W. H. L. Watson
The village of Locon lies five miles out from Bethune, on the Estaires road. Now it is broken by the war: in October 1916 it was as comfortable and quiet a village as any four miles behind the line. If you had entered it at dusk, when the flashes of the guns begin to show, and passed by the square and the church and that trap for despatch-riders where the chemin-de-fer vicinal crosses to the left of the road from the right, you would have come to a scrap of orchard on your left where the British cavalrymen are buried who fell in 1914. Perhaps you would not have noticed the graves, because they were overgrown and the wood of the crosses was coloured green with lichen. Beyond the orchard was a farm with a garden in front, full of common flowers, and a flagged path to the door.
Inside there is a cheerful little low room. A photograph of the Prince of Wales, a sacred picture, and an out-of-date calendar, presented by the 'Petit Parisien,' decorate the walls. Maman, a dear gnarled old woman old from the fields stands with folded arms by the glittering stove which projects into the centre of the room. She never would sit down except to eat and sew, but would always stand by her stove. Papa sits comfortably, with legs straight out, smoking a pipe of caporal and reading the 'Telegramme.' Julienne, pretty like a sparrow, with quick brown eyes, jerky movements, and fuzzy hair, the flapper from the big grocer's at La Gorgue, for once is quiet and mends Hamond's socks. In a moment she will flirt like a kitten or quarrel with Louie, a spoilt and altogether unpleasant boy, who at last is going to school. The stalwart girl of seventeen, Adrienne, is sewing laundry marks on Louie's linen. It is warm and cosy.
The coffee is ready. The little bowls are set out on the table. The moment has come. From behind a curtain Hamond produces, with the solemnity of ritual, a battered water-bottle. He looks at Papa, who gravely nods, and a few drops from the water-bottle are poured into each steaming bowl of coffee. The fragrance is ineffable, for it is genuine old Jamaica....
We talk of the son, a cuirassier, and when he will come on leave; of the Iron Corps who are down on the Somme; of how the men of the Nord cannot be matched by those of the Midi, who, it is rumoured, nearly lost the day at Verdun; of Mme. X. at Gonnehem, who pretends to be truly a Parisienne, but is only a carpenter's daughter out of Richebourg St Vaast; of the oddities and benevolence of M. le Maire. Adrienne discusses learnedly the merits of the Divisions who have been billeted in the village. She knows their names and numbers from the time the Lahore Division came in 1914.1 We wonder what are these heavy armoured motor-cars of a new type that have been a little successful on the Somme. And we have our family jokes. "Peronne est prise," we inform Maman, and make an April fool of her while, if the line is disturbed and there is an outbreak of machine-gun fire or the guns are noisy, we mutter, "Les Boches attaquent!" and look for refuge under the table.
In April of last year, when the Boche attacked in very truth, Maman may have remembered our joke. Then they piled their mattresses, their saucepans, their linen, and some furniture on the big waggon, and set out for Hinges Bethune was shelled and full of gas. I wonder if they took with them the photograph of the Prince of Wales? There was bitter fighting in Locon, and we must afterwards have shelled it, because it came to be in the German lines....
Hamond knew the Front from the marshes of Fleurbaix to the craters of Givenchy better than any man in France. He had been in one sector of it or another since the first November of the war. So, when one of the companies of the XIth Corps Cyclist Battalion, which I commanded, was ordered to reinforce a battalion of the 5th Division in the line at Givenchy and another of my companies to repair the old British line by Festubert, and to work on the "islands,"2 I determined to move from my dismal headquarters in a damp farm near Gonnehem and billet myself at Locon. It was the more convenient, as Hamond, who commanded the Motor Machine-Gun Battery of the Corps, was carrying out indirect fire from positions near Givenchy.
We lived in comfort, thanks to Maman and Starman, Hamond's servant. I would come in at night, saying I was fatigué de vivre. Old Maman, understanding that I was too tired to live, would drag out with great trouble grandfather's arm-chair, place a pillow in it, and set it by the stove. And Julienne, a little subdued at my imminent decease, would forget to flirt.
We would start, after an early breakfast, in Hamond's motor-cycle and side-car, and drive through the straggling cottages of Hamel, where the Cuirassiers, in October 1914, protected the left flank of the advancing 5th Division, through Gorre, with its enormous ramshackle chateau, and along the low and sordid banks of the La Bassée Canal. We would leave the motor-cycle just short of the houses near Pont Fixe, that battered but indomitable bridge, draped defiantly with screens of tattered sackcloth.
