On New Year’s Day, Colonel Alexander, commanding, went on leave, and was succeeded by Major R. H. Ferguson. The Battalion, reconstituted and replenished, marched to Arras Gaol, which was always regarded as a superior billet in cold weather, as the only shelling that mattered took the south-east end of the town. Their work for the next few weeks was to occupy and prevent the enemy from raiding into the system of trenches and posts on the Scarpe to the east of Arras at and round Fampoux and Rœux. Their experiences there were precisely the same as those of the 1st Battalion. It was, as we know, a variegated, swampy, and in places overlooked, stretch of works which had been used as a front line a almost since the beginning of the War, and was paved with odds and ends of ancient horrors as well as thoroughly soaked with remains of tear and other gas in the support-lines. Their first turn began on the 2nd January when they relieved a battalion of Gordon Highlanders in bitter cold weather, and settled down to the business of wiring and cleaning-up. A small excitement was the shelling of the left company by trench-mortars, to which our guns replied but in their zeal cut our own wire. The frost so far kept the trenches standing up, but, as none of them were revetted, it was obvious that the next thaw would bring them all down. Then the duckboards froze and turned to ice, and the C.O., slipping on them, fell and strained himself so badly that he had to go to hospital. Food apart, there was little comfort or decency in that work of shovelling and firming dirt, and shivering day and night in their dry or sodden clothing. Their rests at Arras were complicated by the necessity of looking out for enemy aeroplanes, which forbade them drilling more than one company at a time; and men grow vastly wearied of standing about and fiddling with small duties in a constricted town. The Battalion was so reduced in strength, too, that two companies together made little more than an ordinary platoon. However, in spite of knowing each other to the limits of boredom, they found a certain amount of amusement in respirator drill for all cooks, Headquarters details and the like (one cannot afford to have cooks and storemen gassed) under the company gas N.C.O. At the end of it, the Sergeant-Major, without mask, drilled them where they stood, when their boomings and bellowings as they numbered off delighted every one. Gas was always a nuisance. Broadly speaking, a good scenting day would be good for gas, both old and new; but, without direct orders, the men loathed casing themselves in their masks, and company officers, sniffing the faint familiar flavour of ether or rotting leaves in Northumberland or Shaftesbury Avenue, had to chase them into the apparatus.
Then came a time when, on most of the sectors, the wet trenches went out of commission altogether, and both sides, if they wished to move about, had to climb out in full view of each other. At last, they practically abandoned the front line and fell back on the support. It made little difference, since the enemy was quiet except for occasional salvoes of trench-mortar gas-bombs. Even when a dummy raid on their left caused him to put down a hot barrage for an hour, there were no casualties. The main trouble was the gas-shells in which the enemy, with an eye to the near future, specialised and experimented freely.
So passed January ’18, and on the 10th February began the transfer of the newly formed 4th Guards Brigade, of three lean battalions (2nd Irish Guards, 3rd Coldstream, and 4th Grenadiers), to their new division and companions.
The officers of the Brigade were conducted to Vimy Ridge that they might well look over the rear-line defences, in case it should be necessary to fall back there. It took them into the territory of the First Corps and a world where they were divorced from all their tired associates and had to learn the other ways that suited the other people among whom their lot would be cast. All Battalion Headquarters dined together at the Hôtel de l’Univers next day, after Brigadier-General Sergison-Brooke, commanding their old brigade, had said good-bye and thanked them all for all they had done while they had been with him. They were played out of barracks at Arras by the regimental band and the drums of the Welch Guards. “The Battalion marched past our late Brigadier at the Rond Point in column of route. Thus we left the Guards Division.” No one was overelated at the change; and none could foresee that they were within a few weeks of their death as a battalion.
Their first destination was at Bray beneath the little hill above the Scarpe south of the long pavé to Villers-au-Bois, and their first duty was rehearsal for ceremonial parade on St. Valentine’s Day before their new corps commander. He complimented them on their looks and expressed his sense of the honour of having a Guards Brigade with him. After which came immediate conference on taking over the new ground assigned them, from troops of the Line. It was a sector of the line between Lens and Arras that had never shifted since the War was young—the Bailleul–Willerval stretch, about five miles north of their old sector at Fampoux, that ran up to Arleux-en-Gohelle and looked directly towards inaccessible Douai. It was worked on a different system from the old pattern—the brigade front of 2000 yards being lightly held by widely spaced fortified posts; with a strong support-trench known as the Arleux Loop a thousand yards in the rear. Their brigade went up in the night of the 17th, the 2nd Irish Guards in support. The enemy, quite aware there were new troops up, began to fish for samples. The 4th grenadiers held the front line on the 19th February. The C.O. of the 2nd Irish Guards had been up that afternoon to look at the lie of the land as the Battalion were going to take it over in a couple of days. Everything was quiet—too quiet to be healthy, indeed, till late in the evening when a heavy bombardment preluded a scientifically thought-out German raid for identification purposes. It failed, for the Grenadiers dealt rudely with the raids; but it lasted for a couple of hours from the time that the first SOS was sent up, and served the battalion, who stood to, but were not needed, as an excellent rehearsal for emergencies. Likewise, the enemy barrage knocked the frontline trenches about, and in the confusion of things an SOS went up from too far on the left of the assaulted line, so that our protective barrage came down where there was no enemy and had to be shifted.
When the Battalion took over from the 4th Grenadiers (they could relieve all but two of the posts in daylight, thanks to the formation of the ground) Brigade Headquarters in its turn wanted samples from the German lines where had been recent reliefs. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion accordingly sent patrols unavailingly into No Man’s Land to see if they could catch any one. By the sheer luck of the Irish, an enemy deserter in full uniform must needs come and give himself up to our line in the afternoon. He was despatched at once to Brigade Headquarters with the single word: “Herewith.” The quarter-mile of chaos between the lines was so convenient that they used quiet nights to train their young officers and N.C.O.’s in patrolling; and as the brigades on their flanks were nearly half a mile away, the young also received much instruction in night-liaison work.
They were relieved, for the last time, in February by the 3rd Coldstream and sent into Brigade Reserve to their division at Ecurie Camp till the 2nd March, when they were despatched to dig and improve a trenchline near Farbus under Vimy Ridge while the rest of their brigade went into divisional reserve at Villers-Brulin. It cost a week of heavy work, after dark, under intermittent shell-fire, varied with fierce snowstorms, and ended in a return to the excellent billets of Villers-Brulin for half the Battalion, while the other half lay at Béthonsart near by—a dozen miles at the back of Arras. Here they were cleaned up, drilled and lectured while the great storm gathered along the fronts. St. Patrick’s Day passed with the usual solemnities and sports, the extra good dinner, and the distribution of the shamrock. This last was almost superfluous as a large proportion of the Battalion had ceased to be Irish, and they were filled up with drafts from the Household Brigade and elsewhere.
