From Le Transloy to The Hindenburg Line
Still in same position firing a lot at night, 400 rounds behind Le Transloy. After lunch visited CRA in their trench and found them more than happy on a case of vintage port that had just arrived which we helped to demolish. Late at night received orders to move forward in morning to near Gueudecourt.
Jimmy went forward at dawn to find a new position, Teams came up about 7.00 a.m. and, as soon as he sent word, I went on with the battery on foot. I halted on the crest as there was heavy harassing fire with whizzbangs just where I wanted to go in the valley in front. It calmed down in about 10 minutes and I got battery in without casualties. I went forward at once with a telephone wire to an OP in a trench just behind Le Transloy full of our infantry. They would look over the trench with the natural result that we got nastily shelled. All these trenches were the remains of the old 1916-1917 trenches and still quite habitable but no dug outs. In the afternoon we established a forward section just behind the OP. About 4 o’clock one of our planes, an RE8, came circling round very close to us and very low down and dropped something – a solid thing with red, blue and yellow streamers attached which fell in the open between us and the Huns. No-one moved and I thought it must be a message so I plucked up my courage and hopped out of the trench and, after a hasty search amongst shell holes, found it and brought it in. Opening it I found a cigar box filled with cigarettes “with best wishes from No 15 Squadron”. Very nice of them but I wouldn’t have hopped out of the trench if I’d known.
I had some rather nice shooting at Huns running from shell hole to shell hole in the open country behind the Sugar refinery at Le Transloy. One party of 3 chased into a hole in the ground and then got two guns right onto it. After 5 rounds, 2 Huns got up and ran like hares. I had a few shots at them but missed. I had hopes though that the third was accounted for. Returning to the battery at dusk I found orders waiting for a barrage to be fired in 10 minutes. This we did and very little retaliation came back. Our infantry were supposed to be attacking but we never heard what happened. About 10.00 p.m. we received orders to be prepared to move forward next day. I was detailed to go forward at dawn and find out the position. Slept in an old Hun battery dug out 20 ft deep.
Up before dawn and went forward just as it was getting light, No sign of life even, I passed our OP of yesterday and couldn’t see a shell dropping anywhere. I found Infantry Bde Head Quarters in a sunken road just left of Le Transloy. They knew nothing except that they thought we held the village so I went on through the Sugar Factory that I’d been shelling the night before. Someone shot at me from the ruins at close range with a rifle but as I could see some infantry in front I knew it must be alright and went on. Getting near Rocquiqny with no apparent sign of either our front line infantry or any sign of hostile shelling, I decided I must get back and report so walked back to battery, a good 3 ½ miles, getting there by 9.00 a.m. and cursing myself for not having had my horses up as it was quite evident the Huns had gone right back in the night and we were in for a big advance. Jimmy had his horses up and went on to reconnoitre, telling me to bring on the battery as soon as the teams came up, which they did in about half an hour. So on we went up to Le Transloy, through the village, and there I picked up Jimmy and he told me he’d got a ‘position of readiness’ just west of Rocquiqny. So went on and got the battery ready to fire with the teams handy and had some lunch which, as I’d had no breakfast, I was glad of.
