DIARY NOVEMBER 1918
From Poix du Nord through
the Forest of Mormal
to Limont Fontaine via the River Sambre
Orders came in during the morning that we were to reconnoitre new positions, the ones we chose not giving sufficient range for the attack as now projected. The new positions had to be somewhere in front of Poix du Nord. We had an early lunch and W, Robert and I once more went out together on foot, with our retainers. It was easy going up to the high ground N of Poix and fairly quiet. The cross roads W of the town (the normal route for ammunition) was being shelled by 5.9s all the time as always so we reconnoitred a route to miss the town and found one going over the fields, which led to a temporary bridge the sappers had thrown over the stream, a bit of luck. Arrived at possible positions the east side of the town. Things didn't look so bad. There was a saucer-shaped plateau, apparently not under observation, about 1000 yards wide by 600 broad, with a road running across the south east corner with 2 small apple orchards on the road side. It hadn't been shelled much and we made first for the orchards, only to find a Gunner subaltern on guard. There was nothing doing. A 21st Division battery had collared that particular site. A few hundred yards away there was a collection of shallow pits dug by the Huns for machine gunners with a nice bit of grass near, good for gun platforms. So we went over to investigate, attracted by the cover and had just decided on that when a salvo of whizz bangs came over right in the middle of us. We dived for cover, luckily no-one was hit, and had to lie close for 10 minutes or more whilst shells dropped all round of us. Very unpleasant and it decided me against taking that place as some Infantry told us it was a regular hate spot. As soon as the air cleared we retired a little and continued our search and finally settled on a position on the reverse slope.
The ground was rather soft but there were no very recent shell holes and I marked a position for each gun and erected a notice board. The position was about 1000 yards north east of Poix du Nord. We returned through the orchards leaving the town well on our left. Just as we got to the orchards the Huns started putting down one of their 'Crashes' on the town. Shells came streaming in, mostly falling in the town, but far too many where we were. We were very uncomfortable and ran for any shelter we could find, 4.2s and 5.9s bursting all round us. I found a hole dug into a bank facing the right way and curled up in that, hoping for the best. After about 5 minutes gas shells started dropping pretty thickly in the field my bank was facing.3 fell within a few yards of me and I decided it wasn't good enough to stay so shouted to the rest and ran for it. 400 yards done in fairly good time took us out of the danger zone and the incident was ended but we were all glad to be clear of the precincts of the town. On return I went over to W's mess in the tent and
played bridge till dinner.
Fairly quiet night, usual harassing fire all round us, no damage. The battery next door had a team knocked out bringing up ammunition. As we had to get up 3000 rounds of ammunition to the new position by night I sent E, the new subaltern, up to the position with a working party to dig some shelter pits for the men and superintend the job of getting in ammunition. I was kept busy all day keeping the teams going. It was a stiff job, all the stuff had to be carted 3 1/2 miles and the going was very heavy where we took to the fields to avoid the roads which were being shelled all the time. E came in after dark with his party, he'd had bad luck for his first day in action, 2 men wounded and one killed. The Huns had shelled the place all day, off and on. It must have been very nasty.
Preliminary orders came in for the attack to take place 5.30 a.m. the next morning and we were to be prepared to move forward at 10 o'clock and take up positions just on the edge of the forest. It looked like being sticky. At midday I got an order to transfer over to command A'Battery, Mac taking over his old battery again as was natural, but it made me a Captain once more as '1', though commanding the Brigade was still really Major of A. I arranged the transfer with Irving who went back to 'B' and took over during the afternoon. About 4 o'clock we got the teams up and moved forward to the new positions without incident. I arranged with N to share the round Machine gun pit in the brickyard I had found a week before as a mess, as it was still unoccupied and only 150 yards behind the position 'A' battery had taken up, which was about 200 yards on the left of the position I had chosen for C'. We settled in and waited for the detailed orders of the attack. It was an unpleasant evening, heavy shelling all round and heavy rain. Our cover leaked and there was only just room for the 5 of us to sit in our well-like mess and eat dinner. There was just room for W and myself to lie down. The others had dug themselves shelters in the banks of the brickyard. I didn't sleep and at midnight orders came in. It took me an hour and a half to write my own out, a feature being that I had to send forward an officer with a section as soon as possible after daylight in close support of the infantry. So I detailed H for this and sent an orderly down to the wagon lines with an order for teams to be up by dawn.
