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Title: A Company of Tanks
Author: Watson, William Henry Lowe
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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A Company of Tanks



"The words of an eye-witness, flowing naturally from first impressions,
are frequently more expressive, and convey ideas more just than studied
descriptions; though the language may often be such as it would
scarcely be allowable in other persons to write."

                                            CAPTAIN JAMES BURNEY, 1806.



    A Company of Tanks

    BY

    MAJOR W. H. L. WATSON
    D.S.O., D.C.M.
    AUTHOR OF 'ADVENTURES OF A DESPATCH-RIDER'

    _WITH SKETCH MAPS_

    William Blackwood and Sons
    Edinburgh and London
    1920

    _ALL RIGHTS RESERVED_



    _TO

    PATRICK AND DAVID._



CONTENTS.


    CHAP.                                                     PAGE

      I. ON THE XIth CORPS FRONT                                 1
            (_October to December 1916._)

     II. FRED KARNO'S ARMY                                      14
            (_January to April 1917._)

    III. BEFORE THE FIRST BATTLE                                26
            (_March and April 1917._)

     IV. THE FIRST BATTLE OF BULLECOURT                         50
            (_April 11, 1917._)

      V. THE SECOND BATTLE OF BULLECOURT                        73
            (_May 3, 1917._)

     VI. REST AND TRAINING                                      89
            (_May and June 1917._)

    VII. THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--PREPARATIONS               111
            (_July 1917._)

   VIII. THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--ST JULIEN                  131
            (_August 1917._)

     IX. THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--THE POELCAPELLE ROAD       148
            (_September and October 1917._)

      X. THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--FLESQUIERES                    162
            (_November 4th to 20th, 1917._)

     XI. THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--BOURLON WOOD                   182
            (_November 21st to 23rd, 1917._)

    XII. THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--GOUZEAUCOURT                   194
            (_November 24th to December 1st, 1917._)

   XIII. HAVRINCOURT TO HARROW                                 210
            (_December 1st, 1917, to January 31st, 1918._)

    XIV. THE CARRIER TANKS                                     224
            (_January 31st to August 1st, 1918._)

     XV. THE BATTLE OF AMIENS                                  237
            (_August 1st to August 27th, 1918._)

    XVI. THE HINDENBURG LINE                                   257
            (_August 27th to October 8th, 1918._)

   XVII. THE SECOND BATTLE OF LE CATEAU                        275
            (_October 9th to October 30th, 1918._)

  XVIII. THE END OF THE WAR                                    290
            (_October 31st, 1918, to January 12th, 1919._)



A Company of Tanks.



CHAPTER I.

ON THE XIth CORPS FRONT.

(_October to December 1916._)


The village of Locon lies five miles out from Bethune, on the
Estaires road. Now it is broken by the war: in October 1916 it was as
comfortable and quiet a village as any four miles behind the line.
If you had entered it at dusk, when the flashes of the guns begin
to show, and passed by the square and the church and that trap for
despatch-riders where the _chemin-de-fer vicinal_ crosses to the left
of the road from the right, you would have come to a scrap of orchard
on your left where the British cavalrymen are buried who fell in 1914.
Perhaps you would not have noticed the graves, because they were
overgrown and the wood of the crosses was coloured green with lichen.
Beyond the orchard was a farm with a garden in front, full of common
flowers, and a flagged path to the door.

Inside there is a cheerful little low room. A photograph of the Prince
of Wales, a sacred picture, and an out-of-date calendar, presented by
the 'Petit Parisien,' decorate the walls. Maman, a dear gnarled old
woman--old from the fields--stands with folded arms by the glittering
stove which projects into the centre of the room. She never would sit
down except to eat and sew, but would always stand by her stove. Papa
sits comfortably, with legs straight out, smoking a pipe of _caporal_
and reading the 'Telegramme.' Julienne, pretty like a sparrow, with
quick brown eyes, jerky movements, and fuzzy hair, the flapper from
the big grocer's at La Gorgue, for once is quiet and mends Hamond's
socks. In a moment she will flirt like a kitten or quarrel with Louie,
a spoilt and altogether unpleasant boy, who at last is going to school.
The stalwart girl of seventeen, Adrienne, is sewing laundry marks on
Louie's linen. It is warm and cosy.

The coffee is ready. The little bowls are set out on the table. The
moment has come. From behind a curtain Hamond produces, with the
solemnity of ritual, a battered water-bottle. He looks at Papa, who
gravely nods, and a few drops from the water-bottle are poured into
each steaming bowl of coffee. The fragrance is ineffable, for it is
genuine old Jamaica....

We talk of the son, a cuirassier, and when he will come on leave;
of the Iron Corps who are down on the Somme; of how the men of the
Nord cannot be matched by those of the Midi, who, it is rumoured,
nearly lost the day at Verdun; of Mme. X. at Gonnehem, who pretends
to be truly a _Parisienne_, but is only a carpenter's daughter out
of Richebourg St Vaast; of the oddities and benevolence of M. le
Maire. Adrienne discusses learnedly the merits of the Divisions who
have been billeted in the village. She knows their names and numbers
from the time the Lahore Division came in 1914.[1] We wonder what are
these heavy armoured motor-cars of a new type that have been a little
successful on the Somme. And we have our family jokes. "Peronne est
prise," we inform Maman, and make an April fool of her--while, if the
line is disturbed and there is an outbreak of machine-gun fire or the
guns are noisy, we mutter, "Les Boches attaquent!" and look for refuge
under the table.

In April of last year, when the Boche attacked in very truth, Maman
may have remembered our joke. Then they piled their mattresses, their
saucepans, their linen, and some furniture on the big waggon, and set
out for Hinges--Bethune was shelled and full of gas. I wonder if they
took with them the photograph of the Prince of Wales? There was bitter
fighting in Locon, and we must afterwards have shelled it, because it
came to be in the German lines....

Hamond knew the Front from the marshes of Fleurbaix to the craters of
Givenchy better than any man in France. He had been in one sector of
it or another since the first November of the war. So, when one of the
companies of the XIth Corps Cyclist Battalion, which I commanded, was
ordered to reinforce a battalion of the 5th Division in the line at
Givenchy and another of my companies to repair the old British line by
Festubert, and to work on the "islands,"[2] I determined to move from
my dismal headquarters in a damp farm near Gonnehem and billet myself
at Locon. It was the more convenient, as Hamond, who commanded the
Motor Machine-Gun Battery of the Corps, was carrying out indirect fire
from positions near Givenchy.

We lived in comfort, thanks to Maman and Starman, Hamond's servant. I
would come in at night, saying I was _fatigué de vivre_. Old Maman,
understanding that I was too tired to live, would drag out with great
trouble grandfather's arm-chair, place a pillow in it, and set it by
the stove. And Julienne, a little subdued at my imminent decease, would
forget to flirt.

We would start, after an early breakfast, in Hamond's motor-cycle and
side-car, and drive through the straggling cottages of Hamel, where the
Cuirassiers, in October 1914, protected the left flank of the advancing
5th Division, through Gorre, with its enormous ramshackle chateau, and
along the low and sordid banks of the La Bassée Canal. We would leave
the motor-cycle just short of the houses near Pont Fixe, that battered
but indomitable bridge, draped defiantly with screens of tattered
sackcloth.

I would strike along the Festubert road, with the low ridge of Givenchy
on my left, until I came to the cross-roads at Windy Corner.

A few yards away were the ruins of a house which Brigadier-General
Count Gleichen,[3] then commanding the 15th Infantry Brigade, had made
his headquarters when first we came to Givenchy, and were certain to
take La Bassée. That was in October 1914, and the line ran from the
houses near Pont Fixe through the farm-buildings of Canteleux to the
cottages of Violaines, whence you looked across open fields to the
sugar factory, which so greatly troubled us, and the clustered red
walls of La Bassée. The Cheshires held Violaines. They were driven out
by a sudden attack in November. The line broke badly, and Divisional
Headquarters at Beuvry Brewery packed up, but a Cyclist officer with
a few men helped to rally the Cheshires until a battalion from the
3rd Division on the left arrived to fill the gap. We did not again
hold Violaines and Canteleux until the Germans retired of their own
free-will.

Now once again, exactly two years later, the 5th Division was in the
line.

I would take to the trench at Windy Corner, and tramp along to call
on the cheery young colonel of the battalion to which my men were
attached. There is a little story about his headquarters. A smell
developed, and they dug hard, thinking it came from a corpse. The
sergeant-major discovered the cause. A fond relative had sent the
mess-waiter a medicated belt to catch the little aliens in the course
of their traditional daily migration....

We would go round the line, which then was quiet, exploring the
intricacies of Red Dragon Crater. Afterwards I would walk through the
complicated defences of Givenchy to join Hamond at "Dirty Dick's,"[4]
by the shrine, for the ride back....

The 5th Division was afraid of an attack on Givenchy at this time. It
was a key position. If Givenchy went, the line south of the canal must
crumble and the left flank of the Loos salient would be in the air. But
the attack did not come until April 1918, and the story of how Givenchy
held then, when the line to the north was flowing westwards, is history.

On the left of Givenchy the line ran in front of Festubert through
stagnant fields, where the water in the summer is just below the
surface. It is dreary country, full of ghosts and the memories of
fighting at night. It is all a sodden cemetery.

There my men were rebuilding the breastworks of the old British line,
for in these marshes it was impossible to dig trenches, and working on
the "islands."

Breastworks continued to the north. Our lines were overlooked from the
Aubers Ridge. In winter they were flooded and men were drowned. Behind
were dead level meadows, often covered with water, and dismal ruined
villages. The country was filthy, monotonous, and stunted. In the
summer it stank. In the winter it was mud. Luckily, for many months the
line was quiet.

In November of this year the Corps, to vary the picture, took over
the Cuinchy sector on the right of Givenchy and immediately south of
the La Bassée Canal. It was a unique and damnable sector, in which
a company of my men were set to dig tunnels from the reserve to the
support and front trenches.

It was unique by reason of the brick-stacks, and damnable by reason
of the Minenwerfer and the Railway Triangle. Our line ran in and out
of a dozen or so brick-stacks, enormous maroon cubes of solid brick
that withstood both shell and mine. Some we held and some the enemy
held. Inside them tiny staircases were made, and camouflaged snipers,
impossible to detect, made life miserable. Occasionally we tried to
take each other's brick-stacks, but these attempts were unsuccessful,
and we settled down, each as uncomfortable as he well could be. And in
this sector the enemy employed minenwerfer with the utmost enterprise.
Our trenches were literally blown to pieces. In the daytime we ran
about like disturbed ants, ever listening for the little thud of the
"minnie's" discharge and then looking upwards for the black speck
by day or the glow of it by night. For "minnies" can be avoided by
the alert and skilful. Finally, a triangle of railway embankments,
fortified until they had become an impregnable field-work, held for the
German the southern bank of the canal.

To the occasional tall visitor the main communication trench added
irritation and certain injury to fear. Some ingenious fellow had
laid an overhead rail some six feet above the trench boards. On this
rail material was slung and conveyed forwards. It was an excellent
substitute for a light railway, but it compelled a tall man to walk
along the trench with his head on one side. This strained attitude
did not conduce to stability on slippery trench boards. Again, the
height of the rail above the floor of the trench varied. A moment's
absent-mindedness and the damage was done.

My officers and men worked well. We were lucky, and our casualties were
few, but it was a trying time. An occasional day in Bethune just made
life bearable.

The one redeeming feature of the XIth Corps front was the excellent
town of Bethune.

Of all the towns immediately behind the line, none could rival Bethune
in the providing of such comforts, relaxations, and amenities as the
heart of the soldier desired. The billets were notoriously comfortable.
The restaurants were varied and good. The _pâtisserie_ was famous
before the war. The oyster-bar approached that of Lillers. I know of
but one _coiffeur_ better than "Eugene's." The shops provided for every
reasonable want. The theatre was palatial. The canteen was surpassed
only by Meaulte, of ill-fated memory. The inhabitants were civil,
friendly, and, in comparison with their neighbours, not extortionate.

On the morning in October 1914, when the 5th Division--the first
British troops Bethune had seen--passed through the town to take up
the line Vermelles-Violaines, I breakfasted at the "Lion d'Or," round
the corner from the square. I was received with grateful hospitality
by madame. An extremely pretty girl of fourteen, with dark admiring
eyes, waited on me. She was charmingly hindered by Annette, a child of
three or four, who with due gravity managed to push some bread on to my
table and thus break a plate. When I returned in the summer of 1916,
I expected that I would at least be recognised. I found the tavern
crowded. Agnes, who had just recovered from an illness, served the mob
of officers with unsmiling disdain. She was not even flurried by the
entreaties of multitudinous padres who were doubtless celebrating some
feast-day. And Annette, decorated with appalling ribbons, was actually
carrying plates.

The alternative was the "Hôtel de France"--a solemn and pretentious
hostelry, at which the staff and French officials congregated. When the
enemy began to shell Bethune, the "Hôtel de France" was closed.

The "Lion d'Or" carried on until the house opposite was hit, and
afterwards reopened spasmodically; but in 1916 and 1917 it was wiser to
try the "Paon d'Or" in the outskirts of the town, near the canal. At
that stuffy restaurant it was possible to lunch peacefully while shells
dropped at intervals in the square and centre of the town.

"Eugene: Coiffeur," was an institution. Eugene must have been dead
or "serving," for madame presided. She was a thin and friendly lady,
with tiny feet, and a belief that all her customers required verbal
entertainment. It was touching to see madame seat herself briskly
beside a morose colonel who knew no respectable word of French, and
endeavour, by the loud reiteration of simple phrases, to assure him
that he was welcome and the weather appalling.

I would linger over Bethune, because no town has been a greater friend
to the soldier for a brief period out of the line. Now it is shattered,
and the inhabitants are fled.

My headquarters at this time were in a farm near Gonnehem, six miles
or so from Bethune. The farm was good of its kind, and in summer the
casual visitor might even have called it smart, after Wiggans, my
adjutant, had cleared away the midden-heap, drained the courtyard,
and had whitewashed everything that would take the colour--all in the
face of violent and reiterated protests from madame. The centre of the
courtyard, encircled by a whitewashed rope, was particularly effective.

In winter no polite epithet could describe the place. The hamlet
consisted of a few farms, each surrounded by innumerable little
ditches, hidden by rank undergrowth and sheltered by large trees. At
the best of times the ditches were full of soaking flax, which gave out
a most pungent odour. After rain the ditches overflowed and flooded the
roads and paths. The hedges and bushes sagged with water. The trees
dripped monotonously. Some of us caught influenza colds: some endured
forgotten rheumatism and lumbago.

We had but one pastime. Certain of our transport horses were not in
use. These we were continually exchanging for riding horses more up
to our weight with a friendly "Remounts" who lived in solitude near
by. In due course Wiggans became the proud owner of a dashing little
black pony and I of a staff officer's discarded charger. In spite of
the dreariness of our surroundings, we felt almost alive at the end
of an afternoon's splash over water-logged fields. Nobody could damp
Wiggans' cheerfulness when he returned with a yet more fiery steed from
his weekly deal, and the teaching of the elements of horsemanship to
officers, who had never ridden, produced an occasional laugh. We may
ourselves have given pleasure in turn to our friends, the yeomanry, who
were billeted in Gonnehem itself.

To us in our damp and melancholy retreat came rumours of tanks. It
was said that they were manned by "bantams." The supply officer
related that on the first occasion on which tanks went into action
the ear-drums of the crews were split. Effective remedies had been
provided. We learned from an officer, who had met the quartermaster
of a battalion that had been on the Somme, the approximate shape and
appearance of tanks. We pictured them and wondered what a cyclist
battalion could do against them. Apparently the tanks had not been a
great success on the Somme, but we imagined potentialities. They were
coloured with the romance that had long ago departed from the war. An
application was made for volunteers. We read it through with care.

I returned from leave. It was pouring with rain and there was nothing
to do. The whole of my battalion was scattered in small parties over
the Corps area. Most of my officers and men were under somebody else's
command. I sent in an application for transfer to the heavy branch of
the Machine-Gun Corps, the title of the Tank Corps in those days. I was
passed as suitable by the Chief Engineer of the Corps, and waited.

It was on the 28th December 1916 that I was ordered by wire to proceed
immediately to the headquarters of the tanks. Christmas festivities had
cheered a depressed battalion, but there was at the time no likelihood
of the mildest excitement. Hamond had disappeared suddenly--it was
rumoured to England and tanks. I was left with a bare handful of men to
command. It was still raining, and we were flooded. I was not sorry to
go....

We set out on a bright morning, in a smart gig that Wiggans had
bought, with his latest acquisition in the shafts, bedecked with some
second-hand harness we had found in Bethune, and clattered through
Lillers to the Hôtel de la Gare.

Lillers was a pleasant town, famous principally for the lady in the
swimming-bath and its oyster-bar. Every morning, in the large open-air
swimming-bath of the town, a lady of considerable beauty was said
to disport herself. The swimming-bath was consequently crowded. The
oyster-bar provided a slight feminine interest as well as particularly
fine _marennes verts_. Lillers was an army headquarters. Like all towns
so fated it bristled with neat notices, clean soldiers with wonderful
salutes, and many motor-cars. It possessed an under-world of staff
officers who hurried ceaselessly from office to office and found but
little time to swim in the morning or consume oysters in the afternoon.

The Hôtel de la Gare was distinguished from lesser hotels by an infant
prodigy and champagne cocktails. The infant prodigy was a dumpy child
of uncertain age, who, with or without encouragement, would climb on
to the piano-stool and pick out simple tunes with one finger. The
champagne cocktails infected a doctor of my acquaintance with an
unreasoning desire to change horses and gallop back to billets.

At last the train came in. My servant, my baggage, and myself were
thrown on board, and alighted at the next station in accordance with
the instructions of the R.T.O....

A few months later the Cyclist Battalion went to Italy, under Major
Percy Davies. It returned to France in time for the German offensive of
April 1918, and gained everlasting honour by holding back the enemy,
when the Portuguese withdrew, until our infantry arrived. For its
skilful and dogged defence this battalion was mentioned by name in the
despatches of the Commander-in-Chief.



CHAPTER II.

FRED KARNO'S ARMY.

(_January to April 1917._)


My servant, Spencer, and I arrived at St Pol, where officers going on
leave used to grow impatient with the official method of travel, desert
the slow uncomfortable train, and haunt the Rest House in the hope of
obtaining a seat in a motor-car to Boulogne. I had expected that the
R.T.O. would call me into his office, and in hushed tones direct me to
the secret lair of the tanks. Everything possible, it was rumoured, had
been done to preserve the tanks from prying eyes. I was undeceived at
once. An official strode up and down the platform, shouting that all
men for the tanks were to alight immediately. I found on inquiry that
the train for the tank area would not depart for several hours, so,
leaving my servant and my kit at the station, I walked into the town
full of hope.

I lunched moderately at the hotel, but, though there was much talk
of tanks there, I found no one with a car. I adjourned in due course
to the military hairdresser, and at dusk was speeding out of St Pol
in a luxurious Vauxhall. I was deposited at Wavrans with the Supply
Officer, a melancholy and overworked young man, who advised me to
use the telephone. Tank headquarters informed me that I was posted
provisionally to D Battalion, and D Battalion promised to send a
box-body. I collected my servant and baggage from the station at
Wavrans, accepted the Supply Officer's hospitality, and questioned him
about my new Corps.

Tanks, he told me, were organised as a branch of the Machine-Gun
Corps for purposes of camouflage, pay, and records. Six companies had
been formed, of which four had come to France and two had remained
in England. The four overseas companies had carried out the recent
operations on the Somme (September-October 1916). The authorities
had been so much impressed that it was decided to expand each of
these companies into a battalion, by the embodiment of certain Motor
Machine-Gun Batteries and of volunteers expected from other corps in
response to the appeal that had been sent round all formations. Thus A,
B, C, and D Battalions were forming in France, E, F, and sundry other
battalions, in England. Each battalion, he believed, consisted of three
companies. Each company possessed twelve or more tanks, and the Company
Commander owned a car.

Primed with this information and some hot tea, I welcomed the arrival
of the box-body. We drove at breakneck speed through the darkness and
the rain to Blangy-sur-Ternoise. I entered a cheerful, brightly-lit
mess. Seeing a venerable and imposing officer standing by the fire, I
saluted him. He assured me that he was only the Equipment Officer. We
sat down to a well-served dinner, I discovered an old 'Varsity friend
in the doctor, and retired content to a comfortable bed after winning
slightly at bridge.

In the morning I was sent in a car to Bermicourt, where I was
interviewed by Colonel Elles.[5] As the result of the interview I was
posted to D Battalion, and on the following evening took over the
command of No. 11 Company from Haskett-Smith....

The usual difficulties and delays had occurred in the assembling of the
battalions. Rations were short. There was no equipment. The billets
were bad. Necessaries such as camp kettles could not be obtained. That
was now old if recent history. The battalions had first seen the light
in October. By the beginning of January officers and men were equipped,
fed, and under cover.

The men were of three classes. First came the "Old Tankers," those
who had been trained with the original companies. They had been drawn
for the most part from the A.S.C.: M.T. Some had been once or twice
in action; some had not. They were excellent tank mechanists. Then
came the motor machine-gunners--smart fellows, without much experience
of active operations. The vast majority of officers and men were
volunteers from the infantry--disciplined fighting men.

On parade the company looked a motley crew, as indeed it was. Men from
different battalions knew different drill. Some from the less combatant
corps knew no drill at all. They resembled a "leave draft," and nobody
can realise how undisciplined disciplined men can appear, who has not
seen a draft of men from various units marching from the boat to a rest
camp. The men are individuals. They trail along like a football crowd.
They have no pride in their appearance, because they cannot feel they
are on parade. They are only a crowd, not a company or a regiment.
Corporate pride and feeling are absent. The company was composed of
drafts. Before it could fight it must be made a company. The men
described themselves with admirable humour in this song, to the tune
"The Church's one foundation"--

    "We are Fred Karno's army, the Ragtime A.S.C.,
    We do not work, we cannot fight, what ruddy use are we?
    And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say--
        'Hoch, hoch, mein Gott!
        What a ruddy rotten lot
        Are the Ragtime A.S.C.!'"

The company lived in a rambling hospice, built round a large courtyard.
The original inhabitants consisted of nuns and thirty or forty aged
and infirm men, who, from their habits and appearance, we judged to be
consumptives.

The nuns were friendly but fussy. They allowed the officers to use a
large kitchen, but resented the intrusion of any but officers' mess
cooks, and in putting forward claims for alleged damages and thefts the
good nuns did not lag behind their less pious sisters in the village.
We were grateful to them for their courtesy and kindliness; yet it
cannot be said that any senior officer in the company ever went out of
his way to meet the Mother Superior. She possessed a tactless memory.

The consumptives had a large room to themselves. It stank abominably.
Where they slept at night was a mystery. They died in the room next to
my bed-chamber.

The door of my room was inscribed "Notre Dame des Douleurs," and the
room justified its title. All operations planned in it were cancelled.
The day after I had first slept in it I fell ill. Colonel Elles, with
Lieut.-Colonel Burnett, came to see me in my bed. I had not shaved, and
my temperature made me slightly familiar. I could never keep the room
warm of nights. Once, when I was suffering from a bad cold, I put out
my hand sleepily for my handkerchief, and, without thinking, tried to
blow my nose. It was a freezing night, and I still have the scar.

The majority of the men had wire beds, made by stretching wire-mesh
over a wooden frame; but the rooms were draughty. We made a sort of
dining-hall in a vast barn, but it was cold and dark.

In these chilly rooms and enormous barns the official supply of fuel
did not go far. The coal trains from the "Mines des Marles" often
rested for a period in Blangy sidings. I am afraid that this source was
tapped unofficially, but the French naturally complained, strict orders
were issued, and our fires again were low. It was necessary to act, and
to act with decision. I obtained a lorry from the battalion, handed
it over to a promising subaltern, and gave him stern instructions to
return with much coal. Late in the afternoon he returned, on foot. The
lorry had broken down six miles away. Three tons of coal made too heavy
a load in frosty weather. The lorry was towed in, and once again we
were warm.

I did not ask for details, but a story reached my ears that a subaltern
with a lorry had arrived that same morning at a certain Army coal dump.
He asked urgently for two tons of coal. The Tanks were carrying out
important experiments: coal they must have or the experiments could not
be continued. Permission was given at once--he would return with the
written order, which the Tanks had stupidly forgotten to give him. A
little gift at the dump produced the third ton. To a Heavy Gunner the
story needs no comment.

The mess was a dining-hall, medieval in size, with an immense open
fireplace that consumed much coal and gave out little heat. We placed
a stove in the middle of the hall. The piping was led to the upper
part of the fireplace, but in spite of Jumbo's ingenuity it was never
secure, and would collapse without warning. The fire smoked badly.

As the hall would seat at least fifty, we specialised in weekly
guest-nights, and the reputation of the company for hospitality was
unequalled. In those days canteens met all reasonable needs: the
allotment system had not been devised; a worried mess-president,
commissioned with threats to obtain whisky, was not offered fifty bars
of soap in lieu. And we bought a piano that afterwards became famous.
Luckily, we had an officer, nicknamed Grantoffski, who could play any
known tune from memory.

Our mess was so large that we were asked to entertain temporarily
several officers from other units of the Tank Corps in process of
formation. Several of these guests came from the central workshops of
the Tank Corps at Erin, and later returned our hospitality by doing us
small services.

