husband struggling like a mouse in the bitter cold water, could not add a pang to her torture. All that I have described happened, of course, in a few seconds; the man had barely gone under before one of the ship’s butchers, in his white clothes, was in after him. Let no one belittle the race of butchers. The life-taker knew how to save life, and Master Butcher had his man in a moment, turned him on his back, and began to swim ashore; indeed, there was no fear of the man’s drowning, for there were half a dozen men in the water within half a minute of the accident. The man was brought ashore, and his wife helped to rub him down; only to go through her parting again on the deck of a tender a few minutes afterwards. But there was a cheerier note in the cheering that broke out when the ship again began to move, and when the band struck up “God Save the Queen” everyone who had a croak in him or her joined with a will. The shape of the ship grew dim in the mist, but still the sea-birds cried and hovered like winged prayers and wishes between her and the shore.

In the Thames and at Southampton similar scenes were enacted almost daily. Here is an account of a “Specimen Day” at Southampton one of the busiest that had been known there since the beginning of the war, for Lord Roberts’s grand army was being hurried out to repair the fortunes shattered at Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso.

All day long crowded troop-trains had been steaming into the station, where small pilot engines waited to receive them and drag them, groaning and squealing, round the curves and across the points that lead to the docks. The first train arrived at about nine, and the last at two. Between those hours there was a constant succession of trains. Three steamers were waiting to receive the troops; the Peninsular and Oriental liner Assaye, the Union Steamship Company’s Goorkha, and the Castle liner Braemar Castle. The Assaye was a new boat, and this was her maiden voyage. She carried two regiments, the 2nd Norfolk and the 2nd Hampshire, and the fact that the Hampshire is the territorial regiment of the port, accounted for the unusually large crowd that assembled on the wharf beside which the Assaye lay. The business of despatching transports had become so commonplace at Southampton that unless there was some special interest attached to the embarkation there was no crowd at all. Only the town loafers would assemble in any strength. But many of the Southampton people had friends in the Hampshire Regiment, so there were some thousands pressing round the barriers that surrounded the dock shed into which the trains on arriving were drawn.

It was on board the Assaye that I spent the greater part of the morning and afternoon, piloted by a naval lieutenant who was in charge of the embarkation. I perched myself high up on the flying-bridge and watched the busy scene below. In the next dock was the Goorkha, into whose commodious maw were pouring the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment, the 9th Field Company Royal Engineers, the 14th Brigade Staff, the Cavalry Brigade Field Hospital, the Fifth Division Field Hospital, and No 12 Company Army Medical Corps. Further away, alongside the dock extension jetty, the Braemar Castle was receiving the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers, No 7 Bearer Company, and No 19 Company Army Medical Corps. In the Assaye, however, were men of only two colours, the Norfolks and the Hampshires. The Norfolks arrived first, and were promptly embarked. The ’tween-decks of the Assaye, having been constructed specially for the purpose, were more commodious than those on most other transports, and certainly they were better ventilated, for a great open shaft ran right up from the bottom of the ship to the upper deck, and round this were grouped the tables at which the men, in messes of sixteen, were to be accommodated. The men seemed pleased with their quarters and with the general arrangements made for their comfort, but they were almost laughably critical. The fact was that the soldiers were in great danger of being spoiled by the fuss that had been made of them before they embarked. It is well that we should cheer the soldiers up by our enthusiasm, but, as everyone knows, the British public did much more than that. “Tommy Atkins” was the rage for the moment, and what may be called “Absent-minded Beggarism” was rampant. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm found a vent too often in silly and thoughtless squandering of money on the soldiers. They were banqueted before they started; their friends used to ply them with drink; mayors were waiting upon them at every turn with pipes and tobacco, and total strangers showered money on them quite recklessly. For example, while I was on the Assaye’s bridge I saw a civilian, standing quite apart from the crowd, with his hat full of copper and small silver coins. No one seemed to be watching him. He could have no thought of making an impression. But in an ecstasy of enthusiasm he kept throwing showers of money to the troops on deck. It is an excellent thing that the people at home should be touched with such gratitude to the men who fight for them, but, like all great public movements which have more heart than head in them, this kind of thing was sometimes overdone, and failed in its object. One saw the men sometimes arriving drunken, grumbling, and impudent; criticising the quality or quantity of the refreshments which the steamship company had thoughtfully provided for them, and generally behaving in a way most unlike what one would expect. No one seemed to lack money, although so much was spent in drink. Several times that day I heard men at the canteen calling for whisky and soda or brandy and potash, and grumbling heartily when they were not supplied.