I would strike along the Festubert road, with the low ridge of Givenchy on my left, until I came to the cross-roads at Windy Corner.
A few yards away were the ruins of a house which Brigadier-General Count Gleichen,3 then commanding the 15th Infantry Brigade, had made his headquarters when first we came to Givenchy, and were certain to take La Bassée. That was in October 1914, and the line ran from the houses near Pont Fixe through the farm-buildings of Canteleux to the cottages of Violaines, whence you looked across open fields to the sugar factory, which so greatly troubled us, and the clustered red walls of La Bassée. The Cheshires held Violaines. They were driven out by a sudden attack in November. The line broke badly, and Divisional Headquarters at Beuvry Brewery packed up, but a Cyclist officer with a few men helped to rally the Cheshires until a battalion from the 3rd Division on the left arrived to fill the gap. We did not again hold Violaines and Canteleux until the Germans retired of their own free-will.
Now once again, exactly two years later, the 5th Division was in the line.
I would take to the trench at Windy Corner, and tramp along to call on the cheery young colonel of the battalion to which my men were attached. There is a little story about his headquarters. A smell developed, and they dug hard, thinking it came from a corpse. The sergeant-major discovered the cause. A fond relative had sent the mess-waiter a medicated belt to catch the little aliens in the course of their traditional daily migration....
We would go round the line, which then was quiet, exploring the intricacies of Red Dragon Crater. Afterwards I would walk through the complicated defences of Givenchy to join Hamond at "Dirty Dick's,"4 by the shrine, for the ride back....
The 5th Division was afraid of an attack on Givenchy at this time. It was a key position. If Givenchy went, the line south of the canal must crumble and the left flank of the Loos salient would be in the air. But the attack did not come until April 1918, and the story of how Givenchy held then, when the line to the north was flowing westwards, is history.
On the left of Givenchy the line ran in front of Festubert through stagnant fields, where the water in the summer is just below the surface. It is dreary country, full of ghosts and the memories of fighting at night. It is all a sodden cemetery.
There my men were rebuilding the breastworks of the old British line, for in these marshes it was impossible to dig trenches, and working on the "islands."
Breastworks continued to the north. Our lines were overlooked from the Aubers Ridge. In winter they were flooded and men were drowned. Behind were dead level meadows, often covered with water, and dismal ruined villages. The country was filthy, monotonous, and stunted. In the summer it stank. In the winter it was mud. Luckily, for many months the line was quiet.
In November of this year the Corps, to vary the picture, took over the Cuinchy sector on the right of Givenchy and immediately south of the La Bassée Canal. It was a unique and damnable sector, in which a company of my men were set to dig tunnels from the reserve to the support and front trenches.
It was unique by reason of the brick-stacks, and damnable by reason of the Minenwerfer and the Railway Triangle. Our line ran in and out of a dozen or so brick-stacks, enormous maroon cubes of solid brick that withstood both shell and mine. Some we held and some the enemy held. Inside them tiny staircases were made, and camouflaged snipers, impossible to detect, made life miserable. Occasionally we tried to take each other's brick-stacks, but these attempts were unsuccessful, and we settled down, each as uncomfortable as he well could be. And in this sector the enemy employed minenwerfer with the utmost enterprise. Our trenches were literally blown to pieces. In the daytime we ran about like disturbed ants, ever listening for the little thud of the "minnie's" discharge and then looking upwards for the black speck by day or the glow of it by night. For "minnies" can be avoided by the alert and skilful. Finally, a triangle of railway embankments, fortified until they had become an impregnable field-work, held for the German the southern bank of the canal.
To the occasional tall visitor the main communication trench added irritation and certain injury to fear. Some ingenious fellow had laid an overhead rail some six feet above the trench boards. On this rail material was slung and conveyed forwards. It was an excellent substitute for a light railway, but it compelled a tall man to walk along the trench with his head on one side. This strained attitude did not conduce to stability on slippery trench boards. Again, the height of the rail above the floor of the trench varied. A moment's absent-mindedness and the damage was done.
My officers and men worked well. We were lucky, and our casualties were few, but it was a trying time. An occasional day in Bethune just made life bearable.
The one redeeming feature of the XIth Corps front was the excellent town of Bethune.
Of all the towns immediately behind the line, none could rival Bethune in the providing of such comforts, relaxations, and amenities as the heart of the soldier desired. The billets were notoriously comfortable. The restaurants were varied and good. The pâtisserie was famous before the war. The oyster-bar approached that of Lillers. I know of but one coiffeur better than "Eugene's." The shops provided for every reasonable want. The theatre was palatial. The canteen was surpassed only by Meaulte, of ill-fated memory. The inhabitants were civil, friendly, and, in comparison with their neighbours, not extortionate.