One engineer, who remained with the Tank Corps for a few weeks only,
told us a remarkable story. We were talking of revolvers and quick
shooting and fighting in America. Suddenly to our amazement he became
fierce.

"Do you see my hand? You wouldn't think it, but it's nearly
useless--all through a Prussian officer. It was in Louisiana, and he
went for me although I was unarmed. I caught his knife with my bare
hand--it cut to the bone--I jerked back his wrist and threw him. My
pal had a Winchester. He pushed it into the brute's face, smashed it
all up, and was just going to pull the trigger when I knocked it away.
But the sinews of my hand were cut and there was no doctor there....
I've been after that Prussian ever since. I'm going to get him--oh yes,
don't you fear. I'm going to get him. How do I know he is still alive?
I heard the other day. He is on the other side. I've pursued him for
five years, and now I'm going to get him!"

He was a Scots engineer, a sturdy red-faced fellow with twinkling eyes
and a cockney curl to his hair.

The mess was a pleasant place, and training proceeded smoothly, because
no company commander ever had better officers. My second-in-command
was Haigh, a young and experienced regular from the infantry. He left
me after the second battle of Bullecourt, to instruct the Americans.
My officers were Swears, an "old Tanker," who was instructing at
Bermicourt, Wyatt, and "Happy Fanny," Morris, Puttock, Davies,
Clarkson, Macilwaine, Birkett, Grant, King, Richards, Telfer, Skinner,
Sherwood, Head, Pritchard, Bernstein, Money, Talbot, Coghlan--too few
remained long with the company. Of the twenty I have mentioned, three
had been killed, six wounded, three transferred, and two invalided
before the year was out.

Training began in the middle of December and continued until the middle
of March. Prospective tank-drivers tramped up early every morning
to the Tank Park or "Tankodrome"--a couple of large fields in which
workshops had been erected, some trenches dug, and a few shell-craters
blown. The Tankodrome was naturally a sea of mud. Perhaps the mud was
of a curious kind--perhaps the mixture of petrol and oil with the mud
was poisonous. Most officers and men working in the Tankodrome suffered
periodically from painful and ugly sores, which often spread over the
body from the face. We were never free from them while we were at
Blangy.

The men were taught the elements of tank driving and tank maintenance
by devoted instructors, who laboured day after day in the mud, the
rain, and the snow. Officers' courses were held at Bermicourt. Far too
few tanks were available for instruction, and very little driving was
possible.

"Happy Fanny" toiled in a cold and draughty out-house with a couple
of 6-pdrs. and a shivering class. Davies, our enthusiastic Welsh
footballer, supervised instruction in the Lewis gun among the draughts
of a lofty barn in the Hospice.

The foundation of all training was drill. As a very temporary soldier
I had regarded drill as unnecessary ritual, as an opportunity for
colonels and adjutants to use their voices and prance about on horses.
"Spit and polish" seemed to me as antiquated in a modern war as
pipeclay and red coats. I was wrong. Let me give the old drill-sergeant
his due. There is nothing in the world like smart drill under a
competent instructor to make a company out of a mob. Train a man to
respond instantly to a brisk command, and he will become a clean,
alert, self-respecting soldier.

We used every means to quicken the process. We obtained a bugle. Our
bugler was not good. He became careless towards the middle of his
calls, and sometimes he erred towards the finish. He did not begin them
always on quite the right note. We started with twenty odd calls a day.
Everything the officers and the men did was done by bugle-call. It was
very military and quite effective. All movements became brisk. But the
bugler became worse and worse. Out of self-preservation we reduced the
number of his calls. Finally he was stopped altogether by the colonel,
whose headquarters were at the time close to our camp.

Our football team helped to bring the company together. It happened to
excel any other team in the neighbourhood. We piled up enormous scores
against all the companies we played. Each successive victory made the
men prouder of the company, and more deeply contemptuous of the other
companies who produced such feeble and ineffective elevens. Even
the money that flowed into the pockets of our more ardent supporters
after each match strengthened the belief in the superiority of No.
11 Company. The spectators were more than enthusiastic. Our C.S.M.
would run up and down the touch-line, using the most amazing and lurid
language.

Towards the middle of February our training became more ingenious and
advanced. As painfully few real tanks were available for instruction,
it was obviously impossible to use them for tactical schemes. Our
friendly Allies would have inundated the Claims Officer if tanks had
carelessly manoeuvred over their precious fields. In consequence the
authorities provided dummy tanks.

Imagine a large box of canvas stretched on a wooden frame, without
top or bottom, about six feet high, eight feet long, and five feet
wide. Little slits were made in the canvas to represent the loopholes
of a tank. Six men carried and moved each dummy, lifting it by the
cross-pieces of the framework. For our sins we were issued with eight
of these abortions.

We started with a crew of officers to encourage the men, and the first
dummy tank waddled out of the gate. It was immediately surrounded by
a mob of cheering children, who thought it was an imitation dragon
or something out of a circus. It was led away from the road to avoid
hurting the feelings of the crew and to safeguard the ears and
morals of the young. After colliding with the corner of a house, it
endeavoured to walk down the side of the railway cutting. Nobody was
hurt, but a fresh crew was necessary. It regained the road when a
small man in the middle, who had been able to see nothing, stumbled and
fell. The dummy tank was sent back to the carpenter for repairs.

We persevered with those dummy tanks. The men hated them. They were
heavy, awkward, and produced much childish laughter. In another company
a crew walked over a steep place and a man broke his leg. The dummies
became less and less mobile. The signallers practised from them, and
they were used by the visual training experts. One company commander
mounted them on waggons drawn by mules. The crews were tucked in with
their Lewis guns, and each contraption, a cross between a fire-engine
and a triumphal car in a Lord Mayor's Show, would gallop past targets
which the gunners would recklessly endeavour to hit.

Finally, these dummies reposed derelict in our courtyard until one by
one they disappeared, as the canvas and the wood were required for
ignobler purposes.

We were allowed occasionally to play with real tanks. A sham attack was
carried out before hill-tops of generals and staff officers, who were
much edified by the sight of tanks moving. The total effect was marred
by an enthusiastic tank commander, who, in endeavouring to show off the
paces of his tank, became badly ditched, and the tank was for a moment
on fire. The spectators appeared interested.

On another day we carried out experiments with smoke-bombs. Two gallant
tanks moved slowly up a hill against trenches. When the tanks drew
near, the defenders of the trenches rushed out, armed with several
kinds of smoke-producing missiles. These they hurled at the tanks,
and, growing bolder, inserted them into every loophole and crevice
of the tanks. At length the half-suffocated crews tumbled out, and
maintained with considerable strength of language that all those who
had approached the tanks had been killed, adding that if they had only
known what kind of smoke was going to be used they would have loaded
their guns to avoid partial asphyxiation.

In addition to these open-air sports, the senior officers of the
battalion carried out indoor schemes under the colonel. We planned
numerous attacks on the map. I remember that my company was detailed
once to attack Serre. A few months later I passed through this
"village," but I could only assure myself of its position by the fact
that there was some brick-dust in the material of the road.

By the beginning of March the company had begun to find itself. Drill,
training, and sport had each done their work. Officers and men were
proud of their company, and were convinced that no better company
had ever existed. The mob of men had been welded into a fighting
instrument. My sergeant-major and I were watching another company march
up the street. He turned to me with an expression of slightly amused
contempt.

"They can't march like us, sir!"



CHAPTER III.

BEFORE THE FIRST BATTLE.

(_March and April 1917._)


In the first months of 1917 we were confident that the last year of
the war had come. The Battle of the Somme had shown that the strongest
German lines were not impregnable. We had learned much: the enemy had
received a tremendous hammering; and the success of General Gough's
operations in the Ancre valley promised well for the future. The
French, it was rumoured, were undertaking a grand attack in the early
spring. We were first to support them by an offensive near Arras, and
then we would attack ourselves on a large scale somewhere in the north.
We hoped, too, that the Russians and Italians would come to our help.
We were told that the discipline of the German Army was loosening, that
our blockade was proving increasingly effective, and we were encouraged
by stories of many novel inventions. We possessed unbounded confidence
in our Tanks.

Late in February the colonel held a battalion conference. He explained
the situation to his company commanders and the plan of forthcoming
operations.

As the result of our successes in the Ancre valley, the German position
between the Ancre and Arras formed a pronounced salient. It was
determined to attack simultaneously at Arras and from the Ancre valley,
with the object of breaking through at both points and cutting off the
German inside the salient.

Colonel Elles had offered two battalions of tanks. He was taking a
risk. Officers and crews were only half-trained. Right through the
period of training real tanks had been too scarce. Improved tanks were
expected from England, but none had arrived, and he decided to employ
again the old Mark I. tank which had been used in the operations on the
Somme in the previous year. The two battalions selected were "C" and
"D."

When we examined the orders for the attack in detail, I found that my
company was destined to go through with the troops allotted to the
second objective and take Mercatel and Neuville Vitasse. It should
have been a simple enough operation, as two conspicuous main roads
penetrated the German lines parallel with the direction of my proposed
attack.

On March 9th I drove to Arras in my car with Haigh, my
second-in-command, and Jumbo, my reconnaissance officer. We went by
St Pol and the great Arras road. The Arras road is a friend of mine.
First it was almost empty except for the lorry park near Savy, and,
short of Arras, it was screened because the Germans still held the
Vimy Ridge. Then before the Arras battle it became more and more
crowded--numberless lorries, convoys of huge guns and howitzers,
smiling men in buses and tired men marching, staff-cars and motor
ambulances, rarely, a waggon with slow horses, an old Frenchman in
charge, quite bewildered by the traffic. When the battle had begun,
whole Divisions, stretching for ten miles or more, came marching along
it, and the ambulances streamed back to the big hospital at St Pol. I
saw it for the last time after the Armistice had been signed, deserted
and unimportant, with just a solitary soldier here and there standing
at the door of a cottage. It is an exposed and windy road. The surface
of it was never good, but I have always felt that the Arras road was
proud to help us. It seemed ever to be saying: "Deliver Arras from
shell and bomb; then leave me, and I shall be content to dream
again."...

We drove into Arras a little nervously, but it was not being shelled,
and, hungry after a freezing ride, we lunched at the Hôtel de Commerce.

This gallant hotel was less than 2500 yards from the German trenches.
Across the street was a field battery in action. The glass of the
restaurant had been broken, the upper stories had been badly damaged,
the ceiling of the dining-room showed marks of shrapnel. Arras was
being shelled and bombed every night, and often by day; German
aeroplanes flew low over the town and fired down the streets. The
hotel had still carried on ever since the British had been in Arras
and before. The proprietress, a little pinched and drawn, with the
inevitable scrap of fur flung over her shoulders, presided at the
desk. Women dressed in the usual black waited on us. The lunch was
cheap, excellently cooked, and well served--within easy range of the
enemy field-guns. After the battle the hotel was put out of bounds,
for serving drinks in forbidden hours. Indeed, A.P.M.'s have no souls.
It reopened later, and continued to flourish until the German attack
of April 1918, when the enemy shelling became too insistent. The hotel
has not been badly hit, and, if it be rebuilt, I beseech all those who
visit the battlefields of Arras to lunch at the Hôtel de Commerce--in
gratitude. It is in the main street just by the station.

We motored out of Arras along a road that was lined with newly-made
gun-pits, and, arriving at a dilapidated village, introduced ourselves
to the Divisional staff. We discussed operations, and found that much
was expected of the tanks. After a cheery tea we drove home in the
bitter cold.

On the 13th March we again visited the Division. I picked up the G.S.O.
III. of the Division, called on a brigadier, with whom I expected to
work, and then drove to the neighbourhood of the disreputable village
of Agny. We peeped at the very little there was to be seen of the
enemy front line through observation posts in cottages and returned to
Arras, where we lunched excellently with the colonel of an infantry
battalion. I left Jumbo with him, to make a detailed reconnaissance of
the Front....

The Arras battle would have been fought according to plan, we should
have won a famous victory, and hundreds of thousands of Germans might
well have been entrapped in the Arras salient, if the enemy in his
wisdom had not retired. Unfortunately, at the beginning of March he
commenced his withdrawal from the unpleasant heights to the north
of the Ancre valley, and, once the movement was under way, it was
predicted that the whole of the Arras salient would be evacuated.
This actually occurred in the following weeks; the very sector I was
detailed to attack was occupied by our troops without fighting. Whether
the German had wind of the great attack that we had planned, I do not
know. He certainly made it impossible for us to carry it out.

As soon as the extent of the German withdrawal became clear, my company
was placed in reserve. I was instructed to make arrangements to support
any attack at any point on the Arras front.

The Arras sector was still suitable for offensive operations. The
Germans had fallen back on the Hindenburg Line, and this complicated
system of defences rejoined the old German line opposite Arras.
Obviously the most practical way of attacking the Hindenburg Line was
to turn it--to fight down it, and not against it. Our preparations for
an attack in the Arras sector and on the Vimy Ridge to the north of
it were far advanced. It was decided in consequence to carry out with
modifications the attack on the German trench system opposite Arras
and on the Vimy Ridge. Operations from the Ancre valley, the southern
re-entrant of the old Arras salient, were out of the question. The
Fifth Army was fully occupied in keeping touch with the enemy.

On the 27th March my company was suddenly transferred from the Third
Army to the Fifth Army. I was informed that my company would be
attached to the Vth Corps for any operations that might occur. Jumbo
was recalled from Arras, fuming at his wasted work, and an advance
party was immediately sent to my proposed detraining station at
Achiet-le-Grand.

On the 29th March I left Blangy. My car was a little unsightly. The
body was loaded with Haigh's kit and my kit and a collapsible table.
On top, like a mahout, sat Spencer, my servant. It was sleeting, and
there was a cold wind. We drove through St Pol and along the Arras
road, cut south through Habarcq to Beaumetz, and plunged over appalling
roads towards Bucquoy. The roads became worse and worse. Spencer was
just able to cling on, groaning at every bump. Soon we arrived at our
old rear defences, from which we had gone forward only ten days before.
It was joyous to read the notices, so newly obsolete--"This road is
subject to shell-fire"--and when we passed over our old support and
front trenches, and drove across No Man's Land, and saw the green
crosses of the Germans, the litter of their trenches, their signboards
and their derelict equipment, then we were triumphant indeed. Since
March 1917 we have advanced many a mile, but never with more joy.
Remember that from October 1914 to March 1917 we had never really
advanced. At Neuve Chapelle we took a village and four fields, Loos was
a fiasco, and the Somme was too horrible for a smile.

On the farther side of the old German trenches was desolation. We
came to a village and found the houses lying like slaughtered animals.
Mostly they had been pulled down, like card houses, but some had been
blown in. It was so pitiful that I wanted to stop and comfort them. The
trees along the roads had been cut down. The little fruit-trees had
been felled, or lay half-fallen with gashes in their sides. The ploughs
rusted in the fields. The rain was falling monotonously. It was getting
dark, and there was nobody to be seen except a few forlorn soldiers.

We crept with caution round the vast funnel-shaped craters that had
been blown at each cross-road, and, running through Logeast Wood,
which had mocked us for so many weeks on the Somme, we came to
Achiet-le-Grand.

Ridger, the town commandant, had secured the only standing house, and
he was afraid that it had been left intact for some devilish purpose.
Haigh and Grant of my advance party were established in a dug-out.
So little was it possible in those days to realise the meaning of an
advance, that we discovered we had only two mugs, two plates, and one
knife between us.

In the morning we got to work. A supply of water was arranged for the
men; there was only one well in the village that had not been polluted.
We inspected the ramp by which the tanks would detrain, selected a
tankodrome near the station, wired in a potential dump, found good
cellars for the men, and began the construction of a mess in the
remains of a small brick stable. Then Haigh and I motored past the
derelict factory of Bihucourt and through the outskirts of Bapaume to
the ruins of Behagnies, on the Bapaume-Arras road. After choosing sites
for an advanced camp and tankodrome, we walked back to Achiet-le-Grand
across country, in order to reconnoitre the route for tanks from the
station to Behagnies. After lunch, Haigh, Jumbo, and I motored to
Ervillers, which is beyond Behagnies, and, leaving the car there,
tramped to Mory. Jumbo had discovered in the morning an old quarry,
hidden by trees, that he recommended as a half-way house for the tanks,
if we were ordered to move forward; but the enemy was a little lively,
and we determined to investigate further on a less noisy occasion.

That night we dined in our new mess. We had stretched one tarpaulin
over what had been the roof, and another tarpaulin took the place of
an absent wall. The main beam was cracked, and we feared rain, but a
huge blazing fire comforted us--until one or two slates fell off with
a clatter. We rushed out, fearing the whole building was about to
collapse. It was cold and drizzling. We stood it for five minutes, and
then, as nothing further happened, we returned to our fire....

In some general instructions I had received from the colonel, it was
suggested that my company would be used by the Vth Corps for an attack
on Bullecourt and the Hindenburg Line to the east and west of the
village. It will be remembered that the attack at Arras was designed
to roll up the Hindenburg Line, starting from the point at which the
Hindenburg Line joined the old German trench system. General Gough's
Fifth Army, consisting of General Fanshawe's Vth Corps and General
Birdwood's Corps of Australians, lay south-east of Arras and on the
right of the Third Army. The Fifth Army faced the Hindenburg Line, and,
if it attacked, it would be compelled to attack frontally.

[Illustration]

The disadvantages of a frontal attack on an immensely strong series of
entrenchments were balanced by the fact that a successful penetration
would bring the Fifth Army on the left rear of that German Army, which
would be fully occupied at the time in repelling the onset of our Third
Army.

The key to that sector of the Hindenburg Line which lay opposite the
Fifth Army front was the village of Bullecourt.

In the last week of March the Germans had not taken refuge in their
main line of defence, and were still holding out in the villages of
Croisilles, Ecoust, and Noreuil.

We were attacking them vigorously, but with no success and heavy
casualties. On the morning of the 31st March Jumbo and I drove again to
Ervillers and walked to Mory, pushing forward down the slope towards
Ecoust. There was a quaint feeling of insecurity, quite unjustified,
in strolling about "on top." We had an excellent view of our shells
bursting on the wire in front of Ecoust, but we saw nothing of the
country we wanted to reconnoitre--the approaches to Bullecourt. Ecoust
was finally captured at the sixth or seventh attempt by the 9th
Division on April 1st.

In the afternoon I paid my first visit to the Vth Corps, then at
Acheux, twenty miles back. I motored by Bapaume and Albert over the
Somme battlefield. The nakedness of it is now hidden by coarse grass
and rough weeds, but in March of 1917 it was bare. There was dark-brown
mud for mile after mile as far as the eye could see--mud churned and
tortured until the whole surface of the earth was pitted with craters.
Mud overwhelmed the landscape. Trees showed only against the sky; dead
men, old equipment, derelict tanks blended with the mud. At Le Sars
bits of walls and smashed beams lay embedded in the mud. At Pozières
the mud held a few mud-coloured bricks. I was glad when I came to
Albert.

We took the Doullens road and found the Corps well housed in the
chateau at Acheux. I announced the imminent arrival of my tanks,
but the news did not kindle the enthusiasm I had expected. The Vth
Corps had already used tanks and knew their little ways. After
tea I consulted with the lesser lights of the staff. Satisfactory
arrangements were made for supplies, rations, and accommodation, and
I demanded and obtained the use of a troop of Glasgow Yeomanry, on the
plea that they were required to cover the tracks of my tanks. I wanted
a horse to ride.

I decided to return by Puisieux-le-Mont. It was apparent that the
Albert-Bapaume road would soon become uncomfortably crowded. I wanted
to reconnoitre the only alternative route, and at the same time to
inspect the village of Serre, which, on paper, I had so often and so
violently attacked.

Never have I endured a more ghastly ride. In comparison with the
country on either side of the Puisieux road, the Somme battlefield
from the highway between Albert and Bapaume was serenely monotonous.
After Mailly-Mailly the road became a rough track, narrow and full
of unfilled shell-holes. Crazy bridges had been thrown across the
trenches. The sun was setting in a fiery sky, and a reddish light
tinged the pitiful tumbled earth, and glittered for a moment on the
desolate water of the shell-holes. The crumbling trenches were manned
with restless dead. In the doubtful light I thought a dead German
moved. He lay on his back, half-sunken in the slimy mud, with knees
drawn up, and blackened hand gripping a rusty rifle. Mercifully I could
not see his face, but I thought his arms twitched.

It grew darker, and so narrow was the track that I might have been
driving over the black mud of the battlefield. A derelict limber
half-blocked the road, and, swerving to avoid it, we barely missed
the carcass of a horse, dead a few days. Our progress was slow. Soon
we lit the lamps. The track was full of horrible shadows, and big dark
things seemed to come down the road to meet us--shattered transport or
old heaps of shells. On either side of the car was the desert of mud
and water-logged holes and corpses, face downward under the water, and
broken guns and mortars, and little graves, and mile-long strands of
rusty wire. Everywhere maimed ghosts were rustling, and the plump rats
were pattering along the trenches.

It is unwise to go through a battlefield at night. If they make the
Somme battlefield a forest, no man will be brave enough to cross it in
the dark.

We came to lights in the ruins of a village, and I stopped for a pipe
and a word with my driver....

My tanks arrived at Achiet-le-Grand just after dawn on April 1st. We
had taken them over from the central workshops at Erin, and had drawn
there a vast variety of equipment. The tanks had been driven on to the
train by an Engineer officer. The railway journey had been delayed as
usual, and the usual expert--this time a doctor--had walked along the
train, when shunted at Doullens, and had pointed out to his companion
the "new monster tanks."

In the morning we hauled off the sponson-trolleys--their use will be
explained later--but we thought it wiser to wait until dusk before we
detrained the tanks.

Tanks travel on flat trucks, such as are employed to carry rails.
They are driven on and off the train under their own power, but this
performance requires care, skill, and experience. A Mk. I. or a Mk.
IV. tank is not too easy to steer, while the space between the track
and the edge of the truck is alarmingly small. With two exceptions, my
officers had neither experience nor skill.

It was an anxious time--not only for the company commander. The office
of the R.T.O., at the edge of the ramp, was narrowly missed on two
occasions. Very slowly and with infinite care the tanks were persuaded
to leave the train and move down the road to the tankodrome we had
selected. Then it began first to sleet and then to snow, while an icy
wind rose, until a blizzard was lashing our faces.

In the old Mark I. tank it was necessary to detach the sponsons, or
armoured "bow-windows," on either side before the tank could be moved
by rail. This was no easy matter. The tank was driven into two shallow
trenches. A stout four-wheeled trolley was run alongside, and a sort of
crane was fitted, to which slings were secured. The sponson was girt
about with these slings, the bolts which secured the sponson to the
body of the tank were taken out, and the sponson was lowered on to the
trolley.

My men, of whom the majority were inexperienced, carried out the
reverse process on a dark night in a blizzard. Their fingers were so
blue with cold that they could scarcely handle their tools. The climax
was reached when we discovered that we should be compelled to drill new
holes in several of the sponsons, because in certain cases the holes in
the sponsons did not correspond with the holes in the tanks.

If the men never had a harder night's work, they certainly never worked
better. Half the tanks fitted their sponsons and reached Behagnies by
dawn. The remainder, less one lame duck, were hidden in Achiet-le-Grand
until darkness once more allowed them to move.

Every precaution was taken to conceal the tanks from the enemy. My
troop of Glasgow Yeomanry, under the direction of Talbot, who had been
a sergeant-major in the Dragoons, rode twice over the tracks which the
tanks had made in order to obliterate them by hoof-marks. At Behagnies
the tanks were drawn up against convenient hedges and enveloped in
tarpaulins and camouflage nets. In spite of our efforts they appeared
terribly obvious as we surveyed them anxiously from one point after
another. Our subtle devices were soon tested. An enterprising German
airman flew down out of the clouds and darted upon two luckless
observation balloons to right and left of us. He set them both on fire
with tracer bullets, came low over our camp, fired down the streets of
Bapaume, and disappeared into the east. The sporting instinct of my men
responded to the audacity of the exploit, and they cheered him; but
for the next twenty-four hours I was wondering if the camouflage of my
tanks had been successful, or if the attention of the airman had been
concentrated solely on the balloons. Presumably we were not spotted,
for while at Behagnies we were neither shelled nor bombed.

The preparations for my first essay in tank-fighting were beginning
to bear fruit. Eleven tanks lay within two short marches of any
point from which they were likely to attack, and my crews were busy
overhauling them. One crippled tank was hidden at Achiet-le-Grand, but
the mechanical defect which had developed in her must have escaped the
notice of central workshops. Cooper[6] was engaged night and day in
taking up supplies and making forward dumps. The Corps had provided us
with a convoy of limbered waggons drawn by mules--the forward roads
were not passable for lorries--and the wretched animals had little
rest. We were ordered to be ready by the 6th, and the order meant a
fight against time. Tanks consume an incredible quantity of petrol,
oil, grease, and water, and it was necessary to form dumps of these
supplies and of ammunition at Mory Copse, our half-way house, and at
Noreuil and Ecoust. Night and day the convoy trekked backwards and
forwards under Cooper or Talbot. Mules cast their shoes, the drivers
were dog-tired, the dumps at Noreuil and Ecoust were shelled, both
roads to Mory were blocked by the explosion of delayed mines,--in spite
of all difficulties the dumps were made, and on the morning of the
battle the convoy stood by loaded, ready to follow the tanks in the
expected break through.