I then again tried to sleep but this time I was stopped by frogs of
all things. The floor of the pit was alive with frogs. How they found their
way in heaven only knows but they kept arriving. Every minute one or two
would fall with a plop on the floor and we couldn't keep pace with them.
There must have been over a hundred in our 6 ft diameter hole by 3 o'clock,
crawling all over us. Then there was another disturbance, a figure lifted
up the corner of the cover letting in gallons of water that had accumulated
on the roof, apologised and slipped down the steps. It was the adjutant of
an infantry battalion just arrived and was waiting there till the time arrived
for them to pass through, the battalion actually doing the first phase of
the attack. They had nowhere to shelter and he asked me 'if I knew anywhere'.
Of course there was nothing to do but ask him and his Colonel to join us.
Poor devils they had a much worse job than we had and the wretched battalion
were up above getting what shelter they could in the brickfield. They had
marched 4 miles in the dark and rain. Not one would get any sleep and heaven
knew where they would finish up the next day. The Colonel came in and we
chatted over the prospects of success., No-one doubted that we should go
forward but we all hated the idea of the forest. By some my serious process
the Colonel's cooks got to work with ours and by 4 o'clock produced tea.
We put some rum into it and felt better. Mathieson was with the guns for
the actual firing of the barrage. I went out at Zero hour and saw the start.
Very heavy firing but you couldn't see a yard as there was a heavy mist and
it was pitch dark. A good deal of heavy stuff was falling fairly near but
nothing right into us so I went back and waited for daylight and information.
Our wire to Brigade Headquarters was cut in a few minutes. Before I knew
it 2 men had gone out to mend it. The tradition of unbroken communications
had always been high in A battery.
Just as dawn was breaking I went over towards the battery to have a look round and met Hollingworth. He looked, upset and told me that Mathieson and 5 out of the 6 Nos 1 in charge of the guns had been wounded and 4 men from the detachments too, pretty bad. We could only just manage to carry on. I was astounded. I had been within 150 yards of the battery all the time and never knew they were being shelled even. There was so much row from the batteries behind and all round us that you couldn't tell the difference between the sound of our guns and Hun shells. I went straight over to the battery, almost losing my way en route. You couldn't see a yard because of the thick mist. There I found everyone most cheerful. Mathieson with a broad grin on his face told me he had a splinter through his arm. 3 of the Nos 1,rather badly hit, were lying on stretchers waiting to be carried away. The other 2, hit in the arms and legs, refused to leave till the barrage was over and were carrying on, patched up with bandages . The men had been evacuated already. Above all was Sergeant Matthews, absolutely unperturbed, thoroughly enjoying himself, going from gun to gun, giving what help he could, inspiring all the gunners by the very obvious fact that he didn't care a damn what happened and on the whole rather liked things. Shells were facing all over the place, mostly just short of us, big stuff and small. All the damage had been done in a short time when the heaviest shelling had dwelt right on top of the battery. They had never stopped firing thanks to Mathieson and Sergeant Matthews and we were extraordinarily lucky to have got out of it with guns intact and no-one killed.
As soon as I had sorted things out a bit I went back to the mess, sent a messenger to Brigade saying I couldn't manage a forward section as I was so much reduced in strength, having only one sergeant and one officer left, and sent a man to the wagon line to get some more men up as we couldn't move as we were. The mist started drifting away in patches and one could see what the shelling was 8 inch and 5.9s landing with a wicked clang just in front and on the left and a beastly stink of gas coming from Poix on our right which was being very heavily shelled.. '1 and Mac turned up and it seemed we'd all had a pretty thin time. Brigade had had a gas shell smack into the room they were sitting in and had managed to escape to the cellar without casualties. Mac, on my right in the position I had chosen myself, had had 2 men killed and several others wounded and had almost been wiped out himself by a shell that landed at his side and miraculously left him untouched. I arranged with Mac and W that we should go forward together to reconnoitre forward positions and we set off about 7 o'clock, after having eaten a scrap of breakfast, leaving our batteries still firing hard. It wasn't nice and I for my part had the wind up very badly from that time on. 5.9s were falling fairly regularly just where we had to go. The only nice thing was that the sun appeared at intervals through the mist and it looked like being a fine day. As a matter of fact we were very lucky.
