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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter I — The Companies Leave Egypt for France

page 25

Chapter I
The Companies Leave Egypt for France

On the 5th April, 1916, the 2nd and 3rd Companies of the Corps entrained for Alexandria, while the 1st Company entrained for Port Said, and on arrival at their destinations embarked for Marseilles in different transports, so that full advantage could be taken of the machine guns on the ships in the event of attack by enemy submarines. 1st Company embarked on S.S. Ingoma, 2nd Company on S.S. Haverford, and 3rd Company on S.S. Alaunia (which subsequently was a victim of the submarine). The voyage was uneventful, except for the very rough weather in the Gulf of Lyons, which made the work of the gunners on submarine guard very uncomfortable and trying. The guns were placed in specially selected positions on the ships, and were continuously manned, so that in the event of a submarine being sighted, as many guns as possible could pour a concentrated fire upon it

The usual rumours spread about the ships of submarines being in the vicinity, but the whole transportation was carried out without mishap. The troops on board the Alaunia for a few brief moments believed the rumours had foundation; the machine guns were given orders to fire half a belt as a test, because it was feared that the salt air and water had interfered with their mechanism. Notice of the shoot had not been given to the troops, so that the sudden rattle of ten guns opening fire allowed of no other explanation than an attack by a hostile submarine. The alarm bore good results, for many a soldier who in his bravado thought it infra dig to punctiliously carry out the order that required him to have page 26his lifebelt with him at all times, learned in those few moments what his feelings would be if when the ship was attacked he was without this indispensable article.

The Companies disembarked at Marseilles, and soon commenced the long tedious railway journey of three days and nights to the Hazebrouck Area, a journey which must remain a lasting memory to those who undertook it. The sudden change of seeing the beautiful Rhone Valley, the carefully cultivated fields and the abundant growth of early spring after the sands of the desert, brought all back in thought to their own land, and gave a feeling of having passed from the wilderness to the promised land. Few, if any, thought how soon they would long to once more turn back to the desert and leave behind them the mud and slush of Flanders and Picardy.

Tedious though the journey was, the wonderful demonstrations of the French population at the stations through which the trains passed, the gradual change from peace to war as they proceeded north of Paris, and seeing the huge back area organisations of the British Armies kept up a lively interest among both officers and men.

The Companies detrained in the Hazebrouck Area at Morbecque and Steenbecque on 20th April, 1916, and at once marched to the villages in which their respective billets had been allotted, and very little time was lost by all ranks to quickly make themselves comfortable, and to rest after the long train journey. The 1st Company's Headquarters were at Morbecque, the 2nd Company's at Blaringhem, and the 3rd Company's at Steenbecque (being later moved to Thiennes).

Sufficient has already been written and published in novel form about the many humorous adventures that befell our soldiers when they first arrived in France, owing to misunderstandings of language and custom, without the necessity of introducing a number of such adventures into an official history.

The officers and men of the Machine Gun Corps did not escape these adventures, but, unfortunately, some of the very choice faux pas they made were not sent in with the reports of the companies. One amusing incident will bear repeating. The itchy feeling that came over the men of one company page 27when they laid down on the straw indicated that the billets had been in constant use for some time. The matter was referred to O.C. Company, who soon found "Madame," and in his very best French asked her to procure "80 kilos of paille (straw)." Madame's eyebrows opened widely—in apparent surprise, but she signified she would obtain exactly what "Monsieur le Capitaine" required. At midday (three hours later) enquiry was made to ascertain whether the paille had arrived, but Madame only drew a long face and endeavoured to explain the difficulty she was experiencing to comply with "such an order." About 4 p.m. Madame appeared at Headquarters, wreathed in smiles, to inform Monsieur le Capitaine that "it had arrived." The O.C. went out to see the straw distributed, but there was no well filled wagon of straw in sight, only a large-sized man—a baker—accompanied by four barrow loads of steaming bread fresh from die oven. Madame had confused paille with pain, quite convincing the O.C. Company that Madame did not understand her own language. The men of the company, however, greatly appreciated the mistake at the evening meal an hour later.

The wheeled transport of the Corps was left behind in Egypt, but the horses arrived in France a few days after the Companies. The horses were detrained at Abbeville, about 60 miles from the Hazebrouck area, where the transport officers were given orders to draw the necessary wagons and equipment to complete the establishment The transports of the Corps trekked across to the Divisional area and reached their respective Companies on the 27th April

Leaving the wheeled transport behind in Egypt caused a great deal of extra work to the Companies, who had to handle the whole of their large equipment, which ordinarily remained in the wagons. All ranks were extremely happy to be rejoined by the transport, and very soon the Companies were in proper working order, employing their tune in overhauling guns and equipment, mastering the intricacies of the new P.H. gas helmet, and the Laws of War in France, which had to be gleaned from the masses of instructions that were issued to commanding officers for promulgation to their troops.

On 30th April General Plumer (commanding Second page 28Army) visited each of the Companies, while carrying on their routine work, and, contrary to expectations, he requested that they continue working during the inspection. The absence of the usual stereotyped complimentary remarks brought home the fact that inspections in France were not mere formalities, but were to enable the Higher Command to gauge the troops it would have to depend upon in action.

Orders finally came for the Division to move closer to the line, preparatory to taking over a sector of the trenches, and on 1st May, 1916, the 2nd and 3rd Companies moved forward with their respective Brigades to the Corps Reserve Area, the 1st Company remaining at Morbecque.