For more than three weeks we went from place to place with no apparent destination, wandering aimlessly up and down the country-side of Northern France, imposing ourselves upon the people of little villages, shamming battle over their cultivated fields, and sleeping in their hen coops.
I kept a diary on that hike. It was a thing forbidden, but I managed it. One manages many things out there. I have just read over that diary. There isn’t much to it but a succession of town names,—Villiers du Bois, Maisincourt, Barly, Oneaux, Canchy, Amiens, Bourdon, Villiers Bocage, Agenvilliers, Behencourt, and others that I failed to set down and have forgotten. We swept across that country, sweating under our packs, hardening our muscles, stopping here for a day, there for five days for extended-order drills and bayonet and musketry practice, and somewhere else for a sham battle. We were getting ready to go into the Somme.
The weather, by some perversity of fate, was fair during all of that hiking time. Whenever I was in the trenches it always rained, whether the season warranted it or not. Except on days when we were scheduled to go over the top. Then, probably because rain will sometimes hold up a planned-for attack, it was always fair.
On the hike, with good roads under foot, the soldier does not mind a little wet and welcomes a lot of clouds. No such luck for us. It was clear all the time. Not only clear but blazing hot August weather.
On our first march out of the Cabaret Rouge communication trench we covered a matter of ten miles to a place called Villiers du Bois. Before that I had never fully realized just what it meant to go it in full heavy equipment.
Often on the march I compared my lot with that of the medieval soldier who had done his fighting over these same fields of Northern France.
The knight of the Middle Ages was all dressed up like a hardware store with, I should judge, about a hundred pounds of armor. But he rode a horse and had a squire or some such striker trailing along in the rear with the things to make him comfortable, when the fighting was over.
The modern soldier gets very little help in his war making. He is, in fact, more likely to be helping somebody else than asking for assistance for himself. The soldier has two basic functions: first, to keep himself whole and healthy; second, to kill the other fellow. To the end that he may do these two perfectly simple things, he has to carry about eighty pounds of weight all the time.
He has a blanket, a waterproof sheet, a greatcoat, extra boots, extra underwear, a haversack with iron rations, entrenching tools, a bayonet, a water bottle, a mess kit, a rifle, two hundred fifty rounds of ammo, a tin hat, two gas helmets, and a lot of miscellaneous small junk. All this is draped, hung, and otherwise disposed over his figure by means of a web harness having more hooks than a hatrack. He parallels the old-time knight only in the matter of the steel helmet and the rifle, which, with the bayonet, corresponds to the lance, sword, and battle-ax, three in one.