Some time ago I referred in this feature to a rare book by Toby Rawlinson about his experiences as a member of the R.A.C. Corps in France during the First World War. I did not think it likely that another book of this kind had been published, until Mr. A. E. Sharp of Ealing kindly sent me a copy of ” From Mons to Ypres with French,” by Frederic Coleman (Sampson Low, 1916). This is a similar book, describing personal experiences of serving with the R.A.C. Corps under fire in France during the 1914/18 war. Those who served were volunteers who took their own cars and used them for carrying messages, spotting, and as transport for Generals and Staff Officers at the Front.
Frederic Coleman was, before the war, selling White steam cars in this country. He went to France as an American who believed passionately in the Allies’ cause, sailing from Southampton in a troopship during the first month of hostilities. His book, which must now be quite rare, tells of his adventures from that time until June 1915, the author having first-hand experience of the retreat from Mons as a driver attached to Sir John French’s Headquarters, of the advance across the Marne and Aisne while attached to the 2nd Cavalry Brigade Headquarters, and of the fighting on the Lys, at Ploegsteert, Messines and Ypres while with the 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters, and at the Front in France and Flanders.
I confess that I was puzzled about the car which Coleman used on this strenuous assignment and which stood up to hard work so splendidly. As he was agent for White steam cars I thought it might be a White petrol car, but could not identify it from the only picture of it published in the book, nor does the author anywhere mention its make. It was a large, old-fashioned touring car with Cape-cart hood, 3/4-elliptic back springs, and artillery wheels. The only clue was mention of extreme difficulty of engaging reverse gear, which proved an embarrassment on one occasion under heavy fire when a quick retreat was desirable. Fortunately, on being shown the picture, my old friend Dennis Field of the V.C.C. was able to confirm that the car was definitely a White, petrol not steam, the steamers having gone out of production rather before Coleman sailed for France. l think that only one model was imported, the 4-cylinder 95 x 130 mm. (3,687 c.c.) chassis, rated at 22.4 h.p,
It was in this 3.7-litre American touring car, then, that Coleman set out from Havre for Amiens in August 1914. We are told that there were 25 cars in this R.A.C. contingent attached to Sir John French’s Headquarters. We know that Rawlence used a racing Hudson entered for the 1914 T.T. race, for which it had not been ready in time. I know that many of the cars were Rolls-Royces, including those of Percy Northey and “Jimmy” Rothschild (whose landaulette was badly damaged by running into a telegraph pole at the Noyon-Soissons fork when challenged by a French sentry), and the Librarian of the Imperial War Museum tells me that C.D. Baker-Carr ( was he, I wonder, any relation to F.J. Baker-Carr who raced a 4-1/2 -litre Bentley at Brooklands many years afterwards ?) drove a Mercedes which must have confused the enemy. Jimmy Radley also took a Rolls-Royce, because Coleman borrowed it for a volunteer night dash through German-occupied territory when he had rendered the White undesirably noisy for such a mission by cutting away its exhaust. He put 12 gallons of his own petrol in the Rolls, which he lost when the trip was announced as “off.” Later a mudguard had to be chiselled off the White when a requisitioned German metal-studded tyre threw its tread on an urgent run to St. Quentin. The car made well over 40 m.p.h. in spite of such bad roads between Ribecourt and Noyon that a path had been cut through the roadside trees to avoid the damaged pavé. It was near here that they nearly ran into the Uhlans and were able to inform Headquarters of their proximity.
When greasing the universal joints Coleman became wedged under his car but was pulled out by his legs, by a couple of Scouts. It would be possible to work out roughly the mileage Coleman covered, over atrocious roads, ever in danger of being shot (as were the occupants of one French limousine), from the map at the back of the book. I have not had time to do this but some idea of the use made of the cars can be gained when it is mentioned that on one occasion Radley took a Staff Officer one Sunday to Soissons from Compiegne and on to Laon. He then pushed on to Nouvion, then to Danizy and past La Fere looking for the German advance, to Couchy. They were now running back to Soissons but the road was a line of retreat for the 1st Corps so they went via Laon, soon to be evacuated, and south to Bourg and then through Braisnes, Soissons, and back finally to Compiegne. By a conservative estimate this represents about 200 miles in that day’s driving.
