At Vlamertinge the horse lines followed the usual pattern. Two lengths of picketing-line were pegged down about a yard apart and to these a double row of horses were tethered, with heads facing inwards.
This enabled drivers and picquets to pass down the middle, adjust nose-bags at feeding time, and during the night fasten the straps and buckles of rugs and blankets, which had a trick of coming loose and slipping over the animal’s haunches.
Speaking of nose-bags brings to mind one horse in particular, which bore the sinister name of ‘Kixum’.
Horses are temperamental creatures, like sergeant-majors and at times have to be handled with care and understanding. They acquire all sorts of eccentricities and bad habits and this can make them very dangerous company, especially to strangers.
‘Kixum’, alas, was no exception. Hardship and constant exposure had spoiled his temper and made him vicious, but he soon found out that lashing out at all and sundry within reach of his flying hooves merely brought retaliation in kind.
So he devised a cunning alternative. When the trumpet call announced feeding time and his nose-bag fixed, he would lie in wait with head down until an unsuspecting line orderly passed by.
Then he would suddenly raise his head and bring the wet and muddy nose-bag weighing about half a hundredweight, with a terrific clout across his victim’s ear. It was a wallop jack Dempsey might have envied and it never failed to be a knockout.
After we had tumbled to this little idiosyncrasy, we always kept a wary eye on master ‘Kixum’, but it soon became a standing joke to lure some innocent visitor, preferably from another battery, to take a walk down the lines to where this equine battering-ram was lying in wait.
Believe me, it left a lasting impression.
At the wagon lines near Zillebeke we had another horse, ‘Storm King’, who regularly went lame whenever he was detailed to go up the line with a pack saddle loaded with ammunition and rations. He fooled us for quite a while, until we found that he was not always lame on the same foot.
Horses are particularly nervous under shellfire and can become positively mad with terror. Even when under control, their trembling limbs, rolling eyes and twitching ears render them pitiable objects.
Unfortunately, at such times they are prone to stand fast and refuse to budge, which can mean disaster unless they can be speedily goaded into action again.
Then spur and whip must be used without mercy and for this reason there were few artillery horses whose flanks were not scarred and slashed with the cruel rowel after they had been on active service.
I once saw a driver sponging the blood from his horse’s side after one such incident, and there were teams in his eyes. Yet it was all part of the grim pattern of war, and would probably be repeated at the next emergency.
We move off
I could say a great deal more about the strange relationship that existed between a driver and his horses on the Western Front, but meanwhile German machine-guns are waiting for our infantry on the crest of Passchendaele Ridge. The war must go on.
Here is another extract from our battery diary, dated Monday, October 8th:
“Were to have moved into action at 2 a.m. but got orders at last minute to stand fast. Orders and counter orders all morning.
“Eventually CRA arrived at 4.30 p.m. said we should have been in action by mid day. Turned out at once & moved off, 5.45. Pouring with rain and everyone soaked. Roads in forward area impossible & advance party had to abandon first position (being the only Battery to get platforms down) and come back to the Frezenberg cross-roads.
“Roads packed with traffic, three lanes abreast & progress appallingly slow with constant jams. Had to establish forward wagon lines in a map square, for pack horses, in pitch dark.
“Found nothing but shell holes. We moved forward gradually all night, having jams about every hundred yards. We met our infantry having same difficulty in getting forward and hours late for going over the top.”
Back and forth
“At 5 a.m. we were only a few hundred yards from position when the barrage opened with a crash all around us. Orders came down that we were to go back, so with difficulty we reversed & had got about 2 miles down the road when counter orders came that we were to go back into action again. We got the first guns into action about 8….”
Tortured journey through a landscape of the dead
Our battery position was located on a map square somewhere on the Frezenburg Ridge in the very heart of the Salient and to reach it we had to pass through the ruined city of Ypres.
As we moved slowly through the shell-pitted and rubble- strewn streets the rain ceased for a blessed interval and we even caught a glimpse of the Moon, peering through a shattered window in the half-demolished tower of the beautiful Cloth Hall.
The town had been systematically bombarded for months and all its handsome, tree-lined streets, with their picturesque, medieval houses and magnificent public buildings, including the ancient cathedral of St. Martin, were wrecked beyond repair.
The latter was still recognisable, although all the valuable monuments and works of art within had been destroyed, and the Cloth Hall still dominated the silent market square like some shattered monolith of pre-historic times.
Only a few months later, during the German attacks in 1918, both were reduced to little more than mounds of rubble.
With its roofless houses, their windows as gaunt and empty as the eye-sockets of a skull, it seemed to us – awed and subdued by the prospects of what was facing us through the Menin Gate – as if we were traversing.
Yet in fact its silent puriteus were teeming with subterranean life, the whole place was honey-combed with underground dugouts and emplacements, linked together by tunnels and passages until it had become as populous as a monstrous rabbit warren.
Divisional, battalion and brigade headquarters were everywhere; casualty clearing stations, quartermaster’s stores and dumps of all kinds were indicated by crudely painted signs, while in the ramparts themselves all kinds of queer fish, such as ordnance artificers, veterinary and remount officers, padres of every denomination, Salvation Army officers and even YMCA orderlies, lurked cosily. But this we did not learn about until a day later.
Meanwhile the tortured column wound its fitful way towards the firing line. At the Menin Gate a direct hit smashed the road surface just ahead of our battery and we had a long halt while a squad of pioneers, detailed for this purpose, cleared away the wreckage.
I had taken advantage of the halt to dismount and tighten my horse’s surcingle, when I stumbled over something lying by the roadside. A hasty flash of my torch revealed that it was the body of an infantryman of the East Lancashire Regiment.
He lay with his head pillowed comfortably upon one arm, an unearthly smile upon his bloodless, upturned face. A splinter had severed the main artery in his leg and he had bled to death in a matter of minutes, probably without feeling much pain. But the incident seemed an ominous prelude.
On leaving the Menin Gate, the Zonnebeke road forked to the left and soon entered into a desolate area of shell-pocked mud, each crater brimming with stagnant water and so close together that in places the ground was virtually impassable.
On terrain of this sort it became positively suicidal to attempt to go forward without some sort of support and the military mind therefore evolved the corduroy road and the duck-board track, the first for vehicles, the second for men.
The corduroy road consisted of a double width of logs laid side by side and literally floating on a sea of mud. If an Army Service lorry or G. S. wagon got too close to the edge, the whole tilted up in the middle and gracefully shuttered the vehicle and its complement into the Slough of Despond beyond and there it gradually sank deeper and deeper until it finally disappeared.
Yet every night throughout the whole offensive this single road, packed with guns and wagons of every description, shelled and bombed incessantly, had to serve as the sole link of communication with the firing line.
The infantry wisely extended their ranks in open order and followed the circuitous maze of the duckboard tracks.
These resembled a sort of cat ladder cut to lengths of six feet and were laid end to end, thus allowing marching men to proceed in single file. But we of the Field Artillery had perforce to stick to the road and take all that was coming to us, which was plenty.
Every inch of that accursed road between Ypres and Zonnebeke had been carefully registered by the enemy artillery located beyond the ridge at Moorslede, and so far as they were concerned, we were just sitting ducks.
Then there were the bombers, flying low and heaving their massive weapons over the side of the cockpit like so many bricks. A pretty primitive method of attack, as compared with modern standards, but in a cockshy of this nature they could hardly miss; they got a coconut with every ball.
At one time the moon came out for a few moments and we saw around us a scene of utter horror, like something out of a nightmare, resembling a lunar landscape rather than a scene on this planet.
