[Transcriber's note: Obvious printer's errors have been corrected. The original spelling has been retained. —The caption of the illustration page 38 was unclear. —Page 50: "serious of raids" has been replaced by "series of raids" —Page 76: "must against" has been replaced by "much against"]
THREE YEARS IN FRANCE
WITH THE GUNS,
EPISODES IN THE LIFE OF A FIELD
C.A. ROSE, M.C.,
LATE OF THE
ROYAL FIELD ARTILLERY.
Printed By The Allen Lithographic Co., Ltd., Kirkcaldy
These brief notes of experiences with the guns for thirty-eight months in France were primarily penned for my own satisfaction. Friends who read the manuscript expressed much interest in it, and added the hope that it might be given a more permanent form. Hence it is that it is now printed for private circulation.
The story is a simple record of the fortunes of my own Battery and Brigade, and is intended as a tribute to the good comradeship which existed, under all conditions, among all ranks. C.A.R. EDINBURGH, January, 1919.
Chapter I., Breaking us in, 1
" II., Our First Battle, 8
" III., "Peace Warfare." 15
" IV., In "the Salient," 23
" V., On the Somme, 30
" VI., Messines, 39
" VII., Ypres Again, 47
" VIII., Cambrai, 60
" IX., At Arras, 68
" X., March the 21st, 73
" XI., The Turn of the Tide, 78
" XII., Through the Hindenburg Line, 83
CHAPTER I. (p. 001)
Breaking Us In.
On a morning early in August, 1915, the Brigade disembarked at Havre without mishap to man, horse, or material, and proceeded to a Rest Camp on the outskirts of the town. We were in France at last! The same evening the Batteries started to entrain, and every two hours a complete unit was despatched up the line—to an unknown destination. The men received refreshments at various Haltes, and the horses were duly watered and fed, but the journey was, on the whole, long and tedious. On one occasion only was the monotony broken, and that unwittingly, by the humour of one of the officers. In the course of the evening, the train stopped at a small station, and the compartment in which the officers were settled drew up in front of the Buffet. Some one asked where we were, and a subaltern, anxious to display his newly-acquired knowledge of French, replied, "Bouvette," which called forth no response. Shortly afterwards the train proceeded on its way, and the occupants of the carriage settled themselves down to sleep. All passed quietly for the next couple of hours—then the train stopped once more, and, as luck would have it, again our carriage came to a standstill directly opposite the buffet of the station. At once a question was asked as to our whereabouts. The same subaltern, shaking himself out of a deep slumber, stretched, roused himself, and, peering out of the window, exclaimed, "Good Lor', still at this beastly hole, 'Bouvette'!" He expressed much surprise at the "unseemly mirth," as he described it, which followed!!
After detraining, the Battery marched through beautiful country, which reminded one of the Borders, as it was not unlike the valley of the Tweed, and we were at once taken to the hearts of the inhabitants (p. 002) of the good village of Seningham, which place was destined to be our home for the next few days. The officers were afforded spacious accommodation in the house of the Maire, whilst the men had comfortable billets in the neighbourhood. Time was spent making our unit shipshape after its travels by land and sea, and the "hairies" obtained as much grazing as possible, to make them fit for what was in store for them. It was wonderful how quickly the men adapted themselves to French ways, and much amusement was caused by their eager, if somewhat unsuccessful, attempts to master the language of our Allies.
When it became known that the officers were anxious to increase their knowledge of the language of the country, the maidens of the village vied with one another to obtain posts as instructresses, and there was nearly a free fight amongst them for the possession of our worthy Senior Subaltern, whose taking ways did not fail to catch their attention!
But, alas! our peaceful warfare was not to be for long! One morning sudden orders came through to prepare for the line in a couple of days' time. All was instant bustle, extra grooming was given to the horses, and finishing touches were put to the howitzers and vehicles. We were to be given a trial in action to show how we would comport ourselves before joining the "Feet" of our own Division, the Guards, who at that time were out at rest. For this purpose we were to be placed under the orders of the C.R.A. of an Indian Division, to reinforce the Batteries already in positions and receive instruction from them.
At last the morning arrived to move off, the column, skirting the town of St. Omer, took the main road to Hazebrouck, and, as we passed through the village of Arques, we caught a first glimpse of our future infantry. They appeared equally keen on seeing their new artillery, and inspected us with a critical eye. The march was made in easy stages, and on the morning of the third day the Brigade arrived at Merville, a quaint old town in Flemish Flanders. After a hasty lunch, the officers rode ahead, in order to get into touch with the unit we were to support in the line, and another amusing incident happened en route. One of the Junior Officers owned a sturdy mare, whose reputation as a charger was apt to be ridiculed by his companions, as she was notorious for her slow gait. When the party had proceeded some distance at the trot, "Halting Hilda" was observed, to the astonishment of everyone, to be gradually taking the lead. This fact called (p. 003) forth the remark from her master, "By Jove, she is pulling extraordinarily hard to day: what can be the matter with the animal?" It was then discovered that the rider had been at her mercy for the last couple of miles, the bit clanking merrily from side to side under her great jaw. In the hurry and excitement of departure, after lunch, the bit had not been replaced in her mouth!
The afternoon was spent in reconnoitering the gun positions allotted to us, which were the alternative positions of the units already in line. As a rule, each battery makes a second or alternative gun position, in case it should be shelled out of its existing one, so that no delay takes place in getting into action again. When night fell there was subdued excitement in the wagon line as the time drew near to take the guns "in." This was actually the beginning of our first venture—would we have the luck to get there without being caught in the enemy's harassing fire? How would we behave under shell-fire: would we be steady or otherwise? All these and many other questions flashed through our minds, for a great deal depends, more than one would believe, on how a new and inexperienced unit receives its baptism of fire.
At length a start was made, and the Battery moved off, and soon turned down the long, straight main road leading to La Bassee, the trees on either side showing signs of shrapnel scars, and even in the darkness it could be seen that the cottages were, for the most part, in ruins. It felt distinctly eerie as the small column proceeded silently on its way without showing lights of any description; the stillness and darkness broken now and again by the barking of a gun as we drew nearer the battery zone, and by an occasional Verey Light, which seemed to reveal us in all our nakedness. That long stretch of road seemed interminable—were we never going to reach our destination? However, all remained quiet throughout our progress, and at last we arrived at the entrance to the gun position, which was to be our home for the next fortnight. The guns were speedily unlimbered and man-handled into the pits awaiting their reception, the ammunition was unloaded from the vehicles, and the teams were returned to the wagon line.
The following morning the pieces were "layed out" on our particular zone, and we had time to look round and take stock of our new (p. 004) abode, which was a farmhouse standing in the centre of an orchard adjoining the main road. The building itself was by no means intact, although, as yet, habitable. It gave us enough shelter of a kind, and we soon adjusted ourselves to the prevailing conditions, and the outhouses surrounding it afforded ample accommodation for the detachments. The gun pits were cunningly concealed in the front portion of the orchard, special care having been taken against the prying eyes of hostile aeroplanes. We were fortunate in the choice of position made for our first time in the line, for two reasons, firstly, it was an interesting zone—including the village of Neuve Chapelle now immediately behind our front line—and, secondly, it was quiet. The country there is extremely flat, with the exception of Aubers Ridge, which, occupied by the enemy, overlooked us to a certain extent, although the many trees and woods prevented his having an uninterrupted view. Our tuition began at once, and we were conducted to the front line through innumerable communication trenches, which, at first, reminded one of a maze at an exhibition, the only difference being that numerous notice-boards directed our movements.
There we were welcomed, with smiling faces, by men of a Ghurka battalion, their white teeth and flashing eyes showing up their brown skins. Now and then they would stop sharpening their deadly-looking kukris, their dearest possession, to allow us to pass along the trench. Nothing delighted these brave little men more than to be permitted to go on a silent raid at night, when they wormed themselves through the wire in "No Man's Land," and did as much damage on the other side as possible. They have been known to enter the enemy trenches without a sound, killing everyone within reach, and to return radiant, quite unscathed. When questioned as to why they had not brought in any prisoners for identification purposes, they would merely roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, and say, "Enemy all quiet, he asleep," and calmly remove the still warm gore from their knives! Continuing on our way, we next struck a Highland regiment, the necessary complement of the one of stout little men just left behind. It was most interesting, as one had heard so much about the traditional good comradeship existing, in India, between Ghurka and Highlander, and here they were still side by side in France. Their mutual admiration is boundless and unconcealed, and it was most (p. 005) amusing to watch the little men aping the ways of the big Highlanders, who look huge in comparison with them. The Ghurka regiments have their own pipe bands, and play them as if they, too, had been born and bred in the mountains and glens of Scotland.