On the 21st March they finished the finals in the divisional sports-tug-of-war and boxing against the 15th West Yorkshires. At one o’clock in the morning came word that the Battalion would probably move by bus at eight directly into the battle, which promised to be hot. As a matter of fact, they and their brigade found themselves on the outskirts of it almost as soon as they left billets. The enemy had begun a comprehensive shelling of all back-areas and they could hear the big stuff skying above them all round St. Pol. Their buses picked them up at St. Pol Fervent and headed for Beaumetz where they were met by a member of the General Staff who explained the local situation so far as they had been able to overtake it. Clearer information was supplied by the sight of the burning canteen stores at Boisleux-au-Mont, which, with vast food supplies, had been set alight as a precautionary measure, though the enemy did not arrive till some days later. There was no accurate news but any amount of rumour, none comforting. The upshot, however, was that the Thirty-first Division was to get into the line at once and hold the ground west of St. Léger, which village was already in the enemy’s hands. There would be an army line in the neighbourhood dug to a depth of three feet—hardly what might be called a trench; but, such as it was, they would go forth into the night (it was now past 11 P.M.) and occupy it. The column departed with these instructions, marched through Hamelincourt, found the line, and settled down in the face of an agitated and noisy landscape under a sky illumined by strange lights and quivering to the passage of shell. The 4th Battalion Grenadiers was on their right and they themselves, with the 3rd Coldstream in support, held a thousand yards of front running down to the little Sensée River. Somewhere behind them was the Arras–Bapaume road being generously shelled; and somewhere in front and on the flank, felt to be all Germany with all its munitions. The shelling, moreover, was mixed, big and little stuff together, proving that the enemy field-guns were amazingly well forward. This orchestra was enlivened with blasts and rips of machine-gun fire from every unexpected quarter. All the 23rd of March was confusion, heavy shelling, and contradictory orders from brigades and divisions that lay near them; and a certain amount of shelling from our own artillery, varied by direct attacks on the trenches themselves. In these the enemy failed, were cut down by our directed musketry, and left many dead. At the end of the day the Battalion was told to shift to the right of the 4th Grenadiers and so relieve the 13th Yorkshire and the 21st Middlesex who had suffered a good deal. They had hardly got into their new place when firing was heard from Mory on their right, and men were seen streaming down the road, with word that the enemy were through at Mory Copse and in full cry for Ervillers. This left the Battalion largely in the air and necessitated making some sort of flank to the southward, as well as collecting what remained of the Yorkshires and Headquarters details, and using them for the same purpose, much as it had been with the 1st Battalion at First Ypres, centuries ago. (“Yes, you may say that we made defensive flanks to every quarter of the world. We was all defensive flank and front line at once and the same time. But if any one tells you that any one knew what was done, or why ’twas done, in these days, ye will have strong reason to doubt them. We was anywhere and Jerry was everywhere, and our own guns was as big a nuisance as Jerry. When we had done all we could we fell back. We did not walk away by platoons.”) They worked, then, at their poor little defensive flanks, and, between shellings, saw the enemy streaming down into the valley towards Behagnies and Ervillers. Mory seemed to have gone altogether, and north and south of the cut and pitted hills they could hear the enemy’s riot all over the forlorn Somme uplands. At evening came orders to fall back on the high ground from Courcelles to Moyenneville, three or four miles to their rear. This was none the less welcome because a battery of our own big guns had been dutifully shelling Battalion Headquarters and the Sensée valley at large for some hours past. Lieutenant Dalton and Captain the Hon. H. B. O’Brien were both wounded. There must have been a good deal of unnecessary slaughter on the Somme during those days. Gunners, of course, could not always tell whether our people had evacuated a position or were holding on; and at a few thousand yards’ range in failing lights, mistakes are bound to happen.
Their new position, on a front of three thousand yards, had no trenches. The C.O. himself sited for them and the men began digging at midnight on the 26th. At five in the morning they were ordered to move back at once to Ayette and leave what they had sketched out, for a couple of other brigades to occupy. They next set about digging in at the southerly end of Ayette village, but as they were few, and their frontage was perilously long, could but hold the line in spots and trust to the massed fire of machine-guns on the slopes behind it, to dam back attacks.
On the afternoon of the 26th the enemy were in Moyenneville to the north-east of them; so a company had to be despatched to dig in at the other end of Ayette and were badly machine-gunned while they worked, losing one officer and sixteen other ranks. At eleven o’clock on the morning of the 27th the enemy barraged two retiring brigades in the trenches which the Battalion had so kindly begun for their use. At mid-day the enemy “attacked these two brigades, who soon afterwards passed, leaving the 4th Guards Brigade once more in the line.” Delicacy of diction could hardly go further. But the situation was very curious. The enemy came up; our battered troops went away. That was all there was to it. Panic and confusion broke out occasionally; but the general effect upon a beholder who was not withdrawing was that of the contagious “rot” that overtakes cricket and football teams. Effort ceased, but morale in some queer way persisted. The enemy after the “passing” of the two brigades massed the two battalions by the aerodrome there, to press on the attack. Our guns had due word of it, waited till the force was well assembled and destroyed it so utterly in a few minutes that there was no advance. Our line at Ayette was strengthened by the arrival of two companies of Grenadier Guards and one hundred men of the East Lancashires, which were all that could be got hold of. Then—but nothing really seemed to matter in that scale of gigantic disaster—Colonel Alexander, their C.O., had to take command of the Brigade, as the Brigadier, Lord Ardee, had been gassed and forced to go sick. Major P. S. Long-Innes arrived at midnight of the 27th and took over command of the Battalion. On the 28th the enemy were well into Ayette and sniping viciously, and our line, intact here, be it remembered, drew back to the line of the Bucquoy–Ayette road while our howitzers from behind barraged Ayette into ruin. One Hun sniper in that confused country of little dips and hollows and winding roads walked straight into our lines and was captured—to his intense annoyance, for he expected to go on to London at least.
On the 31st of March they were relieved and went to rest-billets. They had dug, wired, fought, and fallen back as ordered, for ten days, and nights heavier than their days, under conditions that more than equalled their retreat from Mons. Like their 1st Battalion in those primeval days, they had lost most things except their spirits. Filthy, tired, hoarse, and unshaven, they got into good billets at Chelers, just ripe for clean-up and “steady drills.” The enemy rush on the Somme had outrun its own effective backing and was for the while spent. Our line there had given to the last limits of concession and hung now on the west fringe of all that great cockpit which it had painfully won in the course of a year and lost in less than a fortnight. As far as the front could see, the game was now entirely in Hun hands. Our business, possibly too long neglected among our many political preoccupations, was to get more troops and guns into France. A draft of two hundred and twenty-four men reached the Battalion at Chelers on the 4th of April, under Lieutenant Buller, who went on to join the 1st Battalion, and 2nd Lieutenant Kent. A further draft of sixty-two, nearly all English, came in on the 7th. Colonel Alexander resumed command after his turn as brigadier, and Captain Charles Moore and Lieutenant Keenan also arrived. The former was posted to No. 1 Company for a time, pending action as Second in Command, and the latter attached to Battalion Headquarters for the comprehensive duties of sniping, bombing and intelligence. It was a hasty reorganisation in readiness to be used again, as soon as the Battalion got its second wind.