As we went forward to places that had been shelled right up to the time we got there it seemed to cease and start right or left of us and we got advanced quite a mile and a half right up to our front line of the early morning before we halted to have a look round. It was a good rendezvous and we sent a messenger back to tell our respective batteries to come forward to that place at 10 o'clock if they heard nothing to the contrary. There was no sign of our infantry ,only a few dead near the line of rifle pits that had served as a front line. In front of us were enclosed orchards for about a quarter of a mile and then the forest. The shelling was very heavy just in front and we were supposed to come into action by 11 oclock (about a mile and half left from where we were) on the outskirts of the village of Futoy, just on the edge of the forest. We pushed cautiously on and got as far as the main road on the edge of the forest when the shelling became so heavy that we came back again a few hundred yards as we had time up our sleeves. We then selected temporary positions in the orchards in case we could get no further. Just as I had selected a nice place who should appear but my old friend Wood of the 21st Division whom I had disputed positions with before. He grinned and showed me his orders. I had to admit we were right in the middle of the Zone allotted to him. There was nothing for it but to go on again. Up to this point I had felt worse than I ever remembered feeling before. I had been sick with fear and felt perfectly certain that we were going to land into something much more horrid than usual, but from now on I felt much better - the sun helped I think.
We started off following a road that led to Englefontaine and then as
it went too far right cut across country making for the middle of the
village. Machine gun fire broke out far overhead and I made out silvery
planes far above the clouds, circling round like swallows. Two toppled down,
hit hard, one breaking into flames, the other fell like a leaf, slipping
first one way then another. lt came through the clouds. I made it out to
be one of ours and it fell about a mile north of us. Bad luck. The rest
disappeared from sight and hearing, still fighting. Englefontaine was smashed
up badly. We passed apprehensively along the street. The village looked like
a City of the Plain. There was absolute silence and not a soul in sight,
a few houses were burnt out and smouldering, the street littered with bricks
and bits of broken houses from shells, a few dead bodies lay at the corners,
the whole place stank of shell gas and Huns. lt seemed to be waiting for
anything worse that could happen to it. From the Forest beyond came the sound
of machine-gun fire and a few shells from behind the noise of our guns. We
hurried on, glad to be out of it, and, arriving at the edge of the forest,
found a sullen group of prisoners with a single guard at the edge of a huge
crater, quite 30 ft deep, which had been blown at the crossroads. This we
passed and followed the main road, all blocked with trees cut down by shell-fire.
We kept close to the ditch and hopped in once or twice to dodge a few stray
shells which pitched very close indeed.
About a mile up the road we found our objective and here it was fairly
quiet. We made a rapid reconnaissance and finding suitable positions hurried
back across country, finding a path which it was just possible to get guns
along. The way back was not without incident. Once, 2 Hun planes came over
very low, firing at anything they saw and we hid in a ditch whilst bullets
whistled round. Then two of our planes came over, low down, a welcome sight,
until they dropped bombs in the next field, A little mistake due no doubt
to the rapid advance, but we didn't like it, nor did a fat old Brigadier
who was forcing his horse along the tree strewn road, especially as, on his
first taking alarm, having seen the markings I had assured him it was all
right as they were ours. The Battery was at the rendezvous, so was my horse,
and we pushed along back, finding the road very bad and now full of Infantry
traffic. We got in all right and into action in an orchard by 11.30. Hostile
shell fire had entirely died away, evidently a general retreat. We opened
fire,on our orders, in ? of a sort of barrage of the forest roads, and after
lunch, I got on my horse and went forward again to find out the position.
I went quite 3 miles on, into the Forest, finding the roads good and the
only sign of hostility an occasional rifle shot in the distance. Of battery
positions there were any amount so as we were ordered not to advance further
that day, I returned to report, passing on the way 2 Hun batteries abandoned
during the morning. Our HQ, were in Putoy and I found them sharing a billet
with Torrence of the Lancashire Fusiliers, and everyone very cheery after
a successful day with not too heavy casualties. I took a whisky and soda
and tea off them. Orders came in to continue the advance right through the
forest starting an hour before dawn. It was now dark. So I returned to find
the whole wagon line with the guns and Old Tim getting a tent pitched, in
which we dined and slept in greater peace and comfort than for many nights.
A clear, fine, cold night.