Soon we came to a fire bay, specially well placed to obtain a good view of the enemy trenches, which had been converted into what is known as an O.P., i.e., an artillery observation post. These O.P.'s are manned during daylight by the F.O.O. (Forward Observation Officer) and his signaller assistants. Their job is to keep a close watch on hostile trenches, watching for any unusual movement or for the appearance of new constructive works, such as machine gun emplacements or new saps. The O.P. has numerous wires leading into it, and these come from all the batteries in immediate support of that part of the line, which are jointly responsible for its defence. Our own signallers had been out early, and a wire had already been carefully laid and labelled from our gun position to the O.P., so we were now ready to register our howitzers on some definite object behind the enemy lines. A house, or some such landmark which is shewn on our trench maps, is usually chosen to calibrate upon. There is little trouble in effecting this, but, at first, there is some difficulty in following the rounds as they fall, through a periscope, owing to its small field of vision. It was, however, imperative to make use of that instrument, in this case, as an enemy sniper, watchful and on the alert, had already seen the top of it, and from time to time a bullet passed overhead unpleasantly close. This served to remind us to be discreet and to run no risks by exposing ourselves in the slightest degree above the parapet. Sometimes it is very difficult to restrain one's enthusiasm when there is an interesting shoot taking place.
The pieces being duly registered, the Battery is now ready for any emergency, and theoretically we can engage any target in our arc of fire. It is then essential to learn the country in hostile territory, and one looks out for likely targets and for points at which one can inconvenience the enemy by keeping him under constant harassing fire. This work must necessarily be done from a point of vantage where a good wide view can be obtained, and, in most cases, a house, tree, or high piece of ground well behind the lines, is selected for a Rear O.P.
In an incredibly short space of time every officer learns the (p. 006) country off by heart, and can bring any gun to bear on a particular target at short notice. At first Junior Officers are allowed practice shoots on targets well behind the enemy lines, and as they gain confidence and experience, are entrusted with "close shoots," i.e., firing on hostile emplacements, etc., in the front line, a job which requires extreme caution and accuracy, as "No Man's Land" averages not more than 200 yards in width in most places. Batteries can always communicate with Battalion Headquarters in the line, a wire, usually buried, leading from there to our Brigade Headquarters, and each Battery has its own private wire to the latter place. In the same way one can be linked up with nearly every unit in a Division by means of an Exchange run by the Royal Engineers.
A few days sufficed us to make ourselves quite at home, and officers went freely about "seeking whom they might devour," visited old established O.P.'s, and searched for new or better ones. It is a curious fact that the average subaltern is never fully satisfied with an O.P., and is always bent on discovering "something better," although in few cases is his ambition realised! One officer favours this O.P., another that, and on this occasion the one which our worthy Battery Commander had a preference for was a most unpleasant place, commonly known as "The Doll's House," though why so called no one could tell. At any rate, it was an abode to be avoided on all possible occasions, and the subalterns were quite convinced it was the registering place of all the hostile batteries within range and vision. At any rate, we daily found less and less of the building, until one day the staircase was blown away as well as the perch on top which afforded us our view. Great was the relief when the B.C. at last declared the O.P. "out of action" until further notice.
Nearly every O.P. has an appropriate name given to it, and so we repaired to "Stink Farm" after abandoning our old love! We put in most useful days of practice there, and the knowledge and experience gained was invaluable. Our thanks were due to the enemy for his consideration in allowing us to conduct our daily tasks almost unmolested: he showed himself to be most lethargic and sleepy, and did not waken up unless we were unusually energetic. Perhaps his chief reason for remaining so inactive was the absence of any heavy guns on our side. Our largest piece was a 60 pdr., and he may have thought mere Field Artillery (p. 007) beneath his consideration. Nor was he more active in the air; his planes rarely passed over our lines, and when they did, it was at so great a height that it was quite impossible for them to gather information. However, one day, we were extremely fortunate in seeing a hostile plane, that had ventured to cross over our lines at a lower altitude, brought down in flames by a direct hit from an "Archie" battery lying in wait close behind our own position. It is a rare sight, for, to tell the truth, anti-aircraft batteries are not held in particularly high respect by anyone except by those of their own ilk, and on only two other occasions did we ever see the like again.
Our fortnight soon sped by, and we were quite reluctant when the time came to go "out." We left our neighbours, who had befriended us so well, with the sincere hope that we would have the good fortune to meet and lie alongside of them again in the future. This hope, however, was not destined to be fulfilled. We retraced our steps through Merville and Aire to the same area from whence we came, to a village called Nielles, in order to concentrate as a Division, which, when formed, was designated the Guards Division.
The inhabitants, as usual, extended a warm welcome to us and showed us every consideration, and we settled down to enjoy the peaceful surroundings bathed in the warm and pleasant September sunshine, while the Senior Subaltern availed himself of the opportunity of again laying siege to the hearts of his former conquests at Seningham close by. Our own C.R.A. came to visit us here, and the officers were severally introduced to him. He expressed satisfaction at the report which came to him from the line, concerning our conduct in action, and added that the high opinion formed of us at home had in no wise been diminished, and that our reputation merited the distinction conferred on us of being selected as the Artillery of the Guards from among the many units of the new Army.
Thus we waited, confident in the belief that, whatever we were in the future called upon to do, we would at least put up a good show, and determined to be a credit to the Division of which we now formed a part. We had not long to wait, whispers passed round that we would be up and doing at no distant date, and these rumours proved to be well founded.
CHAPTER II. (p. 008)
Our First Battle.
Our marching orders came within the next few days. Each unit was provided with portable bridges, which were carried under the wagon bodies, and this, and several other preparations, gave us a good indication that we were out for business. A couple of days trekking brought us to the village of Nedonchel, which proved to be another place of happy memory to our Senior Subaltern. Here we were given a rough idea of the part we were to play in the coming proceedings. Two army corps were to attack, on a six mile front, in the neighbourhood of Loos and, if the assault was successful, the corps in reserve, which included our Division, was to go through and exploit the victory to its fullest advantage. We were to take no part in the initial attack.
Large masses of troops were being moved up behind the battle area, and, in order to screen our movements from hostile aircraft, the latter stages of the journey were to be made under cover of darkness, so the whole of the next day was spent in resting. At nightfall a diversion was caused by a Cavalry Division passing through the village on its way up, and a splendid sight it presented, as one famous regiment followed swiftly on another. It was now almost time for us to make a start, and the good lady of the house had remained out of bed to brew us hot coffee and see us off the premises. As we were about to depart she told us that her old mother, aged 88, who was in the next room, had expressed the desire to see us for a moment, and so we were conducted to the old lady's bedside. She was lying telling her beads, but sat up as we approached and beckoned to each officer in turn, who advanced, knelt, and received a blessing. The inhabitants knew well that a big battle was to be fought quite soon, as the little (p. 009) village had been the scene of great activity during the past few days and, although it was a considerable distance from the line, the preliminary bombardment could be distinctly heard. The low muffled rumble was incessant, and, to-night, seemed, if anything, more intense. Shortly after midnight we set off and disappeared into the darkness, followed by words of good cheer from the villagers and shouts of "Bon chance, messieurs, bon chance."
Passing through Bruay we arrived a few miles behind the battle front on the morning of the assault, which was delivered at an early hour, and soon the news came back that, so far, everything was going well; the village of Loos had already fallen into our hands. As the day wore on, however, and the expected orders to advance were not forthcoming, we suspected that all was not as it should be and our fears were confirmed soon afterwards by instructions being given to prepare to bivouac overnight on the ground close by. What actually happened was this:—The initial attack was successful in capturing and overrunning the enemy's front line trenches over the whole area, but, on advancing to the second trench system a great deal of wire was found to have been left unbroken or untouched by our artillery, and this held the infantry up at vital places. The attack, however, was pressed with great courage and determination, and in some places the flood of men swept on, but, unfortunately, in others, little or no progress was made. The line, consequently, soon presented a crooked, irregular shape, which made the situation difficult and obscure. The enemy, moreover, had anticipated the attack and had large reinforcements at hand which were at once thrown in, and after a ding-dong struggle throughout the day the advance came to an abrupt standstill. Two Divisions from the Reserve Corps were then sent in, and, on the following afternoon, the Guards attacked and helped to a large extent in straightening out a considerable portion of the line. It was not until nightfall of the third day that we entered the battle and took up a position immediately north of Vermelles Station in the back garden of a row of damaged villas. On our way "in," a couple of cavalry regiments, which had been holding Loos for the last two days and which had just been relieved, passed us. There passed also the remnant of one of the Scottish Divisions which had fought so valiantly and paid so heavy a price. Footsore, weary, and caked with mud from top to toe, with every sign of what they had been through upon (p. 010) them, and heavily laden with "souvenirs" in addition to their full kit, the men could scarcely crawl along. However, just as one battalion came abreast of us, in such condition, the pipes tuned up and at once every head was erect and not a man was out of step as they swung past us; such is the moral force of the bagpipes. It was one of those moments in which a lump rises in the throat and a thrill runs down the spine.
