Looting and luxury dugouts
In part 48 of his personal testimony series, Peter Hart reaches May 1918, when men and women discovered new aspects of life behind the lines – hefty bar bills and ‘souveniring’ from abandoned houses. Peter is tracing the experiences of 20 people who lived
Thomas was born in Geraldton, Western Australia in 1894. He rose to the rank of platoon sergeant in the Australian Imperial Force before injury in the Gallipoli campaign. He fought at the third battle of Ypres and in the German Spring Offensives of 1918.
Captain Thomas Louch was a staff officer with the headquarters of the 13th Australian Brigade. When the troops were out of the line there was concern about looting from abandoned French houses.
The inhabitants had departed, taking with them what they could, but leaving their houses more or less intact. There had been a lot of looting by other troops before our arrival. Corbie was a sizeable town, and the cellars of the houses were plentifully stocked with wine. This was discovered by the troops, and there had been so much drunkenness in some units that their military efficiency was impaired. By order, therefore, much of the wine was poured down the drain under the supervision of officers.
Looting has to be treated in a common-sense manner. A soldier seeing food or drink in a deserted house knows that the owner will never see it again, and that if he does not consume it, someone else will. If he has just come out of battle and is tired and hungry, it would be asking too much of human nature to expect him to leave it untouched. ‘Souveniring’ is a different matter. Anyone who ransacks a house and takes something of value, meaning to keep it for himself, is guilty of stealing. There was no way in which an infantry soldier could dispose of stolen property – he could only carry it in his pack. That, in itself, was a check; but doubtless some small articles were stolen.
Louch discovered that it was not just the common soldiery who could be tempted.
The only habitation in the Bois l’Abbe, called by the troops the ‘White Chateau’, was a country house belonging to Germaine Louchet, who was wealthy. It had only recently been abandoned, and the interior was much as it had been left. We went through the drill of tidying it up, hoping that it would not be further looted.
There were some nice things, including a clock with a distinctive chime. Months later at an [officers’] mess I heard the chime – and immeediately recognised the clock. ‘Souveniring’S was not confined to the lower orders.
Born in 1897 in Alcester, Harold had planned a career in teaching. Instead, shortly after the outbreak of war, he signed up with the 12th Gloucestershire Regiment, fighting on the western front in November 1915 and in the Somme, where he was injured in September 1916.
Harold Hayward had recovered from the wounds he suffered on the Somme in September 1916. He had successfully applied for training as an officer and was commissioned into the Welsh Regiment in December 1917. After periods with home service battalions, he was sent out to join the 15th Welsh Regiment in May 1918. Once again, he was serving on the Somme battlefront. When the battalion was out of the line, Hayward became aware of a problem facing many officers who had been promoted from the ranks – mess bills.
The company commander was trying to drown his sorrows in whisky, having been downgraded as commander of the battalion. At the end of the first month I realised that I was paying more for the drinks that he and his pals were consuming than I got from my pay – I had no private income. All this money was going on whisky that I didn’t drink. I thought: what can I do about this? I’ll be mess president – I’ll give them something really first class to eat so that they won’t thinthink about the booze so mmuch. I used to cycle round the countryside, find the farms where tthey’d got chicken, geese aand turkeys, and
send the cooks out to that farm to buy a bird for the mess dinner.
Eventually [the commander] was pushed off into another battalion. I expect the colonel wanted to get rid of him! Second Lieutenant Harold Hayward was posted as commander of No 5 Platoon in B Company. He was conscious of being English in a largely Welsh unit, but was soon offered a chance to impress his men. I had a bit of luck in that the first time we were out of the line we had two light Lewis machine guns to a platoon. They were doing some firing practice against bottles – and they couldn’t hit them. I walked by with my revolver in the holster, and just drew it out and fired – and knocked three down, one after the other. That was it – I was then considered a first-class shot with the revolver! I was nothing of the kind – it was just a bit of luck!
Joining up underage, Joe trained with the Northumberland Fusiliers, serving with them on the western front in 1917 and 1918.
Private Joseph Pickard had been severely wounded in the German Spring Offensives. He was recuperating from his leg and pelvic wounds, and much of his nose had been sliced off by shrapnel; he was left badly disfigured. He spent time in Ford Western General Hospital in Neath.
The first time I was out of the hospital I wanted to go down and have a look at the place. All the houses are built on the hillside in rows. I was going along the bottom and there were some kids playing about. I went past and a short time later they got up and galloped past me. I passed about two or three streets and then discovered that all the kids in the blinking neighbourhood had gathered – talking, looking, gawping. I still had this little bit of plastic stuff [on my nose].
I could have taken the crutch and hit the whole lot of them! I knew what they were looking at. So I turned around and went back to the hospital. I was sitting one day, and I thought: “Well, it’s no good. I can’t stop like this for the rest of my life – I’ve got to face it sometime!” So I went out again, with people staring. I used to turn round and look at them!
In the postwar years Joe Pickard had an early form of plastic surgery to rebuild his nose using part of his rib cartilage. It would never look quite right, but it was a big improvement. Kate Luard
Londoner Kate, born in 1872, trained as a nurse. During her service on the western front she rose to become a head sister in charge of a staff of up to 40 nurses and 100 orderlies.
Sister Kate Luard was serving with the 41st Casualty Clearing Station at Pernois, just north of Amiens, where German night-bombing raids were causing concern.
We are sleeping in the most thrilling dugouts… with a boarded floor and lined walls for 3 feet up to the ground level. We have five solid feet between us and bomb splinters, and are warm and cosy and dry and as airy as we like with door and windows…
May 22nd – the hottest day this year. This full moon is bringing an epidemic of night bombing at Abbeville, Étaples and all about up here. People here – not seasoned experts – call it “very near” when he drops things 2km away; let them wait till he really does come near. Nowadays he doesn’t cause me a single flutter: he might be nightingales for all the difference he makes.
“All the kids in the neighbourhood had gathered – talking, looking, gawping. I could have taken my crutch and hit the lot of them!”
Part of Joseph Pickard’s nose was sliced off by shrapnel in March 1918, but was rebuilt surgically after the war