From Blighty to Le Cateau


Photograph of SS Braemar Castle one of the ships used to transport the troops[1]

From the private diary of Lt. Col. F.R. Hicks, 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment, August 1914 (included with the Battalion War Diary for 1914).

21st August – Battalion left Harrow by two trains.  H.Q. and Right Half Batt: at 11.30 p.m. Remainder 12.30 a.m.  

22nd August – Left Half Batt: arrived Southampton 5 a.m. and embarked on S.S. Cestrian with 1st Rifle Brigade and 4th Divisional H.Q.  Sailed about noon, very calm passage.  Arrived of Havre at 9 p.m. Considerable delays.

23rd August – Disembarked at 2 a.m. Considerable difficulties over disembarkation, owing to motor cars of Divisional H.Q. and wagons were not ashore till later.  A stiff up hill march to Rest Camp.  Whole Battalion there.  Tents provided, but no food until mid-day.

From the 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment War Diary.

22nd August – At 7am the right half of the Battalion along with Head Quarters embarked on the SS Braemar Castle.

23rd August – 11pm – 1am The Battalion disembarked at Le Harve and camped at Bléville. [Note: the date/time is as recorded in the war diary, Bléville has not been found on the map]

Frederick DAY, Sidney GUNNELL & James PIKE were with the 1st Hampshire Regiment when they embarked for France, it is impossible to tell upon which ship they travelled.

Private ROE of the 1st East Lancashire Regiment travelled on the SS Braemar Castle, here are his thoughts upon reaching France.

… arrived at Le Harve at 4.00 pm.  … Got a great reception from French crowds… I can hear the crowd yelling ‘Vive l’Angleterre’.  We seem to be short of French scholars on our boat, as the only reply to the French demonstration is given in two words ‘Wee! Wee!’ I am told, on making enquiries, that ‘Wee! Wee!’ means ‘Yes! Yes!’

ROW later tells us a bit more about the camp which is presumed to be the Rest Camp referred to by HICKS.

When we arrived in camp we were detailed to tents and issued out with iron rations, which under no circumstances were we allowed to touch unless we got an order from an officer.  Any person who loses or eats his iron rations is liable to be tried by court martial. Supposing circumstances arose in which a party of men were cut off … what would happen if they eat their iron rations without an officer’s permission? They would get punished, I suppose.

HICKS mentioned in his diary that there was no food until midday, it is not known what he as an officer would have eaten but for the men their meal time experience would likely have been something similar to what Arthur COOK of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry recalled.

We cooked our own meal of bacon, bread and tea and were told to get as much rest as possible.

Arthur GREEN of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry tells us about the evening of the 23rd August:

… the Colonel read to us the King’s message to his troops also telling us that not many hours distant we should be facing the enemy. We cheered the King and country…

It is likely that all the regiments in the camp were read this message from the King if it wasn’t the one below it would have been something similar.

You are leaving Home to fight for the safety and honour of My Empire.

Belgium, whose country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe.  I have implicit confidence in you my soldiers.   Duty is your watchword, and I know your duty will be nobly done.

I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction for your daily progress; indeed you welfare will never by absent from my thoughts.

I pray God to Bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious.

George R I

9th August 1914[2]

From the private diary of Lt. Col. F.R. Hicks, 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment, August 1914 (included with the Battalion War Diary for 1914).

24th August – Marched down to Railway Station and entrained about 9 a.m. Off at noon – men very crowded in trucks.  One unfortunately fell off in a tunnel, our first casualty, but was not dead.

From the 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment War Diary.

24th August – 12.10 pm Entrained at Harve.  5.15 pm. Halted at Rouen for 1 hour.

From the private diary of Private Pattenden, 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment, August  & September 1914 (included with the Battalion War Diary for 1914).

24th August – (Monday) We are now waiting at Havre Station to begin our 12 hours ride to somewhere.  It is very hot here.  We started at 12 p.m. and after 16 hours of grinding and bumping, roar and rattle we have now reached the town of Le Cateau about 30 miles from the frontier.  We do not know where we move to next.

The various diaries from the 1st Hampshire Regiment do not give a consistent story, but what is clear is that the Battalion left Le Havre on the 24th August 1914 and arrived in Le Cateau either late on the 24th or early morning on the 25th.

ROE on leaving Le Havre on the train says:

We all ‘Hurrahed’ when the train kicked off: war for a certainty at last. ’Tipperary’ was struck up on mouth organs made in Germany.

It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (1914) uploaded to YouTube by Aaron1912

ROE tells us a little more about the journey by train:

The Kaiser, the Crown Prince, von Moltke and Admiral Tirpiz appeared in caricatures everywhere we looked (on walls, doors and wooden hoardings).

On arrival at the little station of .. [Le Cateau] our train ride terminated, and we are not sorry as we were packed like sardines.

The Battalion halted for an hour alongside the station, as there is a big battle taking place on our right front. The gunfire is incessant.  Some say they are French guns; others say they are ours.  Well they are making a devil of a row anyway.

Whittuck (Captain[3]) of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry recalls:

I certainly did not see much prospect of getting any sleep with someone else’s boots in my face and we began to feel rather uncomfortable as the day had been hot …There were heated discussions about where we were going, … Bully beef and biscuits did not seem at appetizing in a very dirty railway carriage, but we were better off than the men who I’m afraid must have suffered terribly from a blazing sun in open railway trucks. …


A troop train from 1914[4]

What is clear from the various sources is the train journey was very long.  Officers such as WHITTUCK were clearly in carriages with a roof, and it is likely that most if not all of the other ranks were in open top carriages.  HICKS says the ‘men were very crowded in trucks’ which is backed up by ROE saying they ‘were packed like sardines’.   Despite the heat mentioned by PATTENDEN and WHITTUCK everyone seems to just be getting on with it.  The phrase “a stiff upper lip” certainly comes to mind when you think about what everyone was going through and how they seem to have kept calm and carried on with what had to be done.  Plus of course, typical of us all complained about the noise!!!

The next post will be “August 25th – early September, inc. The Battle of Le Cateau

Works Cited

1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment – War Diary (1914) – WO 95/1495/1. “” Aug-Dec 1914. The National Archives. PDF. 10 May 2014.

Gillard, Brian, ed. Good Old Somersets. An ‘Old Contemptible’ Battalion in 1914. Leicester: Matador, 2004. Google Books.

Roe, Edward. Diary of an Old Contemptible. Private Edward Roe, East Lancashire Regiment, From Mons to Baghdad, 1914-1919. Ed. Peter Downham. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2004. Kindle Book.





Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: