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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
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The Return Push
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The Return Push
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London 1919
To the Memory of LIEUT.-COL. AUSTIN THORP, C.M.G., D.S.O., R.A., WHO COMMANDED THE 82ND BRIGADE, R.F.A., IN FRANCE, FROM DECEMBER 1915 TO OCTOBER 1918.
KILLED IN ACTION AT BEAUSIES ON OCTOBER 30, 1918.
PUSHED. PAGE I. BEFORE THE ATTACK 3
II. "THE BOCHE IS THROUGH!" 13
III. THE END OF A BATTERY 24
IV. THE NIGHT OF MARCH 21 35
V. A GUNNER'S V.C. 42
VI. BEHIND VILLEQUIER AUMONT 49
VII. STILL IN RETREAT 60
VIII. A LAST FIFTY ROUNDS 65
IX. FASTER AND FASTER 71
X. THE SCRAMBLE AT VARESNES 83
XI. THE G IN GAP 93
XII. OUT OF THE WAY 101
THE RETURN PUSH.
I. THE DEFENCE OF AMIENS 111
II. THE RED-ROOFED HOUSE 119
III. AN AUSTRALIAN "HAND-OVER" 129
IV. HAPPY DAYS! 137
V. BEFORE THE GREAT ATTACK 146
VI. THE BATTLE OF AUGUST 8 153
VII. SHORT LEAVE TO PARIS 163
VIII. TRONES WOOD AGAIN 178
IX. DOWN THE ROAD TO COMBLES 188
X. A MASTERLY TURNING MOVEMENT 203
XI. ON THE HEELS OF THE BOCHE 211
XII. THE MAJOR'S LOST PIPE 221
XIII. NURLU AND LIERAMONT 227
XIV. THE FIGHT FOR RONSSOY 243
XV. "ERNEST" IS LOST 258
XVI. THE DECISIVE DAYS 274
XVII. WITH THE AMERICANS 283
XVIII. A LAST DAY AT THE O.P. 303
XIX. "THE COLONEL——" 326
I. BEFORE THE ATTACK.
By means of a lorry lift from railhead, and a horse borrowed from the Divisional Ammunition Column, I found Brigade Headquarters in a village that the Germans had occupied before their retreat in the spring of 1917.
The huge, red-faced, grey-haired adjutant, best of ex-ranker officers, welcomed me on the farmhouse steps with a hard handshake and a bellowing "Cheerio!" followed by, "Now that you're back, I can go on leave."
In the mess the colonel gave me kindly greeting, and told me something of the Brigade's ups and downs since I had left France in August 1917, wounded at Zillebeke: how all the old and well-tried battery commanders became casualties before 1917 was out, but how, under young, keen, and patiently selected leaders, the batteries were working up towards real efficiency again. Then old "Swiffy," the veterinary officer, came in, and the new American doctor, who appeared armed with two copies of the 'Saturday Evening Post.' It was all very pleasant; and the feeling that men who had got to know you properly in the filthy turmoil and strain of Flanders were genuinely pleased to see you again, produced a glow of real happiness. I had, of course, to go out and inspect the adjutant's new charger—a big rattling chestnut, conceded to him by an A.S.C. major. A mystery gift, if ever there was one: for he was a handsome beast, and chargers are getting very rare in France. "They say he bucks," explained the adjutant. "He'll go for weeks as quiet as a lamb, and then put it across you when you don't expect it. I'm going to put him under treatment."
"Where's my groom?" he roared. Following which there was elaborate preparation of a weighted saddle—not up to the adjutant's 15 stone 5, but enough to make the horse realise he was carrying something; then an improvised lunging-rope was fashioned, and for twenty minutes the new charger had to do a circus trot and canter, with the adjutant as a critical and hopeful ringmaster. In the end the adjutant mounted and rode off, shouting that he would be back in half an hour to report on the mystery horse's preliminary behaviour.
Then the regimental sergeant-major manoeuvred me towards the horse lines to look at the newly made-up telephone cart team.
"You remember the doctor's fat mare, sir—the wheeler, you used to call her? Well, she is a wheeler now, and a splendid worker too. We got the hand-wheeler from B Battery, and they make a perfect pair. And you remember the little horse who strayed into our lines at Thiepval—'Punch' we used to call him—as fat as butter, and didn't like his head touched? Well, he's in the lead; and another bay, a twin to him, that the adjutant got from the —th Division. Changed 'Rabbits' for him. You remember 'Rabbits,' sir?—nice-looking horse, but inclined to stumble. All bays now, and not a better-looking telephone team in France."
And then an anxious moment. Nearest the wall in the shed which sheltered the officers' horses stood my own horse—dear old Silvertail, always a gentleman among horses, but marked in his likes and dislikes. Would he know me after my six months' absence? The grey ears went back as I approached, but my voice seemed to awake recognition. Before long a silver-grey nose was nozzling in the old confiding way from the fourth button towards the jacket pocket where the biscuits used to be kept. All was well with the world.
A rataplan on a side-drum feebly played in the street outside!—the village crier announcing that a calf had committed hari-kari on one of the flag-poles put up to warn horsemen that they mustn't take short cuts over sown land. The aged crier, in the brown velveteen and the stained white corduroys, took a fresh breath and went on to warn the half-dozen villagers who had come to their doorways that uprooting the red flags would be in defiance of the express orders of Monsieur le Maire (who owned many fields in the neighbourhood). The veal resulting from the accident would be shared out among the villagers that evening.
My camp-bed was put up in a room occupied by the adjutant; and during and after dinner there was much talk about the programme of intensive training with which the Brigade was going to occupy itself while out at rest. For the morrow the colonel had arranged a scheme—defence and counter-attack—which meant that skeleton batteries would have to be brought up to upset and demolish the remorseless plans of an imaginary German host; and there was diligent studying of F.A.T. and the latest pamphlets on Battery Staff Training, and other points of knowledge rusted by too much trench warfare.
It was exactly 2 P.M. on the morrow. We were mounted and moving off to participate in this theoretical battle, when the "chug-chug-chug" of a motor-cycle caused us to look towards the hill at the end of the village street: a despatch-rider, wearing the blue-and-white band of the Signal Service. The envelope he drew from his leather wallet was marked "urgent."
"It's real war, gentlemen," said the colonel quietly, having read the contents; "we move at once. Corps say that the enemy are massing for an attack."
Then he gave quick, very definite orders in the alert confident manner so well known to all his officers and men.
"Send a cycle orderly to stop Fentiman bringing up his teams! You can be ready to march by 3 P.M. ... Stone. Townsend, you'd better send off your groom to warn your battery! Times and order of march will be sent out by the adjutant within a quarter of an hour! One hundred yards' distance between every six vehicles on the march! No motor-lorries for us this time, so all extra kit and things you can't carry will have to be dumped, and a guard left behind!"
A clatter of horsemen spreading the news followed.
I stood at the door of the village's one cafe and watched two of our batteries pass. The good woman who kept it asked if I thought the Germans would come there again. "They took my husband with them a prisoner when they went a year ago," she said slowly. My trust in our strength as I had seen it six months before helped me to reassure her; but to change the subject, I turned to the penny-in-the-slot music machine inside, the biggest, most gaudily painted musical box I've ever seen. "Did the Boches ever try this?" I asked. "No, only once," she replied, brightening. "They had a mess in the next room, and never came in here."
"Well, I'll have a pen'orth for luck," said I, and avoiding "Norma" and "Poet and Peasant," moved the pointer towards a chansonette, something about a good time coming. Such a monstrous wheezing and gurgling, such a deafening clang of cracked cymbals, such a Puck-like concatenation of flat notes and sudden thuds that told of broken strings! And so much of it for a ten-centime piece. When the tumult began a third time I made off. No wonder the Germans only tried the instrument once!
By 8 P.M. we found ourselves in a sort of junction village, its two main roads alive with long lines of moving batteries and lorries and transport waggons. Inky blackness everywhere, for the Hun bombed the place nightly, and "No lights" was a standing order. Odd shouts and curses from drivers in difficulties with their steeds; the continuous cry of "Keep to the right!" from the military police; from a garden close by, the howl of an abandoned dog; and from some dilapidated house Cockney voices harmonising: "It's a Long, Long Trail." There would be no moon that night, and a moaning wind was rising.
A halt had been called in front of our column, and there was talk of the batteries watering their horses before completing the further three miles to their roadside encampments. The Headquarters party had resigned themselves to a good hour's wait, when I heard the adjutant's voice calling my name.
"Headquarters will go up to Rouez to-night, and we shall mess with the General," he shouted at me from out of the darkness. "Traffic isn't supposed to go this way to the right; but you come with me, and we'll talk to the A.P., at the Corps Commandant's office. They ought to let our little lot through."
Headquarters mess cart and G.S. waggon, Maltese cart and telephone waggon did indeed get through, and by 9.15 P.M. the horses were watered and fed, the men housed, and we ourselves were at dinner in the cottage that had become Divisional R.A. Headquarters.
