Read CHAPTER XXVI - THE CLEARING HOUSE of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on ReadCentral.com.

You collect your belongings, you stretch and yawn, you rub your eyes to rid them of sleep and incidentally you leave great black marks all down your face you struggle to get on your equipment in a filthy second-class carriage where are three other officers struggling to get on their equipment, and waving their arms about like the sails of windmills. Then you obtain a half share of the window and gaze out as the train crawls round the outskirts of the town, that lies still and quiet in the dusk of the morning. You have arrived at your destination you are at the base.

This quaint old town, with its streets running up the hill from the river, with its beautiful spires and queer old houses, is the great clearing house of the British Army. Here the new troops arrive; here they leave for the front; here, muddy and wounded, they are driven in motor chars-a-bancs and ambulances from the station to the hospitals; here they are driven down to the river-side and carried on to the hospital ships that are bound for England.

And this gigantic clearing house buzzes with soldiers in khaki. There are the hotels where the generals and staff officers take their tea; there are the cafes haunted by subalterns; there are little “Debits de Vins” where “Tommies” go and explain, in “pidgin” English, that they are dying for glasses of beer. In all the streets, great motor lorries lumber by, laden with blackened soldiers who have been down on the quay, unloading shells, food, hay, oil, anything and everything that can be needed for the British Expeditionary Force. And, in the two main thoroughfares of an afternoon, there flows an unceasing crowd generals and privates, French men and women, officers hunting through the shops for comforts to take up the line, people winding their busy way through the throng, and people strolling along with the tide, intent on snatching all they can of pleasure and amusement while they have the opportunity.

And a few years ago these same streets would lie sleepily in the sun, dreaming of the days of splendour long by. In the square before the wonderful cathedral there would be stillness here and there, perhaps, a pigeon would come fluttering down from the ledges and cornices of the Gothic façade; sometimes a nondescript dog would raise a lazy head to snap at the flies; occasionally the streets would send back a nasal echo as a group of American tourists, with their Baedekers and maps, came hurrying along to “do” the town before the next train left for Paris beyond that ... nothing.

Now, in the early morning, the Base seems almost to have relapsed into its slumber of yore. As yet, the work of the day has not begun, and the whole town seems to stir sleepily as the screeching brakes bring your train to a standstill. As you stumble out of the carriage, the only living person in the place appears to be a sentry, who tramps up and down in the distance, on guard over a few empty trucks and a huge pile of bundles of straw.

It is a little disappointing, this arrival at the Base, for there is not even a proper station in sight; you have been brought, like so many sheep or cows, into the dismal goods station, and you look in vain for the people who should be there to welcome you, to throw flowers, and to cheer as you arrive at the first halt of your great Odyssey. However, you shake yourself, you bundle your valise out of the carriage on to the railway line, and, with your late carriage companions, you go across to the sentry and his bundles of straw.

“Can you tell us where the Railway Transport Officer is to be found?” you ask. “We’ve got orders to report to him as soon as we can.”

“Yes, sir, they’s always got those orders, but you won’t find ’im not before ’alf-past nine. ’Is office is over there in them buildings.” And a subaltern in the office gives you the same information it is now five o’clock, and the R.T.O. who has your movement orders will not be here for four and a half hours. “Go and have a look round the town,” suggests the subaltern.

The idea of “looking round a town” at five in the morning! You slouch over the bridge, and wander up and down the empty streets until an hotel shows up before you. You are very tired and very dirty and very unshaven. Instinctively you halt and feel your chins. “Dunno when we’ll get another bath,” suggests one of the party, and he goes to ring the bell. For ten minutes you ring the bell, and then the door is opened by a half-clothed porter who is also very tired and very dirty and very unshaven. He glares at you, and then signs to you to enter, after which he runs away and leaves you in a hall in the company of a dust pan and brush and a pile of chairs pushed up in the corner no welcome and no flowers.

But in a moment there is a shuffle on the stairs, and a fat, buxom woman, with a cheerful face and a blouse undone down the back, makes her appearance. Oh yes, Messieurs les Officiers can have a bath for two francs, including a towel; and they can have breakfast for three and a half francs, including “ze English marmalade” and “un oeuf a la coque” (which sets you to wondering whether she means a cock’s egg, and, if so, what sort of a thing it may be). “It is a nice bath,” she tells you, “and always full of Messieurs les Anglais, who forget all about the war and only think of baths and of football. No, zere is only one bath, but ze ozer officiers can wait,” and she leads one of the party away into the dim corridors and up dim staircases.

Breakfast and a wash work wonders, and you still keep cheerful when the R.T.O. tells you at half-past nine that your camp is three miles away, that you may not see your valise for days unless you take a “taxi,” and that there are only three “taxis” in the town. You wander about in search of one during the whole morning, you find the three all hiding away together in a side street, you bundle your valises into one, and arrive at the camp just in time for lunch.

