At that moment our line, on the Somme side, ran from Lens just behind Oppy, through Rœux, five miles east of Arras, south to Bullecourt, south-easterly towards Boursies, round the Flesquières–Ribecourt Salient that Cambrai fight had won for us, curved back between Gonnelieu and Gouzeaucourt, and thence dropped, skirting St. Quentin and the valley of the Oise, to the junction with the French at Barisis, south of that river. This length, of close on seventy miles, was held, from Barisis to Gouzeaucourt, by Byng’s Third Army, and from Gouzeaucourt to Gavrelle, by Gough’s Fifth Army. North of this, the First Army took on. The working and reserve strength of the Third and Fifth Armies at the opening of 1918 was twenty-nine infantry and three cavalry divisions. So far as our arms were concerned, everything on the French and Belgian fronts was at a standstill. The Somme had cost very heavily throughout the year, and there was, or was said to be, a scarcity of men. The situation appears to have been met by reducing the number of battalions in the brigades from four to three apiece. This released the odd battalions to make what, on paper, and in the journals, looked like additional brigades, but threw extra work, which nowhere appeared as news, on the whole of the army administration in the field. Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches refer guardedly to the reorganization, which he hints “to some extent affected” the fighting efficiency of the units concerned. The sentiments of commanders more directly concerned were, perhaps, less publishable; for it rarely improves an old army in the field to lace it at the last moment, before a general attack, with new brigades composed of battalions suddenly disassociated from the units with whom they have been working. But thus was created the Fourth Guards Brigade, by lopping off the 4th Grenadiers, the 2nd Irish Guards, and the 3rd Coldstream from their respective brigades, and attaching them to the Thirty-first Division. Further, it was necessary for the British armies to take over another stretch of nearly thirty miles from the French on the right—approximately from Barisis to Vendhuille on the Oise—and this brought the British front up to one hundred and twenty-five miles total length.
Our enemy lay less under such burdens. His released divisions, aeroplanes, and guns were decently entraining from the Russian front, and arriving on the Somme in good order, a fact of which our Staff, and in a very short time all our armies, were perfectly aware. (“We could feel Jerry pilin’ up and pilin’ up against us in those days, ye’ll understand.”) So, as may have been pointed out, every one stood by to prepare for the worst. The Guards Division, now of nine battalions, instead of twelve, was assigned to the defences before Arras, the hinge on which the coming trouble might be expected to turn. Their trench and post system ran north and south across the Scarpe with its lagoon and marshes, by Rœux—all old and much used ground, but which had the advantage of being served both by canal and a light rail from Arras.
The Battalion, which had trained and bombed in the town till the 8th January, relieved the 3rd Grenadiers in the reserve trenches of the right sub-sector of this defence, on the 9th January, in heavy snow. Lancer Avenue, which commanded a fine view of our own lines and the enemy’s, and posts K, L, and M just off it (all south of the river), took half the strength. The remainder garrisoned Crump and Cordite Reserve trenches on the north, and supplied an isolated and unpleasant post (F) between the river and the lagoon which could only be reached with comfort after dark, when an officer, twenty men, a Lewis-gun, and a couple of signallers watched there in case an enterprising enemy should be minded to raid along the tow-path.
Next day it thawed and the old horrors of Ypres Salient were their portion. The snow vanished, leaving terrible mud. The day passed quietly. Nos. 1 and 3 Companies had to find “a carrying-party for front companies in the evening.” The story behind the entry tells itself. The enemy did not add himself to their burdens. A patrol, under 2nd Lieutenant H. A. Collett, went out the next night (January 11) five hundred yards into No Man’s Land—from F post—saw and heard nothing. F post was always a ghostly sort of place, where bullets whistled by without explanation between the furred tree-trunks along the tow-path; and the marshy ground behind it was filled with shell-holes, rusty wire and the black dead of forgotten fights. The ruins of Rœux across the river, suddenly leaping to shape in the flare of Very lights, looked down on it like the skeleton of a fortress on a stage, and single unexpected shells spattered mud across the cold waters.
On the 13th January they relieved the 2nd Grenadiers at the front in a fresh assortment of decayed posts—Scabbard Alley, Scabbard Support, Welford Reserve and the like, whose names even to this day make men who served there shiver. As thaw and rain worked on them, the trenches “all fell in great lumps.”
“Why troops who had held them all the summer had done nothing to revet them and prepare for the winter, I cannot think,” one indignant sufferer wrote. “But that is always the fault of the British army. It will not look ahead.” He prophesied better than he knew. Then he went to visit his posts, where the men were already half buried in mud. The enemy assisted our repairing parties with trench-mortars at intervals, till orders went forth that, though our mortars were nowise to stir up trouble, when once it began they would retaliate for just five minutes longer than the enemy. By the misfortune of a faulty shell, one of our Stokes guns burst on the 14th, killing or wounding eight men. However, it was noted that the enemy transferred his attentions for the next few days to a battalion of East Lancashires on our right.
On the 15th all wiring and defence-work ceased—“employed solely on trying to keep trenches passable.” In spite of which the mud gained. Men’s boots were pulled off their feet, and it is on joyous record that when Captain Gordon, the adjutant, tried to get up Johnson Avenue, their only communication-trench, he stuck up to his waist in mud and water and, lest he should be engulfed, had to wriggle out of his gum-boots, which came up to his thighs, and continue in his socks. The gum-boots, empty, sank out of sight like a wreck on the Goodwins. They reconnoitred new tracks for the reliefs, across duckboards running in full view of the enemy, who, luckily, had their own conditions to fight, and let a couple of our patrols invade No Man’s Land unmolested, prowl round two machine-gun posts and even enter a German front line, “being too busy talking and hammering to notice us.” The sodden sand-bags of the revetments bulged outwards and met across the trenches. The men worked day and night, and blessed every battalion’s remotest ancestry that had ever used, and neglected, that accursed line.
On the 17th January they were relieved by the 2nd Grenadiers, which merely meant their reverting to Crump Trench, Cordite Reserve, Ceylon Avenue, etc., where, all being equally impassable, every movement had to be effected in the open.
Our artillery chose the 18th to be very active from their positions round Battalion Headquarters near the railway cutting behind, whereby there was some enemy retaliation that the mired front line could have spared. (”Every one is looking like the worst form of tramp—standing, walking, sleeping and eating mud.”)
On the 19th they got it worse, and when No. 1 Company paraded in the dawn dark (they were in dug-outs below the rail embankment) to go to work, a shell which dropped at the entrance killed one (but he was the cook), wounded two of their number, and destroyed the whole cooking-outfit. Captain A. F. L. Gordon, M.C., was also slightly wounded on that date, but not enough to send him to hospital. He was riding into Arras with Captain Woodhouse, the M.O.—also a man of charmed lives—and just behind the railway embankment came in for a complete barrage of heavy stuff, intended for Battalion Headquarters. Neither he, nor any one else, ever understood why they were not blown to pieces. The doctor’s horse wounded was the only other casualty.
On the 22nd January the relieved 2nd Grenadiers, having handed over news of the discovery of a German listening-post which seemed to be used only by night, a scheme was arranged to occupy it while it was empty, and astonish the enemy on their return. But the enemy never came, though 2nd Lieutenant Stacpoole and a party of seven, with blackened faces and smoked bayonets, lay out for them all night. It was the same with a German working-party, fifty strong, located by our patrols on the 22nd, sought on the 23rd, and found missing. The enemy were anxious not to give any chances just then, for identifications; and, ‘though they raided generously in other directions, left the Guards’ sector by the Scarpe unvisited. They delivered mortar bombardments when reliefs were due, and were attended to by our artillery at dusk with a desultory but at the same time steady shelling, just enough to keep the five principal offenders’ crews in their dug-outs. It worked admirably, and the enemy mortars, as registered on the maps, were quiet for a whole evening. After one such treatment (the night of the 25th January) they drenched the Decauville railway, just when the Battalion had railed back to Arras on relief by the 1st Grenadiers, with an hour’s intense barrage of gas-shells, and a sprinkling of 5.9’s and 4.2’s. Battalion Headquarters were waiting to follow: and all the men had been sent down the line because rail-head was no healthy place to linger at. A company of the 2nd Grenadiers, newly relieved, came up and also waited for the little train in the still moonlight night, and drank hot tea while a spare engine was being coupled up. Every one thought (inevitable prelude to calamity!) that, after sixteen days in the trenches, his troubles were over. Then a gas-shell skimmed over the line which at this point had a cutting on one side and an embankment on the other. All hands fled to the embankment side and hugged it for precisely one hour while the air screamed to the curious whiplash-like noise of the gas-shells splintering, and filled with the fumes of them. The engine bolted down the line before it should be blown up, and when, on the stroke of ten, shelling ceased, Battalion Headquarters, Father Browne and the Doctor, Captain Woodhouse, and the Grenadiers’ Company stumbled as best they could along the sleepers towards Arras. Every one missed every one else in the confusion, while the Irish orderlies raged through the crowd like angry nurses, in search of their officers. But at last all hands were accounted for, blind, coughing, and, thanks to the nose-clips of the masks, mostly with sore noses. They got into Arras at midnight, and a good many of the Grenadiers had to be sent down for gas injuries.
The month closed with the Battalion nominally at Arras, and actually finding more than two thirds of its strength for working-parties in the filthy front line—a favour which it had not received itself while there. Its casualty list for January was extraordinarily low, being only two men killed and twenty-six wounded, one officer, Captain Gordon, wounded and one, 2nd Lieutenant D. A. B. Moodie in hospital. During the month, 2nd Lieutenants A. S. Stokes and L. H. L. Carver joined, and 2nd Lieutenant A. W. G. Jamrack rejoined from the Reinforcement Battalion.
On the 1st February orders came that the line was to be held by all three brigades of the Guards Division instead of two; for it must be remembered that each brigade was short one battalion. The rearrangement drew more heavily on the working-parties in the forward area where a new, foul trench—Hyderabad Support—was under way. They supplied from two to four hundred men as need was, and lived in Arras prison in luxury—wire beds and palliasses for every man!—till the 6th February, when they relieved the 2nd Coldstream in the front line. The support-trenches here were the best they had found, being deep, duckboarded, well revetted and with plenty of dug-outs and an enviable system of cook-houses delivering hot meals in the actual trenches. They sent working-parties to the insatiable engineers and the brigade at large; for fresh trenches were being sketched out, if not built, against the impending German attack.
The front line from the 10th to the 13th February was remarkably quiet but not easy. Their patrols found no enemy, nor any sign of them in No Man’s Land; a little wiring of nights was possible; and there were no casualties. But the trench-strength of the Battalion was weak—16 officers and 398 ranks, and every one had to work double-tides to keep the ways open.
They were relieved on St. Valentine’s Day, two days after the 4th Guards Brigade, which took with them the 2nd Irish Guards, had been formed under Lord Ardee, and added to the Thirty-first Division.
Three days in Arras prison saw them back again in support just in time to get the full benefit of another day’s thaw. It was a quiet tour. One man was killed by a trench-mortar, one badly wounded by a rifle-grenade, seven by shell-splinters outside a dug-out, and five men gassed. The enemy confined himself to long-range trench-mortars and an “increase in aerial activity.” He was noticed to “object very strongly to our air-craft crossing his lines.” Never was enemy more anxious not to draw attention to his moves. And, far behind our line at Arras and elsewhere, men dug and entrenched and sketched works of defence to meet the German rush, while the front trenches sat still and looked across deserts, apparently empty of life, till a head moved in the open. It was a season without parallel in our armies’ experience—this mere waiting for a certain blow to be dealt at a certain time. No written history records the psychology of those spring days. The Diary is concerned with the Battalion’s own sorrow. Here is the story, as written: “During the month [February] the Household Battalion was disbanded and eighty men were allotted to the Battalion. This marks the beginning, and is the first official recognition of the fact that the Irish Guards cannot keep up the supply of Irish troops. A most regrettable epoch in the history of the regiment.” On the heels of this comes, comically enough, almost the sole personal expression of feeling in the entire Diary. They went, on the last day of February, into rest at Gordon Camp, christened after the 9th Gordons who made it. “It is without exception the most comfortable and best-laidout camp I have ever been in. Everything that one could possibly wish for is here—even an officer’s bathroom with porcelain bath and hot and cold water laid on.” It was an all-too-short interval in cold and dirty work; for on the 2nd March the Scarpe trenches reclaimed them—Fampoux, Colt Reserve, Pepper and Pudding—in snow, sleet, and unbroken monotony of working-parties.
On the 6th March the Diary notes that the 2nd Grenadiers, whom they relieved the next day, carried out a raid, successful in itself, and doubly so as drawing no retaliation on their own line. It resulted in two identifiable prisoners and a machine-gun. But battalions do not approve of their neighbours raiding when the enemy is “nervous.”
Their next front-line turn—6th to 10th March—was utterly uneventful, and on the 12th they, being then in Stirling Camp, were ordered to “stand to” for the expected German offensive. It proved to be no more than a light shelling. So the still fine days, in line or in support, ran out till the dawn of the 21st March when the great shells suddenly descended on Arras, and rumours, worse than any shelling, followed their tracks. Says the Diary: “The German offensive has begun.”
The evacuation of the town, during the next two days, was a nightmare of flying masonry, clouds of dust, the roar of falling brick-work, contradictory orders, and mobs of drifting civilians, their belongings pushed before or hauled after them; and no power to order them where to go. Arras, always in the front line, had been safe so long, it was inconceivable that there should be real danger now. Might they not camp out and return to-morrow? But the enemy were reported almost in sight, and ready to open on the town with their field-guns. They had broken through, men said, under cover of the heavy morning fog—broken through everywhere along the line of all our old gains from Lens to St. Quentin, and their whole strength was behind the blow. No one could understand it, though all men argued; and while the refugees fled forth, expostulating, blaming, but seldom weeping, that sunny day, eight hundred shells fell purposefully on the dishevelled town. By evening word came that our Somme line had not only broken but gone out—infantry, artillery and uncounted stores—between Chérisy and Demicourt in the north. South of that, the old Cambrai Salient, which had not been hardly tried, was standing but would have to withdraw or be cut off, because, from Gouzeaucourt to La Fère, ten miles and more south of St. Quentin, the German tide had swept in from one to three miles deep, and was racing forward. It is not difficult to imagine what manner of reports the mere truth gave birth to, while the Battalion waited on in the Communal College where it was billeted, and was not encouraged to wander about the rocking, sliding streets.
By the evening of the 22nd March men began to understand it was no mere break-through but a collapse such as had never befallen British arms in the history of her people. Officers were sent out in the morning to reconnoitre the support-line of a third system of defence between Wancourt and Hénin-sur-Cojeul. But Hénin-sur-Cojeul was already under the hand of the enemy, who had gained three more miles in a few hours and, left and right, were widening the breach.
The morning of the 22nd March had been foggy again till noon and, under that cover, the Germans had again broken in on our surprised or withdrawing divisions. Report said that whole battalions and even brigades had been cut off by the flood; their wireless working faithfully so long as it stood, and the sound of their small-arm fire continuing for a while after their last words had ceased. Late that evening orders came for the Battalion to move at midnight from Arras to Boisleux-St. Marc, some six miles due south of the town on a line more or less prepared against eventualities, and, with their brigade, to give what help they could to the divisions who might be falling back on that front. This was all that could be made out of the mass of contradictory orders that afflicted them, and the growing crop of rumours and alarms that upset men almost more than any countermanded orders.
The Battalion set to work on the 23rd March to dig a support-line in rear of what was called the Army Line which ran in front of Boisleux-St. Marc while the evacuation of Arras was being completed and “all details and drummers marched to the Reinforcement Battalion at Agnez-les-Duisans,” on the Scarpe well to the west of Arras. (“In those days we was throubled the way a man is disthressed in dhreams. All manner of things happening, ye’ll understand, and him the only one able to do nothing. But I wisht I’d been a musicaner.”)
The Diary for the 24th March merely says, “remained in same positions,” and refers to “repeated rumours.” They sent their first-line transport back out of harm’s way, and went on digging. Yet the 24th was a day no rumour could have painted much blacker than it was. From directly in front of the Guards Division at Boisleux, the line of the German gains in the past forty-eight hours dropped straight south to the Somme at Cléry, and thence skirted its western bank to Ham, where it broke across to the wide marshes of the Oise below La Fère. Two thirds of the hardbought ground of the Somme campaign, the scores of villages whose names smelt of blood, were lost, and the harvesting of the remainder was a matter barely of hours.
Next day saw Béhagnies, Grévillers, Irles of the wired bastions, Miraumont, Pys, Courcelette, Contalmaison, Thiepval and its myriad dead, and Pozières of the Australians—the very hearts of the deadliest of the first fightings—overrun; and the question rose in men’s minds whether the drive would end, as was intended, in the splitting apart of the French and British armies. For what was happening north of the Somme was play to the situation south of it. There the enemy’s swarms of aeroplanes harried the Amiens hospitals, driving the civilians into the broadside of the country behind, where the moonlight nights betrayed them to fresh hosts in the air.