On the 9th of April was a brigade rehearsal of “ceremonial” parade for inspection by their major-general next day. A philosopher of the barracks has observed: “When there’s ceremonial after rest and fatup, it means the General tells you all you are a set of heroes, and you’ve done miracles and ’twill break his old hard heart to lose you; and so ye’ll throt off at once, up the road and do it all again.” On the afternoon of that next day, when the Brigade had been duly complimented on its appearance and achievements by its major-general, a message came by motor-bicycle and it was “ordered to proceed to unknown destination forthwith.” Buses would meet it on the Arras–Tinques road. But the Battalion found no buses there, and with the rest of its brigade, spent the cool night on the roadside, unable to sleep or get proper breakfasts, as a prelude next morn to a twelve-hour excursion of sixty kilometres to Pradelles. Stripped of official language, the situation which the 4th Guards Brigade were invited to retrieve was a smallish but singularly complete debacle on Somme lines. Nine German divisions had been thrown at our front between Armentières and La Bassée on the 9th April. They had encountered, among others a Portuguese division, which had evaporated making a gap of unknown extent but infinite possibilities not far from Hazebrouck. If Hazebrouck went, it did not need to be told that the road would be clear for a straight drive at the Channel ports. The 15th Division had been driven back from the established line we had held so long in those parts, and was now on a front more or less between Merville and Vieux-Berquin south-east of Hazebrouck and the Forest of Nieppe. Merville, men hoped, still held out, but the enemy had taken Neuf Berquin and was moving towards Vierhoek. Troops were being rushed up, and it was hoped the 1st Australian Division would be on hand pretty soon. In the meantime, the 4th Guards Brigade would discover and fill the nearest or widest gap they dropped into. It might also be as well for them to get into touch with the divisions on their right and left, whose present whereabouts were rather doubtful.
These matters were realised fragmentarily, but with a national lightness of heart, by the time they had been debussed on the night of the 11th April into darkness somewhere near Paradis and its railway station, which lies on the line from the east into Hazebrouck. From Paradis, the long, level, almost straight road runs, lined with farmhouses, cottages, and gardens, through the villages of Vieux-Berquin, La Couronne, and Pont Rondin, which adjoin each other, to Neuf Berquin and Estaires, where, and in its suburb of La Gorgue, men used once to billet in peace. The whole country is dead flat, studded with small houses and cut up by ten-foot ditches and fences. When they halted they saw the horizon lit by distant villages and, nearer, single cottages ablaze. On the road itself fires of petrol sprang up where some vehicle had come to grief or a casual tin had ignited. As an interlude a private managed to set himself alight and was promptly rolled in some fresh plough. Delayed buses thumped in out of the night, and their men stumbled forth, stiff-legged, to join the shivering platoons. The night air to the east and southward felt singularly open and unwholesome. Of the other two battalions of the Brigade there was no sign. The C.O. went off to see if he could discover what had happened to them, while the Battalion posted sentries and were told to get what rest they could. “Keep a good look-out, in case we find ourselves in the front line.” It seemed very possible. They lay down to think it over till the C.O. returned, having met the Brigadier, who did not know whether the Guards Brigade was in the front line or not, but rather hoped there might be some troops in front of it. Battle order for the coming day would be the Battalion in reserve, 4th Grenadiers on their left, and 3rd Coldstream on the right. But as these had not yet come up, No. 2 Company (Captain Bambridge) would walk down the Paradis–Vieux-Berquin road southward till they walked up, or into, the enemy, and would also find a possible line for the Brigade to take on arrival. It was something of a situation to explain to men half of whom had never heard a shot fired off the range, but the personality behind the words conveyed it, they say, almost seductively. No. 2 Company then split in two, and navigated down the Vieux-Berquin road through the dark, taking special care to avoid the crown of it. The houses alongside had been abandoned, except that here and there an old woman still whimpered among her furniture or distracted hens. Thus they prowled for an hour or so, when they were fired at down the middle of the road, providently left clear for that purpose. Next they walked into the remnants of one or two North Country battalions lying in fresh-punched shell-holes, obviously trying to hold a line, who had no idea where they were but knew they were isolated and announced they were on the eve of departure. The enemy, a few hundred yards away, swept the road afresh with machine-gun fire, but made no move. No. 2 Company lay down in the shell-holes while Bambridge with a few men and an officer went on to find a position for the Brigade. He got it, and fell back with his company just as light was breaking. By this time the rest of the Battalion was moving down towards Vieux-Berquin and No. 2 Company picked them up half an hour later. The Grenadiers and Coldstream appeared about half-past three, were met and guided back by Bambridge more or less into the position originally chosen. There had been some notion originally of holding a line from Vieux-Moulin on the swerve of the Vieux-Berquin road where it straightens for Estaires, and the college a little north of Merville; but Merville had gone by now, and the enemy seemed in full possession of the ground up to Vierhoek and were spreading, as their machine-gun fire showed, all round the horizon. The two battalions adjusted themselves (they had hurried up in advance of their rations and most of their digging tools) on a line between the Le Cornet Perdu, a slight rise west of the main Vieux-Berquin road, and L’Epinette Farm. The 2nd Irish Guards lay behind them with Battalion Headquarters at Ferme Gombert—all, as has been said in dead flat open country, without the haziest notion of what troops, if any, lay within touch.
The morning of April 12th broke hot and sunny, under a sky full of observation-balloons that seemed to hover directly above them. These passed word to the German guns, and the bombardment of heavies and shrapnel began—our own artillery not doing much to keep it down—with a careful searching of all houses and shelters, and specially for Battalion Headquarters. The Battalion, imperfectly dug in, or to the mere leeward of cottages and fences, suffered; for every movement was spotted by the balloons. The officers walking about between cottage and cottage went in even greater peril; and it was about this time that Lieutenant M. B. Levy was hit in the head by shrapnel and killed at once.
Meantime, the Coldstream on the right and the Grenadiers on the left, the former trying to work south towards Vierhoek and the latter towards Pont Rondin through the houses along the Vieux-Berquin road, were being hammered and machine-gunned to pieces. The Grenadiers in particular were enfiladed by a battery of field-guns firing with open sights at three hundred yards down the road. The Coldstream sent back word about ten o’clock that. the 50th Division, which should have been on their right, was nowhere in view and that their right, like the Grenadiers’ left, was in the air. Two companies were then told from the 2nd Irish Guards, No. 3 Company, under Captain Maurice FitzGerald, in support of the Grenadiers, and No. 2, Captain Bambridge, to the Coldstream. No. 3 Company at first lay a little in front of Ferme Gombert, one of the Battalion Headquarters. It was wiped out in the course of that day and the next, with the 4th Grenadiers, when, of that battalion’s nineteen officers, but two (wounded) survived and ninety per cent of the rank and file had gone.