Haigh had ridden forward to Ecoust with a handful of Glasgow yeomen in
order to keep an eye on the dump and reconnoitre the country between
Ecoust and the Hindenburg Line. He started in the afternoon, joining an
ammunition column on the way. They approached the village at dusk. The
enemy was shelling the road and suspected battery positions short of
the first houses. The column made a dash for it at full gallop, but a
couple of shells found the column, killing a team and the drivers.

Haigh and his men wandered into a smithy and lit a small fire, for it
was bitterly cold. The shelling continued, but the smithy was not hit.
They passed a wretched night, and at dawn discovered a cellar, where
they made themselves comfortable after they had removed the bodies of
two Germans.

The reconnaissances were carried out with Haigh's usual thoroughness.
Tank routes and observation posts were selected--"lying-up" places for
the tanks were chosen. Everything was ready if the tanks should be
ordered to attack Bullecourt from the direction of Ecoust.

On April 4th I was introduced to the Higher Command. The Vth Corps had
moved forward from Acheux to the ruined chateau at Bihucourt. There I
lunched with the General, and drove with him in the afternoon to an
army conference at Fifth Army Headquarters in Albert. The block of
traffic on the road made us an hour late, and it was interesting to
see how an Army commander dealt with such pronounced, if excusable,
unpunctuality in a Corps commander.

The conference consisted of an awe-inspiring collection of generals
seated round a table in a stuffy room decorated with maps. The details
of the attack had apparently been settled before we arrived, but I
understood from the Army commander's vigorous summary of the situation
that the Third Army would not attack until the 7th. The greatest
results were expected, and the Fifth Army would join in the fray
immediately the attack of the Third Army was well launched. As far
as I was concerned, my tanks were to be distributed along the fronts
of the Australian and Vth Corps. The conference broke up, and the
colonel and I were asked to tea at the chateau. It was a most nervous
proceeding, to drink tea in the company of a bevy of generals; but
the major-general on my right was hospitality itself, and the colonel
improved the occasion by obtaining the promise of some more huts from
the major-general, who was engineer-in-chief of the Army. Eventually we
escaped, and the colonel[7] drove me back to Behagnies, where battalion
headquarters lay close by my camp.

On the night of the 5th, as soon as it was dusk, my tanks moved
forward. One by one they slid smoothly past me in the darkness, each
like a patient animal, led by his officer, who flashed directions with
an electric lamp. The stench of petrol in the air, a gentle crackling
as they found their way through the wire, the sweet purr of the engine
changing to a roar when they climbed easily on to the road--and then,
as they followed the white tape into the night, the noise of their
engines died away, and I could hear only the sinister flap-flap of the
tracks, and see only points of light on the hillside.

Tanks in the daytime climbing in and out of trenches like performing
elephants may appeal to the humour of a journalist. Stand with me at
night and listen. There is a little mist, and the dawn will soon
break. Listen carefully, and you will hear a queer rhythmical noise and
the distant song of an engine. The measured flap of the tracks grows
louder, and, if you did not know, you would think an aeroplane was
droning overhead. Then in the half-light comes a tired officer, reading
a map, and behind him another, signalling at intervals to a grey mass
gliding smoothly like a snake. And so they pass, one by one, with the
rattle of tracks and the roar of their exhaust, each mass crammed with
weary men, hot and filthy and choking with the fumes. Nothing is more
inexorable than the slow glide of a tank and the rhythm of her tracks.
Remember that nothing on earth has ever caused more deadly fear at the
terrible hour of dawn than these grey sliding masses crammed with weary
men....

My tanks were safely camouflaged in the old quarry at Mory Copse before
dawn on April 6th. I joined them in the morning, riding up from the
camp at Behagnies on a troop-horse I had commandeered from my troop
of Glasgow Yeomanry. The quarry was not an ideal hiding-place, as it
lay open to direct though distant observation from the German lines;
but the tanks were skilfully concealed by the adroit use of trees,
undergrowth, and nets, the hill surmounted by the copse provided
an excellent background, and we were compelled to make a virtue of
necessity as the open downs in the neighbourhood of Mory gave not the
slightest cover.[8] The village itself was out of the question: the
enemy were shelling it with hearty goodwill.

We lay there comfortably enough, though unnecessary movement by day
and the use of lights at night were forbidden. No enemy aeroplane came
over, but a few shells, dropping just beyond the copse on a suspected
battery position, disturbed our sleep. The tanks were quietly tuned,
the guns were cleaned, and officers were detailed to reconnoitre the
tank routes to Ecoust and Noreuil.

The offensive was postponed from day to day, and we were growing a
little impatient, when at dawn on April 9th the Third Army attacked.

It had been arranged at the last Army Conference that the Fifth Army
would move when the offensive of the Third Army was well launched. My
tanks were to be distributed in pairs along the whole front of the
army, and to each pair a definite objective was allotted. I had always
been averse to this scattering of my command. The Hindenburg Line,
which faced us, was notoriously strong. Bullecourt, the key to the
whole position, looked on the map almost impregnable. The artillery of
the Fifth Army was to the best of my knowledge far from overwhelming,
and gunners had told me that good forward positions for the guns
were difficult to find. I realised, of course, that an officer in my
subordinate position knew little, but I was convinced that a surprise
concentration might prove a success where a formal attack, lightly
supported by a few tanks scattered over a wide front, might reasonably
fail. I planned for my own content an attack in which my tanks,
concentrated on a narrow front of a thousand yards and supported as
strongly as possible by all the infantry and guns available, should
steal up to the Hindenburg Line without a barrage. As they entered the
German trenches down would come the barrage, and under cover of the
barrage and the tanks the infantry would sweep through, while every
gun not used in making the barrage should pound away at the German
batteries.

I was so fascinated by my conception that on the morning of the 9th
I rode down to Behagnies and gave it to the colonel for what it was
worth. He approved of it thoroughly. After a hasty lunch we motored
down to the headquarters of the Fifth Army.

We found General Gough receiving in triumph the reports of our
successes on the Third Army front opposite Arras.

"We want to break the Hindenburg Line with tanks, General," said the
colonel, and very briefly explained the scheme.

General Gough received it with favour, and decided to attack at dawn
on the following morning. He asked me when my tanks would require to
start. The idea of an attack within twenty-four hours was a little
startling--there were so many preparations to be made; but I replied
my tanks should move at once, and I suggested air protection. General
Gough immediately rang up the R.F.C., but their General was out,
and, after some discussion, it was decided that my tanks would have
sufficient time to reach the necessary position if they moved off after
dusk. We drove at breakneck speed to the chateau near, which was
occupied by the Australian Corps, and were left by General Gough to
work out the details with the Brigadier-General of the General Staff.

The colonel allowed me to explain the scheme myself. All my suggestions
were accepted; but the concentration of men and guns that I had
imagined in my dreams was made impossible by the fact that General
Gough had ordered the attack for the morrow.

I took the colonel's car and tore back to Behagnies. I wrote out my
orders while Jumbo, helped by two reconnaissance officers who were
attached to us for instruction, rapidly marked and coloured maps for
the tank commanders. My orders reached Swears, who was in charge at
Mory Copse, by 6.30 P.M., and by 8 P.M. the tanks were clear of the
quarry.

After dark I walked down the Bapaume road and presented myself at the
headquarters of the Australian Division, with which my tanks were
operating. It was a pitch-black night. The rain was turning to sleet.

Divisional Headquarters were in "Armstrong" or small canvas huts,
draughty and cold. I discussed the coming battle with the staff of the
Division and Osborne, the G.S.O. II. of the Corps. We turned in for a
snatch of sleep, and I woke with a start--dreaming that my tanks had
fallen over a cliff into the sea. At midnight I went to the door of
the hut and looked out. A gale was blowing, and sleet was mingled with
snow. After midnight I waited anxiously for news of my tanks. It was a
long trek for one night, and, as we had drawn them so recently, I could
not guarantee, from experience, their mechanical condition. There was
no margin of time for any except running repairs.

At one o'clock still no news had come. The tanks had orders to
telephone to me immediately they came to Noreuil, and from Noreuil to
the starting-point was at least a ninety-minutes' run.

By two o'clock everybody was asking me for information. Brigade
Headquarters at Noreuil had neither seen tanks nor heard them, but they
sent out orderlies to look for them in case they had lost their way. At
Noreuil it was snowing hard, and blowing a full gale.

My position was not pleasant. The attack was set for dawn. The
infantry had already gone forward to the railway embankment, from
which they would "jump off." In daylight they could neither remain at
the embankment nor retire over exposed ground without heavy shelling.
It was half-past two. I was penned in a hut with a couple of staff
officers, who, naturally enough, were irritated and gloomy. I could do
nothing.

The attack was postponed for an hour. Still no news of the tanks. The
faintest glimmerings of dawn appeared when the telephone-bell rang. The
Australian handed me the receiver with a smile of relief.

"It's one of your men," he said.

I heard Wyatt's tired voice.

"We are two miles short of Noreuil in the valley. We have been
wandering on the downs in a heavy snowstorm. We never quite lost our
way, but it was almost impossible to keep the tanks together. I will
send in a report. The men are dead-tired."

"How long will it take to get to the starting-point?" I asked.

"An hour and a half at least," he replied wearily.

"Stand by for orders."

It was 1-1/4 hours before zero. The men were dead-tired. The tanks had
been running all night. But the Australians were out on the railway
embankment and dawn was breaking.

I went to see the General, and explained the situation briefly.

"What will happen to your tanks if I put back zero another hour and we
attack in daylight?" he asked.

"My tanks will be useless," I replied. "They will be hit before they
reach the German trenches--particularly against a background of snow."

He looked at his watch and glanced through the window at the growing
light.

"It can't be helped. We must postpone the show. I think there is just
time to get the boys back. Send B. to me."

I called up Wyatt and told him that the men were to be given a little
sleep. The officers, after a short rest, were to reconnoitre forward.
I heard orders given for the Australians to come back from the railway
embankment--later I learned that this was done with practically no
casualties--then I stumbled down the road to tell the colonel.

I found him shaving.

"The tanks lost their way in a snowstorm and arrived late at Noreuil.
The attack was postponed."

He looked grave for a moment, but continued his shaving.

"Go and have some breakfast," he said cheerily. "You must be hungry.
We'll talk it over later."

So I went and had some breakfast....



CHAPTER IV.

THE FIRST BATTLE OF BULLECOURT.

(_April 11, 1917._)


Later in the morning we heard from Jumbo, who had returned from
Noreuil, the full history of the weary trek in the blizzard.

The tanks had left Mory Copse at 8 P.M. under the guidance of Wyatt.
In the original plan of operations it had been arranged that Wyatt's
section should attack from Noreuil and the remaining sections from
Ecoust. So Wyatt was the only section commander who had reconnoitred
the Noreuil route.

No tape had been laid. We had not wished to decorate the downs with
broad white tape before the afternoon of the day on which the tanks
would move forward. On the other hand, we had not calculated on such
a brief interval between the receipt of orders and the start of the
tanks. An attempt to lay tape in front of the tanks was soon abandoned:
the drivers could not distinguish it, and Wyatt was guiding them as
well as he could.

Soon after they had set out the blizzard came sweeping over the downs,
blocking out landmarks and obscuring lamps. The drivers could not
always see the officers who were leading their tanks on foot. Each tank
commander, blinded and breathless, found it barely possible to follow
the tank in front. The pace was reduced to a mere crawl in order to
keep the convoy together.

Though Wyatt never lost his way, he wisely proceeded with the utmost
caution, checking his route again and again. Our line at the time
consisted of scattered posts--there were no trenches--and on such a
night it would have been easy enough to lead the whole company of tanks
straight into the German wire.

The tanks came down into the valley that runs from Vaulx-Vraucourt to
Noreuil two miles above Noreuil. The crews were dead-tired, but they
would have gone forward willingly if they could have arrived in time.
The rest of the story I have told.

The blizzard confounded many that night. The colonel told me later he
had heard that a whole cavalry brigade had spent most of the night
wandering over the downs, hopelessly lost. I cannot vouch for the story
myself.

In the afternoon (April 10) I was called to a conference at the
headquarters of the Australian Division. General Birdwood was there,
Major-General Holmes, who commanded the Division with which we were to
operate, Brigadier-General Rosenthal, commanding the artillery of the
Corps, sundry staff officers, the colonel, and myself.

The conference first discussed the situation on the front of the Third
Army. The initial advance had been completely successful, but the
German forces were far from defeat, and were continuing to offer a
most determined and skilful resistance. We certainly had not broken
through yet. The battle, however, was still in its earliest stages; the
situation had not crystallised; there was still hope that the enormous
pressure of our offensive might cause the enemy line to crumble and
disappear. It had been decided, in consequence, to proceed with the
postponed attack on Bullecourt, but to overhaul the arrangements which
had been improvised to meet an emergency. The original idea of a
stealthy and silent attack, led by tanks and supported by a bombardment
rather than a barrage, was abandoned after some discussion, and the
conference agreed to return to more classical methods.

Two infantry brigades would attack and pierce the Hindenburg Line on
the front immediately to the east of Bullecourt. The attack was to be
led by tanks under cover of a barrage and a heavy bombardment. Emphasis
was laid on the necessity for strong counter-battery work. The right
attacking brigade would form a defensive flank in the direction of
Quéant, and at the same time endeavour to press through to Riencourt
and Hendecourt. The left brigade would work its way down the German
trenches into Bullecourt itself. Immediately the village was reached,
the British division on the left would extend the front of the attack
westwards.

My tanks were detailed to co-operate very closely with the infantry.
The right section (Wyatt's) were given three duties: first, to parade
up and down the German wire immediately to the right of the front of
the attack; second, to remain with the infantry in the Hindenburg Line
until the trenches had been successfully "blocked" and the defensive
flank secured; third, to accompany the infantry in their advance on
Riencourt and Hendecourt.

[Illustration]

The centre section (Field's) were required to advance between the two
brigades and plunge into the Hindenburg Line. This movement was made
necessary by the decision to attack not on a continuous front but up
two slight spurs or shoulders. The Hindenburg Line itself lay just
beyond the crest of a slope, and these almost imperceptible shoulders
ran out from the main slope at right angles to the line. It was
thought that the depression between them would be swept by machine-gun
fire, and it was decided in consequence to leave the attack up the
depression to the tanks alone.

My left section (Swears') were to precede the infantry of the left
Australian brigade. They were to obtain a footing in the Hindenburg
Line and then work along it into Bullecourt. Whether, later, they would
be able to assist the British infantry in their attack on the trenches
to the west of Bullecourt was a matter for their discretion.

The atmosphere of the conference was cheerless. It is a little
melancholy to revive and rebuild the plan of an attack which has
been postponed very literally at the last moment. The conference
was an anticlimax. For days and nights we had been completing our
preparations. The supreme moment had come, and after hours of acute
tension had passed without result. Then again, tired and without
spirit, we drew up fresh plans. War is never romantic because
emergencies, which might be adventures, come only when the soldier is
stale and tired.

We hurried back to the camp at Behagnies and composed fresh orders,
while Jumbo re-marked his maps and reshuffled his aeroplane
photographs. At dusk Jumbo and I started out in the car for Noreuil,
but at Vaulx-Vraucourt we decided to leave the car as the road was
impossible. It was heavy with mud and slush and we were far from fresh.
We passed Australians coming up and much transport--in places the road
was almost blocked. After an hour or more we came to the valley above
Noreuil, full of new gun-pits. Our tanks lay hidden against the bank at
the side of the road, shrouded in their tarpaulins. My men were busily
engaged in making them ready. One engine was turning over very quietly.
It was bitterly cold, and the snow still lay on the downs.

We struggled on to a ruined house at the entrance to the village.
One room or shed--it may have been a shrine--constructed strongly of
bricks, still stood in the middle of the wreckage. This my officers had
made their headquarters. I gave instructions for all the officers to be
collected, and in the meantime walked through the street to one of the
two brigade headquarters in the village.

This brigade was fortunate in its choice, for it lay safe and snug in
the bowels of the earth. An old brewery or factory possessed whole
storeys of cellars, and the brigade office was three storeys down.

Haigh and Swears were discussing operations with the brigadier. They
were all under the illusion that the postponed attack would take place
as originally planned, and bitter was the disappointment when I told
them that the orders had been changed. I gave the general and his
brigade-major a rough outline of the new scheme, and took Swears and
Haigh back with me to the ruins.

All my officers were assembled in the darkness. I could not see their
faces. They might have been ghosts: I heard only rustles and murmurs.
I explained briefly what had happened. One or two of them naturally
complained of changes made at such a late hour. They did not see how
they could study their orders, their maps, and their photographs in
the hour and a half that remained to them before it was time for the
tanks to start. So, again, I set out carefully and in detail the exact
task of each tank. When I had finished, we discussed one or two points,
and then my officers went to their tanks, and I returned to brigade
headquarters, so that I might be in touch with the colonel and the
Division should anything untoward happen before zero.

The night passed with slow feet, while my tanks were crawling forward
over the snow. The brigade-major re-wrote his orders. Officers and
orderlies came in and out of the cellar. We had some tea, and the
general lay down for some sleep. There was a rumour that one of the
tanks had become ditched in climbing out of the road. I went out to
investigate, and learned that Morris's tank had been slightly delayed.
It was, unfortunately, a clear cold night.

When I returned to the cellar the brigade staff were making ready for
the battle. Pads of army signal forms were placed conveniently to hand.
The war diary was lying open with a pencil beside it and the carbons
adjusted. The wires forward to battalion headquarters were tested.
Fresh orderlies were awakened.

Apparently there had been little shelling during the early part of the
night. Noreuil itself had been sprinkled continuously with shrapnel,
and one or two 5.9's had come sailing over. Forward, the railway
embankment and the approaches to it had been shelled intermittently,
and towards dawn the Germans began a mild bombardment, but nothing was
reported to show that the enemy had heard our tanks or realised our
intentions.

I received messages from Haigh that all my tanks were in position, or
just coming into position, beyond the railway embankment. Zero hour
was immediately before sunrise, and as the minutes filed by I wondered
idly whether, deep down in the earth, we should hear the barrage. I
was desperately anxious that the tanks should prove an overwhelming
success. It was impossible not to imagine what might happen to the
infantry if the tanks were knocked out early in the battle. Yet I could
not help feeling that this day we should make our name.

We looked at our watches--two minutes to go. We stared at the
minute-hands. Suddenly there was a whistling and rustling in the
distance, and a succession of little thumps, like a dog that hits the
floor when it scratches itself. The barrage had opened. Constraint
vanished, and we lit pipes and cigarettes. You would have thought that
the battle was over. We had not blown out our matches when there was a
reverberating crash overhead. Two could play at this game of noises.

Few reports arrive during the first forty minutes of a battle.
Everybody is too busy fighting. Usually the earliest news comes from
wounded men, and naturally their experiences are limited. Brigade
headquarters are, as a rule, at least an hour behind the battle. You
cannot often stand on a hill and watch the ebb and flow of the fight in
the old magnificent way.

At last the reports began to dribble in and the staff settled down to
their work. There were heavy casualties before the German wire was
reached. The enemy barrage came down, hot and strong, a few minutes
after zero.... Fighting hard in the Hindenburg trenches, but few tanks
to be seen.... The enemy are still holding on to certain portions of
the line.... The fighting is very severe.... Heavy counter-attacks from
the sunken road at L. 6 b. 5.2. The news is a medley of scraps.

Soon the brigadier is called upon to act. One company want a protective
barrage put down in front of them, but from another message it seems
probable that there are Australians out in front. The brigadier must
decide.

One battalion asks to be reinforced from the reserve battalion. Is it
time for the reserve to be thrown into the battle? The brigadier must
decide.

They have run short of bombs. An urgent message for fresh supplies
comes through, and the staff captain hurries out to make additional
arrangements.

There is little news of the tanks. One report states that no tanks have
been seen, another that a tank helped to clear up a machine-gun post, a
third that a tank is burning.

At last R., one of my tank commanders, bursts in. He is grimy,
red-eyed, and shaken.

"Practically all the tanks have been knocked out, sir!" he reported in
a hard excited voice.

Before answering I glanced rapidly round the cellar. These Australians
had been told to rely on tanks. Without tanks many casualties were
certain and victory was improbable. Their hopes were shattered as well
as mine, if this report were true. Not an Australian turned a hair.
Each man went on with his job.

I asked R. a few questions. The brigade-major was listening
sympathetically. I made a written note, sent off a wire to the colonel,
and climbed into the open air.

It was a bright and sunny morning, with a clear sky and a cool
invigorating breeze. A bunch of Australians were joking over their
breakfasts. The streets of the village were empty, with the exception
of a "runner," who was hurrying down the road.

The guns were hard at it. From the valley behind the village came the
quick cracks of the 18-pdrs., the little thuds of the light howitzers,
the ear-splitting crashes of the 60-pdrs., and, very occasionally,
the shuddering thumps of the heavies. The air rustled and whined with
shells. Then, as we hesitated, came the loud murmur, the roar, the
overwhelming rush of a 5.9, like the tearing of a giant newspaper, and
the building shook and rattled as a huge cloud of black smoke came
suddenly into being one hundred yards away, and bricks and bits of
metal came pattering down or swishing past.

The enemy was kind. He was only throwing an occasional shell into the
village, and we walked down the street in comparative calm.

When we came to the brick shelter at the farther end of the village
we realised that our rendezvous had been most damnably ill-chosen.
Fifty yards to the west the Germans, before their retirement, had
blown a large crater where the road from Ecoust joins the road
from Vaulx-Vraucourt, and now they were shelling it persistently.
A stretcher party had just been caught. They lay in a confused
heap half-way down the side of the crater. And a few yards away a
field-howitzer battery in action was being shelled with care and
accuracy.

We sat for a time in this noisy and unpleasant spot. One by one
officers came in to report. Then we walked up the sunken road towards
the dressing station. When I had the outline of the story I made my way
back to the brigade headquarters in the cellar, and sent off a long
wire. My return to the brick shelter was, for reasons that at the time
seemed almost too obvious, both hasty and undignified. Further reports
came in, and when we decided to move outside the village and collect
the men by the bank where the tanks had sheltered a few hours before,
the story was tolerably complete.

All the tanks, except Morris's, had arrived without incident at the
railway embankment. Morris ditched at the bank and was a little late.
Haigh and Jumbo had gone on ahead of the tanks. They crawled out beyond
the embankment into No Man's Land and marked out the starting-line. It
was not too pleasant a job. The enemy machine-guns were active right
through the night, and the neighbourhood of the embankment was shelled
intermittently. Towards dawn this intermittent shelling became almost a
bombardment, and it was feared that the tanks had been heard.[9]

Skinner's tank failed on the embankment. The remainder crossed it
successfully and lined up for the attack just before zero. By this time
the shelling had become severe. The crews waited inside their tanks,
wondering dully if they would be hit before they started. Already they
were dead-tired, for they had had little sleep since their long painful
trek of the night before.

Suddenly our bombardment began--it was more of a bombardment than a
barrage--and the tanks crawled away into the darkness, followed closely
by little bunches of Australians.

On the extreme right Morris and Puttock of Wyatt's section were met by
tremendous machine-gun fire at the wire of the Hindenburg Line. They
swung to the right, as they had been ordered, and glided along in front
of the wire, sweeping the parapet with their fire. They received as
good as they gave. Serious clutch trouble developed in Puttock's tank.
It was impossible to stop since now the German guns were following
them. A brave runner carried the news to Wyatt at the embankment. The
tanks continued their course, though Puttock's tank was barely moving,
and by luck and good driving they returned to the railway, having kept
the enemy most fully occupied in a quarter where he might have been
uncommonly troublesome.

Morris passed a line to Skinner and towed him over the embankment. They
both started for Bullecourt. Puttock pushed on back towards Noreuil.
His clutch was slipping so badly that the tank would not move, and the
shells were falling ominously near. He withdrew his crew from the tank
into a trench, and a moment later the tank was hit and hit again.

Of the remaining two tanks in this section we could hear nothing.
Davies and Clarkson had disappeared. Perhaps they had gone through to
Hendecourt. Yet the infantry of the right brigade, according to the
reports we had received, were fighting most desperately to retain a
precarious hold on the trenches they had entered.

In the centre Field's section of three tanks were stopped by the
determined and accurate fire of forward field-guns before they entered
the German trenches. The tanks were silhouetted against the snow, and
the enemy gunners did not miss.

The first tank was hit in the track before it was well under way. The
tank was evacuated, and in the dawning light it was hit again before
the track could be repaired.

Money's tank reached the German wire. His men must have "missed their
gears." For less than a minute the tank was motionless, then she burst
into flames. A shell had exploded the petrol tanks, which in the
old Mark I. were placed forward on either side of the officer's and
driver's seats. A sergeant and two men escaped. Money, best of good
fellows, must have been killed instantaneously by the shell.

Bernstein's tank was within reach of the German trenches when a shell
hit the cab, decapitated the driver, and exploded in the body of the
tank. The corporal was wounded in the arm, and Bernstein was stunned
and temporarily blinded. The tank was filled with fumes. As the crew
were crawling out, a second shell hit the tank on the roof. The
men under the wounded corporal began stolidly to salve the tank's
equipment, while Bernstein, scarcely knowing where he was, staggered
back to the embankment. He was packed off to a dressing station, and
an orderly was sent to recall the crew and found them still working
stubbornly under direct fire.

Swears' section of four tanks on the left were slightly more fortunate.

Birkett went forward at top speed, and, escaping the shells, entered
the German trenches, where his guns did great execution. The tank
worked down the trenches towards Bullecourt, followed by the
Australians. She was hit twice, and all the crew were wounded, but
Birkett went on fighting grimly until his ammunition was exhausted and
he himself was badly wounded in the leg. Then at last he turned back,
followed industriously by the German gunners. Near the embankment
he stopped the tank to take his bearings. As he was climbing out, a
shell burst against the side of the tank and wounded him again in the
leg. The tank was evacuated. The crew salved what they could, and,
helping each other, for they were all wounded, they made their way back
painfully to the embankment. Birkett was brought back on a stretcher,
and wounded a third time as he lay in the sunken road outside the
dressing station. His tank was hit again and again. Finally it took
fire, and was burnt out.

Skinner, after his tank had been towed over the railway embankment by
Morris, made straight for Bullecourt, thinking that as the battle had
now been in progress for more than two hours the Australians must have
fought their way down the trenches into the village. Immediately he
entered the village machine-guns played upon his tank, and several of
his crew were slightly wounded by the little flakes of metal that fly
about inside a Mk. I. tank when it is subjected to really concentrated
machine-gun fire. No Australians could be seen. Suddenly he came right
to the edge of an enormous crater, and as suddenly stopped. He tried
to reverse, but he could not change gear. The tank was absolutely
motionless. He held out for some time, and then the Germans brought
up a gun and began to shell the tank. Against field-guns in houses he
was defenceless so long as his tank could not move. His ammunition was
nearly exhausted. There were no signs of the Australians or of British
troops. He decided quite properly to withdraw. With great skill he
evacuated his crew, taking his guns with him and the little ammunition
that remained. Slowly and carefully they worked their way back, and
reached the railway embankment without further casualty.

The fourth tank of this section was hit on the roof just as it was
coming into action. The engine stopped in sympathy, and the tank
commander withdrew his crew from the tank.

Swears, the section commander, left the railway embankment, and with
the utmost gallantry went forward into Bullecourt to look for Skinner.
He never came back.

Such were the cheerful reports that I received in my little brick
shelter by the cross-roads. Of my eleven tanks nine had received direct
hits, and two were missing. The infantry were in no better plight.
From all accounts the Australians were holding with the greatest
difficulty the trenches they had entered. Between the two brigades the
Germans were clinging fiercely to their old line. Counter-attack after
counter-attack came smashing against the Australians from Bullecourt
and its sunken roads, from Lagnicourt and along the trenches from the
Quéant salient. The Australians were indeed hard put to it.

While we were sorrowfully debating what would happen, we heard the
noise of a tank's engines. We ran out, and saw to our wonder a tank
coming down the sunken road. It was the fourth tank of Swears' section,
which had been evacuated after a shell had blown a large hole in its
roof.

When the crew had left the tank and were well on their way to Noreuil,
the tank corporal remembered that he had left his "Primus" stove
behind. It was a valuable stove, and he did not wish to lose it. So
he started back with a comrade, and later they were joined by a third
man. Their officer had left to look for me and ask for orders. They
reached the tank--the German gunners were doing their very best to hit
it again--and desperately eager not to abandon it outright, they tried
to start the engine. To their immense surprise it fired, and, despite
the German gunners, the three of them brought the tank and the "Primus"
stove safe into Noreuil. The corporal's name was Hayward. He was one of
Hamond's men.

We had left the brick shelter and were collecting the men on the road
outside Noreuil, when the colonel rode up and gave us news of Davies
and Clarkson. Our aeroplanes had seen two tanks crawling over the open
country beyond the Hindenburg trenches to Riencourt, followed by four
or five hundred cheering Australians. Through Riencourt they swept, and
on to the large village of Hendecourt five miles beyond the trenches.
They entered the village, still followed by the Australians....[10]

What happened to them afterwards cannot be known until the battlefield
is searched and all the prisoners who return have been questioned. The
tanks and the Australians never came back. The tanks may have been
knocked out by field-guns. They may have run short of petrol. They may
have become "ditched." Knowing Davies and Clarkson, I am certain they
fought to the last--and the tanks which later were paraded through
Berlin were not my tanks....

We rallied fifty-two officers and men out of the one hundred and three
who had left Mory or Behagnies for the battle. Two men were detailed
to guard our dump outside Noreuil, the rescued tank started for Mory,
and the remaining officers and men marched wearily to Vaulx-Vraucourt,
where lorries and a car were awaiting them.

I walked up to the railway embankment, but seeing no signs of any of my
men or of Davies' or Clarkson's tanks, returned to Noreuil and paid a
farewell visit to the two brigadiers, of whom one told me with natural
emphasis that tanks were "no damned use." Then with Skinner and Jumbo I
tramped up the valley towards Vraucourt through the midst of numerous
field-guns. We had passed the guns when the enemy began to shell the
crowded valley with heavy stuff, directed by an aeroplane that kept
steady and unwinking watch on our doings.

Just outside Vaulx-Vraucourt we rested on a sunny slope and looked
across the valley at our one surviving tank trekking back to Mory.
Suddenly a "5.9" burst near it. The enemy were searching for guns.
Then to our dismay a second shell burst at the tail of the tank. The
tank stopped, and in a moment the crew were scattering for safety. A
third shell burst within a few yards of the tank. The shooting seemed
too accurate to be unintentional, and we cursed the aeroplane that was
circling overhead.

There was nothing we could do. The disabled tank was two miles away. We
knew that when the shelling stopped the crew would return and inspect
the damage. So, sick at heart, we tramped on to Vaulx-Vraucourt,
passing a reserve brigade coming up hastily, and a dressing station to
which a ghastly stream of stretchers was flowing.

We met the car a mile beyond the village, and drove back sadly to
Behagnies. When we came to the camp, it was only ten o'clock in the
morning. In London civil servants were just beginning their day's work.

The enemy held the Australians stoutly. We never reached Bullecourt,
and soon it became only too clear that it would be difficult enough to
retain the trenches we had entered. The position was nearly desperate.
The right brigade had won some trenches, and the left brigade had
won some trenches. Between the two brigades the enemy had never been
dislodged. And he continued to counter-attack with skill and fury down
the trenches on the flanks--from the sunken roads by Bullecourt and
up the communication trenches from the north. In the intervals his
artillery pounded away with solid determination. Bombs and ammunition
were running very short, and to get further supplies forward was
terribly expensive work, for all the approaches to the trenches which
the Australians had won were enfiladed by machine-gun fire. Battalions
of the reserve brigade were thrown in too late, for we had bitten off
more than we could chew; the Germans realised this hard fact, and
redoubled their efforts. The Australians suddenly retired. The attack
had failed.

A few days later the Germans replied by a surprise attack on the
Australian line from Noreuil to Lagnicourt. At first they succeeded
and broke through to the guns; but the Australians soon rallied, and
by a succession of fierce little counter-attacks drove the enemy
with great skill back on to the deep wire in front of the Hindenburg
Line. There was no escape. Behind the Germans were belts of wire
quite impenetrable, and in front of them were the Australians. It was
a cool revengeful massacre. The Germans, screaming for mercy, were
deliberately and scientifically killed.

Two of my men, who had been left to guard our dump of supplies at
Noreuil, took part in this battle of Lagnicourt. Close by the dump
was a battery of field howitzers. The Germans had broken through to
Noreuil, and the howitzers were firing over the sights; but first one
howitzer and then another became silent as the gunners fell. My two men
had been using rifles. When they saw what was happening they dashed
forward to the howitzers, and turning their knowledge of the tank
6-pdr. gun to account, they helped to serve the howitzers until some
infantry came up and drove back the enemy. Then my men went back to
their dump, which had escaped, and remained there on guard until they
were relieved on the following day.

The first battle of Bullecourt was a minor disaster. Our attack was
a failure, in which the three brigades of infantry engaged lost very
heavily indeed; and the officers and men lost, seasoned Australian
troops who had fought at Gallipoli, could never be replaced. The
company of tanks had been, apparently, nothing but a broken reed. For
many months after the Australians distrusted tanks, and it was not
until the battle of Amiens, sixteen months later, that the Division
engaged at Bullecourt were fully converted. It was a disaster that the
Australians attributed to the tanks. The tanks had failed them--the
tanks "had let them down."

The Australians, in the bitterness of their losses, looked for
scapegoats and found them in my tanks, but my tanks were not to blame.
I have heard a lecturer say that to attack the Hindenburg Line on a
front of fifteen hundred yards without support on either flank was
rash. And it must not be forgotten that the attack ought to have been,
and in actual fact was, expected. The artillery support was very far
from overwhelming, and the barrage, coming down at zero, gave away the
attack before my tanks could cross the wide No Man's Land and reach the
German trenches.

What chances of success the attack possessed were destroyed by the snow
on the ground, the decision to leave the centre of the attack to the
tanks alone, the late arrival of the reserve brigade, and the shortage
of bombs and ammunition in the firing line. These unhappy circumstances
fitted into each other. If the snow had not made clear targets of the
tanks, the tanks by themselves might have driven the enemy out of their
trenches in the centre of the attack. If the first stages of the attack
had been completely successful, the reserve brigade might not have been
required. If the Australians had broken through the trench system on
the left and in the centre, as they broke through on the left of the
right brigade, bombs would not have been necessary.

It is difficult to estimate the value of tanks in a battle. The
Australians naturally contended that without tanks they might have
entered the Hindenburg Line. I am fully prepared to admit that the
Australians are capable of performing any feat, for as storm troops
they are surpassed by none. It is, however, undeniable that my tanks
disturbed and disconcerted the enemy. We know from a report captured
later that the enemy fire was concentrated on the tanks, and the
German Higher Command instanced this battle as an operation in which
the tanks compelled the enemy to neglect the advancing infantry. The
action of the tanks was not entirely negative. On the right flank of
the right brigade, a weak and dangerous spot, the tanks enabled the
Australians to form successfully a defensive flank.

The most interesting result of the employment of tanks was the
break-through to Riencourt and Hendecourt by Davies' and Clarkson's
tanks, and the Australians who followed them. With their flanks in
the air, and in the face of the sturdiest opposition, half a section
of tanks and about half a battalion of infantry broke through the
strongest field-works in France and captured two villages, the
second of which was nearly five miles behind the German line. This
break-through was the direct forefather of the break-through at Cambrai.

My men, tired and half-trained, had done their best. When General Elles
was told the story of the battle, he said in my presence, "This is the
best thing that tanks have done yet."

The company received two messages of congratulation. The first was from
General Gough--

    "The Army Commander is very pleased with the gallantry and skill
    displayed by your company in the attack to-day, and the fact that
    the objectives were subsequently lost does not detract from the
    success of the tanks."

The second was from General Elles--

    "The General Officer Commanding Heavy Branch M.G.C. wishes
    to convey to all ranks of the company under your command his
    heartiest thanks and appreciation of the manner in which they
    carried out their tasks during the recent operations, and
    furthermore for the gallantry shown by all tank commanders and
    tank crews in action."

The company gained two Military Crosses, one D.C.M., and three Military
Medals in the first Battle of Bullecourt.



CHAPTER V.

THE SECOND BATTLE OF BULLECOURT.

(_May 3, 1917._)


When the First Battle of Bullecourt had been fought in the office
as well as in the field, when all the returns and reports had been
forwarded to the next higher authority, and all the wise questions from
the highest authority had been answered yet more wisely, we obtained
lorries and made holiday in Amiens.

It was my first visit, and I decided whenever possible to return.
It rained, but nobody minded. We lunched well at the Restaurant des
Huîtres in the Street of the Headless Bodies. It was a most pleasant
tavern--two dainty yellow-papered rooms over a mean shop. The girls who
waited on us were decorative and amusing, the cooking was magnificent,
and the Chambertin was satisfying. Coming from the desolate country
we could not want more. We tarried as long as decorum allowed, and
then went out reluctantly into the rain to shop. We bought immense
quantities of fresh vegetables--cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, new
potatoes, and a huge box of apples, also a large "paté de canard,"
as recommended by Madame de Sévigné. A shampoo enabled us to consume
chocolate and cakes. We put our last packages in the car and drove back
in the evening.

At Behagnies we made ourselves comfortable, now that the strain was
removed of preparing against time for a battle. Our tents mysteriously
increased and multiplied. Odd tarpaulins were fashioned into what were
officially termed "temporary structures." My orderly-room was cramped.
I gave a willing officer the loan of a lorry, and in the morning I
found an elaborate canvas cottage "busting into blooth" under the
maternal solicitude of my orderly-room sergeant. The piano, which for
several days was ten miles nearer the line than any other piano in the
district, was rarely silent in the evenings. Only a 6-inch gun, two
hundred yards from the camp, interrupted our rest and broke some of
our glasses. It was fine healthful country of downs and rough pasture.
We commandeered horses from our troop of Glasgow Yeomanry, and spent
the afternoons cantering gaily. Once I went out with the colonel, who
was riding the famous horse that had been with him through Gallipoli,
but to ride with an international polo-player has its disadvantages.
Luckily, my old troop-horse was sure-footed enough, and if left to his
own devices even clambered round the big crater in the middle of Mory.

A few days after the first battle, Ward's[11] company detrained at
Achiet-le-Grand and trekked to Behagnies. They came from the Canadians
at Vimy Ridge, and were full of their praises. The Canadians left
nothing to chance. Trial "barrages" were put down, carefully watched
and "thickened up" where necessary. Every possible plan, device, or
scheme was tried--every possible preparation was made. The success of
the attack was inevitable, and the Germans, whose aeroplanes had been
busy enough, found their way to the cages without trouble, happy to
have escaped.

Ward's company, filled with the unstinted rations of the Canadians,
who had thought nothing of giving them a few extra sheep, were gallant
but unsuccessful. The ground was impossible and the tanks "ditched."
They were dug out, hauled out, pulled out, one way or another under a
cruel shelling, but they never came into the battle. It was naturally a
keen disappointment to Ward, and he and his company at Behagnies were
spoiling for a fight.

The third company of the battalion under Haskett-Smith had been
fighting in front of Arras with great dash and astonishingly few
casualties. "No. 10" was a lucky company, and deserved its luck, until
the end of the war. In sections and in pairs the tanks had helped the
infantry day after day. At Telegraph Hill they had cleared the way,
and again near Heninel. The company was now resting at Boiry, and we
drove over to see Haskett-Smith and congratulate him on his many little
victories.

It will be remembered that there were two phases to the battle of
Arras. In the first phase we gained success after success. The enemy
wavered and fell back. At Lens he retired without cause. Then his
resistance began to stiffen, and we were fought to a standstill. Men
and guns were brought by the enemy from other parts of the front,
and the German line became almost as strong as it had been before
the battle, while we were naturally handicapped by the difficulty of
bringing up ammunition and supplies over two trench systems and a
battlefield. In the second phase we attacked to keep the Germans busy,
while the French hammered away without much success away to the south.
This second phase was infinitely the deadlier. We made little headway,
and our casualties were high. We had not yet begun our big attack of
the year. We were losing time and losing men.

The left flank of the German Armies engaged rested on the Hindenburg
Line. As the Germans retired, their left flank withdrew down the
Hindenburg Line, until, at the end of April, it rested on the
Hindenburg Line at Fontaine-lez-Croisilles. West of Fontaine the
Hindenburg Line was ours, and east of it German.

[Illustration]

Ward's company and mine were concerned with the "elbow" from Chérisy
to Bullecourt. Ward's company was detailed to renew the attack on
Bullecourt, and a section of mine under Haigh was allotted to the
Division which was planning to attack Fontaine itself. At first it
was decided to clear the Hindenburg Line in front of Fontaine by a
preliminary operation, but the picture of two lone tanks working down
the trenches in full view of German gunners on higher ground did not
appeal to the colonel, and nothing came of it. The grand attack, the
Second Battle of Bullecourt, was scheduled for May 3rd.

On 29th April Cooper and I went reconnoitring. It was a blazing hot
day, with just enough wind. First we drove to St Leger--a pleasant
half-ruined village, surrounded by German horse lines under the
trees, where the Glasgow Yeomanry had been badly shelled in the
days before the first battle, when we were attacking Croisilles
and Ecoust. We visited Haigh's section, who had come up overnight
from Behagnies,--they were snugly hidden under the railway
embankment,--then, putting on our war-paint, we strolled up the hill to
the right. It was most open warfare for the guns. They were drawn up on
the reverse side of the hill, with no particular protection. Most of
them were firing. The gun crews who were not on duty were sitting in
the sun smoking or kicking a football about.

Further back our big guns were carrying out a sustained bombardment,
and in the course of it experimenting with "artillery crashes," at
that time a comparatively new form of "frightfulness." There is some
particular point, an emplacement, or perhaps an observation post, which
you want to destroy utterly and without question. Instead of shelling
it for a morning with one or two guns, you concentrate on it every gun
and howitzer that will bear, and carefully arrange the timing, so that
all the shells arrive together. It is extravagant but effective--like
loosing off a ship's broadside. The noise of the shells as they come
all together through the air, whining and grumbling loudly and more
loudly, is wonderfully exhilarating. We employed the "artillery crash"
in the Loos salient with the 16th Division during the summer of '16,
but we had not too many shells then.

The Germans were firing little and blindly as we struck across to the
Hindenburg Line, having planned to walk alongside it, as far as we
might, down towards Fontaine. The enemy, however, suddenly conceived a
violent dislike to their old trenches and some batteries near. So we
dropped first into a shell-hole, and then, jumping into the trench,
found a most excellent concrete machine-gun emplacement, where we sat
all at our ease and smoked, praising the careful ingenuity of the
German engineer.

We saw much from a distance, but little near, and returned along the
upper road by Mory Copse.

Cooper and I made another expedition on the 30th, driving to Heninel
and walking up the farther side of the Hindenburg Line. We pushed
forward to the ridge above Chérisy and Fontaine, but we could see
little of the enemy lines on account of the convexity of the slope.
Gunner officers were running about like ants searching for positions
and observation posts.

On the way back to the car we were resting and looking at our maps
when we saw a characteristic example of the iron nerves of the average
soldier. A limbered waggon was coming along a rough track when a small
shell burst on the bank a few yards behind the waggon. Neither the
horses nor the drivers turned a hair. Not the slightest interest was
taken in the shell. It might never have burst.

On the night of the first of May Haigh's section moved forward from
St Leger. The night had its incidents. Mac's baggage rolled on to the
exhaust-pipe and caught fire,--it was quickly put out and no harm done,
except to the baggage. The tanks stealthily crossed the Hindenburg
Line by an old road and crept to the cover of a bank. Close by was a
large clump of "stink" bombs, Very lights, and similar ammunition.
Just as the first tanks were passing a shell exploded the dump. It
was a magnificent display of deadly fireworks, and the enemy, as
usual, continued to shell the blaze. There is no spot on earth quite
so unpleasant as the edge of an exploding dump. Boxes of bombs were
hurtling through the air and exploding as they fell. Very lights were
streaming away in all directions. "Stink" bombs and gas bombs gave out
poisonous fumes. Every minute or two a shell dropping close added to
the uproar and destruction. With great coolness and skill the crews,
led and inspired by Haigh, brought their tanks past the dump without a
casualty.

Mac's tank had been delayed by the burning of his kit. When he arrived
on the scene the pandemonium had died down, and the great noisy bonfire
was just smouldering. Mac's tank came carefully past, when suddenly
there was a loud crackling report. A box of bombs had exploded under
one of the tracks and broken it. There was nothing to be done except
send post-haste for some new plates and wait for the dawn.

When, on the afternoon of the 2nd, the colonel and I went up to see
Haigh, the mechanics were just completing their work, and Mac's tank
was ready for the battle a few hours after the plates had arrived.

Ward had moved his tanks forward to Mory Copse, where we had hidden
ourselves before the trek through the blizzard to the valley above
Noreuil. He was to work with the division detailed to attack the
stronghold of Bullecourt. The front of the grand attacks had widened.
On the 3rd of May the British armies would take the offensive from east
of Bullecourt to distant regions north of the Scarpe. This time the
Australians were without tanks.

I had given Haigh a free hand to arrange what he would with the brigade
to which he was attached, and, not wishing to interfere with his little
command, I determined to remain at Behagnies until the battle was well
under way, and content myself with a scrutiny of his plans.

It was agreed that his section should "mother" the infantry, who were
attacking down the Hindenburg Line, by advancing alongside the trenches
and clearing up centres of too obstinate resistance. I endeavoured to
make it quite clear to the divisional commander that no very great
help could be expected from a few tanks operating over ground broken up
by a network of deep and wide trenches.

At 3.45 A.M. the barrage woke me. I might perhaps have described the
tense silence before the first gun spoke, and the mingled feelings of
awe, horror, and anxiety that troubled me; but my action in this battle
was essentially unheroic. Knowing that I should not receive any report
for at least an hour, I cursed the guns in the neighbourhood, turned
over and went to sleep.

The first messages began to arrive about 5.30 A.M. All the tanks had
started to time. There was an interval, and then real news dribbled in.
The Australians had taken their first objective--the front trench of
the Hindenburg system. We had entered the trenches west of Bullecourt.
Soon aeroplane reports were being wired through from the army. A tank
was seen here in action; another tank was there immobile. Two tanks had
reached such-and-such a point.

With what tremulous excitement the mothers and fathers and wives of the
crews would have seized and smoothed out these flimsy scraps of pink
paper! "Tank in flames at L. 6. d. 5. 4." That might be Jimmy's tank.
No, it must be David's! Pray God the airman has made a mistake! We, who
had set the stage, had only to watch the play. We could not interfere.
Report after report came in, and gradually we began, from one source or
another, to build up a picture of the battle.

The division attacking Bullecourt could not get on. Furious messages
came back from Ward. His tanks were out in front, but the infantry
"could not follow." His tanks were working up and down the trenches on
either side of Bullecourt. One tank had found the Australians and was
fighting with them. Tanks went on, returned, and went forward again
with consummate gallantry, but the infantry could not get forward. They
would advance a little way, and then, swept by machine-gun fire, they
would dig in or even go back.

One of his officers, commonly known as "Daddy," was sent back in Ward's
car. "Daddy" was dirty, unshorn, and covered with gore from two or
three wounds. He was offered breakfast or a whisky-and-soda, and having
chosen both, told us how he had found himself in front of the infantry,
how the majority of his crew had been wounded by armour-piercing
bullets, how finally his tank had been disabled and evacuated by the
crew, while he covered their withdrawal with a machine-gun.

These armour-piercing bullets caused many casualties that day. We were
still using the old Mark I. Tank, which had fought on the Somme, and
the armour was not sufficiently proof.

Bullecourt remained untaken, though the Australians clung desperately
to the trenches they had won. The British infantry returned to
the railway embankment. The attack had not been brilliant. It
required another division to reach the outskirts of the village,
but the division which failed on the 3rd of May became a brilliant
shock-division under other circumstances, just as "Harper's Duds"
became the most famous division in France.

Ward's company was lucky. Several of his tanks "went over" twice, one
with a second crew after all the men of the first crew had been killed
or wounded. The majority of his tanks rallied, and only one, the tank
which had fought with the Australians, could not be accounted for when
Ward, wrathful but undismayed, returned to battalion headquarters at
Behagnies.

Meanwhile little news had come from Haigh. Twice I motored over to
the headquarters of the division with which his tanks were operating,
but on each occasion I heard almost nothing. The attack was still
in progress. The situation was not clear. The air reports gave us
scant help, for the airmen, unaccustomed to work with tanks, were
optimistic beyond our wildest dreams, and reported tanks where no tank
could possibly have been. I had given such careful orders to my tank
commanders not to get ahead of the infantry, that with the best wish in
the world I really could not believe a report which located a tank two
miles within the German lines.

At last I drove up to see Haigh. I remember the run vividly, because
four 9.2-in. howitzers in position fifty yards off the road elected
to fire a salvo over my head as I passed, and at the same moment an
ambulance and a D.R. came round the corner in front of us together.
Organ, my driver--I had hired his car at Oxford in more peaceful
days--was, as always, quite undisturbed, and by luck or skill we
slipped through. I left the car by the dressing station outside the
ruins of Heninel, which the enemy were shelling stolidly, and walked
forward.

A few yards from Haigh's dug-out was a field-battery which the enemy
were doing their best to destroy. Their "best" was a "dud" as I passed,
and I slipped down, cheerfully enough, into the gloom. Haigh was away
at brigade headquarters, but I gathered the news of the day from Head,
whose tank had not been engaged.

The tanks had left the neighbourhood of the destroyed dump well up
to time. It had been a pitch-black night at first, and the tank
commanders, despite continual and deadly machine-gun fire and some
shelling, had been compelled to lead their tanks on foot. They
had discovered the "going" to be appalling, as, indeed, they had
anticipated from their reconnaissances.

When our barrage came down, Mac's tank was in position one hundred and
fifty yards from it. The enemy replied at once, and so concentrated
was their fire that it seemed the tank could not survive. Twice large
shells burst just beside the tank, shaking it and almost stunning the
crew, but by luck and good driving the tank escaped.

The tank moved along the trench in front of our infantry, firing drum
after drum at the enemy, who exposed themselves fearlessly, and threw
bombs at the tank in a wild effort to destroy it. The gunners in the
tank were only too willing to risk the bombs as long as they were
presented with such excellent targets.

Mac was driving himself, for his driver fell sick soon after they had
started. The strain and the atmosphere were too much for his stomach.
You cannot both drive and vomit.

The tank continued to kill steadily, and our infantry, who had been
behind it at the start, were bombing laboriously down the trenches.
Suddenly the tank came to a broad trench running at right angles to the
main Hindenburg Line. The tank hesitated for a moment. That moment a
brave German seized to fire a trench-mortar point-blank. He was killed
a second later, but the bomb exploded against the track and broke it.
The tank was completely disabled. It was obviously impossible to repair
the track in the middle of a trench full of Germans.

The crew continued to kill from the tank, until our infantry arrived,
and then, taking with them their guns and their ammunition, they
dropped down into the trench to aid the infantry. One man of them was
killed and another mortally wounded. The infantry officer in command
refused their assistance and ordered them back, thinking, perhaps, that
they had fought enough. They returned wearily to their headquarters
without further loss, but by the time I had arrived, Mac had gone out
again to see if the attack had progressed sufficiently to allow him to
repair his tank. He came in later disappointed. The fight was still
raging round his tank. The German who fired the trench-mortar had done
better than he knew. The disabled tank was the limit of our success for
the day.

The second tank was unlucky; it set out in the darkness, and, reaching
its appointed place by "zero," plunged forward after the barrage. The
tank reached the first German trench. None of our infantry was in
sight. The ground was so broken and the light so dim that the tank
commander thought he might have overshot his mark. Perhaps the infantry
were being held up behind him. He turned back to look for them, and
met them advancing slowly. He swung again, but in the deceptive light
the driver made a mistake, and the tank slipped sideways into a trench
at an impossible angle. Most tanks can climb out of most trenches,
but even a tank has its limitations. If a tank slips sideways into a
certain size of trench at a certain angle, it cannot pull itself out
unless it possesses certain devices which this Mark I. lacked. The tank
was firmly stuck and took no part in the day's fighting.

The third tank ran into the thick of the battle, escaping by a
succession of miracles the accurate fire of the German gunners. It
crashed into the enemy, who were picked troops, and slaughtered them.
The Germans showed no fear of it. They stood up to it, threw bombs and
fired long bursts at it from their machine-guns. They had been issued
with armour-piercing bullets, and the crew found to their dismay that
the armour was not proof against them. Both gunners in one sponson were
hit. The corporal of the tank dragged them out of the way--no easy
matter in a tank--and manned the gun until he in his turn was wounded.
Another gunner was wounded, and then another. With the reduced crew and
the tank encumbered by the wounded, the tank was practically out of
action. The tank commander broke off the fight and set out back.

While I was receiving these reports in the dug-out, Haigh had returned
from brigade headquarters. The news was not good. The infantry could
make little or no impression on the enemy defences. When attacking
troops are reduced to bombing down a trench, the attack is as good as
over, and our attack had by now degenerated into a number of bombing
duels in which the picked German troops, who were holding this portion
of their beloved Hindenburg Line, equalled and often excelled our men.

Wretched Head, whose tank was in reserve, was waiting most miserably to
know whether he would be called upon to start out alone and retrieve
the battle. It would have been a desperate and foolhardy undertaking
for one tank to attack in broad daylight, and I instructed Haigh
strongly to urge this view. Luckily the brigade commander had never
admired tanks, and now that his attack had failed, he distrusted them.
Head's tank was not used that day.

The Germans were still trying to silence that plucky battery above the
dug-out. So, praising the skill and labour of the enemy, I crawled
along the gallery, which runs the length of the Hindenburg Line, and
came out into the open beyond the danger area.

I found my car intact, for my driver, in a proper spirit of respect for
Government property, had moved to the shelter of a bank. The road was
full of "walking wounded." I had the privilege of giving two officers a
lift in my car. They belonged to battalions which had attacked north of
Fontaine. At first, they told me, the attack went well, but apparently
the enemy had retired to counter-attack the more effectively. Our
battalions, diminished and disorganised by the time they had reached
their first objective, were overwhelmed and sent reeling back with very
heavy casualties to the trenches they had left at "zero."

Apparently the grand attack of the third of May was a costly failure.
North of Chérisy we advanced a little, but later we were compelled to
withdraw. The Australians had entered the Hindenburg Line, and there
they remained with a magnificent obstinacy which it is difficult to
match in all the records of the war. Whether our attack, in spite of
its failure, was successful in occupying the attention of Germans, who
might otherwise have been assisting their comrades elsewhere in holding
up the French, is a question which a humble company commander would not
dare to answer.

The tanks had done their part. It was not the fault of Ward's gallant
company that Bullecourt remained inviolate. His tanks did all that it
was possible to do. At Fontaine, Haigh's section killed more than their
share of Germans. We were satisfied that we had shown our usefulness.
We prayed now with all our hearts that in the big battle of the summer
we might be sent forward in mass on good ground in improved tanks after
further training.



CHAPTER VI.

REST AND TRAINING.

(_May and June 1917._)


We thought that we should remain in camp at Behagnies for a couple
of months or more, and train. The prospect pleased us mightily. It
was true that we were no longer alone. When we had selected the site
for our camp, we had been able to choose from the whole countryside,
but now the downs resembled some great fair. Horse lines stretched
to the horizon. The German light railway had been repaired, and busy
little trains were forming a large ammunition dump a few hundred yards
away from the camp on the road between Behagnies and Ervillers, the
next village towards Arras. Balloon sections, water-lorry companies,
well-boring companies, all sorts and conditions of army troops, were
moving up and occupying the waste spaces. But the air was glorious; the
country was open, clean, and unshelled; there were trenches to practise
on and good ground for manoeuvres; our camp was comfortable, and,
after our recent exertions, we did not look forward to the troubles
of a move. Haskett-Smith's company had joined us from Boiry, and our
workshops were being set up with much care among the ruins. So the
battalion, after fighting on the fronts of three armies, once again
was complete, though, to our sorrow, Colonel Hardress Lloyd had left
us to form a brigade, and a stranger from our particular rivals, "C"
Battalion, had taken his place.

There were rumours, too, that we should soon be asked to assist in an
attack on the Quéant salient, immediately to the west of the Bullecourt
trenches and east of the front on which we attacked in November. It was
reported that Tank headquarters had been most favourably impressed with
the country, which was in fact singularly adapted to the use of tanks.
The going was hard and good. Natural obstacles could be neglected. We
determined at the first definite hint to take time by the forelock and
spend some summer days in close reconnaissance.

Our hopes were blighted early. The authorities soon decided that the
Behagnies area was not suitable for training. It was becoming too
crowded. The trenches were to be kept in good repair for defensive
purposes, and might be used only by cavalry, who, to the unconcealed
amusement of us mechanical folk, would go galloping through lanes in
the wire and over carefully-prepared crossings. We were ordered to
Wailly, a day's trek distant. We began to pack up, and I took Cooper
over in my car to see our new habitation.

Wailly is a shelled village on the edge of the old trench system from
which the Germans had retired in March. From Arras it is the next
village to Agny, whence, according to the original plan of battle made
before the enemy withdrawal, my tanks should have set out for Mercatel
and Neuville Vitasse. Naturally, there are plenty of trenches just
outside the village, and Tank headquarters had decided to set up a
driving-school. When we arrived, some of my men were putting up Nissen
huts for the school, and close by there was a park of practice-tanks.
One company of a new battalion, fresh out from England, was already
installed in tents. We nosed round the village.

It had rained. You could smell the earth and the new grass. There were
little green copses and orchards behind broken walls. The fruit-trees
were in blossom, white with rare pink buds. Under the trees and in
out-of-the-way nooks and corners in dilapidated houses and old barns
tiny bunches of oats were sprouting, liquid-green shoots, where the
horses had been. There was rhubarb in the gardens, and the birds were
singing.

The French at one time used to hold this sector, and their notices
still remained in the village. Some pictures had been done on plaster,
which "Messieurs les Militaires" were asked to protect; but time and
weather had erased them, until nothing was left except the fine scrawl
of the artist's signature, the title "Mont St Michel," and some patches
of red and brown.

The church must have been ugly with its stucco and imitation woodwork,
but in its death it was a pleasant place for meditation--the white
plaster with scraps of blue-and-gold, the plum-coloured brickwork laid
bare, and the fresh tender grass clustered on every cornice.

Our camping-ground was a green slope between two derelict trenches,
half-way up a hill--a clean and healthy site away from the road, but
near enough for convenience. We looked down from it on the village,
which had a friendly air, because the cottages, despite the shelling,
were at least recognisable, and not mere rubbish-heaps like those in
the country which the enemy had laid waste....

We moved on the 10th. A company of tanks moves luxuriously. If there
is no room on the lorries for any article of vertu, it goes on the
tank. The Equipment Officer or the Company Commander need not be as
inexorable as the Quartermaster of an infantry battalion, for he is
not haunted with a vision of transport fully loaded and much baggage
still piled by the roadside. Each officer, for instance, carried at
this period a rough wire bed on the roof of his tank, with a chair and
perhaps a table. The additional weight did not affect the tank, while
the additional comfort did affect the officer. The only danger was
from fire. These superfluities, if carelessly lashed, would slip on to
the red-hot exhaust-pipe. Again, if we moved a short way, the lorries
could easily make a second journey. If we moved a long way, we moved
by train, and usually, but not always, the train possessed facilities.
Later, we became more Spartan and strenuous.[12]

We arrived without incident at Wailly--the tanks had trekked across
country--and proceeded to re-erect the tents and structures which we
had collected at Behagnies. The men were glad to return to the edge of
civilisation. They had not seen a civilian for two months.

Training commenced at once, but before we had moved my company
had begun to melt away. There were dumps at Montenescourt to be
collected: the material had not been required in the Arras battle.
There were new battalions arriving in France who would need camps. The
driving-school wanted a few men. Brigade headquarters wanted a few
men, and, naturally, battalion headquarters could not be content with
its exiguous establishment. My hopes of thorough training dwindled
with my company. Soon I was left with under a third of my men. I was
scarcely able to collect a few scratch crews to drive the tanks which
had been allotted to us for practice. This scattering of my company was
intensely disappointing. My drivers were only half-trained before the
first battle of Arras, and most of them were to continue half-trained
until we returned to Wailly in October; for in the third battle of
Ypres we drove either along straightforward tracks or over appalling
roads. Moreover, when a driver is driving in action or into action he
dare not go beyond what he knows. He cannot experiment, find out what
the tank can do, and discover the best way to do it.

Our tanks were most useful in allowing my new officers to learn by
teaching. The old German front trench was a fearsome place in which it
was easy enough to become ditched, and it was good for these officers
to spend a day in the hot sun extricating their charges.

The great event of the month was the Tank Cross-country Race.

The course lay over a sunken road with steep and crumbling banks,
across a mile or so of rough grass intersected by some slight trenches,
over our old trench system, back again across the open and the sunken
road, and home along a tape carefully laid out in curves and odd
angles. Marks were allotted for style and condition as well as for
speed. The sunken road was to be crossed where there was no recognised
"crossing," if marks were not to be lost, and the tank had to take the
tape between its tracks, twisting and turning without stopping and
without touching the tape.

It was a gorgeous day. An excited crowd gathered in front of the
tanks, which were drawn up in line. Officers walked up and down
with field-glasses, slung racing style. The form of the runners was
canvassed, and bets were made freely. Ward's tanks were the favourites.
Ward had taken the greatest care in selecting and training his crews.
He possessed a few really skilled drivers, and on the evening before
the race his tanks had done remarkably well in a private trial.
Haskett-Smith had refused to interrupt his training. His crews were to
drive over the course as part of their afternoon's exercises. We had
practised immediately before the race, and my men were as keen as they
could be. As some of my best drivers were away I did not hope to win
the Company championship--even with my best drivers present, Ward's
men would have been the toughest of customers--but I hoped with one of
my two best tanks to win the first prize.

The tanks started at minute intervals. The first tank took the sunken
road with consummate skill. The second, looking for an unused crossing,
tried to climb over a dug-out which caved in. One tank blindly fouled
another, and they slipped to the bottom of the road interlocked and
unable to move. The rest were well away. At the turning-post there was
a marvellous jumble of tanks. One fellow could not get his gears in
and blocked the road, but the rest managed to nose their way through,
sweeping against each other.

As the tanks crossed the sunken road on the return journey you felt the
driver brace himself for the final test. The tank would come forward
with the tape between its tracks. At the first curve it would barely
hesitate before swinging. Ward, bubbling over with excitement, watched
the tank breathlessly. She was just going to scrape the tape. No, by
heaven, she's missed it! Another tank might stop--the gears had not
been changed cleanly--amidst the scorn of the spectators. Luckily, the
driver inside the tank could hear nothing that was said.

I should have liked to relate how the tanks came crawling along sponson
to sponson, and how my tank won, but I must in fairness confess that
Ward's company won an overwhelming victory. My favourite did not even
start. He had been sent in the morning to instruct some infantry, and
when he came to the starting-post a little late in the day, his engine
was so hot that he dared not compete.

I strongly advise some enterprising gentleman to buy a few tanks cheap,
and stage a cross-country race over give-and-take country. There is
nothing quite like it....

A few days later we were paraded to receive congratulatory cards, and
an address from General Elles. It was a steaming hot day, without a
breath of fresh air. The sun beat down unmercifully on our shrapnel
helmets. As usual, we had to wait for half an hour or more, and in
our hearts we cursed all inspections, generals, and suchlike things.
The ceremony was fortunately not prolonged, and the address held
us attentive. The General had taken a great risk in sending to the
battle two half-trained battalions in old-fashioned tanks. He had been
justified by results. We had shown our worth. By steady training we
were to prepare ourselves for the next battle.

When the General spoke of "steady training," I thought of my company's
ranks depleted by the call of innumerable "fatigues," and sighed. It
was, of course, unavoidable--"fatigues" were not created for fun,--but
I earnestly prayed that soon the Tank Corps might obtain by hook or
by crook some Labour companies to put up their huts, and leave me my
fighting men to train for the great battle.

It was all the fault of these new battalions, who wanted snug places
prepared for them....

Our life at Wailly was not all training, inspections, and fatigues. It
was necessary, for instance, to celebrate certain domestic events which
occur even in the most modern families. My car had disappeared for the
time being, but a box-body or van was sufficient to carry us into the
"Hôtel de Commerce" at Arras, and, later in the evening, to bring back
a merry singing crew to the old cottage which was the section's mess.
There, with the gramophone and Grantoffski at the piano, we poured out
libations to the Fates, and completed the celebration of an event which
cannot happen twice in the life of one man.

Even towards the end of May we played an occasional game of football,
and in the stream which ran through the village there was a
bathing-place near the bridge, overhung by willows....

Although in the far distance we could just see a German balloon
and Arras still was shelled, we were not unduly disturbed by the
enemy. The days of concentrated night-bombing had not yet arrived.
Only one venturesome 'plane, looking for Corps Headquarters, then
at Bretencourt, the next village, bombed down the valley and sadly
frightened the pet kid of our workshops by dropping a small bomb into
the courtyard of their farm.

Johnson,[13] our Workshops Officer, replied by carrying out experiments
with the child of his brain, "the unditching beam," a device whereby
a tank was enabled in marshy ground or crumbly soil to lay a log in
its path and pull itself through the slush or the soil. This device
was of the utmost value. It saved innumerable tanks, and the lives of
their crews. The invention was perfected by others, but the credit of
the original idea belongs to Major Johnson, who first applied the
unditching beam in its most elementary form to Ward's tanks before Vimy.

While we were basking in the sunshine at Wailly, and while one
important officer was trying to cure the sweaty itch by taking strong
sulphur baths, and feverishly sucking multitudinous oranges, the Tank
Corps was expanded and reorganised.

The First Tank Brigade, under Colonel C. D. Baker-Carr, had consisted
of "C" and "D" battalions. These two battalions had taken part in the
recent battle. The Second Brigade, under Colonel Courage, was formed
provisionally of "A" and "B" battalions. The arrival of new battalions,
who had been raised and trained at home, made a Third Brigade
necessary. "C" battalion was taken from the First Brigade and two new
battalions from home, "E" and "G," added to it. The Third Brigade,
under Colonel J. Hardress Lloyd, D.S.O., was made up of "C," "F," and
"I" battalions. "H" battalion was to join the Second Brigade in due
course. That was the second stage in the growth of the Tank Corps--from
twelve companies to twenty-seven.

We were not allowed to stop long at Wailly. Each battalion had to take
its turn at training over the derelict trenches, and we had had our
turn, although less than half of my drivers had been able to practice.
Before we went into action at Ypres in the autumn, my drivers received
no further training. In justice to the four battalions which were
formed in France, I find it necessary to emphasise the handicaps under
which they fought.

We had no desire to move our camp, particularly when we were told that
we were to leave "standing" all those tents and "temporary structures"
which we had so cunningly acquired. You can never persuade a soldier to
believe that possession is not ten points of the law. Our "temporary
structures," we would argue, belonged to us, because we won them by
the subtlety of our brains and the sweat of our brows. That canvas
orderly-room, for instance, would have been rotting in a deserted
camp on the Somme if we had not sent a lorry and three stout men for
it. Those five extra tents belonged to us, because the Fifth Army
forgot to recall them when we moved into the Third Army area. Those
tarpaulins--well, everybody is justified in picking up anything that
the garrison gunners may leave about,--it is only taking what they
stole from somebody else. Still, there was no getting round the order,
though it was remarkable how full the quartermaster's store became, how
some of our tents and "temporary structures" seemed to change colour
and shape in the night, and how neighbouring units, who had jeered at
us because we had now to leave our well-gotten gains behind, began to
lose a tarpaulin or two, an unoccupied tent, or portions of an outlying
hut.

I do not intend to imply for a moment that my men ever took anything to
which they had no right. Such an accusation would be a vile slander.
Nothing of the sort ever came to my notice. I never once received an
official complaint; or only once, when some coal disappeared from some
trucks standing on the sidings at Blangy--and then none of my men
were recognised; but I will say that neither of the two tank companies
which I commanded in France was ever short of accommodation for more
than a few days. My men were always perfectly capable of looking after
themselves, and my own comfort was not neglected. We never allowed
Government property to remain for long without a thoroughly efficient
guard.

I went from Wailly by car on May 27th, a few days before my company, as
I had been detailed to attend a course at Erin. I was sorry to leave
the bright dilapidated village, the coarse grass, and the breathless,
dusty trenches, the hot lanes, heavy with the scent of wild flowers
on the banks, the masses of lilac in Bretencourt, and the old people
slowly returning,--it is always the oldest people who return first.

I drove through delicious lanes to St Pol, and then by the lower
road to Erin, a leafy village in the Tank Corps area, which extended
along the valley of the Ternoise from St Pol to Hesdin. Erin was the
"workshops" capital of this little state. There were the central
workshops and the central stores with their vast hangars, their
sidings, their light railways, their multitude of tanks, old and new,
and their thousands of grinning Chinamen. There was the driving-school
with its lecture huts, full of stripped engines carefully set out on
scrubbed tables. There were the experimental workshops, from which,
later in the war, tanks with "mystery" engines would dash out and
career madly about at incredible speeds until they broke down. In a
quiet corner of the village were the trim cheerful huts of the Rest
Camp, where men, too weary of the battle, sat in the sun, planted
cabbages, or looked for something that had not been whitewashed. Add
the Cinema, the Supper Club, hutting for a battalion, a good chateau
and a Reinforcement Camp, which, finding itself strangely far forward,
retired to the company of its brethren on the coast.

After I had reported at Erin, I drove through Bermicourt, where Tank
Corps Headquarters dwelt, to Humières, the immediate destination of my
company. I was met by Cooper, my second-in-command, who was in charge
of the company's advanced party. He reported well of the village, and
in the quietude of dusk it seemed a most pleasant place. The mess-cook,
however, had not arrived, and as we had no substitute, we drove into
Hesdin, at that time an outpost of G.H.Q., and dined moderately well at
the Hôtel de France.

My first impressions of Humières were confirmed. The village lay off
the great highroad that runs from Arras and St Pol through Hesdin and
Montreuil to the coast at Boulogne. All the cottages have little shady
gardens and hot orchards and rich meadows. Everywhere are big trees
and more birds singing than I had ever heard before in one village. At
first we determined to move our huts into a quiet orchard, carpeted
with thick luscious grass, and two lazy cows for friendly company. On
three sides the orchard was enclosed with stout hedges of hawthorn.
On the fourth it sloped down to some ploughland, and from our tents
we should have looked over the bare countryside, misty in the heat.
Finally, to avoid the work of moving, I chose to remain in a large
double Armstrong hut, which stood under a row of great elms at the
edge of a big grass field which we used as a parade-ground. Most of
the officers and all the men were billeted in cottages and barns. In
the farther end of the village was Haskett-Smith's company, Battalion
Headquarters were at the chateau, where the Countess and her three
daughters still remained, and Ward's company were at Eclimeux, a
smaller village on the Blangy road. The tanks were packed in a tiny
tankodrome just outside Eclimeux, too hot a walk from Humières in the
sun.

I saw little of the village at first, for every morning I motor-cycled
down to Erin for my course. Nothing could have been more thorough.
First we paraded, and then we disappeared into various huts, where we
were lectured on the engine. In the afternoon we would go down to the
hangar, and after a general description we would plunge into grease
and oil, doing all those things which are required. Later we drove
under the direction of an expert instructor. It was a senior officers'
course, and we were all of us not entirely ignorant, but soon we
realised how little we had known. We drove over trenches and banks, and
at night we learned the art of bringing a tank to its point of balance
and keeping her poised there for a moment, so that she might slide
easily down into the trench. We were initiated into the secrets of
sweet gear-changing and all the arts and devices that a proper driver
should know. It was most certainly a good course.

While I sweated inside a tank and inhaled noisome fumes and spoilt a
pair of good gloves, my company had arrived at Humières. It was hardly
a company. Although the company was "resting," my men were working
hard. Some were still at Montenescourt clearing surplus dumps. Some
were at Sautrecourt putting up huts and taking them down again, when
it was discovered that some cheaper land was available near by.[14]
Some marched down each morning to Central Workshops and assisted the
Chinamen in their labours. Some went down to the coast on gunnery and
physical training courses. For most of the time I had only forty to
fifty in camp. But the huts at Sautrecourt were finally erected on a
proper site, and my men at Montenescourt rejoined in time to make good
a few of the casualties we sustained in our next action.

On the 4th June I accompanied Johnson, the battalion engineer, and
Cozens, the adjutant, on an expedition to the north. We drove through
Lillers and Bailleul to Ouderdom. I had not seen Bailleul since March
1915, when the 5th Divisional Cyclist Company, in which I had just
received a commission, moved north to Ouderdom. Bailleul had not
changed. It was still a clean and pleasant town, where you could buy
fish. Tina, an almost legendary damsel, whose wit and beauty were known
in five armies, had arisen and was about to disappear. The "Allies Tea
Room" had opened. The lunatic asylum still held good baths that were
open to officers twice a week. The "Faucon" was as dingy as ever.

In June the back area of the salient was like a disturbed ant-heap. We
were making every possible preparation for an attack, and apparently
we did not mind in the very least whether or not the enemy knew all
about it. The countryside was "stiff" with light railways, enormous
dumps, fresh sidings, innumerable gun-pits, new roads, enlarged camps.
No advertisement of the impending attack was neglected. The enemy,
of course, realised what was happening, and acted accordingly. He
had brought up a large number of long-range guns, and his aeroplanes
flew over on every fine day. He had, too, the advantage of direct
observation over all the forward area. The results were unpleasant
enough, even in June. Dumps would "go up" with a pleasing regularity.
Camps and railheads were always being shelled. Bombing continued by day
and by night. In front we destroyed the German trenches, breastworks
and fortifications, and shelled their batteries. They retaliated in
kind, and the unprejudiced observer would have found it difficult to
award the prize. The enemy were scoring heavily with their gas shells.

We drove first to Ouderdom, a vast and enticing railhead, which the
enemy shelled methodically each night, much to the annoyance of "B"
Tank Battalion, who lived, for reasons of state, at the edge of the
railhead. Their tanks were housed with disarming frankness in a series
of canvas stalls surrounded by a high canvas screen. The whole erection
was perhaps three-quarters of a mile in circumference. The tanks were
so obviously concealed that the enemy never suspected their existence.
The shells that dropped each night into the camp were the ordinary
courtesies of warfare, although they did at last produce a move.

We had an excellent lunch with the Engineers of the battalion, Johnson
expatiated on his new "unditching beam," we inspected certain novelties
that had been fitted to the tanks, and then from a windmill on a
hillock we watched the smoke of a "practice barrage." We drove on by
Dranoutre, where in '14 I was despatch-rider to a brigade of the 5th
Division, over the hill to the headquarters of "A" battalion in some
pleasant woods, untroubled by the enemy. After drinks, salutations, and
some "shop," we returned in the cool of the evening, stopping in the
square at Hazebrouck for dinner and a good bottle of burgundy. It had
been a fine day, with just enough sun. All the woods were fresh and
green, and there was a purple sunset.

The Battle of Messines was fought four days later. The attack was a
complete and overwhelming success. The whole of the Ridge, which for so
many weary months had dominated our lines, was captured at a low cost.
"A" and "B" battalions of tanks were useful but not indispensable.
The ground was difficult and in places impossible. Many tanks became
ditched. Certain tanks retrieved a local situation finely by the stout
repulse of a strong counter-attack. We received the impression that, if
the weather had been wet, tanks could not have been used. Although we
did not realise it at the time, the battle of Messines was the first
and only successful act in a tragedy of which the last act was never
played.

An expedition to the Salient only sharpened our appreciation of the
quiet and charm of Humières. What more could man want in the year of
grace 1917 than to lie under the trees, sipping a cool drink, and watch
Wright, the left-handed mainstay of our side, open his shoulders to a
half-volley, or, when the sun had gone in, to stroll out and scrape
together a lucky "6" instead of the usual "4"? We had no "seasons" at
Humières. Each evening during the week we would play cricket, and on
Sunday we would play a company of "F" battalion at football, and beat
them by some outrageous score--12-love, I think it was--or, while we
were indulging in the equivalent of a little net practice, the football
enthusiasts would be crowded round the goal at the other end of the
field. Whichever game we played, the company won most of its matches.