On the morning in October 1914, when the 5th Division the first British troops Bethune had seen passed through the town to take up the line Vermelles-Violaines, I breakfasted at the "Lion d'Or," round the corner from the square. I was received with grateful hospitality by madame. An extremely pretty girl of fourteen, with dark admiring eyes, waited on me. She was charmingly hindered by Annette, a child of three or four, who with due gravity managed to push some bread on to my table and thus break a plate. When I returned in the summer of 1916, I expected that I would at least be recognised. I found the tavern crowded. Agnes, who had just recovered from an illness, served the mob of officers with unsmiling disdain. She was not even flurried by the entreaties of multitudinous padres who were doubtless celebrating some feast-day. And Annette, decorated with appalling ribbons, was actually carrying plates.
The alternative was the "Hôtel de France" a solemn and pretentious hostelry, at which the staff and French officials congregated. When the enemy began to shell Bethune, the "Hôtel de France" was closed.
The "Lion d'Or" carried on until the house opposite was hit, and afterwards reopened spasmodically; but in 1916 and 1917 it was wiser to try the "Paon d'Or" in the outskirts of the town, near the canal. At that stuffy restaurant it was possible to lunch peacefully while shells dropped at intervals in the square and centre of the town.
"Eugene: Coiffeur," was an institution. Eugene must have been dead or "serving," for madame presided. She was a thin and friendly lady, with tiny feet, and a belief that all her customers required verbal entertainment. It was touching to see madame seat herself briskly beside a morose colonel who knew no respectable word of French, and endeavour, by the loud reiteration of simple phrases, to assure him that he was welcome and the weather appalling.
I would linger over Bethune, because no town has been a greater friend to the soldier for a brief period out of the line. Now it is shattered, and the inhabitants are fled.
My headquarters at this time were in a farm near Gonnehem, six miles or so from Bethune. The farm was good of its kind, and in summer the casual visitor might even have called it smart, after Wiggans, my adjutant, had cleared away the midden-heap, drained the courtyard, and had whitewashed everything that would take the colour all in the face of violent and reiterated protests from madame. The centre of the courtyard, encircled by a whitewashed rope, was particularly effective.
In winter no polite epithet could describe the place. The hamlet consisted of a few farms, each surrounded by innumerable little ditches, hidden by rank undergrowth and sheltered by large trees. At the best of times the ditches were full of soaking flax, which gave out a most pungent odour. After rain the ditches overflowed and flooded the roads and paths. The hedges and bushes sagged with water. The trees dripped monotonously. Some of us caught influenza colds: some endured forgotten rheumatism and lumbago.
We had but one pastime. Certain of our transport horses were not in use. These we were continually exchanging for riding horses more up to our weight with a friendly "Remounts" who lived in solitude near by. In due course Wiggans became the proud owner of a dashing little black pony and I of a staff officer's discarded charger. In spite of the dreariness of our surroundings, we felt almost alive at the end of an afternoon's splash over water-logged fields. Nobody could damp Wiggans' cheerfulness when he returned with a yet more fiery steed from his weekly deal, and the teaching of the elements of horsemanship to officers, who had never ridden, produced an occasional laugh. We may ourselves have given pleasure in turn to our friends, the yeomanry, who were billeted in Gonnehem itself.
To us in our damp and melancholy retreat came rumours of tanks. It was said that they were manned by "bantams." The supply officer related that on the first occasion on which tanks went into action the ear-drums of the crews were split. Effective remedies had been provided. We learned from an officer, who had met the quartermaster of a battalion that had been on the Somme, the approximate shape and appearance of tanks. We pictured them and wondered what a cyclist battalion could do against them. Apparently the tanks had not been a great success on the Somme, but we imagined potentialities. They were coloured with the romance that had long ago departed from the war. An application was made for volunteers. We read it through with care.
I returned from leave. It was pouring with rain and there was nothing to do. The whole of my battalion was scattered in small parties over the Corps area. Most of my officers and men were under somebody else's command. I sent in an application for transfer to the heavy branch of the Machine-Gun Corps, the title of the Tank Corps in those days. I was passed as suitable by the Chief Engineer of the Corps, and waited.