Whilst we were eating the servants came and said they had found a wounded Hun so I went to have a look at him and found him about a hundred yards away lying by a quite fresh shell hole with a badly broken leg, a bullet through the knee. He was a fine looking fellow, an NCO, with red beard and speaking a little French. Told me he was a machine gunner and had been hit the day before by a stray bullet about 5.00 p.m. and had been there ever since. One of our shells had dropped within 2 yards of him, as one could see from the shell hole, but it hadn’t hit him. He was a good fellow, hadn’t lost his nerve and was most dignified, neither cringing nor arrogant. I went back and told the others and was more than a little tickled to see ‘1’ – whom I had so often heard swear in awful terms that no death was bad enough for Hun machine gunners to whom no quarters should ever be given – take him with his own hands a cup of tea and bully beef and bread and butter, our lunch in fact, which the poor devil wolfed without a word and the last we saw of him was being carried off by some of our stretcher-bearers who turned up.The very picture of the vanquished but by no means dishonoured enemy. About this time the Huns started shelling the outskirts of the village just in front and Jimmy and ‘1’ (who was commanding ‘A’) went forward again to find out what was happening. In about an hour I got a message to bring forward a section through the village into action about a mile the other side. So limbered up and went on. Just as I got into the village they started shelling the other end. I had to push on – but pulled up when a shell dropped smack in the middle of the road about 100 yards ahead. I waited to see where the next went an d sure enough it dropped in almost exactly the same place – a 4.2. HV gun, Fergie had come with me and he volunteered to see if there was a way round to the left, so I halted and waited for him. Meantime a section of ‘A’ came up behind with Gordon and Tim. G asked me why I’d halted but he wouldn’t wait for an answer and, trotting his section, led them through without casualties. Tim’s face I shall always remember as he passed, trying to grin and pretend he liked it. Then Fergie came back and told me he’d found a way round and I went on, turning just short of where shells were falling. We got through over a litter of old stables and over a light railway with no shelling directly in front. A good sprinkling of dead Huns lay about which spoke well for our barrage the night before. A little further on and we came into full view of miles of country. Certainly occupied by the enemy and I thought we must get shelled but evidently they were pretty disorganised as not a shell came at us. Anyhow it couldn’t be helped as there was no way forward except down this slope and in full view. When we got down into the valley we were under cover I felt easier in my mind and I picked up Jimmy who showed me the battery position. We got the guns in and I was told to go forward and find an OP so I set out with 2 signallers with flags as Jimmy thought visual sufficient and walked towards the crest about 1500 yards in front, which was being pretty heavily shelled. I found ‘1’s’ battery on the way and close by them about 100 cavalry horses. Just as I passed they dropped shells right in amongst them, a horrid sight as several were killed but it was a silly place to leave horses close to a road that was enfiladed. ‘1’ came with me and, with trepidation, we went on to the top of the crest and took refuge in a deep shell hole from which we got a splendid view of the country in front, and found, from an Infantry Officer (wounded), who was coming back, that our front line was about 400 yards ahead in the bottom of the valley immediately in front, from which heavy machine gun fire was coming. The road was about 80 yards on our right and about 100 yards on the left was a farmhouse and a lot of huts known as Four Winds Farm and that had been a Hun aerodrome. Two 8 inch hows were at work, one shelling the aerodrome and the other the road and our position wasn’t too pleasant as our OP was just between the 2 and we had to duck for every shell as the splinters flew thick from the hard ground and, added to that, they were tear shells and made us sneeze and weep. ‘1’ got his wire going but I found the distance too great for visual and sent one of my signallers back to get a wire up. So there I sat, full of chagrin, watching ‘1’ register his battery whilst I was impotent. There was no movement in front, Huns lying low. I sat there an hour, the shelling continuous and getting on my nerves as I had nothing to do. ‘1’ finished his registration and went back just as the light was failing, leaving me still waiting for my wire to come up. All this time, an hour at least, a Hun plane had been up, circling round, very gallantly, and obviously directing the fire of the battery shelling us. I admired him but did not love him. Then came a message from Jimmy, telling me to come in as he couldn’t get a wire out to me. So I got up and started home, noticing 5 of our planes, Camels, cruising home, too, high up. Suddenly they saw the Hun artillery plane below them and made for him. One Camel detached himself for the job, the others standing by but not participating and it was very brief – it hardly looked fair, just like an eagle attacking a magpie - short, swift dive, a burst of fire, a slow cumbrous turn by the Hun, 2 quick graceful turns by the Camel and he was on him again. Another burst of fire, streams of flames from the Hun and down he fell, turning over and over, and the pilot and observer both dropped out. I had sat in a shell-hole being shelled by his observation for an hour and a half and had my lungs and eyes filled with their damned tear gas. I admired the Hun, he’d done his job but to see him finished by the Camel gave me for the moment pure joy! My heart leapt into the roof of my mouth and stayed. I walked home feeling warm and good all over. Some compensation I felt for the wasted day – such is war. I found Jimmy getting a mess going in an old trench behind the battery. All 6 guns had come up and we dug in a bit as they were putting tear gas shells fairly near. We got a canvas cover overhead, lay on our tummies and ate dinner feeling thankful. We had advanced 6 miles, had no casualties and had our tummies full of beef, steak and onions and whisky and soda. Personally I slept like a log. I’m sure I’d walked 15 miles. Next time I decided I’d go forward on a horse!