When Coleman ran out of tyres he was allowed to go to Paris for fresh supplies, which were kept in the Grand Palais d’Automobiles …. ” great hall full of cars, and plentiful supplies of tyres and petrol.” And so the adventure unfolds, illustrated with photographs obviously taken by the author himself. The White once evacuated eleven wounded, under fire, got ditched with shells bursting over it, but continued to carry famous Generals on urgent errands. At Paissy, after General de Lisle had left the car and gone on mounted, pieces of shrapnel hit the body sides and made a hole through one of the mudguards. On the fearful roads in this area the front axle was bent, repairs being done at the G.H.Q. repair shop at Fere-en-Tardenois. More damage was inflicted by shrapnel and shell fire, so that soon the hood had to be scrapped. On one occasion the petrol pipe to the carburetter had to be cleaned while under heavy fire and on another the author mistook the noise of the car’s self-starter, “a mysterious device that sometimes started, sometimes not,” for firing close at hand and took refuge under the front mudguard. There was a near miss on a narrow road in Wulverghem with an approaching car driven by Jimmy Rothschild who was driving one of General Puteney’s staff, and it was here that “long lines of London’s motor ‘buses were debouching infantry near Neuve Eglise.”
The book captures very well indeed the nightmare atmosphere of the 1914-18 war. Vehicles are seldom mentioned by make and I have referred to those that are. The work of the lorries is emphasised, with the varied loads carried, including a complete printing press from H.Q. and “the splendid Du Cros ambulance convoy sent out by Arthur du Cros, M.P., and officered by his two brothers … the small light vehicles with canvas tops were just what we wanted at the front,” were visited at Hazebrouck (were these W. & G. or model-T Ford ?). One picture shows the body of a W.& G. taxicab used as an office on a camp site, labelled “Business as usual during alterations . . . to the lift “!
Eventually the White was badly hit retreating from a ruined inn near Wulverghem while carrying General de Lisle and Hardress Lloyd. The screen was splintered and the radiator pierced by a shrapnel bullet, but they limped back to St. Omer. Here the car was repaired in the open under fearful weather conditions after a new radiator had been brought out from England by Oscar Morrison. To prevent freezing most drivers used “a liberal mixture of methylated spirit with the water in the radiator,” which was better than packing the engine with straw, as General Briggs’ chauffeur had done, setting fire to the car in the morning! Yes, a nostalgic book. I wonder if there was a sequel ?
There are a few mentions of cars in ” One Man in his Time,” by Serge Obolensky (Hutchinson, 1960). For instance, the author remarks that before the First World War his mother “bought herself one Rolls-Royce” with a whole emerald parure, “which even in those days was a bad rate of exchange, particularly when the emerald set was my inheritance.” When Obolensky and his father arrived in London in I 912 the former went to his first party at Mrs. Hwfa Williams’ house adjoining Coombe Court near Epsom in Felix Youssoupoff’s car, which is rendered in the book as a “Deloné- Belleville.” This is interesting, because the Delaunay-Belleville was popular in Russia. After winning 20,000 francs in the Casino at Monte Carlo the author refers to buying a car the next morning, “a Peugeot, a pretty good car for those days.” This was apparently in the very early ‘twenties and the car was used for a tour of the South of France. To overcome her habit of being late at Royal functions the author’s wife “had a make-up kit put in her Rolls, and then ordered Gilbert to drive like the wind. She frequently got dressed en route” An absorbing book, which covers the General Strike of 1926 and wartime bombing; one of the pictures is of an Edwardian Daimler and a Mors (?) parked at a steeplechase. Incidentally, it was Prince Obolensky who wrote touring articles before the war, using a Big Six Bentley and later a more mundane vehicle.—W. B.