In our new position we speedily learnt what we could do and what we could not do. For instance, the signallers were able to introduce electric light into our abode by tapping a live wire which ran outside, from one fosse to the next, for we were now in the Lens coal district with mines dotted about here and there. On the other hand, we soon learnt to refrain from sleeping or showing lights in the second storey of our billet which was evidently under direct observation by the enemy, who did not take long to acquaint us with the fact.
There was always a good deal of firing to be done each day, for, although the battle may be said to have finished after four or five days, there were several side-shows before the line was adjusted to our liking, and the enemy's fire was almost continuous. This bothered the F.O.O. parties considerably, and communication was difficult to maintain for more than a short time between the front line and Battery. The wire was frequently broken in numerous places, and this kept signallers and linesmen working at high pressure to repair the damage. The O.P.'s were moderately good, with the exception of one in "Gun Trench," where our men held a portion, then came a sand bagged wall occupied on the other side by our opponents which they were able to enter by a *T*-shaped communication trench, then another sand-bagged wall with our infantry beyond. Neither side could shell this trench for fear of injury to their own party, but this did not prevent a lively exchange of bombs, intermingled with various forms and sizes of "Minnies," which were hurled at frequent intervals. Sniping was also rampant, and periscopes, no matter how small, survived not longer than a few minutes. It was from this delightful spot that one of the subalterns arrived at the Battery one evening with his head swathed in bandages like a Sultan's turban. He had been trying conclusions with a "Minnie," and, as this was in the days before the introduction of the steel helmet, the latter had easily come out on top. When the wound was ascertained to be nothing like as serious as the size of the bandage seemed to indicate, he was removed to the wagon line amid (p. 011) jeers from his brother officers, and a few days' rest sufficed to bring him back to duty again.
Now, in one portion of the zone which we were covering, "No Man's Land" extended some 1500 yards in depth, and midway, lying in the valley, were what appeared to be two derelict enemy guns partially camouflaged This aroused the curiosity of the Staff, who called for volunteers to go out and make an investigation and report as to the condition of the sights, etc. Our B.C. gallantly offered his services, in spite of the fact that he was over six feet in height, and presented a most conspicuous figure, and would not be deterred. He set off crawling through the long grass on his perilous journey, and there was a huge grin on his face when he returned. After his report went in we ascertained that the two pieces were nothing more than cleverly constructed dummies formed from cart wheels, telegraph poles and trunks of trees, but it was not until he almost came up to them that he made the discovery.
The detachments meanwhile had settled down, making improvements to their billets and strengthening the gun pits, and were already proving themselves seasoned warriors. On one occasion a nasty accident happened, due to the explosion of a howitzer, caused, as was afterwards proved, by a faulty shell. The complete gun crew, with the exception of the No. 1 in charge, was wounded. Three of their number were temporarily buried by the earth thrown up by the explosion, and it was probably due to that fact that no one was killed. The pit naturally fell to bits and the debris was indescribable, but the Sergeant managed to disentangle himself, and, standing stiffly to attention, reported to the officer on duty, "No. 2 gun out of action, sir!" No time was lost in digging out the injured men, and it was only found necessary to evacuate three of the number to the nearest dressing station—the remainder flatly refusing to go. The layer, in particular, deserved great credit for his grit, for, in spite of having been buried, and having scarcely a hair left on his head and devoid of eyebrows, not to mention the shock to his nervous system, he was again serving his gun 24 hours later, on the arrival of the new piece. Some idea of the force of the explosion can be gathered from the fact that the barrel was found, in two pieces, some 150 yards away, having been blown over a railway embankment, while the (p. 012) breech block, which weighs about a cwt., was discovered, after a 12 hours' search, embedded in the ground six feet below the pit. At this period a considerable number of "prematures" were taking place, and, on one occasion, we ascribed this wounding of two gunners to this cause, but afterwards found out our mistake. An S.O.S. went up after dark, and, at the time of firing No. 3 gun, the layer and another gunner were both badly hit by what appeared to be a "premature" just outside the bore of the piece. Throughout this period we were firing nothing but high explosive shells. Great therefore was our surprise when, three weeks later, letters arrived from both men, who were in hospital, to say that in each case shrapnel bullets had been extracted from them! What had actually occurred was this: At the same time that the trigger was pulled and the shell discharged, a "pip squeak" must have burst in front of the mouth of the gun pit, driving the bullets through the entrance.
Day after day passed in much the same way, neither side attempting to make an attack on any large scale, but on the morning of the 8th October, it was observed that the hostile shelling was not normal, and had increased in extent along the whole recently captured area. Preparations were therefore rapidly made to meet any eventuality, and, as the day advanced and his bombardment gained in strength, it was apparent to everyone that the enemy contemplated an attack. At noon orders were received to be ready, at any time, to lay down a destructive barrage on a certain zone. The Staff had happily anticipated the point of attack accurately, and, by the time the enemy concentrated his final burst of fire on his objectives, every gun in the neighbourhood which could bear, was trained on the vital spot ready to open out. When at last the time arrived, the bombardment ceased abruptly, and the enemy's infantry advanced to the assault wave upon wave, for the most part in mass formation and with arms linked together. Emerging from a wood, they had a considerable distance to cover across open ground before approaching our trenches, so both our infantry and artillery fire was at first withheld. This gave encouragement to the enemy, and, as his bombardment had been pretty severe, he expected more or less of a "walk over," and did not reckon on what was to follow. When he had advanced to within 200 yards (p. 013) of our lines, suddenly rapid fire spurted out from our rifles and machine guns, and guns of every description spat H.E. and shrapnel, and his ranks were literally mown down. Then a curtain was put down behind—a solid wall of fire—which made it practically impossible for the troops to retire, and their plight was beyond all hope. While they were cogitating whether to come on or go back, they were slaughtered in heaps—raked by the deadly machine guns. Very few indeed survived to tell the tale, but one prisoner claimed to be most indignant with the whole proceedings, and expressed his opinion that we did not "play the game" by withholding our fire, and that they imagined they had only to walk into our trenches and take possession of them. This proved to be the last big hostile counter-attack attempted, and indeed both sides were content to remain in their own trenches. We made a smaller attack the next week, but it was also unsuccessful, and little or no ground was gained. The enemy artillery devoted themselves principally to counter battery work, and several British batteries, which were ill concealed, had a most unpleasant time. Free use was made of lachrymatory shell, our first taste of it. One clear, moonlight night the battery was firing at a slow rate, and apparently the enemy saw our flashes, for he speedily turned a 4.2 battery on to us, his shells landing just short of each gun pit. No casualties resulted, but a shell entered the window of one detachment's billet and exploded, completely wrecking the room and destroying the men's equipment. Soon afterwards instructions were issued to change positions, and this was effected without loss or mishap. The new position was more favourably placed, some little way in front of the Fosse at Annequin, and had been constructed by the French. We were now covering the Hohenzollern Redoubt of evil memory. Another O.P. was constructed on the railway embankment on the La Bassee-Vermelles line, which lent itself favourably to the construction of a shaft for protection, the soil, for the most part, being chalk, as indeed it was in all the surrounding neighbourhood. It was our misfortune at this position to say farewell to our Battery Commander, who left us to take up a Staff appointment with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and all ranks were sorry to lose a leader who had thus far shared all their joys and sorrows. At the same time we were fortunate in (p. 014) securing in his successor one who quickly and tactfully took up the reins of office, and the Battery continued to run on equally smooth lines.
It now became quite evident that operations would not resume the nature of a battle, and it was no surprise to receive intimation that the Division would shortly retire from the conflict. Nobody was sorry at the prospect of going out, although useful lessons had been learnt and considerable experience had undoubtedly been gained.
The weather was beginning to break, and towards the end of the first week in November we withdrew to the village of Sailly, preparatory to marching into the nest area for which we were bound.
CHAPTER III. (p. 015)
When it became known that our destination was to be the sector immediately adjoining the one we had already been in, facing Aubers Ridge, our delight knew no bounds, for all were well aware that that locality was considered a "cushy" spot which augured well for the coming winter.
No delay was made in leaving Sailly, and, proceeding by way of Bethune and St. Venant, we arrived at a small hamlet midway between the latter town and Merville. The Battery remained in rest for a few days, while a couple of "subs." with a working party commenced construction on the new position selected by the B.C. This entailed a considerable amount of labour, for timber and all other material had to be carted from the R.E. dump at La Gorgue some distance away. With an eye to comfort as well as concealment, it was decided to dig the pits in an orchard, along some old assembly trenches which had been used by troops before the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Close by was a cluster of cottages and outhouses in a wonderful state of preservation.