In the morning about 8.00 I went forward with Jimmy to do some shooting. The neighbourhood of Four Winds Farm looked nasty and when we got there found it just as it looked. A steady rain of 4.2s and whizz-bangs was descending, well scattered over the top of the crest – again very nicely judged harassing fire on the part of the Hun. Just short of the OP we found some of our infantry and took refuge in a shallow shell hole, dug out a bit, with a few sheets of corrugated iron on the roof which was doing duty as Battalion Head Qs. The CO, an old friend, was very cheerful notwithstanding that during the night 2 shells had dropped within a few yards and, whilst we were there, splinters flew with a whip from several more adjacent but we got a whisky and soda and presently went on to the OP, a couple of hundred yards or so further on. Here we found our signallers had let us down again and no wire had come up as ordered. So Jimmy went back to hurry things on and left me to shoot when the wire came. Plenty of movement this morning and things were fairly lively as they kept on shelling persistently about 60 yards on our right and I had to duck every time. The swines were putting over all blue cross tear shell too so I wept copiously and from time to time had to put on my gas mask. Presently I saw our infantry moving forward up the slope opposite in short rushes, which was the signal for movement all along the shallow trench occupied by the Huns. They stuck their heads up and one could see little groups getting machine guns into action followed by the familiar rat tat tat tat tat and this pulled our fellows up. I was boiling with rage that I had no telephone. The FO of another battery that I was sharing the OP with had one and we got it going and shelled all along the line held by the Huns and actually drove some of them back, and our fellows, encouraged, started advancing again – but the Huns rallied and came back in places. One battery wasn’t sufficient to deal with them and our infantry attack faded quietly away. It was maddening for lack of a telephone wire I missed one of the best chances I ever had of really driving the Huns back. They were spread over such a wide front and directly one shelled in one place up they came in another – Presently I got a message from Jimmy by runner to come back so, still feeling savage, I returned and was told to take charge of the battery whilst the others went on to find a place for a forward section. In about half an hour the Adjutant rang me up and told me that Gordo, whom I saw plunging through with his section yesterday, had been wounded and I was to go at once to A as Captain. So, leaving orders for my kit to be put together, I trudged forward to A and saw ‘1’. It seemed that their wagon lines had been heavily shelled all morning – several men and a lot of horses killed, Gordon and others wounded. I was told to get back at once and get the wagon line moved further back. They had a horse at the battery so I started off on him to see the nasty sight of the valley in front of me being most systematically searched by high velocity shell. The valley was covered with teams bringing up ammunition and aeroplanes must have spotted them. I had to go that way and it looked most unpleasant.
The Huns did the job well as usual, salvoes of 4 systematically covering the whole area, left, then centre, then right and creeping gradually nearer. I rode on at a walk (and?) it was still about 500 yards away, hoping it would cease before I got up to it. Saw 3 teams knocked right out which was beastly. At last it came right up to me, just like a thunder shower approaching. By good luck I was level with a bit of a sunken road so I dismounted, got the horses in fair cover and, looking for a hole myself, found the COs of our two brigades doing the same thing. We didn’t waste much time and just got under a bank when the storm broke over our heads and stayed there about 10 mins, which we spent in the usual way, making feeble jokes and hoping for the best – The policy was justified as it passed over leaving us none the worse. I got on my horse and rode on without, I hope, undignified haste, feeling that nice warm glow all over, which such experiences always produce, a feeling of active happiness, strangely and unaccountably mixed with pride, in my experience one of the small by-products of war. Arriving at the wagon line, I found them well on with the evacuation. I went on to see the newly selected site, found it good and quiet, behind the village and well clear of it. So I returned to see the last of the old place and found a new variation of hate in progress. An 8 inch howitzer had got to work and I had to run for it, distinctly seeing 2 in the air, en passant, as one always can when close. As usual with 8 inch there were no splinters, merely a huge fountain of earth and smoke about 60 feet high. On of the few mistakes the Hun has made has been to fit delay action fuses on his 8 inch shells. I shudder to think how many casualties I have seen this arrangement save. They were falling well over the old wagon lines and once arrived there I could look about me and found the position practically clear. I saw the last team off and, making a detour back, arrived to find a tent erected (over a shell hole) and we settled down to a quiet evening and peaceful dinner, spending first uninterrupted night since this began. The Huns came over and bombed in the night but not near enough to matter. Thinking the matter over the last week’s fighting leaves a queer impression on my mind. I have never had the feeling that we had driven the Huns from positions that they were prepared to hold to the last, rather to begin with on the Ancre. I think we anticipated their withdrawal by perhaps 48 hours. On our front, for instance, we have so far captured no guns. Later they fought bitterly at places it is true but, always, directly we had got enough Artillery to be formidable back they went and sat waiting for us to come up and be shot at, as yesterday, It was all so different from the Somme where every inch was won at the price of blood that soaked it, where artillery fire never ceased and battle raged night and day. Advancing is good for morale but I should like to feel that we were dictating the speed of it and not the enemy. We press him and harry his retreat but we are not smashing him yet.