It was on the 28th December 1916 that I was ordered by wire to proceed immediately to the headquarters of the tanks. Christmas festivities had cheered a depressed battalion, but there was at the time no likelihood of the mildest excitement. Hamond had disappeared suddenly it was rumoured to England and tanks. I was left with a bare handful of men to command. It was still raining, and we were flooded. I was not sorry to go....
We set out on a bright morning, in a smart gig that Wiggans had bought, with his latest acquisition in the shafts, bedecked with some second-hand harness we had found in Bethune, and clattered through Lillers to the Hôtel de la Gare.
Lillers was a pleasant town, famous principally for the lady in the swimming-bath and its oyster-bar. Every morning, in the large open-air swimming-bath of the town, a lady of considerable beauty was said to disport herself. The swimming-bath was consequently crowded. The oyster-bar provided a slight feminine interest as well as particularly fine marennes verts. Lillers was an army headquarters. Like all towns so fated it bristled with neat notices, clean soldiers with wonderful salutes, and many motor-cars. It possessed an under-world of staff officers who hurried ceaselessly from office to office and found but little time to swim in the morning or consume oysters in the afternoon.
The Hôtel de la Gare was distinguished from lesser hotels by an infant prodigy and champagne cocktails. The infant prodigy was a dumpy child of uncertain age, who, with or without encouragement, would climb on to the piano-stool and pick out simple tunes with one finger. The champagne cocktails infected a doctor of my acquaintance with an unreasoning desire to change horses and gallop back to billets.
At last the train came in. My servant, my baggage, and myself were thrown on board, and alighted at the next station in accordance with the instructions of the R.T.O....
A few months later the Cyclist Battalion went to Italy, under Major Percy Davies. It returned to France in time for the German offensive of April 1918, and gained everlasting honour by holding back the enemy, when the Portuguese withdrew, until our infantry arrived. For its skilful and dogged defence this battalion was mentioned by name in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief.
My servant, Spencer, and I arrived at St Pol, where officers going on leave used to grow impatient with the official method of travel, desert the slow uncomfortable train, and haunt the Rest House in the hope of obtaining a seat in a motor-car to Boulogne. I had expected that the R.T.O. would call me into his office, and in hushed tones direct me to the secret lair of the tanks. Everything possible, it was rumoured, had been done to preserve the tanks from prying eyes. I was undeceived at once. An official strode up and down the platform, shouting that all men for the tanks were to alight immediately. I found on inquiry that the train for the tank area would not depart for several hours, so, leaving my servant and my kit at the station, I walked into the town full of hope.
I lunched moderately at the hotel, but, though there was much talk of tanks there, I found no one with a car. I adjourned in due course to the military hairdresser, and at dusk was speeding out of St Pol in a luxurious Vauxhall. I was deposited at Wavrans with the Supply Officer, a melancholy and overworked young man, who advised me to use the telephone. Tank headquarters informed me that I was posted provisionally to D Battalion, and D Battalion promised to send a box-body. I collected my servant and baggage from the station at Wavrans, accepted the Supply Officer's hospitality, and questioned him about my new Corps.
Tanks, he told me, were organised as a branch of the Machine-Gun Corps for purposes of camouflage, pay, and records. Six companies had been formed, of which four had come to France and two had remained in England. The four overseas companies had carried out the recent operations on the Somme (September-October 1916). The authorities had been so much impressed that it was decided to expand each of these companies into a battalion, by the embodiment of certain Motor Machine-Gun Batteries and of volunteers expected from other corps in response to the appeal that had been sent round all formations. Thus A, B, C, and D Battalions were forming in France, E, F, and sundry other battalions, in England. Each battalion, he believed, consisted of three companies. Each company possessed twelve or more tanks, and the Company Commander owned a car.
Primed with this information and some hot tea, I welcomed the arrival of the box-body. We drove at breakneck speed through the darkness and the rain to Blangy-sur-Ternoise. I entered a cheerful, brightly-lit mess. Seeing a venerable and imposing officer standing by the fire, I saluted him. He assured me that he was only the Equipment Officer. We sat down to a well-served dinner, I discovered an old 'Varsity friend in the doctor, and retired content to a comfortable bed after winning slightly at bridge.
In the morning I was sent in a car to Bermicourt, where I was interviewed by Colonel Elles.5 As the result of the interview I was posted to D Battalion, and on the following evening took over the command of No. 11 Company from Haskett-Smith....
The usual difficulties and delays had occurred in the assembling of the battalions. Rations were short. There was no equipment. The billets were bad. Necessaries such as camp kettles could not be obtained. That was now old if recent history. The battalions had first seen the light in October. By the beginning of January officers and men were equipped, fed, and under cover.