By the end of the week the guns were pulled in, although there still remained a lot to do on the position. The house in which the officers quartered themselves was intact, with the exception of a few slates on the roof and several broken window panes. Moreover, there was a little furniture left and there were some fine open fireplaces, so we had every reason to be satisfied. Within a short space of time the gun pits were completed and camouflaged in keeping with the nature of the ground, and great assistance was rendered us during this undertaking by an airman who flew over the position from time to time and pointed out the various deficiencies. At last when he reported that the position could not be seen from a height of 2000 feet we (p. 016) concluded, rightly, that nothing was to be feared in that direction. Thus we settled down to a period commonly known as "Peace Warfare." This may be summed up as a time when one experiences the maximum amount of pleasure that is possible under war conditions, with the minimum amount of discomfort. The enemy were completely deceived as to our whereabouts, and took us to be in another vacant position some way down the road, which was liberally shelled by them whenever fire was opened by us, and we used to encourage this procedure by occasionally ceasing in order to lead him into the belief that he was doing us damage. At all events, the position was never shelled the whole time we were in possession of it—a somewhat unique experience for a battery in France.
The infantry were also kept busy at the commencement of this period, as we had relieved another Indian Division, and on this sector the parapet had been built for the most part by Ghurkas, who, however stout fellows they may be at heart, have not the stature of Guardsmen. The result was the latter found their heads and shoulders showing well above the parapet, and this necessitated the immediate heightening of the same some two to three feet.
The O.P. duties were divided equally between the subalterns, each doing a third daily. The wagon lines were situated east of La Gorgue within easy reach, and frequent visits were paid to them, although no officer remained there permanently.
During our stay here the Battery came under the direct orders of the C.R.A. and was attached to no group in particular. Various tasks were alloted to us, and these were, as a rule, most interesting and instructive. To further increase our knowledge the B.C. gave the majority of these shoots to the Junior Officers, briefly explaining the orders and then leaving us to our own devices by departing for the rest of the day to the wagon lines on the pretext that he had a birthday to celebrate. He had many of them. This plan was much to our liking, and tremendous keenness was displayed by all. Great pains were taken to carry out everything to the letter, and the signallers also carried out their part with equal spirit. The gun detachments at this time rose to a high pitch of proficiency and could get 10 rounds a minute out of the howitzers, which, considering the double load and triple movement, was by no means a bad performance.
A fine level field ran alongside of the position, and it was (p. 017) speedily made use of as a recreation ground. Goal posts were erected, and often a hot contest at football would be interrupted by the shrill blast of a whistle summoning the men hastily to action. Their task completed, they would calmly return and finish the game.
All kinds of mutual understandings existed between the opposing sides in this area, which we soon learnt and respected. For instance, the village of Aubers lay behind the enemy lines approximately at the same distance that Laventie did on our side. Both were used as Brigade Headquarters and filled with troops. Neither town was shelled unless the enemy accidentally dropped a shell into it, when instant retaliation was forthcoming. On one occasion the placid calm of Laventie was rudely shaken through the instrumentality of a young officer in one of our sister brigades who, unconscious of what he was doing, planted several shells into Aubers. The consequence was the following conversation took place over the telephone between Headquarters and the offending subaltern.
"Hullo! Is that Ack Battery?"
"Yes, sir. Just a moment, sir. I'll put you through to the mess, sir."
"Right you are, but look sharp about it, please. Yes. Hullo! Is that an officer? Well, I say, have you been firing just now?"
"Yes, sir. So-and-so is doing a practice shoot from the O.P."
"Put me on to him at once."
A brief interval follows, in which various mutterings are overheard by the signaller in the exchange, who smiles to himself as he continues to listen.
"Hullo! hullo!! Damn these young officers! Will they never learn to answer quickly? Slow, slow is not the word for it. Will have to go round and shake them up a bit. This is absurd. Hullo! there. Hullo! Is he never going to come? Exchange, can't you get him?"
"Just a moment, sir."
"Yes, sir. So-and-so speaking."
"What the devil are you firing at, young sir?"
"Well, sir, I was given permission to fire a few rounds——"
"Where?" (p. 018)
"At the cross roads, sir."
"Seen any of them fall?"
"Not as yet, sir."
"Well, for God's sake stop firing at once, sir. Why, man, your shells are dropping in Aubers, and they are retaliating like the very devil. There goes another, just outside."
"Very sorry, sir. Couldn't make out where the shells were falling."
"Well, report to me as soon as you get back, remember. Have no time to listen to an explanation now."
"Very good, sir. Good-bye, sir."
An animated discussion now takes place in the telephone exchange, and the unanimous opinion is that poor So-and-so is "for it" and will perhaps even get the sack, and who will succeed to the Right Section if he leaves the Battery?
In these days a walk along the front line was a delight, and nothing gave the F.O.O. greater pleasure than to take his morning constitutional from one end of our area to the other and to peer over the side at frequent intervals by means of a periscope. Sniping was sometimes indulged in, but a target rarely presented itself for the simple reason that the enemy was hardly ever in his front line trenches during daylight. From one O.P. we could often see one or two men running along the trenches with lighted torches kindling fires and causing smoke in order to lead us into the belief that the trenches were powerfully manned.
Now, about this time, a number of hostile batteries, whose positions could not be located, gave us a certain amount of trouble, but a successful ruse was carried out which enabled us to discover them. Operations were undertaken in order to force the enemy to show his hand, and every indication was made by us that we were about to institute a raid. Wire cutting was done by one battery, and others registered strong points in rear behind the prescribed area. Then at dusk, known as flesh time, when batteries are most likely to give their positions away, all the O.P.'s were manned, spotting apparatus made ready, and our barrage was put down on this sector. The infantry had been provided with dummy figures, which they held aloft on poles, and in the semi-darkness this gave the impression that they were preparing to quit the trenches and go over the top, while high overhead hovered a number of our aeroplanes waiting to assist. The plan worked admirably, and in a few minutes the enemy's counter (p. 019) preparation commenced. As the result of our efforts his positions were pin-pointed and dealt with by our 60-pdrs. the next day, after which we were not bothered by them to such a great extent.
Soon after this episode there came upon the scene what were commonly known as "Cook's Tourists." These were officers whose units were still at home, and who were sent out to gain experience by being attached to batteries for a short period. At times the tourist laid himself open to being the victim of many practical jokes, and this certainly contributed to the liveliness of the mess. A certain officer was escorted down to the front line trenches one day, and, as usual, the party was armed with periscopes. All of a sudden he emitted a cry of delight, as, gazing through the instrument, he told us of how crowds of the enemy were walking along a road. Could we not get our guns on to them quickly? This seemed an incredible occurrence, as, in this sector, not a single German had been seen for days on end. The mystery was speedily solved, however. By some means or other, he had been holding the periscope so that it faced the opposite direction, and what he actually saw was a party of our own men walking leisurely along the road some way behind our lines. Needless to say, this officer came in for a considerable amount of chaff, and, in course of time, was solemnly presented with a paper medal, suitably inscribed, on which reversed periscopes figured prominently.
The festive season was now drawing near, which necessitated the gathering of provisions, for the men were to celebrate the 25th of December by having a special dinner, and presently leave was opened to our unit and the first lucky ones departed for "Blighty." Some sort of gift was due the enemy on this occasion, and it took the shape of a sharp five minutes' bombardment, from every gun in the area, on the stroke of midnight on Xmas Eve. In spite of this gruelling, the enemy next morning showed signs of wishing to fraternise with our men in the front line, but strict orders had been issued in advance that this was not to be countenanced. The Germans showed themselves freely above the parapet, and one could see that they had been dressed up smartly for the occasion, probably in order to impress us with their appearance. However, there was "nothing doing." Little or no sniping took place, but the artillery went through their usual routine, in fact rather increased their fire that day. The men's dinner was a great (p. 020) success, and all seemed pleased with their fare—pork and potatoes, vegetables, plum pudding and fruit, with plenty of beer or stout to wash it down. The Officers' Mess was lively also, and our first 'Xmas, under war conditions, was voted most successful. Next day the Padre turned up, and a service was held in one of the barns, but, in the middle of the address, on "Peace on earth, goodwill towards men," there was a sudden call for "action." A rush was made to the guns, and, after a few minutes' argument with the enemy, we returned and finished listening to the discourse. Somehow or other one could not help feeling that the two happenings were incongruous!
We had a notion that perhaps the enemy would make an attempt to retaliate on us at New Year for our little joke on 'Xmas Eve, and this proved to be correct. He made rather a feeble demonstration, and it was speedily squashed, as we were awaiting it. It was an extraordinary thing, but we always found our foe very slow in the uptake: it generally took him quite a week to think out some measure of retaliation, and when it came, it consisted, as a rule, in copying what we had done to him. We could usually count on that and consequently guard against it.