Up before dawn and pushed on on horseback with H and a staff of 4 mounted signallers, leaving orders for the battery to follow on and rendezvous at the position in the forest I had found the night before. Arrived at the position. I found all quiet, so pushed on along the forest roads to Locquignol. There in a large house, called the Foresters Institute, I found Infantry Brigade Headquarters. I went in and found a dirty, unshaven old Brigadier breakfasting off whisky and soda, tea and bacon and eggs. I had some of each and he told me the situation. Our infantry were beyond Locquignol and meeting little or no opposition. Artillery support was not needed at the moment but might be, so I pushed on again, sending back to the battery to come on as far as Locquignol, there to await orders. The village had hardly been touched at all and was full of people. At the east end a huge crater had been blown just at a stream and it was quite impossible to get guns along till it was bridged. So as there was a road to the right I took that and, making a detour of about 3 miles through the forest, joining up with the main road again. There was practically no shell fire. Evidently the Huns were in full retreat and yesterday morning was a great victory.
I was now on the main Tete-Noir road and it was full of traffic, Infantry
limbers of the 38th division, and I could only just get along. Finally all
the traffic came to a standstill and I had to push my way through as
best I could. The sound of heavy shells falling straight ahead sounded ominous
and perhaps accounted for the block which got worse and worse, double and
treble, ? 2 miles of traffic jammed tight and a disgrace to the
people in charge of it. Finally I came to the cause of it all, an enormous
crater, 20 yards wide, just at the edge of the forest, marshy ground and
thick forest each side, and no possibility of getting anything on wheels
either through or round. A few Sapper officers were looking sadly at it but
no-one was doing anything. 8 inch shells from a long range gun were
falling about 2 hundred yards to the left. By the grace of God it was
misty and raining with low clouds - if the Hun planes had had a chance of seeing that road blocked with traffic, there would have been some nasty sights. I managed to get round on my horse and onto the open road the other side. Just in front lay the village of Tete Noir. Shells were falling at the far end of the village. I took a road leading to the left and about a quarter of a mile along,at a group of houses, found Mac and One who had got in before me. They told me they had seen Infantry Brigade and that we should probably stay there that night so I sent H back to find a way round the crater, and bring the battery up by taking a road that according to the map led far north and then joined the main road, east of Locquignol.
That settled I looked round for a battery position and, as a first step, a comfortable billet. I soon found a house, occupied by a young couple of about 30, very nice people and they made us welcome. There was a good field for the battery with water not 200 yards away so all was well. I sat down to a meal of potato stew and hot coffee, in a comfy room out of the rain and felt much comforted. The battery arrived in about 2 hours, as the road to the north turned out to be all right, and, besides Mac's lot, we were the only people who got through. H reported the road packed solid almost back to Locquignol and everyone likely to spend the night there. We got the battery in and put the horses in the next field, the farrier sergeant in charge of them, so much were we reduced by our casualties. The men were very cheerful in spite of the rain. Shells were falling and made a lot of noise but they were half a mile away, and, in less than an hour, little bivouacs had sprung up all along the hedge, fires were lighted, fed with chopped up railway sleepers and everyone was perfectly happy. We sat down to tea with the man and his wife, whom our house belonged to and had a long talk with them. They told us the Huns had told them for over a week that the English would soon come and only the night before had blown up the railway bridge about 100 yards away. All night long, the night before, guns and traffic had been streaming back along the main road and what they described sounded very much like a rout. They told us that the previous winter there had been a British prisoners camp quite close.
The men had been used for cutting timbers in the forest. Every day they
had been marched to work and they were so badly fed that often men fell out
and could not walk. Many died and the local people, in spite of heavy penalties,
managed to feed some of them with potatoes and apples. We were the first
English that these people had spoken to, so what we heard was a plain unvarnished
tale of what they had seen themselves, unprompted by newspaper articles.
The only paper they had seen was the Gazette des Ardennes which had represented
the Huns as always winning and the British as never having won a victory.
Fed on that they had given up hope. As shells were still falling not far
off our hosts decided to spend the night in a neighbouring cellar with many
others and on this subject I gave them I am afraid not wholly disinterested
advice as I had their bed to sleep on. Before turning in I went across to
see 'One at his headquarters, not 200 yards away. It seemed that the
21st Division had relieved our Infantry and everything was rather confused.
The infantry were hung up at Berlamont but no exact information could be
got from anywhere and no orders could be obtained for us. One telephone line
only had penetrated this side of the Forest. We were the only Artillery that
had got through but the situation was too obscure to use us so we had another
night in peace.