By the 26th March the tongue of the advancing tide had licked past Noyon and Roye and, next day, had encircled Montdidier. Meantime, our old Somme base on the Ancre, whence the great fights were fed and supplied from the hundred camps and dumps round Méaulte, and the railway-sidings between Albert and Amiens, had passed into the enemy’s hands. To all human appearance, the whole of our bitter year’s effort was abolished, as though it had never been. The enemy had prepared, brought together, and struck at the time that best suited himself, with seventy-three divisions against thirty-seven British divisions, and the outcome was appalling defeat of our arms.
It would thus seem that no amount of inspiring statesmanship at home, or anxious readjustment of divisions at the front, will make troops where troops are not. Therefore the battalions and batteries in the full blast of the onset perished or were taken prisoners; and of the stores captured or destroyed, lest they should benefit the enemy, we may look to receive no account. Not the least depressing of the sights that adorned the landscapes were the dumps lit by our own hands, flaring to heaven when, as turned out afterwards, there was really no need. Divisions were being raced up to reinforce the fluid front as fast as might be, but no one knew for certain when or where they would arrive, and Camp Commandants acted on their own judgments. The battalions in the line swayed to conflicting storms of orders.
On the 25th, being still at Boisleux-St. Marc, the 1st Irish Guards were detailed to relieve “several different units,” but more specially the 1st Coldstream just east of Hamelincourt then practically in possession of the enemy. (One found out where the enemy were by seeing them come over the brows of unexpected slopes in small groups that thinned out and settled down to machine-gunning under cover of equally unexpected field-guns.) They spent the whole day being “hit and held” in this fashion, and, close on midnight, got definite instructions not to wait for any relief but to go off to the sugar-factory near Boyelles, which they did, and bestowed themselves in huts in the neighbourhood, and there were hotly shelled during the night. The German attack was well home on that sector now, and the German infantry might be looked for at any moment. They removed from those unhealthy huts to an old trench next morning, where their first set of orders was to relieve the 1st Scots Guards. (Order, provisional, definite and cancelled all in two hours and a half!) Later came orders—equally definite, equally washed out later—to relieve the 2nd Coldstream in another sector, and finally just before midnight they relieved the 1st Scots Guards after all. That battalion had been in the army line between St. Léger and Hénin, but the enemy’s advance had forced it back in the direction of Boisleux-St. Marc near the Arras–Albert railway-line. The Battalion found it a little before dawn, and lay out with all four companies in the front line, as did the other battalions. By this time, though it would be not easy to trace their various arrivals in the confusion, the Guards Brigades had got into line between Boisleux-St. Marc and Ayette, on a front of roughly three and a half miles, while battalions of exhausted and withdrawing divisions, hard pressed by the enemy, passed through them each with its burden of bad news. It was not an inspiriting sight, nor was the actual position of the Guards Brigades one to be envied. High ground commanded them throughout, and a number of huts and half-ruined buildings gave good cover to the gathering machine-guns. The German advance on that quarter resembled, as one imaginative soul put it, an encompassment of were-wolves. They slouched forward, while men rubbed tired eyes, in twos and threes, at no point offering any definite target either for small-arm or artillery, and yet, in some wizard fashion, always thickening and spreading, while our guns from the rear raged and tore uselessly at their almost invisible lines. Incidentally, too, our own gun-fire in some sectors, and notably behind the Fourth Guards Brigade, did our men no service. But the most elaborate of preparations have an end, and must culminate in the charge home.
An intense barrage on the morning of the 27th March heralded the crisis, but luckily went wide of all the Battalion except No. 2 Company on the left. The attack followed, and down the trenched line from Ayette and Boisleux-St. Marc, the Brigade answered with unbroken musketry and Lewis-guns. It was an almost satisfactory slaughter, dealt out by tired, but resolute, men with their backs to the wall. Except for occasional rushes of the enemy, cut down ere they reached the wire, there was nothing spectacular in that day’s work. The Battalion shot and kept on shooting as it had been trained to do in the instruction-camps and on the comfortable ranges that seemed now so inconceivably far away. The enemy, having direct observation over the whole of our line, shot well and close. We suffered, but they suffered more. They ranged along the front from north to south as waves range down the face of a breakwater, but found nothing to carry away or even dislodge. Night closed in with a last rush at the wire on the Battalion’s front that left a wreckage of German dead and wounded, and two machine-guns horribly hung up in the strands. Our losses in officers were 2nd Lieutenant Stokes severely wounded in the morning, and in the afternoon, Lieutenant Nash killed, and Captain Derek FitzGerald wounded and sent down. Lieut.-Colonel R. V. Pollok and Lieutenants Bence-Jones and Bagenal were also slightly wounded but remained at duty. When an officer dropped and could not get up again without help he was assumed to be unfit for work—but not before.
(“Ye’ll understand, ’twas no question, those days, what ye could or could not do. Ye did it.”)
And so ended the 27th of March with the German front from Lens to Albert held up, and destined, though men then scarce dared believe, not to advance to another effective surge. The French and British armies were perilously near forced asunder now and, the needs of the case compelling what might have been done long ago, General Foch in the little city of Doullens was, on the 26th March, given supreme command of all the hard-pressed hosts. The news went out at once into the front line where men received it as part and parcel of the immense situation. Nothing could have astonished them then, or, unless it directly concerned food or rest, have made them think.
The Battalion was placed where it was to endure, and was thankful that the 28th was a “fairly quiet day” but for heavy shelling on their right, and trench-mortars and shells on themselves. No. 2 Company, who had been unlucky with the big barrage the day before, suffered once again.
Next day (29th March), which was another “quiet” occasion, Lieutenant Zigomala was wounded and forty “of the most tired men” were relieved by an equal number from the Reinforcement Battalion, which relief became systematized, as it eased the strain a little to clear out visibly finished men day by day. All were worn down but “remained cheerful.” Those who have full right to speak affirm that, in absolutely impossible situations, the Irish could be trusted to “play up” beyond even a cockney battalion. The matter will always be in dispute, but none know better than the men who saw the Push through how superbly the mud-caked, wire-drawn platoons bore themselves.
On the 30th March the attack rolled up again from the south where it had met no particular encouragement, and barraged the Battalion’s sector with heavies for a couple of hours; causing forty-two casualties among the men and wounding Lieutenants Stacpoole and Bagenal. It then fell upon the 2nd Grenadiers and 1st Coldstream immediately to the Battalion’s left and right, and was driven off with loss. There were other attacks, but with less venom in them, before the Hun could be induced to withdraw. Half the Battalion spent the night digging a line of posts in support which they occupied by dawn.
On the last of March “nothing of importance occurred.” Everything, indeed, had occurred already. The old Somme salient which, English fashion, had become an institution, was completely reversed on the ominous newspaper maps. The Germans stood a-tiptoe looking into Amiens, and practically the entire spare strength of the British armies in France had been used and used up to bring them to that stand. The French were equally worn down. The American armies were not yet in place, and what reinforcing divisions were ready in England somewhat lacked training.
The Battalion, a straw among these waves, had in the month lost, besides officers, twenty-three other ranks killed and one hundred and seven wounded and one missing. It is even reported that there had been many days on which, owing to press of work, they had not shaved. (“That, ye’ll understand, is being dirty, an’ a crime. Believe me, now, there was times when we was all criminals, even Mr. —— an’ it disthressed him more than bloody war.”)
The fierceness of the enemy’s attack on the 28th March—ranging from Puisieux to north-east of Arras—had been, to an extent, his own undoing. For he had thrown his men in shoulder to shoulder in six lines at some spots, and our guns had caught them massed, forming up. But the check, severe as it was, did not choke off a final effort against the strained British and French cordon, on the 4th and 5th of April. The main weight of it, on the first day, fell south of the Somme, and on the second, north, from Dernancourt below Méaulte to Bucquoy which is on the same level as Gomiecourt. Except that the eastern side of Bucquoy was carried for a time, the northern attack was completely held, and so at last, after a heart-shattering fortnight, the Somme front came to rest. The Battalion, with its Headquarters under much too direct enemy observation near Boiry-St. Martin, reverted to its ancient routine of trench-work and reliefs under shell-fire.
The days included regular bursts of shelling, a large proportion of which was blue or yellow-cross gas, and when the Battalion lay in reserve they were kept awake by our energetic batteries on three sides of them.
Their St. Martin camp was a scientifically constructed death-trap. Most of it was under enemy observation and without ground-shelter. What shots ranged over our forward batteries or short of our rear ones, found their camp. When our 15-inch guns retaliated, from a hundred and fifty yards behind them, the blast extinguished all candles. The Diary observes “The noise and the hostile retaliation made proper rest difficult.” That was on the 4th April, when the attack south of the Somme was in full swing.
On the 5th April their huts in Brigade-reserve were shelled for half an hour, with six casualties, and when they went into the line on a new sector, held by scattered posts, nearly every one of their guides lost his miserable way in the dark. Headquarters here were pitched in an old German trench and then—for they were not even rain-proof—shifted to the edge of Boiry-St. Martin village. A cellar had to be dug out and supported, and the rain descended on the mud-pie that it was, and when Headquarters, and all their papers, had established themselves, the enemy gas-bombarded the village with perfect accuracy. The Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel R. V. Pollok, the Assistant Adjutant, Lieutenant J. N. Ward, and the M. O., Captain Woodhouse, had to be sent down suffering from yellow-cross gas after-effects.
Consider for a moment the woes of a battalion headquarters in the field. Late in January, Captain Gordon, the pukka Adjutant, riding to Arras for a bath, canters into a barrage of “heavies” and is wounded in the hand—a vital spot for adjutants. This leaves only the C.O. and the Assistant Adjutant, Lieutenant J. N. Ward, to carry on, and whatever the state of the front, the authorities demand their regular supply of papers and forms. No sooner has the Assistant Adjutant got abreast of things, than all Battalion Headquarters are knocked out in an hour. Luckily, they were only away for three or four days. The enemy added a small and easily beaten off raid to the confusion he had made in Orderly-room; Major Baggallay took over the command, and Captain Budd, adequate and untroubled as ever, who had held the ghostly F Post on the Scarpe, acted as Adjutant. Officers were beginning to wear out now. Three “of the most tired” were sent down and replaced by substitutes from the Reinforcement Battalion.
The following officers joined for duty on the 10th April: Lieutenant M. Buller, Lieutenant (Acting Captain) W. Joyce, Lieutenant Hon. B. A. A. Ogilvy, and 2nd Lieutenants T. B. Maughan, P. R. J. Barry, H. J. Lofting, G. C. MacLachlan and J. C. Haydon.
It was on the morning of the 9th April that the enemy opened his second great thrust on the Lys, and the three weeks’ fighting that all but wiped out the Ypres Salient won him Messines, Kemmel, Armentières, Neuve Eglise, Bailleul, Merville, and carried him towards the Channel ports, within five miles of Hazebrouck. That the stroke was expected made it none the less severe. Spring on that front had chosen to be unseasonably dry. The lowlands in the Lys valley, normally their own best defences, gave passage to men and guns when they should have been still impassable. Whatever else may have betrayed them, the Germans had no cause to complain of the weather throughout the war, or indeed of the foresight of their adversaries. They had to deal chiefly with divisions that had been fought out in the Somme Push, reinforced with fillings from England and sent northward in a hurry. Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches give the relative disparity thus:
|In the Lys battle, prior to the 30th April, the enemy engaged against the British forces a total of 42 Divisions, of which 33 were fresh and 9 had fought previously on the Somme. Against these 42 German Divisions, 25 British Divisions were employed, of which 8 were fresh and 17 had taken a prominent part in the Somme battle.|
These were worn out, and as the days of fighting continued many of them were so dead to the world that they laid them down and slept where they dropped by battalions. When orders came, it was a matter almost of routine that each senior, handing them on, should assault his junior into some sort of comprehension. Officers dared not trust themselves even to lean against walls for fear they should slide down dead asleep; and as a private of the Line put it in confession, “I don’t know what the men would have done but for standing sentry. They got their sleep then.” There is a story of a tattered brigade, eight days, or it might have been ten, without closing an eyelid, which was flung back into the fight after assurance of relief, and, what was much worse, a few hours’ rest. They returned, like sleep-walkers, and laid them down in some shallow hen-scratchings that passed for trench-work, where without emotion they resigned themselves to being blown out or up in detail. While they watched drowsily the descent and thickening of a fresh German shell-storm, preluding fresh infantry attacks, it occurred to them vaguely that there were high and increasing noises overhead—not at all like the deep whoop of “heavies.” Then all the darkness behind the enemy lit with a low outlining ground-flare—the death-dance of innumerable .75’s. Foch had sent up very many guns behind them, almost wheel to wheel, and when the French gunners at last shut off, the packed enemy trenches that were waiting to continue their march to the Channel, as soon as their own fire should have wiped up the few British bayonets before them, lay as still as the graves that they were. Then what remained of the brigade that had seen this miracle was relieved by another brigade, and stretched itself out to sleep behind it. Experts in miseries say that, for sheer strain, the Lys overwent anything imagined in the war, and in this, many who have suffered much, are agreed.
The 4th Guards Brigade, which had been in billets near Villers-Brulin, after its heavy work on the Arras side, was despatched on the 10th April to the flat country round Vierhoek, and there—as will be told—spent itself in the desperate fighting round La Couronne and Vieux-Berquin that gave time to bar the enemies’ way to Hazebrouck and—wiped out the 2nd Battalion.
The 1st Battalion, sufficiently occupied with its own front near Boiry, where the support-lines were targets by day and night, and the front-posts holes in the ground that seemed to shift at every relief, were told on the 12th April that a German attack was imminent, which report was repeated at intervals throughout the day. But their patrols found nothing moving in front of them, and their regular allowance of hostile mortar bombs was not increased. The rumours from the Lys side were far more disturbing.
On the 13th April they were relieved by the 24th Lancashire Fusiliers, marched to Blairville where they embussed for. Saulty at the head of the little river that runs in stone channels through quiet Doullens, and there, “very cold, wet, and muddy,” found the best billets taken by Corps and Labour troops whom they knew not. The sentiments of men who have been digging and fighting without a break for ten weeks when confronted with warmly billeted staffs and fat back-area working-parties need not be recorded.
At Saulty they rested from the 15th to the 23rd April under perpetual short notice: one hour from 8 A.M. till noon and three hours for the rest of the day and night. Thus “means of training were limited,” and the weather varied from wet to snow-showers.
On the 24th of April the enemy captured Villers-Bretonneux, staring directly into Amiens, which ground, had they been allowed to hold uninterruptedly even for a day, might have been made too strong to reduce with the forces at our disposal then, and thus would have become the very edge of the wedge for splitting the French and English armies asunder. But that night, and literally at almost an hour’s notice, a counter-attack by a Brigade of the Eighteenth Division, and the 13th and 15th Brigades of the Fourth and Fifth Australian Divisions, swept Villers-Bretonneux clear, and established ourselves beyond possibility of eviction. Thus, the one last chance that might have swung the whole war passed out of the enemy’s hands.
On that same day the 1st Irish Guards returned in lorries along the cramped and twisting roads by Bienvillers to Monchy, to relieve a battalion of the Royal Scots in the front line at Ayette, three miles south down the line from Boiry. Ayette village had been recaptured on the 3rd April by the Thirty-second Division, and had removed a thorn in the side of troops in that sector. Once again, their guides almost unanimously lost their way, and the multivious relief took half the night to accomplish.
It appeared as though the enemy had skinned his line here to feed his other enterprises in the north; for his outposts did nothing and, beyond shelling Monchy village from time to time, his guns were also idle.
So on the 29th April they arranged a battalion raid on a German post (supposed to be held by night only) to occupy it if possible. But the enemy were in occupation and very ready. The little party returned with their officer, 2nd Lieutenant G. C. MacLachlan, and a sergeant wounded. A few weeks later the Battalion worked out a most satisfactory little ten-minute return-raid without a single casualty, and so cleared their account.
April had been an inexpensive month for both men and officers. The Commanding Officer, the Assistant Adjutant, and the Medical Officer had, as we know, been slightly gassed at Headquarters, and 2nd Lieutenants C. L. Browne and MacLachlan wounded only. Three men had been killed and forty-one wounded. But no less than twenty-six were sent down sick—proof that the strain had told.
The enemy showed a certain amount of imagination unusual on that front. One of our forward posts, expecting the return of a patrol on the dawn on the 3rd May, saw a party of five approaching and challenged. “Irish Guards” was the reply, followed by a few bombs which did some damage. This peculiarly irritating trick had not been worked on the Battalion for some time, and they felt it—as their amused friends to left and right in the line took care that they should. Otherwise, the enemy devoted themselves to more and heavier gunnery, which, in a five-day tour, caused twenty casualties (wounded) and one killed. Brigade Reserve camps were outside Monchy-au-Bois, whence tired men were sent to the Details camp at Pommier (regularly bombed by aeroplane), and from Pommier were drawn occasional working-parties. One of these included the Battalion Drummers and Pipers, who enjoyed what might be called a “day out” in some old trenches.