One day instructions came through calling for a report on a new charge, for reducing the flashes when night firing, which was supposed to be in our possession. Our worthy Senior Subaltern was at that time in command, so he decided to have the trial the same evening and put in his report at once. The remaining officers were to "stand by" at the guns and first fire a salvo with the ordinary charge and then one with the new one, while he stood some distance in front to wait the results. All went well and the salvoes were duly fired, although, at the battery end, there did not appear to be any difference between them, which fact was unanimously agreed upon. However, that was not the opinion of the Senior Subaltern, who waxed eloquent on the "soft, velvety colour" of the new charge. This was all set down presently, in a lengthy dispatch covering, at least, two columns of "foolscap," and sent to the Brigade. Nothing further was heard for several days, then a telephone message came through which brought a smile to the face of everyone in the mess except the officer concerned. It ran as follows:—"Reference my B214 of the 9th inst. Report on flash (p. 021) reducing charges is herewith cancelled. The production of same has not yet been issued to batteries in the field A.A.A." Both salvoes had been of the same nature!
Our Right Section Commander had a mania for spy hunting, and it was true that spies were known to infest the neighbourhood and had sometimes actually been caught. On every available occasion this officer would set out to scour the countryside in quest of a suspect. One day this led to the waste of much energy on his part. Having followed hard on the scent of a suspicious character, from one end of our area to the other, the quarry suddenly doubled back along the La Bassee road and disappeared into a house. Our friend entered also, and found himself in a Brigade Headquarters, confronted by the "spy," who greeted him warmly, and asked him what service he could render him, at the same time calling for tea. He had shadowed none other than the chief Intelligence Officer of the Division the whole afternoon! There was nothing for it but to own up and apologise as best he could, to the vast amusement of the Staff Officer. After this incident, we were spared further wild-goose chases by this enthusiast, and the keenness hitherto shown by him for these quests somewhat abated.
A good deal of excitement was caused, at this time, by the arrival of some heavy artillery in our neighbourhood, so much talk had come to our ears concerning them. The guns were duly placed in position, and on the afternoon on which they were to open fire a large turn out of F.O.O.'s collected in the O.P.'s to watch the enemy get a surprise. They did considerable damage, but, at the same time, were largely responsible for stirring up a veritable wasp's nest of hostile heavies which had been lying dormant for ages, and consequently our front again became active.
While our F.O.O. was proceeding one day from the O.P. to the front line, he was caught in one of those bursts of hate and separated from the telephonists who accompanied him. On the conclusion of the shoot, a search was made for him, but he was nowhere to be found. They returned to the Battery and reported the circumstance to the B.C., who, much concerned, speedily organised a search-party, and set out for the scene of action. After a couple of hours weary tramping, they came upon a Company Headquarters in the front line, and there, comfortably ensconced in an easy-chair, with a large whisky-and-soda by his (p. 022) side and a cigarette in his mouth, sat the missing officer. Much indignation was expressed and explanations followed, but, in future, it was only in the last extremity that search parties were instituted!
Thus the days sped by, until it came to the minds of those in authority that the Division had vegetated quite long enough in this area, and, at the beginning of February, we were pulled out and transferred to another sphere of activity.
Everyone regretted leaving this peaceful spot, and the period we spent there was always looked back upon as the brightest and happiest time of our sojourn in France.
CHAPTER IV. (p. 023)
In "The Salient."
It soon became known that we were bound for Ypres. This town will, without doubt, be the Mecca in France of the British soldier for all time. This place, above all others, was always mentioned with a voice of reverence and awe, and is hallowed by the presence of the gallant dead who helped in its defence. It was truly the most ill-favoured sector on the whole of the front held by our armies.
Proceeding by way of Hazebrouck and Cassel, we entered the area immediately behind the Salient and took up our quarters near the village of Arneke, for we were not yet due for our spell of duty in the line. At this time the weather was most unpropitious, and rendered training in any shape or form out of the question. The ground was covered with snow to the depth of several inches, and the roads were, for the most part, frost-bound. A Divisional Artillery Horse Show was organised, however, and great keenness was displayed by all the batteries, who spent most of their time horse coping until the day of the event, which was held at Zeggers Capelle. Our Right Section Commander, with a team of fine little blacks, managed to secure the second prize in the principal event.
Several days afterwards we relieved the Division who were holding the left centre of the Salient, and took up our position on the northern extremity of Ypres itself, close to the Dead End of the Canal, a short distance from "Salvation Corner." Here a short description of the position is imperative, in order to give some idea of the awkward nature of this sector and of the conditions attaching thereto. The distance between the jaws of the Salient was some five miles across—from the banks of the Yser Canal at Boesinghe on the north to the neighbourhood of St. Eloi on the south, while the ground held by us extended about two-and-a half miles east of Ypres in a semi-circle. Nearly everywhere the enemy was established on rising ground and (p. 024) overlooked our territory, and, with few exceptions, all that was visible to us was his first line system. The enemy was thus enabled to detect any movement behind our line, while we were more or less "blind."
Owing to the confined space through which an entrance into the Salient could be effected, great difficulty was experienced in the matter of transport, as there was only one main artery, namely, the Ypres-Poperinghe road. Every evening at dusk this thoroughfare was crowded with all manner of vehicles, an endless stream, coming and going throughout the night, and from Vlamertinghe onwards the road was subjected to constant shelling, and was enfiladed from either side. Piles of wreckage were always to be seen on the following morning, which told the tale of the previous night's work, and this long, straight piece of road holds more sentiment for the British soldier than any other.
It was soon quite evident that the enemy was acquainted with our location, and it was imperative to prepare an alternative position. A site was chosen across the road, in the garden of a private villa, well sheltered by shrubs and trees. As soon as the work was completed and a communication trench constructed, covered with turf and plants, we commenced moving the guns. This was done without interference from the enemy until the last gun was in the act of being placed in position, when, as luck would have it, a shrapnel shell burst in front of the party, mortally wounding one layer and injuring another. Our B.C., also, who was assisting, received a bullet through his arm, and was forced to leave us. This was the second mishap we had suffered during the course of the first few days, as the Right Section Commander had already been lost to us. Having an insatiable thirst for knowledge, this Officer had left the O.P. with his telephonist in order to explore the front line, which, as everyone who knows the Salient will readily own, was somewhat difficult to recognise in places, especially by a newcomer. Suffering as he did from acute absent-mindedness, it was not surprising that this zealous officer awakened suddenly from his day-dreams to discover that something was wrong, and found himself standing with his companion waist high in a shallow disused trench, which, on further investigation, appeared uncommonly like "No Man's Land!" After a brief consultation, they decided to retrace their steps. Alas! all too late: a hostile sniper, reserving his fire in the hope that they would continue to walk (p. 025) into the enemy trenches, on seeing them turn about, and thus being baulked of his prize and the prospect of a fortnight's leave in his own country, fired a bullet which passed through the thighs of both men one after the other. A party of our infantry, unable to attract their attention and put them right in time, had witnessed this little drama, and proceeded, at great personal risk and at the expense of at least one of their number being wounded, to extricate the two unfortunates and convey them to the nearest dressing station. It was not until a late hour that night that word came to us at the Mess that the missing party had been passed through the prison at Ypres, on their way to a C.C.S. Now, our Battery Commander, after great trouble, had lately gained possession of an improved type of periscope, which he had been persuaded to lend the F.O.O. on that day, and, on receipt of this news, his first thought was for the safety of his precious instrument. The fact that two valuable casualties had resulted did not seem to weigh with him in the least compared with its loss, and he was not to be consoled until it was ascertained that the periscope was in safe keeping. Only then could he be persuaded to make enquiries as to the nature of their wounds and express his sorrow at their misfortune.
The Infantry found the trenches in an appalling state, and forthwith proceeded to repair them, but the enemy would not allow this to go on long, and, after a few days' work had been spent on them, a couple of hours' bombardment would suffice to demolish anything that had been done. As it was a case of labour lost, all attempts at building on a large scale were soon abandoned.
Many interesting excursions were made in and around the town. There was a certain amount of splendour about the ruined place. The high battered remains of the Cloth Hall Tower stood up in proud defiance in the centre of the stricken city, while the ancient ramparts surrounding it gloried in their battle scars and showed a dauntless front to the enemy.
A good deal of annoyance was caused in getting about from place to place through the uncongenial presence of a couple of hostile high velocity guns which were commonly known as "Quick Dick" and "Silent Sue," his consort. They were so named on account of the rapidity with which the shells arrived, and there was little or no warning of their coming. Their chief object was to harass the neighbourhood, for (p. 026) they appeared to have no definite target but just dropped a shell here and there, trapping the unwary and doing considerable damage, as well as effectively raising a certain amount of "wind"!