Quiet day taking stock at Wagon Lines, went up to Battery in aft quite quiet.
I saw the CRA in morning just behind Le Transloy. Then Robinson came down with bad gassing, got the morning of 4th at OP with me, his face all blisters. He didn’t want to go to the dressing station but had to. Went to battery in evening, nothing doing there but Tim had established a forward section the other side of the canal and ‘1’ said he is doing very good work there. Marsh, our horse master, shared my tent. He disliked aeroplanes intensely, more even than I do. During the night I woke up, hearing the noise of a concentrated whizz like a falling planet, followed by a crash and earth and splinters. I thought it must be bombs and, as Marsh slept, I couldn’t resist waking him up to hear (?) as I knew it must be further away. It came all night with the same accompaniment, only rather nearer, followed by another, and I realized it must be an HV gun of large size at very long range and the damned thing kept on all round us for about half an hour. Inspecting in the morning the total casualties were 7 mice found on the edge of one of the shell holes about 15 yards from the tent and our water cart wheel smashed.
A message from the Major to move forward with wagon lines, so took limbers and wagons up to the battery at 11.00. The Hun had gone back some way without heavy fighting. We picked up the guns and moved forward by the valley, which was blocked with traffic, a few shells falling in front. We decided to take our chance over the hill in the open and trotted down the forward slope, feeling very conspicuous but weren’t fired at and were lucky as the people who came by the road under cover got shelled and had some casualties. We crossed the Canal du Nord at the only possible place, at the west end of the tunnel, without a shell being fired at us. The place stiff with traffic. Why the Huns didn’t shell there is unexplainable. The target was a cert as all the bridges were down. Arrived the other side. ‘1’ decided to go still further on as the Hun seemed to have withdrawn to Gouzeaucourt and he took up a position just short of Dessart Wood. I found a very comfy wagon lines just east of the canal and settled in in peace. Just in time for after we’d settled down and taken possession in a little wood. Batteries of the 38th Division came pouring across and, to my disgust, settled all round us in positions of readiness with horses by the hundred in turnips, a most tempting aeroplane target. However, we had a quiet night.
A quiet day. Went to battery, no shelling except HV at Wagon Lines.
Up at battery. All quiet. Played bridge.
Up at battery. Position obscure. Hun appears to intend to stay on this line.
Very wet and during the night a stray horse nearly fell through the roof of the dug out. I had to get out and chase him away. I am having a quiet time. I go every day up to the Battery where they hardly get shelled at all. Only in the evenings he puts gas shell on the roads. Back at wagon lines he shells in the mornings with a high velocity gun all over the place, getting a few horses sometimes but none of ours. The horses are picking up. We are only firing about 300 rounds a day so they haven’t too much work. They have good sheltered lines, splendid water and lots of grazing. I have even arranged hot baths for the men in canvas baths in the open.
Last night Hun planes coming over as they do every night bombing. Were met by an extraordinarily fine searchlight barrage, The archies opened up and, going to look, we had the satisfaction of seeing one caught in the beam and, directly after, fall in flames. An extraordinary display as he was loaded up with coloured lights which went off in all directions and he fell like a glorified firework. Shortly after the searchlights caught another. This time he was tackled by one of our night flying scouts. You could see the tracer bullets spouting out after him, appearing to go extraordinarily slow and almost directly he caught fire and fell a toppling blaze to the sound of cheers to be heard for miles. Extraordinarily hearty cheers too for no-one likes being bombed. Hardly had that died down when another plane came over and in a few minutes met exactly the same fate to even louder cheers, not bad going. 3 in a night.
