18th April 1917 - Across the Channel to France

We marched to the station to the everlasting “Sarah” and entrained at 11:15am.  It was beastly wet and miserable.

By 3:30pm on that miserable April day we strolled along the quay at Southampton Docks looking at the majestic liners at anchor, reminiscent of those troop ships which as a small boy I saw pictured in the Illustrated London News in the not so distant days of the Boer War.  True the bunting was missing from the ships and there were no waving handkerchiefs or weeping relatives but, nevertheless, this was our moment and we relished it to the full.

At 8pm the draft embarked on a note of anti-climax.  Our majestic troopship proved to be a miserable little paddle steamer named ‘La France’ which, prior to its promotion to sterner duties, no doubt conveyed ‘les petits enfants’ to sea at the holiday resorts.  Lifebelts were served out and adjusted.  Standing only was possible since the troops were packed in as closely as a football crowd at a cup-tie.

Down the Solent as dusk fell gave us a farewell and, to many, a final glimpse of England.  Against the faint and murky shore a Union Castle liner lay at anchor, ghostly white except for the broad green stripe from stem to stern and the large, red cross just above the waterline.  An ugly, jagged hole was a reminder that already we were near the danger zone.

At the mouth of the Solent our escort of two destroyers was waiting and full steam ahead we sped into the darkness.  There was nothing to do but stand and wait.  The continuous spitting and sparking from the wireless aerial strung between the masts was eerie but comforting in so far as we still had some link with the Navy.

After a time the ceaseless chatter of the radio became somewhat disturbing in its possible implication.  In addition I had to contend with worries of a strictly personal nature.  The ship was plunging and rolling in the choppy sea and I was not a good sailor.  Standing in such close proximity to my fellows there was no question of taking avoiding action.  There was nothing I could do to solve the problem and the inevitable happened.  Together with seventy five percent of the troops on board I passed the buck to the ship’s company to deal with later as they thought fit.

At dawn the coast of France appeared out of the mist, low and dismal.  But the promised land was not yet within our grasp.  The ship suddenly turned about and pursued a zigzag course at full speed until the inviting coastline disappeared from view.  At 6am precisely on Thursday 19th April, three hours overdue, ‘La France’ entered the harbour at Le Havre in company with our two British escorts and three French destroyers which, unknown to us, had joined in the night’s fun and games.  A miserable, depressed crowd of soldiers disembarked across the low decks of one of the destroyers much to the delight of the Royal Navy who had obviously enjoyed the night’s proceedings and revelled in our discomfiture.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes