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Q.6.a and Other places Part 6

XIX

BUTTE OF WARLENCOURT--TRENCH WARFARE

On December 30, 1916, the Brigade was in the reserve area about Bazentin-le-Petit, and ready to take over the line of trenches running eastwards from a point south of the Butte of Warlencourt. No material change had taken place on this part of the front since the fruitless attack of November 11. The 1st Division, however, had done a good deal of work in the back areas, and had laid duck-board tracks from High Wood to the front line, and increased the number of light railways.

B.H.Q. were at some dugouts at the 'Cough Drop,' a place about a mile north of High Wood. The 149th Infantry Brigade had now decided to make use of a party of 'Observers,' and Major Anderson asked me to take charge of them. I was a little diffident about this as I had never had any experience as a Battalion Intelligence Officer and really knew nothing at all about observation. But I was glad to take on the job, and I soon got to like it. On December 30, therefore, two trained observers from each of the four battalions of the Brigade reported to me. And I had two N.C.Os. with this party--a corporal of the 4th N.F., who soon left to take a commission, and L.-C. Amos of the 7th N.F., who afterwards became N.C.O. in charge. On the same day I met the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Brigade who took me over the line and showed me the two O.P.s. I was lucky to meet at the start an officer who understood the business so well. He gave me many useful hints, and handed over an excellent panoramic sketch map of the view from one O.P., as well as the Log Book. The latter was a notebook containing reports of every movement of the enemy seen from the O.P.s. On December 31 I took the party of observers up to the Cough Drop where they had a shelter near B.H.Q. I had also supervision of the two Brigade dumps, one at Hexham Road and the other at the Flers Line about half a mile north of B.H.Q. Both places came in for heavy shelling at intervals all day and night, for both were situated about the end of a trench tramway, an obvious place for dumping stores.

However I had the latter dump moved to a better place, some distance from the tramway, where there was less scrap iron lying about. During this tour in the line which lasted eight days, I was employed in looking after the observers and the two Brigade bomb stores. Towards the close of our stay I started to make a new bomb store in Hexham Road. Capt. H. Liddell gave me the general design of it and told me what materials I should require. But I had no more time than to get the emplacement dug out and the wooden framework erected.[13] I remember that we struck two buried Germans in excavating the emplacement and had to treat them with some very powerful corrosive before the work could be continued.

Also it was rather a warm corner in Hexham Road, and I caught a shell splinter on the leg; this, however, struck the steel buckle on my trench boot and only raised a bruise. The weather became very cold towards the end of our stay, with snow and frost. The Germans opposite our trenches were not disposed to be unfriendly about the New Year. On the left near the Butte they signalled to our men in the trenches before a trench-mortar bombardment started, as if to warn them to take cover. On the right they were still more inclined to fraternise. Here both sides were holding trenches that would have become impossible if any sniping had been done. So both our men and the Germans worked away at deepening their own trenches without molesting their opponents; although sometimes a crowd of men were exposed from the waist upwards at a range of about 200 yards.

It was one of those curious understandings which arise when no violent operations are in progress. However, on New Year's Day it went even further. A soldier of the 5th N.F., after signals from the Germans, went out into No Man's Land and had a drink with a party of them.

After this a small party of the enemy approached our trenches without arms and with evidently friendly intentions. But they were warned off and not allowed to enter our trenches. This little affair, I believe, led to the soldier being court-martialled for holding intercourse with the enemy. After eight days in the line the Brigade returned to a camp at the north end of Mametz Wood. B.H.Q. were close to a battery of 9-inch howitzers, and when these heavy guns fired a salvo, which they did occasionally both day and night, it fairly lifted the things off the table. We got shelled here one night, but beyond getting a shower or two of splinters and stones on to the huts no damage was done. I had now time to ramble round, and examine various things of interest.

I found a regular dump of German bombs at Bazentin-le-Grand, and some of these were collected for training purposes.

There were some Divisional baths at Bazentin-le-Petit, and I remember having a most cold and miserable bath there one night; but it was better than none at all. It was surprising how quickly the heavy railway had been brought along. It now reached High Wood, but of course did not cross the ridge, which would have been in view of the enemy. About January 15 we went back to the line in very cold weather, and B.H.Q. stayed at the Cough Drop again for eight days. During this time I set to work completing the bomb store at Hexham Road, and filling it with grenades. Each morning I got a party of about sixteen men, and we collected a lot of filled sandbags to pack round the framework and shed which were soon finished. The Brigade observers held a post in the old Flers Line, from which good observation was obtained on the ground between Loupart Wood and Grevillers. It was not difficult to get the heavy gunners to fire on German working-parties that were spotted by the observers; and several parties were duly dispersed by our shells. Before we left the line this time, the Brigade bomb store at Hexham Road was completed and filled. And when I visited the district again in June 1917 it was still standing. I also began now to write out the Brigade Intelligence Reports which were sent in each day, and contained a summary of the events that had happened or had been observed on our front. On January 23 we went back to the camp north of Mametz Wood.