Still a quiet life at Wagon lines, the line in front stationary with no marked activity on either side. I spend the days occupied with the stale old routine – inspection parade, finding grazing for the horses, stables, arranging baths for the men, visits to adjacent friends with odd rubbers of bridge and a duty call daily to the battery founded on the well-learnt knowledge that people at the battery always think the worst of the wagon lines because they are 2 miles further from the Hun. In point of fact, here we got more shelling in the Wagon lines than they do at the Battery. Every morning the countryside is sprayed over with High Velocity shells lasting an hour or so. So far we have escaped but it’s purely a gamble and no knowing when one will turn up. As a precaution I’ve moved the horses behind a bank of rubble from the canal cutting which we are first in front of. Our home is an old dug out in a bank with the entrance away from the enemy, dating from the last Cambrai push and watertight. Behind is a little copse and, if it were not for the fact that the whole countryside is covered with other people’s wagon lines, making a good target everywhere, which aeroplanes can’t miss, we think that we shall move forward rapidly or even at all. The line in front of us is strongly held and the Bosch has plenty of artillery but my view is that the Bosch has got to go further. He never really gave battle with all his strength after August 8th. We have harried him but he intended to withdraw. Obviously I think to shorten his line – he cannot shorten his line until he gets to the Meuse, a hundred miles back. I think that that is where he means to go for the winter although there is nothing on this front to suggest it at present.
Bad luck today. A shell fell right into the middle of our grazing horses, killing 5 and wounding 8. By great good luck no drivers wounded and the vet came along and fixed up the wounded very well. Just bad luck and no use in stopping grazing. We are just as likely to get a shell in the lines.
Up at Battery at dawn moving them forward to just N of Dessart Wood. The move was accomplished without any incident, the new position in a hollow in the ground and only just concealed.
38th Division attacked at dawn and about noon several hundred prisoners came past. As I was watching them a HV shell came in with a most wicked whizz giving no time to duck but it made me pleased to see most of them duck after the shell arrived. Some Bosch horses came with them so our fellows must have done
pretty well. In the evening I got a note from the Major telling me to come up and take over the Battery as he was sick and wanted a rest. So went up and took over finding that, though the attack on right had been a success, on our immediate front it was not and we are to have a local attack tonight on ‘African Trench’.
Heavy firing all night. African trench changed hands twice and nowheld by the Bosch. Later in the day retaken by us. During the show last night Jimmy G was wounded – a stray bullet in the battery position got him in the groin – nasty – and they say he bled a lot, but the Doctor hopes he’ll be all right.
Our infantry taking over today from 38th so we come under our CRA again thank goodness. About 10 o’clock last night the Hun started gas shelling all round us, nasty, but he quietened down after an hour or so and we went to bed. About 2 a.m. I was woken up by a nasty shell-like noise very close and earth and splinters falling on our tin roof, followed by a sickly paraffin like smell. I thought it must be gas so I got up and found a shell had fallen right into the trench about 10 yards away. No casualties, which was lucky, as the signallers pit was within 2 yards of it. More shells were dropping monotonously all round and all were gas shells so I gave the alarm and put gas masks on. During the night the trench had filled up with reserve infantry, mysteriously appeared from nowhere, Fortunately there was a light wind, which blew the gas clouds away from each shell but the stink was very nasty and they kept on dropping them very close. Finally, after about an hour, things quietened down a bit and I turned in. When I woke up my voice had gone and 2 of our men were very bad with gas and had to go to the dressing station. The infantry had had a lot of gas casualties, badly blistered. It must be a new form of mustard hate as it smelt like smoldering paraffin. I felt quite OK except for my voice which had disappeared to a whisper., The front was quite quiet. We still hold African trench. Far away on the extreme left was Cambrai – tall spires and chimneys sticking out on the horizon from amongst the trees with Bourlon Wood to the left of it. White puffs of shrapnel, obviously ours, were bursting, apparently in the suburbs of Cambrai and, further back, big black bursts of HE, Hun I think. So evidently there was a battle going on up there but it was 15 miles away and one could tell nothing for certain.
A very quiet day. A feature of the position is that from the mess, which is about 150 yards behind the battery, one can see Gonnelieu held by the Huns so I registered the battery from the Mess on some trees which the Field Survey people have located as being in Gonnelieu Cemetery.
I decided we must have a better OP so arranged to go forward with Mac (who has taken over C now that Jimmy is wounded) to find one. His idea was the high ground on the right of the main road leading to Gouzeacourt so we made for it, creeping forward warily, bringing signallers with us with a wire. Having got to the high ground we found a splendid view of Gouzeacourt and all the country behind. There was no cover where we were. It was very exposed so we decided to go forward a bit over the open, which we did singly and running as we were in full view within easy MG range from the (?). To our surprise we were not fired on and the whole front was extraordinarily quiet, practically no shell fire. We found a shallow trench, got the wire up to it and did a little shooting on what was left of Gouzeacourt Church, just to check the line. Then, as it was so quiet, and we couldn’t see very well to the right where Gauche Wood was held by our Infantry, we decided to go further forward onto the next crest, which we did, moving freely in the open without drawing any fire. From a trench the other side of the next crest we got an extra-ordinarily fine view of miles and miles of Hun country but not a sign of movement. The only thing to be seen was a Hun dump going up in flames but, whether set alight by our fire or by themselves it was impossible to see. Gauche Wood was a nasty looking place and heavily shelled all the time. Our fellows must have been having a nasty time there. In the middle of it 2 derelict tanks were plainly visible. Returning, I reported to Brigade that there was every sign of the Hun preparing to withdraw, which I think the facts justified, but they didn’t seem to take me very seriously.