On the 5th May, Lieutenant Keenan arrived from the 2nd Battalion to take over the Adjutancy in place of Captain Gordon, who had been transferred to the 2nd Battalion as Second in Command, after almost three years’ continuous service with the 1st Battalion.
On the 7th May they went up from Monchy, by the ever-hateful, ever-shelled Cojeul valley, to the Ayette subsector, relieving the 2nd Coldstream. Next day the devil-directed luck of the front line, after a peaceful, fine night, caused the only trench-mortar sent over by the enemy that did not clean miss all our posts, to fall directly in No. 3 Post, right front Company (No. 4), instantly killing Captain Budd, M.C., commanding the Company, and with him 2nd Lieutenant E. C. G. Lord and seven men. Captain Budd’s energy and coolness, proved on many occasions, were a particular loss to his comrades. He was a large silent man, on whom every one could and did lean heavily at all times. He knew no fear and was of the self-contained, intensely alive type, always in danger, but never by his friends connected with any thought of death. Second Lieutenant Lord (“Rosy” Lord) was a keen and promising young officer. Those were the only casualties of the tour. They were buried in the little Military Cemetery near Ayette.
Our guns had been working steadily from behind, but till this trench-mortar outburst, most of the enemy replies had been directed on Ayette itself or our support-lines.
The shelling throughout the month grew more and more earnest and our replies, roaring overhead, worried the dead-tired soldiery. The work was all at night—wiring and improving posts, and unlimited digging of communication-ways between them; for whether a trench-line held till Christmas, went up bodily next minute, or was battered down every hour, in the making there was but one standard of work that beseemed the Battalion; and though divisional commanders might, and as on the dreary Scarpe posts did, draw gratified commanding officers aside and tell them that for quantity and quality their trench-craft excelled that of other battalions, the Battalion itself was never quite contented with what it had accomplished.
Their next turn—May 16 to 21—was fine and hot for a couple of mornings and regular barrages were put down on the support-line when they were standing-to. Four men were killed and thirteen, of whom two died later, were wounded.
They were heavily shelled in Brigade-Reserve camp on the night of the 24th. Four officers—Captain Bence-Jones, Lieutenants Riley and Buller, and 2nd Lieutenant Barry—wounded, one other rank killed, and five wounded.
When they went up to relieve the 2nd Coldstream on the 25th May, they were caught in platoon-order at the corner of Adinfer Wood, a place of no good name to marching troops, and Lieutenant Williams was slightly wounded. Three quarters of an hour’s intense barrage was put down, on front and support lines, as soon as they were fairly in, causing several casualties.
The dawn of the 28th May began with another sharp barrage on the front line and the dinner-hour was a continuous barrage of 5.9’s and 4.2’s directed at Battalion Headquarters. They were missed, but a direct hit was made on an aid-post of the 2nd Grenadiers less than a hundred yards off on our left. As a distraction, orders came in from Brigade Headquarters the same morning that the Battalion would carry out a raid on one of the enemy’s posts in front of the Right Company. They were given their choice, it would seem, of two—one without artillery-help and by day; the other with an artillery-backing and by night. The Second in Command, Major R. Baggallay, elected for works of darkness—or as near as might be in spite of a disgustingly bright moon. Lieutenant C. S. O’Brien was detailed to command, with Sergeant Regan, a forceful man, as sergeant. Only twenty-nine hands were required, and therefore sixty volunteered, moved to this, not by particular thirst for glory, of which the trenches soon cure men, as by human desire to escape monotony punctuated with shells. Extra rum-rations, too, attach to extra duties. As a raid it was a small affair, but as a work of art, historically worth recording in some detail. F Battery R.H.A. and 400 Battery R. F. A. supplied the lifting barrages which duly cut the post off from succour, while standing-barrages of 18-pounders, a barrage of 4.5’s hows. and groups, firing concentrations at left and right enemy trenches, completed the boxed trap. In the few minutes the affair lasted, it is not extravagant to estimate that more stuff was expended than the whole of our front in 1914 was allowed to send over in two days.
The post had been reconnoitred earlier in the evening and was known not to be wired. All the raiders, with blackened faces and bayonets and stripped uniforms that betrayed nothing, were in position on the forming-up tape five minutes before zero. The moon forced them to crawl undignifiedly out in twos and threes, but they lined up with the precision of a football line, at one-yard intervals and, a minute before zero, wriggled to within seventy yards of their quarry. At zero the barrage came down bursting beautifully, just beyond the enemy post, and about two seconds ere it lifted the raiders charged in. No one had time to leave or even to make a show of resistance, and they were back with their five prisoners, all alive and quite identifiable, in ten minutes. The waiting stretcher-parties were not needed and—best of all—“retaliation was slight and entirely on Ayette.” (One is not told what Ayette thought of it.) The motive of the raid was “to secure identity alive or dead.” But when all was over without hurt, one single shell at morning “stand-to” (May 28) killed 2nd Lieutenant L. H. L. Carver in a frontline trench.
They held the raided post under close observation that day and the next (May 29), and discovered that it had been reoccupied by a machine-gun party. As they particularly did not wish it to put out wire or become offensive, they dosed it with constant bursts of their own machine-gun and were rewarded by hearing groans and cries, and our listening-patrol in No Man’s Land saw a man being carried away.
On the 31st May the enemy set to, in earnest, to shell all reserve-lines and back-area for six hours; as well as the first-line transport in Adinfer Wood after dark, when wounded horses are not easy to handle. Their relief by the 2nd Grenadiers was badly delayed by heavy shelling all the way from the front line to Monchy, but instead of any number of casualties, which might reasonably have been expected, the Battalion got through unscathed.
The month’s list was heavy enough as it stood. Five officers had been wounded and three killed in action; seventeen other ranks killed, and forty-eight wounded, and all this in the regular wear-and-tear front-line routine with nothing more to see than a stray German cap here and there. Twenty-two men were sent down sick, and the Diary begins to hint at the prevalence of the “Spanish fever,” which was in a few months to sweep France and all the world.
June was a month of peace. It opened in reserve-trenches at the south-west end of Monchy-au-Bois, and when they next went up into line, a new route had been surveyed round the dreaded corner of Adinfer Wood which saved some shelling of reliefs.
On the 4th June the C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Pollok, left the Battalion to take over command of Sixth Corps Army School, and Major R. R. C. Baggallay assumed command. Likewise three stray Germans were captured opposite one of our posts.
On the 5th Major Gordon arrived from the 2nd Battalion for duty as Second in Command.
They were relieved by the 1st King’s Regiment on the 6th June—a somewhat hectic performance, as the front-line track-ways were intricate, needing guides at almost every turn of them, and, for the run-up, one guide per platoon. After which, about one in the morning, it was discovered that the King’s had come in without their Lewis-guns. Some divisions were in the habit of leaving and taking over the Lewis-guns in situ; but the Guards Division always went in and out of the line with their very own weapons. One cannot delay a clear June dawn and, as the relieved Battalion had to get off in tightly packed and horribly conspicuous lorries, and as the last platoon could not reach those lorries till 3 A.M., it was touch-and-go whether daylight would not reveal them “like a Sunday School treat” to the German guns. But luck held. The last lorry was safe in Bavincourt Wood five miles behind Monchy before day had stripped the landscape, and the 1st King’s were left to meditate on the wealth and variety of the Irish tongue, as delivered on empty stomachs in whispers down packed trenches.
The Battalion billeted at Bavincourt when the 2nd H.L.I. had got out of their quarters, and since, like the other camps, Bavincourt was regularly bombed, made earth walls round their Nissen huts, and slits near them to be used against ’planes or too extravagant shell-fire. Here they stayed till the end of the month, cleaning, refitting, and training (in open warfare principally; and, this time, they were not to be disappointed) at Lewis gunnery, bombing, and general physical smartening-up. When the Brigade Sports took place at Saulty they won every event but three, and when the Corps Commander, the following week, inspected the different ways in the divisional methods of carrying the eight Lewis-guns of each company all on one limber, “the method employed by the Battalion was considered the best, and all units were ordered to copy.” They had rigged a sort of false top on a rear-limber which accommodated all eight guns together.
A Divisional Horse-show was held on the 22nd, but there the Battalion did not get a single prize. They hammered on at their trainings and Brigade field-days—all with an eye to the coming open warfare, while the “Spanish fever,” which was influenza of the post-war type, grew steadily worse among men and officers alike. When H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught visited Divisional Headquarters at Bavincourt Château on the 30th June, and the Battalion had to find not only the Guard of Honour but 160 men to line the avenue to the Château, there were seventy officers and men down with the pest, out of less than 900. Thirty-one men had been sent down sick, two had been killed in action presumably by overhead bombing, for the Diary does not mention any trench casualties, and twenty-three wounded.
The following officers joined during the month of June: Lieutenant C. A. J. Vernon, and 2nd Lieutenants E. B. Spafford, A. E. Hutchinson, H. R. Baldwin, G. F. Mathieson, J. A. M. Faraday, E. M. Harvey, M. C., and A. E. O’Connor, all on the 2nd June; Captain A. W. L. Paget on the 4th, and 2nd Lieutenant A. H. O’Farrell on the 10th June. Second Lieutenant C. S. O’Brien, who was in command of the model raid already mentioned, was awarded the Military Cross on the 9th of June.
After a sporting interlude on the 3rd July, when they met the 1st Munster Fusiliers at athletics and won everything except the hundred yards, they relieved the 15th H.L.I. in the intermediate line near Hendecourt. As a matter of fact, they were a sick people just then. All Battalion Headquarters except the Commanding Officer, and all the officers of No. 2 Company, besides officers of other companies, were down with “Spanish fever” on going into the line. A third of the men were also sick at one time, and apparently the enemy too, for they hardly troubled to shell by day and let the night-reliefs go without attention. The only drawbacks were furious summer thunderstorms which, from time to time, flooded the trenches and woke up more fever. The front line held here by the Guards was badly knocked about and battered, and instructions ran that, in event of serious attack, it would not be contested.
There is no clear evidence of the state of the Battalion’s collective mind at this time, but from home letters it might be gathered that the strain of the Push and its bewilderment had given place to the idea that great things were preparing. Battalions are very often told tales to this effect, but they suit themselves as to the amount that they swallow. No power on earth, for instance, could have persuaded the veterans of the Somme, after Cambrai, that there was “anything doing”; but as the summer of 1918 grew warmer in the wooded and orchard country behind the Amiens–Albert line, and our lines there held and were strengthened, and those who had been home or on the seas reported what they had heard and seen, hope, of a kind not raised before, grew in the talks of the men and the officers. (“Understand, I do not say there was anny of the old chat regardin’ that the war would finish next Chuseday, the way we talked in ’16. But, whatever they said acrost the water, we did not hould ’twould endure those two more extra years all them civilians was dishin’ out to us. What did we think? That ’19 would see the finish? ’Twud be hard to tell what we thought. Leave it this way—we was no more than waitin’ on mercies to happen an’—’twas mericles that transpired!”)
They relieved their own brigade battalions with the punctilio proper to their common ritual, and for the benefit of over a hundred recruits. It was their ancient comrades under all sorts of terrors, the 2nd Coldstream, whose guides from Boiry-St. Martin one night lost their way in the maze of tracks and turns to the front line. But, as meekly set forth in the Diary, when it came the Battalion’s turn to be relieved by the 2nd Grenadiers, “all tracks had been carefully picketed by this Battalion to assist grenadier companies coming in and ours going out.” The occasions when the guides of the 1st Irish Guards lost their way must be looked for in the reports of others.
“Little shelling and no casualties” were the order of the fine days till, on the 29th July, taking over from the 2nd Coldstream, they found six platoons of the 3rd Battalion, 320th Regiment, U.S.A., which had come into line the night before and were attached for instruction. These were young, keen, desperately anxious to learn, and not at all disposed to keep their heads down.
Next day the enemy opened on them, and “were rather offensive in their shelling.” The front platoon of the Americans, attached to the Battalion’s front company, caught it worst, but no casualties were reported. Then things quieted down, and a patrol of Special Battalion Scouts, a new organization of old, trusty No Man’s Landers, under Lieutenant Vernon as Intelligence Officer, went out on reconnaissance, across the Cojeul valley, and wandered generally among ancient trench-lines in bright moonlight. They found a German party working on fresh earth, but no signs of enemy patrols on the move in the valley. This was as well. No one wished to see that dead ground occupied, except by our own people at the proper time.
July’s bill of casualties was the lowest of all. No officer and but one man had been killed, and two wounded. This last was when the enemy shelled Boiry to celebrate the arrival of the American platoons. Seventeen men were sent down sick. Fifty other ranks were transferred to the 1st from the 2nd Battalion, now acting as a feeder to its elder brother.
On the 1st of August the Battalion was still in the peaceful front line watching the six American platoons being relieved by other six platoons from the 2nd Battalion of the 320th Regiment. It was observed, not without some envy—“They did not know enough to save ’emselves throuble, an’ they would not ha’ done it if they had. They was too full of this same dam’ new ould war.” Even at this immense distance of time, one can almost hear the veterans commenting on the zeal and excitement that filled the stale lines where, to those young eyes from across the water, everything was as shining-new as death.
On the 3rd August the Battalion made a reconnaissance of a post with the idea of raiding it, which was a complete though bloodless failure. Some of our back guns chose the exact moment when the raiders were setting out (on the sure information of a scouting-party, who had just come in) to wipe up the unconscious little garrison and their machine-gun, and woke the night with heavy shell dropped in our own wire and in front of our objective. Naturally nothing could be done, and the affair was called off till the next evening (4th August), when a “crawling-party,” under Lieutenant Vernon, of a corporal and six men went out along the same route that the scouts had taken the night before. They were expected and welcomed with enthusiasm. A sentry gave the alarm, a little party ran out to cut them off, the machine-gun (a heavy one), which had not betrayed itself before, promptly opened fire, but wide of our prone men, and a German, as promptly, hove bombs in the wrong direction. All this, says the report, happened as soon as some one inside the post gave “short, decisive orders.” Then Very lights flared without stint, and, being some way from home, with much unlocated wire between, the raiders got away swiftly and safely. The tracks of the scouts through the long grass the night before had put the enemy on the alert. But if our guns had only held their tongues on that occasion, our coup might have been brought off. Instead of which, the enemy woke up and shelled a front company for a quarter of an hour with 60-pounders before he could be induced to go to bed.
But all this was as light, casual, and unrelated as the throwing of the ball from hand to hand that fills time before an innings; and, by the latter part of July, men began half unconsciously to speculate when our innings would begin. In the north, the enemy, crowded into the Lys salient, which they had been at such pains to hack out over the bodies of the 2nd Battalion, were enjoying some of the pleasures our men had tasted round Ypres for so many years. Our gathering guns, cross-ploughing them where they lay, took fresh toll of each new German division arriving to make good the wastage. In the south, outside Amiens, the Australians, an impenitent and unimpressionable breed, had, on the 4th of July, with the help of four companies of the Thirty-third American Division, and sixty tanks, gone a-raiding round the neighbourhood of Hamel and Vaire Wood, with results that surprised everybody except themselves. They did not greatly respect the enemy, and handled him rudely. Meantime, Amiens, raked over by aeroplanes almost every hour, was being wrecked and strangled; and all the Labour Corps, which, from the soldier’s point of view, could have been better used in saving poor privates cruel fatigues, were working day and night at railway diversions and doublings that, by some route or another, should bring the urgent supplies of both French and British armies to their destinations. Men argued, therefore, that the first job to be taken in hand would be the deliverance of Amiens. There was talk, too, that all French divisions in Flanders were withdrawn and concentrated behind Amiens city. This might be taken for a sign that the Lys salient was reckoned reasonably secure, and as confirming the belief that upon the Lys, also, we had abundance of artillery. On the other hand (these are but a few of the rumours of the time), away in the unknown south-east of France, where few British troops had penetrated in the memory of present fighting men, some five or six divisions, making the Ninth British Corps, had been sent for a “rest” after the March Push, and had been badly mauled by a sudden surprise-attack on the Aisne where, together with the Fifth French Army, they had been driven back towards the Marne, which all the world thought was a river and a battle long since disposed of. The enemy there were sitting practically outside the Forest of Villers-Cotterêts, a name also belonging to ancient history. Much-enduring men, whom Fate till now had spared, recounted how the 4th (Guards) Brigade, as it was then, had first “caught it” there, among the beech-trees very nearly four years back. Moreover, there was fresh trouble between Montdidier and Noyon, where the enemy were again throwing themselves at the French. Then, too, Foch, who was in charge of all, but who, so far, had made no sign, had borrowed four more of our divisions—the whole of the Twenty-second Corps this time—and they were off on some French front, Heaven and Headquarters alone knew where. Likewise one composite “Serum” of French, American, English, and Italian troops was holding, it might be hoped, a German capital attack near Rheims. The old war-line that in the remote days of winter would have called itself the Somme front discussed and digested these news and many more. There was nothing doing on their beat to write home about, even were they allowed to do so. The question was whether they would be called on to repair to the Lys and free Hazebrouck, which was undoubtedly still in a dangerous position, or stand still and await what might befall at Amiens. There was no limit to speculation and argument any more than there had been when the Somme front went in March, and the more they argued the more confused men grew over the confidential information that was supplied them. (“Them Gen’rals, and their Staffs must ha’ done quite a little lyin’—even for them. They had us believin’ their word! I’ve heard since even Jerry believed ’em.” )
That would appear to have been the trouble with the enemy. It was evident to the most hardened pessimist that a French counter-attack launched out of the Villers-Cotterêts Forests, to begin with (and in several other places at, apparently, the same time), was not the flash-in-the-pan that some people foretold. For the second time the enemy was withdrawing from the Marne, and, under pressure, continuing his withdrawal. His great attack near Rheims, too, seemed to have stuck. On the Lys, from time to time, sites of villages with well-remembered names were occasionally returning to their lawful trustees. Hopeful students of the war hinted that, with fresh troops in vast numbers, more guns, and a share of luck, 1918 might see the foundations laid for a really effective finish in 1919. A report had come up from the south that the French down Amiens way had made an experimental attack, or rather a big raid, on the enemy, and had found him there curiously “soft” and willing to shift.
