19th April 1917

A few hours later we had disembarked and it was on the quay that I first met one Arthur Forster, another civil servant from Somerset House.  We teamed up and soon found a common bond.  By a strange coincidence, one of several that have bedevilled me whilst in the Army, our respective elder brothers were close colleagues in the City Tax Office.

The march took us through the docks into the grimy back streets of Le Havre.  The early workers had already departed to the war factories and the dockyards on bicycles or on the tramcars with their tinkling bells, leaving behind the very old and the children.  Almost everyone was dressed in black – mourning for the sons of France, mourning for France itself.  If they deigned to look at us at all their stares appeared hostile.  “Another contingent from L’Angleterre” but L’Angleterre had not suffered invasion at the hands of a ruthless enemy.  The children ran wildly alongside the column demanding “booly biff” and “beeskits” whilst mongrel dogs scampered between our legs and departed only when addressed with appropriate terms in their own language.

Passing through the village of Harfleur we arrived at Camp No 14, 7th Infantry Base Depot.  Here the draft was housed in bell tents of which there were many hundreds spread over a vast slope.  Nine soldiers were allotted to each tent and of my eight companions on that first day of active service five lived to make the return journey.  The big fellow Scammel and the little chap Stone, men in their forties, friends of happier days, both received snipers’ bullets through the head.  Bromidge survived after severe gassing and Williamson lost his life through an accident.  Dyball, Mansley and Coombs were lost sight of but Forster and I remained in close companionship until the Boche broke up the partnership.

Sleeping in such close quarters was a problem.  Heads on packs around the outer perimeter was comfortable enough but nine pairs of feet meeting at the centre meant that the latecomers were resting their toes halfway up the tent pole.  In sloping lanes between the rows of tents were latrine buckets, each one shared between several tents – a useful if somewhat unsanitary arrangement.  Unfortunately towards evening these receptacles over reached their capacity with disastrous results to the tent dwellers at the receiving end on the lower slopes.  Hasty action with entrenching tools was called for and the competitive spirit entered into the exercise.  The idea was to channel off into the adjoining tent before the occupants became aware of approaching danger – sometimes only to find that competitors from another quarter had meanwhile performed a disastrous outflanking movement.

On this day we were issued with rifles and sword bayonets, tin hats, PH gas helmets (1) and box respirators.  With the departure of Lieutenant Ivison, the officer in charge of the draft, our last link with Redhill and the 3rd Battalion was severed.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

Google Maps entry for Le Havre here
Google Maps entry for Harfleur here

(1) Wikipedia entry for PH gas helmets here.