Just a vast sea of grey mud, erupting with shell-bursts, from which here and there a solitary splintered tree-stump emerged to wave us on like a beckoning ghost, or a derelict tank, standing on its nose, reminding us that we were now approaching the celebrated tank graveyard, which put paid to Churchill’s scheme of ending the war with a breakthrough of armoured monsters; it was a landscape of the dead.
We had still not reached our allotted position when the barrage opened for the attack and we found ourselves in further trouble, for the terrific row drove our scared horses frantic.
The whole sector was massed with guns of every calibre, standing almost wheel to wheel, and in many cases with one battery firing over another.
They were all in the open, for the state of the ground made it impossible to construct gun-pits or dugouts and even do more than make a crude gun-platform with bricks from a nearby ruin.
However, in some fashion each detachment at last managed to man-handle its gun clear of the road and got into action.
It is true we were dead tired and soaked to the skin, we were plastered with mud to the very eyes and that breech-blocks were constantly jamming because of mud which adhered to the ammunition.
But at least we were throwing back to Jerry some of the stuff he had been pounding us with all through the night and we saw the exploding rim of fire on the horizon which marked the line of our barrage with grim satisfaction. We were giving the Hun a taste of his our ‘frightfulness’.
A level plain of desolation where no bird sang
Before I deal with the 66th Division’s attack on Passchendaele, which cost our infantry 3,119 casualties in a single morning (to say nothing of what the divisional artillery suffered) and which was to fill the columns of the Blackburn Times for many subsequent weeks with casualty lists, interspersed with photographs of the fallen, let me say a few words about our battery position.
It was on the flank of the Frenzenberg Ridge, a few hundred yards short of Zonnebeke village, near a salubrious spot where the waters of the Hannebeke and the Zonnebeke, their normal channels pulverised by incessant shellfire mingled their muddy waters to form a widespread swamp.
Mound of rubble
When I say Zonnebeke village I ought perhaps to say the site of it, for to all intents and purposes it had disappeared from the map. One could pass through its market place without knowing it, were it not for a crudely painted signpost beside a huge mound of rubble which read “Zonnebeke Church”.
A little further along the ridge, in the direction of Moorslede, part of a crumpled gasometer lay on its side.
This was the only sign of human occupation and somehow always brought to my mind the story of the traveller who, after being lost for many hour on Salisbury plain, suddenly saw emerging from the mist a gallows on which a malefactor hung in chains and exclaimed: “Thank God, civilisation at last.”
I must have had a depraved sense of humour in those early days, although there were plenty of corpses strewn around that gasometer, believe me.
Our gun platforms, consisted of brick and rubble extracted from the foundations of the ruined village, were set at right angles to the road. They were about ten yards apart and formed a precarious support to the gun wheels, which from constant firing soon began to sink, thereby making accurate firing practically impossible.
Day and night
There was no attempt to construct any sort of shelter, and for protection against flying shell-splinters we huddled against the gun-shield and hoped for the best.
Here we worked and here we slept, when sleep was possible and day and night the Bosche plastered the area pitilessly with high explosives.
Fortunately the very nature of the terrain proved our salvation, for the glutinous depth of the mud around us allowed the high explosive shells to sink deep before they exploded, thereby smothering the burst and converting each detonation into a sort of volcano of mud and rubble, which erupted into the air comparatively harmlessly.
Occasionally one burst on impact, through striking part of a brick foundation and these were the ones we had to watch, for they sent a shower of red-hot shell-splinters screaming through the air, any one of which could disembowel a man as neatly as if he had committed hara-kiri.
Nor was this our only tribulation. We were also being subjected to an incessant bombardment by the elements.
Rain! There was no end to it – a steady continuous downpour, occasionally subsiding into an icy drizzle but never ceasing altogether.
For days and weeks on end our clothing was never dry and, although officers wore high boots of rubber and we received a special issue of leather boots which laced up to the knee, the all-pervading rain penetrated to our very souls.
The landscape around us might have been something out of Dante’s Inferno, a flat, level plain of desolation with scarcely a discernable that we could recognise; a land of death and desolation, with not a living creature in sight, not a tree, not a single blade of grass.
The remains of Polygon Wood, some distance to our flank, consisted merely of a few dozen splintered stumps protruding from the morass, a wood from which all traces of natural life had long since vanished.
So far as I can remember, I never saw nor heard a bird during the whole time we were in the Salient, and the only mammals were rats, huge grey, obscene creatures that fattened upon human carrion.
The very ground was polluted with the bodies of countless unburied dead and contaminated with burnt cordite and exploded gas shells; the very air reeked with the stench of death and decay, which the everlasting blanket of cloud did nothing to dissipate.
Even in broad daylight it was a hazardous business to wander away from the battery and loose oneself in the maze of shell-craters brimming with water that surrounded one on every side.
Even for a man in full possession of his strength, to slip into one of these slimy cesspools meant a nightmare struggle for survival before he emerged from its clinging depths, and for a wounded man the task was virtually impossible.
More than once I have seen the body of an infantryman clutching desperately at a bayoneted rifle, which he had driven into the crumbling side of a waterlogged shell-hole, in the vain hope of keeping his head above water until he could be rescued.
Perhaps the greatest danger of all was to be lost in such an area after nightfall, when the horror of darkness was added to the menace of the unknown and one could see as well as hear the glowing splinters of the bursting shells.
Small wonder that quite a number of German prisoners, captured after they had been hiding in such surroundings, sometimes for as long as three or four days, were little better than gibbering maniacs. The medical term for such a condition was shell shock: I wonder by what name it was known to the recording angel?
Where they fell
But I find myself getting morbid. However, before leaving the subject I will take the reader for a brief stroll through a line of wrecked German concrete emplacements a hundred yards or so in front of our battery position.
It is a German 5.9" field gun position that was overrun by a Highland Regiment a few weeks before and its defenders bayoneted….
Friend and foe still lie where they fell, locked in a grim death grapple, although now the gun pits are partially flooded and the whole place is infested with vermin….
Here a ‘Jock’ hangs head-downwards over a gun-shield, his bayonet in the chest of a German lieutenant, and a bullet wound in his head to show where the officer shot him as he died… there a mere boy is crouched in a corner, his hands before his face as if to shut out the sight of the approaching Nemesis.
The gunners had put up a desperate resistance, for they knew they could expect no mercy. What was the slogan? “The only good German is a dead one.”
There they lay, their stiffened limbs twisted into grotesque postures, in the gloomy depths of that concrete inferno. The faces of those whose blood had drained from their veins before they died have turned a ghastly greenish-white; the remainder are a hideous mottled purple and all are horribly distended.
But upon the shield of every captured gun is chalked the number of the battalion and company that wrested it from the hands of the enemy, to be subsequently recorded in the annals of the regiment. WHAT PRICE GLORY?
The attack moves forward under an ‘iron umbrella’
Meanwhile the battle of 9th October, in which our own infantry were directly concerned and which was designed to effect the final capture of Passchendaele, was well under way.
We at the guns were laying down a barrage upon pre-concerted lines of fire, which advanced a hundred yards every three minutes to enable the advancing troops to keep under the shelter of this ‘iron umbrella’.
At stated intervals we reverted to rapid gunfire, during which period we loaded and blazed away as fast as the empty cartridge cases could be ejected.
Breech mechanisms soon became clogged with mud, and had to be opened and closed with the aid of pick-handles, used as levers, and the pieces themselves soon became so hot that we were compelled to pour water from the nearest shell-hole down the muzzles to cool them and thus prevent the shells jamming in the rifling and exploding inside the barrel.
This sort of accident was not uncommon at such times and would account for the entire detachment as completely as a direct hit.
Soon we began to have visual evidence that our attack was progressing, for wounded infantrymen and scared prisoners came limping past the battery on the quaking corduroy road, many of them plastered with mud beyond the semblance of humanity.