No self-respecting battalion would ever allow its period of rest to
go by without battalion sports, and "D" battalion respected itself
mightily. Our pet athletes started to train as soon as we reached
Humières. After the Messines battle there was some doubt whether it
might not be necessary to postpone the sports until after the next
"show." Rumours of an immediate move came thick and fast, but the Fates
were not so unkind, and our sports were held on the eve of things.

My company had prepared the way with a minor affair. The field was
small and uneven, and in the longer races there were so many laps that,
as our company wag exclaimed, it was a wonder the runners did not get
giddy before they finished. If the times were doubtful, the enjoyment
was unstinted, and after mess all the seats and the company piano were
brought out into the open, and we sang songs until it was quite dark.

The battalion sports, a few days later, were a social event. An immense
field positively sprouted with dark-blue flags, the colour of the
battalion. There were pipes and drums from the 51st Division. The staff
were conspicuously resplendent, while the Countess and her daughters
were the centre of attraction. It was a splendid afternoon, although
Battalion Headquarters won the cup. They would not have tried to win
it, some one said, if they had not been able to drink out of it.

In the evening there was the usual entertainment of the "Follies" type
under the direction of the "Old Bird." It was organised more or less on
the spur of the moment. Supported by an issue of free beer it was an
uproarious success, although it was sometimes not too easy to translate
the jokes into French for the benefit of the Countess and her daughters.

It was a great night, and all the pipers were so satisfied with their
refreshment that they could not ask for more; and if pipers of the 51st
are incapable of asking for another drink, then they are incapable
indeed, and a loading party must turn out to place them gently in the
lorries....

In the heavy heat of those long days it was easy to forget the war and
the shadow of the battle, coming up wrathfully, like a thunderstorm.
Little expeditions were as pleasurable as children's treats. The
drowning of a bus driver at Merlimont Plage, where our gunnery school
was among the dunes, gave me a swift run to the sea, and we called in
at Boulogne "on the way back" for stores. Then there was always that
old coaching hostelry at Hesdin, the Hôtel de France, which provided
none too bad a dinner for those who were sick of the eternal roast-beef
of the mess.

Finally, lest we should find life too monotonous, the new tank
battalions were arriving from Bovington Camp in Dorset, which had
always been held up to us in France as a very pattern of discipline, a
haven of content, a perfect well of energy, a paradise where the senior
officers and the tank engineers never thought of using any part or
fitting of a tank, such as a clock, accumulators, or even a dynamo, for
their own private purposes and the decoration of their huts. As for the
depot at Wareham, we pictured it as a place where thoroughly nice young
officers spent laborious days and nights in fitting themselves for the
noble tasks before them. Certainly these new battalions were beautiful
to look upon. Their uniforms were new, they saluted smartly, and by
a stupid and tactless blunder they were wearing on their sleeves the
famous badge, representing a tank, which we had waited for so long.

I shall never cease to wonder at the patience of the British soldier.
Here were four battalions of veteran volunteers, who, after they
had spent hot and weary weeks removing vast dumps and erecting
multitudinous huts, were given the privilege of watching these
immaculate recruits, of whom many were conscripts, swaggering with
their tank badges. I do not pretend that the course of the war was
changed by this incident, and I do not wish for one moment to insinuate
that these new battalions did not very soon prove themselves worthy
of any badge. It was, however, a pity that when there were not enough
badges to go round, the men who had fought and volunteered were left
badgeless. The badge at once became a thing without value, just as
later the savour of the 1914 Star disappeared when fighting men first
saw the ribbon on the chests of clerks at Boulogne. In any war there
must always be some jealousy between men who fight and men who do
safe though indispensable work behind the lines, between men who have
borne the heat and burden of the day and those newly out from home.
Unfortunately these little jealousies were often accentuated by such
blunders, and the fighting man felt that he was neglected. A baker
and a bomber received the same medal, and the appalling state of the
leave-trains was always attributed to the fact that the staff, who
went on leave with such tactless regularity, travelled to the coast by
motor-car.

It was good to see Hamond, who had come back to France again in command
of a company of "F" battalion, to plumb once more the depths of his
vocabulary, and to hear his frank criticism of those set in authority.
But the comments of these new-comers, or rather in Hamond's case, these
returned wanderers, led us to doubt whether after all Bovington Camp
was a better place than Humières.

So June passed in rich sunshine--all those glorious fighting days
were wasted. The order came for us to draw new tanks, and we began to
hurry our preparations for the most ghastly of all battles, the third
battle of Ypres, in which the wounded fell into pits of slimy water and
drowned slowly, screaming to their comrades for help, and the tanks,
sticking in the mud and sinking sometimes till they were swallowed up,
were compelled at last to fight precariously from destroyed roads.



CHAPTER VII.

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--PREPARATIONS.

(_July 1917._)


We had begun the year in confident anticipation of a "great battle,"
which was to give the enemy such a handsome blow that he would go
reeling back towards his frontiers, and in the winter either ask for
peace or lick his sores, until in the spring-time, with a concentration
of every man and gun, we would crush him once and for all. Before Arras
optimists had hoped that we might make an end of things that season,
but the rumours abroad of delay in preparations, of the too slow
provision of material and men, and of the breaking-up of the Russian
Armies, sobered our prophecies. Even with the great battle to which we
pinned our faith, we should want another year. After Arras we were a
little crestfallen: the second act of that battle had been so obviously
a failure, and the grand attack of the French--a victory until it was
fought--made curiously little progress. The taking of the Messines
Ridge was encouraging, and for a time we cast covetous eyes on Lille;
but, thinking it over, we began to rate Messines at its true value--a
very notable but local success.

As early as March the good people of Amiens were whispering "Ypres,"
and the prognostications of the Amienois were always astonishingly
correct. It was obvious to the merest amateur that the Salient was
boiling with activity, and, as one fact after another was revealed, we
could soon make a pretty shrewd guess at the probable course of events.
The great battle was to take place in the neighbourhood of Ypres, and
our hearts sank to our boots.

The Salient represented all that was most horrible in war. The veteran,
experienced in the terrors of the Brickstacks or the Somme, would feel
that he had something still to learn and suffer if he had not done his
time in the Salient. The first and second battles, it was true, had
been triumphs of defence, but triumphs so full of tragedy that a man
cannot tell of them without bringing sorrow. It is not easy to forget
the fruitless massacre of Hill 60, that ghastly morning when the 14th
Division, never too lucky, were driven out of their trenches by liquid
fire; that night when the choking Zouaves came back to the canal, and
the moonlight shining through the green fumes of the gas shells in
Boesinghe, and the troubled old French general in the chateau whose
brigade-major was so pathetically insistent on the counter-attacks that
would surely be put in hand at once, and the shell which blotted out my
patrol....

The thought of tanks in the Salient made those of us shiver a little
who knew the country. The Salient had swallowed up so many reputations
and made so few. With water everywhere just below the surface, and a
heavy preliminary bombardment, the ground would be almost impassable
for tanks, and if it rained.... Surely, we felt, there could never have
been a more hopeless enterprise! It was an ugly business. Yet I must
confess that in the eager hustle and stir of our preparations we became
almost confident; those who had never seen the Salient made light of
our fears; perhaps, after all, Johnson's "unditching beam" would see us
through; they would never send the tanks to the Salient if they had not
made sure. We allowed ourselves to be encouraged, and, hoping against
hope, entered upon the battle.

Experiments certainly were made. One of my tanks, with a few others,
were sent away to demonstrate how easy it was for tanks to cross dykes
and ditches and wet ground....

Several crews were taken from the battalion to form a special company,
which was hedged round with mystery and secrecy. There was soon,
however, a strong rumour in the camp that this company was destined
to land at Ostend with an army under Rawlinson from England. As I had
no desire to know more about the matter than was good for me, I did
not take an early opportunity of going to Amiens to learn the truth.
However, the secret was not too badly kept--I believe the doctor's
daughter at Blangy knew nothing of it. I heard later--but I am sure
my information must have been inaccurate--that the whole project
was quite frankly discussed in the more discreet drawing-rooms of
London....

Before the battle actually began we were told little but surmised much,
and our surmises proved moderately correct. We were bidding for the
coast....

There was something of a tragic experiment in the Battle of the Somme.
We had hoped vaguely then that the German line might be broken or at
least dangerously bent, but we had seen no glittering prize to grasp.
And after the first few days when our tremendous and expensive assaults
had created but a microscopic indentation, we realised in a spirit of
grim fatalism that the battle must become, as indeed it did, a series
of terrible mechanical attacks in an atmosphere of monstrous shelling.

We looked forward to the great battle of 1917 in a different spirit.
Perhaps we knew more about it. Perhaps the early successes at Arras had
encouraged us. Perhaps the mere companionship of our tanks infected
us with optimism. We did feel that there was a cheerful breadth of
conception about it--and we knew that we had guns innumerable and
limitless ammunition....

In July 1917 the line from the coast to the Lys was divided into four
sectors, each widely different from the others. First, there was the
narrow front on the coast, where men fought among the sand-dunes.
This sector we had just taken over and stiffened with guns. It was
rumoured--I believe with truth--that here we would attack. If no attack
was intended, it is difficult to account for the concentration of guns,
infantry, and aeroplanes.

From the right flank of the coast sector practically to the left
re-entrant of the Ypres Salient stretched the inundated area, where
Belgians and Germans had looked through their field-glasses at each
other since the early days of the war. Here it was almost impossible to
attack.

Then came the infamous Salient, where for so many bitter months we had
clung desperately to the skirts of the foothills. Our trenches were
overlooked and water-logged; our approaches were observed and shelled
mercilessly, and all the areas back to Poperinghe were shelled, while
lately bombing by night had become more frequent and unpleasant. Now
we were expecting to sweep over the hills, where the Germans lay, and
out into the dead flat plains beyond. There were enormous difficulties
ahead in this sector,--the Passchendaele Ridge, which stretched into
the enemy lines, and the Houthulst Forest, set down in a marsh,--and
the average soldier was inclined to reason it out that if the enemy had
found it impossible to push us down into the plain we should find it as
impossible to push him back over his hills and through his forest--yet
as a matter of sober fact we were absurdly confident.

Finally, on the right there was the Messines Ridge, which we had just
captured. From this ridge the enemy had been able to look into our
lines. Without it we could not hope to attack from the Salient, for
the attackers would have had the enemy sitting on a hill to their left
rear. Now we had won it, and on a narrow front would give the Germans a
taste of the Salient.

This, then, was the motive of the battle--to push through along the
coast and at the Ypres Salient, forcing the German back from his
edge of the floods by threatening his flanks. At the height of the
operations a strong force equipped with tanks would land at Ostend, and
once more the German Army would possess a vulnerable right flank.

This diagram will show roughly the outline of the operations, as we
understood they would be:--

[Illustration]

We had struck the first blow in the battle of Messines; the enemy
struck the second. They made a sudden skilful attack on the coast
sector, and, showing themselves, as always, masters of the local
operation with a limited objective, did serious damage. A brigade was
practically annihilated, a division was roughly handled, and all our
preparations were put so badly out of gear that soon a number of big
guns came trundling south to the Salient....

In that little pocket-handkerchief of a tankodrome at Eclimeux we were
making our preparations in our own small way for the grand battle. We
had drawn a job lot of tanks, the majority of which had been much in
use at the driving-school at Wailly. Some of them we had even taken
over "in situ" at Wailly, where we made good in haste the damage done
by successive classes. At this period of its existence the Tank Corps
was always in a hurry. Everything was left to the last minute, and then
there was a sudden scare. It did not please the men that they had to
patch up tanks at the last minute before going north. Some tanks were
in so poor a state that the Brigade Commander very properly refused to
take them.

Leaving my men to work all day--by this time I had managed to scrape
most of my company together again--I drove north on the 2nd July to see
Jumbo, who had been sent on ahead to our destination, Oosthoek Wood,
north of Vlamertinghe, which is the village half-way between Poperinghe
and Ypres.

I found after a hot and dusty ride that the site of our proposed camp
was on the northern edge of the wood, close by a siding and a very
obvious ramp. It was a part of the world which the German gunner found
interesting. Jumbo was quite clear on the point, though Jumbo himself,
revelling in the cool and shade of the woods after hot days forward
on reconnaissance, did not turn a hair. The ramp and the northern
edge of Oosthoek Wood were shelled nightly. There were two painfully
fresh shell-holes in the middle of the area allotted to us, and "G"
Battalion across the road were not sleeping at all. One night they
actually left their camp, and I am afraid when they returned they found
one or two little things were missing. Anyway, at breakfast the next
morning, Horobin, Jumbo's batman, had a broad smile. We found too, on
examination, that the undergrowth had been thoroughly fouled by the
constant succession of troops who had stayed for a night or so, and
then had gone back to rest or forward to the line.

In short, I had no love for the place.

We took the opportunity of studying the approaches to the ramp, which
mercifully was broad and strong and approached by a nearly straight
stretch of rail. The route to the wood, in which we were instructed
to hide our tanks, was only a couple of hundred yards long with no
difficulties.

Before I left I was told that a shell had dropped into "C" Battalion
lines and nearly wiped out Battalion Headquarters. I had never
liked the Salient, and as I drove in the evening back to Humières,
it seemed to me clear enough that I should like it even less. That
night I dreamed of shells landing in the middle of foul undergrowth.
A few days later I heard with more than a little relief that the
brigade had decided to move the men's lines to the neighbourhood of
La Lovie Chateau, north of Poperinghe. The tanks would remain under a
small guard at Oosthoek, and the men would march or be carried down
every day to work on them. The scheme had its disadvantages--it is
always a nuisance to be too far from your tanks--but the decision was
incontrovertibly right. Nothing can be more fretting to the nerves of
man than this nagging gun-fire at night, and somebody is always hit
sooner or later, and the somebody cannot usually be replaced.

We discovered, when the battle had begun, that a prisoner, whom the
Germans had taken while we were making our preparations, had informed
the Germans, probably under pressure, that there were tanks at Oosthoek
Wood. Knowing what they did, it is a little astonishing that the German
gunners did not increase their nightly ration of shells, which merely
disturbed the guard, who slept under the tanks when not on duty, and
did not damage a tank.

A week before we moved my officers were seized with a fantastical idea,
and, disdaining to comb their hair, like Spartans before the battle,
cropped it almost to the skin. I have known similar outbursts of
decapillation. Ward's officers once shaved off their moustaches before
Bullecourt, and, when one subaltern indignantly refused to submit,
his fellows painted a large moustache on the lower part of his back.
Unfortunately he was wounded next day in the same spot. I have often
wondered what the nurse must have thought....

One fine morning--it was the 10th of July--my tanks pulled out of the
little tankodrome, and did their best to block the street of Eclimeux.
It was an annoying day: so many things went wrong, and we did not know
how much time we might be given at the other end to put them right. The
track led down the road, across some corn-fields, and, leaving our old
friends at Blangy on the left, beside the main road to Erin. Eventually
all the tanks arrived, and were parked up in the vast enclosure,
surrounded by a wall of canvas.

I remember that the entraining was poor. We took nearly forty minutes.
Entraining and detraining provide searching tests of a tank's
mechanical efficiency and the skill of a crew. If there is any flaw
in the tuning, any clumsiness in the driver, driving on to a train
will discover it. A tank dislikes a train. It slides on with grunts of
obstinate dissatisfaction. If it ever wants to jib, it will jib then.
Luckily we had no severe casualties, for to tow a "dud" tank on or off
a train may be heartbreaking work. At last all the tanks were neatly
covered with tarpaulins, the baggage was placed in the trucks, and the
men were settling down and making themselves comfortable. Many months,
full of hard fighting, were to pass before "D" Battalion, or what was
left of it, returned to Erin....

Cooper and I, in a car loaded, as usual, with kit, drove north through
Heuchin and over the hills, and along the main road to Aire and lunch
in a cool tea-room. Then on we went to Hazebrouck and Bailleul, and at
last to Poperinghe, thick with troops. The sign of the Fifth Army, the
Red Fox, was everywhere; and the Fifth Army was in those days known
as the Army of Pursuit. Outside the town we passed the King of the
Belgians, apparently riding alone--a fine unassuming figure of a man;
and so we came to the copses near the Chateau of La Lovie.

In a laudable attempt at hiding our camp, though the whole Salient was
an open secret, we had pitched our tents among thick undergrowth and
some saplings. Orders had been given that the undergrowth was not to
be cleared, and life in consequence had its little difficulties. At
first to walk about the camp at night was simply foolish, for, if you
had the courage to leave your tent, you either plunged into a bush,
collided with a tree, or tripped over tent-ropes decently hidden in the
vegetation. But man cannot live in a forest without itching to make
some clearance--it is the instinct of the pioneer,--and before we had
been long in the copse I am afraid that one or two of the more tempting
bushes had disappeared, paths had been trodden, and the inevitable
"temporary structures" raised on what to all outward appearance had
recently been young trees.

On the afternoon that we arrived we came to the decision that we
disliked heat and aeroplanes. There was no shade, unless you lay at
full length under a bush, and innumerable aeroplanes--"Spads"--were
ascending and descending from an enormous aerodrome close by. The
flying men were in the cheeriest mood, and endeavoured always to keep
us amused by low and noisy flying. I do not think that there is any
aeroplane more consistently noisy than a "Spad."

At dusk we drove down to the ramp at Oosthoek Wood. The train backed
in after dark. We brought off our tanks in great style, under the eye
of the Brigade Commander, who was always present at these ceremonies.
The enemy was not unkind. He threw over a few shells, but one only
disturbed our operations by bursting on the farther side of the ramp
and so frightening our company dog that we never saw her again.

There was no moon, and we found it difficult to drive our tanks into
the wood without knocking down trees that made valuable cover. It was
none too easy without lights, which we did not wish to use, to fasten
the camouflage nets above the tanks on to the branches. The track of
the tanks from the ramp to the wood was strewn with branches and straw.

By the time we had finished the night had fled, and it was in the fresh
greyness of dawn that we marched the weary miles to the camp at La
Lovie. The men were dog-tired, my guide was not certain of the road,
though he never missed it, and I had never realised the distance. After
an interminable tramp we staggered into camp. The men were given some
hot breakfast, and then, as the sun rose, you would have heard nothing
but snores. For our sins we had arrived in a "back area" of the Salient.

That was on the 11th of July: the next twenty days were crammed full of
preparations.

Every morning the men marched down to the wood, wondering a little
if the shelling during the night had done any damage--and Oosthoek
Wood was shelled every night. Gradually the tanks were "tuned" to the
last note of perfection, the new Lewis guns were fired, and finally
the tanks were taken out on a cloudy day to a field close by and the
compasses adjusted by "swinging." Names and numbers were painted.
Experiments were made with the new and not very satisfactory form of
"unditching gear." Supplies of water, petrol, and ammunition were taken
on board. Everything that the crews could do was done.

We were told soon after we had arrived in the Salient that during the
first stages of the great battle "D" Battalion would remain in reserve.
There was, in consequence, no need for us to make any elaborate
reconnaissances of our own trench system, because by the time that
we were likely to come into action it was probable that we should be
beyond trenches and operating in the open country.

If a tank company is ordered to attack with the infantry on the first
day of a battle, no reconnaissance can be too detailed and patient, for
on the night before the attack a tank can do untold mischief. There are
wires, light railways, emplacements, communication trenches, dug-outs
to be avoided, and a specific spot to be reached at a given time. Tanks
unfortunately are not allowed to roam wildly over the battlefield
either before or during a battle. The route that a tank will take from
the moment it starts to move up on the night before the battle to the
moment it rallies after the battle is only a few yards wide. It is
chosen after the most painstaking examination of aeroplane photographs
and the daily reconnaissance of the enemy country. To our own front
line the route is taped, and forward it should be taped--in the mind's
eye of the tank commander.

Nor was it necessary for us to "liaise" with the infantry. Immediately
a tank company commander learns that he is "going over" with a certain
battalion of infantry, he begins at once to establish the closest
possible "liaison." The infantry officers are entertained and shown
over the tanks. A demonstration is arranged, and if time permits a
dress rehearsal of the attack is carried out in order that there may
be a thorough understanding between the tanks and the infantry. At
the beginning of the Ypres battle combined tactics scarcely existed.
The infantry attacked, the tanks helped, and the only question to be
decided was whether the tanks went in front of the infantry or the
infantry in front of the tanks. But even in July 1917 it was just
as well to know personally the officers and men of the battalion
concerned, although as late as September 1918 one Divisional Commander
refused to tell his men that they would be attacking with tanks, in
case they should be disappointed if the tanks broke down before the
battle.

We had only to reconnoitre the routes to the canal, and make a general
study of the sector in which we might be engaged.

Nothing, I suppose, sounds more elementary than to take a marked map
and follow a tank route from a large wood to a canal which cannot be
avoided. In practice there are not a few little difficulties. First,
it is necessary to extricate the tanks from the wood without knocking
down the trees, which may later be required to shelter others from
aeroplanes. This requires care and skill. Then the tanks proceed along
a cart-track until the route crosses a main road by a camp, where
it is necessary to swing sharply to avoid important wires and some
huts. Beyond the main road we trek across a field or two until the
track divides, and it is easy enough in the dark to bear to the right
instead of to the left. Then there is a ditch to cross, with marshy
banks--a good crossing in dry weather, but doubtful after rain--and
we mark an alternative. We come to a light railway, and this under
no circumstances must be damaged. We arrange for it to be "ramped"
carefully with sleepers, but it is just as well to carry a few spare
sleepers in the tanks, because some heavy gunners live near by. The
track, which by this time is two feet deep in mud, again divides, and
bearing to the right we find that an ammunition column has camped
across it. So we suggest that tanks through horse lines at night
may produce dire results, and a narrow passage is cleared. Another
main-road crossing and a bridge--we are doubtful about that bridge,
and walk down the stream until we come to something more suitable to
our weight. Along the route we look for woods, copses, or ruins, so
that, if a tank breaks down, we may know the best cover for the night:
you cannot afford to leave a tank lying about in the open, however
skilfully you may camouflage it.

I shall never forget those hot arduous days when we tramped in the
moist heat over all the possible routes, plunging, after it had rained,
through sticky mud often up to our knees, setting up little sign-posts
wherever it was possible to make a mistake, and wondering whether the
car would meet us at the other end....

The canal was a problem in itself. To live in a Salient under the eyes
of the enemy is miserable enough, but when it is necessary to cross a
canal to reach your own trenches life becomes intolerable.

The canal ran north and south from Ypres. It was an everyday canal,
with dug-outs in its banks and only three or four feet of mud and water
at the bottom. It was crossed by a number of bridges, and on each
the enemy gunners had been "registering" for two years, so that by
July 1917 their fire had become moderately accurate. They knew it was
necessary for us to cross the canal by a bridge, unless we went through
Ypres, with the result that no man lingered on a bridge a moment longer
than he must. Even our infantry, who would march steadily through a
barrage, crossed the canal at the double, and yet were often caught.

With the tanks we determined to take no risks. Bridges might be--and
often were--destroyed by a single shell, and it was decided to build
two solid embankments. Immediately the sappers started the enemy
discovered what was happening, and shelled the work without mercy
by day and by night and dropped bombs, but resolutely the work went
forward. Gang after gang of men were swept out of existence, but the
sappers just set their teeth and hung on, until a few days before the
battle the two embankments were well and properly built, and the little
graveyard by divisional headquarters was nearly filled.

In those days the German gunners gave us no peace. It was a magnificent
duel between the two artilleries. The enemy knew, of course, that we
were about to attack, and they determined that, if shells could spoil
our preparations, our preparations should be spoiled. I believe we lost
ten thousand men in the three weeks before the battle. We were consoled
only by the thought that the enemy was getting as much as he gave. It
was pleasant, for instance, to find a long gun, whose sole object in
life was to drop shells on the station at Roulers from dusk to dawn,
particularly after a chance shell in Poperinghe had spoiled a little
dinner at "Skindles," or a salvo into St Jean had distinctly delayed an
important reconnaissance on a sweltering day. And the shelling of the
canal was beyond a joke.

As I was a little anxious about the embankments, I decided to
reconnoitre, for my own peace of mind, a passable route through the
outskirts of Ypres round the "dead end" of the canal. It was a typical
day. Cooper and I motored to within a mile, and then, leaving our
car under the shelter of some trees, walked boldly ahead along the
road to the "dead end." There was no shelling near--it was a pleasant
quiet morning. We noticed, however, that the enemy had been active
very recently. The road was covered with fresh branches and dirt. The
shell-holes were suspiciously new. We crossed two bridges, and, having
satisfied ourselves that they would easily bear tanks, we walked down
to the quayside and stopped for a moment to light our pipes, with
mutual congratulations that we had chosen such a calm morning.

We did not then know the neighbourhood. We barely heard a shell before
it dropped neatly on the farther bank. We decided to push on down the
canal, but a little barrage drove the inhabitants of the canal into
their dug-outs. Finally, the salvos of H.E. shrapnel made the quayside
a place to be avoided, and we retired hastily into a strong shelter
where some jolly gunners offered us tea. They belonged to a 6-inch
howitzer battery a little distance away, and already they had lost
two-thirds of their men, and two of their howitzers had received direct
hits.

