Open Warfare

The Diary of Capt. Arthur Impey, 79th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

AUGUST 1918 
From Engelbelmer to Flers

August 15

Dined at Ritz with Francis and Newling. To Winchester in morning and motored down to Southampton

August 16

with Dowdall and Horsefield, crossed over about 10.00 p.m, frightful squash on boat.

August 17

Arrived Havre and went up to Harfleur.

August 18

Testing Gas Masks in morning, dinLady Anne Cavendish-Bentincked in Havre with Godsal.

August 19

Left for front with Godsal about 2.00 p.m.

August 20

All day in train

August 21

Arrived Doullens 1.00 a.m. No accommodation and nothing to eat. At 11.00 went to Artillery reception camp, 3rd Army. Boiling hot day.

August 22

Went by lorry to Toutencourt. Found Nigel there with CRA. Arranged to spend the night there. After dinner played poker with Straafer (Staff Capt) and the General. My luck was in and I won 660 francs. Play was pretty hot. The General thought nothing of starting the betting at 250 francs. About the middle of the game I heard the engines of Hun bombing planes. Personally I hate being bombed so I know does the General, so equally did Straafer. I saw they heard too but we all pretended we didn’t. They came nearer and finally there was the familiar crash crash crash crash somewhere fairly near in our end of the village followed by the usual accompaniments of broken glass and flying splinters. We were all in the devil of a funk but had to go on pretending and playing. The best efforts was the General’s, who smiled a sticky smile, betted 100 francs and said ‘I suppose it amuses them’. Play did not stop and our windows were not broken and we played till about 2.00 a.m.

August 23

A very disappointing day, rumours of our attacking near Dernancourt but no news. Swelteringly hot and we lounged in the garden reading and smoking in the shade. The General said he had tried to get the Division relieved as they’d been continuously in action since December but no-one had been sympathetic.In the evening he called me aside and told me there was no vacancy for a Captain so I must go to C.79 as a subaltern. I did not discuss the matter or I hope show how much I felt it but I was damned sick after serving for ….. months in France as a Captain to have to revert. I packed my kit in his car, said Goodbye to Nigel and drove off to Hedauville and there found Willmott, 2nd in command and 2 subalterns with him in the Wagon Line, living quite comfortably in a ruined house.

August 24

Inspected horses in the morning and, findingLady Anne Cavendish-Bentinck them very fit, after lunch rode up to the Battery near Engelbelmer – all was quite peaceful and everybody out so I walked over to C78 to try to find Marshall. On the way I suddenly ran into heavy whiz-bang fire, shells dropping in all directions. It was curious fire not directed at any one spot but a series of salvoes first in one place then in another and all too near to be pleasant. One dropped almost on Marshall’s No 1 Gun and I took cover in a trench near his mess. This fire struck me as being the effort of Battery Commander given a free hand and made me wonder if the Hun was preparing to withdraw and blowing off his last ammunition – it lasted about 20 minutes and when things were fairly quiet I walked on to D Battery where I was told there was a conference. There I found all four BCs with the Colonel in heavy conclave. After about fifteen minutes they broke up and I spoke to them. All four were friends of mine and three had been subalterns when I left the Division 10 months ago. Two of the 4 were faintly hearty, the others polite but distant. This was the price of 10 months in England not my fault. I understood the feeling and it did not depress me. The atmosphere thawed perceptibly with conversation and I found that things were moving…..the Huns appeared to have withdrawn from Authuille. Marshall and Strudwick, early in the morning out reconnoitering and finding no signs of life near the river, had crossed the causeway and started to explore the other side. They penetrated some way with no adventures when they heard something drop, saw a Hun stick bomb on the ground between them, dropped from a trench in a bank above. They ran like hares and just escaped. Seeing two Huns looking over the trench at them, too surprised apparently to fire for no shot followed and the only damage was a small splinter in Strudwick’s thumb. Anyhow it cleared up the point as to whether the Hun was there. Marshall told me that we were to attack at dawn next morning and be prepared for a general advance. On getting back to the Battery I found Jimmy Glover and One, Commanding A and C respectively. They were very friendly. Jimmy gave me orders to come up in the morning by half an hour after dawn, to stay at the Battery and be prepared for anything. So I returned, fixed up a horse for myself, separated out a light fighting ( ) and went to bed early.