It is a strange life, that life at the Base it is like life on an “island” in a London thoroughfare, with the traffic streaming by on either side. All day long there are men arriving to go to the front, all day long there are men coming back on their way to England. For a week you live on this “island,” equipping men for drafts all the morning for most of them seem to have dropped part of their equipment into the sea on the way across and sitting in cafes in the evenings, drinking strange mixtures of wines and syrups and soda water.

Then, one day, the Colonel sends for you. Your turn has come to set out on that journey which may have no return. “You will proceed to the front by the four o’clock train this afternoon,” he says. “You are instructed to conduct a party of 100 Northshire Highlanders, who are in ‘S’ Camp, which is over there,” and he waves his hand vaguely in the direction of the typewriter in the corner of the room.

These are your instructions, and, after a prolonged hunt for “S” Camp, you march off to the station at the head of a hundred Scotchmen, not one of whom you can understand. At the station you make a great show of nominal rolls and movement orders, and finally get your Highlanders packed safely in their compartments under strict injunctions not to leave the train without your orders.

Now comes the time to look after your own comfort. If you have “been up” before you have learnt that it is wise to stroll into the town for your last proper tea, and not to come back much before six o’clock, by which time the train is thinking of reluctantly crawling out of the station. If, in your absence, someone has else has tried to settle in your compartment, providing his rank is not superior to your own, you get rid of him either by lying strenuously or by using a little force. Thus, if you are lucky, a good liar, or a muscular man, you can keep the carriage for yourself, your particular friend, your kits, and your provisions (which last, in the form of bottles, require no small space).

All along the line are children, waving their grubby hands and shouting in monotonous reiteration, “Souvenir biskeet, souvenir bully biff,” and you throw them their souvenirs without delay, for no man sets out for war without a plentiful stock of more interesting provisions to keep his spirits up. All along the train, in disobedience of orders, the carriage doors are open, and “Tommies” and “Jocks,” and “Pats” are seated on the footboards, singing, shouting, laughing.

This, until night falls. Then, one by one, the carriage doors are shut, and the men set about the business of sleeping. Here and there, perhaps, is a man who stays awake, wondering what the future will bring him, how his wife and children will get on if he is killed, and how many of these men, who are lolling in grotesque attitudes all round him, will ever come back down the line. In the daylight, the excitement drives away these thoughts there are songs to sing and sights to see but as the train jolts on through the night, there seems to be an undefinable feeling of fear. What will it be like to be shelled, to fight, to die?

Morning brings cheerfulness again. There are halts at Boulogne and Calais; news must be obtained from English sentries and French railway officials; there is, in one place, a train of German prisoners; there are long halts at tiny stations where you can procure hot water while the O.C. Train discusses life with the R.T.O.; there are the thousand-and-one things which serve to remind you that you are in the war zone, although the country is peaceful, and you look in vain for shell holes and ruined houses.

At length the railhead is reached from here the rumble of the guns can be heard and the detrainment takes place. You fall your Highlanders in by the side of the train, you jerk your pack about in a vain effort to make it hang comfortably, a whistle blows, and you start off on your long march to your regiment, to those dull, mumbling guns, to your first peep of war.

A “cushy” wound, a long and aching journey in a motor ambulance, a nerve-racking night in a clearing hospital, where the groans of the dying, the hurrying of the orderlies, and your own pain all combine in a nightmare of horror, and next morning you are in the train once more you are going back to the Base. But how different is this from the journey up to the front! The sound of distant firing has none of the interest of novelty; the shelling of an aeroplane, which would have filled you with excitement a short time ago, does not now even cause you to raise your eyes to watch; you are old in warfare, and blase.

There is no room for fear on this train; it is crowded out by pain, by apathy, by hope. The man next you cannot live a week, but he seems content; at all events, it is not fear that one sees in his face. There is no fear there is hope.

The train is bright with flowers; there are nurses, and books, and well-cooked food there is even champagne for the select few. There is no longer the shattered country of the firing line, but there are hills and rivers, there is the sea near Wimereux, and the hope of being sent home to England. There are shattered wrecks that were men, there is the knowledge of hovering death, but, above all, there is hope.

So the train hastens on no crawling this time to the clearing house, the Base. Past the little sun-washed villages it runs, and the gleaming Seine brings smiles to wan faces. There, look, over there in the distance, are the wonderful spires and the quaint houses and the river, all fresh and laughing in the sun, and the trees up on the hill above the town are all tender green. Even if one is to die, one may get back home first; at all events, one has been spared to see God’s clean country, and to breathe untainted air again.