Young Roger West was not in the pink of health. For more than two weeks he had been in the saddle of his motorcycle, latterly riding day and night, putting hundreds of miles under his skinny tyres, repairing punctures—once within 150 yards of enemy troops—adjusting the drive belt, and doing the myriad routine things it took to keep a motorised bicycle going in August 1914. Not making his ride any easier was the carpet slipper he was wearing on one foot, but there was no help for this, because the foot had become infected following a flea bite, on the last full night’s sleep he’d had, on straw, nine days before, and it was too swollen to fit a boot.
There was no help for any of this, because Roger West, and a hundred-odd other motorcyclists, were just about all that stood between the British Expeditionary Force and annihilation, and every one was needed—sore foot be damned. Nor was West’s the only sore foot on that Great Retreat: countless men walked “bloodshod”, to borrow a poet’s term not yet coined. The soft feet of the recently recalled reservists suffered worst, the skin of the blistered soles sometimes peeling off like socks if a man was foolish enough to remove his boots; but most of the old sweats were too canny to do this, knowing that they could never get swollen feet back into leather, so they squelched along stoically, hungry, parched, their faces grey with strain and fatigue and the dust of the unsealed roads that rose with their passage and stuck to the sweat of their brows.
They were a pitiful five divisions, their numbers depleted by battle, and they were in full-tilt retreat before two German armies. They had fought these to a standstill at Mons, and again at Le Cateau, and every day their rearguard was fighting some delaying action or another. Four years later their younger brothers and cousins and neighbours and sons, along with the few of themselves left alive, would drive the Kaiser’s once-invincible armies to defeat; but just now few would give much for them. Their own commander had so little faith in their chances he had wanted to pull them out of the line, and only a stern injunction from the most famous poster-boy in history had prevented this.
They might have turned into a straggling mob, that British Expeditionary Force, and been broken up in the field, for they were spread across many roads, and strung out by miles along those by impediments of one sort and another. To make matters worse, the two corps they constituted had become separated by the River Oise. Radio was in its infancy, heavy, fragile, and necessitating either security leaks if broadcasting was en clair or potentially fatal delays if in code; besides, the BEF had only one mobile transmitter and most field sets were with the cavalry. Telegraph infrastructure was spotty and often sabotaged by the retreating French, and of the scanty cable supply sent with the Force, much had had to be abandoned at Mons and more was captured at Le Cateau. Communication effectively had somehow come to be devolved onto perhaps 150 motorcyclists, 90 percent of whom had been civilians less than a month before. Some of these volunteers had had almost three full weeks of training.
Roger West had had three days. Now, almost a month into the war, he was hungry, tired, lame, and fevered by his poisoned foot. In recent days he had been fired upon and once ridden through enemy forces—and now he learned that, with the Germans maybe ten miles behind, charges on the bridge that separated them from the BEF had failed to explode.
Roger West was not in the pink; but his life, whatever his health, was not his own. “It seemed a pity to leave this bridge intact”, so he requested his colonel’s permission to go back and blow it up. Colonel Ward thought the young man “a fool”, but he granted permission. West collected a stone of guncotton from a company of the Royal Engineers, along with an officer who volunteered to go with him on the carrier, carrying the detonators “carefully in his breast pocket, lest they go off with the jolting of the ride”. As they rode the eight miles back some stragglers may have raised their jaded heads, widened their eyes in alarm, waved a hand in warning: “Wrong way, chum!”
But Roger West was not going the wrong way; he was going the only way he could. For his worldview was so different from ours that often we must portray, and indeed understand it, only through the lens of irony. Roger West saw the world in the bright-unclouded glass of the Victorian empire into which he had been born. Men of his generation spelled Duty as they spelled God, King and Country, with a reverential capital. Roger West, in that absurd and enviable world of his that ended in the year he put on khaki, was doing what was, beyond the very notion of a doubt, his Duty. His life was his Country’s, his soul his God’s.
God was in Heaven. King George was on the throne. General Alexander von Kluck was marching on Pontoise with the First German Army at his back, but young Roger West was on his way there too, on a rickety motorbike, with guncotton on his back and a carpet slipper on his foot. All was well with the world.
Or at any rate, that world was not yet lost.
michaelcarragher wrote:Hello Steve.
In dangerous situations two or more despatch riders would be sent with the same despatch, by different routes, to improve the chances that the message would get through. Given the place and time of Pte Williams' death, a two-man despatch team would have been used.
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