After a few days we moved off to Albert, and stayed two or three days in a house near the railway line. The town got both bombed and shelled at times, though not very severely. After this we moved off to the village of Dernancourt for a short rest.

Major C.G. Johnson, M.C., who was adjutant of the 7th N.F. when I joined the battalion, was now attached to B.H.Q. as Assistant-Staff-Captain. He was an exceedingly able man, and had a good knowledge of military law. We all liked him well as adjutant of the battalion, and our relations at B.H.Q. were always friendly. He left us eventually to become D.A.Q.M.G. in a higher Staff formation.

FOOTNOTES:

[13] Pte. Slack (7th N.F.), a Brigade pioneer, helped me greatly with the carpenter's work.

XX

FRANCE AND THE FRENCH

The war has done at least one thing for me. It has opened my eyes and changed my views with regard to the French. I confess that once I had no liking for them and a certain measure of contempt. I suppose the average Englishman has started with views like these. There has been bad blood between the two races, and that at no very distant date.

Indeed the Alliance or Entente started much like a marriage of convenience. The two partners were joined in interest together against a common foe and a common danger.

Personally, I do not think there was much love lost between the two nations for some time after the war started. The bond of mutual admiration and respect, and I hope of affection, was forged in the Battle of the Somme and in the heroic defence of Verdun. This bond has been strengthened since on many a stricken field. The clouds of mutual mistrust and jealousy have been largely dispelled. We have learnt much about the French since the early days of the war, and they much about us; otherwise it would have been impossible for a French General to be in supreme command of the campaign.

I have often come in contact with the French civilian in town and country, but only rarely with French troops. Also I have come to know and like a series of French interpreters attached to battalions or brigade. The deeds of the French Army speak for themselves, and their Staff work has been often beyond praise. When we remember the cruel fate that befell the north-eastern corner of France and its unhappy citizens, we may sympathise with the fury of the French nation against their old oppressors. No one living in England can realise the hideous wounds inflicted on this fair country-side. It may explain to some extent at least the heroic resistance of the French for over four years--a resistance that could scarcely have been predicted before the war.

In considering our relations with the French at different times, it is well to have a deep sympathy for the cruel wrongs she has suffered.

Thus they must have regarded with very mixed feelings their harbours, railways, and towns being taken over by an alien though friendly people.

All things considered the Frenchman may well have said at the first, 'These English, they are everywhere!' At least, this I noticed when I arrived in Le Havre in January 1916, there was no enthusiasm for us there. There was no rudeness, it is true, but the atmosphere of the place was rather chilly and aloof. The country folk about Meteren seemed pleased to see us; I think they had got used to the ways of the British soldier and found him not such a bad fellow after all. It was pleasant to see the country folks round here after our stay in Flanders, comely and straight, members of a thoroughbred race. The contrast was rather forcible perhaps.

The Brigade Interpreter in 1916, Monsieur Bunge, a native of Le Havre, was a pleasant, lively sort of person, always ready for a joke and an admirer of the British. With him I got on very well; and I learnt one or two things of the French from him. One of them was how sensitive they are in small matters of conversation. If in your heavy English way you did not respond at once with animation to his remarks, M.

Bunge thought he had offended you.

They are a very sensitive race, especially in matters of courtesy. The colder manner and bearing of the British must have been a sore trial to them till they got to understand them--especially if they were laying themselves out to be friendly. It is worth while to let yourself go a bit in the matter of speech and bearing when talking to them. And, above all things, if you want to please them, try to talk to them in French, however badly, for they all take it as a great compliment. Another thing I discovered was the unwillingness of the French officers to take the initiative in saluting; yet they would never fail to return such a courtesy. Perhaps their earlier experiences in this little matter had been discouraging. It is much the same with the poilus and farmer folk. If you wish them 'Bonjour'

they would invariably respond and also salute.