A cheerful dinner with plenty of talk. It wasn't believed now that the Hun would attack next morning; but, in any case, we were going up to relieve a R.H.A. unit. The brigade-major was very comforting about the conveniences of our new positions. Then some one carried the conversation away and beyond, and, quoting an "Ole Luk-Oie" story, submitted that the higher realms of generalship should include the closer study of the personal history and characteristics—mental and moral—of enemy commanders. Some one else noted that the supposed speciality of the General immediately opposite us was that of making fierce attacks across impassable marshes. "Good," put in a third some one. "Let's puzzle the German staff by persuading him that we have an Etonian General in this part of the line, a very celebrated 'wet-bob.'" Which sprightly suggestion made the Brigadier-General smile. But it was my good fortune to go one better. I had to partner him at bridge, and brought off a grand slam.
Next morning snow; and the colonel, the adjutant, and myself had a seven-miles' ride before us. The Germans had not attacked, but the general move-up of fresh divisions was continuing, and our brigade had to take over the part of the line we were told off to defend by 5 P.M.
All the talk on the way up was of the beautiful quietude of the area we were riding through: no weed-choked houses with the windows all blown in; no sound of guns, no line of filled-up ambulances; few lorries on the main thoroughfares; only the khaki-clad road-repairers and the "Gas Alert" notice-boards to remind us we were in a British area. As we reached the quarry that was to become Brigade Headquarters, we marvelled still more. A veritable quarry de luxe. A mess fashioned out of stone-blocks hewn from the quarry, perfectly cut and perfectly laid. Six-inch girders to support the concrete roof, and an underground passage as a funk-hole from bombs, shells, and gas. Separate strong-room bedrooms for the officers; and some one had had time to paint on the doors, "O.C., R.F.A. Brigade," "Adjutant," "Intelligence Officer, R.F.A.," and "Signal Officer, R.F.A.," with proper professional skill. Electric light laid on to all these quarters, and to the Brigade office and the signallers' underground chamber. Aladdin didn't enjoy a more gorgeous eye-opener on his first tour of his palace.
"Never seen such headquarters," grinned the adjutant. "Wonder why there's no place for the Divisional Band."
I shall never forget the content of the next week. The way from Brigade H.Q., past the batteries and up to the front line, was over a wide rolling country of ploughed and fallow lands, of the first wild flowers, of budding hedgerows, of woods in which birds lilted their spring songs. The atmosphere was fresh and redolent of clean earth; odd shell-holes you came across were, miracle of miracles, grass-grown—a sight for eyes tired with the drab stinking desolation of Flanders. A more than spring warmth quickened growing things. White tendrils of fluff floated strangely in the air, and spread thousands of soft clinging threads over telephone-wires, tree-tops, and across miles of growing fields—the curious output of myriads of spinning-spiders. There were quaintly restful visits to the front line. The Boche was a mile away at least; and when you were weary of staring through binoculars, trying to spot enemy movement, you could sit and lounge, and hum the rag-time "Wait and See the Ducks go by," with a new and very thorough meaning. The signal officer was away doing a course, and I took on his duties: plenty of long walks and a good deal of labelling to do, but the task was not onerous. "We've only had one wire down through shell-fire since we've been here," the signalling officer of the outgoing brigade had told me: and indeed, until March 21, the telephone-wires to batteries and "O.P.'s" remained as undisturbed as if they had skirted Devonshire fields and lanes. The colonel was quite happy, spending two or three hours a day at O.P.'s, watching our guns register, or do a bit of sniping on the very very rare occasions when a Hun was spotted.
"I can see how the subalterns shoot on a big open front like this—and teach them something," he said. "This is an admirable part of the line for instruction purposes."
Whether the Boche would attack in force on our part of the front was argued upon and considered from every point of view. There were certain natural features that made such an attempt exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless infantry and artillery kept hard at it, strengthening our means of defence. One day I did a tour with the machine-gun commander in order to know the exact whereabouts of the machine-gun posts. They were superlatively well hidden, and the major-general himself had to laugh when one battalion commander, saying, "There's one just about here, sir," was startled by a corporal's voice near his very boot-toes calling out, "Yes, sir, it's here, sir." Gunners had the rare experience of circling their battery positions with barbed wire, and siting machine-guns for hand-to-hand protection of the 18 pdrs. and 4.5 hows.; and special instruction in musketry and Lewis-gun manipulation was given by infantry instructors. There was memorable jubilation one morning at our Brigade Headquarters, when one of the orderlies, a Manchester man who fired with his left hand, and held the rifle-butt to his left shoulder, beat the infantry crack shot who came to instruct the H.Q. staff.
Camouflaging is now, of course, a studied science, and our colonel, who issued special guiding notes to his batteries, had a few sharp words to say one afternoon. The British soldier, old and new, is always happy when he is demolishing something; and a sergeant sent to prepare a pit for a forward gun had collected wood and corrugated iron for it by pulling to pieces a near-by dummy gun, placed specially to draw enemy fire. "Bad as some Pioneers I noticed yesterday," said the colonel tersely. "They shifted a couple of trees to a place where there had been no trees before and thought that that was camouflage."
Happy confident days! The doctor, noting the almost summery heat that had set in, talked of the mosquito headquarters that would develop in the pond near our quarry. "I'll oil that pond," he gave forth, and prepared accordingly. Each mail brought him additional copies of the 'Saturday Evening Post,' which he devoured every moment he was off duty.
I made the joyful discovery that the thick stone blocks kept the mess so dry and at such an even temperature that the hundred decent-quality cigars I had brought from England could be kept in condition as perfect as if they were at the Stores. The adjutant learnt that his new steed could indeed buck; but as the afternoon which saw him take a toss preceded the day on which he left for leave to England, he forgot to be furious, and went off promising to bring back all sorts of things for the mess.
Our companion infantry battalion were as gorgeously housed as ourselves in an adjoining quarry, and at the dinner parties arranged between their mess and ours reminiscences of Thiepval and Schwaben Redoubt, and July 1st, 1916, and St Pierre Divion and the Hindenburg Line, brought out many a new and many an old story.
On the night of March 19th our chief guest was the youthful lieutenant-colonel who a very few weeks before had succeeded to the command of the ——. Tall, properly handsome, with his crisp curling hair and his chin that was firm but not markedly so; eyes that were reflective rather than compelling; earnest to the point of an absorbed seriousness—we did right to note him well. He was destined to win great glory in the vortex of flame and smoke and agony and panic into which we were to be swept within the next thirty-six hours. My chief recollection of him that night was of his careful attentiveness to everything said by our own colonel on the science of present-day war—the understanding deference paid by a splendid young leader to the knowledge and grasp and fine character of a very complete gunner.
II. "THE BOCHE IS THROUGH!"
At 5.10 P.M. on March 20 I was in the mess, casting an appraising eye upon the coloured study of a girl in pink—dark-haired, hazel-eyed, tres soignee, but not too sophisticated, one would say; her beauty of the kind that glows and tells of abundant vitality and a fresh happy mind. The little American doctor had sacrificed the cover of one of his beloved 'Saturday Evening Posts' for this portrait, and with extreme neatness had scissored it out and fastened it on the wall—a pleasant change from the cocaine and chocolate-box suggestiveness of the languorous Kirchner type that in 1916 and 1917 lent a pinchbeck Montmartre atmosphere to so many English messes in France and Flanders.
The day had been hot and peaceful, the only sound of gun-fire a six-inch how. registering, and, during a morning tour with the second lieutenant who had come from one of the batteries to act as temporary signalling officer, I remembered noting again a weather-beaten civilian boot and a decayed bowler hat that for weeks had lain neglected and undisturbed in one of the rough tracks leading to the front line—typical of the unchanging restfulness of this part of the front.
Suddenly the door opened, to admit Colonel ——, C.O. of the Infantry Battalion who were our near neighbours in the quarry.
"Have you had the 'PREPARE FOR ATTACK'?" he asked abruptly as we held ourselves to attention.
"No, sir," I replied, and moved to the telephone to ring up Divisional Artillery Headquarters.
"Just come in," he said; and even as I asked exchange to put me through to "D.A.," the brigade clerk came in with the telephoned warning that we had talked about, expected, or refused to believe in ever since the alarm order to move into the line a fortnight before.
The formal intimation was sent by wire to the batteries, and I telephoned to find which battery the colonel was visiting and gave him the news, which, according to our precise and well-thought-out scheme of defence, was a preliminary warning not intended to interfere with any work in hand.
Then the doctor and myself and the Divisional Artillery gas officer, who had called in while on an inspecting tour, settled down to tea, jam, and water-cress.