Raining hard and no news or orders till 1 p.m. when orders came to reconnoitre new positions just short of Berlamont and move in ready to fire by 4 p.m. So I went forward with Mac and W through the village, very little damaged, and after a long search I found a nice clean, grass field with a good hedge for the guns but no shelter for anyone but a bye road went right alongside so I sent back for the battery. R ain was coming down solid as if poured out of a watering can. Visibility was very bad. Berlamont Church could just be seen through the mist and rain and I laid out my lines of fire on that. The battery got up by 3 o'clock and we proceeded to dig ourselves in. I was cold so took a hand. For the mess we dug a hole 8 ft by 6ft by 2 ft deep and with a tarpaulin propped over as a roof. It was quite comfy when finished. All this time Berlamont was being very heavily shelled and as it got dark the shelling increased, making an awful row. Fortunately for us it stopped at the village and very little came our way till about 7 p.m when for a quarter of an hour shells suddenly started dropping all round us and we lay close, but as usual were lucky and got no casualties. Brigade headquarters had shifted to Tete-Noir and about 9 p.m just as we had finished dinner (beef steak and whisky and soda ,cooked in the rain) orders came in for a barrage at 5 a.m on the high ground the other side of the river to be followed by an advance if the situation permitted. So I worked out the orders and turned in about 11 o'clock. Berlamont was still being heavily shelled and the noise was awful. Crash, crash, crash, each house picking up the echoes, but soon fell asleep and slept well till 5 o'clock when we fired the barrage.
My horses came up at 7 and as there was little shelling in front I went forward mounted with Hollingworth,Wilmot of 'B' battery, a sergeant and 3 signallers - leaving orders for the battery to limber up and be ready to move directly the barrage was finished. lt was misty but not raining. We got to Berlamont without difficulty by taking by roads, the main road had two huge craters in it and was quite impassable.The town wasn't so badly smashed up by the shelling of the night before as I had expected. The main street was quite passable but smelt horribly of gas. A few miserable frightened inhabitants were coming out of their cellars, still too shaken to look happy at deliverance, and one or two dead horses lay in the streets and gave the whole scene a most forlorn appearance. I found the way down to the river, the Sambre, a strong broad stream. The bridges, of course, had been smashed, but the sappers had got a pontoon bridge going and we crossed over it. I took off my hat to the sappers who had put that bridge up through all the shelling of the night before, a dammed fine performance. All was quiet ahead, evidently the Huns had slipped away again - they must have been in bad straits to let us across that river without serious fighting the only traffic so far was a few infantry supply limbers so I sent Hollingworth back ventre a terre to get the battery across the bridge before the rush of traffic made things impossible, arranging a rendezvous just short of Aulnoye. I meanwhile pushed on through Aulnoye which our shelling of this morning had smashed about a bit and into the open country beyond.
One little scene I shall always remember in Aulnoye. A fat old French woman, standing on a ladder, which was leaning against a sign written in German, at the entrance to a Hun soldiers Cinema Theatre. She had a hammer in her hands and was viciously smashing it to bits. As we trotted by she looked up with a smile of pure mischief and joy. The expression on her face conveyed everything you could imagine, a patriotic old woman feeling and she felt it with all that was in her. About 2 miles further on we saw Bachant on the rising ground and, as we approached it, heard the sound of machine gun fire and an occasional whizz-bang coming from the mists beyond the village. The village itself was scarcely touched, only a few tiles removed, and the streets were full of civilians flocking curiously round the few Tommies who were there and waving to us as we entered. In the square I found Mac and One who had got through ahead of us. They had just seen the Infantry Brigadier who was in a house at the far end of the village. It seemed the infantry were hung up somewhere west of Limont-Fontaine. None of the 21st Div. Gunners had got through and they wanted support. We had a small council of war and arranged to come into action as soon as the batteries could be got up,somewhere west of the village. So I sent my sergeant back to our rendezvous to guide up the battery and went back to my horses to look for a position, a nice billet for ourselves and the men.
As I walked back I saw a little group approaching which turned out to
be 20 or 30 seedy looking Huns who had been found sleeping in cellars, evidently
deserters, guarded by 3 or 4 Tommies. They were an evil looking lot and civilians
crowded round, peering and hooting. The women were especially angry. They
had suffered one supposed and one went up and spat at them. That set them
going. Many more did the same and they shouted and booed and pressed round.