Some of the Germans had been lurking in shell-holes in No Man’s Land for days, not daring to show themselves for fear of being picked off by snipers, and they were just nervous wrecks.
As they passed our battery position they held up their hands and followed our every movement with scared eyes, in case we might decide to shoot them in the back.
A little further down the road half a dozen were squabbling round a discarded biscuit tin for a few broken fragments, like so many starving dogs.
Our own walking wounded were in almost as sorry a plight, their puttees and boots literally sucked off their feet by the mud, which even covered their faces. Many had nothing but sandbags tied round their feet.
Shell-shock cases appeared to be common and I saw one officer curled up on a stretcher in a ball, like a hedgehog, despite the unavailing efforts of the stretcher bearers to straighten him out.
The courage of the latter was beyond all praise. Because of the appalling nature of the ground they were forced to carry their stretchers shoulder high, one at each corner. Often prisoners were formed into stretcher-parties, usually in charge of a red-cross man.
I saw one of these parties blown down by the blast of an exploding shell and thought them all casualties. But when the flying fragments had ceased to fall, they just picked themselves out of the mud, replaced their burden and staggered on again, although I could see that at least one had been wounded.
With the coming of darkness we were still firing in a desultory fashion and, although we managed to find time for a meal of sorts (bully and biscuits); there was no possibility of sleep during the night.
The infantry, clinging for dear life to their few hard-won acres of shell pitted swamp below Passchendaele, were excessively nervous (small blame to them for that), and we were having constant SOS calls.
In the intervals, as the ground was being swept by retaliatory fire, all the detachments herded together in a captured German concrete emplacement, (pillboxes we called them), just adjoining the battery position. Although it was ankle deep in water and there was standing room only at least its massive walls of concrete two yards thick guaranteed us protection from flying splinters.
On the following morning this haven of refuge was converted into the battery office and for two nights my detachment and I spent the hours of darkness huddled for shelter under the gun-shield.
Later we found an abandoned tank which we utilised for a dormitory. Unfortunately during the night we had another SOS and the resultant mix-up, with everyone struggling to scramble through an exceedingly small man-hole, in pitch darkness, while all hell seemed to have been let loose around us, led to some harsh words and reprimands before we finally got into action.
Ultimately we scrounged fifty sandbags and two sheets of corrugated iron, with which we made a splinter-proof shelter of sorts, under which we crawled on our bellies.
But even this proved unsatisfactory, as the sandbags subsided into the mud while we slept, pinning us to the ground, and at the next alarm call we could only escape by pushing off the roof. After that experience we returned to our gun-shield.
We hand over
Fortunately our casualties were slight and on 16th October we handed over to C/331 Battery. We left our guns where they were, as we should have needed tanks to haul them out of the quagmire into which they had finally sunk.
This was in spite of the fact that we had done our best to ‘consolidate’ the position, but then, as our Captain sapiently remarked: “How does one consolidate porridge?”
The guns belonging to C/331 were being taken for us to a forward position in the ruins of Zonnebeke and I took an instant dislike to the one allocated to my subsection.
It was obviously a veteran and its shield, on which some wag had painted a white elephant, had been damaged by shellfire and hung at a rakish angle over one wheel, giving it a most disreputable appearance.
The elevating gear was so badly worn that there was some two inches play in the cogs and one could almost see the droop in the piece due to heavy firing. To compensate for this, one had to add fifty or a hundred yards to the range, varying in accordance with the elevation, but I had so little confidence in this rule-of-thumb scale that I almost invariably added another fifty yards on my own account.
As I was handing over my own gun, preparatory to moving forward to Zonnebeke, there was an unpleasant incident. A shell burst some distance away and a splinter from it went clean through the head of the relieving corporal, to whom I was just explaining the lines of fire, sending his steel helmet flying into the air.
Some of his brains spattered on the face of the gun-layer who was sitting on the trail spade and it made him horribly sick, poor lad. As a result I had to remain with the new battery until they could send up another NCO from the wagons-line to relieve me.
The grim journey past Devil’s Crossing
It was almost daylight when at long last I was relieved from duty at C/331 Battery, and I decided to take a chance and walk forward to our new position in Zonnebeke.
At sunrise the congested traffic on the floating corduroy road vanished as if whisked away by a magic wand and I found myself alone.
It was an eerie feeling to be absolutely cut off from all one’s fellow creatures in the midst of the widespread desolation of the Salient, which stretched out on all sides like a muddy Sahara desert, totally devoid of life.
One imagined that the eye of every Bosche sniper and machine-gunner, from their concrete lurking places on the crest of the Moorsledge ridge, were following every movement or that some officious German FOO was about to turn a section salvo upon the impudent intruder. There was a hint of menace in the very air.
To make matters worse, I found myself approaching the Devil’s Crossing. This salubrious spot, which dominated the approach to the village, was formerly an embankment under which one of the innumerable drainage ‘bekes’ was culverted.
Now it was pulverised beyond recognition, being shelled by a heavy battery of 9.2" guns at intervals of thirty seconds, night and day.
Here during the hours of darkness, when it was imperative to get supplies and ammunition forward to the front line, military police and salvage squad were on duty, allowing a single vehicle through after each detonation, with half a minute handicap to reach a safety zone.
Many, of course, failed, and the wreckage was cleared by the simple process of heaving the shattered wagon or limber over the edge of the road into the all-pervading mud, where it speedily sank out of sight and was gone for ever.
When I arrived the place was deserted, but the shells were still falling, and, not knowing the drill, I spent a hectic two minutes dodging one burst after another, which I felt convinced had been staged for my special benefit.
In the course of the next fourteen days I made several more crossings here, but never one where I felt such an overpowering impulse to turn tail and leave the filed of battle to all who liked that sort of thing.
It was after this episode that I found a splinter embedded in the heel of my boot and wryly reflected that, if I hadn’t been lying face-downwards in the mud at the time it would probably have lodged into some vital portion of my anatomy.
I found the new battery position on the left of the road, just opposite the huge mound of debris that had been the church.
Although all of the houses had been completely levelled to the ground, there were plenty of cellars for use as dugouts and heaven knows we needed them, for throughout the whole of our brief stay we were shelled bitterly and incessantly with both high explosive and gas - mustard and phosgene.
Soon we were suffering heavy casualties and on 18th October the battery diary records:
“Had three guns knocked out last night & got them away in the morning. Bom. Martin killed & Bdrs. McConville, Starkie, Durham, Gnr. Winter & Williamson wounded. Our four best layers. Very heavy shelling all day & shell storms through the night with an hour of gas. We were very lucky to escape with only Thompson and McMorran wounded, White & Clegg, gas & Caborne & Cottingham slightly wounded.”
But we had no time to waste over ceremony and somehow we galloped hell for leather over the pitiful debris. I had left my haversack dangling from the rocking-bar sight and when we reached Ordnance I found it soaked in blood.
The official diary says three guns were knocked out: actually there were four, for we had collected an abandoned gun on route and got it into action for some hours until it stopped a direct hit.
How many of us lived through the next few days and remained reasonably sane I shall never know, for we were shelled without respite all round the clock and it became sheer suicide to show one’s nose above ground.
Obviously the Bosche was extremely sensitive about the occupation of Zonnebeke, and was intent on making our stay as lively as possible.
A splinter cut across the front of my tunic, through the leather jerkin I was wearing and every rag I had on, just grazing the skin. Another damaged my respirator and after the next deluge of gas shells I found I had lost my voice, owing to gas seeping behind the rubber face-piece.
Friday 19th October was a particularly unlucky day; just on the edge of dark, when we were sitting down to a hurried meal, a wounded gunner from ‘C’ Battery reported that one of their dugouts had blown in and the men were trapped.
We turned out and succeeded in extracting all who were still alive, carrying them down to the RAMC first aid post, an advanced dressing station beyond Devil’s Crossing.