Later on I had a day or two in Amiens which provided some impressions of the French soldiers. The officers there contrasted rather forcibly with our own, I remember. They were very smartly dressed in home-parade uniforms, wore their medals, and carried themselves with an admirable pride and spirit. Our officers, on the other hand, dressed in the homely khaki, often the worse for wear, had generally an air of war-weariness. No doubt most of our men had come almost straight from the battle-field and were enjoying only a few hours'

relaxation in this fine city. Still it made one reflect that the French are indeed a nation of soldiers which we are not. We obviously have not the same pride in the paraphernalia of war, and that shows which way the wind blows. I also saw a number of poilus going on leave and returning to the line. They looked very quiet and patient, but without a great deal of enthusiasm showing on the surface. Later on I saw French soldiers on the march several times. They get over the ground very fast; but it is more go as you please with them than with us. I have often noticed how grave these poilus look, even after the war was over. Nothing of the reckless fun and explosive good humour of the British soldier. If the latter is not having a rotten time he is wonderfully cheerful and often light-hearted.

I have also seen the French soldiers holding the line in a quiet part; and indeed we 'took over' from them there. They do not expose themselves nearly so much as we do near the trenches. Everything seemed to be done with scientific method and every one seemed to know exactly what to do on all occasions. They hold their front line thinly, trusting in case of accidents to recover it by a counter-attack. And if the French are not fighting a battle they generally keep their front as quiet as they can. This of course is all very different from our own system. If we had a quiet part of the line, it was generally because we had silenced the enemy's guns and trench-mortars by fighting.

I had one great chance of studying the French officer at home in these trenches. Shortly before taking over the French Regimental Commander in the line asked our Brigadier, Brigade-Major, and 'one other officer' to visit the trenches, but to be sure and call in at Regimental H.Q. before proceeding up the line. This was really an invitation of goodwill and ceremony rather than an invitation to examine the line. But as this was not quite understood at the time I was included in the party as Brigade Bombing Officer, rather than the Staff-Captain or Machine-Gun Officer, either of whom should have gone in my place. So on a terribly cold day at the end of January 1917 we set off, and after a long ride from Dernancourt to Fontaine-les-Cappy in a motor-car, we arrived near Regimental H.Q. and proceeded there on foot. The Brigadier was a fair French linguist, I had about two words of French, and the Brigade-Major had none. So it was just as well that the junior etat-Major happened to be a fluent English speaker.

Indeed, he had spent a good time in Newcastle and knew not only England but the north. We were welcomed by the French Brigadier with every mark of courtesy and goodwill. It is the custom for a French officer to salute his superior and then to shake hands with him. The salute is given even if you do not happen to be wearing a cap.

These worthy and hospitable warriors were in charge of a regiment (or as we should say a brigade) from the south of France about Bordeaux. I believe they had won for themselves a good reputation as fighting men.

They knew, however, as well how to take care of themselves; and I fancy they had a first-class chef amongst their servants. It was a great affair, that meal, which had been prepared to do us honour, especially considering that it was served actually in the trenches.

Quite a number of dishes succeeded one another, and were washed down with some excellent red wine. These were followed by several sweets and a glass of sweet champagne--the latter to drink to our good luck in the new trenches--glasses were solemnly clinked at this stage of the proceedings; afterwards cognac, coffee and cigars. The French officers expressed considerable interest in the Territorial 'T.'s' on my tunic, asking what they stood for. The French 'Territorial' is of course a different type to ours, being in the nature of the last reserve, elderly men not used as 'storm' or 'shock' troops. The meal passed pleasantly indeed; and at the end, a photograph must be taken as a souvenir of the meeting, and that was duly done in the winter sunlight outside. The French soldiers use small cameras in the trenches, a privilege denied to us. I have never before or since been in such elaborate trenches as these that we took over from the French.

Vast communication trenches, six to ten feet deep, ran back for miles behind the front line. The same with the forward area, the number of deep trenches was simply extraordinary. Their idea may have been to make so many trenches that the enemy would not know which to shell.

Unfortunately the trenches were not revetted, and when the frost broke we came to think less of them and travelled as much as possible across the open. The inside of the trenches was very clean--not a tin or a scrap of paper to be seen. The refuse was all dumped just over the parapet or in the shell-holes outside. The French are accustomed to an easy system of sanitation. During the day few French soldiers are seen outside their dugouts, except parties cleaning the trenches. In the front line only a few sentries were kept on duty, and they were relieved every two hours. The French speak with great confidence of their field artillery, the terrible 75's. A battery of these guns handled by French gunners can fire almost like a machine-gun, and the noise is deafening.