The Huns looked frightfully scared and with some reason. I'm sure if the
guard hadn't been there they would have been killed. Seeing a nice looking
house I went in with Willmot and we thought it would make a good billet with
good outhouses and stables. The people seemed friendly and we were just fixing
things up when the first shell arrived, smack into the middle of the square
just outside. That made us reconsider the position and as it was followed
by several more we cleared out and got on our horses to look for more healthy
quarters outside the village. Not a soul was left in the streets as we trotted
out with the crash, crash of shells behind is. Just clear of the village
I found a nice field that would do for the guns with a good farmhouse within
50 yards so I settled on that, chalked A.79 on the gate, "pour decourager
les autres" and in a short time Hollingworth arrived with the battery close
on his heels. He'd had a devil of a job to get across the bridge as I'd expected
and had done well to get through. Our 4 batteries were the only ones to get
across till night.
Just as the battery came in sight shells started falling right and left of us, much too near to be pleasant and one driver was hit but we got them in all right. Sergeant Matthews ,now in charge, was splendid as usual, getting all 6 guns in action in less than a minute, as requested by the Infantry and we opened a slow rate of fire on the outskirts of Limont-Fontaine. Map shooting! - the fog was much too thick to see anything. Everything being now fixed up I turned my attention to the billet and found a very respectable woman in possession of the place, which was a small farm. She was the wife of a Sergeant Major in the French Army, she told me, and had not heard a word of him since the beginning of the War. Coffee, fresh bread and fresh butter she produced at once and the subalterns coming in one by one, we had a good meal. She told us with pride how she had hidden 3 cows in the cellar for the last month so that the Huns had not driven them off as they had everyone else's. All the time shells were dropping fairly near, 2 or 5 within 50 yards, and, as there was a cellar, I recommended her to go into it but she said she was a soldier's wife and what was good enough for us was good enough for her. It was the first time she had been under shellfire and I couldn't help thinking that experience would have made her wiser but I did admire her spirit - she never went down all day. I went out to make sure the battery was all right just in time to see a shell fall within 10 yards of No.1 gun - not a man moved and when I talked to them they were all as cheerful as be dammed.
All the time the village was being very heavily shelled and shells were falling all round and behind us. Traffic on the road had ceased. Willmot came to join me as I had a better house than he had. We talked things over and agreed to sit tight till the situation became rather less obscure. I went out again to have a look end saw a solitary figure approaching on horseback. He dismounted at my gate and asked me if 79HQ were at hand, telling me he was Brigade Major 21st Div Artillery. I told him they were in the middle of the village. He considered, looked with me at the way there, shells falling crash, crash, crash crash - then at his horse, one of the best I ever saw in France. Then he said "I've had this horse all through the war and I don't want to lose him. 'Do you think its worth risking to ride through". I replied "No, I don't. Too much risk. If you've got to go, leave him with me and we'll look after him". So he left him and walked on right into the middle of it. Its pleasant to be able to record instances like that of the staff, taking all the risks, and, cheerfully, when they think they've got to. I liked that fellow. Later things quietened down a bit and Mollet, our Adjutant came with some orders for firing and he explained the situation a bit. lt seemed that One' had acted in excess of his orders in getting us across the river in the morning and in consequence no-one behind had known where we were. Messages 'One' had sent back on the one line of field telephone had never reached Artillery Headquarters so the Brigade Major had come up 'to find out for himself what had happened'. As we were the only artillery across the river everyone was glad we were there but had been anxious as to what had happened to us. In the meantime we had to fire a barrage for the 21st Div. at 5 o'clock and get filled up with ammunition ready to move forward again at dawn as the 17th (our own) Infantry were relieving the 21st Div at 10 p.m I had already sent an orderly back to our wagon lines to guide up rations and 12 loads of ammunition as we had dumped all we had brought with us and fired a good deal. So there was nothing more to be done but fire the barrage and wait, hoping for the best.
We ate a good dinner and turned in, lying on mattresses the Huns had laid out the night before in the sitting room of our house. All the evening troops were passing, marching past in platoons, the familiar sound of a relief, and all the evening shells fell up and down the road outside but so far as I could make out there were no casualties and my own men were very comfy in a big barn, not 50 yards from the guns. About 11 o'clock the farrier Sergeant , who was still in charge of the advanced wagon lines, which I had put about half a mile behind, came up to report all well in the wagon lines, the wounded driver evacuated, but no signs of rations. He was a good fellow to come up into all our unpleasantness without orders, and it was the first time I had ever seen him without a smile, visible for miles, I chaffed him at that and the smile came all right. He was one of the best and I gave him a good stiff whisky to send him home. About 1 a.m. the Sergeant Major appeared with the rations and 11 loads of ammunition.