We waited for twenty minutes. There is nothing more difficult, and at
the same time more easy, than to take cover until a "strafe" stops.
Probably, if you walk straight on, as you intended, you will not only
be just as safe as you are under cover, but you will add to your
self-respect and rise in the estimation of your fellow-prisoners. On
the other hand, there is no hurry, and the enemy cannot go on for ever.
Why not wait until he stops? Still, as a major you should set a good
example, and not take any notice of a few shells. Yes, but they are
large shells, and you are perfectly certain that the last one fell
exactly on the road. Now, if we had been there----

Twice we started and twice we were driven in. Then at last we made
up our minds that the shelling was dying down, and we began to walk
back over the bridges, which had been hit at least twice since we had
crossed them. I heard something come very, very quickly, and I do not
mind confessing that I ducked. It exploded in the back of the house
which we were passing. We walked a little more rapidly, and strained
our ears for the next. We just heard it, and this time we flung
ourselves down, and the dirt and bits of things came pattering down on
to us. I looked at Cooper. There was agreement in his eye. We ran for
our lives.... That was our final reconnaissance on the 28th July.

After mess on the 30th, I strolled out with Cooper to the corner of
the main road. It was dusk, and the coolness was sweet. We waited, and
then battalion after battalion came swinging round the corner, where
guides stood with lanterns. Some of the men were whistling, a few were
singing, and some, thinking of the battle or their homes, had set
faces. Soon it became too dark to distinguish one man from another, and
I thought it as well. What did it matter if one man was singing and
another brooding over the battle to come? They were shadowy figures,
dark masses, just so many thousand infantrymen marching to the battle,
just so many units to kill or be killed. One grave is the same as any
other, and one infantryman should be the same as any other; for it is
difficult to endure war, and at the same time to think of the fear, the
love, the songs, the hope, the courage, the devices of the individual
men who fight. There is nothing noble, glorious, or romantic in war,
unless you forget the souls of the men....

The squealing mules with their clattering limbers plunged round the
corner, and we returned to our tents. It was hard to sleep. In a few
hours there was a momentary silence. Then right along the line an
uneasy drone broke the stillness--the weary tank crews had started
their engines, and the barrage fell with a crash on the German
trenches.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--ST JULIEN.

(_August 1917._)


The opening moves of the battle were not too fortunate. The first
objectives were gained on the left and in the centre, but the cost was
high. The Welsh Division in particular suffered heavily: the enemy
had learned through treachery the Welsh plan of attack. On the right
we made little impression on the western end of the Passchendaele
Ridge. Once the first great onrush was over, we reverted to the old
siege tactics--to blow a trench system to pieces and then to occupy
it under cover of a thick barrage. The rain came down, and the
whole battlefield, torn up already by our guns, became impassable.
We advanced more slowly. The enemy brought up every spare gun, and
the artilleries hammered away mechanically day and night, while the
wretched infantry on either side lay crouched in flooded shell-holes.
The preliminary bombardments became longer, and the objectives of the
infantry more limited. Soon the attacks ominously began to fail--at
Hooge and Polygon Wood attack after attack had broken on the enemy
defences. "Pill-boxes," little forts of concrete, proved at first
almost impregnable. The enemy could congratulate themselves that they
had brought to a standstill the great British attack of the year.

That was the first stage. Then there were changes in command and in
tactics. The Second Army extended its front to the north, and Plumer
began slowly to solve the problem with the aid of a little fine
weather. Tactics were adapted to the nature of the ground and the
character of the enemy defences. Tanks were at last permitted to use
the roads. The Australians were "put in" on the Passchendaele Ridge.
Once again the vast creaking machine began to move slowly forward,
but very slowly. We reached the outskirts of the Houthulst Forest; we
crawled along the top of the ridge and to the north of it. At last
we were within reach of Passchendaele itself, and we had hopes of
Roulers....

It was too late. The weather definitely had broken: the Italians were
pouring back to the Piave: the Russians had left us to ourselves.
November had come, and to distract the enemy's attention we made a
strong little effort down at Cambrai. When the copse of Passchendaele
finally was taken, we were occupied with other things.

We had forced the enemy back at Ypres six or seven miles in three and
a half months. Our casualties, I believe, had amounted to a quarter of
a million. The Salient had indeed preserved its reputation, and that
grim spirit who broods over the hills beyond Ypres must have smiled
maliciously when in a few months we were again compelled to withdraw
our lines.

In the third battle of Ypres the reputation of the Tank Corps was
almost destroyed. When we went south to Cambrai we must have left
behind us two or three hundred derelict tanks sinking by degrees into
the mud. The fighting virtues of the crews could not be questioned, for
the gallantry of the corps was amazing. Time after time the men started
out to fight in the full knowledge that unless some miracle intervened
they must stick in the mud--and either spend hours under a deadly fire
endeavouring to extricate their tanks or fight on, the target of every
gun in the neighbourhood, until they were knocked to pieces. There was
the famous tank "Fray Bentos," which went out in front of our infantry
and "ditched." The crew fought for seventy-two hours, bombed, shelled,
and stormed by day and by night, until, when all of them were wounded,
they gave up hope that the infantry ever would reach them and crawled
back to our own lines.

At last it was decided that the tanks might use the roads. This must
not be misunderstood. A civilian could search for a road in the forward
area and not recognise it when he came to it. The roads had been
shelled to destruction, like everything else in that ghastly, shattered
country, but they possessed at least some sort of foundation which
prevented the tanks from sinking into the mud. Operating on the roads,
we had one or two little successes--a mixed company of "G" Battalion
surprised and captured a few pill-boxes at a ridiculously low cost,
and later the 10th Company, "D" Battalion, carried out a splendid feat
in moving from St Julien, assisting the infantry to capture half the
village of Poelcapelle and some strong points near, and then returning
to St Julien with all tanks intact and two men wounded.

It would require a partial historian to assert that the tanks seriously
affected the course of the battle. Every action was a deadly gamble,
and soon the infantry realised as transparently as the stout-hearted
crews that, in the Salient, a company of tanks, however skilfully
driven and gallantly fought, could not be relied upon at need. And the
divisions, which came up in the later stages of the battle, had only
to use their eyes. It is not very encouraging to pass a succession of
derelict tanks. Luckily for the future of the Corps, the infantryman
was generous enough to attribute at least part of our failures to the
appalling ground. The average infantry officer[15] could not understand
why on earth tanks had ever been brought to the Salient. We made the
most of our successes and said nothing of our failures. Then came the
battle of Cambrai, and those poor old battered derelicts, rusting in
the mud, were forgotten.... After all, not only the tanks failed in the
Third Battle of Ypres....

I have given this little picture of the battle in order that the
reader, spoon-fed on journalese, may not come to my story under the
delusion that this tragic battle was a glorious victory. The details
of operations he may find elsewhere: a proper history of the tank corps
may soon be written: the careful critic may find my dates inaccurate. I
want to give the atmosphere in which we fought, and this battle was a
gloomy, bitter business....

On the 31st July, the first day of the battle, it began to rain, and
it rained until August 6th, and then it rained again. We, who were
in Corps reserve, had nothing to do except to wait restlessly in our
camp--we might receive orders to move up at any moment, if the enemy
line gave any indication of breaking; but, although on our Corps front
we had successfully reached our first objectives, and the Pilkem Ridge,
from which we had been driven by gas in April '15, was once more in our
hands, the German defence remained intact. It was clear that the enemy,
who, like us, had made every possible preparation, must once again be
thrown back by sheer force. And the continual downpour made the task
day by day more difficult. The more it rained, the more necessary a
prolonged preliminary bombardment became, and a lengthy bombardment
made the ground increasingly unsuitable for the use of infantry and
tanks. It was an altogether vicious circle.

The necessity, however, for a series of siege attacks with limited
objectives relieved the tension for us, and the rain, which gravely
hindered all preparations, postponed indefinitely the day on which my
company, the reserve company of the reserve battalion, would come into
action. We again made a thorough overhaul of our tanks, and fearing
that the officers and men might become stale, I granted generous leave
out of camp.

The war for us consisted in watching the arrival of prisoners at the
Army Cage, which was just round the corner; in putting out our lights
when the enemy 'planes came over; in reconnoitring once again our
routes forward; in making little expeditions to neighbouring towns when
the strain of waiting became too insistent....

There was no hate in our hearts for the gangs of prisoners who, on
the morning and afternoon of every attack, poured miserably along the
Poperinghe road. They looked such wretched, sullen outcasts. Even
the pride of the officers--a quaint ridiculous dignity--was a little
pitiful. When the gangs halted by the roadside, just by the camp, it
was impossible at first to prevent our men from giving them tea and
cigarettes, though later this practice was sternly forbidden. In some
ways we treated these prisoners well. When we drew biscuits instead
of bread, we would always say that a fresh batch of prisoners must
have arrived. But the Cage itself rapidly became a swamp, and we
sympathised, in spite of ourselves, with the poor devils lying out in
the mud. I used to wonder in the following year whether those of our
men who were taken prisoner looked so unutterably woebegone as these
Germans, or whether, perhaps, they bore themselves more bravely....

The bombing at night, even back at La Lovie, was an infernal nuisance.
During August it rapidly developed, and it reached its height towards
the middle of September. We possessed, apparently, no means of
defence against it. The "Archies" seemed useless. Machine-gun fire was
effective only when the 'planes flew daringly low. The enemy came over
when he liked, and we could not understand why he did not show himself
more frequently.

We in our camp were only annoyed--never damaged, and we began to treat
it all rather as a joke. Then the two Casualty Clearing Stations on the
railway were bombed. Several nurses, moving quietly among the screaming
wounded, were killed. We hoped that it was a terrible mistake, but
the hospitals were deliberately bombed a second time, and the ghastly
scenes were repeated. I do not know whether in very shame we invented
some shadow of excuse, but it was rumoured at this time that, in our
nightly shelling of Roulers Station, a shell had dropped into the
German Hospital near by, and that the enemy were now retaliating. I do
not vouch for this explanation, and it is quite probably an invention.

The heavy rain had made the reconnaissance of approach routes to Ypres
and the Canal the hardest labour. The tracks had been churned up by
passing tanks until they were knee-deep in mud--not the slimy, oozy
kind, but the damp spongy mud which sticks. In spite of the rain it
was a month of close muggy days, and these tramps through the steaming
odorous mud were a very sore infliction. But the routes were so
various, wandering, and difficult that the most thorough reconnaissance
was necessary. At any rate we acquired a knowledge of the countryside,
and the more we saw of it the less we loved it.

Once the country must have been rough heath, with big woods, isolated
clumps of firs, and everywhere stagnant pools and dirty streams. Then
the painstaking natives took hold of it and determined to make a living
out of it. They cultivated and cultivated with meticulous care. In the
back areas hops, corn, turnips, beans, market gardens, all in their
enclosures, came right up to the roads and the woods, but forward all
the country was returning to heath. Little cottages or farms lined the
roads or stood at the corners of the fields, while, farther back again,
the main roads were fringed with queer temporary bungalows or shelters,
where the _evacués_ eked out a livelihood by selling food, cigarettes,
vegetables, or bad beer to the troops, or by making coarse lace.

Now fill every wood with camps and every open space with dumps or
parks, cover the country with such a close network of railways that
there is a level-crossing every three hundred yards along any road,
and block all the roads with transport. Further forward there are guns
everywhere--behind cottages, in houses, along hedges, camouflaged in
the open....

The country seemed out of proportion. The fields were so small, the
hedges so numerous, the roads so narrow.... It was a battlefield over
allotments, cultivated on a marshy heath.

Cooper and I would go beyond the Canal and gaze at the villages which
we might attack. It has always fascinated me to see the inviolate
country--the pleasant green fields and nice red houses behind the
enemy line that must, when we advance, become a brown shell-pocked
desert and shapeless heaps of rubble. In the old trench battles we
achieved victory only by destruction. The houses and fields stood
terrified at our advance, praying that it would be stopped, so that
they could be spared. We looked through our glasses at Passchendaele
and Westroosebeke, standing on the ridge. It was a clear day and the
villages might have been in Surrey. By the end of November they were
nothing but a few bricks and stones lying about in the mud.

These little expeditions forward to convenient Observation Posts had
their excitements. The Canal was curiously the frontier of the war.
On this side of the Canal it was peaceful enough save for a deafening
railway-gun, a super-heavy howitzer, or a chance shell from the enemy.
On that side it seemed that all the guns in the world were packed
together, and the enemy, when he became annoyed, shelled the whole area
indiscriminately. We had one particularly bad day....

By the last week in August it had been found impossible for tanks
successfully to operate over the open country of the Salient, and they
were tied strictly to the remains of roads....

On the front which concerned my battalion we had driven the enemy back
over the Pilkem Ridge into the valley of the Hannebeek, and at the
foot of the further slopes he was holding out successfully in a number
of "pill-boxes" and concreted ruins. St Julien itself was ours, a
little village along the main road to Poelcapelle at the crossing of
the stream. Beyond, the ground was so ravaged with shell-fire that it
had become a desert stretch of shell-holes, little stagnant pools, with
here and there an odd hedge or a shattered tree. The enemy defences,
which consisted of strong points skilfully linked up by fortified
shell-holes, overlooked the opposite slope, and our guns were compelled
to remain behind the shelter of the Pilkem crest.

A few of the strong points on the west of the main road, notably
the "Cockroft," had already been cleared by a mixed company of "G"
Battalion in a successful little action. The tanks, using the roads
for the first time, had approached the forts from the rear, and the
garrisons in their panic had surrendered almost without a fight.

Ward's company had made a similar attack along the road running east
from the village. On the day before the action the enemy had spotted
his tanks, which were "lying up" on the western slope of the Pilkem
Ridge, and had attempted to destroy them with a hurricane bombardment
of 5.9's; but a tank has as many lives as a cat, and only three or four
were knocked out, though the flanks of the remainder were scarred and
dented with splinters.

The action itself was typical of many a tank action in the Salient.
The tanks slipped off the road and became irretrievably ditched,
sinking into the marsh. They were knocked out by direct hits as they
nosed their way too slowly forward. One gallant tank drew up alongside
a "pill-box," stuck, and fought it out. We never quite knew what
happened, but at last the tank caught fire. The crew never returned.

The road out of St Julien was littered with derelicts, for tanks of
another battalion, endeavouring by that road to reach another part of
the battlefield, had met their fate.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that I received the order to get
ready a section with a view to co-operating with the infantry in an
attack on the same front.

I had already moved my company without incident to the Canal, where
they remained peacefully, camouflaged under the trees.

I selected for the enterprise Wyatt's section, which, it will be
remembered, had fought on the extreme right at the first battle of
Bullecourt. His four tanks were at this time commanded by Puttock,
Edwards, Sartin, and Lloyd. It was a good section.

First, we consulted with the G.S.O.I. of the Division, which lived in
excellent dug-outs on the banks of the canal. The infantry attack was
planned in the usual way--the German positions were to be stormed under
cover of the thickest possible barrage.

We were to attack practically the same positions which Ward's company
had so gallantly attempted to take. The direct road, perhaps luckily,
was blocked by derelicts. A rough diagram will make the position
clear:--

[Illustration]

It will be obvious that, since my tanks could not leave the road, and
the direct road was blocked, it had become necessary to use the main
road across the enemy front and attack the strong points down the road
from the north. Further, the tanks could not move out of St Julien
before "zero" in case the noise of their engines should betray the
coming attack. We were reduced, in consequence, to a solemn crawl along
the main road in sight of the enemy after the battle had commenced.

We decided boldly to spend the night before the battle at St Julien.
We had realised by then that the nearer we were to the enemy the less
likely we were to be shelled. And the idea of a move down the road into
St Julien actually on the night before the battle was not pleasant. No
margin of time would be left for accidents, mechanical or otherwise.

Cooper, Wyatt, and I carried out a preliminary reconnaissance into the
outskirts of St Julien on a peaceful day before coming to our decision.
The sun was shining brightly after the rain, and the German gunners
were economising their ammunition after an uproar on the night before,
the results of which we saw too plainly in the dead men lying in the
mud along the roadside. Wyatt made a more detailed reconnaissance by
night and planned exactly where he would put each tank.

On the night of the 25th/26th August Wyatt's section moved across the
Canal and up along a track to an inconspicuous halting-place on the
western side of the crest. It was raining, and, as always, the tracks
were blocked with transport. An eager gunner endeavoured to pass one of
the tanks, but his gun caught the sponson and slipped off into the mud.
It was a weary, thankless trek.

On the following night the tanks crawled cautiously down the road into
St Julien with engines barely turning over for fear the enemy should
hear them. The tanks were camouflaged with the utmost care.

The enemy aeroplanes had little chance to see them, for on the 27th it
rained. A few shells came over, but the tanks were still safe and whole
on the night before the battle, when a storm of wind and rain flooded
the roads and turned the low ground beyond the village, which was
treacherous at the best of times, into a slimy quagmire.

Before dawn on the 28th the padre walked from ruin to ruin, where the
crews had taken cover from shells and the weather, and administered
the Sacrament to all who desired to partake of it. The crews stood to
their tanks. Then, just before sunrise, came the whine of the first
shells, and our barrage fell on the shell-holes in which the enemy,
crouched and sodden, lay waiting for our attack. The German gunners
were alert, and in less than two minutes the counter-barrage fell
beyond the village to prevent reinforcements from coming forward. Big
shells crashed into St Julien. The tanks swung out of their lairs in
the dust and smoke, and, moving clear of the village, advanced steadily
in the dim light along the desolate road, while the padre and Wyatt
slipped back through the counter-barrage to brigade headquarters.

It was lonely on the Poelcapelle Road, with nothing for company but
shells bursting near the tanks. After the heavy rain the tanks slipped
about on the broken setts, and every shell-hole in the road was a
danger--one lurch, and the tank would slide off into the marsh.

Very slowly the tanks picked their way. Three tanks reached the
cross-roads. The fourth, Lloyd's, scraped a tree-trunk, and the
mischief was done. The tank sidled gently off the road and stuck, a
target for the machine-gunners. Two of the crew crept out, and the
unditching beam was fixed on to the tracks. The tank heaved, moved a
few inches, and sank more deeply. Another effort was made, but the tank
was irretrievably ditched, half a mile from the German lines.

Three tanks turned to the right at the first cross-roads, and, passing
through our infantry, enfiladed the shell-holes occupied by the enemy.
The effect of the tanks' fire could not be more than local, since on
either side of the road were banks about four to five feet in height.
The enemy were soon compelled to run back from the shell-holes near
the road, and many dropped into the mud; but machine-gun fire from the
shell-holes, which the guns of the tanks could not reach effectively,
prevented a further advance.

One tank moved south down the track towards the strong points, but
found it blocked by a derelict tank which the enemy had blown neatly
into two halves. My tank remained there for an hour, shooting at every
German who appeared. Then the tank commander tried to reverse in order
to take another road, but the tank, in reversing, slid on to a log and
slipped into a shell-hole, unable to move. One man was mortally wounded
by a splinter.

The barrage had passed on and the infantry were left floundering in the
mud. The enemy seized the moment to make a counter-attack, two bunches
of Germans working their way forward from shell-hole to shell-hole
on either side of the tank. Our infantry, already weakened, began to
withdraw to their old positions.

The tank commander learned by a runner, who on his adventurous little
journey shot two Germans with his revolver, that the second tank was
also ditched a few hundred yards away on another road. This tank, too,
had cleared the shell-holes round it, and, bolting the garrison of a
small strong point near it with its 6-pdr. gun, caught them as they
fled with machine-gun fire.

There was nothing more to be done. The tanks were in full view of the
German observers, and the enemy gunners were now trying for direct
hits. The tanks must be hit, sooner or later. The infantry were
withdrawing. The two wretched subalterns in that ghastly waste of
shell-holes determined to get their men away before their tanks were
hit or completely surrounded. They destroyed what was of value in their
tanks, and carrying their Lewis guns and some ammunition, they dragged
themselves wearily back to the main road.

The remaining tank, unable to move forward as all the roads were now
blocked, cruised round the triangle of roads to the north of the
strong points. Then a large shell burst just in front of the tank and
temporarily blinded the driver. The tank slipped off the road into the
mud, jamming the track against the trunk of a tree. All the efforts of
the crew to get her out were in vain....

Meanwhile, we had been sitting drearily near Divisional Headquarters on
the canal bank, in the hope that by a miracle our tanks might succeed
and return. The morning wore on, and there was little news. The Germans
shelled us viciously. It was not until my tank commanders returned to
report that we knew the attack had failed.

When the line had advanced a little, Cooper and I went forward to
reconnoitre the road to Poelcapelle and to see our derelicts. Two of
the tanks had been hit. A third was sinking into the mud. In the last
was a heap of evil-smelling corpses. Either men who had been gassed had
crawled into the tank to die, or more likely, men who had taken shelter
had been gassed where they sat. The shell-holes near by contained
half-decomposed bodies that had slipped into the stagnant water. The
air was full of putrescence and the strong odour of foul mud. There
was no one in sight except the dead. A shell came screaming over and
plumped dully into the mud without exploding. Here and there was a
little rusty wire, climbing in and out of the shell-holes like noisome
weeds. A few yards away a block of mud-coloured concrete grew naturally
out of the mud. An old entrenching tool, a decayed German pack, a
battered tin of bully, and a broken rifle lay at our feet. We crept
away hastily. The dead never stirred.



CHAPTER IX.

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES--THE POELCAPELLE ROAD.

(_September and October 1917._)


For three weeks there was no big offensive, though the artilleries
continued their pitiless duel without a break, and the miserable
infantry, tormented by bombs and shells as they crouched in their
water-logged holes, or staggering dully over the mud in a series of
little local attacks, which too often failed, could scarcely have
realised that there was a distinct lull in the battle. We were pulling
ourselves together for another enormous effort. The guns were pushed
forward, and more guns arrived. Tired Divisions were taken out and
new Divisions took their place with reduced fronts. There were new
groupings, new tactics.... A possible month of fighting weather
remained. We might still make something of this tragic struggle.

My company had returned from the Canal, as it was not likely that
we should be wanted again in the near future, and were living in
shameless comfort at La Lovie. The rain had stopped--we always had
bright sunshine in the Salient, when we were not ready to attack. If
it had not been for the growl of the guns, an occasional shell in
Poperinghe while we were bargaining for greengages, or the perseverance
of the enemy airmen, who dropped bombs somewhere in the neighbourhood
each fine night, we might have forgotten the war completely. There
were walks through the pine-woods, canters over the heath, thrilling
football matches against our rivals, little expeditions to Bailleul for
fish, or Cassel for a pleasant dinner in the cool of the evening. And I
fell in with Susie.

She was a dear, graceful little woman, with timid, liquid brown eyes,
black hair, a pleasant mouth, and the most marvellous teeth. Our
friendship began one night when, returning from mess, I found her
sitting on my bed.

It is better to be frank. She was half a German--at least we all
thought so, because, if she had no dachshund blood in her, she had no
other strain in her that we could recognise.

Then there was the Brigade barber across the way, who came from Bond
Street. He had been given his own little shop, and he possessed such a
store of the barber's polite conversation that to listen was to become
home-sick. Sometimes, as we were in Flanders, he would flavour his
stories a little fully, ending always with a half-apology--

"A topic, sir, I can assure you, that I should scarcely have
approached, if it had not been for my eighteen months in the ranks."

His little deprecating cough was pure joy....

On the 19th the weather broke again, and it rained heavily. On the
20th we delivered an attack in the grand style, with every man and gun
available. For a few days we were full of hope. The enemy could not
resist our sheer strength, and their line bent and almost broke. We
threw in Division after Division, attacking day after day. We thrust
him back to the fringes of the Houthulst Forest. We crawled along the
Passchendaele Ridge, and on the 26th we captured Zonnebeke. Then slowly
and magnificently the Germans steadied themselves, and once more the
attacks died down with the enemy line still in being. But the Great
General Staff must have had a terrible fright.

Ward's company had been engaged between the Poelcapelle Road and
Langemarck. Much to my disgust I had been compelled to hand over to him
two of my best tanks. His company did excellent work, though, as had
become customary in the Salient, only a few of his tanks returned. One
tank particularly distinguished itself by climbing a barricade of logs,
which had been built to block the road a few hundred yards south of
Poelcapelle, and slaughtering its defenders.

At the end of September we had driven back the enemy, on the front with
which I was principally concerned, to a position immediately in front
of Poelcapelle--that is, just over a mile N.E. of the cross-roads near
which Wyatt's section had fought at the end of August. Our progress in
a month, though we thought it to be satisfactory at the time, had not
been astonishingly rapid. It was determined to clear Poelcapelle as
soon as possible, since, while the Germans held it, we were greatly
handicapped in attacking either the S.E. edge of the Houthulst Forest
or the Passchendaele Ridge itself from the north-west. Further, the
only two main roads in the neighbourhood passed through the village.

Marris, who had succeeded Haskett-Smith in the command of No. 10
Company, was instructed to assist the infantry in the attack. His
company had just returned from Wailly, where they had greatly improved
their driving by hard practice over the derelict trenches. They had
suffered few casualties at Arras, and, as they had not previously been
engaged in the Salient, they were fresh and keen.

The attack was scheduled for October 4th. Marris brought down his tanks
into St Julien and camouflaged them in the ruins. St Julien, though
still easily within close field-gun range, was now respectably "behind
the line." It was only shelled once or twice a night, and during the
day on state occasions. It could not hope entirely to escape--the
bridge across the Hannebeek was too important--but it became the place
at which you left the car if you wanted to reconnoitre forward.