No. 2 Company’s road to the Coldstream lay across a couple of thousand yards of ploughed fields studded with cottages. Their officer left his people behind in what cover offered and with a few men made a preliminary reconnaissance to see how the passage could be run. Returning to find his company intact, he lectured them shortly on the situation and the necessity of “adopting an aggressive attitude”; but explained that the odds were against their reaching any destination unless they did exactly as they were told. So they advanced in four diamonds, working to word and whistle (“like sporting-dog trials”) under and among and between shrapnel, whizz-bangs that trundled along the ground, bursts of machine-gun fire and stray sniping. Their only cover was a few willows by the bank of the Bourre River which made their right flank, an occasional hedge or furrow, and cottages from which they noticed one or two old women called out. They saw, in the intervals of their earnest death-dance (“It must have looked like children’s games—only the sweat was dripping off us all”), cows and poultry at large, some peasants taking pitiful cover behind a fence, and a pair of plough-horses dead in their harness. At last the front was reached after only four killed and as many wounded; and they packed themselves in, a little behind the Coldstream.
The enemy all this while were well content with their artillery work, as they had good right to be; and when morning, checked it with machine-gun fire. One account of this period observes “there seemed to be nobody on the right or left of the Brigade, but all the morning we saw men from other divisions streaming back.” These headed, with the instinct of animals, for Nieppe Forest just behind the line, which, though searched by shell and drenched by gas, gave a semblance of shelter. Curiously enough, the men did not run. They walked, and before one could question them, would ask earnestly for the whereabouts of some battalion or division in which they seemed strangely interested. Then they would hold on towards cover.
(“They told us the Huns were attacking. They weren’t. We were. We told ’em to stop and help us. Lots of ’em did. No, they didn’t panic a bit. They just seemed to have chucked it quietly.”)
About two-thirty the enemy attacked, in fairly large numbers, the Coldstream and the division on its right which latter gave—or had already given. No. 2 Company of the Irish Guards had made a defensive flank in view of this danger, and as the enemy pressed past punished them with Lewis-gun fire. (The German infantry nowhere seemed enthusiastic, but the audacity and bravery of their machine-gunners was very fine.) None the less they got into a little collection of houses called Arrewage, till a counter-attack, organised by Bambridge of the 2nd Irish Guards, and Foster of the Coldstream, cleared them out again. In this attack, Bambridge was wounded and Captain E. D. Dent was killed.
By dusk it would have puzzled any one in it to say where our line stood; but, such as it was, it had to be contracted, for there were not men enough for the fronts. Of No. 2 Company not more than fifty were on their feet. No. 3 Company with No. 4 were still in support of the 4th Grenadiers somewhere in front of Ferme Gombert (which had been Battalion H.Q. till shelled out) and the Vieux-Berquin road; and No. 1 Company, besides doing its own fighting, had to be feeding the others. Battalion Headquarters had been shifted to a farm in Verte Rue a few hundred yards back; but was soon made untenable and a third resting-place had to be found—no easy matter with the enemy “all round everybody.” There was a hope that the Fifth Division would that evening relieve the 2nd Irish Guards in the line, but the relief did not come; and Captain Moore, Second in Command of the Battalion, went out from Verte Rue to Arrewage to find that division. Eventually, he seems to have commandeered an orderly from a near-by battalion and got its C.O. to put in a company next to the remnants of No. 2. All the records of that fight are beyond any hope of straightening, and no two statements of time or place agree. We know that Battalion Headquarters were shifted, for the third time, to a farm just outside the village of Caudescure, whose intact church-spire luckily drew most of the enemy fire. No. 4 Company, under Heard, was ordered to line along the orchards of Caudescure facing east, and No. 1 Company lay on the extreme right of the line which, on the night of the 12th April, was supposed to run northward from Arrewage and easterly through Le Cornet Perdu, where the 4th Grenadiers were, to the Vieux-Berquin road. Whether, indeed, it so ran or whether any portion of it was held, no one knew. What is moderately certain is that on the morning of the 13th April, a message came to Battalion H.Q. that the enemy had broken through between the remnants of the Coldstream and the Grenadiers, somewhere in the direction of Le Cornet Perdu. Our No. 3 Company (Captain M. FitzGerald) was despatched at once with orders to counter-attack and fill the gap. No more was heard of them. They went into the morning fog and were either surrounded and wiped out before they reached the Grenadiers or, with them, utterly destroyed, as the enemy’s line lapped round our left from La Couronne to Verte Rue. The fighting of the previous day had given time, as was hoped, for the 1st Australian Division to come up, detrain, and get into the Forest of Nieppe where they were holding the edge of the Bois d’Aval; but the position of the 4th Guards Brigade outside the Forest had been that of a crumbling sandbank thrust out into a sea whose every wave wore it away.
The enemy, after several minor attacks, came on in strength in the afternoon of the 13th, and our line broke for awhile at Arrewage, but was mended, while the Brigade Headquarters sent up a trench mortar battery under a Coldstream officer, for the front line had only rifles. They were set between No. 4 and No. 2 Company in the Irish Guards’ line. Later the C.O. arrived with a company of D.C.L.I. and put them next the T.M.B. (It was a question of scraping together anything that one could lay hands on and pushing it into the. nearest breach.) The shelling was not heavy, but machine-gun fire came from every quarter, and lack of bombs prevented our men from dealing with snipers in the cottages, just as lack of Very lights prevented them from calling for artillery in the night. The Australians were reported to be well provided with offensive accessories, and when Battalion Headquarters, seeing there was a very respectable chance of their being surrounded once more, inquired of Brigade Headquarters how things were going, they were told that they were in strength on the left. Later, the Australians lent the Battalion some smoke-bomb confections to clean out an annoying corner of the front. That night, Saturday 13th April, the men, dead tired, dug in as they could where they lay and the enemy—their rush to Hazebrouck and the sea barred by the dead of the Guards Brigade—left them alone.
Rations and ammunition came up into the line, and from time to time a few odds and ends of reinforcements. By the morning of April 14th the Australians were in touch with our left which had straightened itself against the flanks of the Forest of Nieppe, leaving most of the Brigade casualties outside it. Those who could (they were not many) worked their way back to the Australian line in driblets. The Lewis-guns of the Battalion—and this was pre-eminently a battle of Lewis-guns—blazed all that morning from behind what cover they had, at the general movement of the enemy between La Couronne and Verte Rue which they had occupied. (“They was running about like ants, some one way, some the other—the way Jerry does when he’s manœuvrin’ in the open. Ye can’t mistake it; an’ it means trouble.”) It looked like a relief or a massing for an attack, and needed correction as it was too close to our thin flank. Telephones had broken down, so a runner was despatched to Brigade Headquarters to ask that the place should be thoroughly shelled. An hour, however, elapsed ere our guns came in, when the Germans were seen bolting out of the place in every direction. A little before noon they bombarded heavily all along our front and towards the Forest; then attacked the Guards’ salient once more, were once more beaten off by our Lewis-guns; slacked fire for an hour, then re-bombarded and demonstrated, rather than attacked, till they were checked for the afternoon. They drew off and shelled till dusk when the shelling died down and the Australians and a Gloucester regiment relieved what was left of the 2nd Irish Guards and the Coldstream, after three days and three nights of fighting and digging during most of which time they were practically surrounded. The Battalion’s casualties were twenty-seven killed, a hundred missing and a hundred and twenty-three wounded; four officers killed (Captain E. D. Dent, Acting Captain M. B. Levy, Lieutenants J. C. Maher and M. R. FitzGerald); three wounded in the fighting (Captain Bambridge, 2nd Lieutenants F. S. L. Smith and A. A. Tindall) as well as Captain C. Moore on the 16th, and Lieutenant Lord Settrington and 2nd Lieutenant M. B. Cassidy among the missing.