Then we returned weary and plastered with mud, only to learn that our own right section dugout had sustained a direct hit and all the detachments were buried.
That was a big job getting them out in the pitch darkness, particularly as some had legs smashed and had also sustained internal injuries. Gunner Thompson was killed and six others were wounded or shell-shocked.
All this meant another nightmare journey past Devil’s Crossing, with its interminable salvo every thirty seconds, but somehow we did it and managed to survive.
On the following night my own gun was put out of action and I went down the line with it to the Ordnance Depot for repairs to the buffer.
At Devil’s Crossing there was the usual jam. A smashed GS wagon and four dead horses lay sprawled across the road, while a dead man’s leg protruded from the wreckage.
A brief rest, then over top with the infantry
Arriving at the Ordnance Repair Depot, which was located outside the ruins of the Convent near Ypres, I reported to the commanding officer, arranged to billet the drivers and gun team and then went to consult with the Corporal Artificer in charge of the repair. I found him more concerned about myself than my gun.
“What the hell’s going on up yonder?” he queried, staring at me in amazement, “You’re about all in, chum.”
As I had not more than two hours consecutive sleep for over a week, I was literally stumbling with fatigue, whilst my voice was little more than a croak, for I was still suffering from the effects of gas. Without more ado, he hurried me off to the corporal’s mess, ordered me a hot meal and then pushed me into his bunk in an adjoining Nissen hut.
The clock round
“You don’t move out of there until that gun’s ready,” he said, and I didn’t. In fact I slept the clock round and woke up a new man.
By this time my gun, still with its sinister white elephant on the shield, was fit for action and as good as it was ever likely to be. The corporal had welded a few patches on the buffer, which was pierced in several places with splinters, but he could do nothing about its general debility, beyond reporting it as unfit for accurate ranging, a fact of which I was already acutely aware.
“That bloody thing’s nothing but a menace, chum.” he said as we shook hands at parting. “If you’ll take my tip you’ll dump it in the nearest shell-hole on your way up”.
I found the battery working with skeleton crews, having suffered further casualties during my absence.
‘C’ Battery had another dugout knocked in with many casualties, and the Bosche was putting down barrages on us at regular intervals. On the night of 22nd October, a flurry of shells fell around the pack horses as they halted on the road to unload ammunition and rations, and Campbell was severely shell-shocked.
Too hot to hold
By this time the Major had come to the conclusion that this position was too hot to hold and decided to move the guns forward, clear of the village.
As there was no possibility of getting gun limbers or horses anywhere near, there was nothing for it but to wait for darkness and then man-handle the guns, one by one, across a quarter of a mile of shell churned morass, in which the craters, brimming with water, were sometimes actually touching one another.
After incredible labour, sometimes with as many as twenty sweating gunners heaving on the drag ropes, we succeeded in establishing another position, just as dawn broke amid intermittent squalls of rain.
My detachment presented a sorry spectacle, as one of our drag ropes had broken whilst we were taking the strain, in consequence of which we had all taken a mud bath.
Unfortunately, our new position proved little better than the old as may be judged from a curious incident a little later. Turning out for a barrage at 4 a.m., I found my detachment, which should have been on the extreme flank of the battery, in the throes of an argument with the adjoining sub-section, both claiming the same gun.
A brief inspection, with the aid of a pocket torch, revealed that there was no white elephant on the gun-shield, so that it could not have been mine.
Apparently this lop-eared veteran had vanished into thin air, for on our left flank was a vacant shell-pitted waste resembling a lunar landscape more than a stretch of Flemish countryside.
We had no option but to wait until daybreak, when we found the missing gun standing on its muzzle in a deep shell-hole some six yards behind the position, where it had been thrown by a direct hit. Obviously, it was a complete write-off.
Poor old White Elephant, it may be that its iron soul had been moved to shame by the disparaging words of the Ordnance ‘tiffy’ and it had taken him literally at his word.
But somehow I was loath to part company; I had a soft spot in my heart for the black sheep of the battery. After all, it had grown old and decrepit fighting for King and Country and besides, there is or ought to be a sentimental link between an artilleryman and his gun.
Being left ‘spare I was told to report to the officer’s mess the following day to take part in an attack by the Canadians, scheduled for the next morning. I was to act as understudy for the FOO, who was with the infantry on liaison duty with a couple of signallers, in the event of him becoming a casualty.
After carefully noting my orders and synchronising my watch, I returned to my dugout and was trying to snatch a few hours sleep when a shell burst on the officer’s mess. We turned out to find the Major had been wounded, fortunately not severely, and with some difficulty we got him down the line, although it was still broad daylight.
When we reported that night at the Canadian battalion Headquarters the infantry Major noted with some surprise that was not carrying a rifle, although (in accordance with King’s Regulations) I wore a bandolier with 50 rounds of ammunition. I explained that normally each sub-section of 25 men had only six rifles, and that these were usually kept strapped to the limbers.
“And what are you expected to do with these goddam cartridges?” he snapped, “Throw ‘em at the Bosche?”, and he flung his own revolver and lanyard across the dugout towards me. “Hang on to those till you come back.” He went on. “You may need ‘em.”
Like a dream
I have only a confused recollection of going over the top next morning after the barrage lifted. The attack seems to have followed the usual pattern: after stumbling forward a couple of hundred yards the survivors were held up by uncut wire and forced to take cover.
Shells seemed to be plastering every inch of the earth’s surface and the rattle of machine-guns beat a devils’ tattoo around our ears.
Somehow we artillerymen lost touch with the infantry and as day dawned we saw German steel helmets bobbing above the skyline and realised we were almost on top of an advanced post.
Fortunately we were able to take cover on the lee side of a pillbox and after lying doggo for half an hour, we managed to retrace our steps without a single casualty. I wish I could have said as much for the Canadians.
It is only when a man finds himself going over the top in the eerie light of daybreak, with all hell let loose around him, that he begins to realise what a futile thing war really is.
At such a time he ceases to be afraid; he just becomes numb inside, a senseless automaton actuated by one desperate impulse, to reach the distant objective through the devil’s dance of flying projectiles and there take cover.
Things happen to him as if in a dream; clods of earth plaster him from nearby shell bursts, he sees men stumble and fall around him almost with an air of detachment, as if he himself were living on another plane of existence, an observer from a fourth dimension.
And yet all the time his heart is saying “O God, get me out of this alive.” And sometimes God hears his prayer.
The price of 500 yards of swamp
Two days after my hectic experience on liaison duty the battery was relieved by the 17th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. By this time we had got our guns into such an inextricable position that it seemed as if no power on earth could get them back to dry land, and so it was arranged that the Canadians took over the whole site as it was and handed over their own guns to us.
Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice and men ‘gang aft agley’, as the Ayrshire bard has it, and half an hour before we were due for relief Jerry began plastering the position with everything he had got, which was plenty.
So that when the Commonwealth detachments arrived, under the command of a very youthful captain, they found us ‘gone to earth’ in a number of shell-holes well clear of the zone of fire, from which we were watching the mournful spectacle of our guns and ammunition dumps going up in smoke.
I shall never forget that young Captain’s face when we made ourselves known to him and pointed out to him his new position. He told us briefly and tersely that he had no intention of leading his men into that death trap.
We quite understood his feelings, gave him our best wishes and left hurriedly by the nearest duck board track.
The author of the battery diary has left it on record that he didn’t think the Canadians ever got to the position and it may be that those self-same guns are still there, deeply buried in the unfathomable mud just below the crest at Passchendaele.
Perhaps some day I will organise an expedition and find out: the show would make an admirable television feature.
But meanwhile we were content to put as great a distance as possible between ourselves and the frontline.
