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Q.6.a and Other places Part 7

First how to get them even partially trained in the time, and second to invent some apparatus for carrying the rifle-grenades. At first it was only possible to train the N.C.O.s in charge of the rifle-bombing sections--leaving them to instruct their sections as well as they could.

It is hard to realise the complete inadequacy of this arrangement, without knowing something of the rifle-grenade, and without knowing the extraordinary difficulty of training a man to become an instructor of others. However that was the best that could be made of the new orders at the moment. And so it fell to me to take a class for a week of N.C.O'.s drawn from the four battalions. I had not only to teach them to fire the rifle-grenade themselves, of which they knew nothing, but to teach them to hand their knowledge on to others.

The training went on from March 12 to 17, and thirty-four section leaders attended the course. About 1150 rounds were fired. I did not attempt any live firing--in fact, I have never thought it serves any useful purpose to fire live rifle-grenades in practice.

It is of course much more dangerous than throwing a live hand-grenade, and one accident in practice is enough to discourage all the recruits who see it from firing live rifle-grenades in actual warfare. On the other hand, even where the rifle-grenades are only used as dummies, the waste of valuable ammunition is simply appalling. A Hales rifle-grenade used to cost 25s. and it came down to 15s. a little later, but once fired as a dummy it was not much use to fire again.

Dummies could have been made for about 1s. at the most, but of course no one in England thought about a trifle like that; and so the colossal waste went on all the time I had the training in hand. I did what I could by straightening the rods to use the grenades again, but I could not save much in this way. Thousands of pounds in rifle-grenades must have been used where thousands of shillings should have been spent.

At Warfusee Brigadier-General H.C. Rees, D.S.O., came to take over command of the Brigade. He had seen very heavy fighting in the early part of the war, and had since commanded two Brigades before he came to the 149th Infantry Brigade. He was liked and respected by every one in the Brigade. Very tall and well built, and a soldier who gave you the greatest confidence in his ability and leadership, the Brigade owed much to him, especially at a time when the trench fighting was giving way (as it seemed) to open warfare. He was a first-class rifle-shot himself, and never ceased to impress the necessity of developing this weapon to the utmost. For the hand-grenade he had the greatest contempt, which he was rather fond of expressing. Fortunately for me, bombing work was giving way to Intelligence, although for some time to come I had to train the men in rifle grenades and to look after the Brigade ammunition stores.

After finishing the rifle-grenade work I acted as Assistant-Staff-Captain for about a week. It was chiefly office work as far as I was concerned, the returns being very voluminous. Work as I could there seemed to be no getting to the end of these returns till 9 or 10 o'clock at night. There were also one or two minor court-martial cases, in which my legal training proved some assistance. On March 27 I got my third leave granted, for ten days. It was perhaps rather quick after my last leave, but the fact of my being ill on that occasion was taken into consideration. This time I went to Amiens by motor-lorry and thence to Boulogne, reaching Manchester on the same day that I sailed from France.

On April 6 I left Folkestone and got to Boulogne about 4 o'clock. Here no one could say where the 56th Division was, and I was directed to leave by a midnight train and to report to the R.T.O. at Abbeville. I got there about 2 A.M. and was told to go back to etaples by an 8 o'clock train that morning. I managed to get a few hours' sleep and breakfast at the Officers Club at Abbeville, and reached etaples about midday on April 7. On April 9 I was told to proceed to St. Pol and get further directions there. I arrived there in time for lunch, and then reached Frevent by another train. Here I was told to go by the light railway towards Wanquetin and to make inquiries for the 50th Division on the way. At Frevent I saw a lot of slightly wounded soldiers coming back from Arras; they had been over the top that morning on the first day of the great battle which had just started.

Just before reaching Avesnes-le-Compte I spotted some Divisional transport on the roads, and, on making inquiries at Avesnes, I learnt that the 149th Infantry Brigade were quartered at Manin about two miles away. So I left the train and reached our H.Q. just in time for dinner.

The 50th Division had marched from Warfusee, and were now proceeding towards Arras to take part in the battle which had started on April 9.

XXII

THE BATTLE OF ARRAS

The Battle of Arras started with a great success. The Vimy Ridge was recaptured and the vast fortress between Telegraph Hill and Neuville Vitasse, including a substantial part of the famous Hindenburg Line, fell in one day. The high ground at Monchy-le-Preux was soon stormed and secured. But after this progress became very slow, nothing seemed to come of these great tactical successes. The fighting, instead of developing into open warfare as we had expected, became again very similar in character to the great trench to trench battles on the Somme.