That night our dinner guest was the former captain of our 4.5 how. battery, now in command of a heavy battery that had come into action within a quarter of a mile of our H.Q. The "MAN BATTLE POSITIONS," the order succeeding "PREPARE FOR ATTACK" in the defence programme, was not expected that night, and we gossiped and talked war and new gunnery devices much as usual. No story goes so well at mess as the account of some fatuous muddle brought about by the administrative bewilderments that are apparently inevitable in the monster armies of to-day. This was one told with quiet relish by our guest that night:—
"You remember the —— show?" he said. "A lot of stores were, of course, lost in the scramble; and, soon after I joined my present battery, I had to sit on an inquiry into the mysterious loss of six waggons belonging to a 60-pounder battery. Two courts of inquiry had already sat on the matter, and failed to trace the whereabouts of the waggons, which had been reported in all sorts of places. At the third inquiry a witness stated that the last place the waggons were seen at before getting lost was such and such a place. A member of the court asked casually whether any one had since visited the spot; and as it was near lunch-time some one else suggested that the court adjourn while an officer motor-cycled over and made inquiries. And I'm hanged," concluded the teller of the story, "if the officer didn't come back and report that the waggons were still there, had been there all the time, and were in good condition and under a guard. Piles of official correspondence had been written over the matter, and the investigation had drifted through all sorts of channels."
Midnight: I had sent out the night-firing orders to our four batteries, checked watches over the telephone, and put in a twenty minutes' wrestle with the brain-racking Army Form B. 213. The doctor and signalling officer had slipped away to bed, and the colonel was writing his nightly letter home. I smoked a final cigarette and turned in at 12.30 A.M.
3.30 A.M.: The telephone bell above my head was tinkling. It was the brigade-major's voice that spoke. "Will you put your batteries on some extra bursts of fire between 3.45 and 4.10—at places where the enemy, if they are going to attack, are likely to be forming up? Right!—that gives you a quarter of an hour to arrange with the batteries. Good-night!"
My marked map with registered targets for the various batteries was by the bedside, and I was able, without getting up, to carry out the brigade-major's instructions. One battery was slow in answering, and as time began to press I complained with some force, when the captain—his battery commander was away on a course—at last got on the telephone. Poor Dawson. He was very apologetic. I never spoke to him again. He was a dead man within nine hours.
I suppose I had been asleep again about twenty minutes when a rolling boom, the scream of approaching shells, and regular cracking bursts to right and left woke me up. Now and again one heard the swish and the "plop" of gas-shells. A hostile bombardment, without a doubt. I looked at my watch—4.33 A.M.
It was hours afterwards before I realised that this was the opening bombardment of perhaps the mightiest, most overpowering assault in military history. Had not the "PREPARE FOR ATTACK" warning come in I should have been in pyjamas, and might possibly have lain in bed for two or three minutes, listening quietly and comfortably while estimating the extent and intensity of the barrage. But this occasion was different, and I was up and about a couple of minutes after waking. Opening my door, I encountered the not unpleasant smell of lachrymatory gas. The Infantry Battalion headquarters' staff were already moving out of the quarry to their forward station. By 4.40 A.M. our colonel had talked over the telephone with two of the battery commanders. Their reports were quite optimistic. "A Battery were wise in shifting from their old position three days ago," he remarked cheerfully. "The old position is getting a lot of shelling; there's nothing falling where they are now. Lots of gas-shelling apparently. It's lucky the batteries had that daily drill serving the guns with gas-masks on."
The doctor and the acting signal officer came into the mess from their quarters farther along the quarry. "If this gas-shelling goes on, I guess we shall all have to have lessons in the deaf-and-dumb talk," puffed the doctor, pulling off his gas helmet. "Keep that door closed!"
"D Battery's line gone, sir," rang up the sergeant-signaller. "M'Quillan and Black have gone out on it."
"Keep Corporal Mann and Sapper Winter on the telephone board to-day," I advised Bliss, the youngster who had come to headquarters the day before to do signal officer. "The colonel will be doing a lot of telephoning, and they know his methods. Be sure to keep all the Scotsmen off the board. The colonel says Scotsmen ought never to be allowed to be telephonists. Impossible to understand what they say."
By 5 A.M. one of the two officers who overnight had manned the forward O.P.'s had spoken to us. He was 2000 yards in front of the most forward battery, but a still small voice sounded confident and cheery, "A few shells have dropped to the right of the O.P., but there's no sign of any infantry attack," was his message. We heard nothing more of him until six weeks afterwards, when his uncle wrote and told the colonel he was safe, but a prisoner in Germany.
5.15 A.M.: The cook was handing round early morning tea. D Battery were through again, and we learned that a sergeant had been killed and one gunner wounded by a 4.2 that had pitched on the edge of the gun-pit. Two other batteries were cut off from headquarters; however, we gathered from the battery connected by the buried cable—that a week before had kept 500 men busy digging for three days—that, as far as they could see, all our batteries were shooting merrily and according to programme.
By 6 A.M. the Brigadier-General, C.R.A., had told the colonel that the situation to left and right was the same as on our immediate front: enemy bombardment very heavy and continuing, but no infantry attack. "We'll shave and have breakfast," the colonel said. "Looks as if the actual attack must be farther north."
By 8 A.M. the shelling near us had died down. It was going to be a lovely spring day, but there was a curiously heavy, clinging mist. "Want to be careful of the gas shell-holes when the sun warms up," said the doctor.
Fresh ammunition was coming up from the waggon lines, and our guns continued to fire on arranged targets. The only additional casualty was that of an officer of A Battery, who had had a piece of his ear chipped off by a splinter, and had gone to a dressing station. The news from B Battery aroused much more interest. An 8-inch shell had landed right on top of their dug-out mess. No one was inside at the time, but three officers, who were wont to sleep there, had had every article of kit destroyed. One subaltern who, in spite of the PREPARE FOR ATTACK notification, had put on pyjamas, was left with exactly what he stood up in—viz., pyjamas, British warm, and gum-boots.
11 A.M.: The colonel had spoken more than once about the latest situation to the brigade-major of the Infantry Brigade we were covering, and to our own brigade-major. The staff captain had rung me up about the return of dirty underclothing of men visiting the Divisional Baths; there was a base paymaster's query regarding the Imprest Account which I had answered; a batch of Corps and Divisional routine orders had come in, notifying the next visits of the field cashier, emphasising the need for saving dripping, and demanding information as to the alleged damage done to the bark of certain trees by our more frolicsome horses. Another official envelope I opened showed that Records were worrying whether a particular regimental sergeant-major was an acting or a temporary sergeant-major.
The doctor and the signalling officer had gone forward to visit the batteries. Hostile shelling seemed to have died out. The mist was denser than ever—a weather phenomenon that continued to puzzle.
The telephone bell tinkled again; the colonel turned from the big map-board on the wall and took up the receiver. "Col. —— speaking!—Yes!—Have they?—Sorry to hear that!—Umph!—No! no signs of an attack on our front. Let me know any further developments—Good-bye!"
He looked towards me and said briefly, "The Boche infantry have got over on our left! Came through the mist! I'm afraid the —rd (our companion Field Artillery Brigade) have caught it badly. Two of their batteries have lost all their guns. Get me the brigade-major of the —— Brigade"—turning to the telephone again.
He told the brigade-major of the Infantry we were covering the news of the break on the left. No, our infantry had not yet been attacked; but up in the front it was difficult to see anything in the mist.
The colonel studied his wall-map with intentness, and put a forefinger on the —rd Brigade gun positions. "If he's through there we can expect him in —— (naming a village of great strategical importance) in a couple of hours."
A runner came in from C Battery, with whom we had had no communication for nearly two hours. The Huns seemed to know their position, and had put over a regular fusilade of 4.2's and 5.9's and gas-shells. The duck-board running outside the dug-outs behind the guns had had six direct hits, and two of the dug-outs were blown in, also No. 2 gun had had its off-wheel smashed by a splinter; two men rather badly wounded.
For an hour there was no further news, and, assisted by my two clerks, I proceeded peacefully with the ordinary routine work of the adjutant's department. The doctor came back and said that A Battery were all right, but could not get communication with their F.O.O., not even by lamp. The 8-inch shell had made very short work of B Battery's mess. "Poor old Drake," went on the doctor, "he'd got a new pair of cavalry twill breeches, cost him L5, 10s., and he'd never even worn them. They came by parcel yesterday, and the fools at the waggon line sent them up last night." Bliss, he added, had stayed with B Battery, and was trying to get the line through between A and B, so that Headquarters could speak to A.
I strolled over to the other side of the quarry where the colonel's, the doctor's, and my horses were under cover, and found they had not been troubled by the gas. The men were at dinner; we were to lunch at 1.15 P.M.
12.40 P.M.: The colonel was again speaking to the Infantry brigade-major. Still no signs of the German infantry in our front line.
Then in one swift moment the whole situation changed. A sweating, staggering gunner blundered into the doorway. He made no pretence at saluting, but called out with all his strength: "The Boche is through."
"Who is that man?" demanded the colonel, whipping round like lightning, and frowning. "Bring him here! Who do you belong to?"