The men were of three classes. First came the "Old Tankers," those who had been trained with the original companies. They had been drawn for the most part from the A.S.C.: M.T. Some had been once or twice in action; some had not. They were excellent tank mechanists. Then came the motor machine-gunners smart fellows, without much experience of active operations. The vast majority of officers and men were volunteers from the infantry disciplined fighting men.
On parade the company looked a motley crew, as indeed it was. Men from different battalions knew different drill. Some from the less combatant corps knew no drill at all. They resembled a "leave draft," and nobody can realise how undisciplined disciplined men can appear, who has not seen a draft of men from various units marching from the boat to a rest camp. The men are individuals. They trail along like a football crowd. They have no pride in their appearance, because they cannot feel they are on parade. They are only a crowd, not a company or a regiment. Corporate pride and feeling are absent. The company was composed of drafts. Before it could fight it must be made a company. The men described themselves with admirable humour in this song, to the tune "The Church's one foundation"
"We are Fred Karno's army, the Ragtime A.S.C.,
We do not work, we cannot fight, what ruddy use are we?
And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say
'Hoch, hoch, mein Gott!
What a ruddy rotten lot
Are the Ragtime A.S.C.!'"
The company lived in a rambling hospice, built round a large courtyard. The original inhabitants consisted of nuns and thirty or forty aged and infirm men, who, from their habits and appearance, we judged to be consumptives.
The nuns were friendly but fussy. They allowed the officers to use a large kitchen, but resented the intrusion of any but officers' mess cooks, and in putting forward claims for alleged damages and thefts the good nuns did not lag behind their less pious sisters in the village. We were grateful to them for their courtesy and kindliness; yet it cannot be said that any senior officer in the company ever went out of his way to meet the Mother Superior. She possessed a tactless memory.
The consumptives had a large room to themselves. It stank abominably. Where they slept at night was a mystery. They died in the room next to my bed-chamber.
The door of my room was inscribed "Notre Dame des Douleurs," and the room justified its title. All operations planned in it were cancelled. The day after I had first slept in it I fell ill. Colonel Elles, with Lieut.-Colonel Burnett, came to see me in my bed. I had not shaved, and my temperature made me slightly familiar. I could never keep the room warm of nights. Once, when I was suffering from a bad cold, I put out my hand sleepily for my handkerchief, and, without thinking, tried to blow my nose. It was a freezing night, and I still have the scar.
The majority of the men had wire beds, made by stretching wire-mesh over a wooden frame; but the rooms were draughty. We made a sort of dining-hall in a vast barn, but it was cold and dark.
In these chilly rooms and enormous barns the official supply of fuel did not go far. The coal trains from the "Mines des Marles" often rested for a period in Blangy sidings. I am afraid that this source was tapped unofficially, but the French naturally complained, strict orders were issued, and our fires again were low. It was necessary to act, and to act with decision. I obtained a lorry from the battalion, handed it over to a promising subaltern, and gave him stern instructions to return with much coal. Late in the afternoon he returned, on foot. The lorry had broken down six miles away. Three tons of coal made too heavy a load in frosty weather. The lorry was towed in, and once again we were warm.
I did not ask for details, but a story reached my ears that a subaltern with a lorry had arrived that same morning at a certain Army coal dump. He asked urgently for two tons of coal. The Tanks were carrying out important experiments: coal they must have or the experiments could not be continued. Permission was given at once he would return with the written order, which the Tanks had stupidly forgotten to give him. A little gift at the dump produced the third ton. To a Heavy Gunner the story needs no comment.
The mess was a dining-hall, medieval in size, with an immense open fireplace that consumed much coal and gave out little heat. We placed a stove in the middle of the hall. The piping was led to the upper part of the fireplace, but in spite of Jumbo's ingenuity it was never secure, and would collapse without warning. The fire smoked badly.
As the hall would seat at least fifty, we specialised in weekly guest-nights, and the reputation of the company for hospitality was unequalled. In those days canteens met all reasonable needs: the allotment system had not been devised; a worried mess-president, commissioned with threats to obtain whisky, was not offered fifty bars of soap in lieu. And we bought a piano that afterwards became famous. Luckily, we had an officer, nicknamed Grantoffski, who could play any known tune from memory.
Our mess was so large that we were asked to entertain temporarily several officers from other units of the Tank Corps in process of formation. Several of these guests came from the central workshops of the Tank Corps at Erin, and later returned our hospitality by doing us small services.