The French waited a week before starting their offensive in Champagne, and when it did start it failed completely. The weather broke down on April 10, as it generally did in 1917 whenever the British commenced offensive operations. It became very cold and it rained or snowed almost incessantly for over a week. It is hard for one who saw only a small sector of this great battle to understand what prevented us from taking greater advantage of our great initial success, which certainly surprised and disorganised the enemy. But it was not merely the weather which broke down at a critical moment. There were other causes at work to delay and impede success. I strongly suspect that the British infantry units were still suffering from their tremendous exertions in 1916; and they certainly had not the confident assurance of victory which inspired the terrible sacrifices on the Somme.

Hitherto our artillery had never been so strong nor had the mechanical aids to victory been so numerous or so varied. Gas-projectors and oil-drums were first used in this battle, new aeroplanes were first launched out in public; the British held the mastery of the air, and the Germans had not yet devised any effective remedy for the British tanks. But the British troops were not the troops of the Somme. The old type of volunteer had largely disappeared, and the same resolution and confidence were not displayed by some of the British divisions.

The very strength of our artillery was sapping the old reliance on the rifle, and when the barrage stopped the infantry often seemed to be powerless to defend the captured positions.

On the other hand the superior and more lengthy training of the German reserves now began to tell. Personally, I never admired the German as a fighting man until he was now for the first time driven out of his vast defences. On the Somme the Germans had artillery support nearly equal to our own, and they were defending superb trenches with unbroken roads and country behind them. Now, when they were thrust out of their famous stronghold and plastered with every sort of projectile, they held up repeated attacks, backed by enormous artillery preparation and support, held them up by sheer dogged fighting and superior knowledge of war. Their Staff work must have been good, and the training and morale of the troops equally good to have done it. After the first great success, we gained only small local successes, costing thousands of casualties and vast expenditure of ammunition. Eventually, after about five weeks of fierce thrusts, the Battle of Arras came to an end, giving us, it is true, a much improved position in front of Arras, but leaving the main object of the attack unaccomplished. The further offensives of 1917 were carried on more to the north and south, and the Arras area saw no more big fighting till the beginning of 1918.

The 50th Division came into action on April 11, and worked alternately with the 14th Division. The enemy were pushed across the Cojeul Valley and into the outskirts of Vis-en-Artois and Cherisy. The advance of these two Divisions would have been undoubtedly greater, but Guemappe on the left and the uncaptured part of the Hindenburg Line on the right for a time held up the divisions attacking on either flank. Thus both the 50th Division and the 14th Division captured Cherisy in turn, but had to abandon the place through having their flanks exposed. By their operations in this area both Divisions maintained their already worthy reputation.

XXIII

WANCOURT TOWER--CROISILLES

The 149th Infantry Brigade left Manin on the morning of April 10, and marched to Wanquetin, where the troops were billeted in houses. On the following day it began to snow heavily about midday and this continued far into the night. The Brigade were intended to attack on April 12, but, owing to the exhaustion and exposure of the troops, the 151st Brigade were substituted when the attack recommenced on April 13. We started our march in the snow just as the light was beginning to fail, and trudged along through the muddy slush till we reached Arras. Here there was a delay of several hours before guides arrived to lead the various units to their stations. B.H.Q. marched through the town and eventually arrived at the ruined sugar factory at Faubourg Ronville, where there were deep dugouts below the ruins. We could not see much of the city but it appeared to be badly knocked about by the enemy's shells. Not many houses, perhaps, had fallen to bits, but there was hardly a house that had not been hit. A great many small shells must have been fired into the town. The place of course was full of underground passages--though I never had the chance of entering them.

When morning came I was able to take stock of my surroundings. The sugar factory was one of the last buildings at the S.E. end of the city, and a trench tramway led to what had once been the front line trenches about a quarter of a mile from these H.Q.