The air thickened with lies as the men, who moved about the earth by night or under cover, increased, and our air-craft were told off to circle low and noisily at certain points and drown the churn of many tanks trailing up into their appointed areas. All the Canadian divisions, men said, were moving off to recapture Kemmel Hill. All our forces round Amiens were digging themselves in, said others, preparatory to a wait-and-see campaign that would surely last till Christmas. For proof, it was notorious that our guns in that sector were doing nothing. (As a matter of fact they were registering on the sly.) Everybody round Amiens, a third party insisted, would be sent off in a day or two to help the French in Champagne. The weaknesses of human nature in possession of “exclusive information” played into the hands of the very few who knew, and young staff officers of innocent appearance infernally bamboozled their betters.
So it happened, on the 4th August, on a misty dawn, that the Fourth Army (Rawlinson’s) with four hundred tanks, backed by two thousand guns, and covered by aeroplanes to a number not yet conceived in war, declared itself as in being round Amiens at the very nose of the great German salient. In twenty-four hours that attack had bitten in five miles on an eleven-mile front, had taken twelve thousand prisoners and some three hundred guns, and was well set to continue. At the same time the French, striking up from the south, had cleared their front up to the Amiens–Roye road from Pierrepont, through Plessier to Fresnoy, and had taken over three thousand prisoners and many guns. Caught thus on two fronts, the enemy fell back, abandoning stores and burning dumps, which latter sight it cheered our men to watch. But the work and the honour of the day, as of the Fourth Army’s campaign from this point on, rested with the Canadian and Australian divisions who made up the larger part of it. The Australians Sir Archibald Montgomery describes in his monumental “Story of the Fourth Army” as “always inquisitive and seldom idle.” The Canadians had exactly the same failings, and between the two dominions the enemy suffered. By the 12th August he had been forced back on to the edge of the used, desolate, and eaten-up country where he had established himself in 1916—a jungle of old wire, wrecked buildings, charred woods, and wildernesses of trench. It was ideal ground for machine-gun defence; with good protection against tanks and cavalry. There he went to earth, and there, after a little feeling along his line, was he left while the screw was applied elsewhere. Our front at that time ran from Bray-sur-Somme due south to Andechy, where we joined the French almost within machine-gun range of Roye.
North of Bray, to the western edge of the town of Albert, the left wing of the Fourth Army had the enemy held, worried and expectant. Now was the Third Army’s turn to drive in the wedge, from north of Albert up the line to Arras where the right of the First Army would assist. What Headquarters knew of the enemy’s morale on that sector was highly satisfactory. Moreover, he was withdrawing out of his Lys salient as his divisions were sucked down south to make up wastage there. But our men still expected that they would tramp their weary way back across every yard of their battle-fields and burial-grounds of the past two years, finishing up, if luck held, somewhere round the Hindenburg Line by Christmas. That the wave, once launched, would carry to the Rhine was beyond the wildest dreams.
The Battalion, after their little raid already mentioned, had spent from the 5th to the 9th August in reserve-trenches at Ransart, doing musketry and route-marching. They returned to the support-trenches at Hendecourt-lès-Ransart relieving the 2nd Coldstream, and stayed there till the 16th August, when they relieved the same battalion in the front line opposite Boiry-St. Martin.
They had to patrol the No Man’s Land in front of them a good deal at night (because it would, later, be their forming-up area), but suffered nothing worse than the usual shelling and trench-mortaring, and their share in the work of the opening day, August 21, was small and simple. “At 5 A.M. the 2nd Guards Brigade on our right attacked Moyenville with their objective just east of the railway. The 1st Coldstream was next on our right.” There was a thick fog when the barrage opened, as well as a smoke barrage. The tanks forming up made noise enough to wake a land full of Germans, but apparently drew no fire till they were well away, lunging and trampling over the enemy machine-gun-posts that had annoyed our folk for so long. The only serious work for the Battalion was to secure a small trench, cover the north side of the railway with their fire, and establish a post at the railway crossing “as soon as a tank had passed over.” The trench had been occupied early in the night after a small bombing-brawl with the enemy. The tank detailed to pass by that way in the morning was warned of the occupation and told not to fire into it as it came along and all was well. There was an idea that a couple of companies assisted by eight tanks should capture Hamelincourt, a mile east of Moyenville, which latter had been taken, before the fog lifted, by the 2nd Guards Brigade. But this was cancelled after much waste of time, and the Battalion lay still under a shelling of mustard-gas, and pleasantly watched prisoners being sent back.
The enemy’s front was giving before the attack of eight divisions, but not without sudden and awkward resistances, due to the cut-up and trenched state of the ground, that hid too many machine-guns for comfort; and the gas-nuisance grew steadily worse.
The Battalion lay where they were the next day (August 22), but sent out a patrol under 2nd Lieutenant Faraday to work up a trench near Hamel Switch, to the north of Hamelincourt. After capturing four Germans it came under machine-gun fire from Hamelincourt. A platoon was sent to support it, but was withdrawn as the Hamelincourt attack had been postponed till the next day. Then the patrol had to retire across abominable shallow trenches, clogged with wire and lavishly machine-gunned. The Germans tried to cut them off. They withdrew, fighting. Their Lewis-gun was knocked out and five men wounded. While these were being helped back, the Lieutenant and two men, Sergeant Dolan and Private Tait, covered the retreat among the wire. Next, Faraday was wounded badly in the foot, and the sergeant and private carried him in turn, he being six feet long and not narrow, while the rest of the party threw bombs at the Germans, and tried to close with them. Eventually they all reached home safe. Dolan’s one comment on the affair was: “’Tis heavy going out yonder.” Lieutenant Faraday was awarded the M.C. and Dolan the D.C.M. Later on, in 1919, Dolan also received the Medaille Militaire for gallantry on many occasions.
Seen against the gigantic background of the opening campaign, it was a microscopical affair—a struggle of ants round a single grain—but it moved men strongly while they watched.
For the reason that always leads a battalion to be hardest worked on the edge of battle, they were taken out of the line on the 23rd, cautiously, under gas and common shell, and marched back seven miles in five hours to Berles-au-Bois behind Monchy-au-Bois in order to be marched back again next day to Boiry-St. Martin, where they spent the day in the Cojeul valley, and afterwards (August 25) moved up into support in the Hamel Switch between Hamelincourt and St. Léger. Hamelincourt had been taken on the 23rd by the 2nd Brigade, and as the night came down wet, the “men made what shelters they could from corrugated iron and wood lying about.” The trenches hereabouts had every disadvantage that could be desired. Some were part of the Army Line and had been dug a foot or two deep with the spade as lines to be developed in case of need. Presumably, it was nobody’s business to complete them, so when the trouble arrived, these gutters, being officially trenches, were duly filled by the troops, and as duly shelled by the enemy.
For example, when the Battalion moved forward on the 26th their trenches were waist-deep, which, to men who had spent most of the day in the dry bed of the Cojeul River, under gas and common shell, was no great treat.
Since the 21st August the Guards Division had been well employed. Its 2nd Brigade, with the Second Division on its right, had captured the Ablainzevelle–Moyenneville spur; and the Second Division had taken Courcelles. By the night of the 23rd, when the 3rd Guards Brigade relieved the 2nd, and the Second Division had captured Ervillers on the Arras–Bapaume road, the Guards Division, with their 1st Brigade in support, was within half a mile of St. Léger, and in touch with the Fifty-sixth Division on their left, which was trying to work round the head of the Hindenburg Line and turn in from the north. At this point resistance stiffened. The hilly ground, cut and cross-cut with old trenches and the beginnings of new ones, lent itself to the stopping game of well-placed machine-guns equally from round Croisilles, where the Fifty-sixth Division was engaged; from about St. Léger Wood, where the 3rd Guards Brigade, supported by tanks, was renewing its acquaintance with the German anti-tank-rifle; and from Mory, where the Sixty-second Division was delayed by the Division on its right being held up. An enemy balloon or two hung on the horizon and some inquisitive, low-flying aeroplanes hinted at coming trouble. The line expected as much, but they did not seem so well informed farther back.
On the 26th August orders arrived that the 1st Guards Brigade would now take up the running from the 3rd, and advance eastward from St. Léger towards Ecoust till opposition was met. There were, of course, refinements on this idea, but that was the gist of it. The 2nd Grenadiers and the 2nd Coldstream would attack, with the Battalion in support. The men were in their trenches by tea-time on the 26th, No. 1 Company in Jewel Trench just east of the entrance to the little Sensée River valley, and the others disposed along the line of Mory Switch, an old trench now only a foot deep. Battalion Headquarters lay in an abandoned German stores dug-out. Final orders did not arrive till after midnight on the 26th, and there was much to arrange and link up between then and seven o’clock, barrage time. The Grenadiers were on the right and the Coldstream on the left of the Battalion, the latter following a quarter of a mile behind, with Nos. 1 and 3 Companies to feed the Grenadiers and Nos. 4 and 2 for the Coldstream. As the front was so wide, they split the difference and kept as close as might be to the dividing line between the two leading Battalions, which ran by Mory Switch and Hally Avenue. The hot day broke with a gorgeous sunrise over a desolate landscape that reeked in all its hollows of gas and cordite. A moment or two after our barrage (field-guns only) opened, the enemy put down a heavy reply, and into the smoke and dust of it the companies, in artillery formation, walked up the road without hesitation or one man losing his place. No. 1 Company leading on the right disappeared at once after they had passed their jumping-off point at Mory Switch. Almost the first shells caught the leading platoon, when Lieutenant J. N. Ward was killed and Lieutenant P. S. MacMahon wounded. As soon as they were clear of the barrage, they came under full blast of machine-gun fire and saw the Grenadiers presently lie down enfiladed on both flanks. Four of our machine-guns tried to work forward and clear out the hindrances, but the fire was too strong. Both battalions were finally held up, and the Grenadiers were practically cut to pieces, with their reserve companies, as these strove to reinforce the thinned line. After what seemed an immense time (two hours or so) Captain Thompson, seeing that, as far as that sector was concerned, the thing was hung up, ordered his men to dig in in support, and they spent till nightfall “recovering casualties”—their own, those of the battalions ahead, and of the Guards Machine-Guns.
No. 3 Company, which followed No. 1, suffered just as heavily from the barrage. Very soon their commander, Captain Joyce, was wounded and Lieutenant H. U. Baldwin killed. Second Lieutenant Heaton, who took over, was gassed in the course of the afternoon, and C.S.M. O’Hara then commanded. There was nothing for them to do either save dig in, like No. 1, behind the Grenadiers, and a little to the right of them.
No. 4 Company, under Captain Hegarty, following the Coldstream, got the worst barrage of all as soon as they were clear of their trenches, and found the Coldstream held up, front and flank, within fifty yards of the sunken road whence they had started. No. 15 platoon of the Irish Guards was almost wiped out, and the remains of it joined with No. 13 to make a defensive flank, while No. 14 crawled or wriggled forward to reinforce the Coldstream, and No. 16 lay in reserve in a sunk road. Sunk roads were the only shelter for such as did not wish to become early casualties.
No. 2 Company (Captain A. Paget) following No. 4 had been held back for a few minutes by the C.O. (Major R. Baggallay) on the fringe of the barrage, to be slipped through when it seemed to lighten. They also launched out into a world that was all flank or support, of battalions which could neither be seen nor found, who were themselves outflanked by machine-guns in a landscape that was one stumbling-block of shallow trenches which suddenly faded out. They crossed the St. Léger–Vraucourt road and bore east, after clearing the St. Léger wood, till they reached the St. Léger reserve trench, and held it from the Longatte road to where it joined the Banks Reserve. Says one record: “At this time, Captain Paget was in ignorance of the success or location of the attacking battalions, and both of his flanks exposed as far as he knew.” The enemy machine-guns were hammering home that knowledge, and one of the platoons had lost touch altogether, and was out in the deadly open. So in the trench they lay till an officer of the Coldstream came over and told Paget the “general situation,” which, unofficially, ran: “This show is held up.” He borrowed a section from No. 5 Platoon to help to build up a flank to guard the east side of St. Léger and vanished among the increasing shellholes.
Well on in the morning a message arrived from Captain Hegarty, No. 4 Company, that he and his men were on the St. Léger–Vraucourt road and held up like the rest. Captain Paget went over, in the usual way, by a series of bolts from shell-hole to shellhole, trying to clear up an only too-clear situation. On the way he found a lost platoon, sent it to dig in on the left of No. 2 Company, and also saw the C.O. 2nd Coldstream and explained his own dispositions. They were not made too soon, for in a short time there was an attack on No. 2 Company which came within sixty yards before it was broken up by our small-arm fire. The Germans were followed up as they returned across the Ecoust–Mory ridge by long-range shooting in which, for the sake of economy, captured enemy rifles and ammunition were used.
By this time the whole front was split up into small or large scattered posts in trenches or under cover, each held down by machine-guns which punished every movement. Two Companies (2 and 4) were near the St. Léger Trees, a clump of nine trees on the St. Léger–Ecoust road, mixed up with the Coldstream posts. The other two were dug in behind the Grenadiers on the right. Battalion Headquarters circulated spasmodically and by rushes, when it saw its chance, from one point to the other of the most unwholesome ground. Even at the time, some of its shellhole conferences struck the members as comic; but history does not record the things that were said by dripping officers between mouthfuls of dirt and gas.
Every battle has its special characteristic. St. Léger was one of heat, sunshine, sweat; the flavour of at least two gases tasted through respirators or in the raw; the wail of machine-gun bullets sweeping the crests of sunken roads; the sudden vision of wounded in still-smoking shell-holes or laid in the sides of a scarp; sharp whiffs of new-spilt blood, and here and there a face upon which the sun stared without making any change. So the hours wore on, under a sense of space, heat, and light; Death always just over the edge of that space and impudently busy in that light.
About what would have been tea-time in the real world, Captain Paget, a man of unhurried and careful speech and imperturbable soul, reported to the C.O., whom he found by the St. Léger Trees, that there were “Huns on his right—same trench as himself.” It was an awkward situation that needed mending before dusk, and it was made worse by the posts of the Coldstream and some Guards Machine-Guns’ posts, as well as those of our No. 4 Company, being mixed up within close range of No. 2. The C.O. decided that if a barrage could be brought to bear on the trench and its rather crowded neighbourhood, No. 2 might attack it. A young gunner, Fowler by name, cast up at that juncture and said it might be managed if the Battalion withdrew their posts round the area. He had a telephone, still uncut, to his guns and would observe their registration himself. The posts, including those of the Guards Machine-Guns, were withdrawn, and Fowler was as near as might be killed by one of his own registering shots. He got his 18-pounders to his liking at last, and ten minutes’ brisk barrage descended on the trench. When it stopped, and before our men could move, up went a white flag amid yells of “Kamerad,” and the Huns came out, hands aloft, to be met by our men, who, forgetting that exposed troops, friend and foe alike, would certainly be gunned by the nearest enemy-post, had to be shooed and shouted back to cover by their officers. The prisoners, ninety of them, were herded into a wood, where they cast their helmets on the ground, laughed, and shook hands with each other, to the immense amusement of our people. The capture had turned a very blank day into something of a success, and the Irish were grateful to the “bag.” This at least explains the politeness of the orderly who chaperoned rather than conducted the Hun officer to the rear, with many a “This way, sir. Mind out, now, sir, you don’t slip down the bank.” They put a platoon into the captured trench and lay down to a night of bursts of heavy shelling. But the enemy, whether because of direct pressure or because they had done their delaying work, asked for no more and drew back in the dark.