The man had calmed; but before he could reply there was another interruption. A strained voice outside shouted, "Is the colonel there? Is the adjutant there?" Hurrying through the doorway, I saw a tall, perspiring, hatless young subaltern, cursing because he had got entangled in the guy-ropes of some camouflage netting posts. It was Hetherton of C Battery.
The colonel came outside. "The Huns came on us in the mist, sir," panted Hetherton, "out of the wood. They've killed Dawson, sir." His voice broke—"and some of the others. There were only four of us got away. I came on to tell you." He stopped and breathed hard.
The colonel looked stern, but his voice was smooth and collected. "That's all right," he said, almost soothingly. "You cut off with your party and report to the retiring position."
The young man looked dazed, but saluted, and was moving off when the colonel caught him by the arm. "Come and have a drink, Hetherton, before going on," he said; "it'll do you good."
"No, thank you, sir," replied Hetherton, and this time he saluted with body as erect and arm as taut as if on parade. In another second he had vanished.
There was tense silence as the colonel seized the telephone.
"Put me through to B Battery," he said. Turning towards me, he added: "Turn out all the men not on telephone duty to take post on the top of the quarry."
I slipped out and passed the order to the sergeant in charge of the signallers, roused up the servants, and saw that each man had his rifle.
"Now, Duncombe," I said to the left-handed orderly who had beaten the infantry crack shot a few days before, "you may have a chance to see if your eye is in to-day."
When I got back to the mess, I learned that the infantry had news that the Boche was coming over the crest towards our battle positions. The major commanding B Battery had told the colonel that his battery and A had the enemy in full view, and were firing with open sights. "We are killing hundreds of 'em, sir," he had reported with delightful insouciance.
One sharp outburst from the colonel. As he came outside to see if our twenty-odd men were placed in the best positions for defending the quarry, he looked across and noted that the officers' chargers were saddled up, and that the grooms were leading them on to the road above.
"Stop those horses!" he called out angrily. "Who gave orders for them to leave? Have my horses unsaddled at once. There's always some damn fellow who does a stupid thing like that and puts the wind up people."
The situation was really saved by the adjutant's new charger, which, startled by an overcoat the groom had flung over him, began the best exhibition of bucking he had given since he joined us. As he was in the lead, and access to the road was by a narrow closed-in track, no one could get by him.
The grooms in a shamefaced way protested that some one had passed the "Saddle-up" order, and had a few hectic stinging words addressed to them. Apparently a mounted orderly, galloping past with a message, had shouted out something about the enemy being close behind.
The incident being closed, the colonel and myself strapped on belts and revolvers. The colonel glanced swiftly at the map position of the battery that the approaching Huns had scuppered, and then said quickly—
"Whatever happens, we shall have time for something to eat. Tell Manning to bring in lunch."
III. THE END OF A BATTERY.
We none of us exactly enjoyed that lunch. It was a nice lunch, too: the steak cut thin, like steak a la minute, and not overdone, with crisp onion sprigs—"bristled onions" the cook always called them; and, wonder of wonders! a pudding made by cribbing our bread allowance, with plum jam and a few strips of macaroni to spice it up. But the thought that the Boche had scuppered C Battery not a thousand yards away, and was coming on, did not improve the appetite. And news of what was really happening was so scant and so indefinite! The colonel commented once on the tenderness of the steak, and then looked thoughtful; the doctor remained dumb; for myself, I felt keyed up to the state that seems to clear the mind and to make one doubly alert in execution, but my hand did perhaps shake a trifle, and I drank two whiskies instead of my usual one. I thought of one or two things I ought to have done and had left undone. I remember feeling distinctly annoyed because a particular hair lotion on its way from England might not be delivered. I made sure that a certain discoloured Edward and Alexandra Coronation medal—given me for luck—was secure in my pocket-book, and stuffed my breast-pockets with all the cigars they would hold.
Lunch was finished in about eight minutes, and the imperturbable Manning cleared away.
"What about these Defence File papers and the maps on the wall, sir?" I asked the colonel, my mind harking back to newspaper accounts of German strategic documents captured by us in some of our advances.
"Tear them up and put them on the fire. We won't destroy this map"—pointing to a neat and graphic piece of coloured draughtsmanship showing infantry and artillery dispositions—"until we have to."
I got to work, and the fire crackled joyously. "Don't say we shall have to leave these to the Hun, doctor!" I said in shocked tones, picking up four copies of his adored 'Saturday Evening Post.'
The doctor smiled vaguely, but answered nothing.
Hostile shelling had ceased in our neighbourhood. The sound our ears waited for was the "putt—puttr—putt" of machine-guns, always the indication of a near infantry attack. I went out and made sure that the look-outs at both ends of the quarry were doing their work, and found our little Headquarters army, twenty-five men all told, quiet and steady, and ready for the moment, should it come.
Half an hour slipped by. We spoke on the telephone to D Battery, who were on high ground. No, they could see no wave of German infantry approaching; but Bullivant, B Battery's major, who for the time being was commanding C Battery's rear uncaptured guns as well as his own rear and forward 18-pounders, said Huns were coming up en masse from the south-west. "My guns are firing at them, and A's forward guns are shootin' as well," he went on. "No! I have seen nothing of our infantry, but observation is still bad; pockets of mist still about. About Bliss" (the signalling officer who had gone out in the morning and not returned). "Oh! he stayed some time at our forward position and then said he was going to get over to A Battery to see why they were cut off from communication. A lot of 4.2's were coming over at the time, and there were snipers about. He had to duck three or four times on the way and then disappeared from view."
Dumble, captain of A Battery, who had come up from the waggon line, dropped in and hurried off, saying he was going forward to see if he could get anywhere near the Battery.
3 P.M.: No further developments. "I'm going over to see General ——," announced the colonel, naming the brigadier-general commanding the Infantry Brigade we were covering.
Five minutes later the adjutant of an infantry battalion on our left rang through and told me that large numbers of Germans were over the crest and advancing towards what the map showed me was our A Battery's forward positions. I put A Battery's rear position guns to fire on them by the map, and guessed that the Battery's forward guns would be hard at it already.
The colonel came back from the Infantry Brigade, quiet and self-possessed as ever. "Defence in depth means forces more scattered, and greater difficulty in keeping up communication," he remarked, taking a chair and lighting a cigarette. "As far as can be gathered, the situation is this: The Boche got through in force on our left and the —th Division gave way. That bared our own Division's left flank, and is the reason why the —rd Brigade had such a bad time and lost so many guns. The enemy is still coming on; and he's doing too well, also against the —th Division on our right. Our own people say he has worked past their outposts, but that so far as is known they are holding out. The main battle positions are still safe, and a counter-attack is being arranged. No news at all of what is happening farther north!" This was the longest speech the colonel made on that 21st of March.
4 P.M.: I telephoned to the regimental sergeant-major and told him to come up with the mess cart and the G.S. waggon for remaining kit, and ordered the servants to pack up. Twenty minutes later Dumble returned, dusty and dispirited.
"Well, Dumble, what news?" inquired the colonel quickly.
"I couldn't get to the Battery, sir—the enemy are round it, between it and our infantry," began Dumble in cut-up tones.
"The nearest I got was in a trench held by the 7th Westshires. An officer told me that an advanced party of the enemy came over the crest about 12.30. They fired Very lights in response to a Hun contact plane that flew towards the switch-trench leading N.E. towards the battery. By 2 o'clock more enemy infantry were coming from the south, apparently to join up with the advanced party who had sat tight. Both A and B Batteries fired on this new body, and they seemed to me dispersed. But by half-past three, while I was there, Germans in small parties were crawling through the wire in front of A Battery, and getting into our trenches."
He paused and wiped his streaming face with his handkerchief.
"What were our infantry doing?" the colonel interrogated.
"There were only small parties of them, sir, and very scattered," went on Dumble. "The officer and myself, with a dozen men, got along a trench to within thirty yards of some Huns and fired on them. But another party, from almost behind us, came along and bombed us back. We had two killed and brought one wounded man back with us. Another lot came up on our left and we had to move farther back."
"Was the battery still firing when you came away?" demanded the colonel.
"Yes, sir, firing well, but mostly on fresh parties of Boche eight hundred yards away."
A knock at the door, and the entrance of a quick-eyed dapper bombardier from the very battery talked of prevented Dumble continuing.
"From Major Harville, sir," he said, saluting.
Just a slip from an Army Book 136, in Harville's neat cramped handwriting. And the message itself was formal enough: a plain bald statement of a situation that contained heroism, drama, a fight against odds—despair, probably, were the truth known; but despair crowned with the halo of glory and self-sacrifice. The message ran—
"I have fired 2200 rounds, and have only 200 rounds left. My S.A.A. for Lewis guns and rifles is also running short. Can more ammunition be sent up immediately, please?
"The enemy has got through the wire in front of the battery, and is now on two sides of us. If the infantry can assist we can hold out until dark, when I will retire to rear position."
