The sterling qualities of the rank and file of the British Army are personified in Pte Ernest Mitchell, an employee of Messrs J. W. Green and Co. Pte Mitchell was called up as a reservist of the Royal Fusiliers on August 6th, and four days later sailed for Havre. After a few hours rest they were despatched to Mons, making the journey in cattle trucks.
They arrived at Mons two days before this place became the storm centre of the German advance on Paris, and Pte Mitchell took part in that wonderful fighting retreat by a small army against overwhelming hordes of Germans.
How bravely the Fusiliers resisted during that rush of the German avalanche may be gathered from the fact that on one occasion when the roll call of Pte Mitchell's battalion was called, only 100 answered out of 1,500. Right back the little British force was steadily driven until that famous stand 30 miles from Paris when the tide of battle was turned, and the Germans were driven headlong across the Rivers Aisne and Marne to Ypres.
During that advance Pte Mitchell saw abundant evidence of the ruin and desolation caused by the for in their advance and retreat. Whole villages and countryside laid destitute and hundreds of starved and exhausted peasants tramping aimlessly in search of a haven of refuge were witnessed.
He also had ample opportunity of ascertaining the personnel and morale of the enemy from the bands of prisoners brought in. Half-famished and weary unto exhaustion, they bore the marks of the over-driven machine. Differing considerably in age, stature and experience, they all appeared glad of the opportunity to surrender.
Eventually Pte Mitchell found himself in the trenches at Ypres. His battalion lost 2,200 officers and men, and was reinforced on no fewer than ten occasions.
Pte Mitchell figured in no fewer than nine bayonet charges during the 50-off days he was at the front. He saw many of his old comrades fall victims to the "Jack Johnsons" and other explosives, or to the vigilance and aim of the sniper. Both in the rushing of the enemy's trenches at the point of the bayonet, in sharpshooting for his own trench and in the use of hand grenades, Pte Mitchell avenged the loss of his chums.
The hand grenades were small bombs, nearly twice as large as a cricket ball, and were filled with explosives, nails and scraps of iron and other metal. It was comparatively easy to throw them into the German trenches which, in several instances, were only 50 yards away. When they dropped they burst with terrific force and cause considerable havoc. These bombs were utilised by both the Allies and the enemy, and Pte Mitchell relates with much merriment the story of a private in the Manchesters who "sat" on one of these bombs.
Among several narrow escapes, Pte Mitchell counts the most fortunate an occasion when a shell burst into a thousand fragments close to him and only one piece of shrapnel struck him. It pierced his heavy coat and jacket but the only damage he sustained was an ugly bruise on the arm.
Pte Mitchell spoke in enthusiastic terms of the visit of the King to the front and says he was given a right royal salute, but the guns were trained on the enemy's batteries.
At Ypres Pte Mitchell was 21 days and nights in the trenches without relief, and he says that officers and men and all their equipment were in a dreadfully verminous state. Mud and water also affected their legs, and the weather was dreadfully cold. It was under these conditions that Pte Mitchell sustained frostbite.
In spite of the arrival of many comforts which were by this time pouring in to the headquarters from England, the frostbite increased, and Pte Mitchell was invalided home after a short stay in a hospital at Boulogne.
There can be no question whatever that certain of the German troops, certain sections at any rate, have outraged all the laws of humanity, and transgressed against all the laws of warfare as recognised by civilised nations.
Pte Mitchell vouches for this statement, and as corroboration he declares that he saw, along with his comrades, evidence of such barbarianism as would make one's blood run cold.
"I saw little boys with their hands cut off," he said, "and with other injuries which they will carry to their graves. Men I know have also told me of the awful cruelties inflicted upon women and girls who have come to them in an exhausted and almost dying condition for protection."
Pte Mitchell himself saw villages which had been laid to waste by fire and sword in the precipitate German rush for Paris, and one can well understand the average Tommy Atkins, with his big heart and open hand, burning with a desire to avenge the barbarities and cruelties inflicted on the non-combatants and the weaklings of a small nation.
Pte Mitchell said he was glad to be at home again for a short rest, but he is expecting and will readily respond when he is sufficiently recovered to return to the trenches.
"I know what top expect," he said, "and the hardest and worst of the struggle is over. There is no longer a small army fighting days and nights together without relief. Three days on and three days off is the order now, barring special cases, and it keeps everybody fit and in the best of spirits.
"The men won't hear of defeat, and they are confident of winning, and when the weather clears it will only be a question of time before we get to Berlin."
[The Luton News, January 14th, 1915]