Vieux-Berquin had been a battle, in the open, of utter fatigue and deep bewilderment, but with very little loss of morale or keenness, and interspersed with amazing interludes of quiet in which men found and played upon pianos in deserted houses, killed and prepared to eat stray chickens, and were driven forth from their music or their meal by shells or the sputter of indefatigable machine-guns. Our people did not attach much importance to the enemy infantry, but spoke with unqualified admiration of their machine-gunners. The method of attack was uniformly simple. Machine-guns working to a flank enfiladed our dug-in line, while field-guns hammered it flat frontally, sometimes even going up with the assaulting infantry. Meanwhile, individual machine-guns crept forward, using all shelters and covers, and turned up savagely in rear of our defence. Allowing for the fact that trench-trained men cannot at a moment’s notice develop the instinct of open fighting and an eye for the lie of land; allowing also for our lack of preparation and sufficient material, liberties such as the enemy took would never have been possible in the face of organised and uniform opposition. Physically, those three days were a repetition, and, morally, a repercussion of the Somme crash. The divisions concerned in it were tired, and “fed-up.” Several of them had been bucketed up from the Somme to this front after punishing fights where they had seen nothing but failure, and heard nothing but talk of further withdrawals for three weeks past. The only marvel is that they retired in any effective shape at all, for they felt hopeless. The atmosphere of spent effort deepened and darkened through all the clearing-stations and anxious hospitals, till one reached the sea, where people talked of evacuating the whole British force and concentrating on the Channel ports. It does not help a wounded man, half-sunk in the coma of his first injection, to hear nurses, doctors, and staff round him murmur: “Well, I suppose we shall have to clear out pretty soon.” As one man said: “’Twasn’t bad at the front because we knew we were doing something, but the hospitals were enough to depress a tank. We kept on telling ’em that the line was holding all right, but, by jove, instead of them comforting us with wounds all over us, we had to hold their hands an’ comfort ’em!”
As far as the Guards Division was concerned, no reports of the fight—company, battalion or brigade—tally. This is inevitable, since no company knew what the next was doing, and in a three days’ endurance-contest, hours and dates run into one. The essential fact remains. The 4th Guards Brigade stopped the German rush to the sea through a gap that other divisions had left; and in doing so lost two thirds at least of its effectives. Doubtless, had there been due forethought from the beginning, this battle need never have been waged at all. Doubtless it could have been waged on infinitely less expensive lines; but with a nation of amateurs abruptly committed to gigantic warfare and governed by persons long unused even to the contemplation of war, accidents must arise at every step of the game.
Sir Douglas Haig, in his despatches, wrote: “The performance of all the troops engaged in the most gallant stand,” which was only an outlying detail of the Battle of the Lys, “and especially that of the 4th Guards Brigade on whose front of some 4000 yards the heaviest attacks fell, is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number.” He goes on to say—and the indictment is sufficiently damning—that practically the whole of the divisions there had “been brought straight out of the Somme battlefield where they had suffered severely, and been subjected to great strain. All these divisions, without adequate rest and filled with young reinforcements which they had had no time to assimilate, were again hurriedly thrown into the fight, and in spite of the great disadvantage under which they laboured, succeeded in holding up the advance of greatly superior forces of fresh troops. Such an accomplishment reflects the greatest credit on the youth of Great Britain as well as upon those responsible for the training of the young soldiers sent from home at the time.” The young soldiers of the Battalion certainly came up to standard; they were keen throughout and-best of all—the A.P.M. and his subordinates who have, sometimes, unpleasant work to do at the rear, reported that throughout the fight “there were no stragglers.” Unofficial history asserts that, afterwards, the Battalion was rather rude to men of other divisions when discussing what had happened in the Forest.
On their relief (the night of the 14th-15th April) they moved away in the direction of Hazebrouck to embus for their billets. There was a certain amount of shelling from which the Coldstream suffered, but the Battalion escaped with no further damage than losing a few of the buses. Consequently, one wretched party, sleeping as it walked, had to trail on afoot in the direction of Borré, and those who were of it say that the trip exceeded anything that had gone before. “We were all dead to the world—officers and men. I don’t know who kicked us along. Some one did—and I don’t know who I kicked, but it kept me awake. And when we thought we’d got to our billets we were sent on another three miles. That was the final agony!”
What was left of the Brigade was next sorted out and reorganised. The 12th (Pioneer) Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I., who had borne a good share of the burden that fell upon our right, including being blown out of their trenches at least once, were taken into it; the 4th Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream, of two weak companies apiece, were, for a few days, made into one attenuated battalion. The 2nd Irish Guards, whose companies were almost forty strong, preserved its identity; and the enemy generously shelled the whole of them and the back-areas behind the Forest on the 16th April till they were forced to move out into the fields and dig in where they could in little bunches. Captain C. Moore, while riding round the companies with Colonel Alexander, was the only casualty here. He was wounded by shrapnel while he was getting off his horse.
On the 17th and 18th April they took the place, in reserve, of the 3rd Australian Brigade and worked at improving a reserve line close up to Hazebrouck. The enemy pressure was still severe, no one knew at what point our line might go next, while at the bases, where there was no digging to soothe and distract, the gloom had not lightened. The Australians preserved a cheerful irreverence and disregard for sorrow that was worth much. The Battalion relieved two companies of them on the 19th in support-line on the east edge of the Forest of Nieppe (Bois d’Aval) which was thick enough to require guides through its woodland rides. Here they lay very quiet, looking out on the old ground of the Vieux-Berquin fight, and lighting no fires for fear of betraying their position. The enemy at Ferme Beaulieu, a collection of buildings at the west end of the Verte Rue–La Couronne road and on the way to Caudescure, did precisely the same. But, on the 21st April, they gassed them most of the night and made the wood nearly uninhabitable. Nothing, be it noted once more, will make men put on their masks without direct pressure, and new hands cannot see that the innocent projectile that lands like a “dud” and lies softly hissing to itself, carries death or slow disablement. Gassing was repeated on the 22nd when they were trying to build up a post in the swampy woodlands where the water lay a foot or two from the surface. They sent out Sergeant Bellew and two men to see if samples could be gathered from Ferme Beaulieu. He returned with one deaf man who, by reason of his deafness, had been sent to the Ersatz. The Sergeant had caught him in a listening-post!
Next night they raided Ferme Beaulieu with the full strength of Nos. 2 and 4 Companies (eighty men) under 2nd Lieutenants Mathew and Close. It seems to have been an impromptu affair, and their sole rehearsal was in the afternoon over a course laid down in the wood. But it was an unqualified success. Barrages, big and machine-gun, timings and precautions all worked without a hitch and the men were keen as terriers. They came, they saw, and they got away with twenty-five unspoiled and identifiable captives, one of whom had been a North-German Lloyd steward and spoke good English. He told them tales of masses of reserves in training and of the determination of the enemy to finish the War that very summer. The other captives were profoundly tired of battle, but extremely polite and well disciplined. Among our own raiders (this came out at the distribution of honours later) was a young private, Neall, of the D.C.L.I. who had happened to lose his Battalion during the Vieux-Berquin fighting and had “attached himself” to the Battalion—an irregular method of transfer which won him no small good-will and, incidentally, the Military Medal for his share in the game.