As conditions suited the enemy admirably, many raids were made by him, and, on one occasion, he launched four simultaneously, one on each sector of the Salient, after a sharp and heavy bombardment. He attacked us between Wieltje and Potijge, but was unsuccessful in his endeavour to obtain an identification. The attempt was frustrated, and the only result was that he left a number of prisoners in our hands.
About the middle of May, the Division came out and returned to the area behind Poperinghe. There was an unexpected treat in store for the Brigade, for it was shortly sent down to the coast for a change of air. A two days' march brought the Battery to Cap Gris Nez, while the other batteries were distributed along the small villages between Calais and Boulogne. It was a real holiday for us, and a better part of the year could not have been chosen. All that was expected of us was to exercise the "hairies," which we did by taking the guns a walk along the hard sand in the early mornings.
A large field was secured, and for several hours daily the horses were put out to grass, and, if ever animals showed signs of joy, they certainly did, and their antics were most amusing to witness. It was expected that some difficulty would be experienced in catching them again, but, after the first day, a trumpet call was all that was required. On hearing the sound, they would throw up their heads, and then slowly wander towards the entrance, where the drivers awaited and secured them.
The main feature of the day was, undoubtedly, the bathing parade, enjoyed equally by man and beast. The horses knew at once what was in store for them when they were led down to the beach. The men stripped, and, mounting the eager horses, a wild dash was made for the water, and quite a number of the animals proved themselves excellent swimmers, many remaining a considerable time in deep water. On leaving the sea, they would gallop along the sands, showing every sign of contentment, and we were glad that, at last, they were receiving some reward for their patient devotion and faithful service, for we were all fond of our four-legged comrades.
Amusements were instituted for the men—all manner of sports by (p. 027) day and concerts in the evenings. The officers lived out of doors, attracted by the cliffs, from which Dover was visible on most clear days, and everyone voted this peaceful place the next best thing to home leave.
It was, therefore, with much regret that, at the end of twelve days, we retraced our steps to Arneke, where we were to remain for the latter portion of the rest.
We had no sooner arrived at this place than the enemy started making himself unpleasant in the southern portion of the Salient, and, attacking the Canadians from Hooge as far as St. Eloi, succeeded in driving them back some distance before he was finally held up. It was quite imperative to retake the ground lost, as he had captured important points of observation overlooking the Salient. A counter attack was set on foot, and we were suddenly called upon to help in the preliminary bombardment and cover the assaulting troops, which included a Brigade of Guards. Just before setting off, our B.C. rejoined us once more, and at two hours' notice we made a beeline for the scene of our future activity. At dusk we entered the ruins of Ypres, and, without delay, proceeded to dig ourselves "in," behind a convent, not far from the south side of the Cloth Hall.
Owing to the number of extra batteries assembled for the operations, we found ourselves without a billet until the genial Commander of a Pioneer Battalion, affectionately known to the entire Dominion Forces as "Big Jim," and credited with innumerable deeds of "daring do," took pity upon us, and invited us to share his hearth and home. This offer we gratefully accepted, and accommodation was also provided for the detachment, and all were made most comfortable.
The bombardment continued for three days, and it became clear, from the enemy's counter preparations, that he was not going to give up his newly acquired gains without a struggle. A most stubborn resistance was offered, and the infantry were forced to fight hard for every foot of ground that was eventually recovered. The bombardment grew in intensity as the zero hour approached. Shortly after midnight, the men went over, and, by breakfast time, had gained all that was required of them, except at one or two points, which were taken without much trouble later.
By the time affairs had settled down normally again, the Division was due in the line, so the Battery pulled out for one night, before (p. 028) transferring to our new zone, which was in the most northerly sector, adjoining the one in which we had already been, and which had an even worse reputation for unpleasantness.
After crossing the Yser Canal, the ground gradually rises towards Pilkem Ridge, and the enemy was ensconced thereon in a kind of stronghold known as the High Command Redoubt. Our trenches lay beneath them, which gave us the feeling of being in a cup encircled round the brim by our foes. During this particular tour, the Battery was split up for the purpose of forming two forward sections, and the greater part of the firing was done by the left section, whose position was well inside the Salient. Its chief object was to harass a certain portion of a hostile trench which was taken in enfilade by it! In order to accomplish this successfully, the guns were placed in an old disused position in a field, near La Brique, on the backward slope of a hill, and the low gun-pits were completely covered with tufts of growing grass. The centre pits were occupied by the two pieces and the outside ones were speedily converted into habitations for the men.
When the trenches were not being subjected to hostile shelling, the enemy devoted most of his time in endeavouring to destroy the numerous O.P.'s dotted about here and there. These were constructed for the most part of reinforced concrete, but the particular one used by us, called "Frascatis," had not yet been discovered, so we were free to carry out shoots to our heart's content.
A favourite diversion was sniping with one of our pieces, which was a particularly accurate one, and several points of observation and snipers' posts were carefully registered. Then we would lie in wait, observe some movement, and let fly one round only. This method exasperated and annoyed the enemy exceedingly.
One of the enemy's principal forms of amusement was to blow parts of our front parapet away and train a machine gun on the space left vacant, and snipe at any unsuspecting person who happened to pass along. On many occasions we were able to bring assistance to the harassed infantrymen, by spotting the offending snipers, and by, in turn, sniping at them with our "How." till we finally silenced them.
At dusk the enemy invariably harassed all roads of communication, and dropped innumerable shells of large calibre into the stricken (p. 029) city; and we made a habit of sitting at the entrance to the little shack, used as the officers' mess, smoking our evening pipes, interested spectators, while the shells screamed overhead, and alighted somewhere in the town, sending up columns of brick dust.
All the batteries in the line were now busy constructing new battery positions, while fresh O.P.'s were also erected, and it was thought that these preparations were preparatory to making an attack to enable us to improve our position by the capture of Pilkem Ridge, but, although the work was completed, nothing further developed.
Soon there were whispers of an impending gigantic attack away down in the south, and for several days before the opening of it our shelling was considerably increased, while the infantry made a series of raids. This was done throughout the whole length of the front, in order to keep the enemy from guessing the exact point of eruption, and we had a warm time in consequence. For a long time after the battle had commenced, we continued making demonstrations, which undoubtedly helped to prevent the removal of many reserves from the locality.
But we were not content to remain here. There was a great scrap taking place elsewhere, and were we going to be left completely out of it, to eat our heads off, in Flanders? It seemed very unlikely that the Division would not be called upon on such an occasion, and great was the joy when one day orders came through that we were soon to proceed to the scene of action. Within two days we pulled out to our old resting place, where preparations were completed for our transference to the battle area.
Our first acquaintance with the dreaded Salient was at an end, and, although the time spent there was always strenuous and difficult, we were not what could be called uncomfortable, and our casualties happily did not exceed expectations.
CHAPTER V. (p. 030)
On the Somme.
At the beginning of August, the Division detrained in the neighbourhood of Doullens, and, proceeding in a southeasterly direction, the Brigade established itself near the small village of Couin. In a few days' time we went "in," and the Battery took up a position on the southern outskirts of Hebuterne, overlooking the enemy stronghold at Serre. This portion of the front was now in a normal state once more, as, on the opening day of the great battle, the British assault from Hamel, northward to Gommecourt, had met with no success, and the attack was not further pressed. The enemy was content to remain quiet, and most of the firing was carried out by us. A considerable number of hostile "Minnies" made conditions somewhat unpleasant for the infantry in the trenches, and during the night the battery position was subjected to indirect machine-gun fire, which necessitated a certain amount of caution in moving about. The O.P.'s were well placed, and afforded us an excellent view, for we overlooked the enemy's lines, and could see some distance beyond them. We were now on the fringe of the battle, and away half right, on clear days, we could see the struggle progressing, as a considerable dent had already been made. The sight was a very grand one, especially after dark. The Verey Lights and various S.O.S. rockets, which were frequently sent up by our opponents, made a fine spectacular display, far finer than any firework exhibition we had ever witnessed in our own country in pre-war days.
Gradually the Division was side-slipped to the south, and our next position was close to the station of Mailly. We did not remain there long, however, as the time had now arrived for us to put in an appearance in the battle itself. We spent one night close to (p. 031) Amiens, and availed ourselves of the opportunity to hold a dinner there, which was attended by all the original officers in the Brigade—a last night of fun and merriment before the long, stiff fight ahead of us, for who knew how many would survive the ordeal. The next day brought us to Vaux, on the River Somme, and, in the first week in September, we found ourselves immersed in the battle. We took up our first position in the lately captured second line German system, facing Montauban and covering Guillemont, which had just been taken by an Irish Division.