August 25

Up half an hour before dawn and as I rode up the Battery with my groom ( ) on his saddle. I heard our barrage being fired and, as usual, when heard from behind, it sounded thin. At the Battery, also as usual, no news at all and no-one with any idea what was going to happen. About 7.00 a.m. 200 prisoners with two officers filed past, a fairly good looking lot, a few were rather badly wounded. At 8.00 a.m. Jimmy went forward to reconnoitre with Ferguson leaving me with instructions to try to get into visual communication with him the other side of the river on the high ground near Thiepval. I went off to the O.P. and there saw all the familiar country Thiepval, the Ancre, Grandcourt, that gave us such hell in Nov.16. I could see our people moving near Thiepval but the position beyond was quite obscure. Shells were bursting on the far ridges but whether ours or Huns it was quite impossible to tell. I got a lamp going and after about half an hour’s winking with it picked our party up on the road near Thiepval but nothing coherent resulted. Bad signallers I supposed so I returned to the Battery and there found an orderly had arrived from Jimmy with instructions to bring a section forward as soon as possible, the whole battery to follow after.

The horses had been sent for about an hour. They turned up in a short time for the section and thanking God I wasn’t a Captain for this day, with the responsibility of getting all the wagon lines and rations across the broken causeway, I pushed on with my two guns and found an Infantry Brigade of our Division just going to cross. Luckily I short-headed them, squeaked across the very doubtful causeway with no casualties (in the matter of vehicles left in the river. There was no shell fire, a distinct lack of imagination on the Huns part) and found quite good going on the road the other side up a steep hill into what was once Thiepval. Nothing remained even of what I knew as the village in Nov.16 except that I thought I recognised the rusty remains of a tank. Ahead I could see a few shells falling in the distance and machine gun fire was audible. I met Jimmy just past the village and he told me to push on as far as I could along the road, find out the position and act as I thought fit, joining Ferguson if I could find him. So on I went past the familiar landmarks of our old battery position in the valley below,the scene of the most unpleasant 6 weeks of my life in Oct-Nov 16. Nothing was changed here except that it was a brilliant summer day and we were advancing into open warfare instead of being knee deep in mud and stuck fighting for the apparently impossible in endless rain with no cover. Certainly now there was a buoyant inspiring feeling in one’s heart that I personally felt for the 2nd time in the war. The first was July 3rd 1916 at Fricourt bLady Anne Cavendish-Bentinckut that soon passed. I found 2 Sections of other batteries with their teams in a hollow about half a mile further along near Mouquet Farm. No one seemed to know anything. Just quite near there was heavy machine gun fire, apparently in our direction. I looked round for a likely position, there were plenty, one could come into action anywhere but no-one knew anything. So I left my horse and pushed along the road on foot. Coming near the crest I saw a gun in action on the side of the road. Machine gun bullets were flying about and I recognised Marshall, glasses to his eyes, standing by his gun, directing the fire. About 1500 yards away, on the high ground east, I saw little groups of men running forward, with shells bursting amongst them, and it dawned on me that this was a counter-attack. About a hundred yards away I saw Ferguson and I found him furious as he had no signalers and so couldn’t get into action. I rushed back, took a horse I found in the road, and galloped back to the section, got them back into a position from which they could clear the crest and packed two signallers off with flags to the place I’d left, returned there on foot, myhorse having disappeared, and got the guns on somehow by a compass and flag signalling and for about 20 minutes had some pretty shooting at Huns running about amongst some buildings about 1500 yards away. They hadn’t any more idea of advancing by now and, as several other guns got going and observation was perfect, the situation was soon weighed up nicely. Things having quietened down I went forward and found that the lumps of earth on the opposite hill, where the Huns were, was Poziers not Courcellette as everyone had thought. The front line infantry were inextricably mixed. The left battalion had crossed right across the centre without knowing it and finished up right. I met the Bde Major there and 3 Battalion Commanders, They told me that the advance was to be continued at dawn. Things were very quiet, a little intermittent shelling, 4.2s and whizzbangs. So I returned to Battery just at dark, finding no rations arrived but the other 4 guns and wagons had, It seemed the causeway we crossed was ruined and had now broken down – an awful muddle but thank God it wasn’t my job, which was to be prepared to push on with the section at dawn. I found a deep shell-hole near the guns and slept in that. Cold but fine, a few Long Navy whizz bangs dropped about 50 yards off but no damage,

