Two days spent under the guidance of the Base Commandant or an officer of his staff among the docks and warehouses of a great French port, among the huts of its reinforcement camp, which contains more men than Aldershot before August, 1914, or in its workshops of the Army Ordnance Corps, gave me my first experience of the organising power that has gone to these departments of the war. The General in command of the base was there in the first weeks of the struggle and during the great retreat. He retired with his staff to Nantes—leaving only a broken motor-car behind him!—just about the time that the French Government betook itself to Bordeaux. But in September he was back again, and the building-up process began, which has since known neither stop nor stay. That the commercial needs of a great French port should have been able to accommodate themselves as they have to the military needs of the British Army speaks loudly for the tact and good feeling on both sides. The task has not been at all times an easy one; and I could not help thinking as we walked together through the crowded scene, that the tone and temper of the able man beside me—his admiration, simply expressed, yet evidently profound, for the French spirit in the war, and for the heroic unity of the country through all ranks and classes, accounted for a great deal. In the presence of a good-will so strong, difficulties disappear.
Look now at this immense hangar or storehouse—the largest in the world—through which we are walking. It was completed three years before the war, partly, it is said, by German money, to house the growing cotton-trade of the port. It now houses a large proportion of the food of the British Army. The hangar is half a mile long, and is bounded on one side by the docks where the ships are discharging, and on the other by the railway lines where the trains are loading up for the front.
You walk through avenues of bacon, through streets of biscuits and jam. On the quays just outside, ships from England, Canada, Norway, Argentina, Australia are pouring out their stores. Stand and watch the endless cranes at work, and think what English sea power means! And on the other side watch the packing of the trucks that are going to the front, the order and perfection with which the requisitions, large and small, of every regiment are supplied.
One thinks of the Crimean scandals. The ghost of Florence Nightingale seems to move beside us, watching contentedly what has come of all that long-reforming labour, dealing with the health, the sanitation, the food and equipment of the soldier, in which she played her part; and one might fancy the great shade pausing specially beside the wired-in space labelled “Medical Comforts,” and generally known as “The Cage.” Medical necessaries are housed elsewhere; but here are the dainties, the special foods, the easing appliances of all kinds which are to make life bearable to many a sorely-wounded man.