Hollingworth at OP today got rather badly strafed so apparently yesterday’s quietness was a happy accident only.
Quiet night, had to send an officer to Gauche Wood for liaison and didn’t envy him his job a bit.
The clouds are blowing up for another attack and I have to reconnoitre a forward position so I went out with Mac and we scoured the countryside looking for a place with flash cover, near some sort of dug out, and without too many new shell holes around it. I staked out a claim with 2 very dirty dug outs near and chalked up A79 all over everything.
I went out early to have a look at the position I chose yesterday and found it had been shelled all night so I chose another rather further back and got a working party up to it, digging some shelters for the men. A feature of the place was that about 200 yards behind was an excellent dug out (in which Mac and I intended sleeping) with good trench round it, an old MG post of ours, so everything faces the right way and both battery position and mess are on the highest ground about not in the valley which makes me feel easier in my mind about gas, which I was getting windy about, as I could scarcely speak at all from my dose of a few nights ago. Returning I found orders to barrage at 7.00 tomorrow morning when V Division are attacking African Trench and the attack appears to be on a wide front north of us. Also we had to get up 3000 rounds during tomorrow to the new position so it looked like being a busy day.
The Hun was very nasty last night. I woke about 2.00 a.m. ,a shell dropping very near. My dug out full of smoke and earth etc dropping in all round. This was followed by a regular succession of shells all dropping about 100 yards short so I got up to have a look. The wind was blowing the right way and the guard told me nothing was hit so I turned in to be woken again at 3.00 with orders for the barrage. These I worked out by 4.00, a few odd shells falling all the time. I gave the orders to the Subalterns and, as they’d been sleeping all the time, I told them to carry on with the firing in the morning and turned in, waking again with the starting of our barrage, when I got up. It was a bright, sunny morning and I stood outside the mess trying to see what I could of the show and the first thing I saw was the shell hole of last night which woke me up. A 5.9 inch, just 5 yards from where I was sleeping. It was a beautiful day, all round the mist was lifting from the trees and valleys and in and out of the mist came the stabs of flame from hundreds of batteries right, left, in front and behind, with the concentration of clatter, crack and bang that goes with a barrage on a big scale. It reminded me of July 1st 1916. As the visibility got better I saw 3 tanks going over, away on the left, exactly like ungainly animals on short legs, heaving and surging as they met trenches and shell holes. Shells were bursting all round them but so far as I could see they were not hit. The retaliation where we were was very light as usual in a show like that. After a bit I went down to the battery and the first thing I saw there was a gun upside down and badly smashed. A shell had dropped right on the trail during the night and these damned fools had never let me know. There were fresh shell holes round the battery and between the battery and the mess so the shelling I heard last night was nearer than I thought. Then I smelt mustard strong and going in amongst the guns much stronger. No one had masks on. It dawned on me that what had happened was that last night’s show was a heavy concentration of mustard gas right into the battery, which hadn’t made itself felt when they started firing as the sun hadn’t got to work on it and now they didn’t notice it as it had come on so gradually. I noticed it, of course, as I’d come into it from pure air at a later stage. I had gas masks on everyone immediately and had a devil of a job to make them keep them on but I was very firm and cursed 2 officers and the senior NCO to the point of frightening them as we couldn’t afford gas casualties and I got an orderly to work with chloride of lime, sprinkling it in all the shell holes. We ceased fire about 9.00 a.m. and waited for news. I had an officer with the Battalion HQ but even there they knew nothing so I spent the day in getting ammunition up to the new position. The last 12 wagon loads arrived about 6 p.m. and, just as they got past us, (I sent H with them) a very sharp Hun barrage opened up on the trenches opposite us and in about ¼ hour H came back with bad wind up and rumours of the Hun having broken through and our fellows running. As there was at least a brigade between us and the Hun I was firm and sent him back. He got all ‘1’up with no casualties and I trust it did him good, but we heard before midnight that the Huns had got back in African trench to which they seem to attach an extraordinary importance.