Life began to return to the normal. The C.O. left, for a day or two, to command the Brigade, as the Brigadier was down with gas-poisoning, and on April the 25th a draft of fifty-nine men came in from home. Captain A. F. L. Gordon arrived as Second in Command, and Captain Law with him, from England on the 28th. On the 27th they were all taken out of D’Aval Wood and billeted in farms round Hondeghem, north of Hazebrouck on the Cassel road, to strengthen that side of the Hazebrouck defence systems. Continuous lines of parapet had to be raised across country, for all the soil here was water-logged. Of evenings, they would return to Hondeghem and amuse the inhabitants with their pipers and the massed bands of the Brigade. Except for the last few days of their stay, they were under an hour’s notice in Corps Reserve, while the final tremendous adjustments of masses and boundaries, losses and recoveries, ere our last surge forward began, troubled and kept awake all the fronts. They were inspected by General Plumer on the 15th for a distribution of medal-ribbons, and, having put in a thoroughly bad rehearsal the day before, achieved on parade a faultless full-dress ceremonial-drill, turn-out and appearance all excellent. (“The truth is, the way we were put through it at Warley, we knew that business blind, drunk, or asleep when it come to the day. But them dam’ rehearsals, with the whole world an’ all the young officers panickin’, they’re no refreshment to drilled men.”)
On the 20th May, when the line of the Lys battle had come to a stand-still, and the enemy troops in the salient that they had won and crowded into were enjoying the full effect of our long-range artillery, there was a possibility that their restored armies in the south might put further pressure on the Arras–Amiens front, and a certain shifting of troops was undertaken on our side which brought the 4th Guards Brigade down from Hondeghem by train to Mondicourt on the Doullens–Arras line, where the drums of the 1st Grenadiers played them out of the station, and, after a long, hot march, to Barly between Bavincourt and Avesnes. Their orders were, if the enemy broke through along that front, they would man the G.H.Q. line of defence which ran to the east of Barly Wood, and, for a wonder, was already dug. There is an impenetrability about the Island temperament in the face of the worst which defies criticism. Whether the enemy broke through or not was in the hands of Providence and the valour of their brethren; but the Battalion’s duty was plain. On the 22nd, therefore, they were lectured “on the various forms of salutes” and that afternoon selected, and ere evening had improved, “a suitable site in the camp for a cricket-pitch.” Cricket, be it noted, is not a national game of the Irish; but the Battalion was now largely English. Next day company officers “reconnoitred” the G.H.Q. line. After which they opened a new school of instruction, on the most solid lines, for N.C.O.’s and men. Their numbers being so small, none could later boast that he had escaped attention. At the end of the month their 1st Battalion borrowed four lieutenants (Close, Kent, Burke, and Dagger) for duty, which showed them, if they had not guessed it before, that they were to be used as a feeding battalion, and that the 4th Guards Brigade was, for further active use, extinct.
On the 9th June, after a week’s work on the G.H.Q. line and their camp, Captain Nugent was transferred as Second in Command to the 1st Battalion, and 2nd Lieutenant W. D. Faulkner took over the duties of Acting Adjutant.
On the 11th they transferred to camp in the grounds of Bavincourt Château, a known and well-bombed area, where they hid their tents among the trees, and made little dug-outs and shelters inside them, when they were not working on the back defences. But for the spread of the “Spanish influenza” June was a delightful month, pleasantly balanced between digging and divisional and brigade sports, for they were all among their own people again, played cricket matches in combination with their sister battalion, and wrote their names high on the list of prize-winners. Their serious business was the manufacture of new young N.C.O.’s for export to the 1st Battalion, and even to Caterham, “where they tame lions.” Batches of these were made and drilled under the cold eye of the Sergeant-Major, and were, perhaps, the only men who did not thoroughly appreciate life on the edge of the Somme in that inconceivable early summer of ’18.
The men, as men must be if they hope to live, were utterly unconcerned with events beyond their view. They comprehended generally that the German advance was stayed for the while, and that it was a race between the enemy and ourselves to prepare fresh armies and supplies; but they themselves had done what they were required to do. If asked, they would do it again, but not being afflicted with false heroisms, they were perfectly content that other battalions should now pass through the fire. (“We knew there was fighting all about an’ about. We knew the French had borrowed four or five of our divisions and they was being hammered on the Aisne all through May—that time we was learning to play cricket at Barly, an’ that’ll show you how many of us was English in those days! We heard about the old Fifth and Thirty-first Divisions retaking all our Vieux-Berquin ground at the end o’ June (when we was having those sports at Bavincourt) an’ we was dam’ glad of it—those of us who had come through that fight. But no man can hold more than one thing at a time, an’ a battalion’s own affairs are enough for one doings. . . . Now there was a man in those days, called Timoney—a runner—an’ begad, at the one mile and the half mile there was no one could see him when he ran, etc. etc.”)
The first little ripples of our own returning tide began to be felt along the Arras–Amiens line when on the 4th of July the Australians, under Lieutenant-General Monash, with four companies of the Thirty-third American Division and many tanks, retook our lost positions round Hamel and by Villers-Bretonneux. The Battalion celebrated that same day by assisting the American troops with them (and the Guards Division) at their national game. Here the Second in Command narrowly escaped serious injury in the cause of international good will, for a baseball, says the Diary most ungallantly, “luckily just missed him and struck a V.A.D. in the face.” The views of the V.A.D. are not given.