The note was timed 3.40 P.M. It was now 4.30 P.M. The colonel was never more collected or more rapid in acting than at this moment. In two minutes he had spoken to the Infantry brigadier, and asked whether immediate assistance could not be sent. Then he wrote this note to Major Harville—
"Your message timed 3.40 P.M. received at 4.30 P.M.
"Hold on: you are doing splendidly, and counter-attacks are being organised.
"Teams with limbers to withdraw your guns to rear position by 8 P.M. are being sent for."
"I hope the counter-attack is in time," he said to me with a certain sad thoughtfulness before handing the note to the bombardier. "Do you think you can get back to the battery, bombardier?" he added. "I'm afraid you'll find more Boche there now."
"I'll try, sir," replied the bombardier stoutly.
"Off you go then, but be careful!"
In the period of waiting that followed we seemed to have forgotten that three hours ago we were expecting every minute to have to turn out and face the Boche with rifle and revolver. Save for the colonel and two or three of the signallers and a couple of servants, none of us were experienced soldiers; all our previous experience had been in attack; it was something new this feeling that a powerful, energetic, determined foe was beating down our opposition and getting nearer and nearer. Yet, whatever they may have felt, not one of our little band showed signs of depression or nervous excitement. The signalling-sergeant was cursing the sanitary orderly for not having cleared up a particular litter of tins and empty cigarette packets; the officers' cook was peeling potatoes for dinner, and I heard the old wheeler singing softly to himself some stupid, old-time, music-hall ditty.
In the mess no one spoke a word, but each of us knew that our one thought was whether A battery would be able to hold out.
5.30 P.M.: The answer, a grim and saddening one. A sergeant came hurrying in.
"They've captured the battery, sir," he said bluntly, "and Major Harville is killed. I came to report, sir. I was the only one to get away."
I think sometimes of famous cases of tragedy and passion I have heard unfolded at the Old Bailey and the Law Courts, and the intense, almost theatrical atmosphere surrounding them, and compare it to the simple setting of this story, told in matter-of-fact tones by a sergeant standing to attention. "We finished all our ammunition, sir," he began, addressing the colonel, "and took our rifles. Major Harville was shot by a machine-gun while he was detailing us to defend the two gun-pits farthest from the place where the enemy had got past our wire. He fell into my gun-pit, sir, shot in the head. Mr Dawes, who took command, said we would keep on with rifles, and Bombardier Clidstone was doing fine work with his Lewis gun. The Huns didn't seem inclined to come close, and after a conference in my gun-pit with Mr Bliss, Mr Dawes asked for a volunteer to try and find the nearest infantry, and to tell them we'd hold on if they could engage the enemy and prevent him rushing us. I said I would try, and crawled on my belly, sir, through the grass to an empty trench. The battery fired several fine volleys; I heard them for a long time. It was slow work crawling away without being seen, and when I had got 600 yards and was trying to get my bearing—I don't know what time it was.
"Then I noticed that no firing came from the battery. There was no sound at all for over ten minutes. Then about a hundred Germans rushed forward and started bombing the gun-pits, and some of our men came up. I saw about a dozen of them marched off as prisoners."
"You are quite sure Major Harville was killed?" asked the colonel quietly.
"Yes, sir; he fell right in my gun-pit."
We all stood silent, looking on the ground. Poor Harville! The phrase that kept running in my mind was, "One of the best," but with a different meaning to that in which generally it is used. A gallant upright soul. The very best type of the civilian soldier who fought this war for England. Before the war a professional man who had given no thought to fighting: when he became a soldier it was because he understood thoroughly, and believed in completely, all that for which he was ready to give his life.
A clean-living, truly religious man too, who loathed loose talk and swearing, and lived up to his ideals even amid the slime and filth of war. And his bravery was that of the honest man who fears and yet faces danger, not the bull-headed heroism of the "man who knows no fear." Poor Harville!
The sergeant spoke again.
"Before I came back here, sir, after the enemy had marched off our men, B Battery turned their guns on the Germans in A Battery's position."
"Did they?" said the colonel, his face lighting up. "Splendid!"
"Yes, sir; they fired well, a hundred rounds, I should think. They scattered all the Germans, sir: they ran like mad."
We had given up hope of ever hearing again of the two sniping guns sited just behind the original front line, C's 18-pdr. and D's 4.5 how. They were at least 2000 yards in front of the ill-fated A Battery, and must have been captured. What was our surprise then to note the arrival, at a slow easy walk, of the sergeant of D Battery who had been in charge of the 4.5 howitzer. He reported that the detachments had come away safely at 5.45 P.M., and before doing so had "spiked" both guns, and so left their enemy useless booty. It was such an orderly account of action, taken strictly according to drill-book procedure, that I have pieced it together in this form:—
2.30 A.M. A few shells falling.
4.30 A.M. Intense hostile bombardment begun. Officer at O.P. ordered detachments to man guns.
4.32 A.M. Fired on two targets on orders from O.P.
Noon. Communication with O.P. broke down.
12.30 P.M. Attempt to mend O.P. wire failed, as it was too badly cut by shell fire.
1 P.M. The sergeant of D Battery went away to try and discover the situation and to obtain orders.
2 P.M. The sergeant found the men in neighbourhood of O.P. Officer obviously killed or a prisoner. Enemy troops also along road leading to battery positions where officers could be found. Returned to "sniping" howitzer.
4.30 P.M. The sergeant then endeavoured to get in touch with the infantry, and to obtain orders from them. He found none of our own infantry, but a machine-gun officer directed him to hold on as long as he could. He returned again, and discovering Germans close to the 18-pdr. and the 4.5 howitzer, ordered the detachments to open fire on them with rifles. The enemy were dispersed after ten minutes' shooting.
5.45 P.M. The two detachments came away, first blowing up the 4.5 how. and removing the breech mechanism, dial sight, and sight clinometer of the 18-pdr. As soon as he had vacated the position the sergeant reported to the machine-gun officer and then to his battery's rear position.
"That's the way to carry on war," exclaimed the colonel when the sergeant had saluted and departed: "A stout fellow that!"
The reports from Divisional Artillery and from the Infantry Brigade with whom we were in liaison showed that the Hun was still coming on to the left and the right of us. Directly in front of us he seemed quiescent, but our orders were to get over the canal after nightfall. The colonel dictated orders for the batteries to me, and then said—
"I want you to get a telephone line out from here over the canal. The batteries will come into action behind the railway embankment." He indicated the positions on the map. "I'm going to keep an officer at B Battery's rear O.P. until the last moment, and the line must run from him to here and thence over the canal to the batteries in their new positions. You quite understand? I shall stay with General —— (the infantry brigadier) and cross the canal with him. Leave me one telephonist. We'll have dinner and get the kit and the mess cart back to the waggon lines; and you'd better get your line out immediately after dinner."
These orders were clear enough. We dined comfortably, and by 8 P.M. all the waggons, save the mess cart, were ready to move out of the quarry.
As I stepped out of the mess to see that arrangements were complete the regimental sergeant-major approached me, saying: "They say the strong point at —— (about 600 yards away) has fallen, sir. We're quite ready to move, sir!"
A voice behind me, the colonel's: "Put a stop at once to such a ridiculous, panicky rumour. The next man who repeats it is to be put under arrest."
Nevertheless, when the telephone bell rang and I went inside the mess to answer it, the infantry brigade-major's high-pitched voice said in quick sharp tones: "The strong point has just been carried by the enemy. You'd better be clearing out of your quarry."
IV. THE NIGHT OF MARCH 21
Something that aroused anger, recrimination, and some amusement occurred during our night evacuation of the quarry. Officers' and men's kit, the signalling outfit, the doctor's medical stores, and the cook's stove and kitchen utensils, had been packed. The sergeant-major had a final hunt round, and then gave the order "Walk march!" The G.S. waggon, drawn by six D.A.C. mules, set off at regulation pace, the mess cart drawn by Minnie, the fat roan, followed with due sedateness; and then, hang me! if the pole of the Maltese cart didn't snap in two. Old-soldier resource and much hard swearing failed to make it a workable vehicle. Worse still, it was this cart that contained the officers' kit, including the colonel's. It was pitch-dark, and the advancing enemy not more than a thousand yards away.
I wasn't there at that exact moment, but I believe the sergeant-major blamed the size of our "on leave" adjutant's spare kit for the breakdown. "A valise and a half, two bags and a portmanteau—enough for three people," he growled. An attempt was made to get our kit away by adding to the load on the G.S. waggon, but that made it altogether too top-heavy; and after ten minutes of sweating and shouting the sergeant-major told the drivers to move off, leaving the wrecked Maltese cart and the officers' kit behind. That was how I found it—on the ground—when, having received final instructions from the colonel for linking up the batteries by telephone as soon as they took up new positions on the other side of the canal, I came out of the mess. The colonel's servant stood by, looking angrily at the abandoned kit; and the sergeant-major, now on his horse, was saying he would try to borrow a cart from one of the batteries and get the stuff over the canal at any rate.
