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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter XXII Of How Some of the Troops Went On London Leave and Others Trained for A Great Battle!

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Chapter XXII Of How Some of the Troops Went On London Leave and Others Trained for A Great Battle!

I want to stroll down Bond Street,
Lord, what memories it brings!
I want to see shop windows
Full of flimsy useless things.
I long for Piccadilly
And its crowd of lovely girls,
With their neat silk-stockinged ankles,
And their captivating curls.
I dearly want to saunter
Along by Leicester Square,
And watch with fascination
The many gay sights there.

A man was told that he could go on leave. He paraded at the quartermaster's store and drew a new uniform, went to the baths to get rid of the permanent boarders and to receive new underclothing, and then in a haze of happy anticipation, drifted down by stages to Boulogne. Perhaps one night was passed there in the huge empty store-rooms of a great warehouse where they slept on "bed-boards," a device used in gaols and the British Army to overcome to some extent the hardness and the cold of concrete floors. Some little while before dusk, the leave men were paraded and marched down to the page 227gangways, which were carefully guarded to see that no unauthorized person got across. Military police were everywhere. The "Red Caps" were hated, feared and despised; but just here their authority was absolute, for no man was going to risk his leave for the small satisfaction of baiting a military policeman.

The leave boat—one of the old Channel packets—was crammed with men: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Australians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders; officers were packed on a little promenade deck with some nurses; the men wherever they could be pushed. No one worried. In an hour they would be in England. Just before dark the little boat slipped through the boom and raced out into the grey Channel. A couple of destroyers took up station and the three zigzagged through the stiff swell. All on board wore lifebelts for the submarine menace was at its height and a thousand good fighting soldiers would be well worth a torpedo. Within the hour the packet runs into Folkestone harbour and without a moment's delay the men file off and on to the waiting trains, which rush through the darkness to Victoria Station and London Town. Some few lucky ones who had relatives or friends in London were met and rushed away—a few made connections and went off to some other part of England.

The majority, who were a little bewildered, were only too pleased to pile on the N.Z.Y.M.C.A. bus and be run up to the Shakespeare Hut. Here most of them dumped their packs, booked a bed for the page 228night, changed their money, and proceeded immediately to have a real good dinner; then, tired out by the varied excitements of a day that had commenced in France and was now finishing in London, went to sleep in a real bed, on a soft mattress, and between clean sheets. It was a glorious feeling snuggling in, wallowing in the warmth and softness, just sheer relaxation to sensuous delight. Men lay awake as long as they could; no midnight call to listening post or working party, no stand to, no reveille, no roll call in the morning, no drill, no orders, no nothing, except to do as one pleased.

Next morning after a luxurious lie in, hot shower, and a good breakfast, they Went out to see the. sights. Some followed the guide-book routes or went out with the parties that were continually being arranged by the Y.M.C.A. or the friends of New Zealand. The majority wandered about in a more aimless fashion, enjoying their freedom and not anxious to compromise this new intoxicating pleasure by identifying themselves with large groups of any sort. Timetables were for the present abhorrent to men who for a year or more had lived rigidly by them. So they strolled about looking at shops, marvelling at the traffic, accidentally discovering Westminster Abbey or the picturesque person on guard at Whitehall; soaking themselves in the crowd, listening to the murmur of English speech from the unending stream of civilians, admiring pretty girls. They jumped on to buses, climbed on top and told the conductor to put them off at the terminus, and after miles of moving page 229through streets of every sort, got off and strolled through a quiet street that led into a great park, and emerging therefrom blundered on to a tube station. From there they made a quick return to the centre of things, to plunge once more into the crowd and discover Buckingham Palace and a likely looking afternoon-tea shop or an hotel bar. Crowds, moving crowds, of all manner of people, laughing, joking, going evidently with purpose to work or pleasure. After the naked misery beyond Ploegsteert it was like a bath of life to mix and mingle with ordinary folk who walked on the surface unafraid. For hours men moved about in this unending river of life in a sort of silent communion, not wanting to talk or seek introduction to individuals, but to bathe as it were in the ordinariness of things.

The daylight commenced to fade and the lights came out in the misty dusk—not many lights or very bright because those were the days of air-raids—but still lights enough to make a magic atmosphere for men whose nights had been dark except for gunflashes and German flares. Still the river of life flowed on, changing its course somewhat to London theatre land. Men booked up for shows of all sorts. Some went to music halls; others to see Gaby Deslys dance; many were thrilled by Doris Keane's marvellous acting in Romance; and after the theatres supper and more bed.

But London had an attraction deeper and more powerful than beds and meals and theatres. In France there were girls who were young and beautiful and full of life, but they were few and lived page 230among such crowds of admirers that they could not become the friends of individuals. They served a company with coffee and chips but they did not walk or talk with men one by one. Here, though, were women in thousands, young and gay, fresh and beautiful, obvious, visible, not perhaps completely unattainable. And here, too, were young men, with all the desires of life surging in them, wanting girls to walk with and talk to; girls to have afternoon tea with and to take to theatres; pretty girls to make a fuss of and to show off in front of their friends; girls who would give to them sympathy and womanly understanding; girls to kiss and make love to. Their desire was of a sudden very terrible and urgent. In another week they would be back in France and as like as not lying dead as the comrades they had seen on the Somme and at Messines—silent, rigid, with the life all blown out of them, able no more to whisper or kiss in the darkness. In their little week of respite from hell they were eager to experience all the glamorous mysteries of life.

And young girls also were eager and reckless. They wanted love and romance; and in France the boys of their generation were being massacred by thousands before the German pill-boxes and on the uncut wire. On the great battlefields it sometimes seemed that under the blast of the great barrage the very earth heaved and shook. In London, where the hopes and fears, the hatreds and passions of our race surged in great waves of feeling, it was as though the very fabric of our civilization was page 231rocking and swaying. The semblance of love was bought and sold, was given sometimes generously, more often recklessly. Under the urge of immediate desire and the imminent shadow of death, men forgot loyalties of many years, forgot ideals, forgot mothers and sisters and sweethearts, and wives and children to be, and grasped wildly and desperately at the illusion of life. The tragedy would have been lessened if the men could have met other girls with whom they could have had a "jolly good time" in all honour—but they had ten days only. They had no friends and the only girls they could meet in an intimate way were those who were for sale or those whom war had driven to be as reckless as themselves.

Back in their villages the New Zealanders trained hard for the coming battle; spent their spare time in estaminets or in the Y.M.C.As that seemed to have sprung up like magic, almost everywhere; lorry-hopped into Boulogne; besought mademoiselle to "promenade," and as usual fixed up a problematical date after the next war; went for long walks across the pleasant rolling country hunting up relations and friends in other units—on the whole a pleasant and sociable time. One day Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig reviewed the division in a large field outside Fromentel. Platoon by platoon, three brigades moved past the saluting point. Steel and brass glittered in the sunshine. The bands played. There was not the intoxication of feeling there had been when Sir Ian Hamilton rode down their ranks before the Landing. Times had changed. Men page 232were high-hearted enough, resolute still; but war was no longer a great adventure, but a stern and bloody business, something to be finished with gladly. They were interested in Haig, a solid man apparently; no doubt able and conscientious, but unable to touch the imagination of his men by any word of fire, or any gesture of authority. His battles were like himself, solid affairs, certainly very bloody, but so far not leading to much. Perhaps this last one he was staging might lead to more. It was known that he meant to roll the Germans back from the coast of Flanders. The men who were to storm the enemy lines hoped it was all right.