What a day!
As a reservist, Walter Sims had been among the first to be recalled to the colours. That sounds rather noble, but in fact he and the four others from the village had piled into Eli Goodyear‘s waggon pretty unceremoniously, without time to say much of a proper goodbye, as he had volunteered to drive them to Andover railway station. But of course their friends had waved and cheered, and made a great fuss of them.
As it happens, he had managed to say goodbye to his father, also Walter but called ‘Wallie’ for short. He had been ill with bronchitis for months, and at the good age of 86, had gone to meet his Maker last Sunday. After yesterday’s news of war, Walter had been able to bring forward his burial to early this morning so as to be sure of being able to attend and pay his final respects.
And, scarcely having had time to gather his thoughts, this afternoon he was sitting in a waggon with four other chums from the village, on their way to the battalion depot in Winchester to be licked into shape for a couple of weeks: then they would be off to the front. Only yesterday, he had been expecting to spend this week out in the fields, helping with the last of the harvest. And he had been looking forward to supper at The Plough Inn afterwards, paid for by the farmer!
Walter was of course sad at his father’s death, but in truth he had seen little of him in recent years. When he had gone off to the Boer War 1 in his twenties, his parents had remained together with his younger brother Sidney. But by the time he returned, his father had moved out to live with Sidney at a farm in Andover Down, about six miles away, and his mother had decided to stay in the centre of St Mary Bourne. Walter had not yet married, and had naturally stayed with his mother, and now it was her that he was worried about. He could help her a bit financially now that he was back in the army, but he would never forget the look on her face as she hugged him farewell, and he knew she had been wondering if she would ever see him again. Perhaps she would take his father’s place in Sidney’s home in Andover Down, though he now had a wife, and he was not sure how wife and mother might get on under the same roof. But all her friends were in the village. Maybe she might persuade Sidney to come back to St Mary Bourne. But he had begun to carve out a future for himself there, and would not want to return. And so it went on, turbulent thought succeeding anxious worry. It was worse that there was nothing that he could do, not for the foreseeable future.
Walter shut his eyes, and tried to blank out, more or less successfully, all that was going on around him. That was one thing he had learnt from the last time, how to create a little world of your own into which you could retreat from time to time, during the long periods of waiting, waiting…
A note on sources
1 No documentary evidence has yet been found of Walter’s service in the Boer War (partly, at least, because Walter Sims was a common name at the time). However, he is said by the Andover Advertiser to have served six years in South Africa, there is no trace of him in the 1901 UK census, and he would not have been called up at this early stage if he had not already seen military service.
2 We know from the war diaries of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment that they did not embark from Southampton for Le Havre until 22 August, two weeks three days later. Presumably the intervening time was necessary to assemble the reservists, re-train and re-equip them – it would have more than a decade since most of them had seen active service.
I am indebted to Twitter for this reference to James Daly’s blog, and this post:
The 1st Hampshires in the First World War: Le Cateau
When war was declared the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was part of the 11th Brigade, in the British Army’s 4th Division. They were originally based in the garrison town of Colchester, but moved to Harrow. It was earmarked to embark for Europe as part of the British Expeditionary Force as soon as war broke out. Later in the war at Ypres and the Somme the Territorial and Kitchener Battalions bore the brunt of the fighting, but in 1914 the BEF comprised regular, pre-war Soldiers.
The 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment left Harrow at 12.20am on 22 August 1914, bound for Southampton. At 7am half of the Battalion and the Headquarters embarked on the Breamaer Castle, and the other half on the Castrian. At this point, most of the men were no doubt hoping that the war would be over by Christmas.