"Get away as soon as you can," I interrupted, "and bring back the first cart you unload at the waggon lines. You've got to get the Maltese cart away as well. Two of the servants will stay behind to help load up when you return. And look sharp if you don't want the Boche to be here first."
A squadron of Yeomanry, with picks and shovels, were lining up in front of the quarry as I came away with three of the signallers. It was extremely dark, there was a dampness in the air that suggested rain, some Boche howitzers were firing over our heads across the canal, and a steady "putt-puttr-putt-putt" in the direction of the strong point, that less than half an hour ago had fallen, told of a machine-gun duel in progress. It was not an inspiriting moment; and over us, like a pall, lay an atmosphere of doubt and apprehension, that lack of knowledge of what was really happening only added to.
But at such moments there's nothing so steadying to mind and senses as something definite to do. Earlier on I had noted marked on a Corps signalling-map a test-box between the quarry and the canal and another one along the railway embankment, not far from the retiring positions assigned to the batteries. If we could find them the labour of laying an overland telephone wire from the quarry to the opposite side of the canal would be saved. We set out, got off the roadway, and did a good deal of floundering about in hedge-bottoms and over waste lands; but the important thing was that we found both test-boxes, and that the buried cables we hoped for were there.
10.30 P.M.: I had reeled out my lines alongside the railway from the test-box to D Battery and to C and A, who, because of the nine guns the brigade had lost in the morning, had become a composite battery. They had crossed the canal in comparative quiet and were now laying out lines of fire by compass bearings. B Battery were coming along to a spot near the railway farther north, and my signallers were waiting to connect them up. Things were indeed getting ship-shape again. I had spoken through to the colonel and put him in touch with his battery commanders, and to the F.O.O. left at the rearmost O.P. on the eastern side of the canal. The colonel had issued a night-firing programme just as if we were in settled positions, and with fresh ammunition arriving from the original waggon lines the batteries began "pooping off" with brisk enthusiasm, their object being, of course, to cover the retirement of our infantry.
Every one of us had turned out that morning immediately the Hun bombardment started. No sleep could be looked for that night either; but there was the morrow, March 22nd, to be reckoned with—it might entail even more wear and tear than the day which was ending; so I sent back to the waggon lines all but six of the signallers, the brigade clerks, the two wireless operators, who had nothing whatever to do, and most of the servants, telling them to get as much sleep as possible. The colonel's servant was still in the quarry guarding our castaway kit; my own servant I had stationed on the canal bridge so that he could report to me as soon as the sergeant-major and the rescuing waggon hove in sight.
Our discovery of the buried cable running under the canal had a sequel equally welcome. One of the telephone linemen said he believed there was another "bury" on the far side of the railway cutting, and that it connected with the back areas. The signalling-sergeant and myself set out on another hunt, and, joy! we discovered, after patient test calls with a D.III. telephone, that by speaking through two exchanges we could communicate with our own Divisional H.Q. It was six hundred yards from the railway cutting, but I could now keep in touch with the colonel in front, the batteries to right and left of me along the railway, and the brigadier-general and the brigade-major in rear.
1 A.M.: My work for the moment was complete and I could take it easy. I stood outside the test-box that had become a sort of Brigade H.Q. and listened to the waspish crack of our 18-pdrs. sending defiance to the enemy. The six signallers—plus a terrier—had crowded into the tiny sandbag shelter that protected the test-box. One of them, receiver to ear, waited for calls, a candle stuck on an inverted mess-tin shedding sufficient light for the pencilling of messages. The others sprawled in cramped positions, snuggled one against another for warmth, and sought sleep. The doings of the Boche seemed more puzzling than ever. What was happening on the other side of the canal? Five hours ago he had captured a strong post within 1800 yards of the spot on which I now stood, and we had no reserve lines of infantry in front of him. Why this strange quiescence? And then my mind took another turn. What had become of the sergeant-major with the waggon that was to gather up our left kit? Why did he take such a long time? I thought bitterly of my field boots, and the British warm I was beginning to want, and the new jacket and breeches, all in my valise. Why hadn't I put on my best pair of leggings to come away in? The Boche would have been welcome to the older ones I was wearing; besides, they didn't fit so well as the pair left in the quarry.
The little American doctor suddenly nipped my elbow. I had missed him during the last two hours. "Say, son," he said, "come and take a walk along the line: I've happened on a hut down along there with a fire in it. Belongs to some sappers. Come and take a warm."
"Can't," I replied, shaking my head; "I'd like to, but I shall have to be like the Boy who stood on the Burning Deck to-night. I must stop on this spot until the colonel comes across."
The doctor toddled off, and I got the telephonist to ring through to the colonel. "The enemy seems to be waiting. He's not troubling our infantry," he informed me, and then added, "Has the kit been got away from the quarry yet?"
I made sure that the telephonist was ringing up each battery every ten minutes to see that the lines were in working order, and then climbed up the railway bank and walked over to inquire if the brigade-major had any news. He hadn't. "And try and keep in touch with us on this line," he added. "It's the only way we have at the moment of speaking to your Brigade."
2 A.M.: The best news of the night. The sergeant-major had crossed the bridge. Our precious kit would be borne to safety! At 3.15 A.M. he passed again, triumphant, the Maltese cart in tow as well. Hurrah! Let the war now proceed!
At 4.30 the colonel telephoned that the infantry brigadier and himself were about to cross the canal. The telephone wire could be cut, and I was to meet him at the railway bridge in twenty minutes' time.
"The infantry are crossing the canal at six o'clock," he said when he rode up and called my name through the mist. "Batteries will start to withdraw to their next positions at 6.30. Each battery will withdraw a section (two guns) at a time; and the last section must not pull out until the preceding section is in action at the new position." He gave me the map co-ordinates of the new positions, and rode off to visit the battery commanders.
6 A.M.: Extraordinary, it was to be another rainless hazy morning. How the weather always assists the Boche! In the grey gloom on top of the embankment I could see forms moving—our own infantry, marching steadily, neither cheerful nor depressed, just moving, impersonal forms. "What's happened?" I asked a subaltern, keeping time with him as he marched.
"We're going back to Rouez Wood," he answered. "The Westshires are lining up now behind the canal."
"Are they going to hold it?" I asked.
"Don't know," was the reply; "only know our orders."
"Had many casualties?" I asked again.
"No! only a few from snipers. We weren't in the counter-attack."
They swung round and passed over the railway bridge, making west. On the bridge stood a keen-eyed, small-featured sapper major. I talked to him.
"No!" he informed me, "there's no intention of making a stand here. We've blown up all the canal bridges except one." A muffled boom! "Ah, there goes the last one. All our infantry are over by now."
A few German 4.2's were coming over now, mostly on the western side of the railway cutting. They helped to put a bit of ginger into the withdrawal of the guns. A section of each battery had now pulled out; the teams "walked out," crossing the bridge and heading down the road. There was no trotting. The batteries went out heads high.
7 A.M.: On the telephone I learned that the last two sections were waiting the arrival of mounted orderlies to tell them to pull out. Right! I disconnected the wires, told the signallers to report to B Battery where I would pick them up, and not to waste time getting there. Then I sought a copse on the other side of the bridge, where I knew my horses would be waiting.
The sentry and the sappers who waited to blow up the bridge remained at their posts silent and still. Forty yards after passing them I was alone. I stopped in the road and turned to look back. The sun was breaking through the mist, but it was a mournful landscape—dull, soulless. All at once I felt chilled and tired, and for the first time my thoughts turned seriously and intently towards what the newly-arrived day had in store for myself, for the Brigade, for England.
From the other side of the canal the "putt-puttr-putt" of machine-guns! I turned westwards and went in search of my horses.
V. A GUNNER'S V.C.
Not even on this twenty-second of March did we realise fully the vast conception and the extent of the German swoop, and that our Brigade was as jetsam and as flotsam carried along on the mightiest part of the storm flood.
7.30 A.M.: The last sections of our batteries to pull out from behind the railway embankment passed me on the road, the horses walking grandly, the men tired but in high enough spirits. The enemy long-range guns were waking up now and playing a damnable tattoo on the main routes leading west. I saw one limber-waggon belonging to the Engineers blown sky-high, and three maimed horses had to be shot.
At the cross-roads east of the wood behind which the batteries were retiring I came upon the colonel, his overcoat buttoned up, his face pallid with sleeplessness; but his mood was one for overriding difficulties. He rode beside me awhile, and then pulled up, exclaiming, "Let's have a cup of tea to start the day with. Laneridge"—to his groom—"bring my Thermos flask."
"The first thing for you to do," he went on, as we drank tea and munched ration biscuits, a few of which wise folk always slip into their pockets when things are a-doing out here, "is to get wires out to the batteries again. Headquarters will be at Rouez. Division have gone back to where —— Corps were yesterday, and we take over their quarters."
"What's the view of things at Infantry Headquarters, sir?" I asked as we mounted again.