As a nation the French have their faults. They are exceedingly proud and quick to take offence, they are not very stable or constant (obstinate shall we say?), and they are about the hardest bargainers in the world.

Thrift and making use of the shining hour have been driven to their last conclusions. The British soldiers have been made to pay very sweetly for their visit to France. I do not think the French ever gave the British such a warm welcome as the Belgians did.

But when all is said and done we all have our own faults, and the Frenchman's most shining virtue is patriotism.

XXI

SOUTH OF THE SOMME

After staying for about a week or more at Dernancourt, the Brigade received orders to go south of the Somme, and to take over part of the line won by the French this side of Peronne. We marched, therefore, through Bray and stayed two nights at Mericourt and two at Fontaine-les-Cappy. At the latter place I was surprised to find some graves of British soldiers who had fallen there in the earlier part of the war. Also I had one exciting experience at Fontaine-les-Cappy.

There was a large grenade dump near our camp, and, just as I was passing it, an explosion took place. A party of men had been detonating grenades, and two or three grenades had gone off in the box, killing two of the party and hurling the grenades in a shower all round the place. One fell close, and I was lucky not to be riddled by it. For the safety-pin was blown out and the lever of the grenade held down by a piece of wood from the side of the box, which was jammed by the explosion into the shoulder of the grenade. I spent a little time picking up such grenades as I could find, and two or three of them were in a dangerous condition.

When we got into the line near Belloy I lived for a time at advanced B.H.Q. called 'P.C. Hedevaux' ('Post Commandant' _Hedevaux_). The dugouts were deep and proof against ordinary shells. The General, Brigade-Major, and Staff-Captain resided farther back at 'P.C.

Buelow.' I was shown over the trenches by the _officier bombardier_ (Bombing Officer) of a French unit. And I found it fairly easy to talk to him without the aid of an interpreter. I told him two English expressions which seemed to please him greatly. One was 'dugout,' the other 'dump'; the equivalent for the latter in French being 'Depot de Munitions.'

I made an entirely new Brigade bomb store in these trenches, using the little shelters in a line of disused trenches. After a week in the trenches the frost broke, and the trenches which had been hard and dry now became nothing but muddy drains. To wade along them even in daylight and in gum boots involved the greatest physical exertion. One unfortunate man stuck in the mud, and before they got him out he was pulled out of his boots and breeches and had his coat torn off his back. Finally he was sent to the dressing-station with only his shirt on. We stayed about sixteen days in the line, and during the last five or six days I retired to P.C. Buelow to assist in the Intelligence Work.

This part of the line was quiet and our stay uneventful; but two things of interest might be noted. The Brigade observers reported that the Germans were employing French prisoners on the roads about a mile behind their front line, a cowardly and disgraceful proceeding. The Germans were seen working hard on their dugouts behind the line--this was of course a 'blind' for our benefit, for the German retreat started the day after the 50th Division was relieved.

After our sixteen days in the line B.H.Q. moved back to Foucaucourt and remained there till about March 7. Then the 50th Division finally left the Somme front and moved back for a rest. B.H.Q. went to Warfusee and we had good billets there.

Brigadier-General Ovens, C.M.G., left us at Foucaucourt and Lieut.-Col. B.D. Gibson, D.S.O., of the 4th N.F., commanded the Brigade for a few days, being succeeded as Brigade Commander by Lieut.-Col. G. Scott Jackson, D.S.O., of the 7th N.F.

Two very startling things were done at this time. All the men of the Brigade were told that they were about to be trained for open warfare, and they would not have to go into the trenches again. They were to be used as part of a Corps de Chasse during the next offensive. This was not borne out by events, but it throws some light on the expectations of the British Staff. It was also decided at this juncture to change the organisation of the British Infantry Company. Each company was in future to consist of four sections--one riflemen pure and simple, another Lewis gunners, another bombers, and the fourth rifle-bombers.

It was perhaps an unfortunate time to spring this change on the B.E.F., just on the eve of a new offensive. The idea appears to have been sound enough, but the attempt to rush it through in three weeks'

time was hardly likely to have good results. To convert a rifleman into a rifle-bomber in a week's training was of course out of the question. Hitherto only the most expert and steadiest bombers had been employed on rifle-grenade work. But now the ordinary infantry were expected to become rifle-bombers, although their knowledge of bombs was of the most elementary description. Two problems therefore faced those responsible for the training and equipment of the rifle-bombers.

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