A quiet night and we heard that 5th Div did well yesterday getting a lot of prisoners and all their objectives except on our front. About 10 a.m. we heard that the Huns had evacuated Gouzeacourt and African trench during last night so the counter attack was evidently a ruse to cover their withdrawal. In consequence I got teams up and we moved forward to the new positions in the afternoon without any incident and absolute absence of shell fire. In the afternoon 3 Hun planes came cruising overhead very high and we lay low watching them. Suddenly one detached himself and, from where he was directly overhead, made one long dive at an angle of about 45 degrees straight at one of our observation balloons, certainly 3 miles further back. Our Archies opened up all right and put up the devil of a barrage, but he never even swerved but went straight through it, firing as he got through one long burst of fire. Simultaneously 2 parachutes dropped like stones, then opened out and floated away and having (?) the balloon he rose up, hovered a moment very prettily and turned for home amidst a perfect tornado of archie and machine gun fire, flying very low. And, after what seemed minutes, the balloon broke out; first a streak of flame then a huge vermillion splash of (?) and sank in a great column of smoke, very dramatic, and one couldn’t grudge the Hun the safe return he got. The 2 other batteries had come up, too, and no shell fire made us very light-hearted so 3 of us, who were congenial, foregathered in our dug out and played bridge till dinner and again, after, till 11 p.m. An attack was due for dawn but we’d had no orders and turned in to get some sleep. Orders came about 1 a.m. Mac and I were asleep but got lights going and by 2 a.m. had finished writing our orders and turned in again as we found we had to go forward mounted at 5.30 to reconnoitre new positions and exploit what success there might be. Just as I heard Mac snoring, I heard the horrid, quiet, insinuating s s s s s plonk, just audible and too familiar. Then again and again becoming monotonously regular, undoubtedly gas shelling. I lay low listening and hoping for the best for a quarter of an hour as it sounded well away, when suddenly I got one choking whiff of undoubted phosgene and sat up with a cough, woke Mac, put on my helmet and went out to have a look. Of course all the servants and orderlies were sleeping like hogs in the trench so I woke them and got up above to see what it looked like. It was a perfect night, a moon and almost no wind, perfect for gas shelling and they were coming down persistently 10 to the minute, away to the right. What wind there was drawing rather than driving little rivers of visible white gas into all the hollows and valleys around and below us. My battery on the higher ground was clear of it but Mac’s men below I could hear coughing and swearing as they got their masks on. The alarm was given and there was nothing more to do so I went below again and slept in my mask, leaving 2 subalterns to fire the barrage which was for 3.30 a.m.
Called at 4 a.m. and eat some porridge,tea and eggs. Horses due to arrive at 5.30 and Neale brought them along all right, though much troubled with gas. All the valleys were full of it for a mile behind us and there was no wind to shift it. It was a perfect morning and very beautiful, bright sunshine with a slight hoar frost, At first quite clear then at 6.00 a slight mist rose and mingling with the gas made islands of the higher ground. At 6.30 Mac and I with an officer and 4 orderlies a piece got on our horses and rode forward, leaving our batteries still firing. It was very difficult going over barbed wire and trenches and, as we intended finding a way for the batteries that missed the main road and Gouzeacourt, which was sure to be shelled, we took the high ground to the right, risking being seen, and to begin with there was no shell fire. The Hun evidently was getting his guns back and the attack was a success, After many detours to avoid wire we found a way through and, arriving in the valley to the right of Gouzeacourt, found heavy shell fire just in front. So we got off our horses and pushed on on foot. We crossed the railway and got a bit beyond, the shelling getting heavier and got in amongst it – very nasty, several being much too near to be pleasant – high velocity 4.2s with tear gas and HE mixed – so we decided we couldn’t get the batteries quite so far and went back a few hundred yards and sent our respective Officers back to bring the batteries up. We got behind a newly dug trench in the chalk which gave good cover and selected positions, agreeing to share a mess to save time. Waiting for the batteries was very unpleasant as they started to shell the higher ground behind us just where our teams had to come up. In addition 5.9 tear shells were falling 2 to the minute between us and Gouzeacourt and the light wind that had risen blew the damned stuff straight to us and made us cough and sneeze and weep and finally had to put my mask on and sat moping, like a broody hen, very unhappy, with salvoes of whizzbangs falling just short of us, to complete the picture. Presently the batteries appeared on the crest behind and were shelled as they trotted down but there were no casualties and we got them in and the teams away in very quick time and, presently, opened fire on some orders that they brought up with them. Having