"Well, they blame the mist for the enemy getting past the outposts. Most of the machine-guns they camouflaged with so much trouble never came into the picture. But for some reason or other the Boche didn't follow up. Perhaps he was waiting for reserves, or perhaps he got suspicious. Our infantry didn't suffer many casualties, and I'm sure the enemy didn't. We retired according to schedule time, and things were quite quiet when I crossed the canal at four o'clock this morning.
"Extraordinary attitude of mind some of the men out here nowadays have," he proceeded. "Last night they brought in one of the ——'s, who was captured by the Boche in the morning but escaped and got back to the battalion. He said that the enemy set prisoners bringing ammunition up to their front line. When he was asked how he escaped, he said that a shell killed 'the man-in-charge' of the party and he got away. 'The man-in-charge,'" repeated the colonel. "He spoke as if the Boche N.C.O. were a sort of foreman, and as if bringing up ammunition which was to be shot at your own countrymen was the most ordinary thing in the world."
Two high-velocity shells whizzed above our heads, and the colonel's mare plunged excitedly. The enemy were evidently "stoking up" for a fresh effort. We trotted on and toured the batteries, the colonel inspecting the O.P.'s from which our fire was to be directed, and ascertaining whether there was difficulty in keeping ammunition supply up to 300 rounds per gun. When we reached the Brigade Headquarters horse lines, I instructed the sergeant-major to turn out the telephone waggon in readiness to lay lines to the new battery positions. Then breakfast—steaming tea and sizzling fried eggs and bacon cooked to the minute. Nothing like being out all night for galvanising the breakfast appetite. And no time for lingering afterwards. A canter along the roadside to catch up the telephone cart; then, while the signalling-sergeant, a good fellow who could read a map, reeled out lines through the wood to the batteries, I undertook a tussle with the terminal boards in the huge and elaborate dug-out telephone exchange, that up to 5 A.M. had been the chief exchange of the whole Division. Now that Divisional Headquarters had been established where Corps Headquarters had been the day before, four miles back, there had to be a re-allotment of lines to Infantry, Artillery, Engineers, A.S.C., and the other units that work out the will of the Divisional Commander.
"I'll get young Bushman down from B Battery to do signalling-officer to-morrow. It will be difficult for you to do adjutant and signalling-officer as well," remarked the colonel two hours later, as he bent over his maps.
3 P.M.: A R.H.A. brigade had put in a claim for the quarters destined for us. Three days ago this would have resulted in polite recrimination and telephoned appeals to higher authorities, but to-day, such is the effect of mobile warfare, we all managed to dig in somehow. A decent hut for the colonel had been found, and there was a room in a bomb-mauled cottage, where the doctor, "Swiffy," the veterinary officer, and myself hoped to spread our camp-beds. We had shaved and washed and lunched, and looked and felt respectable again. The C.R.A. and the brigade-major had called and gone off with the colonel to see the batteries shoot. I had forwarded by despatch-rider the Brigade return of casualties to the staff captain, so that reinforcements might be applied for forthwith. A French pointer of confiding disposition, who came into the mess from nowhere in particular, seemed quite to have made up his mind that we were come to stay.
The telephone bell! The brigade-major of our companion Infantry Brigade, with the latest news! "He's not crossed the canal on our front yet, and your guns are doing good work keeping him back. But he's got farther forward than we expected north of us. It's from the south that we want more news. There's a report that we have been pushed out of Tergnier. That's very bad, if true."
A quarter of an hour later he rang up again. "There's a report that enemy infantry are massing in Z 23 d 5.8. Can you turn your guns on to 'em?" I looked at the map co-ordinates he had given, and rang through to the batteries.
4.30 P.M.: Pretty definite signs now that the enemy was coming on. A 5.9 had made a hole a hundred yards from where Headquarter horse lines had been staked out. Another had crashed among the trees that sheltered our mess, and a branch, after being jerked yards high in the air, had fallen plunk through the cook's bed. And they were not long-range shells either. Also, there had been seven shots from the most wicked, the most unsettling weapon in the Hun armoury—the 4.2 high-velocity gun, that you don't hear until it is past you, so to speak. One shell grazed the top of the office in which the doctor and myself were sitting; another snapped off a tree-trunk like—well, as a 4.2 does snap off a tree-trunk. Most ominous sign of all—when the seven shots had been fired, three ugly-looking holes ringed themselves round the colonel's hut. Next, a Hun aeroplane, with irritating sauciness, circled above our camp, not more than five hundred feet up. Our "Archies" made a lot of noise, and enjoyed their customary success: the Hun airman sailed calmly back to his own lines.
6 P.M.: The adjutant of the R.H.A. Brigade came in to tell me that the enemy were getting closer, and that the break-through on our right admitted of no doubt. I despatched written orders to the battery waggon lines for gun teams and limbers to be brought up to within a thousand yards of the guns.
7 P.M.: The colonel was back. A battery that had only reached France three days before had been put under his command, to compensate for the loss of seven guns from A and C batteries. It was getting dark, but the officers at the O.P.'s in front of the wood were still able to pick up moving targets, and many Germans were being accounted for.
The colonel found time to mention more episodes of the March Twenty-first fighting. "Every bridge over the canal was blown up by 6.30 this morning," he said; "but, do you know that D Battery's cook, who had got left behind last night, and seems to have wandered about a good deal, did not come over until nine o'clock this morning? No wonder we retired in comfort."
The brigadier had told him more of what had happened to the —rd, our companion Divisional Artillery Brigade. "Their C Battery put up a wonderful fight—got infantry and trench mortars to help, and didn't come away until 10 P.M., after putting their guns out of action. One gunner did extraordinarily stout work. Unaided, and with a rifle, he held up a Boche machine-gun party that had worked round on the battery's left flank, and later, with three others, captured the machine-gun. One Boche, who broke through, he chased over half the country apparently, and shot him down. The amusing thing is that when he had killed the Boche he searched his pockets, and found a cake, addressed to a bombardier in another battery. The Huns had scuppered this battery and ransacked their dug-outs. The bombardier was somewhat surprised last night when the gunner handed him his lost cake."
This was a gunner who eventually was awarded the highest honour a soldier can win.
8 P.M.: A dinner much disturbed by German artillery. They started a tremendous shelling of the wood in which we were encamped. Salvos of 5.9's made deafening crashes among the trees, and the earth was shaken by the heavier, more awe-inspiring "crump" of the 8-inch how. There was now, too, a steady bombardment of Villequier Aumont, the village, a mile and a half behind, in which the battery waggon lines had been installed.
The colonel came to a rapid decision. "They'll make Villequier Aumont and the wood too hot for waggon lines to-night," he remarked. "We'll move them at once to the other side of Villequier Aumont. Dump them on the roadside. You'd better go and see it carried out. Leave me two cycle orderlies, and I'll stay with the Infantry Brigade. They have a mined dug-out here."
So, for the second time in twenty-four hours, we did a night retirement. Infantry were coming back along the road, and big shells were falling at regular intervals.
Any amount of retreating traffic on the other side of Villequier Aumont, but no signs of panic or confusion. A block caused by supply lorries coming from the opposite direction threatened to hold up some ambulance cars, but it was only momentary. Our little American doctor did good work here, galloping off to halt the supply lorries and raising Cain until the traffic sorted itself out.
I selected a field near the roadside for Headquarter waggon lines. A stream ran conveniently by. The horses were watered and fed; our Headquarter notice-board was duly affixed to a roadside tree; and the doctor added to his previous achievement by tying a tarpaulin to the side of the mess cart, so that "Swiffy," the doctor himself, and myself had shelter when we lay down.
The moon rose glorious, serene; there was no need for candles to light us to bed. We slept heavily, too tired to worry about the morrow, or the menacing drone of Hun 'planes overhead.
VI. BEHIND VILLEQUIER AUMONT
I have tried to explain how "this flood-burst of moving war, such as the world had never before seen," affected one unit of the R.F.A., and one unimportant civilian soldier who was doing adjutant; how the immensity and swift thoroughness of the German effort must have been realised by the casual newspaper reader in England more quickly than by the average officer or man who had to fight against it.
5.30 A.M.: That six hours' sleep under a tarpaulin did me all the good in the world, and by 5 A.M. I was out seeing that our Headquarter horses were being groomed and fed and got ready for immediate action.
The guns were particularly quiet, and I remember thinking: we have retreated eight miles in forty-eight hours—it's about time we stopped. Something is sure to be doing farther north, where we are so much stronger.
Breakfast and a shave; then a move forward to find the colonel, and to learn whether he wanted the waggon lines brought up again. It was a lovely morning. A beautiful stretch of meadowland skirted the road leading back to Villequier Aumont, and my horse cantered as if the buoyancy of spring possessed him also. I caught up Fentiman of D Battery, who said he was shifting his waggon lines back to Villequier Aumont. "The water and the standings are so much better there," he said.