When morning of the 28th broke “few signs of enemy movement were observed.” Men say that there is no mistaking the “feel of the front” under this joyous aspect. The sense of constriction departs as swiftly as a headache, and with it, often, the taste that was in the mouth. One by one, as the lovely day went on, the patrols from the companies made their investigations and reports, till at last the whole line reformed and, in touch on either flank, felt forward under light shelling from withdrawing guns. An aeroplane dropped some bombs on the Battalion as it drew near to the St. Léger Trees, which wounded two men and two gunner officers, one of whom—not Fowler, the boy who arranged for the barrage—died in Father Browne’s arms. On the road at that point, where the wounded and dying of the fight had been laid, only dried pools of blood and some stained cotton-wads remained darkening in the sun. Such officers as the gas had affected in that way went about their routine-work vomiting disgustedly at intervals.
Battalion Headquarters, which had nominally spent the previous day in a waist-deep trench, set up office at the St. Léger Trees, and the advance of the Guards Division continued for a mile or so. Then, on a consolidated line, with machine-guns chattering to the eastward, it waited to be relieved. As prelude to their watch on the Rhine, the affair was not auspicious. The Grenadiers, on whom the brunt of the fight fell, were badly knocked out, and of their sixteen officers but four were on their feet. The Coldstream were so weakened that they borrowed our No. 4 Company to carry on with, and the Irish thought themselves lucky to have lost no more than two officers (Lieutenant J. N. Ward and Lieutenant H. R. Baldwin) dead, and six wounded or gassed, in addition to a hundred and seventy other ranks killed or wounded. The wounded officers were Captain W. Joyce; Lieutenants P. S. MacMahon and C. A. J. Vernon, who was incapacitated for a while by tear-gas in the middle of action and led away blinded and very wroth; also 2nd Lieutenants H. A. Connolly, G. T. Heaton, and A. E. Hutchinson.
The Division was relieved on the night of the 28th the Battalion itself, as far as regarded No. 1 Company, by the 1st Gordons, from the Third Division, Nos. 2 and 4 Companies by another battalion, and No. 3 Company under the orders of the 2nd Grenadiers. They marched back to their positions of the night before the battle “very glad that it was all behind us,” and their shelters of bits of wood and rough iron seemed like rest in a fair land.
On the 29th August, a hot day, they lay in old trenches over the Moyenneville spur in front of Adinfer Wood facing Douchy and Ayette, where “three weeks ago no man could have lived.” They talked together of the far-off times when they held that line daily expecting the enemy advance; and the officers lay out luxuriously in the wood in the evening after Mess, while the men made themselves “little homes in it.”
Next day they rested, for the men were very tired, and on the last of the month the whole Battalion was washed in the divisional baths that had established themselves at Adinfer. But the enemy had not forgotten them, and on the first of September their shelters and tents in the delightful wood were bombed. Six men were injured, five being buried in a trench, and of these two were suffocated before they could be dug out.
And that was all the rest allowed to the Battalion. On the 2nd September the Canadian Corps of the First Army broke that outlying spur of the Hindenburg System known as the Drocourt–Quéant Switch, with its wires, trenches, and posts; and the Fifty-seventh and Fifty-second Divisions, after hard work, equally smashed the triangle of fortifications north-west of Quéant where the Switch joined the System. The gain shook the whole of the Hindenburg Line south of Quéant and, after five days’ clean-up behind the line, the Guards Division were ordered to go in again at the very breast of Hindernburg’s works. No one knew what the enemy’s idea might be, but there was strong presumption that, if he did not hold his defence at that point, he might crack. (“But, ye’ll understand, for all that, we did not believe Jerry would crack past mendin’.” )
The Battalion spent the night of the 2nd September, then, in shelters in Hamel Switch Trench on their way back from Adinfer Wood to the battle. The front had now shifted to very much the one as we held in April, 1917, ere the days of Cambrai and Bourlon Wood. The 1st Guards Brigade were in Divisional Reserve at Lagnicourt, three miles south-west of Ecoust-St.Mein, where the Battalion had to cross their still fresh battle-field of less than a week back, as an appetizer to their hot dinners. They occupied a waist-deep old trench, a little west of Lagnicourt, and noticed that there was no shelling, though the roads were full of our traffic, “a good deal of it in full view of Bourlon Wood.” Going over “used” ground for the third time and noting one’s many dead comrades does not make for high spirit even though one’s own Divisional General has written one’s own Brigadier, “All battalions of the 1st Guards Brigade discharged their duty splendidly at St. Léger.”
Lagnicourt was shelled a little by a high-velocity gun between the 4th and the 6th of September, and seventeen bombs were dropped on the Battalion, wounding two men.
By all reason there should have been a bitter fight on that ground, and full preparation for it was made. But the enemy, after St. Léger, saw fit to withdraw himself suddenly and unexpectedly out of all that area. For one bewildering dawn and day “the bottom fell out of the front,” as far as the Guards Division was concerned. It is a curious story, even though it does not directly concern the Battalion. Here is one detail of it:
On the 3rd September the 2nd Brigade toiled in from Monchy, in full war-kit, and, tired with the long day’s heat, formed up west of Lagnicourt before dawn, detailed to win, if they could, a thousand yards or so of chewed-up ground. They “went over the top” under a creeping barrage, one gun of which persistently fired short, and—found nothing whatever in front of them save a prodigious number of dead horses, some few corpses, and an intolerable buzzing of flies! As they topped the ridge above Lagnicourt, they saw against the first light of the sun, dump after German dump blazing palely towards the east. That was all. They wandered, wondering, into a vast, grassy, habitationless plain that stretched away towards the Bapaume–Cambrai road. Not a machine-gun broke the stupefying stillness from any fold of it. Yet it was the very place for such surprises. Aeroplanes swooped low, looked them well over, and skimmed off. No distant guns opened. The advance became a route-march, a Sunday walk-out, edged with tense suspicion. They saw a German cooker wrecked on the grass, and, beside it, the bodies of two clean, good-looking boys, pathetically laid out as for burial. The thing was a booby-trap arranged to move our people’s pity. Some pitied, and were blown to bits by the concealed mine. No one made any comment. They were tired with carrying their kit in the sun among the maddening flies. The thousand yards stretched into miles. Twice or thrice they halted and began to dig in for fear of attack. But nothing overtook them and they installed themselves, about dusk, in some old British trenches outside Boursies, four miles and more, as the crow flies, from Lagnicourt! At midnight, up came their rations, and the punctual home-letters, across that enchanted desert which had spared them. They were told that their Brigade Artillery was in place behind the next rise, ready to deliver barrages on demand, and in due course the whole of our line on that sector flowed forward.
The Battalion relieved the 1st Scots Guards in the front line near Mœuvres on the 7th—a quiet relief followed by severe gassing. Here they passed two days in the delicate and difficult business of feeling all about them among the mass of old trenches, to locate enemy’s posts and to watch what points of vantage might offer. The wreckage of the houses round Mœuvres, into which the trenches ran, lent itself excellently to enemy activity; and men played blind-man’s buff round bits of broken walls wherever they explored. Their left was in the air; their right under the care of Providence; and their supports were far off. No. 3 Company (Captain G. L. Bambridge, M.C.), while trying to close a gap between the two front companies (3 and 1) by peaceful penetration with a bombing-party, found enemy in the trench, drove him up it as far as they could, built a barricade, and were then heavily counter-raided by a couple of officers and twenty men whom they ejected after, as the Company justly owned, “a good attempt.” The enemy “attempted” again about midnight on the 8th, when he was bombed off, and again on the afternoon of the 9th in an outlying trench, mixed up with smashed cellars and broken floors, where he captured two unarmed stretcher-bearers and three men who had not been in the line before. Though it does new hands no harm to realize that front-line trenches are not Warley Barracks (and stretcher-bearers, like orderlies, are prey to all the world), still the matter could not be passed over. Our trench-mortars attended vigorously to the enemy posts whence the raid had been launched, and in the afternoon sent a strong patrol to make the outraged trench secure. Later on, a platoon of No. 1 Company got into touch with the battalion (8th King’s) on their left, and took part in a small “bicker,” as it was described, but with no casualties.
They were relieved the same night, though they did not expect it, by the 1/5th Battalion Loyal North Lanes who had not made sure of their route beforehand, and so, in wet darkness, lost their way, failed to meet the guides at the rendezvous, and were heavily shelled. The relief dragged on till well towards dawn, when the battalions straggled off into some drenching trenches without any sort of accommodation. (“The whole thing the most appalling mess and agony I have ever experienced.”) The worst was when a stray light went up and showed the relieved Battalion under pouring rain playing “follow my leader” in a complete circle like caterpillars, in the hopeful belief that they were moving to their destination. They next took the place of the 3rd Guards Brigade in reserve-trenches near Edinburgh Support, where they stayed till the 14th September and were not even once shelled. Salvage and cleaning up was their fatigue—a dreadful job at any time, for the ground was filled with ancient offal as well as new—lost French of ’14 mingled grotesquely with the raw produce of yesterday’s bombing-raid. Yet men’s feelings blunt so by use that they will scavenge yard by yard over the very clay of the pit into which they themselves may at any instant be stamped, nor turn a hair at shapes made last year in their likeness. The Battalion was complimented by its Major-General on the extent and neatness of its dump. No mere campaigning interferes with the Army’s passion for elaborate economies. A little before this, the entire British Expeditionary Force was exhorted to collect and turn in all solder from bully-beef tins and the like. Naturally, the thing became a game with betting on results between corps; but when a dark, elderly, brooding private of the Irish spent three hours stalking a Coldstream cooker with intent to convey and melt it down, every one felt it had gone far enough.
On the 15th September they relieved the 1st Scots Guards in the old trenches west of Lagnicourt. There they managed to put in a little box-respirator drill which at the best is a dry fatigue, but, be it noted with gratitude, “beer was obtained for the men and sent up from transport-lines.” The whole area reeked of the various gases which the enemy were distributing with heavies. They hung in the hollows and were sucked up by the day’s heat, and no time or place was safe from them. Gas-discipline had to be insisted on strongly, for even veterans grow careless of a foe they cannot see; and the new hands are like croupy babies.
On the 17th September they relieved the 2nd Scots Guards in support, and No. 2 Company took over from a company of the Welsh Guards. Their trenches were in what had been the British front line of the old time—Fish Avenue, Sprat Post, Shark Support, Rat and Rabbit Avenue, and so forth.
There was desultory shelling on the morning of the 18th, and heavier work in the afternoon, causing six casualties, and slightly wounding Captain Vernon, Intelligence Officer. Then the silence of preparation for battle falls on the record. It was nothing to the Battalion that on the 18th September the enemy “apparently attacked south of the divisional front along the Bapaume–Cambrai road.” The dead must bury their dead on the Somme. They had their own dispositions to arrange and re-arrange, as men, for one cause or other, fell out and no unit could afford to take chances, with the Hindenburg Line ahead of them. (“An’ we knowin’ we was told off to cross that dirty ditch in front of ’em all.”) Their world, as with every other division, was limited to the Reserves behind them, who should come up to make good their casualties; their trench-mortar batteries alongside them; and their own selves about to be used in what promised to be one of the bloodiest shows of the war.
Those who were for the front line enjoyed a week to work and think things over. Those who were set aside for the second course were bombed by night and—went mushroom-picking in back-areas between parades, or played riotous cricket-matches with petrol-tins for wickets!
Their Divisional Commander, Major-General Feilding, had left on September 11 to succeed Sir Francis Lloyd in command of the London District, and General T. G. Matheson, C.B., had been appointed to the command of the Guards Division. The Battalion was full strength, officers and men, for there had been little during the past month to pull it down.
Operations against the Hindenburg Line were to open on the 27th September with the attack of fourteen divisions of the First and Third Armies on a twelve-mile front from opposite Gouzeaucourt in the south to opposite Sauchy-Lestrée, sister to Sauchy-Cauchy—under the marshes of the Sensée River in the north. It would be heralded by two days’ solid bombardment along the entire fronts of the First, Third, and Fourth Armies, so that the enemy might be left guessing which was to hit first. When the First and Third Armies were well home, the Fourth would attend to the German position in the south, and heave the whole thing backward.
The share of the Guards Division in the northern attack was to cross the Canal du Nord at Lock Seven, north of Havrincourt, on a front of a mile; then work through the complicated tangle of the Hindenburg support line directly east along the ridge from Flesquières village to Premy Chapel which stands at the junction of the roads from Noyelles, Marcoing, and Graincourt, and to consolidate on the line of the Marcoing–Graincourt road. Meantime, the Third Division on their right would take the village of Flesquières; the Fifty-second Division would take the Hindenburg Line that lay west of the Canal in the bend of it, and would then let the Sixty-third through who would swing down from the north and attend to Graincourt and Anneux villages. The total advance set for the Guards Division was three miles, but, if the operations were fully successful, they were to push on to the outskirts of Noyelles; the Third Division to Marcoing; while the Fifty-seventh, coming through the Sixty-third, would take Cantaing and Fontaine-Notre-Dame. In the Guards Division itself, the 2nd Brigade was to move off first, and ferret its way through a knot of heavily wired trenches that lay between them and the Canal, take the Hindenburg support trenches, and then form a defensive flank to the left of the next advance till the Fifty-second and Sixty-third Divisions should have secured Graincourt. The 1st Brigade would pass through them and capture the trenches across the Canal to the north and north-east of Flesquières. If resistance were not too strong, that brigade was to go on to the spur running from Flesquières to Cantaing, and help the Sixty-third turn the Graincourt line. The 3rd Brigade, passing through the 1st, would carry on and take the high ground round Premy Chapel.
Enough rain fell the day before to grease the ground uncomfortably, and when at 3.30 A.M. the Irish Guards moved off from their reserve trenches west of Lagnicourt to their assembly positions along the Demicourt–Graincourt road to Bullen Trench, the jumping-off place, it was pouring wet. They were not shelled on the way up, but the usual night-work was afoot in the back-areas, and though our guns, as often the case on the eve of an outbreak, held their breath, the enemy’s artillery threatened in the distance, and the lights and “flaming onions” marked their expectant front. Just before the Battalion reached the ruins of Demicourt, there was an explosion behind them, and they saw, outlined against the flare of a blazing dump, Lagnicourt way, a fat and foolish observation-balloon rocking and ducking at the end of its tether, with the air of a naughty baby caught in the act of doing something it shouldn’t. Since the thing was visible over half a Department, they called it names, but it made excuse for a little talk that broke the tension. Tea and rum were served out at the first halt—a ritual with its usual grim jests—and when they reached the road in front of Demicourt, they perceived the balloon had done its dirty work too well. The enemy, like ourselves, changes his field-lights on occasion, but, on all occasions, two red lights above and one below mean trouble. “Up go the bloody pawnbrokers!” said a man who knew what to expect, and, as soon as the ominous glares rose, the German trench-mortars opened on the Battalion entering the communication-way that led to Bullen Trench. Our barrage came down at Zero (5.20) more terrifically, men said, than ever they had experienced, and was answered by redoubled defensive barrages. After that, speech was cut off. Some fifty yards ahead of Bullen Trench—which, by the way, was only three feet deep—lay the 1st Scots Guards, the first wave of the attack. On, in front of, and in the space between them and the Irish, fell the rain of the trench-mortars; from the rear, the Guards Machine-Guns tortured all there was of unoccupied air with their infernal clamours. The Scots Guards went over among the shell-spouts and jerking wires at the first glimmer of dawn, the Irish following in a rush. The leading companies were No. 3 (Lieutenant H. A. A. Collett) on the left, and No. 4 (2nd Lieutenant C. S. O’Brien) on the right. The 1st Guards Trench Mortar Battery (2nd Lieutenant O. R. Baldwin, Irish Guards) was attached experimentally to No. 3 Company in the first wave instead of, as usual, in support.. No. 2 Company (Captain C. W. W. Bence-Jones) supported No. 3, and No. 1 (Lieutenant the Hon. B. A. A. Ogilvy) No. 4. They stayed for a moment in the trench, a deep, wide one of the Hindenburg pattern, which the Scots Guards had left. It was no healthy spot, for the shells were localised here and the dirt flung up all along it in waves. Men scrambled out over the sliding, flying edges of it, saw a bank heave up in the half-light, and knew that, somewhere behind that, was the Canal. By this time one of the two Stokes guns of the Mortar Battery and half the gunners had been wiped out, and the casualties in the line were heavy; but they had no time to count. Then earth opened beneath their feet, and showed a wide, deep, dry, newly made canal with a smashed iron bridge lying across the bed of it, and an unfinished lock to the right looking like some immense engine of war ready to do hurt in inconceivable fashions. Directly below them, on the pale, horribly hard, concrete trough, was a collection of agitated pin-heads, the steel hats of the Scots Guards rearing ladders against the far side of the gulf. Mixed with them were the dead, insolently uninterested, while the wounded, breaking aside, bound, themselves up with the tense, silent preoccupation which unhurt men, going forward, find so hard to bear. Mobs of bewildered Germans had crawled out of their shelters in the Canal flanks and were trying to surrender to any one who looked likely to attend to them. They saluted British officers as they raced past, and, between salutes, returned their arms stiffly to the safe “Kamerad” position. This added the last touch of insanity to the picture. (”We’d ha’ laughed if we had had the time, ye’ll understand.”)