August 26

Woke before dawn and found horses just finished watering. Rations arrived at 2.00 a.m. and causeway now fairly passable, eat some bacon and a cup of tea. Orders were Jimmy and ‘I’ to go forward to reconnoitre towards Courcellette and Martinpuich. I had to bring on a section behind. Got on the move about 6.00 a.m. No idea of time after that. As we approached Courcellette a few whizzbangs fell but none very near and there was sharp fire up near the cross roads. As I had no further orders I watered the horses from rain water in shell holes and fed. Then Jimmy came back and said we were to go into action the other side of Courcellette. So we got on the move again. It was brilliantly fine. In what was once the village we found the road blocked and had to halt – a few whizzbangs whizzed overhead and fell about 200 yards over. Then a strange figure appeared clothed in a leather coat and sheepskin boots, an RAF pilot. I gave him a drink from my flask and he told me he had been brought down by 5 Fokkers in no man’s land and had had to run for his life being nearly shot and bayoneted by our own fellows – a fish very much out of water. He looked like a big toy woolly bear in his flying coat and boots paddling down the king’s highway and seemed, as was natural, more than a little dazed but very cheery. We moved on again and found the delay had been caused by a land mine blowing up a vehicle in front, so moved warily. Jimmy had a battery position just east of the village. As we got to it machine gun bullets fairly whizzed in from direction of Martinpuich and there was fairly heavy whizz bang fire just short of us – a few right into us but no casualties. It was an extraordinary position. Flash cover from the right and centre where the bullets came from but on the left fully exposed for miles and no-one had the least idea where the Huns were there. We opened fire first with open sights onto a road near Eaucourt L’Abbye where we could see Huns moving about. As no shell fire came from the left we took it for granted the Huns were scotched there and decided to stay.

Machine gun and whizz bang fire kept on fairly steadily and Jimmy went forward to find Battalion HQ, returning in about 15 mins looking rather white. A whizz bang had missed him by about 2 yards. During the afternoon we kept up intermittent fire on anything we could see and Jimmy went back to establish a new wagon lines. In the evening I went across to Battalion HQ – a hole in an old trench about 150 yards in front – to find out what the orders were. We were to resume attack in the morning. I had to push forward with a section and keep in touch with battalion commander and to join him at dawn. So I returned to the battery and found all 6 guns had arrived and good old Fergie had found a mess in an old gun pit near dug by the Huns. The weather was breaking and some rain fell but we managed to keep it out. Just at dusk the Hun got a section of 8” hows into action. One gun on the cross-roads 300 yards away, the other on the valley behind the village. The old familiar sound, great shells sailing majestically over and like Tennyson’s brook ‘singing’ a quiet tune but ending with crash and upheaval. They left us cold as none came near but it couldn’t have been at all pleasant in the wagon lines.