The 14th July, the French celebration at Paris, fell just on the eve of Marshal Foch’s historical first counter-attacks which, after the Second Battle of the Marne, staggered the German front, when the same trees that had hidden the 1st Battalion’s dead at Villers-Cotterêts, close on four years ago, covered and launched one of the armies that exacted repayment. And the 2nd Irish Guards, entirely appreciating the comfort of their situation, despatched to Paris every member of their bureaucracy who could by any means hatch up passable excuses for helping to form the composite battalion which should grace the festivities there. The C.O. (the Second in Command had gone on already), the Adjutant, the Assistant-Adjutant, the Sergeant-Major, the M.O., the Sick Sergeant, the Orderly-Room Clerk, the Signalling Sergeant, the Mess-Sergeant, and all the drums managed to get away. So Captain Nutting chaperoned the remainder down to the pleasant watering-place of Criel Plage, which is over against Dieppe. This time they were set up in business as a young officers’ seminary for the benefit of newly commissioned officers who were to be taken in hand by the 4th Guards Brigade before passing on. Many of them had had considerable service in the ranks, which again required a special form of official education. They were distributed among the battalions to the number of twenty-five or thirty each, and drilled as companies. Whatever they learned, they were, beyond question, worked up to fit physical trim with the others, and, at the Guards Brigade Sports, the Battalion covered itself with glory. They won every single event that counted for points, and the Brigade championship by an overwhelming aggregate. Next day, being the fourth anniversary of the War, they listened to a serious sermon on the matter—as they had listened to others—not much crediting that peace was in sight. Among the specialists who lectured them on their many businesses was an officer from the G.H.Q. Physical and Bayonet Training School, who spoke of “recreational training”—boxing for choice—and had a pretty taste in irony. For he told them how well some pugilists had done in the War; citing the case of an eminent professional who had been offered large purses to appear in the ring, but, feeling his country needed him, declined them all and, when the War had been going on for rather more than two years, joined a select body of cavalry, which, after another year, he discovered was not going to the front. This so wrought on him that he forthwith gave his services to the G.H.Q. Bayonet School, where he had flourished ever since, heroically battling against stuffed gunnybags. The Battalion held its breath at the record of such bravery; and a few days later professed loud horror at an indent which came in for a hundred and fifty men and four officers—a draft for their 1st Battalion. The Guards Division had been at work again since the 21st August on the thrice fought-over Moyenneville-St. Léger-Mory ground, in our northern attack which had followed Rawlinson’s blow round Amiens. The whole of the 4th Guards Brigade was drawn upon to help make good the wastage, and its draft of six hundred and seven men was one of the finest that had ever been furnished-trained to the last ounce, and taught to the limits of teaching. The young officers attached for instruction left after a joyous dinner that lasted till late in the dawn. And it may be that the draft had dined also; for, on the way to the station, one of our men who had lost his cap and had paraded in steel-helmet order was met by “a lady from out of a house,” who solemnly presented him with the missing article. It was an omen of victory and of the days when steel helmets should become curios.
They returned to their depleted camps until more young officers came along for instruction, and in the last week of September their comrades, the 4th Grenadiers and the 3rd Coldstream, were called away to the moving front—“to fight”—as the horrified Diary puts it! Actually, the two battalions merely followed the advance in the wake of the cavalry corps as mobile infantry on lorries, till the 26th of October. They then returned to their brigade till the 14th November, when they joined the Guards Division for the march into Germany.
For the next six weeks or so, then, Criel Plage was all the Battalion’s deserted own during the autumn days that saw the German armies driven back, but it is interesting to observe that, on the 10th of October, a special order of the day, issued by the G.O.C. Fourth Army, laid down that “all peace-talk must cease.” As usual, they seemed to know more in the back-areas than at the front, where the 1st Battalion certainly did not believe on the chances of any immediate end.
On the 14th October, their small world was shaken out of all its talk by the really serious news that their C.O. (Colonel the Hon. H. R. Alexander) was to transfer to command the 10th Army School. He left on the 18th, and the whole Battalion turned out to bid him good-bye with an affection few commanding officers had ever awakened. He wrote in orders (but he had spoken as well, straight from his heart): “I wish to express my sincere grief in leaving the Battalion I am so fond of. We have been through some hard times together, but the remembrance of those battles in which the 2nd Battalion has taken such a glorious part will always be a great pride to me. Remember the great name that this wonderful Battalion has made for itself in the War. Be proud of it and guard it jealously. I leave you with complete confidence that its reputation is safe in your hands. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the loyalty that you have always shown me during the whole time that I have had the honour of commanding you. I wish you all and individually the best possible luck and success, and a safe return to your homes when the War is over.”
It is undeniable that Colonel Alexander had the gift of handling the men on the lines to which they most readily responded; as the many tales in this connection testify. At the worst crises he was both inventive and cordial and, on such occasions as they all strove together in the gates of Death, would somehow contrive to dress the affair as high comedy. Moreover, when the blame for some incident of battle or fatigue was his, he confessed and took it upon his own shoulders in the presence of all. Consequently, his subordinates loved him, even when he fell upon them blisteringly for their shortcomings; and his men were all his own.
On the 26th October the 4th Grenadiers and the 3rd Coldstream returned from their adventures at the front with the cavalry, full of their impressions that everything was over now except the shouting. Then there was more “peace-talk” than ever in the camp, and, three days after the Armistice was declared, the Battalion with the Brigade rolled statelily out of Criel for Cambrai by a “strategical” train, which is slower than a sundial. They were clean, polished, and splendid to behold, and they instantly fought with Brigade Headquarters and their own trench-mortar battery, who had generous ideas as to the amount of truckage which they themselves required.
They wandered half round northern France on that queer journey, halting for hours in a battered world just realising that the weight of the past four years had lifted. Whereby everybody attended to everything except his proper job. At this distance one sees how all men were walking in a mild delirium of reaction, but it annoyed people at the time. Said one who had experienced it: “Ye would come on a man an’ ask him for what ye wanted or where you was to go, an’ the Frenchman, he’d say, ‘Oui! Oui! Gare finne,’ an’ smile an’ rub his hands an’ push off. The Englishman—some dam’ back-area sergeant-clerk or ticket-collector that had been playin’ ping-pong at Boulogne since ’14—he’d smile the same way an’ ‘’Tis over, ’tis over!’ he’d say, clean forgettin’ everything for you that he hadn’t done wrong-end-up. But we was all like that together—silly, foolish, an’ goin’ about grinnin’.” At one of their many resting-places, they found the 4th Grenadiers who had started four hours before them. The rail ahead was reported mined, and though the Battalion politely suggested that their friends might hurry on and test the truth of the rumour for themselves the Grenadiers declined. Men were beginning to set a value on their lives again. At ruined Cambrai, forty-eight hours after their start, they were warned to join the Guards Division, who were going to Cologne, and to travel light, as no further transport could be taken up. So they dumped surplus kit, including boots, which was a mistake, at Cambrai, and waited twenty-four hours till lorries should turn up, as guaranteed. When these at last appeared no destination was laid down, but the Guards Division was supposed to be somewhere near Maubeuge. They lost their way from Cambrai at the outset and managed to mislay no small portion of their lorries, all the Battalion, less Headquarters, and a good deal of the 3rd Coldstream, ere they reached Maubeuge, which was in the full swing of Armistice demonstrations. Their orders were to march with the 2nd Guards Brigade next day to Vieux Reng, which they did through a friendly and welcoming country-side, and on the 20th November to Charleroi through Marchienne where they were met by a mad brass band (entirely composed of men in bowler hats!). The roads filled as they went on, with returning prisoners even more compositely dressed than the natives—a general gaol-delivery of hidden, escaped, released, and all the flotsam and jetsam of violently arrested war. The customs of His Majesty’s armies were new to the world, and Charleroi did not in the least understand “saluting drill” with the drums in the background, and when, to this marvel, was added the sight of a regiment of Grenadiers at physical drill, hopping on one foot, they assembled and shouted like the men of Ephesus.