To use a good Lancastrian phrase, we thought we had ‘done our nook’ for the time being. In point of fact, many of us were in the last stages of exhaustion and all were suffering from nervous strain.
For my part, I was still weak from recurrent fits of nausea as a result of the gas I had swallowed, while for several days after we were back at rest in billets near Estaires, I found myself afflicted by a nervous tremor in all my limbs which effectually prevented me from writing home for quite a while.
I put it down to a mild form of shell-shock, but it was unpleasant enough while it lasted.
However, during this brief period of recuperation, while our new guns were being collected and overhauled and reinforcements were arriving to bring our depleted detachments up to strength, we found the relief from tension highly efficacious and our morale somewhat shaken by the hammering we had sustained, was soon as high as ever.
Youthful resilience is a wonderful thing and hope springs eternal in the human breast.
I was intensely interested to learn how our own divisional infantry had fared during the attack of 9th October and I took every opportunity of chance encounters in estaminets and billets to contact any of the men of 196th and 197th Brigades, who had been the spearhead of the attack.
From what I then learnt by word of mouth, and from what I have read since, I have been able to form a fairly accurate picture of how they fared, and the extent of their casualties. Its outlines are pretty grim.
In that single attack the 66th divisional infantry lost no fewer than 8,119 men, a terrible price to pay for a gain of some 500 yards of untenable swamp.
Yet so outstanding was their gallantry that in a special communiqué Sir Douglas Haig permitted the heavy veil of censorship to be withdrawn so far as to name the regiments concerned as having captured all of their objectives “under the most trying and difficult circumstances with great determination and gallantry.”
In their dour advance they fought their way forward towards the crest until some units of 197th Brigade actually pushed forward into Passchendaele itself, for when the village was finally captured on 6th November, the victorious troops were amazed to find the bodies of a number of Lancashire Territorials of 66th Division.
Their supreme sacrifice is today perpetuated by a stained glass window in Passchendaele church.
Here is the story of an eye-witness:
“As the British walked forward, German machine gunners began to play on the advancing waves of men, their bullets lashing and spurting from the pill-boxes and from behind parapets. In the flame and clamour and greasy smoke the British slogged forward deliberately, almost unhurriedly.
“They moved from crater to crater, but even in the craters they were not safe, for the German gunner’s streamed bullets against the edges of the holes and wounded many men lying near the rim… In their fear of drowning beneath the slime they tried to grip the legs of their comrades, who struggled to break free.
“The first wave almost melted away; the second one splashing forward also seemed to dissolve; the third wave melted into the chaos of the first and second: and later waves blundered into the remnants of the others.
“The stretch of uncut wire that stopped 66th Division would have stopped anybody. As they struggled to free themselves, German machine-gunners worked them over.
“Their limbs jerked when the bullets smacked home. Some ripped off their clothes and when killed were almost naked and often were accompanied in death by friends trying to help them get loose.
“The few field pieces in position to cover the advance were worked with extra fury by gunners mostly stripped to the waits despite the cold wind. The noisy little guns rattled and roared without let-up. The approaches to the gun positions were a litter of dead horses, refuse, scattered shell casings, live ammunition and stranded wagons.”
Such was the fate of 196th Brigade. It was the men of 197th Brigade who penetrated into Passchendaele, only to find that they had no support in either flank and so were compelled to fall back.
The men of 196th Brigade were even more unlucky. They jumped off exactly to time, their left flank on the flooded Ravebeke and their objective a line 700 yards short of the village.
Unexpectedly they stumbled into a number of derelict, water-logged trenches and while negotiating these were enfiladed by machine-guns from pill-boxes a few hundred yards to the flank.
The survivors flopped into the nearest crater and awaited developments. They remained pinned down on this spot until they were finally ordered to withdraw.
The final casualty figure for 2/5th East Lancashire (Blackburn) Battalion were 12 officers and 335 other ranks killed and wounded. I have not the details of the losses of the Manchesters or the Lancashire Fusiliers, but know they lost at least half their effective strength.
No wonder the men lost faith!
Passchendaele was finally captured on 6th November by the 2nd Canadian Division.
For three years British soldiers had watched its little church tower, built of reddish brick with quoins of milk-white stone, gradually crumble away under the incessant shellfire. When the Third Battle of Ypres began it was already half ruined and now it was shelled with ever increasing ferocity until it gradually vanished, pounded and pulverised into the very earth which contained the dead of many generations of Flemish peasantry.
Now the Canadians, smoking cigarettes and trailing their rifles as they walked over the site, could hardly grasp the idea that it had once been a flourishing village. An aerial photograph of the spot reveals nothing but pill-boxes and shell holes.
The following day Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Sir Douglas Haig’s Chief-of-staff, paid his first visit to the fighting zone. As his staff car lurched through the interminable swamps he became more and more agitated.
Finally he burst into tears and muttered, “Good God, did we really send them to fight in that?”
The man beside him, who had been through the campaign, replied tonelessly, “It’s worse farther on up.”
Incredible as it may seem, the brass-hats at GHQ had no idea of the conditions in which they had condemned the flower of the British Army to struggle and perish.
No wonder the men lost faith in their commanders, who worked out of their elaborate plans of campaign by map references in some comfortable château far removed from the squalid realities of the firing line.
Aloof and godlike in this rarefied atmosphere, they issued their decrees and then wondered mildly why, instead of capturing their objectives, in accordance with their strategic scheme, the doomed battalions lay down and perished in the mud. It never occurred to them to go and find out for themselves.
However, this is all by the way and meanwhile the Battery is still at rest behind the line. After two weeks of comparative idleness, during which we were able to refit, hopes were freely expressed that in view of the hammering we had so recently sustained, we might be entrained for a quiet front, possibly on the Somme.
When marching orders were received in due course and map cases opened, we had a shock. It became only too obvious that our destination was again to be that sinister wedge of shell-swept earth we had recently left, the inexorable Salient.
I am not ashamed to admit that, when the truth became known, my heart sank into my boots. But there was nothing we could do about it and by 10th November we were on the move again, reaching a camp at Reninghelst knee-deep in mud.
Here I did a strange thing. I had become convinced in my own mind that I should not emerge from a second dose of the Salient alive that I wrote two letters, one to my parents and one to a certain young lady, and marked on the envelopes that they were only to be forwarded in the event of my death.
These I tucked away in my army pay book, which I always carried in my breast pocket next to my heart.
They were never needed, but ever since that day I have been extremely suspicious of presentiments or psychic manifestations of any kind. I am now of opinion that they usually emanate from an upset stomach. Many a ghost, having its origin in a fragment of undigested cheese, could have been laid by a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.
Actually, when we did get into action in a position near Tokio Farm, where we took over from the ANZACS, we found that the front had quietened down considerably since our previous visit, although there was still a good deal of desultory shelling of crossroads and duckboard tracks.
Just before Christmas, to our extreme disgust, we had to move forward to a new position. It was in an area where some severe fighting had taken place and the ground was simply littered with dead Germans.
Most of the bodies had been relieved of their boots, belt buckles and epaulettes, the work of ghoulish souvenir hunters, and I recall that we buried no fewer than eight corpses that were lying between the guns.
It was a white Christmas that year and under a pall of newly fallen snow the Salient in spite of its ominous litter of wrecked pill-boxes and derelict tanks, seemed almost peaceful.
Had it not been for the rumble of an occasional 12-inch howitzer shell high overhead, one might have thought that Christ’s message of peace on earth and goodwill to all men had penetrated even to the trenches.
But in ruined Passchendaele there was no fraternisation, for from time to time we could hear the staccato rattle of the machine-guns or the boom of a heavy trench mortar bomb bursting in some traverse.
