May 1916: Mobilisation and the journey to the Front
Alongside individual diaries, war diaries of the individual companies still exist and can be downloaded from the National Archives. Taken together they are helpful in filling in gaps in each other’s accounts, with the more detailed Company diary providing the accurate movements, strategy and context behind the curt observations from the individual.
Ernest’s diary begins on the 5th May, but the Company diary has one earlier entry on the 21st April 1916, made by “CLT Matheson, Captain R.E., Commanding 237th Field Coy, R.E.”. This notes that the Company was in Aldershot when it received mobilisation orders and commenced the distribution of overseas clothing and equipment.
The next entry in the Company diary is on the 5th May and details how the Company entrained in two parties from Aldershot for Southampton, one under Capt. Matheson and the other under Capt. J.H Langton. Since the latter party then embarked on the S.S.Viper we can conclude that this was the group that Ernest sailed with from Southampton. Intriguingly, the diary notes that the ship that took the Matheson group also took all transport horses and … bicycles !
After the two parts of the Company were reunited on the 6th May at Le Havre, they spent a night under canvas before entraining at the Gare Marchandises on the 7th. The Company diary notes an arrival at Steenbeque station at 4pm, with two meal stops. Ernest omits Steenbeque but does note passing through Etaples, Boulogne and Calais, which may have been where the stops were. Finally both accounts note a stop at Hazebrouck, with the Company adding a march to the nearby village of Borre, arriving at 7.15pm before being billeted in various houses and barns.
On 9th May, Ernest notes a 6 mile march to the next billet, over rough cobble stones which injured his heel. The Company diary identifies the route as via “Strazeele Duttustune” and the billet as the Ferme de la Belle Croise, Bailleul, prop. Mdm Deeport. The diary helpfully gives us the map reference of “Hazebrouck 5a 1:100,000 “Fm” under C in France”. A copy of this map can be found in the Mcmaster archive (http://www.mcmaster.ca/) and an excerpt is shown below. As per the Company diary, if one looks under the capital letter “C” in “FRANCE”, a small farm can be found just outside Bailleul. This map also shows the location of the France:Belgium border and the large town of Armentiers, which will feature repeatedly in the diaries. Also on this map is Ernest’s final destination, “Doo-Doo Farm” – but more of that later.
Overall, Ernest had travelled nearly 400m over 4 days, probably the longest trip in his life to date. The men were billeted in barns and lofts around the farm, with two of the fields being used for camping and for parking the vehicles and horses.
For the next 7 days, Ernest’s diary entries are sparse, implying a period of rest and recovery on the farm (“Sick with foot lying out in orchard…”). He was also paid a small amount of money (presumably for incidental expenses) of 10 Francs (circa.£20 in today’s money*). While Ernest and the rest of the company were resting, two separate parties, each of 2 officers & 6 NCO were sent to front line to meet the 64th Field Coy RE to receive instruction in the work to be done when the 237th relieve the 64th Coy.
On the 16th May, the Company left for their final destination, “Doo-Doo Farm”, and their mission to releive the 64th.
*See upcoming page – “Calculation of the value of Ernest’s war wages”