Le Havre - August 1914

 When the Staff of No.1 Base Supply Depot arrived at Le Havre aboard ss.Vera on 10 August 1914, and established offices in the Hotel de Ville. They discovered that the local French authorities had received only four day’s notice of their arrival due to the need for secrecy. Four day’s notice is not actually too bad as Mobilisation Day had only been five days previous! Few troops disembarked in France and continued immediately to the front. Divisions arrived on several ships over several days and inevitably there was confusion over available accommodation for troops in transit. By 17 August 100,000 troops with their horses, supplies and artillery had passed through the port.

 Troops were accommodated at Rest Camps. There were eleven planned by the British but on arrival not all were available. Several sites had been built over since being selected by the War Office, others had no water available within two miles and others were fields of uncut corn. Of the eleven, it was only possible to accommodate six. Split into two groups, they were established as No.1 Rest Camp at Sainte-Adresse, 2 and 3 around Bleville, 6 at Graville, 7 at Harfleur and No.8 Rest Camp near Bois de Bleville.

 Finding accommodation for officers was initially chaotic with rooms in hotels found wherever there was vacancies. Some were found by individual officers and some by the Billeting Officer, Major Walker with the assistance of the French authorities. This resulted in numerous claims for payment being received that amounted to 8,191Fr (325.66 [34,483 in 2020]) for ten hotels between 10 and 20 August. With the help of the French, the Hotel Continental was requisitioned in entirety. Although costing 400Fr (16.00 [1,888]) it permitted officers to be directed to billets instead of finding their own. A further 267Fr (10.60 [1,240]) was paid for officer’s meals up to 20 August as left without paying as they assumed food was on the War Office account.

 Even with the French assistance, Major Walker was fully occupied searching for billets. Often going house to house searching for single rooms as officers, nurses, etc from five divisions required a room, often for only one night. Often men found themselves bedding down in Ordnance sheds with no time to go to the Rest Camps before their allotted trains departed for the front.

 The Ordnance Depot was established in Hangar aux Cotons, Quai de la Garonne. It was 840 to 1,000 yards long (depending on which document you read) and 150 yards wide, sandwiched between the Bassin Vetillart, on the Canal de Tancarville and the railway lines providing direct access to the general railway system for onward transmission to the front. The warehouse was shared with the Base Supply Depot and the Base Medical Stores.

 The Quai de la Garonne had 2,844ft of wharfage with 20 electric-powered cranes on rails. Ships began arriving immediately. Unloading was hindered through insufficient crance operators and only Frenchmen could operate them. French mobilisation had reduced the expected 3,000 available stevedores to 1,000 stevedores and 1,200 soldier labourers.

 The French had taken the best sites for hospitals but eventually suitable premises were found. No.2 General Hospital was established at the Palais des Regattes, and for other ranks, the Casino Marie Christine, part of Ecole Jean Mace at Sanvic and the Gare Maritime at the Quai d’Escale. No.9 Stationary Hospital was established at Montvilliers and established but never used was No.1 General Hospital at Graville. A Convalescent Depot with capacity for 1,000 patients was built at No.2 Rest Camp.

 Two fully equipped Field Bakeries arrived on 11 August and were established on the Boulevard de Graville. Flour and bread were stored in tents and the locally purchased fuel wood stacked in the open. The first bread was baked on 13 August and both bakeries produced 30,000 rations per day. On the same day two further bakeries arrived and continued to bake until 10 September when three evacuated to Le Mans after the first departed on 31 August for Saint-Nazaire.

 Sixteen motor lorries of the Army Service Corps were received from England and while doing valuable work were insufficient and suffered from the bad roads and overworking. Thirty horse carts were made available but proved inadequate and a further 250 carts per day were hired from M. Leraitre, an arrangement that was resumed when the Base returned to Le Havre after being evacuated at the end of August.

 On 29 August, orders were received from GHQ to evacuate Le Havre and the evacuation commenced the following day. Clearing the warehouse onto ships was greatly hindered by 2,000 French and Belgian troops arriving at Hangar aux Cotons for billeting. This caused large losses of supplies through looting. It was further hindered by labourers described as being of the ‘lowest quality’ and staff officers being ‘hopelessly inadequate’. It was impossible to produce any paperwork and every ship arriving at Saint-Nazaire held a complete mystery cargo. Special trains were used for transferring stores to the new Advanced Base at Le Mans. All butchery departments and bakeries were also evacuated to Le Mans and loading the trains took priority over the ships. The first ships arrived at Saint-Nazaire on 31 August.

 By 5 September, 65,000 tons of stores & supplies, 22,000 personnel and 3,500 horses had departed Le Havre en-route for Saint-Nazaire and Le Mans. HQ Staff departed aboard ss.Clement at 11.30am and arrived Saint-Nazaire at midday on 7 September.

 The Base arrived back at Havre on 20 September, opening offices at 26 Place de l’Hotel de Ville on 21 September, but that’s another story!

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