Very stiff lighting was in progress on this sector, as we were now nearing the summit of the Ridge, the possession of which would be invaluable, as the enemy's territory would be laid bare to us, and he would lose his observation over us. It was not surprising, therefore, that he fought with the courage of despair and initiated counter-attack upon counter-attack, all of which we had to meet with great determination. The weather was extremely hot, which added much to the discomfort: and, as progress had been very slow for some time, it was impossible to clear up the battlefield, and the stench was almost insupportable. At length the village of Guinchy was captured, and, with our men installed on the further side of the slope, the fighting for position came to an end. We were now entering on the third stage of the great battle, which had commenced more than two months previously. An attack, on a large scale, was planned, the object being to drive the enemy down the slope of the hill into the low-lying country beyond. Field batteries were moved up into forward positions, in order to assist the infantry, by placing a creeping barrage—a new and most successful invention, afterwards employed on all occasions—in front of the advancing waves of men: and the "heavies," of which, for the first time, we possessed a preponderance, pounded the enemy communications far behind his lines.
The assault was delivered over a wide area, early in the morning of the 15th of September, but in no way did it come up to expectations—in fact, it might almost be counted a reverse. Some divisions did well, and took their objectives, but others were completely held up, at certain strong points, which necessitated the withdrawal of the remainder, in order to keep the line uniform. The Guards met with instant success, and took their final objectives, only to discover that the Division on each side of them had made little progress (p. 032) and could get no further. They were reluctantly forced to return, and it was while doing so that heavy casualties were inflicted on them, as they were raked with fire from the sides as well as in front. During the withdrawal, a party of machine-gunners occupied a trench, and attempted to screen the retirement of the main body of troops, by holding the enemy at bay. In order to use this machine-gun to the best advantage, the piece was placed on top of the parapet, exposed to the full view of the oncoming hordes, but our men never wavered in serving it, and, as soon as one gunner dropped at his post, another instantly took the vacant place, although it meant certain death within a few moments.
Next day they were pulled out to refit, and, as they marched back to rest, a very touching sight was witnessed. A certain battalion, a mere remnant, swung along, headed by its band. All the officers had become casualties, and the Battalion Sergeant-Major was in command, but as many of the dead officers as could be recovered were brought back on stretchers and placed each in his proper position. Headed by the body of their late Commander, the column proceeded on its way, the men marching at attention, and, although covered with mud and blood-stained, they might have been proceeding down the Mall. Such is the discipline of the Guards, and every tribute of respect was paid them by the troops through whom they passed.
The next battle was timed for the 25th inst., and our infantry came back to the line a couple of days before that date. There was much suppressed excitement and curiosity, for the mysterious Tanks were to participate on this occasion for the first time, and it was thought that the secret had been so well kept that they would come as a complete surprise to the enemy. This proved to be the case, and the attack was a great success. What was known as the Flers line was everywhere penetrated, and all gains were held. The Tanks did splendid work. They advanced well ahead of the infantry, and battered down barbed wire, overran trenches, smashed machine-gun emplacements, killing the gun crews, and even waddled as far as the village of Gueudecourt. There they effected much execution and caused great panic among the enemy reserves, which were concentrating for the inevitable counter attack.
Thus the battle continued, sometimes breaking out into fierce fights and at other times reduced to isolated scraps, but all the time (p. 033) the enemy was being gradually and relentlessly pushed down into the valley, and the villages of Morval, Les Boeufs, and Gueudecourt fell into our hands.
It was almost uncanny the way in which villages would completely disappear. For instance, at the time when these hamlets first came within our vision, on our reaching the crest of the hill, they appeared almost intact, but a few days rendered them unrecognisable—they had become merely so many heaps of rubble. There are many places on the Somme which have literally not one brick standing on top of another, and one would never imagine for a moment that a prosperous little village had ever existed there.
Many changes of battery positions were made, and, whenever possible, we burrowed down into the ground, as the enemy's heavy pieces were out after our blood. The great concentration of guns and the few suitable localities for placing them in action added to our difficulties, and we were thus rendered an easy target for the hostile counter batteries. Innumerable brigades were huddled close together, in what was known as the Death Valley, for the simple reason that there was no other suitable spot wherein to place them, and heavy casualties resulted. We had the good fortune, however, to be somewhat isolated from the others, and occupied a forward position, where the guns were hidden in an old German communication trench. The enemy never found it, but subjected us, now and again, to a general burst of harassing fire: his main volume of hate passed us by far overhead.
And, meanwhile, what of our friend the F.O.O.? In those days his lot was by no means an enviable one, and it was a task of no mean magnitude to keep communications going between the trenches and the guns. However, it had to be done, or at least attempted, and the following is a brief account of a typical day in the life of a gunner subaltern.
Orders would be given that a certain hostile trench was to be subjected to a severe, annihilating bombardment, and this necessitated the laying out of a wire to a part of our front line, from which the shoot could be registered, as the target could not be observed from any other locality than the trench immediately opposite it. The F.O.O. rises early in the morning, and sets out with his little squad of telephonists and linesmen. He requires to post a signalman and linesman at frequent intervals, called Relay Stations, in order (p. 034) to preserve communication, as the wire is being continually broken by hostile gun-fire. Progress, in a case like this, is necessarily slow, and he has to pick his way among the shell-holes, seeking as much protection, for the line, as circumstances will permit. The signallers follow in his footsteps, staggering along under the weight of a large reel of wire. All goes well until they reach the summit of a ridge, when, suddenly, a barrage from a "whizz bang" battery is placed right down on top of the party. There is nothing for it but to remain crouched in a friendly shell-hole, which affords a little protection, until the storm blows over or to risk the chances of being hit in the open. The journey is then resumed, and much relief is felt when at last the ground over a nasty dip is traversed without mishap, as this is known to be a favourite target for hostile gunners. A muddy, unkempt communication-trench is now entered, and the party proceed, up a slope, towards the support system, and eventually arrive at their destination—a post in the front line overlooking its objective. Difficulty is experienced in preserving the wire from the unguarded feet of infantrymen, who look askance at the party as it passes, cursing the idiosyncrasies of each fire bay. The instrument is connected with the end of the wire, and all hold their breath in order to hear the answering buzz which tells them that they are through to the battery. Several futile buzzes may be made by the telephonist, and then, no response being forthcoming, a linesman is sent down the wire towards the first relay station. A break in the wire is discovered and speedily mended, the next attempt is successful, and the battery is called to action.
During registration the wire often breaks, and serious delays occur, but, at length, the last gun is duly pronounced O.K. by the officer. Just in the nick of time, too! for the enemy commences a sharp retaliation on the portion of the trench occupied by the little party. Refuge is sought in an old enemy shaft close by, and there it awaits the time for the "show" to commence. Several other batteries also take part in the shoot, and it is quite impossible to pick out the shells which belong to each one as they fall. Complete success crowns the effort, but on the particular day here described the F.O.O. and party failed to see the end of the bout, as they were subjected to very heavy fire, and were all blown down the mouth of the shaft by the explosion of a shell. Luckily, though badly shaken, all escaped without injury.
Meanwhile the wire has been broken in many places and is beyond (p. 035) repair, but it has already served its purpose, and, when fire has died down, the party starts on the return journey. On arriving at the first relay station, the telephonist on duty is found dead at his post, the receiver still clutched in his hand and held to his ear. A nasty gash in the forehead reveals the place where he has been hit and instantly killed. His companion is nowhere to be found, although bloodstains denote that he has at least been wounded, and, on investigation, it is ascertained that the linesman has been hit, picked up by passing comrades, and taken to an aid-post. The journey is resumed, the party carrying the dead with them, and presently another hostile barrage is encountered. Again the men lie low until it ceases, and then pick up the remaining linesmen, and return to the battery utterly exhausted. Many questions are asked, and it frequently happens that the F.O.O. is cursed by his Battery Commander for not keeping the wire going, and even the Brigade joins in the chorus. The young officer pays little heed, and inwardly reflects that they should be extremely thankful that communication was established at all, and that those of the party who returned did so in safety. So, in spite of everything, he consumes a hearty dinner and retires to bed, sleeping the sleep of the just, and soon becomes oblivious of all his little worries and sombre surroundings.
Towards the middle of October the weather broke, and conditions became intolerable. The roads, which had been partially repaired, were still soft and broken, and developed into quagmires—mud and water to a depth of two and three feet made vehicular traffic almost out of the question. All ammunition had to be transported to the guns by means of horses carrying pack saddles, a slow and tedious method, which took a lot out of men and beasts alike. As yet no decca-ville railways had been constructed as far as battery positions. Very heavy work thus fell on those at the wagon lines, who were kept busy most of the day and night. Although the distance to the gun position was under five miles there and back, the journey rarely took less than ten hours to accomplish. If a horse fell down in this sticky mud, heavily laden as it was, attempts at rescue proved unavailing, except on rare occasions, even with the aid of drag-ropes, and the unfortunate animal had to be "dispatched." Was it a sense of humour that prompted those in authority to send the subalterns, in turn, to the wagon lines for a "rest"? Anyhow, it was considered anything but that by the poor (p. 036) unfortunates who went, and right glad they were when the time came round for their next period of duty with the guns!