With regard to the way in which men got drink one or two things fall to be said. Every effort was made by the authorities to prevent drunkenness. One of the naval embarkation officers told me that drink was not supplied to the men at the canteen, that they were forbidden to bring any on board, and that they were forbidden to buy or receive any from civilians; yet it had been found that certain tradesmen at Southampton had deliberately smuggled whisky on board by heavily bribing some of the crew. In the face of this kind of thing the officers could do little. They spoke very bitterly of the cruelty to the men involved in such practices, for the soldiers are necessarily packed pretty close together when hammocks are slung, and when the effects of drunkenness are added to the horrors of sea-sickness the result is awful, and almost unendurable by a man who cherishes any self-respect. I mention this at some length because, although it was not prominent on the day of which I am writing, it had happened terribly often, and on the day before it had made the scene at the embarkation of an Irish regiment a really horrible one. The two regiments which embarked on the Assaye happened to be the soberest I had yet seen. Indeed, there was hardly one case of drunkenness amongst them. I think this was partly because the outside public was not allowed near the ship. The men passed from the train directly on board, and did not come in contact with their friends. It was kinder to the friends too. I saw none of those heartrending tragic scenes of parting, none of the wild grief that grows so much wilder for being indulged. From the officers’ deck the picture of embarkation appeared in outline rather than in detail. The constant movement of people far below, the orderly disorder, the shouts and cries of officers and stevedores, the waving arms of cranes and the general excitement produced in a mere onlooker a strange sense of isolation. One felt like Gulliver observing the Liliputians in some great effort of maritime preparation, and the longer one looked the smaller and more like toy soldiers seemed the men. Such an endless stream of them poured from the dock shed to the ship. I heard their cries faintly. “Bring back old Kroojer’s whiskers” was the burden of them, and this was indeed the chief trophy, the chief spoil of war which the average soldier pictured for himself. It was strange to think that this army of Liliput which tramped and cried down there conceived its mission so vaguely and imperfectly that it could depart light-heartedly.

The deep note of the Goorkha’s foghorn sounded close at hand. The tops of her masts glided past the roof of the dock shed; in five minutes she was out of sight, and her departure seemed to have been almost uncelebrated. She got away at about two, and an hour later the Braemar Castle also departed.

The only thing which now delayed the departure of the Assaye was the embarkation of the horses. There were eight chargers belonging to officers of the two regiments, and they made the utmost objection to being enclosed in narrow boxes and swung in mid-air. In particular a magnificent grey belonging to the colonel of the Hampshire Regiment gave any amount of trouble. It took her groom ten minutes to coax her into the box, and as soon as it began to move upwards she snorted and trembled with fear, and finally sat down on her haunches, with her neck hanging over the door. The colonel, who was standing near, seemed rather proud of this exhibition, but when the mare was almost beside herself with terror, and while she was yet swinging in mid-air, he spoke reassuring words “Woa, Bunny! Steady, old girl!” The beast could not see him, but she heard the voice in the air, and became suddenly quiet. May she live to need the same assurance on her homeward journey, was one’s involuntary thought. The sight of these fine horses was very pitiful, in the light of their possible destiny. One looked at the glossy coats and saw them torn and bloody. One watched the nervous wild eye and the twitching ears, and heard the whistling bullets and the shells bursting round them, who know no reason for the commotion, holding themselves bravely in check until the steadying voice behind them ceases and the load suddenly lightens, or until a stray bullet ends both fears and endeavours.

After many delays the last horse was on board. And now there remained only the inspection by the naval embarkation officers, an interval for the crowd of half an hour, which the band on the quay did its best to pass agreeably. There were many false alarms of departure. Every patriotic song and tune had been played and cheered, but after “Auld Lang Syne” had been hammered out for the third time the ship began to move. As she left the quay the younger men at one end of the ship made a great commotion. One held up a flag which he proposed to plant on “Kroojer’s Hill.” (Some authorities might read Majuba.) These men, recruits for the most part, made in their ignorance of war a joyful noise, but the Reservists and old hands looked grave and sad, and hardly joined in the singing or cheering. They were thinking.