Life at the guns during this period took on an artic atmosphere, accentuated by the weird and wonderful garments we affected to protect us from the extreme cold. Had a casual visitor seen a sentry on duty enveloped in muffler and cap comforter, his tunic augmented by a fleece-lined leather jerkin and his lower extremities encased in sandbags, he might have imagined he had stumbled across a colony of Eskimos.
In this humdrum fashion, except for one week I spent in a rest camp at Abeele owing to a recurrence of my throat and tummy trouble thanks to that infernal dose of gas, my comrades and I completed our second tour of duty in the Salient, until, in early February, the order came through for us to pull out.
After the hectic days in October, it was something of an anti-climax to creep away quietly from the dreaded salient, but we left behind us man poignant memories, of comrades sleeping in ‘some corner of a foreign filed that is for ever England.’
The sentiment sounds trite enough today when western civilization seems to be slowly disintegrating under the stress of material progress without faith, but in those faraway days it was very vivid and very real.
But the world was younger then.
Ten precious days of rest – but a hint of tension
Towards the end of January, just before we were due to pull out from the Salient, I received orders to report to the Army Artillery School at Tilques to take a refresher course in gunnery. Although it seemed to me that I was in a position to teach the instructors a thing or two about such matters, particularly in circumstances of extreme difficulty, still, orders are orders, so I packed my kit and left for the wagon line.
At the battery office the captain gave me his blessing and told me I should have to make my own way to the school, which was only a matter of some 15 kilometres behind the line.
Only 15 kilometres? I have already spoken of the ridiculous equipment of the field artilleryman – haversack, water bottle, gas helmet, box respirator, bandolier, steel helmet, map case, rifle and what have you all dangling loosely from his shoulders and rattling with every stride.
Add to all of these impedimenta a roll of two blankets and a groundsheet and you have a picture of me hobbling along one of the interminable French roads, with its endless avenues of poplars, vainly thumbing a lift from every passing lorry.
Unfortunately, Tilques seemed to be the one place they were all trying to avoid and so, reluctantly enough, I began to discard my equipment and dump it by the roadside. Needs must when the devil drives, and by the time I reported at the training school I was travelling in skeleton order.
It was snowing and bitterly cold, so that I was glad to snatch a hurried meal and find a bed in the nearest hutment.
A hard-hearted QMS had flatly refused to issue me with blankets (he was probably well aware that I had dumped my own), so I slit open the top of my palliasse and shuffled in among the straw, thus making an improvised sleeping bag. Not exactly palatial, but it sufficed.
The complete change of surroundings, combined with a gruelling instruction course, did me a power of good.
The camp was located in a beautiful rural area, a pastoral countryside of bosky valleys and rolling downs, upon which we could stage mock battles to our heart’s content.
In fact I thoroughly enjoyed myself and my enjoyment must have been reflected in my work, for shortly after my return to the Battery, was staggered to receive the following unsolicited testimonial. I reproduce it for two reasons; firstly, because in an earlier article I strongly criticised the powers that be (or rather were) for their indifference to the welfare of the rank and file, and, secondly, because it is the only occasion on which I figured (at least in a creditable sense) in divisional orders.
It ran as follows:
“The CRA 66th Divisional Artillery congratulates you on the excellent report you have obtained at the recent 2nd Army Artillery School. You have done credit to your Battery and your Divisional Artillery.”
Somewhere, behind that forbidding façade of red tabs and gold braid that constituted GHQ, a fatherly eye was watching over us; somewhere, behind a beri-boned breast; a human heart was rejoicing in our successes and sorrowing in our shortcomings. It was a chastening thought.
Major Carus, who had only just joined us and could not be expected to know the calibre of his NCOs, took the matter far more seriously than I did myself. On the strength of the instructors report, that I was “one of the best and most intelligent NCOs on the course, deserving promotion to a higher rank,” (all pure ‘bull’), I found myself burdened with another stripe and in charge (under adequate supervision of course), of an ambitious programme of training sent down from DHQ.
At last 66th Division, which formed part of General Gough’s Fifth Army, was under orders to move to another front, shifting ground from the extreme left to the extreme right of the British line, in the vicinity of St. Quentin.
In the Battery there were great rejoicings at the prospect, for some of the more knowledgeable among us declared that this front was simply a ‘rest-cure’. Little did they know.
On 17th February 1918 we entrained at Proven, arriving at Guillancourt about 8.15 the following evening.
Facilities for detraining were very poor and only those who have taken part in the task of manhandling heavy guns and wagons along a line of flat railway track in pitch darkness, guided only by the fitful light of a pocket torch and a stream of vituperation from the mouth of a sergeant-major, can have any conception of the resultant shambles.
The horses, poor things, were far more amenable, being only too glad to escape from their crowded confinement, but it was two hours before the last gun trundled on the road to Cayaux, where our billets were located.
Next day there was a healthful nip of frost in the air, in spite of brilliant sunshine, but the sight of so much green unspoiled country, with unlimited prospects of grazing on real grass and drinking unchlorinated water, did much to revive the spirits of our drooping animals.
As for ourselves, it was enough to be away from the acrid smell of burnt cordite and the scream of bursting shells.
There followed ten halcyon days of rest and recuperation, providing an opportunity of reviving our long-forgotten gun drill. Soon the air was ringing with shouts of “Without drag-ropes, prepare to advance.” & “Halt – action, front” and the sound of the old familiar formulas fell pleasantly on the ear, bringing back memories of happy days in ‘Blighty’.
But already there was a hint of tension in the air and rumours of a new Bosche offensive in overwhelming force, led by highly trained storm troops lately released from the Russian front by the Bolshevik surrender. It was all part of the ever changing pattern of war.
Front line ‘Bull’ as we wait for the storm
On 3rd March the Major took three guns into action, relieving part of ‘A’ Battery, 107th Brigade, and on the following day the rest of the battery came up. As it was misty weather, both changeovers were accomplished in broad daylight and I have since thought that this was probably a grave mistake. There were occasional gaps in the mist and it seems quite possible that the relief was spotted by a reconnaissance plane. This would account for the uncanny accuracy with which the whole battery position was subsequently pulverised out of existence, despite the fact that prior to the attack not more than half a dozen ‘bracketing’ shots had been dropped anywhere near.
The position we had taken over had originally been prepare by the French and was intended to accommodate their somewhat diminutive 75mm field guns.
As a result we had some difficulty in squeezing our larger pieces into the pits, particularly as it was our practice to stack several hundred rounds of live ammunition on each side of the gun.
Our own pit, however, had a good, solid roof of logs and sandbags and that was all we were worried about. The actual site consisted of a deep trench sunk well into the chalky soil, although the parado left much to be desired and sandbag revetments were practically non-existent.
There was access to the gun-pits on the side nearest the front line, and the men’s dugouts were behind. On the right flank was a deep dugout for the battery staff, on the top of which was perched a Lewis gun.
The sight of this gun gave us something of a shock. It was the first occasion on which one of these handy little guns had been set up on the battery position and it seemed to hint in sinister fashion that somebody was expecting a breakthrough.
For the time being, however, all was quiet on the Western Front; the countryside in the vicinity of the battery was virtually untouched by shellfire; counter-battery work was non-existent and so we proceeded to settle down and make ourselves comfortable.
White as snow
Even up at the guns, spit and polish was the order of the day; everything that could be burnished shone like silver and everything that could be ‘blanco-d’ gleamed as white as driven snow from drag ropes to the very lanyards of the fuse-keys.
In my own gun-pits, by way of a special effort, I recall, we burnished all the tools, spanners, screw drivers, oil cans, claw hammers… the lot… and hung them neatly on a whitewashed board for all to see and duly admire. I wonder what the Bosche thought of it when he ultimately overran the position.