He had lost one load at the pontoon bridge where he said there was appalling confusion. He had lost one wagon which got stuck with 2 wheels over the edge and the Traffic Officer had tried to shoot the team straight off to avoid delay but hed managed to get him to let him get the horses unhooked, so had saved, them but the wagon went into the driver. The traffic officer he said was standing there, revolver in hand, shooting all the teams that blocked the bridge and I gathered the impression that the river was full of dead horses and abandoned ammunition wagons. Exaggerated no doubt but it was very comforting to get ammunition and rations for another 24 hours and the BSM had done well as usual; he had a good stiff one and I sent him back with orders to get all the wagon lines our side of the river first thing in the morning and to warn all our firing battery teams to be up with us at dawn. About 2 a.m. orders came in to reconnoitre forward at dawn and be prepared to occupy positions as far forward East of the village as we could get.
Shelling the road and village continued all night but we got no casualties and by dawn it slackened. At 7 o'clock I went forward reconnoitring with Wilmot and a battery staff, mounted. We passed through the village which had been knocked about a lot during the night and looked pathetic after it.. We crossed the railway and explored the open country beyond A few shells were falling but very scattered. One of the 21st Div batteries in action in a field by the railway had had a bad time, a dozen or so of dead horses lying round the position. There were plenty of good positions and we selected one about a mile forward in a little hollow by a copse just off the road. Some infantry limbers were close to and, as an afterthought, I asked the drivers what it was like there and they told me the spot I had chosen had been shelled regularly every quarter of an hour and sure enough as we were talking a 4.2 dropped right in the middle of it so I moved back a bit and selected another site on a side road with a good bank to get under for cover. We then went back and found orders to move forward at once. Our infantry were in Limont Fontaine and were hung up on the Maubeuge - Avesnes road. We were to support an attack to take place some time after noon. The teams were all up and we moved forward, getting the last team clear of the railway crossing, just before they started shelling it heavily.
I get the guns ready to fire, with the teams 200 yards behind, and had just begun feeding the horses and giving the men dinner when orders came in to move forward again to a position east of Limont Fontaine, 2 miles further on. It didn't sound nice but I got on old Hector and went forward with Tim who had just arrived having got all the wagon line the right side of the river, a good bit of work as there was still only the pontoon bridge. We followed the road and came onto high ground which must have been under direct observation ,but the Hun must have been rattled as we weren't shelled and, presently, we saw Limont Fontaine, quite a big village, on a little hill in front of us, with high ground beyond. The village was being shelled and didnt look nice but, as the position I was ordered to was well east of it, we pushed on and up the hill getting onto the higher ground in some orchards, to see what we could see. The village a few hundred yards ahead was being shelled nastily and from just beyond came the sound of heavy machine gun fire. We were a mile short of where we were ordered but I didn't see how we could get much further and, as a first step, sent back for the battery to come on and then pushed on to try and get some information. I found an advance guard battery in action by the roadside and the Major sitting at his ease in the comfy kitchen of a farmhouse nearby. I showed him my orders and he raised his eyebrows. My position to be was nearly 1000 yards beyond the enemy front-line which he was shelling on information received from the Infantry.
Observation was impossible owing to the enclosed nature of the country. I thanked him and left ,deciding to come into action at the first decent place I could find and rode back along the road to look with Tim. We found a decent looking hedge with a grass field, just off the road, but it was under observation from all the high ground in front and we had no information at all as to whether it was held by us or the Huns. Shells started falling thick and fast a few hundred yards in front aimed at nothing in particular. Then they fell to right and left of us. It was a difficult thing to decide but the sight of the battery trotting over the crest behind, being shelled as they came, made me decide to risk it, as I couldn't keep them waiting there and I brought them straight in and got into action and the horses clear in less than 5 minutes with no casualties and we opened fire by the map on the places I had got from the O.C of the other battery. Hollingworth had brought a message from the Adjutant cancelling my previous orders so I felt quite happy at having disobeyed them. Having got all settled and the horses in a field about 300 yards behind I went forward to a large farmhouse about 200 yards in front and there found old Mac, very comfy with the farmer's wife, a fat old thing bustling round getting him coffee. So I joined him. There was nothing to be done but wait as the position in front was too obscure. We were not advance guard and had only been pushed up to fire a map shoot barrage as soon as we got orders. As we were drinking our coffee the Huns opened up some very nasty shelling all round us and between me and my battery, 4.2s.