None recall precisely how they reached the bottom of the Canal, but there were a few moments of blessed shelter ere they scrambled out and reformed on the far side. The shelling here was bad enough, but nothing to what they had survived. A veil of greasy smoke, patched with flame that did not glare, stood up behind them, and through the pall of it, in little knots, stumbled their supports, blinded, choking, gasping. In the direction of the attack, across a long stretch of broken rising ground, were more shells, but less thickly spaced, and craters of stinking earth and coloured chalks where our barrage had ripped out nests of machine-guns. Far off, to the left, creaming with yellow smoke in the morning light, rose the sullen head of Bourlon Wood to which the Canadians were faithfully paying the debt contracted by the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards in the old days after Cambrai.
At the crest of the ascent lay Saunders Keep, which marked the point where the Scots Guards would lie up and the Irish come through. Already the casualties had been severe. Captain Bence-Jones and 2nd Lieutenant Mathieson of No. 2 Company were wounded at the Keep itself, and 2nd Lieutenant A. R. Boyle of No. 1 earlier in the rush. The companies panted up, gapped and strung out. From the Keep the land sloped down to Stafford Alley, the Battalion’s first objective just before which Lieutenant Barry Close was killed. That day marked his coming of age. Beyond the Alley the ground rose again, and here the Irish were first checked by some machine-gun fire that had escaped our barrages. Second Lieutenant O’Brien, No. 3 Company, was hit at this point while getting his men forward. He had earned his Military Cross in May, and he died well. The next senior officer, 2nd Lieutenant E. H. R. Burke, was away to the left in the thick of the smoke with a platoon that, like the rest, was fighting for its life; so 2nd Lieutenant O’Farrell led on. He was hit not far from Stafford Alley, and while his wound was being bandaged by Sergeant Regan, hit again by a bullet that, passing through the Sergeant’s cap and a finger, entered O’Farrell’s heart. The officer commanding the remnants of the Mortar Battery took on the company and his one gun. Meantime, Collett and a few of No. 3 Company had reached Silver Street, a trench running forward from Stafford Alley, and he and Lieutenant Brady were bombing down it under heavy small-arm fire from the enemy’s left flank which had not been driven in and was giving untold trouble. No. 2 Company, with two out of three of its officers down, was working towards the same line as the fragment of No. 3; though opinion was divided on that confused field whether it would not be better for them to lie down and form a defensive flank against that pestilent left fire. Eventually, but events succeeded each other like the bullets, Collett and his men reached their last objective—a trench running out of Silver Street towards Flesquières. Here he, Brady, and Baldwin drew breath and tried to get at the situation. No. 4 Company lay to the right of No. 3, and when 2nd Lieutenant E. H. R. Burke, with what was left of his platoon before mentioned, came up, he resumed charge of it without a word and went on. No. 1 Company (Lieutenant the Hon. B. A. A. Ogilvy) had, like the rest, been compelled to lead its own life. Its objective was the beet-sugar factory in front of Flesquières ahead of and a little to the right of the Battalion’s final objective, and it was met throughout with rifle, bomb, and flanking fire. Lieutenant Ogilvy was wounded at a critical point in the game with the enemy well into the trench, or trenches. (The whole ground seemed to the men who were clearing it one inexhaustible Hun-warren.) As he dropped, Lieutenant R. L. Dagger and Sergeant Conaboy, picking up what men they could, bombed the enemy out, back, and away, and settled down to dig in and wait; always under flank-fire. The Sergeant was killed “in his zeal to finish the job completely”—no mean epitaph for a thorough man. By eleven o’clock that morning all the companies had reached their objectives, and, though sorely harassed, began to feel that the worst for them might be over. There were, however, two German “whizz-bangs” that lived in Orival Wood still untaken on the Battalion’s left, and these, served with disgusting speed and accuracy, swept Silver Street mercilessly. The situation was not improved when one of the sergeants quoted the ever-famous saying of Sergeant-Major Toher with reference to one of our own barrages: “And even the wurrums themselves are getting up and crying for mercy.” The guns were near enough to watch quite comfortably, and while the men watched and winced, they saw the “success” signal of the Canadians—three whites—rise high in air in front of Bourlon Wood. Then No. 1 Company reported they were getting more than their share of machine-gun fire, and the 1st Guards Brigade Trench Mortar Battery, reduced to one mortar, one officer, one sergeant, four men, and ten shells, bestowed the whole of its ammunition in the direction indicated, abandoned its mortar, and merged itself into the ranks of No. 3 Company. It had been amply proved that where trench-mortars accompany a first wave of attack, if men are hit while carrying two Stokes shells apiece (forty pounds of explosives), they become dangerous mobile mines.
Enemy aeroplanes now swooped down with machine-gun fire; there seemed no way of getting our artillery to attend to them and they pecked like vultures undisturbed. Then Battalion Headquarters came up in the midst of the firing from the left, established themselves in a dug-out and were at once vigorously shelled, together with the neighbouring aid-post and some German prisoners there, waiting to carry down wounded. The aid-post was in charge of a young American doctor, Rhys Davis by name, who had been attached to the Battalion for some time. This was his first day of war and he was mortally wounded before the noon of it.
The trench filled as the day went on, with details dropping in by devious and hurried roads to meet the continual stream of prisoners being handed down to Brigade Headquarters. One youth, who could not have been seventeen, flung himself into the arms of an officer and cried, “Kamerad, Herr Offizier! Ich bin sehr jung! Kamerad!” To whom the embarrassed Islander said brutally: “Get on with you. I wouldn’t touch you for the world!” And they laughed all along the trench-face as they dodged the whizz-bangs out of Orival Wood, and compared themselves to the “wurrums begging for mercy.”
About noon, after many adventures, the 2nd Grenadiers arrived to carry on the advance, and Silver Street became a congested metropolis. The 2nd Grenadiers were hung up there for a while because, though the Third Division on the right had taken Flesquières, the Sixty-third on the left had not got Graincourt village, which was enfilading the landscape damnably. Orival Wood, too, was untaken, and the 1st Grenadiers, under Lord Gort, were out unsupported half a mile ahead on the right front somewhere near Premy Chapel. Meantime, a battalion of the Second Division, which was to come through the Guards Division and continue the advance, flooded up Silver Street, zealously unreeling its telephone wires; Machine-Gun Guards were there, looking for positions; the 2nd Grenadiers were standing ready; the Welsh Guards were also there with intent to support the Grenadiers; walking wounded were coming down, and severe cases were being carried over the top by German prisoners who made no secret of an acute desire to live and jumped in among the rest without leave asked. The men compared the crush to a sugar-queue at home. To cap everything, some wandering tanks which had belonged to the Division on the right had strayed over to the left. No German battery can resist tanks, however disabled; so they drew fire, and when they were knocked out (our people did not know this at first, being unused to working with them), made life insupportable with petrol-fumes for a hundred yards round.
About half-past four in the afternoon a Guards Battalion—they thought it was the 1st Coldstream—came up on their left, and under cover of what looked like a smoke-barrage, cleared Orival Wood and silenced the two guns there. The Irish, from their dress-circle in Silver Street, blessed them long and loud, and while they applauded, Lieut.-Colonel Lord Gort, commanding the 1st Grenadiers, came down the trench wounded on his way to a dressing-station. He had been badly hit once before he thought fit to leave duty, and was suffering from loss of blood. The Irish had always a great regard for him, and that day they owed him more than they knew at the time, for it was the advance of the 1st Grenadiers under his leading, almost up to Premy Chapel, which had unkeyed the German resistance in Graincourt, and led the enemy to believe their line of retreat out of the village was threatened. The Second Division as it came through found the enemy shifting and followed them up towards Noyelles. So the day closed, and, though men did not realize, marked the end of organized trench-warfare for the Guards Division.
The Battalion, with two officers dead and five wounded out of fifteen (killed: Lieutenant B. S. Close, and 2nd Lieutenant A. H. O’Farrell; wounded: Captain the Hon. B. A. A. Ogilvy, Captain C. W. W. Bence-Jones, and 2nd Lieutenants A. R. Boyle, G. F. Mathieson, and C. S. O’Brien, M.C., died of wounds), and one hundred and eighty casualties in the ranks, stayed on the ground for the night. It tried to make itself as comfortable as cold and shallow trenches allowed, but by orders of some “higher authority,” who supposed that it had been relieved, no water or rations were sent up; and, next morning, they had to march six thousand yards on empty stomachs to their trench-shelters and bivouacs in front of Demicourt. As the last company arrived a cold rain fell, but they were all in reasonably high spirits. It had been a winning action, in spite of trench-work, and men really felt that they had the running in their own hands at last.
Back-area rumours and official notifications were good too. The Nineteenth and Second Corps of the Second Army, together with the Belgian Army, had attacked on the 28th September, from Dixmude to far south of the Ypres-Zonnebeke road; had retaken all the heights to the east of Ypres, and were in a fair way to clear out every German gain there of the past four years. A German withdrawal was beginning from Lens to Armentières, and to the south of the Third Army the Fourth came in on the 29th (while the Battalion was “resting and shaving” in its trench-shelters by Demicourt) on a front of twelve miles, and from Gricourt to Vendhuille broke, and poured across the Hindenburg Line, then to the St. Quentin Canal. At the same time, lest there should be one furlong of the uneasy front neglected, the Fifth and Sixth Corps of the Third Army attacked over the old Gouzeaucourt ground between Vendhuille and Marcoing. This, too, without counting the blows that the French and the Americans were dealing in their own spheres on the Meuse and in the Argonne; each stroke coldly preparing the next.
The Germans had, during September, lost a quarter of a million of prisoners, several thousand guns, and immense quantities of irreplaceable stores. Their main line of resistance was broken and over-run throughout; and their troops in the field were feeling the demoralisation of constant withdrawals, as well as shortage from abandoned supplies. Our people had known the same depression in the March Push, when night skies, lit with burning dumps, gave the impression that all the world was going up in universal surrender.
But work was still to do. Between Cambrai, which at the end of October was under, though not actually in, our hands, and Maubeuge, lay thirty-five miles of France, all open save for such hastily made defences as the enemy had been able to throw up after the collapse of the Hindenburg systems. There, then, the screw was turned, and on the 8th October the Third and Fourth Armies attacked on a front of seventeen miles from Sequehart, north of Cambrai, where the Cambrai–Douai road crosses the Sensée, southward to our junction with the French First Army a few miles above St. Quentin. Twenty British divisions, two cavalry divisions, and one American division were involved. The Battalion faced the changed military situation, by announcing that companies were “at the disposal of their commanders for open warfare training.” After which they were instantly sent forward from their Demicourt trenches, to help make roads between Havricourt and Flesquières!
On the 3rd October they had orders to move, which were at once cancelled—sure sign that the Higher Command had something on its mind. This was proved two days later when the same orders arrived again, and were again washed out. Meantime, their reorganisation after the Flesquières fight had been completed; reinforcements were up, and the following officers had joined for duty: Lieutenants H. E. Van der Noot and G. F. Van der Noot, and 2nd Lieutenants A. L. W. Koch de Gooreynd, the Hon. C. A. Barnewall, G. M. Tylden-Wright, V. J. S. French, and R. E. Taylor.
On the 4th October the Commanding Officer went on leave, and Major A. F. L. Gordon, M.C., took command of the Battalion. Once more it was warned that it would move next day, which warning this time came true, and was heralded by the usual conference at Brigade Headquarters, on the 7th October, when the plans for next day’s battle in that sector of the line were revealed. The Second Division, on the left, and the Third, on the right of the Guards Division, were to attack on the whole of the front of the Sixth Corps at dawn of the 8th October. The Guards Division was to be ready to go through these two divisions on the afternoon of that day, or to take over the line on the night of it, and continue the attack at dawn on the 9th. The 1st Guards Brigade would pass through the Third Division, and the 2nd Brigade through the Second Division. As far as the 1st Brigade’s attack was concerned, the 2nd Coldstream would take the right, the 2nd Grenadiers the left of the line, with the 1st Irish Guards in reserve. It was all beautifully clear. So the Battalion left Demicourt, recrossed the Canal du Nord at Lock 7, and were “accommodated” in dug-outs and shelters in the Hindenburg Line, near Ribecourt.
On the 9th October the Battalion moved to Masnières, four miles or so south of Cambrai. Here, while crossing the St. Quentin Canal, No. 3 Company had three killed and three wounded by a long-range gun which was shelling all down the line of it. They halted in the open for the rest of the day. A curious experience followed. The idea was to attack in the general direction of Cattenières, across the line of the Cambrai–Caudry railway, which, with its embankment and cuttings, was expected to give trouble. The New Zealand Division was then on the right of the Guards Division; but no one seemed to be sure, the night before the battle, whether the Third Division was out on their front or not. (“Everything, ye’ll understand, was all loosed up in those days. Jerry did not know his mind, and for that reason we could not know ours. The bottom was out of the war, ye’ll understand, but we did not see it.”) However, it was arranged that all troops would be withdrawn from doubtful areas before Zero (5.10 A.M.), and that the 2nd Coldstream and the 2nd Grenadiers would advance to the attack under a creeping barrage with due precautions which included a plentiful bombardment and machine-gunning of the railway embankment.
The Battalion, in reserve, as has been said, moved from Masnières to its assembly area, among old German trenches near the village of Seranvillers, in artillery formation at 2.40 A.M., and had its breakfast at 5 A.M., while the other two battalions of the Brigade advanced in waves, preceded by strong patrols and backed by the guns. There was no shelling while they assembled, and practically none in reply to our barrage; nor did the leading battalions meet opposition till after they had cleared out the village of Seranvillers, and were held up by screened machine-guns in a wood surrounding a sugar-factory north of Cattenières. The Battalion followed on in due course, reached the railway embankment, set up Headquarters in a road-tunnel under it (there was no firing), and received telephonic orders that at 5 A.M. on the 10th October they would pass through the other two battalions and continue the advance, which, henceforth, was to be “by bounds” and without limit or barrage. Then they lay up in the railway embankment and dozed.
They assembled next morning (the 10th) in the dark, and, reinforced by seven Corps Cyclists and a Battery of field-guns, went forth into France at large, after a retiring enemy. Nothing happened for a couple of miles, when they reached the outskirts of Beauvais-en-Cambrensis, on the Cambrai–Le-Cateau road, where a single sniper from one of the houses shot and killed 2nd Lieutenant V. J. S. French, No. 4 Company. A mile farther on, up the Beauvais–Quiévy road, they found the village of Bevillers heavily shelled by the enemy from a distance, so skirted round it, and sent in two small mopping-up parties. Here No. 4 Company again came up against machine-gun and sniper fire, but no casualties followed. Their patrols reported the next bound all clear, and they pushed on, under heavy but harmless shelling, in the direction of Quiévy. At eight o’clock their patrols waked up a breadth of machine-gun nests along the whole of the front and that of the battalions to their left and right. They went to ground accordingly, and when the enemy artillery was added to the small-arm fire, the men dug slits for themselves and escaped trouble. For some time past the German shell-stuff had been growing less and less effective, both in accuracy and bursting power, which knowledge cheered our troops. In the afternoon, as there were signs of the resistance weakening, our patrols put forth once more, and by five o’clock the Battalion had reached the third bound on the full battalion front. Then, in the dusk, came word from the New Zealand division on their right, that the division on their right again, had got forward, and that the New Zealanders were pushing on to high ground south of Quiévy. With the message came one from No. 4 Company, reporting that their patrols were out ahead, and in touch with the New Zealanders on their right. There is no record that the news was received with enthusiasm, since it meant “bounding on” in the dark to the fourth bound, which they accomplished not before 10.30 that night, tired officers hunting up tired companies by hand and shoving them into their positions. These were on high ground north-east of Quiévy, with the Battalion’s right on a farm, called Fontaine-au-Tertre, which signifies “the fountain on the little hill,” a mile beyond the village. The 1st Scots Guards were on their left holding the village of St. Hilaire-les-Cambrai. Then, punctual as ever, rations came up; Battalion Headquarters established itself in a real roofed house in the outskirts of Quiévy, and No. 1 Company in reserve, was billeted in the village.