One engineer, who remained with the Tank Corps for a few weeks only, told us a remarkable story. We were talking of revolvers and quick shooting and fighting in America. Suddenly to our amazement he became fierce.
"Do you see my hand? You wouldn't think it, but it's nearly useless all through a Prussian officer. It was in Louisiana, and he went for me although I was unarmed. I caught his knife with my bare hand it cut to the bone I jerked back his wrist and threw him. My pal had a Winchester. He pushed it into the brute's face, smashed it all up, and was just going to pull the trigger when I knocked it away. But the sinews of my hand were cut and there was no doctor there.... I've been after that Prussian ever since. I'm going to get him oh yes, don't you fear. I'm going to get him. How do I know he is still alive? I heard the other day. He is on the other side. I've pursued him for five years, and now I'm going to get him!"
He was a Scots engineer, a sturdy red-faced fellow with twinkling eyes and a cockney curl to his hair.
The mess was a pleasant place, and training proceeded smoothly, because no company commander ever had better officers. My second-in-command was Haigh, a young and experienced regular from the infantry. He left me after the second battle of Bullecourt, to instruct the Americans. My officers were Swears, an "old Tanker," who was instructing at Bermicourt, Wyatt, and "Happy Fanny," Morris, Puttock, Davies, Clarkson, Macilwaine, Birkett, Grant, King, Richards, Telfer, Skinner, Sherwood, Head, Pritchard, Bernstein, Money, Talbot, Coghlan too few remained long with the company. Of the twenty I have mentioned, three had been killed, six wounded, three transferred, and two invalided before the year was out.
Training began in the middle of December and continued until the middle of March. Prospective tank-drivers tramped up early every morning to the Tank Park or "Tankodrome" a couple of large fields in which workshops had been erected, some trenches dug, and a few shell-craters blown. The Tankodrome was naturally a sea of mud. Perhaps the mud was of a curious kind perhaps the mixture of petrol and oil with the mud was poisonous. Most officers and men working in the Tankodrome suffered periodically from painful and ugly sores, which often spread over the body from the face. We were never free from them while we were at Blangy.
The men were taught the elements of tank driving and tank maintenance by devoted instructors, who laboured day after day in the mud, the rain, and the snow. Officers' courses were held at Bermicourt. Far too few tanks were available for instruction, and very little driving was possible.
"Happy Fanny" toiled in a cold and draughty out-house with a couple of 6-pdrs. and a shivering class. Davies, our enthusiastic Welsh footballer, supervised instruction in the Lewis gun among the draughts of a lofty barn in the Hospice.
The foundation of all training was drill. As a very temporary soldier I had regarded drill as unnecessary ritual, as an opportunity for colonels and adjutants to use their voices and prance about on horses. "Spit and polish" seemed to me as antiquated in a modern war as pipeclay and red coats. I was wrong. Let me give the old drill-sergeant his due. There is nothing in the world like smart drill under a competent instructor to make a company out of a mob. Train a man to respond instantly to a brisk command, and he will become a clean, alert, self-respecting soldier.
We used every means to quicken the process. We obtained a bugle. Our bugler was not good. He became careless towards the middle of his calls, and sometimes he erred towards the finish. He did not begin them always on quite the right note. We started with twenty odd calls a day. Everything the officers and the men did was done by bugle-call. It was very military and quite effective. All movements became brisk. But the bugler became worse and worse. Out of self-preservation we reduced the number of his calls. Finally he was stopped altogether by the colonel, whose headquarters were at the time close to our camp.
Our football team helped to bring the company together. It happened to excel any other team in the neighbourhood. We piled up enormous scores against all the companies we played. Each successive victory made the men prouder of the company, and more deeply contemptuous of the other companies who produced such feeble and ineffective elevens. Even the money that flowed into the pockets of our more ardent supporters after each match strengthened the belief in the superiority of No. 11 Company. The spectators were more than enthusiastic. Our C.S.M. would run up and down the touch-line, using the most amazing and lurid language.
Towards the middle of February our training became more ingenious and advanced. As painfully few real tanks were available for instruction, it was obviously impossible to use them for tactical schemes. Our friendly Allies would have inundated the Claims Officer if tanks had carelessly manœuvred over their precious fields. In consequence the authorities provided dummy tanks.