My job that morning was to hunt round for the dumps of grenades &c.

which had been made by our predecessors before their advance. I remember finding two of these in fairly good condition in the neighbourhood of Telegraph Hill--only of course on the Arras side. The cold night on which we arrived had taken heavy toll of the cavalry horses, and many of these splendid animals could be seen scattered about on the ground, some already dead and others dying. They were too fine bred to stand that wintry night in an open bivouac. As far as I could make out our lighter siege guns had moved up towards the Telegraph Hill ridge and our field guns towards Neuville Vitasse; there were still howitzers of heavy calibre in the environs of the city itself. I believe the 151st Infantry Brigade attacked on April 13, and pushed across the Cojeul Valley north of Heninel, and dug in just west of the Wancourt Tower ridge. Wancourt was captured but not Guemappe, and Marliere was in our hands. On that day I was instructed to make a dump at Telegraph Hill, which I had no difficulty in doing as the place was quite quiet.

[Illustration: Scene of Attacks on Cherisy. April 1917.]

The next day this dump was removed to the region of the Elm Trees at Wancourt behind the 'Brown Line'; and the Brigade relieved the 151st Infantry Brigade. B.H.Q. were at the Elm Trees, and consisted of some fine deep dugouts, which the Germans had used as an ammunition store.

The entrance to them was in a small sunken road. The ammunition was mostly stored in large wooden boxes, and we had to pull it out and get rid of it. This was done by emptying the boxes into the nearest shell-holes; so that the ground outside was littered with German ammunition. In one of these shell-holes, amongst a lot of rubbish of this kind, I found four old pewter dishes and two pewter spoons. They had been heaved out of the dugout along with the rest of its contents.

One of the plates was dated 1733, and all were marked with the foreign maker's stamp. They afforded, when cleaned, a rather unusual decoration for the walls of the mess room. This little collection was disposed of 'under Divisional and Brigade arrangements,' but I managed to secure the spoons.

The position in front was now as follows. A battalion held the trenches across the Cojeul Valley, supported by three battalions in the Brown Line and in Wancourt itself. The enemy was in Guemappe and also in some trenches just over the ridge of Wancourt Tower Hill. It was the business of the Brigade to hold the trenches and to make such improvement in them as opportunity might offer. General Rees was not the man to let any such opportunity slip. Nothing happened during the first few days, beyond the usual heavy shelling of the roads and batteries and forward positions.

But a patrol of the 5th N.F. pushed out towards Guemappe, and carried out a useful daylight reconnaissance.

Also about April 16, 1917, Lieut.-Col. F. Robinson of the 6th N.F.

discovered the enemy approaching the ruined buildings on the Wancourt Tower Hill, and promptly ordered a platoon to attack them. This plan succeeded admirably and the Tower and house were captured. The place was of vital importance to us as it commanded direct observation on all the roads leading to our part of the front. On April 17 the enemy shelled the Tower with 8-inch howitzers--generally a sign that he meant to attack sooner or later. The Tower contained a formidable concrete machine-gun emplacement, facing of course our way, but by General Rees' orders it was blown up by the Engineers. Sure enough the enemy attacked the Tower that night, and at an unfortunate time for us, for the 7th N.F. were in the process of relieving the 6th N.F. in the front line, and it was a vile night, with a blizzard of snow.

The German attack succeeded in driving our men out of the Tower and buildings, and though several bombing attacks were made that night to recover the position it could not be done. General Rees at once prepared to storm the position at the earliest opportunity next day, the 7th N.F. having completed the relief of the trenches during the night. It is difficult to describe the confidence which our General inspired at this critical time; he was rather graver and more thoughtful than usual, perhaps, but he treated the matter with great confidence and made every one feel that the misfortune could and would be retrieved at the first attempt. His plans were made in conjunction with Major Johnson of the 50th Divisional Artillery; and as a result it was arranged to attack across the open supported by a barrage from five brigades of field artillery. The hour was fixed for twelve noon (German time) just when the enemy is thinking about his dinner.

Without any preliminary bombardment, the barrage opened out at the appointed hour, and fairly drove the enemy off the hill top. The 7th N.F. advanced in perfect order and with little opposition recaptured the Tower and the neighbouring trenches. Two or three prisoners were sent down, who had been unable to get away before the attackers reached them. It was a little attack, but carried out with admirable precision and practically without loss, and every credit must be given to General Rees for the way he handled the problem. As this operation was carried out in full view of all the surrounding country it attracted considerable attention, and congratulations soon poured in from all sides. I was kept indoors or rather underground a good deal during this stay in the line, as it was my business to record in a log-book every note or message that came in to the Brigade Office, either by day or night. I had the chance, too, of hearing the Divisional Intelligence Officer examining a few German prisoners who were captured on our front. He brought with him three large books containing no doubt the previous history of the German Brigades; and with the aid of these he was able to check the accuracy of the prisoners' statements.