got them settled in and the servants to work on digging out the trench a bit for a mess Mac and I decided we must go forward and reconnoitre as we’d had no news at all of what had happened. So we set out with 2 orderlies, steering clear of the shelling in front of us as best we could and, presently, finding a trench running in the right direction, followed it up, and it led us straight to Gauche Wood but it kept behind the crest and we could see nothing. On entering the wood it became beastly, the nastiest sight I have ever seen. The trench was shelled all to pieces and the bottom and sides was composed entirely of the shattered and decomposing remains of men, all of them ours, lying as they had died. For 500 yards one could hardly take a step without treading on them. Good shooting by the Huns and, as the trench was in direct enfilade, it must have been hell to hold and was our front line of 2 days ago – Just in front and ought of sight there was heavy shelling. We found one place from which we could see Gonnelieu and the back country pretty well but decided it wasn’t good enough and that it would be better to go boldly over the open to try the higher ground to the left. So we came back a bit and struck out over the open very happy to leave the trench behind. Luck served us well and to the left of the wood we found a fairly clear trench with some good dugouts from which we got a perfect view of miles of country in front and, moreover, we could see odd Huns running from trench to trench. This place was only about 500 yards in front of the battery and wasn’t being shelled so we sent back for a telephone wire which arrived in less than half an hour and got to work. First registering on some trenches which were marked on the map and then put a stop to the movement by sniping everything that we saw. After about an hour I returned and sent H up to carry on, had some lunch, and, feeling much better, put in a bit of work digging out the trench and getting a sheet over it for the mess. It wasn’t too nice, salvoes of whizzbangs kept falling very close and Mac had 2 men hit. About tea-time it started to rain. We got some orders for night firing and heard that our infantry were pushing through Gonnelieu but were held up on the right as usual. At dusk rain came down in torrents so we had to dig a sump in the trench and turned in to sleep not too happy as the shelling was adjacent and persistent all round us and we had to turn out to prop up the roof twice but, when I did sleep, I slept like a top and so did all five of us, side by side like the babes in the wood.
I woke late at about 8.00 and found everything perfectly quiet and a fine day. Morale rising like mercury – breakfast – and a look round the battery feeling rather pleased that we got through yesterday all right, About 11.00 ‘1’ (who is now commanding the brigade) came round and told us the Hun had gone back again and that we were to go forward and reconnoitre fresh positions as far forward as we could get and move into them before dusk. So Mac and I went out on foot, agreeing to join forces, We passed our OP of last night and could see nothing at all except a few odd shells falling in the valley – well forward so pressed on and arrived without incident at the road running from Villers Guislans to Gonnelieu. Here we found a deep dug out with a sentry outside who said it was company headquarters. So down we went and found two tired Infantry officers drinking tea who said they were the front line companies and that their patrols had orders to push forward as far as the canal and stop there and, so far as they knew, they were doing it with little opposition but they were rather vague and sketchy. This dug out was one of the places we had sniped Huns (at??) the night before and they told us they had found 2 of our wounded there, who had been well cared for by the Huns, who had left them just before dawn, singing ‘We Berlin! You London! Goodbye!’. We were doing no good there so we went out again and agreed that the only thing was to find a Battery Position between there and Villers Guislans and, if possible, an OP. One of us to do this and the other to go back and guide the 2 Batteries up. We tossed up and I stayed and found a good position in front of the sunken road leading to Villers G with lots of dug outs, marked safe by the REs, some of them unoccupied, in the road in which, besides, there was a nice sprinkling of dead horses and dead bosch, which spoke well for our harassing fire. I chalked the battery sign on all the unoccupied dug outs and, going forward, found an excellent OP about 600 yards in front, from which one could see Bantouzelle and the canal, with the Hindenburg line behind looking devilish stiff. So I came back and found the batteries just arriving, got them in and went forward with a telephone wire to the OP and had some nice shooting at Huns running from Bantouzelle to the main Hindenburg trenches till dusk when I returned and found the others digging a joint mess into the enemy side of the back of the sunken road. I quite agreed and much preferred it to a smelly dug out. A few shells were falling in the village but we were clear of that and we had a damned good dinner and slept on stretchers, feeling very safe and comfy.
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Copyright © Alan Tucker, February, 2009.
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