Imagine a large box of canvas stretched on a wooden frame, without top or bottom, about six feet high, eight feet long, and five feet wide. Little slits were made in the canvas to represent the loopholes of a tank. Six men carried and moved each dummy, lifting it by the cross-pieces of the framework. For our sins we were issued with eight of these abortions.
We started with a crew of officers to encourage the men, and the first dummy tank waddled out of the gate. It was immediately surrounded by a mob of cheering children, who thought it was an imitation dragon or something out of a circus. It was led away from the road to avoid hurting the feelings of the crew and to safeguard the ears and morals of the young. After colliding with the corner of a house, it endeavoured to walk down the side of the railway cutting. Nobody was hurt, but a fresh crew was necessary. It regained the road when a small man in the middle, who had been able to see nothing, stumbled and fell. The dummy tank was sent back to the carpenter for repairs.
We persevered with those dummy tanks. The men hated them. They were heavy, awkward, and produced much childish laughter. In another company a crew walked over a steep place and a man broke his leg. The dummies became less and less mobile. The signallers practised from them, and they were used by the visual training experts. One company commander mounted them on waggons drawn by mules. The crews were tucked in with their Lewis guns, and each contraption, a cross between a fire-engine and a triumphal car in a Lord Mayor's Show, would gallop past targets which the gunners would recklessly endeavour to hit.
Finally, these dummies reposed derelict in our courtyard until one by one they disappeared, as the canvas and the wood were required for ignobler purposes.
We were allowed occasionally to play with real tanks. A sham attack was carried out before hill-tops of generals and staff officers, who were much edified by the sight of tanks moving. The total effect was marred by an enthusiastic tank commander, who, in endeavouring to show off the paces of his tank, became badly ditched, and the tank was for a moment on fire. The spectators appeared interested.
On another day we carried out experiments with smoke-bombs. Two gallant tanks moved slowly up a hill against trenches. When the tanks drew near, the defenders of the trenches rushed out, armed with several kinds of smoke-producing missiles. These they hurled at the tanks, and, growing bolder, inserted them into every loophole and crevice of the tanks. At length the half-suffocated crews tumbled out, and maintained with considerable strength of language that all those who had approached the tanks had been killed, adding that if they had only known what kind of smoke was going to be used they would have loaded their guns to avoid partial asphyxiation.
In addition to these open-air sports, the senior officers of the battalion carried out indoor schemes under the colonel. We planned numerous attacks on the map. I remember that my company was detailed once to attack Serre. A few months later I passed through this "village," but I could only assure myself of its position by the fact that there was some brick-dust in the material of the road.
By the beginning of March the company had begun to find itself. Drill, training, and sport had each done their work. Officers and men were proud of their company, and were convinced that no better company had ever existed. The mob of men had been welded into a fighting instrument. My sergeant-major and I were watching another company march up the street. He turned to me with an expression of slightly amused contempt.
"They can't march like us, sir!"
In the first months of 1917 we were confident that the last year of the war had come. The Battle of the Somme had shown that the strongest German lines were not impregnable. We had learned much: the enemy had received a tremendous hammering; and the success of General Gough's operations in the Ancre valley promised well for the future. The French, it was rumoured, were undertaking a grand attack in the early spring. We were first to support them by an offensive near Arras, and then we would attack ourselves on a large scale somewhere in the north. We hoped, too, that the Russians and Italians would come to our help. We were told that the discipline of the German Army was loosening, that our blockade was proving increasingly effective, and we were encouraged by stories of many novel inventions. We possessed unbounded confidence in our Tanks.
Late in February the colonel held a battalion conference. He explained the situation to his company commanders and the plan of forthcoming operations.
As the result of our successes in the Ancre valley, the German position between the Ancre and Arras formed a pronounced salient. It was determined to attack simultaneously at Arras and from the Ancre valley, with the object of breaking through at both points and cutting off the German inside the salient.
Colonel Elles had offered two battalions of tanks. He was taking a risk. Officers and crews were only half-trained. Right through the period of training real tanks had been too scarce. Improved tanks were expected from England, but none had arrived, and he decided to employ again the old Mark I. tank which had been used in the operations on the Somme in the previous year. The two battalions selected were "C" and "D."
When we examined the orders for the attack in detail, I found that my company was destined to go through with the troops allotted to the second objective and take Mercatel and Neuville Vitasse. It should have been a simple enough operation, as two conspicuous main roads penetrated the German lines parallel with the direction of my proposed attack.