Nevertheless the feeling of tension persisted; No.1s slept fully dressed, with an electric torch handy and box respirators hanging from a nail over their heads. There were three guns, including my own, on the main position, two in a forward section and one expressly detailed for anti-tank work in a carefully camouflaged hide-out.
The detachment had been supplied with special armour piercing ammunition; with strict instructions to fire at nothing but tanks over open sights. But most disconcerting was the fact that the enemy gunners left us severely alone.
It gave one an uncanny feeling to realise that, little more than a mile away, across that green, rolling down-land dotted with fir woods that constituted No-Man’s-Land, a mighty offensive, the most overwhelming the world had ever known , was poised waiting to be launched. We were living on the edge of a volcano.
What was Gough’s Fifth Army really up against?
We know now that it was holding a front of over thirty miles with only eleven divisions in which every brigade (thanks to the Passchendaele holocaust), had been reduced from four to three battalions.
On the opposite side of the line, awaiting the signal that would release their unprecedented weight of men and metal like an uncoiled spring were no fewer than forty-three German divisions, most of them fresh from the Russian front and intensively trained for the special task facing them.
Our own infantry, belonging to 66th Division, took up their position somewhat to the left, with the 16th and 29th divisions on either flank, in the vicinity of Hargicourt Wood, some three miles in advance of Roisel, while we covered them from a position in front of Hervilly.
The front line was not a continuous trench system, but was made up merely of a disconnected series of short trenches and redoubts, protected by poorly wired advance positions.
Only on paper
In our rear was an excellent system of defence in depth, but unfortunately it only existed on paper.
There were any amount of ‘lines’ and enfilading points, all carefully marked out on the map as ‘the green line’, ‘the brown line’, in fact lines of all the colours of the rainbow, but the majority were just scratches on the ground, some, indeed, had been traced in outline by the removal of a few inches of turf but for the most part they were just pegged and taped.
The truth was that Haig was still bitten by the Flanders bug. He did not believe, until a late hour, that the Germans really meant to attack and he was actually planning to renew his abortive attacks in the Salient as soon as the weather permitted.
It seems incredible, but Lloyd George in his Memoirs makes the fact abundantly clear. “A month after he (Haig) took over the French line (he writes) there were only 626 labourers allocated to the preparation of the defences of the Fifth Army.” This was out of a total labour force of over 300,000.
“The result was (he goes on) that when the attack came, the defences were found to be utterly inadequate either to offer resistance or to delay the German masses.”
Once more it was to be a defence of makeshift and improvisation, such as the British troops seemed fated to endure all through the war.
The storm breaks – like a vast convulsion of nature
Late on the evening of March 20th a runner came round to the Battery to warn us that the expected attack would most probably be launched the following morning. We were not disposed to give the information much credence, however, for only a week before a “prepare for attack” warning had come through about midnight and as a result we were compelled to stand-to throughout the whole of a bitterly cold, frosty night and it was not until 7 a.m. that the order “Resume normal conditions” came along.
But this time it was to be the real thing. Although there was not order to stand-to, we decided to sleep in the gun-pit in order to be ready for all emergencies.
I found a tiny niche sandwiched between the entrance to the pit, (which was protected from infiltrating gas by a double blanket) and an ammunition rack containing two hundred live rounds of NCT and cordite.
Here I curled up in an impromptu sleeping bag and read Palgrave’s Golden Treasury by the light of a dripping candle stuck in a bottle.
Somehow, although I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous I couldn’t get to sleep and several times I took a stroll in the trench outside.
It was a lovely, starlit night, although there were trails of mist in the hollows and all along the frontline, towards which our gun muzzles were pointing menacingly, the silent, dazzling arcs of innumerable Verey lights lit up the surrounding countryside like an immense three-dimensional photograph in black and white. Obviously the infantry were as restless as we were.
Inside the gun-pit I had made certain that everything that could be done had been done and double checked.
The gun was laid on the correct SOS line, with a round in the breech; fifty shrapnel fuses had been set to correspond with the sliding scale on the fuse indicator; canvas buckets were filled with water and a number of ammunition boxes filled with sand in case of fire; every man’s respirator and steel helmet was within easy reach; each individual on the detachment knew his job backwards and we all had our rum ration.
Like a top
About midnight an order came down from Battery office that a gunner must stay on guard outside the entrance to the pit in order to pass on verbal messages.
This looked like business and so, having posted my man, with instructions that he should be relieved in an hour, I turned in.
Now that the uncertainty was over, I fell asleep immediately and slept like a top. Now I understand the meaning of the cryptic phrase; “The condemned man passed a good night.”
A few minutes before 4.30 a. m. according to instructions, I was awakened by the sentry and the detachment stood-to.
The silence was almost uncanny; from the frontline not even the stutter of a machine-gun served to remind us that there was a war on. It was almost as though every soldier on that widely extended front from Arras to St. Quentin had been turned into stone.
Then at 4.30 precisely the storm broke, with an elemental fury that was simply unbelievable.
The quiet night air was torn by the screams and thunder of a pitiless deluge of bursting shells; shells of every type and calibre, shrapnel, H. E., gas and incendiary.
It burst upon the battery position like some vast convulsion of nature, as if the solid earth was disintegrating and crumbling away in a welter of flame.
I had experienced quite a number of enemy ‘strafes’ at one time or another, but never anything like this. Here is the prosaic version of the battery official diary:
“Were warned last night to expect Bosche attack. At 4.30 tremendous barrage opened on whole front. All communications went in the first few minutes & owing to a thick fog visual was useless & SOS rockets not seen. Runners took hours to get through if they got through at all, owing to the fog & barrage & the valley being flooded with gas. The Battery fired on “Counter Preparation”. In the first half hour all three guns at the main position were knocked out with many casualties & the Tank Gun suffered the same fate without being able to see a target. The two guns at the forward section kept going to the last & finished up with open sights as the Bosche came over the crest and withdrew with breech blocks. Hardly any of the inf. came through the Battery and it was difficult to realise what was happening. When the main three guns were knocked out the Major took the men back to B/331 position where there had been casualties to men but guns intact. They manned these & supplied them with ammunition & defended the position with rifles till the guns were destroyed. The supply of ammunition was very difficult owing to the fog & gas & very few packs got through. For most of the day the Battery was isolated as no orders came through from Group. The men collected at the wagon line which during the night was moved to a cavalry camp near Courcelle.”
Thus far the official version. It differs in some respects from my recollections of that eventful day.
A direct hit and a miraculous escape
It was still pitch dark in the early morning of that fateful day, March 21st, 1918, when I was roused by a battery signaller shaking me by the shoulder. I yawned and looked at my watch. Exactly 4 a. m., thirty minutes before zero hour.
“All right, chaps, now show a leg,” I called to the detachment. “This is it.” And I recollect a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar kept running through my mind, for no reason… “If you have tears prepare to shed them now.”
However, instead of weeping together, we took the more sensible course of ceremonially sharing a last cigarette and then climbing into our respective positions on the gun.
Then we waited, for what seemed like an eternity, passing the time in desultory conversation. I even cracked a few jokes, but they sounded vaguely unconvincing, even to my partial ears.
Then, without the slightest warning, the Bosche barrage crashed down with the insensate fury of a hurricane, crumbling and disintegrating the solid earth around us, and after that all was chaos.
As it was obvious that no orders could possibly come through, I gave the signal to commence retaliatory fire but within seconds the gun was out of action.
A direct hit had demolished the side of the gun-pit, smashed the near gun-wheel and tilted the piece sideways so that it was completely out of action.
Several of the detachment were wounded, although none seriously, but the constant scream of passing projectiles and the incessant, deafening explosion of heavy calibre shells, H.E., shrapnel, incendiary and gas which fell all about us with the staccato beat of drum-fire, made it impossible to communicate except by sign.
