A map is waiting for each of us down-stairs, and we are told, roughly, where it is proposed to take us. A hurried lunch, and we are in the motor again, with Captain —— sitting in front. “You have your passes?” he asks us, and we anxiously verify the new and precious papers that brought us from our last stage, and will have to be shown on our way. We drive first to Arques, and Hazebrouck, then southeast. At a certain village we call at the Divisional Headquarters. The General comes out himself, and proposes to guide us on. “I will take you as near to the fighting line as I can.”
On we went, in two motors; the General with me, Captain —— and D. following. We passed through three villages, and after the first we were within shell range of the German batteries ahead. But I cannot remember giving a thought to the fact, so absorbing to the unaccustomed eye were all the accumulating signs of the actual battle-line; the endless rows of motor-lorries, either coming back from, or going up to the front, now with food, now with ammunition, reserve trenches to right and left of the road; a “dump” or food-station, whence carts filled from the heavy lorries go actually up to the trenches, lines of artillery wagons, parks of ammunition, or motor-ambulances, long lines of picketed horses, motor-cyclists dashing past. In one village we saw a merry crowd in the little place gathered round a field-kitchen whence came an excellent fragrance of good stew. A number of the men were wearing leeks in their ears for St. David’s Day. “You’re Welsh, then?” I said to one of the cooks (by this time we had left the motor and were walking). “I’m not!” said the little fellow, with a laughing look. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day I’m waitin’ for! But I’ve no objection to givin’ St. David a turn!”
He opened his kitchen to show me the good things going on, and as we moved away there came up a marching platoon of men from the trenches, who had done their allotted time there and were coming back to billets. The General went to greet them. “Well, my boys, you could stick it all right?” It was good to see the lightening on the tired faces, and to watch the group disappear into the cheerful hubbub of the village.
We walked on, and outside the village I heard the guns for the first time. We were now “actually in the battle,” according to my companion, and a shell was quite possible, though not probable. Again, I can’t remember that the fact made any impression upon us. We were watching now parties of men at regular intervals sitting waiting in the fields beside the road, with their rifles and kits on the grass near them. They were waiting for the signal to move up toward the firing line as soon as the dusk was further advanced. “We shall meet them later,” said the General, “as we come back.”