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Q.6.a and Other places Part 13

It was arranged that an officer and six observers from this regiment should work in conjunction with the Divisional observers. These mounted men were particularly useful in getting messages back quickly from the O.P. to a report centre, for during this open warfare it was impossible to connect the observers by telephone to D.H.Q.

The first day at the O.P. north of Viesly passed quietly enough, and Ptes. King and McGarrigle made a useful sketch of the view in front.

Next day, when I went up to the O.P. to make additions to the sketch, conditions were not very good. Our only cover was a shallow trench about one foot deep; and for an hour whilst I was trying to sketch the details of the landscape the enemy's 4.2-inch howitzers shelled the hill persistently. I told the observers, when I went back, to leave this post if things got no better and to man the post south of Viesly. And this was done soon afterwards, as the shells began to fall very close. Unfortunately from now onwards the light was no good for long-range observation. Day after day the country was covered with a thick white mist, a common experience in October, which made observation quite out of the question. However, from the sketches that had been made, I was able to make a drawing of the panorama in front, which was printed out for the use of the troops in the line.

It was decided to attack the German positions at midnight on October 19-20. Taking advantage of the heavy mist the British field artillery placed their guns in two long lines, twenty-eight guns in a line and almost wheel to wheel, behind the ridges south of Viesly. This was an extraordinary sight, for they had no cover whatever except the thick white mist overhead. Behind the second row, there was a battery of heavy howitzers (8- or 9-inch calibre), and a little farther back several batteries of 60-pounder guns. The night attack was carried out by the 126th Infantry Brigade and was wonderfully successful.

At 10 A.M. on October 20 I called at B.H.Q., a house in Prayelle, to get the latest news. Then I joined Ptes. Fail and Greenwood at the O.P., which was now under the muzzles of the field guns. We left this post and went towards Briastre, and, crossing the road from Viesly, we finally selected a position near the Briastre Cemetery. Just across the valley the enemy's guns were pounding the positions we had won that morning. It was in preparation for a counter-attack, which, however, was crushed by the fire from our own artillery. We sent in several situation reports to D.H.Q. through the H.Q. of the 10th Manchester Regiment, which were now in a cutting not far from the cemetery.

On my way back to Beauvois I met a number of tanks travelling slowly forward towards Viesly; but I believe they were unable to get across the River Selle that night. For the next two days the observers held a post on the north side of Viesly; and on October 23 the 42nd Division attacked again, the N.Z. Division taking up the pursuit of the enemy about midday. The men of the 42nd Division have every reason to be proud of their battle at Solesmes; the Germans were very strongly entrenched and they were picked troops, and a night attack is, of course, one of the most difficult of all to carry out successfully.

The observers were instructed to remain at their quarters in Beauvois, and for the next eleven days training was resumed. I was told that great advantages might be obtained from panoramic sketches, if rapidly and accurately drawn by the observers. And so I directed most of the training here towards making these sketches. There was nothing in training that the men liked better than that.

During our rest at Beauvois the New Zealanders had pushed the Germans farther back, to the outskirts of Le Quesnoy, and towards the end of October we were warned that the 42nd Division would relieve them after a further attack.

XXXVII

THE FINAL RUSH FORWARD

On November 3 I moved with the observers to the village of Viesly and got a billet in a cottage. The village had been badly mauled by the German guns during the recent fighting. The German does not behave nicely when his nerves are shaken, and we heard stories of ill-treatment of women in Solesmes.

Next day we went towards Romeries to reconnoitre the roads, and on November 5 we had a long march in the rain. Hitherto we had been lucky to have fine weather for trekking, but now it began to rain almost every day. We went on over crowded roads through Briastre, Solesmes, Romeries, and Beaudignies. At the latter place our heavy guns were still firing, for the Germans had only been pushed out of Le Quesnoy that morning, and their main body was retreating through the Mormal Forest. Our advance party, L.-C. Cowen and Pte. Addinall, who had gone forward on bicycles to find a billet in Le Quesnoy, met with a very warm reception from the French civilians in the town. After a little trouble I managed to get possession of a nice empty house near the railway station, where we were glad to turn in and get our clothes dry. Next day I went to D.H.Q. at Potelle, a moated farm or chateau.

There was some idea of disbanding the observers at this time, for Capt. Kirsopp found difficulty in getting us forward fast enough to be of any use. However the G.O.C. would not hear of it, and said the D.A.Q.M.G. must arrange to transport our things.