The next move (November 24th) was to Presles on a frosty day, with billets for the officers in the superbly comfortable Château, with its pictures and wallpapers intact on the wall, handles to the doors, and roofs of flawless integrity. To wake up among surroundings that had altogether escaped the past four years was curious. (“Somehow or other, it felt like being in a shop where everything was free, and one could take down what one wanted. I remember looking at a ceiling with flowers painted on it one morning and wondering how it hadn’t been cracked.”) They were landed in the dull and cramped village of Lesves by November the 25th and rained upon in their utter boredom. Our national methods of conquest have nothing spectacular. They were neither talked to, sung to, nor lectured on their victory, nor encouraged to demonstrate their superiority over the rest of mankind. They marched and mourned that they had not brought spare boots. Company physical training and drills were kept up, and the sole thing approaching war was a football match of the right half-battalion against the left, which blossomed into an argument, which verged upon a free fight and, almost, the slaughter of the umpire. At Petit Han, in the remoter districts of the border where the people had accepted the Hun from the first, and had profited by his rule, the attitude of the civilians changed. Here they were prosperous pacifists who objected to militarism; even cursing and swearing and shaking their fists at the invaders. So one old lady had to be gently locked up in her own room for two hours while billets were being arranged and the officers patiently argued and entreated. Ouffey, another hamlet of a few sad houses, was of the same unaccommodating temper, and their transport turned up hours late after being delayed by traffic and bad roads. A halt was necessary here to sort out the general confusion of our brigades converging on Cologne. They were held, then, at Ouffey till the 10th December, another day at Aisomont, an unknown village, and at last on the 12th crossed into Germany from Stavelot at Pont Rucken with the Brigade. The Battalion, whose staff never neglected their interests, had contrived to secure waterproof capes at some issue or other, which they wore under the approving eyes of the Corps Commander, who watched the march past in the unending rain. Honsfeld was their last journey afoot; there they got orders to go south to Burg and entrain for Cologne, and at Ehrenfeld, on the outskirts of that city, they dropped into the Pioneer Barracks, fitted with every luxury from electric-light to drying-rooms and baths, and found the inhabitants both friendly and intensely curious.
Here some of our men noticed, first, how keenly curious were the natives to discover exactly what the strangers had in their minds, and, that point established, exactly how far they might presume upon their limitations. It was soon felt that our armies boasted no tradition nor ritual of victory as the Germans understood it—that the utmost they could devise was some form of polite police-work and traffic regulation. So, as one observer put it “There was Jerry takin’ stock of us, under his hatbrim at the street-corners in the wet; and there was those little steamers with some of our officers in charge (an’ the Irish flag flyin’ at the bows of course) convoyin’ prisoners an’ refugees an’ details an’ all, up an’ down that Rhine River, like pirates play actin’! An’ there was the Jerry frowlines so polite an’ anxious for to please, playin’ the ‘Marseillaise’ an’ ‘God Save the King’ to the officers in the evenin’, an’ every Jerry willin’ to sell us everything he thought we’d like to buy. An’ there was us Micks mountin’ guard on the dumps, an’ patrollin’ the streets an’ sittin’ on machine-guns acrost bridges in that wet an’ cold an’—an’ ’twas all like play-actin’. Nothin’ real to it at all, except the long waitin’ an’ we crazy to get home. Maybe the new hands an’ the cease fire drafts liked the victoriousness of it, but for us, the old birds, that had come through great doin’s for so long, ’twas not in nature, ye’ll understand. All false-like, except the dam’ ceremonials.”
The last was quite true. The “smartening-up” that overtook both battalions in Cologne was of a thoroughness new even to the extended experience of the “old birds.” Sergeants, sickened by long months of gritty and dusty hutments that ruin the bloom and port of the ideal “soldier,” with officers on the rebound from service requirements to a desperate interest in the haberdashery and appurtenances of real, and possible, life, fell upon them from either flank; while colonels in the background and generals on far heights proclaimed the iniquity of deviating by one hair’s breadth from the highest standards of propriety in kit, conduct, and bearing while they were among the late enemy. So they said, with justice, that Jerry managed to give them as much trouble when they occupied him as when he was occupying them on the Somme.
It was an insane interval of waiting, as the world did in those days, for the immediate demobilisation of democratic hosts, all units of which were convinced that they had the right to go home before all others. “The prisoner at the Bar,” as men then styled Germany, being entirely at home, was saving himself to continue the War underground when time, occasion, and dissension among his conquerors should show him his chance. But of this there was no foreknowledge. The hearts of the men who had borne the burden were still pulsing to the thud of the guns; their minds still obsessed in their leisure by the return of horrors seen and beard; their souls crying out for something that should veil them from themselves; and at the hour when the spent world, like a spent battalion, most needed a few low-voiced, wholly unsentimental orders and an orderly return to light but continuous mechanical work, when, above all, it was in no shape to be talked at or to or over, it was delivered to whirlwinds and avalanches of allocutions, exhortations, and strenuously conflicting “ideals” that would have shaken the sanity of the gods themselves. Thus the barren months passed. The most fortunate people were those who had their hands full of necessary and obvious work—mere detail to be put through for immediate needs. “We cursed it enough at the time, but we would have given a good deal for it afterwards. You see, it kept one from thinking.”
And in the spring of ’19 came the release, and the return of the Guards to England, and, on a grey March day, the Division, for the last time, was massed and moved through London, their wounded accompanying them on foot, or in the crowded lorries, while their mascots walked statelily in the intervals.
To see the actual weapons with which great works have been done is always astonishing. The stream of troops seemed scanty between the multitudes that banked it. Their faces, too, told nothing, and least of all the faces of the veterans—the sergeants of twenty-three, and the commanding officers of twenty-eight, who, by miracle or the mercy of severe wounds, had come through it all since that first hot August evening, at the milestone near Harmignies, when the first bullet fell on the turf, and men said, “This is The War!” The wounded, in civil kit, having no more fear of their superior officers before their eyes, occasionally, when they shouted to a friend, gave away by unguarded tone, or change of countenance, a hint of the hells which they had shared together. And London, solid on its pavements; looked, counted over, compared, hailed, but never too loudly, some known face in the ranks or figure on horseback, and rejoiced or grieved as the fortune of war had dealt with its men. For the Guards belong to London, and, by that time, even the Irish Guards were half London recruits.
The Second Battalion of the Irish Guards was marked to be disbanded later, with thousands of others. Their loyalty, their long endurance, their bravery—the ceaseless labour, love, and example that had gone to their making and upholding, in which work men had died as directly as any killed by gas or shell—had done all that was called for. They made no claim to have accomplished or suffered more than others. They knew what load had been laid upon all.
They were the younger battalion, born in Warley, officered from the first by special reserve officers, always most intimately bound up with their sister battalion, yet always most strictly themselves. They had been a “happy” battalion throughout, and, on the admission of those whose good opinion they most valued, one that had “done as well as any” in a war that had made mere glory ridiculous. Of all these things nothing but the memory would remain. And, as they moved—little more than a company strong—in the wake of their seniors, one saw, here and there among the wounded in civil kit, young men with eyes which did not match their age, shaken beyond speech or tears by the splendour and the grief of that memory.
FROM AUGUST 16, 1915
Hon. L. J. P. Butler, C.M.G., D.S.O
P. L. Reid, O.B.E.
E. B. Greer, M.C
R. H. Ferguson
H. R. Alexander, D.S.O., M.C
A. F. L. Gordon, D.S.O., M.C.
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