Several fell in the garden just outside and we began to wonder when one would pitch onto us. The farmer and his wife were quite unperturbed and didn't even make a move for the cellar. I don't know whether it was that they didn't understand or that they were extraordinarily brave. What they appeared was completely indifferent. During a temporary lull a man was carried into the kitchen badly hit in the leg. One of my men I found. It seemed he had been out in front of the battery collecting wood. The battery itself hadn't been shelled as I had been able to see. A doctor appeared from nowhere and got to work on him and, as the shelling had eased off a bit, I returned to the battery and presently the Adjutant appeared with orders to fire a barrage on the Maubeuge- Avesnes road at 4 o'clock. This we did and then proceeded, as it was getting dark, to dig in a mess. For the first time in the campaign I got a bell tent up in the battery position and we set to work with the servants to dig down inside it, 2 feet if possible, to give us splinter cover as shells were still falling intermittently all over the countryside. You never knew where the next would come. We all worked with spade and pick but it was the devil of a job, 9 inches down we struck a layer of granite stones exactly like the bed of a road which was impossible as it was in an old permanent grass field, but we decided to finish the job and hacked our way steadily through it. It took us 2 1/2 hours spelling one another off, with the servants taking turns. Then we had dinner, beef steak and onions, produced under difficulties by Gouvers?, the cook, as usual extremely cheerful. After dinner we finished the job off and settled down on our blankets. Just as I had turned in I heard a series of shells come over, 20 or 30,one after another, dropping at widely scattered points, one shell to each point, then silence and the thought occurred to me that it sounded rather like the Huns emptying his guns preparatory to another withdrawal. Then I fell asleep. No orders had come in for next day.
I didn't wake till about 8 o'clock, when going outside I found a beautiful day. Not a sound of war, nor a sign of movement, evidently another withdrawal. So I sent for my horses and after breakfast went forward to investigate. In the village the inhabitants were at work cleaning things up, quite cheerfully, as if a battle was a matter of everyday life. There was no sign of any infantry till I got the other side where I met a man I knew and he told me the Huns had disappeared and he had orders not to move forward. So I returned, meeting One and the Adjutant on the way. We were to stay where we were it seemed and make ourselves comfortable. Cavalry were going to be sent forward to look for the Hun and there were strong rumours of an armistice but this no-one seriously believed possible. I had a good look round the village and found a decent billet fitted up with bunks by the Huns as a rest billet with barns for the men and a good orchard to put the battery in. So we moved in before lunch and settled down comfortably. The rest of the house was occupied by an old couple who came from Villers-Guislans. They were quite unable to realise the place simply didn't exist and were pathetically anxious about their son and daughter whom they had not heard of since 1914 when they were parted. After lunch I walked through the village and saw a gesticulating crowd round a miserable object of a man whom they would have murdered but for a guard of Tommies who took him off. They said he was a spy and had denounced everyone he could to the Huns as storing food, leading to fines. Calling at Willmot's mess I found festivity. His host had dug up from his back garden 6 doz bottles of very fine old Burgundy hid there since 1914, and was entertaining the whole British Army. So we did well on that and returned to play bridge till bed time.
No news and no orders. No-one knows where the Huns are. It seems the railway east of Cambrai keeps on blowing up so all our supplies have to come by road which accounts for our not going forward. Spent the day cleaning up. It seems official that Hun Armistice delegates have left to meet Foch - No whisky left played bridge till bed time.
No news first thing so after breakfast I wandered into the village and met some of 17 Div Infantry marching back. I asked them where they were going to and someone said 'Home'. They looked rather happy and I wondered if it could be true Then an extraordinarily relieved and happy looking Brigadier trotted along. I asked him if it meant Peace. He said 'Yes, I've just been talking to the Corps, its official'. So 1 went back to the battery and told, the Sergeant Major to fall the men in, in the orchard. They all seemed to know what it was and fell in in a hollow square, grinning and expectant. Just as I was going to tell them an orderly appeared with a message which said 'Hostilities will cease at 11.00 hours so I read that - Nothing much happened. They cheered, not wildly. We all felt it to be so very unusual and in a short time they were back at work cleaning harness and guns and grooming the horses. After lunch I rode over to call on Mac who was in a comfortable Estaminet, a mile the other side of the village. A cheery crowd there, Straafer, Torrence and One and we played bridge - A quiet evening and early to bed.
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Copyright © Alan Tucker, February, 2009.
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