Very bitter I felt, and when nearing Saint Quentin, some French soldiers got in my way, I cursed them in French, then in German, and finally in good round English oaths for cowards, and I know not what. They looked very startled and recoiled into the ditch. I must have looked alarming—a gaunt, dirty, unshaven figure towering above my motor-cycle, without hat, bespattered with mud, and eyes bright and weary for want of sleep. How I hated the French! I hated them because, as I then thought, they had deserted us at Mons and again at Le Cateau; I hated them because they had the privilege of seeing the British Army in confused retreat; I hated them because their roads were very nearly as bad as the roads of the Belgians. So, wet, miserable, and angry, I came into Saint Quentin just as the sun was beginning to shine a little.
THE GREAT RETREAT
On the morning of the 27th we draggled into Saint Quentin. I found the others gorged with coffee and cakes provided by a kindly Staff-Officer. I imitated them and looked around. Troops of all arms were passing through very wearily. The people stood about, listless and sullen. Everywhere proclamations were posted beseeching the inhabitants to bring in all weapons they might possess. We found the Signal Company, and rode ahead of it out of the town to some fields above a village called Castres. There we unharnessed and took refuge from the gathering storm under a half-demolished haystack. The Germans didn’t agree to our remaining for more than fifty minutes. Orders came for us to harness up and move on. I was left behind with the H.Q.S., which had collected itself, and was sent a few minutes later to 2nd Corps H.Q. at Ham, a ride of about fifteen miles.
On the way I stopped at an inn and discovered there three or four of our motor-cyclists, who had cut across country, and an officer. The officer told us how he had been sent on to construct trenches at Le Cateau. It seems that although he enlisted civilian help, he had neither the time nor the men to construct more than very makeshift affairs, which were afterwards but slightly improved by the men who occupied them.
Five minutes and I was on the road again. It was an easy run, something of a joy-ride until, nearing Ham, I ran into a train of motor-lorries, which of all the parasites that infest the road are the most difficult to pass. Luckily for me they were travelling in the opposite direction to mine, so I waited until they passed and then rode into Ham and delivered my message.
The streets of Ham were almost blocked by a confused column retreating through it. Officers stationed at every corner and bend were doing their best to reduce it to some sort of order, but with little success.
Returning I was forced into a byroad by the column, lost my way, took the wrong road out of the town, but managed in about a couple of hours to pick up the Signal Co., which by this time had reached the Chateau at Oleezy.