I found the colonel standing in the square at Villequier Aumont, watching the departure by car of the three American ladies who for a month past had dispensed tea and cakes in the gaily-painted maisonette at the top of the village. They had been the first harbingers of the approaching brotherhood between the British and American Armies in this part of the Front: brave hospitable women, they had made many friends.
The colonel was not in such good mood this morning. He had remained through the night with the infantry brigadier in the wood from which our horse lines had withdrawn the previous evening. The dug-out was none too large, and his only rest had been a cramped four hours trying to sleep on the floor. With no rest at all the night before, no wonder he looked fagged. But immediately there were orders to give, he became his usual alert, clear-headed self. "It is most important this morning that we should keep communication with our Divisional Artillery Headquarters," he began. "Bring the telephone cart back to the wood at once, and put a couple of telephonists into the dug-out. They'll be safe there until the last possible moment. It's uncertain yet whether we're going to hold the enemy up there or not."
I galloped back and brought the telephone cart along at a trot. The two wheelers, particularly "the doctor's mare," stepped out in most refreshing style. "The old cart's never had such a day since it's been to France," grinned the signalling-sergeant when we pulled up. Odd 5.9's were falling in the wood; our batteries had shifted in the early morning from the eastern side of the wood to positions more north-west, and two Horse Artillery batteries were moving up behind the rise that protected our right flank. But what was this? Coming up at a steady march, bayonets glinting, a long column of blue-grey wound into view. French infantry! The thin line of khaki was at last to receive support!
7 A.M.: The Infantry battle was now developing sharply two thousand yards in front of us. Shells crashed persistently into the wood; the "putt-puttr-putt" of machine-guns rattled out ceaselessly.... Whimsically I recalled quieter days on the Somme, when our machine-gunners used to loose off seven rounds in such a way as to give a very passable imitation of that popular comic-song tag, "Umtiddy-om-pom—Pom-pom!" After three attempts we had given up trying to keep telephone touch with the batteries, and I had detailed mounted orderlies to be in readiness. One line I kept going, though, between the hut where the infantry brigadier and his brigade-major and the colonel received messages describing the progress of the fighting, and the telephone dug-out, whence the colonel could be switched on to the artillery brigadier. There was bad news of the battery just out from England that had come under the colonel's command the evening before. Three of their guns had been smashed by direct hits, and they had lost horses as well. The Boche were swarming over the canal now, and our A and C and B Batteries were firing over open sights and cutting up Germans as they surged towards our trenches.
11 A.M.: Orders from our own brigadier to pull out the guns and retire to a crest behind Villequier Aumont. I heard the news come along the telephone wire, and went through the wood to seek further directions from the colonel. It was evident now that the wood could only be held at great sacrifice, and by determined hand-to-hand fighting. The Boche outnumbered us by at least four to one, and French help had not yet arrived in sufficient strength. I walked behind two rows of French and British infantry, lying ready in shallow newly-dug trenches. They looked grave and thoughtful; some of them had removed their tunics. I remember noting that of four hundred men I passed not one was talking to his neighbour. I remember noticing a few horses waiting behind, and motor-cyclist messengers hurriedly arriving and hurriedly departing. I remember most of all the mournful, desolate howling of a dog, tied up to one of the now deserted huts—the poor friendly French pointer who the day before had snuggled his nose into my hand. Near the hedge leading to the hut where I should find the colonel stood a group of infantry officers. One of them, a tall lieutenant-colonel, I recognised as Colonel —— who had dined with us in our mess in the quarry a few nights before the offensive started. His head was heavily bandaged. I learned some days afterwards that he had been wounded while leading a company of his battalion in a counter-attack; and that not long after I passed him that morning in the wood he reorganised and exhorted his men, facing terrific rifle and machine-gun fire—and indeed showed such glorious and inspiring courage that he gained the Victoria Cross.
1 P.M.: The mounted orderlies had delivered orders to the batteries to retire, and D Battery was already trekking along the road the other side of Villequier Aumont. Machine-gun fire in the wood we had left was hotter than ever. And the German guns were moving up, as could be told when long-range efforts began to be made on the villages behind Villequier Aumont. Half a dozen high-velocity shells struck the road we had traversed, one of them knocking out a Horse Artillery waggon and three horses. Two other horses had to be shot, and the sixth bolted. From the markings on a good horse that I found tied to our own lines later in the day, I concluded that the runaway had strayed in our direction; and in the matter of strayed horses—good horses, that is—the sergeant-major always worked on the principle, "It's all in the same firm." At any rate, we had a valuable spare horse for the trying march that followed.
2.30 P.M.: The colonel had selected the new positions for the batteries, and two of them were already in. While we waited the arrival of the others, we flung ourselves down in a hay-field and watched the now continuous stream of men, batteries, transport lorries, and ambulance cars coming up the hill leading from Villequier Aumont, and toiling past us towards Ugny. There was no doubting it now: it was a retreat on a big scale.
All round us were rolling fields, rich of soil, and tilled and tended with that French care and thoroughness that the war has intensified. Even small irregular patches at road-crossings have been cultivated for the precious grain these last two years. "The Boche will get all this, curse him!" muttered the colonel.
Major Bullivant of B Battery came over the hill on the pet grey mare that, in spite of three changes from one Division to another, he had managed to keep with him all the time he had been in France. He didn't dismount in drill-book fashion; he just fell off. It was spirit, not physique, that was keeping him going. Unshaven, wild-eyed, dirty, he probably didn't know it. His mind centred on nothing but the business in hand. "My battery is coming through Villequier Aumont now, sir," he informed the colonel. "For a few minutes I was afraid we weren't going to get out. My damn fool of a sergeant-major, for some reason or other, took the gun-teams back to the waggon lines this morning. Said he was going to change them and bring fresh teams up after breakfast or something. When Beadle came up with the teams we were under machine-gun fire. Got one man killed and three wounded, and we have a few scratches on the shields.... If I don't get up, sir, I shall fall fast asleep," he exclaimed suddenly. "Where are our new positions, sir?"
The colonel handed him his flask, and he smiled. "As a matter of fact, sir, I've kept going on ration rum."
When the colonel and Major Bullivant went off, up rode Beadle in an extraordinary get-up: British warm, gum-boots, and pyjamas. He had been able to get no change since the Boche 8-inch had wiped out B Battery's mess at the opening of the Hun bombardment on the 21st. It was an amazing thing, but neither of us had remembered to eat anything since breakfast until that moment. The day's excitements had caused us to ignore time altogether, and to forget hunger. But Beadle's tired grin brought me back to such worldly matters, and we fell to on a tin of bully and a hunk of cheese that the signalling-sergeant discovered for us.
"They say we've done jolly well up north," said Beadle, his mouth full. "Got as far as Cambrai, and 25,000 prisoners taken at Ypres."
"Who told you that?" I asked, at the same time ready to believe. Did not this entirely support my belief of the early morning? Certainly we must be doing something up north!
"I heard it at the waggon lines," went on Beadle. "They say it's in Corps orders."
The line of retreating traffic and of loaded ambulance cars in front of us maintained its monotonous length. But the retirement continued to be orderly and under full control, although now and again a block in the next village kept the main road lined with immobile horses and men, while high-velocity shells, directed at the road, whizzed viciously to right and left of them. One kilted Scot passed us leading a young cow. He paid no heed to the jests and the noisy whistling of "To be a Farmer's Boy" that greeted him. "The milk 'ull be a' richt the morn's morn, ye ken," was his comfortable retort. And once a red-headed Yorkshireman broke the strain of the wait under shell-fire by calling out, "It's a good job we're winnin'!"
The colonel came back after showing Major Bullivant his new battery position, and told me to ride off at once to Ugny, where Divisional Artillery Headquarters had stationed themselves, and inform the staff captain that the ammunition dump on the roadside contained no ammunition. "Find out something definite," he ordered.
D.A. had settled themselves in two rooms in a deserted house, and the staff captain quickly sketched out the arrangements he had made for ammunition supply. "A Divisional ammunition column is too cumbersome for this moving warfare," he said, "and your Brigade will be supplied by No. 1 section acting as B.A.C. There's an ammunition park at ——, and if you will supply guides here (pointing to the map) at 6.30 to-night, your B.A.C. will supply direct to your waggon lines. And that arrangement will continue so long as we are conducting this sort of warfare. Is that clear?... Right!"
As I was about to depart, in came the brigade-major, who had been in consultation with the brigadier-general. "Ah, ——," he said, calling me by name, "you can give me some information. Is the colonel far away?"
"He's with the batteries, sir, giving them targets from their new positions."
"Right! Can you tell me how many guns you have in action now?"
I was able to do this, and also told him where our batteries were going to establish waggon lines for the night.
"That won't do," he interrupted; "you'll be too far north. The Boche is coming down that main road. You'd better tell the colonel that any further retirement must be south-west, because the Boche is pinching us on our left. I'll show you the line as it runs at present. I've just got it."
We bent over his large-scale map, and I copied the curved line on to my own map. "The French are properly in now," added the brigade-major, "and we are going to fight for that line. There's to be no more retiring."