Next morning (11th October), when the 3rd Guards Brigade came through them and attacked over the naked grass and stubble fields towards St. Python and Solesmes, the Battalion was withdrawn and sent to very good billets in Quiévy. “The men having both upstairs and cellar room. All billets very dirty,” says the Diary, “owing to the previous occupants (Hun) apparently having taken delight in scattering all the civilian clothes, food, furniture, etc., all over the, place.” Every one was tired out; they had hardly slept for three nights; but all “were in the best of spirits.” Brigade Headquarters had found what was described as “a magnificent house” with “a most comfortable” bed in “a large room.” Those who used it were lyric in their letters home.
The total casualties for the 10th and 11th October were amazingly few. Second Lieutenant V. J. S. French was the only casualty among the officers, and, of other ranks, but three were killed and nine wounded. The officers who took part in the operations were these:
|No. 1 Company|
|Lieut. H. E. Van der Noot.
2nd Lieut. J. C. Haydon.
|2nd Lieut. R. E. Taylor.|
|No. 2 Company|
|Lieut. E. M. Harvey, M.C.
2nd Lieut. G. T. Todd.
|2nd Lieut. A. L. W. Koch de Gooreynd.|
|No. 3 Company|
|Lieut. F. S. L. Smith, M.C.
Lieut. G. E. F. Van der Noot.
|2nd Lieut. J. J. B. Brady.|
|No. 4 Company|
|Capt. D. J. Hegarty.
2nd Lieut. Hon. C. A. Barnewall.
|2nd Lieut. V. T. S. French (killed).|
|Major A. F. Gordon, M.C.
Capt. J. B. Keenan.
|Capt. G. L. St. C. Bambridge, M.C.|
They lay at Quiévy for the next week employed in cleaning up dirty billets, while the 3rd and 2nd Brigades of the Division were cleaning out the enemy rear-guards in front of them from the west bank of the Selle River, and roads and railways were stretching out behind our armies to bring redoubled supply of material. One of the extra fatigues of those days was to get the civil population out of the villages that the enemy were abandoning. This had to be done by night, for there is small chivalry in the German composition. Quiévy was shelled at intervals, and no parades larger than of a platoon were, therefore, allowed. The weather, too, stopped a scheme of field-operations in the back area between Quiévy and Bevillers, and a washed and cleanly clothed battalion were grateful to their Saints for both reliefs.
On the 17th October the Sixty-first Division took over the Guards area, and that afternoon the Battalion left Quiévy by cross-country tracks for Boussieres and moved into position for what turned out to be all but the last stroke of the long game.
The enemy on that front were by now across the steeply banked Selle River, but the large, straggling village of Solesmes, of which St. Python is practically a suburb, was still held by them and would have to be cleaned out house-to-house. Moreover, it was known to be full of French civils and getting them away in safety would not make the situation less difficult.
It was given out at Brigade conference on the 17th that the Sixty-first Division would take place on the right of the Guards Division and the Nineteenth on its left in the forthcoming attack, and that the Sixty-first would attend to Solesmes, while the Guards Division pushed on north-east between St. Python and Haussy on a mile-wide front through the village of Escarmain to Capelle, a distance of some three and a half miles. The 1st and 3rd Brigades would lead, the 2nd in reserve, and the passage of the Selle would be effected in the dark by such bridges as the Sappers could put up.
The Battalion moved nearer their assembly areas to St. Hilaire-les-Cambrai, on the night of the 18th after Company Commanders had thoroughly explained to their men what was in store; and on the 19th those commanders, with the Intelligence Officer, Captain Vernon, went up to high ground overlooking the battlefield. It was a closer and more crumpled land than they had dealt with hitherto, its steep-sided valleys cut by a multitude of little streams running from nor’-west to south-east, with the interminable ruled line of the Bavai road edging the great Forest of Mormal which lay north of Landrecies. The wheel was swinging full circle, and men who had taken part in that age-ago retreat from Mons, amused themselves by trying to pick out familiar details in the landscape they had been hunted across four years before. But it was misty and the weather, faithful ally of the Germans to the last, was breaking again. Just as the Battalion moved off from St. Hilaire to their area on the railway line from Valenciennes to Le Cateau, rain began and continued till six next morning, making every condition for attack as vile as it could. They dug them shallow trenches in case of shell-fire, and sent down parties to reconnoitre the bridges over the Selle. Four bridges were “available,” i. e. existed in some shape, on or near the Battalion front, but no one had a good word to say for any of them.
There is a tale concerning the rivers here, which may be given (without guarantee) substantially as told “Rivers round Maubeuge? ’Twas all rivers—the Aunelle and the Rhônelle and the Pronelle, an’ more, too; an’ our Intelligence Officer desirin’ to know the last word concernin’ each one of ’em before we paddled it. Michael an’ me was for that duty. Michael was a runner, afraid o’ nothing, but no small liar, and him as fed as myself with reportin’ on these same dam’ rivers; and Jerry expendin’ the last of his small-arm stuff round and round the country. I forget which river ’twas we were scouting, but he was ahead of me, the way he always was. Presently he comes capering back, ‘Home, please, Sergeant,’ says he. ‘That hill’s stinking with Jerries beyond.’ ‘But the river?’ says I. ‘Ah, come home,’ says Michael, ’an I’ll learn ye the road to be a V.C.!’ So home we went to the Intelligence Officer, and ’twas then I should have spoke the truth. But Michael was before me. I had no more than my mouth opened when he makes his report, which was my business, me being sergeant (did I tell ye?), to put in. But Michael was before me. He comes out with the width of the river, and its depth, and the nature of its bottom and the scenery, and all and all, the way you’d ha’ sworn he’d been a trout in it. When we was out of hearing, I told him he was a liar’ in respect to his river. ‘River,’ says he, ‘are ye after calling that a river? ’Tis no bigger than a Dickiebush ditch,’ he says. ‘And anyway,’ says he, ‘the Battalion’ll rowl across it in the dark, the way it always does. Ye cannot get wetter than wet, even in the Micks!’ Then his conscience smote him, an’ when his company went down to this river in the dark, Michael comes capering alongside whishpering between his hands: ‘Boys!’ says he, ‘can ye swim, boys? I hope ye can all swim for, Saints be my witness, I never wint near the river. For aught I know it may be an arrum of the sea. Ah, lads, thry an’ learn to swim!’ he says. Then some one chases him off before the officer comes along; an’ we wint over Michael’s river the way he said we would. Ye can not get wetter than wet—even in the Micks.”
It was a quiet night, except for occasional bursts of machine-gun fire, but there was no shelling of the assembly area as the 2nd Grenadiers formed up on their right, with the 2nd Coldstream in reserve. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies (Captain A. W. L. Paget, and Lieutenant E. M. Harvey, M.C.) moved off first, No. 3 in support (Captain Bambridge), and No. 4 (2nd Lieutenant O. R. Baldwin) in reserve. The barrage opened with a percentage of demoralising flame-shells. There was very little artillery retaliation, and beyond getting rather wetter than the rain had already made them, the Battalion did not suffer, except from small-arm fire out of the dark. The first objective, a section of the Solesmes–Valenciennes road, was gained in an hour, with but eight casualties, mainly from our own “shorts” in the barrage, and several prisoners and machine-guns captured. The prisoners showed no wish to fight.
The companies had kept direction wonderfully well in the dark, and reached the second and last objective under increased machine-gun fire, but still without much artillery. The 3rd Guards Brigade on their left had been hung up once or twice, which kept No. 2 Company, the left leading company, and Nos. 3 and 4 (in support) busy at odd times forming defensive flanks against sniping. By half-past five, however, they were all in place, and set to dig in opposite the village of Vertain. Then dull day broke and with light came punishment. The enemy, in plain sight, opened on them with everything that they had in the neighbourhood, from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. of the 20th. The two front companies were cut off as long as one could see, and a good deal of the stuff was delivered over open sights. It was extremely difficult to get the wounded away, owing to the continuous sniping. But, through providence, or the defect of enemy ammunition, or the depth of the slits the men had dug, casualties were very few. Battalion Headquarters and the ground where No. 4 Company lay up were most thoroughly drenched, though an officer of No. 3 Company, whose experience was large, described his men’s share as “about the worst and most accurate shelling I have been through.” They were, in most places, only a hundred yards away from a dug-in enemy bent on blessing them with every round left over in the retreat. During the night, which was calmer, our Artillery dealt with those mixed batteries and groups so well that, although no man could show a finger above his shelter in some of the company areas, the shelling next day was moderate. The forward posts were still unapproachable, but they sent out patrols from Nos. 1 and 2 Companies to “report on the River Harpies,” the next stream to the Selle, and to keep it under observation. This was an enterprise no commander would have dreamed of undertaking even three months ago. The enemy sniping went on. The 2nd Coldstream, who had been moved up to protect the right flank of the 2nd Grenadiers (the Sixty-first Division, being delayed some time over the clearing up and evacuation of Solesmes, was not yet abreast of them), were withdrawn to billets at St. Hilaire in the course of the afternoon; but word came that neither the Grenadiers nor the Irish need look to be relieved. It rained, too, and was freezing cold at night. Another expert in three years of miseries writes: “One of the worst places I have ever been in. Heavy rain all day and night. . . . More shelling if we were seen moving about. Heavy rain all day. . . . Soaked through and shivering with cold.” The Diary more temperately: “The men were never dry from the time they left their billets in St. Hilaire on the evening of the 20th, and there was no shelter whatever for any of the companies.” So they relieved them during the night of the 21st, front Companies 1 and 2 returning to the accommodation vacated by their supports, 3 and 4.
Battalion relief came when the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Second Division) took over from them and the Grenadiers and got into position for their attack the next morning. An early and obtrusive moon made it difficult to fetch away the front-posts, and though the leading company reached the Selle on its way back at a little after five, the full relief was not completed till half-past nine, when they had to get across-country to the main road and pick up the lorries that took them to “very good billets” at Carnières. Their own Details had seen to that; and they arrived somewhere in the early morning “beat and foot-sore,” but without a single casualty in relieving. Their losses for the whole affair up to the time of their relief were one officer (Captain and Adjutant J. B. Keenan ) wounded in the face by a piece of shell, the sole casualty at Battalion Headquarters; ten other ranks killed; forty-two wounded, of whom two afterwards died, and two missing—fifty-five in all.
The companies were officered as follows:
|No. 1 Company||No. 2 Company|
|Capt. A. W. L. Paget, M.C.||Lieut. E. Harvey, M.C.|
|No. 3 Company||No. 4 Company|
|Capt. G. L. St. C. Bambridge.||2nd Lieut. 0. R. Baldwin.|
Major A. F. Gordon, M.C.|
Capt. J. B. Keenan.
Capt. C. A. J. Vernon.
Cleaning up began the next day where fine weather in “most delightful billets” was cheered by the news that the Second Division’s attack on Vertain had been a great success. In those days they looked no further than their neighbours on either side.
Every battle, as had been pointed out, leaves its own impression. St. Python opened with a wild but exciting chase in the wet and dark, which, at first, seemed to lead straight into Germany. It ended, as it were, in the sudden rising of a curtain of grey, dank light that struck all the actors dumb and immobile for an enormously long and hungry stretch of time, during which they mostly stared at what they could see of the sky above them, while the air filled with dirt and clods, and single shots pecked and snarled round every stone of each man’s limited skyline; the whole ending in a blur of running water under starlight (that was when they recrossed the Selle River), and confused memories of freezing together in lumps in lorries, followed by a dazed day of “shell-madness,” when all ears and eyes were intolerably overburdened with echoes and pictures,. and men preferred to be left alone. But they were washed and cleaned and reclothed with all speed, and handed over to their company officers for the drill that chases off bad dreams. The regimental sergeant-major got at them, too, after their hair was cut, and the massed brigade drums played in the village square of Carnieres, and, ere the end of the month, inter-company football was in full swing.
A draft of ninety-one other ranks joined for duty on the 22nd October. Lieutenant-Colonel Baggallay. M.C., came back from leave and, in the absence of the Brigadier, assumed command of the Brigade, and Captain D. W. Gunston joined.
On the last day of October they moved from Carnieres to St. Hilaire and took over the 3rd Grenadiers’ billets in the factory there, all of which, house for house, officers and men, was precisely as before the attack on the 20th, ten days ago. But those ten days had borne the British armies on that front beyond Valenciennes in the north to within gun-shot of Le Quesnoy in the centre, and to the Sambre Canal, thirty miles away, in the south. Elsewhere, Lille had been evacuated, the lower half of western Flanders cleared, from the Dutch frontier to Tournai, while almost every hour brought up from one or other of the French, and American armies, on the Meuse and the Argonne, fresh tallies of abandoned stores and guns, and of prisoners gathered in rather than captured. Behind this welter, much as the glare of a mine reveals the facade of a falling town-hall, came word of the collapse of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria. The whole of the herd of the Hun Tribes were on the move, uneasy and afraid. It remained so to shatter the mass of their retiring forces in France that they should be in no case to continue any semblance of further war without complete destruction. Were they permitted to slink off unbroken, they might yet make stand behind some shorter line, or manufacture a semblance of a “face” before their own people that would later entail fresh waste and weariness on the world.1
The weather and the destruction they had left in their wake was, as on the Somme, aiding them now at every turn, in spite of all our roadmen and engineers could do. Our airmen took toll of them and their beasts as they retreated along the congested ways; but this was the hour when the delays, divided councils and specially the strikes of past years had to be paid for, and the giant bombing-planes that should have taught fear and decency far inside the German frontiers were not ready.
A straight drive from the west on to the German lateral communications promised the quickest return. It was laid in the hands of the First, Third, and Fifth Armies to send that attack home, and with the French and American pressure from the south, break up the machine past repair.
Men, to-day, say and believe that they knew it would be the last battle of the war, but, at the time, opinions varied; and the expectations of the rank and file were modest. The thing had gone on so long that it seemed the order of life; and, though the enemy everywhere fell back, yet he had done so once before, and over very much the same semi-liquid muck as we were floundering in that autumn’s end. “The better the news, the worse the chance of a knock,” argued the veterans, while the young hands sent out with high assurance, at draft-parades, that the war was on its last legs, discovered how the machine-gun-fenced rear of retirements was no route-march. (“There was them that came from Warley shouting, ye’ll understand; and there was them that came saying nothing at all, and liking it no more than that; but I do not remember any one of us looked to be out of it inside six months. No—not even when we was dancing into Maubeuge. We thought Jerry wanted to get his wind.”)
On the 4th November, one week before the end, twenty-six British divisions moved forward on a thirty-mile front from Oisy to north of Valenciennes, the whole strength of all their artillery behind them.
The Guards’ position had been slightly shifted. Instead of working south of Le Quesnoy, the Division was put in a little north of the town, on the banks of the river Rhônelle, between the Sixty-second Division on their right and the Forty-second on their left. The Battalion had marched from St. Hilaire, in the usual small fine rain, on the 2nd November to billets in Bermerain and bivouacs near by. It meant a ten-mile tramp of the pre-duckboard era, in the midst of mired horse- and lorry-transport, over country where the enemy had smashed every bridge and culvert, blocked all roads and pulling-out places with mine-craters, and sown houses, old trenches, and dug-outs with fanciful death-traps. The land was small-featured and full of little hills, so heavily hedged and orcharded that speculative battalions could be lost in it in twenty minutes. There were coveys, too, of French civils, rescued and evacuated out of the villages around, wandering against the stream of east-bound traffic. These forlorn little groups, all persuaded that the war was over and that they could return to their houses to-morrow, had to be shifted and chaperoned somehow through the chaos; but the patience and goodwill of our people were unending.
The wet day closed with a conference at Brigade Headquarters, but the enemy had thrown out our plan for action on that sector by thoughtlessly retiring on both flanks of the Division, as well as a little on the front of it, and final orders were not fixed till after midnight on the 3rd November.