August 27

Not a very pleasant night, our cover let a lot of rain in and it rained heavily. 8 inch kept going most of the night and I breakfasted an hour before dawn, going over to Battalion HQ directly after. We were to fire a barrage at dawn. At Bn HQ found them very sleepy but happy as a mail had come in. They were wetter than I was as they were practically in an open trench. With the opening of the Barrage a perfect hail of bullets passed over our heads and then, after lasting about half an hour, gradually calmed down. I got a telephone wire over to the battery and kept touch. As usual absolutely no news of what the companies had done – the CO very pessimistic. He had had orders to alter the front of all his companies in the inky darkness and rain of the night and seemed to be afraid that they had never received the actual operation order of the attack which had been sent out late as the runners were hazy about the positions of the new company headquarters, not surprising as they had all moved. Apparently there had been a huge gap between our left and the right of the division on our left, not a very promising start. Hun shell fire not very heavy to begin with and at 8.00 a.m. the CO decided to move about a mile further to the left and further forward, Jimmy rang me up and told me to find a position for 2 forward guns so I moved with the CO and reconnoitred near the crest for a half cock position and doing so ran into a machine gun post of ours. I had to keep low as if you showed your head, Hun machine guns from Martinpuich opened up and made things unpleasant. Eventually I got quite a good position and got the 2 guns up. A few whizzbangs above but no casualties. I opened fire on a road I could see by standing on the Wagon Body, where Huns were moving and scattered them but couldn’t do much good as it was impossible to be sure exactly where our infantry were and there was very little movement visible. About this time a heavy battle opened up on the high ground on our left. Our barrage was plainly visible going over ground which completely dominated us. So evidently for the last 2 days we had been firing in full view of the enemy and not a shot had come from that direction. It showed how disorganised he must be. I watched the infantry going forward and they were met by a very heavy barrage of H.E. shells falling all in amongst them. After a bit they hesitated and, then, came running back with heavy casualties. A most sickening sight. One could not tell what had happened from where I was but it was only fair to suppose that they ran into heavy machine gun fire. About 11 o’clock Jimmy took over my section and I went on to the new battalion HQ in a long trench running towards Eaucourt L’Abbye. For about an hour the Huns had started systematic harassing fire and he did it extraordinarily well. Each spasm took about 20 minutes and the whole area occupied by the Division was covered with searching fire. 4 shells would come in, then four more, a hundred yards further on, then more left, then short, like slow waves proceeding purposely forward but always leaving in doubt where the next group would fall.

