With the ASC Remounts – one man’s experience

Our friend Tony Lund kindly supplied this information.

See more background on the ASC Remounts Service

Boer War veteran James McKenzie was a reservist in 1914. He was mobilised and sent to serve with the ASC Remounts. Had it not been for the war his time has a reservist would have expired at the end of August 1914. He went t France with the original BEF. Writing to his wife at Upper Binns in September he says:

We are constantly being moved up country, first from one base to the front, then back to the front from some other base. It is hard, rough work. We have had three stampedes so far, all during the night. Only last night there was a big rush with over 700 horses. Just imagine a stream of horses half-mile-long rushing by, as if they were being pursued by a thousand demons. I consider we are lucky in being here.

I am rushing this letter as fast as I can, owing to us being moved tonight. I don’t know where it will be to, but I can tell you this, that during the last ten days we have been at it all the time. We have had nothing but rain the last fortnight, so just fancy how we are sleeping. Last night, during the stampede, we had to build huge bonfires at the junctions of all the roads for miles round here. It was weird. The shadows of galloping horses, the sparks from flying hoofs, looked grand, although terrifying.”

In another letter posted shortly afterwards he wrote:

I am in hospital at present. I wrote you the other day telling you about the stampeding of our horses. Well, the night after, I was along with a party taking horses to the front, when, as soon as we got to the railway siding, ready to entrain them for the front, they got out of control, and rushed down the platform sweeping all before them, including myself. I was crushed between two of them, and carried on about 20 yards, then thrown over a hedge. I don’t think it will be long before I am all right. In fact, I am feeling much better now.

I think by the news we are getting here that the war will soon be over, and I can tell you I shall not be sorry. I have been up to the front since I left the base supply depot, and I think we have got the Germans well on the run. The place we are in now is almost filled with fellows from the front, some from almost every regiment one could mention, but the bright side of the job is that almost all the wounds are in the legs or the arms. We have also a lot of wounded German prisoners. They are a sullen lot of close-cropped ruffians.”

In a third letter dated 25 September 1914 he writes:

Just a line or two to tell you I am going on all right. It feels nice to have a bit of rest if it were not for the pain. I have not had my boots off for over three weeks. I have been present at the bombardment of the fort that the Germans are so strongly entrenched in, it has been horrible. I have been right up to the firing line, and have got some French and German bullets that I picked up from the battlefield, besides a bolt from a German rifle. I have also got some pieces of shrapnel that were fired on the railway station. My word! You should be pleased you are in England. There are thousands here who have neither home nor anything.”

In March 1915 James McKenzie was attached to the Indian Expeditionary Force. In a letter to his wife, written early in May, he described the cold and wet conditions they had experienced recently:

All passenger traffic is delayed for the transportation of troops, and also in many cases for the moving of German prisoners, although in my case, I had not the thoughts of a good bed after the misery of waiting hours for our train. More often than not I have pinched a couple of oat sacks to wrap around my feet, then lay my waterproof sheet on the ground, put on my overcoat, and trust to Providence that the rain holds off until morning. Oh, those cold nights when I huddled up like a tortoise, and my hair fairly freezes, not with fright, and sometimes we sat close together all night in groups of sixteen up to twenty, and when morning came we looked like a lot of half-drowned cats.”

Writing from Rouen in reply to a friend, on 23 January 1916, Driver James McKenzie – now with the 6th Section of the Army Veterinary Corps, says:

I am wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy as it is so bitterly cold here, and the thought of sitting round a cozy fire makes me long for this job to be over. This as been a very hard and serious struggle so far, but I think it won’t last much longer, but as you remark in your letter, we are good enough yet to do a bit for the old country. I will never forget the sights I have seen so far in this campaign. Although I have not had any trench work I have seen some very important moves, behind the scenes as it were, and I can assure you that most of them will live with me as long as I live. From the latter part of September to December, I was attached to a Remount Depot to take horses up to the front for various cavalry divisions. On more than one occasion I have been a spectator when the big guns have been going off. My God, I’ll bet they do hurt!

But what has made my blood boil more than anything else has been the refugees as they have been fleeing away from the “Germhuns.” It is a far sadder sight than seeing groups of wounded coming in from the firing line, some limping, other poor fellows on stretchers. War is a horrible thing, and yet if you could only hear the way the chaps who get killed are spoken about you would think that soldiers do not care, or that they were chaps without heart. But on more than one occasion I could mention of our fellows giving their entire rations to some band or other of Belgium or French refugees.

There is one sight I think was the most sickening I ever saw, that is as far as the humanity of the English is concerned. It happened at a place well known on the firing line. I saw about forty English soldiers (wounded) escorting some “Germhun” prisoners to a station. There were some fellows of the West Yorkshires and some Jocks. I got into conversation with one of the Yorkies, and he told me that they were the victims of the white flag trick. I really think if it had been dark when we saw them our chaps would have given the Huns a rather warm welcome. It was nothing fresh when we were up there to come across two of three “Germhuns” who could speak English and who had worked in England before the war. I might say that I never spoke to one who enjoyed the war. They all seemed more or less famished and all tired to death.

We had many an exciting time with German aeroplanes, but they all seem to have the knack of dodging shells and bullets. By the way, it is a fine sight to see a shell burst round an aeroplane. One minute you just see the aeroplane sailing nicely through the air, the next it just seems as if a miniature cloud had burst, either just above of just beneath the machine. Then looping the loop commences. It is really marvellous how some of the pilots manage to escape. I know when I have seen them being fired at, I have felt for a moment that I hoped the shots would miss, then when they have done I have been wild, but really, it is a funny sensation. Fancy a chap dropping from the skies!

You will observe by the address that I am a decent way from the firing line, but I can assure you that we get some reminders that there is still a war on. I have been troubled a great deal lately with Neuralgia, and have had a lot of teeth extracted. Here’s hoping for a speedy return home. I’d give a quid for a bed.”

In a letter dated 18 May 1916 James McKenzie wrote to Mr Andrew Wadsworth of Victoria Street from “somewhere out in the backwoods,” saying:

Our camp is situated in this forest, it’s about three or four miles to the nearest village. You may form an idea of the wild lives we are having, not through fast living though. They have thinned the trees a little, just once to fix a few tents in between. It is just turning from dusk to darkness now and a glance outside my tent shows me my horses about twenty yards away, quietly munching their nights hay. On every hand round the camp there are large pools of water, as a result of a steady thirty hours rain. One can see the reflection of very tall trees in these pools, standing, like gaunt sentinels, guarding the loneliness of the woods.

No doubt some poetic minded writer would gush over the natural beauty and grandeur of such sights as these, and tell of how these trees or their predecessors had stood in this fashion through countless ages, but I’ll bet the dreamiest dreamer would not rhapsodize over the natural beauty if he had about eighteen hours ride through the rain, which had made the blooming place like a quagmire, besides leaving me with everything I possess absolutely wet to the skin.”