- from the Sphere September 11, 1915
- 'a March Through the Night'
Moving Troops by Night
an artist's rendition of British troops arriving at their billets after a night march
This description of a movement of a large body of troops at night was written before the present period of summer quietude on the western front. It gives a good word picture of what the movement of a division from one position to another means to the men themselves.
An officer at the front writes as follows :For the last few days we have been moving day and night from one place to another in an atmosphere of slaughter. Great aggressive attacks against the enemy have been hourly launched. Here and there success ; here and there disaster; everywhere terrible bloodshed and sacrifice of human life. We, as yet, being reserve, have not been engaged, but are close to the scene of the fray. Almost every minute of the day we meet men who have been in the fighting, and are eloquent with tales of the battle. To give you an idea of what a big movement means I will briefly sketch our activities during the last few days. As you know, we retired from the fighting line to a charming town some seven or eight miles to the rear. We were taken there to rest for eight days, but forty-eight hours had not gone by before there sprang up in all directions signs of military activity of an unusual nature. All officers were assembled, and particulars and explanations given in camera, of a long-contemplated move. Of course, all instructions were given in the strictest confidence, so that this aspect of our movements and knowledge of our military intentions I cannot divulge. I can only say that the information was of a dramatic nature, thrilling all of us with excitement. The result of the conference was that on the same night everyone "stood to" in a constant state of readiness. By midnight we were supposed to move off for the front, but the order was cancelled and we "stood easy." However, on the following night we did move, and soon after starting we learned that the whole division was on the march. .
Of course it is quite a complicated business to move a division to a certain point. Each unit, from a regiment upwards, has its allotted time to pass a point. For instance, each of the battalions of our brigade had to pass the brigade headquarters at a certain time. We had to pass at 12.14 a.m., another regiment at 12.7 a.m., and so on. Then the brigades in their turn have to pass a certain point at set time.
Thus each unit falls in behind the other at scheduled time. The following fact shows how slowly large bodies of troops move, especially in the night time. It took us from twelve o'clock noon until four a.m. to travel six miles to the place where we were to billet. The march was exhausting. Men were allowed to smoke, but not to talk. The effect is very weird and impressiveone interminable length of men tramping slowly and stolidly alongwhither ? To what ? They knew not. This ignorance of what may be forthcoming and the influence of the night combine to keep the men silent.
Dawn at Last
Every now and then motor-cycles and machines would tear by, momentarily illuminating the lines and showing them as gaping and irregular. Every hundred yards or so there would be a check, and almost immediately afterwards the line would continue to move. One moment one is moving quickly ; another, haltingly and slow. Here and there you would hear the grouser spitting out curses in a loud whisper. Up and down the lines go the officers, encouraging the men to keep up. In spite of our utmost energy the men straggle and gradually get further and further apart, for it is very, very difficult to keep close together in the dark when marching. Suddenly comes a halt. Down the lines dash the officers, closing up the men and forming their fours. At last dawn begins to break, and soon a gay daylight spreads, bringing relief to all. Weary we arrive at our destination.
Men are hurried into the buildings, and ground allotted to them. They are immediately placed under cover, so that no enemy aeroplanes may learn that we are moving troops. By five o'clock thousands of troops were concealed in all directions.
Guarding Precious Water
The first thing we did on arrival was to place sentries on all the water supplies, for water was scarce. Nobody was allowed to wash, and for the most part everybody had to exist for the day on the water they had in their bottles.
Save for the sentries, everybody, in a very short time, was sleeping. At 5 a.m. the stillness was suddenly broken by terrific firing in the distance. This got louder and louder, and lasted for nearly two hours. We surmised, of course, that a big attack was on. This was confirmed later in the dayin the afternoonwhen little batches of wounded men began to pass.
Back from the Firing Line
Just as night was falling we got the order to "Stand to," and within a quarter of an hour were marching towards the firing line. We did not go far but in the short distance we did travel we were passed by hundreds of men, singly and in groups, strangling back from the battle line. Here was a group whose regiment had been almost annihilated; there was another dazed and scared. They had seen terrible, terrible sights, and had fearful tales to mutter. They and their comrades had been sent to capture a trench. It was thought that the Germans at that point had been completely wiped out by our artillery fire. They rushed forwardit was but eighty yards to the trenchonly to find the trench crowded with Germans, who allowed them to get close up to the wire entanglements and then withered them with rifle and machine-gun fire. In five minutes 250 were mowed down. The remainder lay down and tried to conceal themselves. Of those who lay down this group alone lived to tell the tale, and they were nearly crazy with the strain of lying there twelve hours, expecting death every moment. When night came they managed to crawl back to safety.
Stories by the Wayside
In addition there were terrible and dreadful tales of wounded lying helpless and parched with thirst and delirious with pain, waiting through the long night till aid could be given them. Then here and there was the grand story of the heroic man: One going from safety to almost certain death to fetch in a wounded comrade. Another giving up his water bottle in the early morning to the wounded comrade by his side. All night long we heard stories of the ebb and flow of bloody encounters. Here a division had routed the enemy and advanced ; there a division had been practically wiped out. The grand outstanding feature of the whole thing was that, whatever they had gone through, all were ready to return to the hell for the sake of their country. Yes, indeed, the spirit is fine.
Since that stirring night we have been shifted three times, and any moment expect to do our share. Everybody is cheery and determined to do his bit to his utmost.
Back to Index