It was very harassing indeed and as these waves approacLady Anne Cavendish-Bentinckhed us we cowered down in the shallow trench pretending to be amused (rather unsuccessfully) and hoping for the best. Some fell very near but we had no casualties in our party. The position in front was very obscure. One thing was certain the entire left of my battalion had been held up by MG fire and was stuck but company commanders were not really certain what the front line was and undoubtedly some map references were given wrong. About 2.00 p.m. the Infantry Brigadier came down to see us and a pow wow took place resulting in arrangements for an attack at 5.30 p.m. with heavy bombardment of the old huts and stables in front of Eaucourt L’Abbye where the MGs were. These orders did not affect me beyond passing them back but looking towards the front (a ridge was between us and the front line) I was astounded to see a battery coming into action at least 1000 yards in front of us on this ridge and only a few hundred yards behind what must have been the front line. So thinking they could never receive the orders in time I went across to see them and told them of the attack. ‘1’ and old Tim were there and got frightfully keen. They were so close up that they couldn’t clear the crest at the short range. And so we got a gun and ran it forward by hand to the top of the crest, to fire open sights when the barrage opened, which it did just as we’d got the gun up and enough ammunition to serve it. ‘1’and I got in a shell-hole from which we could see the whole show a few hundred yards away and below us. The bombardment was pretty thick and well in amongst the huts and stables, blowing them all ways. But not a sign of a Hun was there nor could we see our fellows going forward as the barrage lifted but heavy machine gun fire was coming from somewhere quite close in front. Suddenly, looking to the right, I saw a very pretty sight, 2 companies of our fellows were running across the open with the evident intention of getting round behind the stables when the Huns there would be trapped. They ran forward well spread out in short bursts of 50 yards or so and then dropped down and took cover in shell holes, of which there were lots. Several machine guns were on them and you could see the dust from the bullets spraying up all round their feet. But I never saw them get a single casualty. Looking through my glasses at the ground in front I searched the stables and all around them but not a sign of a Hun could I see. So I looked further back and got really excited for I saw a Hun machine gun crew serving their gun in what looked like a shallow trench about 200 yards behind the stables. I rushed to ‘1’ but he couldn’t see them so he handed over another gun he’d got further forward to me and told me to carry on. The gun was in a sunken road and the bank just got in the way of the target so I had a few shots at the bank first about 50 yards away, blew a chunk of it out, and then with 1000 yards range on, had a shot at the Huns whom I could still see clearly. The first went about 20 yards right but they were good-plucked ones and took no notice. The second hit the bank just under the gun and shifted it a bit. That made them think and they disappeared in the trench. The third hit the far side of the trench, plumb for line, an H.E., and it must have done some damage but couldn’t see clearly for smoke and dust. But just afterwards I saw 2 men scrambling out of the trench and running to cover. They disappeared before I could get one in at them but certainly one machine gun the less was firing. The 2 companies by now had got forward and were right behind the stables so the position was well in hand and it was simply a matter of time for all the high ground in front to be ours. Excitement cooled down and I went back to my Colonel in the trench running through nasty shell fire on the way and told him things were going all right. And presently he got reports from his company commanders that they were able to go forward so we had a drink and dinner on the strength of it feeling a lot better. Just as it got dark my relieving officer came down with a telephone wire and he looked like having an uncomfy night in the trench as no doubt he did. I got back to the battery, finding them at dinner – broiled steak and onions – so I said nothing about my first dinner and eat another, turned in and slept like a top. They told me in the morning that the wagon lines the night before had had a dirty time, 8 inch all in amongst them and they had to scatter and trust to luck which served them well as they had no casualties but the batteries near them had 3 or 4 teams knocked out and lost some men as well.

August 28

A fine morning. It appeared that we had pushed forward on the right and now hold High Wood and Delville Wood but the left was still holding us up so Jimmy went forward to find out the situation and sent back a message to get the teams up and go forward to a new position. Teams came up and off we went through Martinpuich and over the next crest where a few shells were falling. Our luck held and nothing untoward occurred and we soon got the teams back and the guns in action. It was my day with the battery and things were fairly quiet so I poked round and found a little dug out for a mess and 3 Nissen huts for the men quite close to the battery. A few of our dead lay about, killed the day before. This place had been an old Hun Artillery HQ and we picked up a lot of their orders. By evening we had settled comfortably in and Fergie had gone forward and registered the battery on parts of Flers. Just as we were going to have dinner the Huns opened up

a tear gas bombardment and the wind blew it across to us and made things unpleasant. The shells were falling about 300 yards away at first but he shifted for some perverse reason of his own and got right into the centre of the battery.

All the men were there in little shelters they had made. We were about 100 yards away and, after 3 or 4 rounds had dropped right in amongst them, they all ran for it. 4.2. direct action aren’t to be sneezed at and 3 were hit as they ran. Not badly – they managed to limp off all right. The 4.2s kept on about 4 to the minute and we sat apprehensively wondering where the next would fall. Then one got some ammunition and the camouflage caught fire, going up with a blaze. Jimmy and I looked at each other wondering when the point would come when we felt we must run in and try and put it out. Mercifully it went out quite quickly and shortly after the shelling ceased or rather shifted further forward. We went out to count the damage which was practically nil - a few rounds burnt and the guns only splintered and telephone wires cut. In the telephone hut we found a lone signaller sitting as cheerful as be damned. He’d stayed there as he said ‘because the others ran away’. A very good gutted lad. It couldn’t have been nice sitting in the middle of it with only a piece of corrugated iron between oneself and a 4.2. The rest of the night was fairly quiet but they kept on tear shelling just in front pretty consistently and about 9.00 Nigel and Dick (?) came in to see us. It seemed CRA had established themselves with Infantry Bde HQ a few hundred yards in front and were right in the thick of it with no cover. We cheered them up with drinks and they departed and presently we turned in and slept.