One day I went with General Rees to Marliere, and we went some distance down Southern Avenue, which was then between the German outpost line and our own. Another day we went to some high ground N.W.

of Wancourt for the purposes of observation. I remember that on this occasion we had to hurry as the Germans were shelling rather close, and General Rees got a splinter on the helmet. We were relieved by the 150th Infantry Brigade on April 21, and I rode back to Arras with Capt. Haggie. I was now billeted for two days in a house in Arras, where the Brigade Staff-Captain's office was located. The first night was quiet enough, but the following night was not so pleasant. For our heavy guns were now bombarding the German positions and their long-range guns threw a lot of shells in reply into various parts of the city. On April 23, St. George's Day, the British resumed the attack and the 150th Infantry Brigade attacked from the top of Wancourt Tower Hill. A good number of prisoners were made, but Guemappe still held out and the Germans launched a heavy counter-attack along this part of the front. In the morning I went forward to some dugouts east of Telegraph Hill where the General, Brigade-Major, and Signalling Officer were stationed for this battle.

Our Brigade of course was in reserve, except the 4th N.F. who were attached to the 151st Infantry Brigade. From this place near Telegraph Hill I got a good view of the battle around Guemappe. About midday Brigadier-General Cameron of the 151st Infantry Brigade took over command of the 50th Divisional front, and at once made preparations to renew the attack in the afternoon. I was sent over to the Elm Trees dugouts to find out exactly what he proposed to do with the 4th N.F., and he was then busily engaged with the Artillery officers arranging the barrages. Before the attack was resumed, Guemappe was heavily shelled by our siege guns, a wonderful sight. The whole place seemed to disappear in dense clouds of dust and smoke. It had been a ding-dong battle all day, attack and counter-attack, and at this point neither side had gained much advantage. The Germans had not only repelled the attack on our right, but had attempted to push through into Heninel, in the Cojeul Valley. Fortunately, however, the 149th M.-G. Company, commanded by Major Morris, stopped this movement by a well-directed fire to our right flank. When, however, the attack was renewed in the afternoon things went better for us. The Germans were pushed down the hill from Wancourt Tower and Guemappe was taken. The 4th N.F. did well, getting to a place called Buck Trench. And the Divisional front was advanced to a point not far from the outskirts of Cherisy. It was unfortunate that we had no fresh troops at this juncture to press home the attack. According to German statements, the German troops were practically broken up at the end of the day and they had at the moment no reserves available. Our small party remained at the H.Q. on Telegraph Hill till the morning of April 25, when we returned to the Ronville sugar factory, being relieved by a Brigade of the 14th Division.

On April 26 a large Corps dump about a quarter of a mile from the factory got on fire, and went on flaring and exploding all day. A good many pieces of shells and fragments from this dump came rattling against the walls of the sugar factory, making it no place to loiter about. I learnt that the 42nd F.A., to which my brother George was attached, was due to take over from our F.A. in Ronville; but I did not get in touch with him.

On April 26 B.H.Q. moved to a fine chateau at the west end of Arras, where we were much more comfortable than at the sugar factory. That night I went to a battalion dinner of the 7th N.F., and it was wonderful what a good dinner they managed to procure under the circumstances. The next day, April 27, we marched back to a rest area near Pommera, going along the Arras-Doullens road. B.H.Q. were billeted in a farm at the south end of the village. I shared a billet with Lieut. Odell and found the place very comfortable.

We were not left long here. A fresh attack was to be made, and the 50th Division was to be moved forward, to be ready to press home the attack if it succeeded. We left Pommera on May 1 and marched to Souastre, where B.H.Q. were billeted in a French chateau with a nice garden. Next day we marched forward again to a bare looking spot at Mereatel, where the accommodation was very limited. We managed to rig up a few wooden shelters and bivouacs amongst the ruins of the houses.

This had been a nice village, but the Germans had blown down every house and cut down every tree before they left it. They had even destroyed the small fruit bushes in the gardens, an unnecessarily wanton act.