To add to our difficulties, we were compelled to wear our box respirators, for poison gas was seeping in through a dozen vents and the air was acrid with its fumes.
So, dazed and helpless, we just sat where we were, gritted our teeth and took it.
Finally, a second direct hit penetrated the roof of the pit, burst on the breech within a yard from where I knelt holding the traversing lever, exploding our own ammunition as it detonated. All I recall was a blinding flash and then oblivion.
When I cam to my senses I found myself lying in the ruins of the trench just behind the gun. I must owe my life to the fact that I was kneeling directly in front of the entrance to the gun-pit and had been blown by the terrific blast clean through the narrow tunnel.
Dazed and shocked, I was conscious of a dreadful pain in my groin and, having seen something of the frightful mess a splinter can make in what red-cross orderlies casually referred to as ‘abdominals’ it was some time before I could force myself to investigate.
What an escape. A red-hot splinter had been deflected by a bunch of keys in my pocket leaving s mark on every key as if it had been scored by an acetylene cutter, and gouged a scorched wound across the inside of my thigh and then passed between my legs. It even burnt the lap of my shirt but I had no complaints about that.
Actually, I had escaped in a miraculous fashion and although, further investigation revealed that my right leg had been peppered with a dozen minute fragments of shell case, some of which were embedded in the bone, I had no internal injuries and nothing was broken.
But what of the detachment? By this time it was almost daylight and the enemy barrage was beginning to lift. It was then that I noticed the survivors of an infantry company manning the trench to form a defensive flank against what was obviously an extensive German break-though on our immediate left.
I explained the position to a youthful subaltern, who at once detailed two of his men to join me. Then I scrambled back into the smouldering inferno that had once been our gun-pit, to hunt for survivors.
Two of the detachment were obviously past human help but a stifled groan from among the debris led me to two crumpled figures lying alongside the trail. Both had extensive injuries, including smashed limbs and both had lost a good deal of blood.
We got them both out into the open and applied tourniquets to the arterial bleeding. Then we lowered them gently into an adjoining dugout, which by some strange chance still retained its roof. Here the young officer joined me.
“They look in a bad way,” he said softly. “Do you think they have a chance?”
I shrugged my shoulders. One of the men was already unconscious but the other was sweating with pain.
“I have a few morphine tablets in my wallet,” said the sub., hesitantly. “Do you think…”
“For heaven’s sake, give him one,” I said, “Just wait till I scrounge a water bottle.”
I borrowed a flask from one of the infantrymen outside and the wounded man drank avidly. I went back out with the bottle, for I thought its owner would need it badly before the day was out. But I need not have troubled. All that remained of the unfortunate infantryman was his steel helmet perched on top of a mound of smoking rubble and his dead hand protruding a little below. Poor chap, to use a pregnant army phrase, he had got one all to himself.
The barrage closed down again, and as there seemed nothing else I could do, I remained with the wounded men until fresh orders came along. Soon after the man who had been unconscious died.
Then a strange thing happened. I saw a groping hand emerge from beneath the blanket covering poor S. the sole survivor of my detachment.
It was if the departing spirit, on the threshold of eternity, wished to make some human contact, to sense human companionship, before taking its last journey into the unknown. Moved by a sudden impulse, I gripped those reaching-out fingers and held on to them until they relaxed in death. It was all I could do.
A 100-yard race with life as the prize
It must have been about 11 a. m. (my watch had stopped: obviously another case of shell-shock), when at last the Bosche barrage finally lifted and extended as far as the sunken road about 100 yards behind our position.
The relief on one’s nerves and ear drums, after hours of intensive bombardment, was a positive luxury, but we were not to enjoy it long.
Hardly had we become conscious of the blessed silence when a grim-visaged infantry sergeant poked his helmeted head into the dugout.
“Any walking wounded cases in here?” he asked.
I looked at my pal H., of “E” sub-section, who had sustained an arm wound.
“Only two, I’m afraid,” I replied, “But we need some stretcher-bearers badly.”
“Stretcher-bearers my foot,” he laughed hysterically “You’d better skip out quickly: Jerry’s on top of us.”
There were half a dozen stretcher cases in the dugout to evacuate the trench meant leaving them behind. On the other hand, there seemed little point in allowing ourselves to be captured, or likely as not, bayoneted by a triumphant enemy.
A picture of that other captured German battery I had seen in the Salient flashed through my mind in all its stark horror and I decided to make a dash for freedom. H. had already come to the same conclusion.
The only chance
Cautiously we peered over the wrecked parado. Sure enough, there the grey-clad figures were, dozens of them, strung out in line and stumbling across the smoking and shell-pitted ground at a jog-trot, each man with his bayoneted rifle resting on his hip.
They were little more than 100 yards away and we had not so much as a pea-shooter to defend ourselves with. We had to make up our minds and make then up quickly.
“The sunken road,” I gasped. “It’s our only chance,”
H. nodded; he was always a youth of few words. Then we took a final look at the approaching Bosche obviously intent on capturing the battery position; shook hands ceremoniously and bolted over the parapet like two scared rabbits. And we were scared enough, believe me.
Soon bullets were whistling around us, apparently from all points of the compass; halfway across H. fell head over heels, with a bullet graze across his calf but he picked himself up and was off once more.
An instant later I felt a tremendous blow on my left arm, almost jolting it from the socket and leaving it numb. I thought for a moment it had been hit by a stone; then I saw the arterial blood pumping down my fingers and knew I had stopped a bullet.
Like an eternity
Looking back after all these years it seems incredible that we both should have escaped so lightly. Probably we owed our lives to the fact that the advancing Bavarians were in so great a hurry to reach their objective that they had no time to stop and fire at us from the shoulder. Instead, they shot from the hip as they advanced, maybe they even though they would give us a sporting chance, but that is one thing I shall never know.
Suffice to say that, after a lapse of time that seemed like an eternity, we both rolled into the sunken road and were, for a moment, under cover.
Here, as I was losing a great deal of blood, H. managed to check the bleeding with a pad from his emergency field dressing and then we were off once more.
The road ran parallel with the frontline for a distance of about half a mile and we were able to follow it to the end, stumbling along the skirt of the barrage, which had again lifted a few yards.
Occasionally a shell falling short helped to hasten our lagging footsteps and there was one hair-raising episode when a 12" howitzer shell buried itself at our feet and then failed to explode, another instance of the incredible luck that persisted all through that eventful day.
The last away
It had been our intention to make for an advanced dressing station which we knew had been set up in the vicinity of Hargicourt, but as we approached the sight of a dozen familiar grey-clad, jack-booted infantrymen warned us that Jerry had already taken over.
So we veered off in the direction of Roisel, where ultimately we were picked up by a horse drawn field ambulance. It was the last to get away; another example of the kindly workings of providence.
And with that final episode, (although I did not know it at the time), my spell of active service came to an end.
My subsequent experience in ‘Blighty,’ including two hectic gunnery courses at Woolwich and Larkhill and my final posting as instructor to a 6" howitzer officer’s cadet school (a typical example of official blundering, in view of the fact that I was an 18 pounder, field gunner) is another story.
A final word, casualties incurred by all combatants in the First World War have been estimated at upwards of 30 millions but in my view that was not the greatest evil arising from this colossal piece of human folly.
In its train it released vast, inchoate forces of evil and disruption which are still running rampant throughout the world and are gradually undermining the strength and stability of western civilization. Wherever we choose to look, ominous cracks appear; the general decline in moral standards, widespread social unrest, bitter racial antagonisms, irreligion, and a lack of purpose in educational training… one could extend the list almost indefinitely.
If we are to survive, these problems must be faced and overcome here and now; failure to meet them can only lead to atomic war… and beyond that lies the abyss.