August 29

A quiet day at battery. Our left had been pushed forward and the division on left were reported in Le Barque and Ligny Thilloy. So we expected to move forward again next day. Firing at intervals all day and steadily all night. Harassing fire on the valleys behind the Hun front line.

August 30

About 9.00 a.m. we got orders to move forward. Jimmy went forward to reconnoitre and presently I got orders from him to come on with the battery and meet him at a map reference near Flers. I tried to keep to the roads as they weren’t being shelled and came by Eaucourt L’Abbye crossroads, the scene of our MG stunt two days before. Here I took a wrong turning and found myself on high ground with the road rapidly becoming a track. I thought something must be wrong and, seeing some infantry, asked who they were – the front line battalion of the division on our left. Not very comforting as I realised I had the whole battery in line of march in full view of the enemy, and the fact that we were not shelled, when we ought to have been wiped out, speaks volumes for the disorganisation he must have been in. I turned right about and trotted back, blessing my luck. I hit the right road well under cover and pushed on. We met a stretcher party and heard they were carrying Morgan of B Battery badly hit. I left the Battery with Fergie as soon as the road was obvious and, trotting on to the rendezvous,found Jimmy and we dismounted and went forward to find an OP. The Battery position was quite obvious in the valley running NE from Flers and quite close to the village which I saw for the first time. I once saw the church in August 16 and registered it from Longueval windmill. Now there remained only a few mounds and bricks covered with tangled weeds. We walked up to the crest and got a very fine view. Gueudecourt just below us, Le Transloy in front in the distance and on the right Sailly-Saillises, Morval and Les Boeufs, all familiar places seen and hated in the winter of 16 – like fools we pulled out our maps to (?) the country and promptly within 30 seconds came Fizz Bang and a shell dropped about 15 yards over and exact for line. We ran like hares for the trench a few yards in front and scrambled along it to get out of the way of the next one which came all right but we were nicely clear – a lucky escape as we found that Morgan and another officer had been caught in exactly the same way and very badly wounded. But we were damned fools and ought to have known better. We returned to the Position and the Battery soon came up. I went up to our OP with a telephone wire to do some shooting. Meeting Nigel on the way, mounted, looking for his people who were somewhere in front. I warned him not to ride over the ridge and he told me after that he escaped that only to run into a 5.9 in Gueudecourt a few minutes after. No damage but he said it dropped within 15 yards. Arrived at the OP. I found it well occupied. Gus, John and Parry were there and we had some pretty shooting at Huns running in and out of huts in Le Transloy. The Hun, meantime, frightening us with nasty black 4.2 air bursts over our heads, bursting like thunderclaps but well in the air as usual. They did no damage and the worst thing about them was the noise. Directly in front of us, about 400 yards, was a group of huts and Hun stables, evidently occupied by one of our HQs. I could see no tabs amongst them. Suddenly the Huns opened up on them and for half an hour let fly with everything he had – whizzbangs and 4.2s. It must have been exceedingly unpleasant. Afterwards I found that our CRA staff were there and did have a damned nasty time. When things cooled down they moved to a trench behind. Having registered the battery and done a bit of shooting, I went back to the battery and had a fairly quiet night. We slept in a corrugated iron shelter. The Huns had a high velocity gun on all night dropping shells about 50 yards on our left but he never shifted his line and we were fairly happy and slept well.

August 31

A quiet day, examined the country round and found a lot of dead Huns blown to bits, evidently killed by our fire from our last positions.

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Copyright Alan Tucker, February, 2009.

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