On March 9th I drove to Arras in my car with Haigh, my second-in-command, and Jumbo, my reconnaissance officer. We went by St Pol and the great Arras road. The Arras road is a friend of mine. First it was almost empty except for the lorry park near Savy, and, short of Arras, it was screened because the Germans still held the Vimy Ridge. Then before the Arras battle it became more and more crowded numberless lorries, convoys of huge guns and howitzers, smiling men in buses and tired men marching, staff-cars and motor ambulances, rarely, a waggon with slow horses, an old Frenchman in charge, quite bewildered by the traffic. When the battle had begun, whole Divisions, stretching for ten miles or more, came marching along it, and the ambulances streamed back to the big hospital at St Pol. I saw it for the last time after the Armistice had been signed, deserted and unimportant, with just a solitary soldier here and there standing at the door of a cottage. It is an exposed and windy road. The surface of it was never good, but I have always felt that the Arras road was proud to help us. It seemed ever to be saying: "Deliver Arras from shell and bomb; then leave me, and I shall be content to dream again."...
We drove into Arras a little nervously, but it was not being shelled, and, hungry after a freezing ride, we lunched at the Hôtel de Commerce.
This gallant hotel was less than 2500 yards from the German trenches. Across the street was a field battery in action. The glass of the restaurant had been broken, the upper stories had been badly damaged, the ceiling of the dining-room showed marks of shrapnel. Arras was being shelled and bombed every night, and often by day; German aeroplanes flew low over the town and fired down the streets. The hotel had still carried on ever since the British had been in Arras and before. The proprietress, a little pinched and drawn, with the inevitable scrap of fur flung over her shoulders, presided at the desk. Women dressed in the usual black waited on us. The lunch was cheap, excellently cooked, and well served within easy range of the enemy field-guns. After the battle the hotel was put out of bounds, for serving drinks in forbidden hours. Indeed, A.P.M.'s have no souls. It reopened later, and continued to flourish until the German attack of April 1918, when the enemy shelling became too insistent. The hotel has not been badly hit, and, if it be rebuilt, I beseech all those who visit the battlefields of Arras to lunch at the Hôtel de Commerce in gratitude. It is in the main street just by the station.
We motored out of Arras along a road that was lined with newly-made gun-pits, and, arriving at a dilapidated village, introduced ourselves to the Divisional staff. We discussed operations, and found that much was expected of the tanks. After a cheery tea we drove home in the bitter cold.
On the 13th March we again visited the Division. I picked up the G.S.O. III. of the Division, called on a brigadier, with whom I expected to work, and then drove to the neighbourhood of the disreputable village of Agny. We peeped at the very little there was to be seen of the enemy front line through observation posts in cottages and returned to Arras, where we lunched excellently with the colonel of an infantry battalion. I left Jumbo with him, to make a detailed reconnaissance of the Front....
The Arras battle would have been fought according to plan, we should have won a famous victory, and hundreds of thousands of Germans might well have been entrapped in the Arras salient, if the enemy in his wisdom had not retired. Unfortunately, at the beginning of March he commenced his withdrawal from the unpleasant heights to the north of the Ancre valley, and, once the movement was under way, it was predicted that the whole of the Arras salient would be evacuated. This actually occurred in the following weeks; the very sector I was detailed to attack was occupied by our troops without fighting. Whether the German had wind of the great attack that we had planned, I do not know. He certainly made it impossible for us to carry it out.
As soon as the extent of the German withdrawal became clear, my company was placed in reserve. I was instructed to make arrangements to support any attack at any point on the Arras front.
The Arras sector was still suitable for offensive operations. The Germans had fallen back on the Hindenburg Line, and this complicated system of defences rejoined the old German line opposite Arras. Obviously the most practical way of attacking the Hindenburg Line was to turn it to fight down it, and not against it. Our preparations for an attack in the Arras sector and on the Vimy Ridge to the north of it were far advanced. It was decided in consequence to carry out with modifications the attack on the German trench system opposite Arras and on the Vimy Ridge. Operations from the Ancre valley, the southern re-entrant of the old Arras salient, were out of the question. The Fifth Army was fully occupied in keeping touch with the enemy.
On the 27th March my company was suddenly transferred from the Third Army to the Fifth Army. I was informed that my company would be attached to the Vth Corps for any operations that might occur. Jumbo was recalled from Arras, fuming at his wasted work, and an advance party was immediately sent to my proposed detraining station at Achiet-le-Grand.
On the 29th March I left Blangy. My car was a little unsightly. The body was loaded with Haigh's kit and my kit and a collapsible table. On top, like a mahout, sat Spencer, my servant. It was sleeting, and there was a
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