Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2015
It began as battles have done from time immemorial. Men, trained to seek out and kill their enemy, marched along the sun-soaked roads of Picardy. It was high summer, and the columns of men marched along roads lined with colourful poppies and sunflowers. The marching columns tramped on, past fields of ripening wheat, heavily cultivated farms, tightly planted gardens and orchards, through villages ‘whose streets were bordered by barns with rough timber roof-beams and cracked walls of whitewashed mud and straw’. Clouds of dust marked the passage of the ranks of marching men. As it settled, the dust stained their khaki woollen uniforms, lightly coated their packs and rifles and stuck to the sweat-stained, fur felt ‘slouch’ hats that most of them wore.
In the early stages of the march men whose feet had been softened by months of static trench warfare fell out; others, suffering from the after-effects of too much beer or cheap French wine in their billets the night before, struggled to keep up. But in time, as their feet toughened and hangovers wore off, the troops became more animated as they tramped under the summer sun, singing old marching songs or whistling the latest popular tunes. They struck those who saw them as being physically imposing men of high morale.