As the weather rapidly became worse, operations came to a standstill, and all proceeded to dig themselves in for the coming winter. Every endeavour was made to make our quarters water-proof, as well as shell-proof, and some attempts at mining were commenced, but the condition of the ground was all against such an undertaking, and the work was abandoned. Then whispers spread abroad that we were to be relieved for a short rest, and, after ten weeks of incessant fighting, we were withdrawn from the line and marched to a little village named Hangest, a few miles west of Amiens. There we were glad to find ourselves installed in billets with a roof covering us once more. A week of leisure helped greatly to restore our spirits, and again we set out for the line. Our destination this time was Combles, and we took over a battery position from the French, who politely made us acquainted with our new surroundings. Our allies, who had been fighting side-by-side with us on our right flank throughout the great battle, were then withdrawn, and the British front was extended to the south as far as the banks of the River Somme. Evidence was speedily forthcoming to convince us of the severe nature of the recent fight. The ground was strewn with wreckage and material of all descriptions, and many hostile guns were found abandoned or lying where they had been put out of action by the irresistible dash of the Poilus.
The country, in this part, was undulating, and better suited to the concealment of battery positions, and nowhere was the enemy able to overlook our territory. Our area included the defence of the joint villages of Sailly-Saillisel, situated on commanding ground, which the French had recently bravely stormed. Combles, too, which lay in a basin shaped hollow, was interesting as having been the centre of supplies for the southern portion of the German Army operating in the battle, and much booty was discovered in the huge catacombs which ran underneath the town.
'Xmas passed in much the same way as in the previous year. A smart bombardment was carried out in the morning in order to advise the enemy that anything in the way of fraternising would not be countenanced by us. At mid-day the men partook of their 'Xmas fare, which had been (p. 037) fetched from Amiens, and a short service was conducted by the Padre in one of the gun-pits. A slight disturbance took place at dusk, when the S.O.S. went up from the front line and all batteries immediately opened out. It seemed a rather extraordinary occurrence, as the evening was unusually quiet, and, presently, it was discovered to have arisen through an error, due to the fact that the enemy had put up a coloured light in between two ordinary Verey lights which constituted our own S.O.S.
About this time the enemy caused considerable annoyance to a certain Battalion Headquarters, situated in a quarry close behind the lines, by occasionally dropping a shell right into it, the position having probably been discovered by his aircraft. Retaliation tactics were adopted, which consisted of subjecting the hostile trenches to a sharp half-hour's bombardment from eight batteries, firing a total of 2,000 rounds. The enemy was well known to be very thick-skinned, but these measures met with instant success, and it was only necessary to remind him once again that we were not to be trifled with in this way.
After the New Year, a severe spell of frost set in, with an occasional heavy fall of snow, and we were somewhat annoyed when orders came through to sideslip our position further south, as we had made our quarters fairly comfortable by this time, and expected to remain undisturbed throughout the winter. The new position was situated behind the ruined village of Rancourt, facing St. Pierre Vaast wood, and was one of the worst and most disagreeable localities it was ever our lot to occupy, as we were, more or less, water-logged the whole of our time there. Much difficulty was experienced by both friend and foe in entering their respective front line, so much so that, by common consent, sniping by rifle fire was discontinued until parapets were constructed and made fit for occupation. However, sniping was still indulged in by the artillery, and no parties of any size were permitted to go about freely near the front line under observation. Affairs continued thus until the middle of February, when it became apparent that something unusual was taking place in enemy territory, and great explosions were heard, after which volumes of smoke were seen to rise in large columns. These, as was afterwards proved, were due to preparations being made by the enemy to evacuate the low-lying country, into which they had reluctantly been forced, as the result of the battle of the Somme, prior to falling back upon the great (p. 038) prepared defences known as the Hindenburg Line.
Instantly every one was on the alert for further signs of evacuation, and one morning a patrol reported that the enemy had vacated their front line. Further patrols were at once pushed out, through St. Pierre Vaast wood, in order to maintain contact with the retreating foe. Every precaution had to be taken, as it was soon discovered that many forms of booby-traps had been cunningly laid by him in his wake, and progress was necessarily slow. Added to this, there was great difficulty in manoeuvring the guns over the innumerable trenches which existed in the neighbourhood, and the pieces sank up to their axles in the clogging mud, and were only extricated after hours of labour. The enemy retired slowly and most methodically, destroying everything of value and wantonly reducing the small villages and hamlets to mere shells, by means of incendiary bombs. The inhabitants also were removed beforehand, and, when the troops advanced, they might have been traversing a wilderness, so complete was the ruin and desolation on all sides.
The time had now arrived for the Brigade to have a much-needed rest and also to refit, so, at the end of March, we were withdrawn from the contest. Marching westward, we arrived at the village of Morlancourt in the first week of April, well content at the prospect of returning to civilization for a protracted period.
CHAPTER VI. (p. 039)
It was not long before those in authority discovered that the neighbourhood of Morlancourt was peculiarly favourable for the carrying out of manoeuvres, with the result that a period of "intensive training" set in. Drill orders took place four days a week, and batteries were specially trained in the methods of open warfare, while many hours were devoted to tactical schemes.
At this time units were reorganised, all batteries were increased to six guns, and there was plenty of work to keep everyone busy. The narrator of these rambling notes, after a period of two years' service with the Brigade, here transferred his allegiance to the sister howitzer battery of the Division, known as "The Grey Battery," from the fact that all the horses were of that colour. Sentiment ran strong for his "old love" and those he was obliged to leave, but he was already well acquainted with both officers and men of his new unit, and soon settled down happily amongst them.
All guns were carefully calibrated on a range due west of Peronne, and the "hairies" picked up rapidly in condition, owing to the good care and attention that was bestowed upon them. The big battles of Vimy Ridge and Arras were now in full swing, and it seemed unlikely that we would be called upon to take any part in them so late in the day.
Many forms of amusement were created for the men, and football matches, both "rugger" and "soccer," were freely indulged in between batteries and brigades, while the full regimental band of one of the Guards' regiments was kindly lent to the Divisional Artillery. It gave many a fine entertainment in the evenings.
Time thus sped by at an amazing rate, and various visits of inspection paid us by officers from the C.R.A. up to the Army Commander made (p. 040) it very apparent that we were undoubtedly being "fattened up"—but for what? The question was more than we could answer, but speculations were rife as to our possible destination, for we knew that the Somme would see us no more—in the meantime, at all events.
Six weeks had come and gone, and yet we remained inactive in this peaceful village; then sudden orders were issued for us to be ready to entrain at short notice, and, in the second week of May, the Battery glided out of the station at Meulte prepared for anything. A long and circuitous route was taken via Amiens, Abbeville, Etaples, Boulogne, Calais, St. Omer, and at length we arrived at Arques, near which we remained, in billets, for some considerable time. It was while we were there that we learnt that it was the intention of the British Commander to gain possession of the great Messines Ridge, which towered over our lines, and was a stronghold of inestimable value to the enemy.
As long as he held this ridge, which was the keystone of his armies in Flanders, he was immune from any vulnerable attack on our part, and was free to launch any offensive operation from it by using it as a stepping-off place. Added to this, the northern end of the heights afforded him an uninterrupted view of the southern portion of the Ypres salient, which was a source of great annoyance to our forces on that part of the front. It was vital, therefore, for the future operations of the British Armies, that this important ridge should be captured and kept in our hands.
Preparations were accordingly set on foot, and artillery of all calibre was silently concentrated from all parts, and proceeded to dig itself in for the coming fray. For a long time this sector had been free from any serious operations, and was considered a kind of resting place for exhausted troops, but soon the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood was to receive a rude awakening, when the tide of battle broke out upon it once more.
Proceeding through Hazebrouck and Bailleul, the Brigade arrived at its wagon lines, a short distance west of Neuve Eglise, and immediately each battery sent work parties to the scene of action, in order to construct emplacements and make its position habitable. The spot allotted to our battery was in a little hollow close to the cut roads, near the small ruined village of Wulverghen. Our front line was placed on the top of an undulating rise, with the ridge itself beyond.
Our principal business was to avoid attracting the attention of (p. 041) the enemy to our preparations, and in this we were aided by the fact that there was a considerable amount of cover beside us, in the form of trees and undergrowth, the foliage of which was now in full leaf.