The 1st and 2nd Guards Brigade were to attack, the 3rd in reserve. Of the 1st Brigade, the 2nd Coldstream would take the line as far as the first objective; the 2nd Grenadiers would then come through and carry on to the next line, the Irish Guards in support. The Brigade’s assembly area was across the Rhônelle River, east of the long and straggling village of Villers-Pol, on the Jenlain–Le Quesnoy road. Zero was fixed for 7.20. The Battalion marched from Bermerain, and met its first enemy shell as it was going under the Valenciennes railway embankment. What remained of the roads were badly congested with troops, and one gets the idea that the Staff work was casual. To begin with, the Battalion found the 3rd Grenadiers and the 1st Scots Guards between themselves and the 2nd Grenadiers, which was not calculated to soothe any C.O. desirous of keeping his appointment. Apparently they got through the Scots Guards; but when they reached the Rhônelle, its bridge being, of course, destroyed, and the R.E. working like beavers to mend it, they had to unship their Lewis-guns from the limbers, tell the limbers to come on when the bridge was usable, and pass the guns over by hand. While thus engaged the Scots Guards caught them up, went through them triumphantly, made exactly the same discovery that the Irish had done, and while they in turn were wrestling with their limbers, the Irish, who had completed their unshipping, went through them once more, and crossed the Rhônelle on the heels of the last man of the 3rd Grenadiers—“one at a time, being assisted up the bank by German prisoners.” By the mercy of the Saints, who must have been kept busy all night, the shelling on the bridge and its approaches ceased while that amazing procession got over. They were shelled as they reformed on the top of the steep opposite bank, but “by marvellous good-luck no casualties”; got into artillery formation; were shelled again, and this time hit, and long-range machine-gun fire met them over the next crest of ground. It was all ideal machine-gun landscape. The 2nd Grenadiers, whom they were supporting, had been held up by low fire from the village of Wagnies-le-Petit on their left, a little short of the first objective, which was the road running from Wagnies, south to Frasnoy. The Battalion dug in behind them where it was, and after an hour or so the enemy opened fire with one solitary, mad trench-mortar. Not more than a dozen rounds were sent over, and these, very probably, because the weapon happened to lie under their hands, and was used before being abandoned. And luck had it that this chance demonstration should kill Lieutenant A. L. Bain (“Andy” Bain),:who had joined for duty not a week ago. He was the last officer killed in the Battalion, and one of the best. Lieutenant F. S. L. Smith, M.C., also was wounded. They stayed in their scratch-holes till late in the afternoon, as the troops of the Forty-second Division on their left were held up too, but the 2nd Guards Brigade on their right gradually worked forward. Some of their divisional field-guns came up and shelled Wagnies-le-Petit into silence, and at half-past four orders arrived for the Battalion to go through the 2nd Grenadiers and continue at large into the dusk that was closing on the blind, hedge-screened country. There was no particular opposition beyond stray shells, but the boggy-banked Aunelle had to be crossed on stretchers, through thick undergrowth, in a steep valley. Everything after that seemed to be orchards, high hedges, and sunk and raised roads, varied with soft bits of cultivation, or hopelessly muddled-up cul-de-sacs of farm-tracks. The companies played blind-man’s buff among these obstacles in the pitch-dark, as they hunted alternately for each other and the troops on their flanks. There was “very heavy shelling” on the three most advanced companies as well as on Brigade Headquarters throughout the night. The men dug in where they were; and casualties, all told, came to about twenty. Very early on the 5th November the 3rd Guards Brigade passed through them and continued the advance. Preux-au-Sart, the village behind them, had been taken by the 2nd Brigade the evening and the night before, so the Battalion “came out of its slits” and went back to billet in its relieved and rejoicing streets, where “the inhabitants on coming out of their cellars in the morning were delighted to find British troops again, and showed the greatest cordiality.” If rumour be true, they also showed them how easily their Hun conquerors had been misled and hoodwinked in the matter of good vintages buried and set aside against this very day. “The men were very comfortable.”
The fact that Austria was reported out of the war did not make the next day any less pleasant, even though it rained, and “all the windows in the Battalion Headquarters were broken by one shell.” Battalion Headquarters had come through worse than broken glass in its time, but was now beginning to grow fastidious.
On the afternoon of the 7th November the Battalion marched to Bavai over muddy roads in a drizzle. Even then, men have said, there was no general belief in the end of Armageddon. They looked for a lull, perhaps; very possibly some sort of conference and waste of time which would give the enemy breath for fresh enterprise. A few, however, insist that the careful destruction of the roads and railway-bridges and the indifference of the prisoners as they poured in warned them of the real state of affairs. (“It looked as if the Jerries had done all the harm they could think of, and were chucking it—like boys caught robbing an orchard. There wasn’t an atom of dignity or decency about any of ’em. Just dirt and exhausted Jerrydom.”) What the Battalion felt most was having to make detours round broken bridges, and to dig ramps in mine-craters on the roads to get their Lewis-guns across. They jettisoned their secondline transport at a convenient château outside Bavai on this account; found that there were no arrangements for billeting in the town, so made their own, and, while Bavai was being shelled, got into houses and again were “very comfortable.” The 2nd Brigade were in the front line on the railway, and next day the 1st Brigade were to lead and capture Maubeuge, seven miles down a road which cut across the line of their earlier stages in the retreat from Mons, and three miles, as a shell ranges, from the village of Malplaquet.
They began their last day, half an hour after midnight, marching “as a battalion” out of Bavai with their Lewis-gun limbers. Twice they were slightly shelled; once at least they had to unpack and negotiate more mine-craters at cross-roads. It was a populous world through which they tramped, and all silently but tensely awake—a world made up of a straight, hard road humped above the level of the fields in places, rather like the Menin road when it was young, but with untouched tiled houses alongside. Here and there one heard the chatter of a machine-gun, as detached and irrelevant as the laugh of an idiot. It would cease, and a single fieldgun would open as on some private quarrel. Then silence, and a suspicion, born out of the darkness, that the road was mined. Next, orders to the companies to spread themselves in different directions in the dark, to line ditches and the like for fear of attack. Then an overtaking, at wrecked cross-roads, of some of the 2nd Brigade, who reported patrols of the 3rd Grenadiers had pushed on into Maubeuge without opposition, and that the rest of that battalion was gone on. Just before dawn, No. 4 Company of the Irish, marching on a road parallel to the highway, ran into a company of Germans retiring. The Diary says: “A short sharp fight ensued in which five of the enemy were wounded and twelve captured, the rest getting off in the dark.” But there is a legend (it may have grown with the years) that the two bodies found themselves suddenly almost side by side on converging tracks, and that the Irish, no word given, threw back to the instincts of Fontenoy—faced about, front-rank kneeling, rear-rank standing, and in this posture destroyed all that company. It was a thing that might well have come about darkling in a land scattered with odds and ends of drifting, crazed humanity. No. 2 Company solemnly reported the capture of two whole prisoners just after they had crossed the railway in the suburbs of Maubeuge, which they passed through on the morning of the 9th, and by noon were duly established and posted, company by company, well to the east of it. No. 2 Company lay in the village of Assevant, with pickets on the broken bridge over the river there, an observation-line by day and all proper supports; No. 4 Company in posts on the road and down to the river, and Nos. 1 and 3 in reserve; Yeomanry and Corps Cyclists out in front as though the war were eternal.
And, thus dispersed, after a little shelling of Assevant during the night, the Irish Guards received word that “an Armistice was declared at 11 A.M. this morning, November 11.”
Men took the news according to their natures. Indurated pessimists, after proving that it was a lie, said it would be but an interlude. Others retired into themselves as though they had been shot, or went stiffly off about the meticulous execution of some trumpery detail of kit-cleaning. Some turned round and fell asleep then and there; and a few lost all holds for a while. It was the appalling new silence of things that soothed and unsettled them in turn. They did not realize till all sounds of their trade ceased, and the stillness stung in their ears as soda-water stings on the palate, how entirely these had been part of their strained bodies and souls. (“It felt like falling through into nothing, ye’ll understand. Listening for what wasn’t there, and tryin’ not to shout when you remembered for why.”) Men coming up from Details Camp, across old “unwholesome” areas, heard nothing but the roar of the lorries on which they had stolen their lift, and rejoiced with a childish mixture of fear as they topped every unscreened rise that was now mere scenery such as tourists would use later. To raise the head, without thought of precaution against what might be in front or on either flank, into free, still air was the first pleasure of that great release. To lie down that night in a big barn beside unscreened braziers, with one’s smiling companions who talked till sleep overtook them, and, when the last happy babbler had dropped off, to hear the long-forgotten sound of a horse’s feet trotting evenly on a hard road under a full moon, crowned all that had gone before. Each man had but one thought in those miraculous first hours: “I—even I myself, here—have come through the War!” To scorn the shelter of sunken roads, hedges, walls or lines of trees, and to extend in unmartial crowds across the whole width of a pave, were exercises in freedom that he arrived at later. “We cannot realize it at all.” . . . “So mad with joy we don’t feel yet what it all means.” The home letters were all in this strain.
The Battalion was relieved on the 12th November by the 2nd Grenadiers and billeted in the Faubourg de Mons. All Maubeuge was hysterical with its emotions of release, and well provided with wines which, here as elsewhere, had somehow missed the German nose. The city lived in her streets, and kissed everybody in khaki, that none should complain. But the Battalion was not in walking-out order, and so had to be inspected rigorously. Morning-drill outside billets next day was in the nature of a public demonstration—to the scandal of the grave sergeants!
On the 14th a great thanksgiving-service was held in the Cathedral for all the world, the Battalion providing the Guard of Honour at the Altar, and lining the Place d’Armes at the presentation of a flag by the Mayor of Maubeuge to the Major-General. The massed drums of the Division played in the square in the afternoon, an event to be remembered as long as the Battalion dinner of the evening. They were all route-marched next morning for an hour and a half to steady them, and on the 16th, after dinner, set off in freezing weather for the first stage of their journey to Cologne. It ran via Bettignies and then to Villers-Sire-Nicole, a matter of five and a half miles.
On the 17th they crossed the Belgian frontier at Givet and reached Binche through a countryside already crowded with returning English, French, Italian, and Belgian prisoners. One Diary notes them like migrating birds, “all hopping along the road, going due west.” Binche mobbed the drums as one man and woman when they played in the town at Retreat, but it was worse at Charleroi on the 19th, where they could hardly force their way through the welcoming crowds. The place was lit from end to end, and the whole populace shouted for joy at deliverance.
Now that they had returned as a body to civilization, it was needful they should be dressed, and they were paraded for an important inspection of great-coats, and, above all, gloves. That last, and the fact that belts, when walking out, were worn over the great-coats were sure signs that war was done, and His Majesty’s Foot Guards had come into their own. But they found time at Charleroi, among more pleasant duties, to arrest three German soldiers disguised as civilians.
On the 23rd they left , for Sart-St.-Laurent, whose Mayor, beneath a vast Belgian flag, met and escorted them into the town. The country changed as they moved on from flat coal-districts to untouched hills and woods. On the 24th they picked up a dump of eighty-four guns of all calibres, handed over according to the terms of the Armistice; passed through a tract of heavily wired country, which was “evidently intended for the Meuse Line that the Germans were to have fallen back on”; and a little later crossed (being the first of the Division to do so) the steeply banked, swiftly running Meuse by a pontoon bridge. Next their road climbed into Nanine, one of the loveliest villages, they thought, they had ever seen. But their hearts were soft in those days, and all that world of peace seemed good. They dared not halt at Sorinne-la-Longue the next day, as the place was infected with influenza (“Spanish fever”), so pushed on to Lesves, and on the 26th November to Sorée, where was another wayside dump of thirty or forty Hun guns. It is noteworthy that the discarded tools of their trade frankly bored them. Where a Hun, under like circumstances, would have re-triumphed and called on his servile Gods, these islanders (of whom almost a half were now English) were afflicted with a curious restlessness and strong desire to get done with the work in hand. All their world was under the same reaction. They had to wait at Sorée for three days, as supplies were coming up badly. Indeed, on the 28th November, the Diary notes bitterly that “for the first time in the war the supplies failed to arrive. The Quartermaster managed to improvise breakfasts for the Battalion.” It was not all the fault of bad roads or the dispersion of the troops. The instant the strain was taken off, there was a perceptible slackening everywhere, most marked in the back-areas, on the clerical and forwarding sides. Every one wanted to get home at once, and worked with but half a mind; which, also, is human nature.
They were on the road again by December 5 with the rest of their brigade, and reached Méan in the afternoon over muddy roads. lay the 6th they were at Villers-St.-Gertrude hill-marching through beautiful scenery, which did not amuse them, because, owing to the state of communications, supplies were delayed again. So, on the 8th December at Lierneux, fifteen miles from Villers-St.-Gertrude, another halt was called for another three days, while company officers, homesick as their men, drilled them in the winter dirt. On the 11th they crossed the German frontier line at Recht, and the drums played the Battalion over to the “Regimental March.” (“But, ye’ll understand, we was all wet the most of that time and fighting with the mud an’ our boots. ’Twas Jerry’s own weather the minute we set foot in his country, and we none of us felt like conquerors. We was just dhrippin’ Micks.”) At Vielsalm, almost the last village outside Germany, they picked up a draft of sixty men to share with them the horrors of peace ahead, and a supply-system gone to bits behind them.
Their road wound through small and inconspicuous hamlets among wooded hills, by stretches of six or seven hours’ marching a day. The people they had to deal with seemed meek and visibly oppressed with the fear of rough treatment. That removed from their minds, they stepped aside and looked wonderingly at the incomprehensible enemy that tramped through their streets, leaving neither ruin nor rape behind. By the 18th December the advance had reached Lovenich, and, after two days’ rest there, they entered Cologne on the 23rd December with an absence of display that might or might not have been understood by the natives. They had covered more than two hundred miles over bad roads in bad boots that could not be repaired nor thrown away, and but one man had fallen out. The drums played “Brian Boru” when they entered the Hohenzollern Ring; their Major-General beheld that last march, and they were duly photographed in the wet; while the world that saw such photographs in the weekly illustrated papers was honestly convinced that the Great War and all war was at an end for evermore.
Then really serious trouble overtook them, which was, in some sort, a forecast of the days to come. Their billets at Nippes, in the suburbs of Cologne, were excellent and clean, though, of course, in need of the usual “improvements” which every battalion of the Brigade is bound to make; but on Christmas Day, owing to transport difficulties, the men’s Christmas dinner did not arrive! This thing had never happened in the whole history of the war! Pressure of work in the front line had delayed that dinner, as on the Somme; enemy attentions had caused it to be eaten in haste, a sort of Passover, as in the dread Salient, but complete breakdown was unheard of. The Battalion, rightly, held it mortal sin, and spoke their minds about the transport which was fighting mud and distance across the hills as loyally as ever. It was the back-areas that had been caught unprepared by the peace. But, on Christmas night (superb and unscrupulous staff-work went to secure it), a faithful lorry ploughed in from Paris with what was wanted, and on Boxing Day the full and complete Christmas dinner was served, and for the fifth and last time their Commanding Officer performed the sacred ritual of “going round the dinners.”
They sat them down, twenty-two officers and six hundred and twenty-eight other ranks, and none will know till Judgment Day how many ghosts were also present. For the first time since August, ’14, the monthly returns showed no officer or man killed, wounded, or missing. The two battalions had lost in all two thousand three hundred and forty-nine dead, including one hundred and fifteen officers. Their total of wounded was five thousand seven hundred and thirty-nine. Of both these the 1st Battalion, by virtue of thirteen months longer in the field, could reckon more than a generous half.
They were too near and too deeply steeped in the war that year’s end to realize their losses. Their early dead, as men talked over the past in Cologne, seemed to belong to immensely remote ages. Even those of that very spring, of whom friends could still say, “If So-and-so had only lived to see this!” stood as far removed as the shadowy great ones of the pre-bomb, pre-duckboard twilight; and, in some inexpressible fashion, they themselves appeared to themselves the only living people in an uncaring world. Yet Cologne was alive with soldiery; roads were roaring full, as communications were restored; men stood guard over visible gun- and ammunition-dumps; the Battalion joined in marches to the bridge-heads, attended football matches, saw hosts of new faces belonging to new troops of all breeds; and watched about them, in the wet, grey weather, the muddy-faced Hun-folk, methodically as usual, trying to find out just how far it was expedient to go with the heralds of the alleged new order.
“But ye’ll understand, when everything was said and done, there was nothing real to it at all, except when we got to talking and passing round the names of them we wished was with us. We was lonely in those days. The half of us was Church of England by then, too. But we were lonely, ye’ll understand, as units. And our billets, mind ye, ma-agnificent, with walls and lockers and doors and all. The same for the officers! And there was Mr.—— that I’d known well any time these last two winters, freezing and swearing alongside of me in any shell-hole we could find, and glad to be out of the wind—and now, him cursin’ in his quarters because he had not the Jerry-talk for the German for: “Turn off that dam’ steam-heat!” And that’s war also.
“But ye might tell that we was lonely, most of all. Before God, we Micks was lonely!”
FROM AUGUST 12, 1914
|Lt.-Col.||Hon. G. H. Morris||126.96.36.199||1.9.14|
|Major||H. H. Stepney||2.9.14||17.9.14|
|Lt.-Col.||Lord Ardee, C.B.E.||18.9.14||3.11.14|
|“ “ (temp.)||Hon. J. F. Trefusis, D.S.O.||4.11.14||15.8.15|
|“ “||G. H. C. Madden||16.8.15||1.11.15|
|“ “||R. C. A. McCalmont, D.S.O.||2.11.15||2.3.17|
|“ “ (actg.)||H. R. Alexander, D.S.O., M.C.||3.3.17||23.5.17|
|“ “||C. E. Rocke, D.S.O.||24.5.17||11.7.17|
|“ “||R. V. Pollok, C.B.E., D.S.O.||12.7.17||19.6.18|
|“ “||R. R. C. Baggally, D.S.O., M.C.||20.6.18||To return to England.|
|1. This, be it remembered, gives roughly the idea at the close of 1918. [back]|