The big attack was arranged for May 3 and it was preceded by the usual heavy bombardment. But nothing came of it but heavy casualties, and it was decided to send the Division back to the rest area again. On the evening of May 3 I met a Colonel of the R.A.M.C., 14th Division, who told me that he had seen my brother George at Neuville Vitasse just two hours before, and that he was quite well. I got this information, just too late, as we were now under orders to move back to the rest area. And on May 4 I marched back with the B.H.Q. transport to Souastre, and on May 5 to Pommera.

For the next ten days the Brigade carried out various tactical exercises under the directions of General Rees. One day was given to field firing practice, on which occasion I acted as one of the 'casualty' officers--that is to say, I had to select various men during the sham attack and order them to drop out as casualties. Live ammunition was used in rifles and Lewis guns as well as live rifle-grenades; and I remember there were seven slight casualties from accidents with the rifle-grenades. These 'live' field days in France were not without their own little excitements, especially for those who had to keep up with the firing line.

After ten days the Brigade was detached from the 50th Division and attached to the 33rd Division, holding the line about Croisilles. The idea was to assist the 33rd Division by holding the line for them for three days, in the interval between two attacks. So on May 17 the Brigade moved from Pommera to Souastre, H.Q. being again at the French chateau. Here, through the good services of our French interpreter, we had for dinner a piece of the famous _sanglier_ which lives in the woods at Pommera. One of these creatures had been shot, and the huntsmen presented a piece of it to B.H.Q. Mess. It tasted much like pork, with a more gamy flavour.

On May 18 we moved from Souastre to Boiry St. Martin, where B.H.Q.

were in some wooden huts, amongst the ruins of the village. On May 19 I went over to Ayette, a neighbouring village, and spent the morning training men of the 7th N.F. in rifle-grenades. Next day I went with Capt. Haggie to inspect a Brigade ammunition dump at Croisilles, and on May 21 I went to a canvas camp at Hamlincourt and spent the night there. I did not get a good night as the enemy shelled the vicinity of the camp at intervals during the night. Next day I went forward to B.H.Q. which were in some shelters in a sunken road just west of Croisilles. We held the line till May 25 and nothing very startling happened. But two or three incidents occurred here which I remember with interest. The visit of three War Correspondents, including Messrs. Beach Thomas and Philip Gibbs. They spent about half an hour at our H.Q. and were put in my charge to see the sights. We did not go far from H.Q. as the high ground there afforded the best general view of the country round.

Both of the English War Correspondents interested me much. Beach Thomas, tall and dignified and grave; Philip Gibbs, short and bright and cheery: both very sympathetic to and appreciative of the Brigade.

The other was a Dutch gentleman who told me with a flash of inspiration that I should not recollect his name.

Another striking personality appeared in the shape of the Brigade Commander of one of the Divisional Artillery Brigades. Col. Fitzgerald came to call on us to inquire whether the artillery arrangements were to our satisfaction and to know if he could do anything to help us. A tall man with glasses and a kindly, gentle face. One morning he brought in a great bunch of flowers for our mess room that he had gathered near Croisilles. The following story was brought to us by the Artillery Liaison Officer. Col. Fitzgerald went to the front line and out into the broken trenches in No Man's Land in order to inspect the registration of the field guns. Seeing a German sniper at work, he borrowed a rifle and commenced a duel with the Boche in which several shots were exchanged. Having killed his man he returned with great satisfaction, feeling the day had been well spent. This occurred near the 'Hump' whilst we were holding these trenches. He told us that his guns had had a wonderful target on the Somme in July 1916. They were somewhere on the high ground south of Bazentin-le-Grand when the German Guard had massed for an attack on Contalmaison. These guns had the extraordinary chance of firing with open sights on the dense German masses behind Bazentin-le-Petit and they had inflicted terrible losses on the Brandenburghers.

It was from our O.P. near B.H.Q. that I first tried to make a panoramic sketch of the country in front. It was a crude attempt, no doubt, but General Rees was kind enough to speak encouragingly of it, and to tell me to try and develop this side of Intelligence.

That advice bore fruit, for in 1918 my observers were trained to sketch, and their sketches did more damage to the enemy than any reports that were sent in. For the heavy artillery got interested in them and fired on the targets with great effect.

About May 25 we came out of the line and stayed one night at Moyenneville, returning next day to our Divisional rest area at Monchy-au-Bois.

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