The same day I went forward to the advanced B.H.Q. at Forester's Point, on the N.W. side of the forest, east of Carnoy. And I arranged with the Brigade-Major of the 126th Infantry Brigade to send some of the observers to help him next day. This, however, was cancelled, as the Germans began to retreat towards the River Sambre. I saw some French children still about the cottages near the Mormal Forest, though there was still shelling going on. Coming back I avoided the village of Carnoy, as it was being heavily shelled by the enemy's long-range guns. This was the last time I came anywhere near the enemy's shell fire. The German dead lay in little clusters in the fields east of Le Quesnoy, and at various points along the railway.

On November 7 I moved my quarters to a small house at Herbignies, our belongings being brought for us by Divisional transport. Our hand-cart was finally dumped at Le Quesnoy. The next day I sent a small party of observers through the forest to Petit Bavay, and also detached Ptes.

Fail, Ewart, and Austin for duty on the following day, sending them with bicycles to the Q.M. of the 7th N.F. at Petit Bavay. Also I walked through the forest to D.H.Q. at the same place. It was a long tramp in the mud, and I was thoroughly tired out when I reached Herbignies again that night.

On November 9 we had our final trek forward, some fifteen miles through the most glutinous mud. As the observers had been overlooked when the Divisional transport left Potelle, we had now to transport all our belongings as best we could without the aid of the hand-cart.

This unfortunately meant dumping all our stores except such as were absolutely essential; and I lost a number of interesting records, maps, &c., in this way.

We loaded ourselves up then with everything we could take--very full packs and a blanket rolled on top, about the heaviest marching-order possible. By midday we had got through the forest to Petit Bavay, where we halted for a meal on the road side. Then we went on through Vieux Mesnil, where we had to ford the river, as the bridge was destroyed. On through Neuf Mesnil and at last to Hautmont. I was glad to get a billet in the first empty house I came to, 135 Rue de Gambetta. No beds, but a moderately clean floor to sleep on. Pte.

Fail's party rejoined me here. They had gone right on to the firing line on the north bank of the River Sambre, where the Guards were advancing. They brought back useful information as to what had been going on.

After disputing the crossing of the Sambre the Germans fled rapidly for about eight miles, and gave no further trouble beyond shelling the villages of Quievelon and Ferriere. Cyclists and cavalry were pushed out to keep in touch with them, but owing to the difficulties of transport the infantry could get no farther. There was now a general feeling that the end was not far off.

On November 10 I was told at D.H.Q. that there was a 'holiday air'

about every one, and that nothing further need be done by the observers. Early next morning I heard two transport drivers discussing the situation in the road outside. They were quite convinced that the war was over. And they were right; a little later I got the message from D.H.Q. 'hostilities will cease at 11 A.M. to-day.' Heavy firing was still going on to the north, about Mons, and this only ceased at 11 o'clock. Then the silence and stillness outside were most uncanny.

It was a silence that could be felt.

XXXVIII

THE END OF IT ALL

After the armistice the Divisional observers were not disbanded at once. They remained in my charge till December 6, when orders came for us all to return to our own units. So ended the most pleasant command that I held during the war.

The men who were with me when we were disbanded, were:

_Observers_ (_7th N.F._) _Signallers_ (_7th N.F._) L.-C. COWEN L.-C. CROZIER, M.M.

Pte. KING, M.M. Pte. WARD Pte. FAIL Pte. ROBINSON Pte. EWART Pte. PARKIN Pte. DRAKE Pte. ADDINALL Pte. AUSTIN Pte. GREENWOOD (_10th M.R._) Pte. FIRTH (_6th M.R._)

From the nature of the organisation and equipment of Infantry observers, they were of more use during trench warfare than moving warfare. You cannot turn an observer into a scout at a moment's notice. Only a few of the men ever acquired any real knowledge of map reading--they did not take the same interest in it as in other parts of the training--and for moving warfare it is absolutely essential.

Another handicap was lack of transport, we were nobody's children and left to fend for ourselves. The Q.M. of the 7th N.F. adopted us so far as rations were concerned, but the collection of rations alone prevented us from being a really mobile force: we could not move far away from the source of food supplies.

During the ten weeks on the Auchonvillers Ridge the men did wonders.

But we never stayed long enough at the same place after that to give them a real chance; and they never settled down to moving warfare.

On December 6 I was attached to B Company of the 7th N.F., commanded by Major Smail, and living at Boussieres; once more I became a platoon commander, after nearly three years of continuous warfare.

About December 15 the 42nd Division moved into Belgium, and D.H.Q.

were established at Charleroi. After arriving here I became Demobilisation Officer for the 7th N.F. and continued at that till January 19.[20] Then I went on leave to England. On February 10 I got back to Charleroi, and on February 13 I left Charleroi for demobilisation or rather 'disembodiment.' I reached home at 4.30 P.M.

on February 22, glad to be back.

FOOTNOTES:

[20] I had the greatest assistance from Cpl. Seals (7th N.F.), formerly N.C.O. in charge of Brigade Orderlies.

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