The attack was incredibly successful. Of Marris's twelve tanks, eleven
left St Julien and crawled perilously all night along the destroyed
road. At dawn they entered the village with the infantry and cleared
it after difficult fighting. One section even found their way along
the remains of a track so obliterated by shell-fire that it scarcely
could be traced on the aeroplane photographs, and "bolted" the enemy
from a number of strong points. Then, having placed the infantry
in possession of their objectives, the tanks lurched back in the
daylight. It was a magnificent exhibition of good driving, which
has never been surpassed, and was without doubt the most successful
operation in the Salient carried out by tanks.

Unfortunately the tanks could not remain in the village. By midday
every German gun which could bear had been turned upon it, and by dusk
the enemy had forced their way back into the ruins at the farther end
of the long street.

It soon became clear that we should be required to finish the job. The
weather, of course, changed. A few days of drying sun and wind were
followed by gales and heavy rain. The temperature dropped. At night it
was bitterly cold.

On the 6th, Cooper and I made a little expedition up the Poelcapelle
Road. It was in a desperate condition, and we felt a most profound
respect for the drivers of No. 10 Company. The enemy gunners had
shelled it with accuracy. There were great holes that compelled
us to take to the mud at the side. In places the surface had been
blown away, so that the road could not be distinguished from the
treacherous riddled waste through which it ran. To leave the road was
obviously certain disaster for a tank. Other companies had used it,
and at intervals derelict tanks which had slipped off the road or
received direct hits were sinking rapidly in the mud. I could not help
remembering that the enemy must be well aware of the route which so
many tanks had followed into battle.

We were examining a particularly large shell-hole, between two derelict
tanks, when the enemy, whose shells had been falling at a reasonable
distance, began to shell the road....

Two sections of my tanks--Talbot's and Skinner's--had moved forward
once more from the Canal, and were safely camouflaged in St Julien by
dawn on the 8th. All the tank commanders and their first drivers had
reconnoitred the road from St Julien to the outskirts of Poelcapelle.
The attack was to be made at 5.20 A.M. on the 9th. The tanks were
ordered to enter Poelcapelle with the infantry and drive the enemy out
of the houses which they still held.

I was kept at La Lovie until dusk for my final instructions. I started
in my car, intending to drive to Wieltje, two miles from St Julien,
but Organ was away, and I found to my disgust that my temporary driver
could not see in the dark. Naturally, no lights were allowed on the
roads, and the night was black with a fluster of rain. After two minor
collisions on the farther side of Vlamertinghe I gave up the car as
useless, and tramped the two and a half miles into Ypres. The rain held
off for an hour, and a slip of moon came out to help me.

I walked through the pale ruins, and, though the enemy had ceased to
shell Ypres regularly, fear clung to the place. For once there was
little traffic, and in the side streets I was desperately alone. The
sight of a military policeman comforted me, and, leaving the poor
broken houses behind, I struck out along the St Jean road, which the
enemy were shelling, to remind me, perhaps, that there could still be
safety in Ypres.

It began to rain steadily and the moon disappeared. I jumped into an
empty ambulance to escape from the rain and the shells, but beyond St
Jean there was a bad block in the traffic; so, leaving the ambulance,
I wormed my way through the transport, and, passing the big guns on
the near side of the crest which the enemy had held for so many years,
I splashed down the track into St Julien. I only stumbled into one
shell-hole, but I fell over a dead mule in trying to avoid its brother.
It was a pitch-black night.

We had decided to use for our headquarters a perfectly safe "pill-box,"
or concreted house in St Julien, but when we arrived we discovered that
it was already occupied by a dressing station. We could not stand upon
ceremony--we shared it between us.

Soon after I had reached St Julien, weary, muddy, and wet, the enemy
began to shell the village persistently. One shell burst just outside
our door. It killed two men and blew two into our chamber, where,
before they had realised they were hit, they were bandaged and neatly
labelled.

My crews, who had been resting in our camp by the Canal, arrived in the
middle of the shelling, and, paying no attention to it whatever, began
to uncover their tanks and drive them out from the ruins where they had
been hidden. Luckily nobody was hurt, but the shelling continued until
midnight.

By 10 P.M. the tanks had started on the night's trek, with the
exception of one which had been driven so adroitly into a ruin that
for several hours we could not extract it. By midnight the rain had
stopped and the moon showed herself--but with discretion.

Very slowly the seven tanks picked their way to Poelcapelle. The strain
was appalling. A mistake by the leading tanks, and the road might be
blocked. A slip--and the tank would lurch off into the mud. The road
after the rain would have been difficult enough in safety by daylight.
Now it was a dark night, and, just to remind the tanks of the coming
battle, the enemy threw over a shell or two.

One tank tried to cross a tree-trunk at the wrong angle. The trunk
slipped between the tracks and the tank turned suddenly. The mischief
was done. For half an hour S. did his best, but on the narrow slippery
road he could not swing his tank sufficiently to climb the trunk
correctly. In utter despair he at last drove his tank into the mud, so
that the three tanks behind him might pass.[16]

About 4 A.M. the enemy shelling increased in violence and became a very
fair bombardment. The German gunners were taking no risks. If dawn
were to bring with it an attack, they would see to it that the attack
never developed. By 4.30 A.M. the enemy had put down a barrage on every
possible approach to the forward area. And the Poelcapelle Road, along
which tanks had so often endeavoured to advance, was very heavily
shelled. It was anxious work, out in the darkness among the shells, on
the destroyed road....

In the concrete ruins we snatched a little feverish sleep in a sickly
atmosphere of iodine and hot tea. A few wounded men, covered with thick
mud, came in, but none were kept, in order that the station might be
free for the rush on the morning of the battle.

By four the gunnery had become too insistent. I did not expect Talbot
to send back a runner until just before "zero," but the activity of the
guns worried me. The Poelcapelle Road was no place for a tank on such a
night. Still, no news was good news, for a message would have come to
me if the tanks had been caught.

We went outside and stood in the rain, looking towards the line. It was
still very dark, but, though the moon had left us in horror, there was
a promise of dawn in the air.

The bombardment died down a little, as if the guns were taking breath,
though far away to the right a barrage was throbbing. The guns barked
singly. We felt a weary tension; we knew that in a few moments
something enormously important would happen, but it had happened so
many times before. There was a deep shuddering boom in the distance,
and a shell groaned and whined overhead. That may have been a signal.
There were two or three quick flashes and reports from howitzers quite
near, which had not yet fired. Then suddenly on every side of us and
above us a tremendous uproar arose; the ground shook beneath us; for a
moment we felt battered and dizzy; the horizon was lit up with a sheet
of flashes; gold and red rockets raced madly into the sky, and in the
curious light of the distant bursting shells the ruins in front of us
appeared and disappeared with a touch of melodrama....

We went in for a little breakfast before the wounded arrived....

Out on the Poelcapelle Road, in the darkness and the rain, seven tanks
were crawling very slowly. In front of each tank the officer was
plunging through the shell-holes and the mud, trying hard not to think
of the shells. The first driver, cursing the darkness, peered ahead or
put his ear to the slit, so that he could hear the instructions of his
commander above the roar of the engine. The corporal "on the brakes"
sat stiffly beside the driver. One man crouched in each sponson,
grasping the lever of his secondary gear, and listening for the signals
of the driver, tapped on the engine-cover. The gunners sprawled
listlessly, with too much time for thought, but hearing none of the
shells.

S. was savagely attempting to unditch the tank which he had purposely
driven into the mud.

The shells came more rapidly--in salvos, right on the road, on either
side of the tanks. The German gunners had decided that no tank should
reach Poelcapelle that night. The tanks slithered on doggedly--they are
none too easy to hit....

Suddenly a shell crashed into the third tank, just as it was passing
a derelict. The two tanks in front went on. Behind, four tanks were
stopped. The next tank was hit on the track.

It was a massacre. The tanks could not turn, even if they had wished.
There was nothing for it but to go on and attempt to pass in a rain
of shells the tanks which could not move, but each tank in turn
slipped off into the mud. Their crews, braving the shells, attached the
unditching beams--fumbling in the dark with slippery spanners, while
red-hot bits flew past, and they were deafened by the crashes--but
nothing could be done. The officers withdrew their men from the fatal
road and took cover in shell-holes. It was a stormy cheerless dawn.

The first two tanks, escaping the barrage, lurched on towards
Poelcapelle. The first, delayed by an immense crater which the enemy
had blown in the road, was hit and caught fire. The crew tumbled out,
all of them wounded, and Skinner brought them back across country. The
second, seeing that the road in front was hopelessly blocked--for the
leading tank was in the centre of the fairway--turned with great skill
and attempted vainly to come back. By marvellous driving she passed the
first derelict, but in trying to pass the second she slipped hopelessly
into the mud....

The weary night had passed with its fears, and standing in front of the
ruin we looked down the road. It was bitterly cold, and tragedy hung
over the stricken grey country like a mist. First a bunch of wounded
came, and then in the distance we saw a tank officer with his orderly.
His head was bandaged and he walked in little jerks, as if he were a
puppet on a string. When he came near he ran a few steps and waved his
arms. It was X., who had never been in action before.

We took him inside, made him sit down, and gave him a drink of tea.
He was badly shaken, almost hysterical, but pulling himself together
and speaking with a laboured clearness, he told us what had happened.
His eyes were full of horror at the scene on the road. He kept
apologising--his inexperience might lead him to exaggerate--perhaps
he ought not to have come back, but they sent him back because he was
wounded; of course, if he had been used to such things he would not
have minded so much--he was sorry he could not make a better report. We
heard him out and tried to cheer him by saying that, of course, these
things must happen in war. Then, after he had rested a little, we sent
him on, for the dressing station was filling fast, and he stumbled away
painfully. I have not seen him since.

The crews had remained staunchly with their tanks, waiting for orders.
I sent a runner to recall them, and in an hour or so they dribbled in,
though one man was killed by a chance shell on the way. Talbot, the old
dragoon, who had fought right through the war, never came back. He was
mortally wounded by a shell which hit his tank. I never had a better
section-commander.

We waited until late in the morning for news of Skinner, who had
returned across country. The dressing station was crowded, and a batch
of prisoners, cowed and grateful for their lives, were carrying loaded
stretchers along trench-board tracks to a light railway a mile distant.
Limbers passed through and trotted toward the line. Fresh infantry,
clean and obviously straight from rest, halted in the village. The
officers asked quietly for news. At last Cooper and I turned away and
tramped the weary muddy miles to the Canal. The car was waiting for
us, and soon we were back at La Lovie. I reported to the Colonel and to
the Brigade Commander. Then I went to my hut, and, sitting on my bed,
tried not to think of my tanks. Hyde, the mess-waiter, knocked at the
door--

"Lunch is ready, sir, and Mr King has got some whisky from the canteen,
sir!"

I shouted for hot water....

The great opportunity had gone by. We had failed, and to me the sense
of failure was inconceivably bitter. We began to feel that we were
dogged by ill-fortune: the contrast between the magnificent achievement
of Marris's company and the sudden overwhelming disaster that had swept
down on my section was too glaring. And we mourned Talbot....

During the next few days we made several attempts to salve our tanks
or clear the road by pulling them off into the mud, but the shells
and circumstances proved too much for individual enterprise. In
the following week, after the enemy at last had been driven beyond
Poelcapelle, I sent Wyatt's section forward to St Julien, and, working
under the orders of the Brigade Engineer, they managed to clear the
road for the passage of transport, or, with luck and good driving, of
tanks.

Later, there was a grandiose scheme for attacking Passchendaele
itself and Westroosebeke from the north-west through Poelcapelle. The
whole Brigade, it was planned, would advance along the Poelcapelle
and Langemarck Roads and deploy in the comparatively unshelled and
theoretically passable country beyond. To us, perhaps prejudiced by
disaster, the scheme appeared fantastic enough: the two roads could so
easily be blocked by an accident or the enemy gunners; but we never
were able to know whether our fears were justified, for the remains of
the Tank Corps were hurriedly collected and despatched to Wailly....

The great battle of the year dragged on a little longer. In a few weeks
the newspapers, intent on other things, informed their readers that
Passchendaele had fallen. The event roused little comment or interest.
Now, if we had reached Ostend in September ... but it remains to be
seen whether or not tanks can scale a sea-wall.



CHAPTER X.

THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--FLESQUIERES.

(_November 4th to 20th, 1917._)


From La Lovie in the Salient I went on leave. I was recalled by wire on
the 4th November to discover that, during my absence, the battalion had
moved south to our old training-ground at Wailly. The apathy and bitter
disappointment, caused by our misfortunes on the Poelcapelle Road, had
disappeared completely, and the company, scenting a big mysterious
battle, was as eager and energetic as if it had just disembarked in
France.

For once the secret was well kept. The air was full of rumours, but my
officers knew nothing. It was not until I saw the Colonel that I learnt
of the proposed raid on Cambrai, and discovered to my great joy that we
were to attack in company with the Fifty-first Division.

This Division of Highland Territorials had won for itself in the course
of a year the most astounding reputation. Before Beaumont Hamel in
November '16 it had been known as "Harper's Duds." Since that action it
had carried out attack after attack with miraculous success, until at
this time it was renowned throughout the British Armies in France as a
grim and terrible Division, which never failed. The Germans feared it
as they feared no other.

We trained with this splendid Division for ten days, working out
the plans of our attack so closely that each platoon of Highlanders
knew personally the crew of the tank which would lead it across No
Man's Land. Tank officers and infantry officers attended each other's
lectures and dined with each other. Our camp rang at night with strange
Highland cries. As far as was humanly possible within the limits of
time, we discussed and solved each other's difficulties, until it
appeared that at least on one occasion a tank and infantry attack would
in reality be "a combined operation."

The maps and plans which we used in these pleasant rehearsals were
without names, but although this mystery added a fillip of romance to
our strenuous preparations, we were met by a curious difficulty--we did
not dare to describe too vividly the scene of the coming battle for
fear the area should be recognised. There was a necessary vagueness in
our exhortations....

One fine day Cooper, Jumbo, and I motored over to this nameless
country. We passed through the ruins of Bapaume and came to the
pleasant village of Metz-en-Couture on the edge of the great
Havrincourt Wood. Leaving our car, we walked over the clean grassy
hills to the brand-new trench system, then lightly held by the Ulster
Division.

It was a country of bare downs, occasional woods, sunken roads,
plentiful villages, surprising chalk ravines, and odd disconnected
mounds, and the key to it was Bourlon Wood.

You will remember that on the east of the Bullecourt front was the
Quéant Salient. Beyond it the German defences then ran suddenly to the
south in order to obtain the protection of the enormous, unfinished
Canal du Nord. By Havrincourt village, which was set conspicuously
on the side of a hill, the Canal met Havrincourt Wood, and the enemy
line turned again to the east, skirting the fringes of the wood and
continuing cleverly at the foot of a range of low chalk hills. A rough
diagram may make this clear, and will enable you to connect this battle
with the lesser battles of Bullecourt.

[Illustration]

The front which concerned my brigade extended from Havrincourt to east
of Flesquieres. Havrincourt itself was defended on the west by the
Canal, and on the south by a ravine and the outlying portions of the
great wood. In front of the German trenches the trees had been cut
down, so that the approach was difficult and open. East of Havrincourt
the German trenches were completely hidden from view by the lie of the
ground. This method of siting trenches was much favoured by the Germans
at the time. Clearly it prevented direct observation of fire. Further,
it compelled tanks to start on their journey across No Man's Land,
unable to see the trenches which they were about to attack.

[Illustration]

The trenches on the slope immediately behind the enemy first line
were in full view, and the roads, buildings, patches of chalk,
distinctively-shaped copses, would provide useful landmarks, if they
were not hidden by the smoke of battle.

Apart from its natural defences the Hindenburg System was enormously
strong. In front of it there were acres of low wire. The trenches were
wide enough to be serious obstacles to tanks. Machine-gun posts, huge
dug-outs, long galleries, deep communication trenches, gun-pits--the
whole formed one gigantic fortification more than five miles in depth.

Yet we came back from our reconnaissance in the firm belief that tanks
could break through this fortification without any difficulty at all.
The ground was hard chalk, and no amount of rain could make it unfit
for our use. Natural and artificial obstacles could be surmounted
easily enough or avoided. Given sufficient tanks and the advantage of
surprise, there was no earthly reason why we should not go straight
through to Cambrai. What could stop us? The wire? It did not affect us
in the slightest. The trenches? They were a little wide, but we knew
how to cross them. Guns? There were not many, and few would survive the
duel with our own artillery. Machine-guns or armour-piercing bullets?
The Mk. IV. tank was practically invulnerable. If the infantry were
able to follow the tanks, the tanks would see them through the trench
systems. In open country it would be for common-sense and the cavalry,
until the enemy filled the gap with his reserves.

We were only troubled by the thought of Bourlon Wood, which, from its
hill, dominated the whole countryside between Havrincourt and Cambrai.
But Bourlon Wood was only a matter of 7000 yards behind the German
lines. If we were to break through at all, we should take the wood in
our stride on the first day.

Jumbo expressed our feelings admirably--

"Unless the Boche catches on before the show, it's a gift!"

We returned to Wailly bubbling over with enthusiasm. The last
rehearsals were completed, and our future comrades, the 6th Black Watch
and the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, appeared implicitly to
trust us. We tuned our engines and practised with the wily "fascine."

Fascine is the military term for "faggot." Each of our fascines
was a huge bundle of brushwood, weighing over one ton. By an
ingenious mechanism it could be hoisted on to the roof of the tank.
When a dangerously wide trench was reached, the driver pulled a
rope, the fascine gently rolled off the tank into the trench, and
the tank crossed at its ease. It was a simple device that produced
an astonishing amount of bad language. Entraining was hideously
complicated. Dropping the fascine on to the truck in front of the tank
requires care and precision, while obviously if a fascine refuses to be
picked up again, tanks are prevented from coming off the train....

At dawn on the 13th we arose and trekked a matter of five miles to
Beaumetz Station, where, after an excellent and hilarious lunch at
the local _estaminet_, we entrained successfully for an unknown
destination, although it took a little time to arrange the fascines on
the trucks so that they would not fall off in the tunnels.

I watched the trains pull out from the ramps. The lorries had already
started for our next halting-place. We were clear of Wailly. I motored
down to the neighbourhood of Albert, and at dusk my car was feeling
its way through a bank of fog along the road from Bray to the great
railhead at Le Plateau, at the edge of the old Somme battlefield.

It was a vast confusing place, and even a major in the Tank Corps felt
insignificant among the multitudinous rails, the slow dark trains, the
sudden lights. Tanks, which had just detrained, came rumbling round the
corners of odd huts. Lorries bumped through the mist with food and kit.
Quiet railwaymen, mostly American, went steadily about their business.

I found a hut with a fire in it and an American, who gave me hot coffee
and some wonderful sandwiches, made of sausage and lettuce, and there I
sat, until, just after midnight, word came that our train was expected.
We walked to the ramp, and at last after an interminable wait our train
glided in out of the darkness. There was a slight miscalculation, and
the train hit the ramp with a bump, carrying away the lower timbers, so
that it could not bear the weight of tanks.

Wearily we tramped a mile or so to another ramp. This time the train
behaved with more discretion. The tanks were driven off into a wood,
where they were carefully camouflaged; the cooks set to work and
produced steaming tea; officers and men made themselves comfortable.
Then we set off in our car again. The mist still hung heavily over the
Somme battlefield and we continually lost our way. It was dawn before
a desperately tired company headquarters fell asleep in some large and
chilly huts near Meaulte.

That day (the 14th) and the next the men worked at their tanks,
adjusting the fascines and loading up with ammunition, water, and
rations. On the 14th we made another careful survey of our trenches
and, through our glasses, of the country behind the German line.
On the night of the 15th I walked along the tank route from our
next detraining station at Ytres to our final lying-up position in
Havrincourt Wood, a matter of seven miles, until I personally knew
every inch of the way beyond any shadow of doubt.

At dusk on the 16th I was waiting on the ramp at Ytres for my tanks to
arrive, when I heard that there had been an accident to a tank train
at a level-crossing a mile down the line. I hurried there. The train
had collided with a lorry and pushed it a few hundred yards, when the
last truck had been derailed and the tank on it had crushed the lorry
against the slight embankment. Under the tank were two men. I was
convinced that I had lost two of my men, until I discovered that the
tanks belonged to Marris and the two unfortunate men had been on the
lorry. The line was soon cleared. The derailed truck was uncoupled, and
the tank, none the worse for its adventure, climbed up the embankment
and joined its fellows at the ramp.

My tanks detrained at midnight without incident, and we were clear of
the railhead in an hour. It was a strange fatiguing tramp in the utter
blackness of the night to Havrincourt Wood--past a brickyard, which
later we were to know too well, through the reverberating streets of
Neuville Bourjonval, where three tanks temporarily lost touch with the
column, and over the chill lonely downs to the outskirts of Metz, where
no lights were allowed. We felt our way along a track past gun-pits and
lorries and waggons until we came to the outskirts of the great wood.
There we fell in with Marris's tanks, which had come by another route.
At last we arrived at our allotted quarter of the wood, three thousand
yards from the nearest German. The tanks pushed boldly among the trees,
and for the next two hours there was an ordered pandemonium. Each tank
had to move an inch at a time for fear it should bring down a valuable
tree or run over its commander, who probably had fallen backwards into
the undergrowth. One tank would meet another in the darkness, and in
swinging to avoid the other, would probably collide with a third. But
by dawn--I do not know how it was done--every tank was safely in the
wood; the men had fallen asleep anywhere, and the cooks with sly weary
jests were trying to make a fire which would not smoke. Three thousand
yards is a trifle near....

For the next five days we had only one thought--would the Boche "catch
on"? The Ulster Division was still in the line, and, even if the enemy
raided and took prisoners, the Ulstermen knew almost nothing. By
day the occasional German aeroplane could see little, for there was
little to see. Tanks, infantry, and guns were hidden in the woods. New
gun-pits were camouflaged. There was no movement on the roads or in the
villages. Our guns fired a few customary rounds every day and night,
and the enemy replied. There was nothing unusual.

But at night the roads were blocked with transport. Guns and more guns
arrived, from field-guns to enormous howitzers, that had rumbled down
all the way from the Salient. Streams of lorries were bringing up
ammunition, petrol, rations; and whole brigades of infantry, marching
across the open country, had disappeared by dawn into the woods. Would
the Boche "catch on"?...

There was but little reconnaissance for my men to carry out, since the
route to No Man's Land from the wood was short and simple. And to see
the country behind the enemy trenches it was necessary only to walk
a mile to the reserve trench beyond the crest of the hill, where an
excellent view could be obtained from an observation post.

By this time we knew the plan of the battle. At "zero" on the given
day we would attack on a front of approximately ten thousand yards,
with the object of breaking through the Hindenburg System into the open
country. It was essential to seize on the first day the bridges over
the Canal de l'Escaut and Bourlon Wood. We gathered that, if we were
successful, we should endeavour to capture Cambrai and to widen the gap
by rolling up the German line to the west.

On the front of our battalion, immediately to the east of Havrincourt
itself and opposite Flesquieres, Marris's company and mine were
detailed to assist the infantry in capturing the first system of
trenches. Ward's company was reserved for the second system and
for Flesquieres itself. The surviving tanks of all three companies
would collect in Flesquieres for a possible farther advance to the
neighbourhood of Cantaing.

On the left was "G" Battalion, with Havrincourt village as its first
main objective, and on our right was "E" Battalion, beyond which were
the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Tank Corps. There was one tank to every
thirty yards of front!

Until the 17th the enemy apparently suspected nothing at all; but on
the night of the 17th-18th he raided and captured some prisoners, who
fortunately knew little. He gathered from them that we were ourselves
preparing a substantial raid, and he brought into the line additional
companies of machine-gunners and a few extra field-guns.

The 19th came with its almost unbearable suspense. We did not know what
the Germans had discovered from their prisoners. We could not believe
that the attack could be really a surprise. Perhaps the enemy, unknown
to us, had concentrated sufficient guns to blow us to pieces. We looked
up for the German aeroplanes, which surely would fly low over the wood
and discover its contents. Incredibly, nothing happened. The morning
passed and the afternoon--a day was never so long--and at last it was
dusk.

At 8.45 P.M. my tanks began to move cautiously out of the wood and
formed into column. At 9.30 P.M., with engines barely turning over,
they glided imperceptibly and almost without noise towards the
trenches. Standing in front of my own tanks, I could not hear them at
two hundred yards.

By midnight we had reached our rendezvous behind the reserve trenches
and below the crest of the slope. There we waited for an hour. The
Colonel arrived, and took me with him to pay a final visit to the
headquarters of the battalions with which we were operating. The
trenches were packed with Highlanders, and it was with difficulty that
we made our way through them.

Cooper led the tanks for the last half of the journey. They stopped at
the support trenches, for they were early, and the men were given hot
breakfast. The enemy began some shelling on the left, but no damage was
done.

At 6.10 A.M. the tanks were in their allotted positions, clearly marked
out by tapes which Jumbo had laid earlier in the night....

I was standing on the parados of a trench. The movement at my feet had
ceased. The Highlanders were ready with fixed bayonets. Not a gun was
firing, but there was a curious murmur in the air. To right of me and
to left of me in the dim light were tanks--tanks lined up in front of
the wire, tanks swinging into position, and one or two belated tanks
climbing over the trenches.

I hurried back to the Colonel of the 6th Black Watch, and I was with
him in his dug-out at 6.20 A.M. when the guns began. I climbed on to
the parapet and looked.

In front of the wire tanks in a ragged line were surging forward
inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the
blue-grey smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of
Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them
tramping steadily behind their tanks. They disappeared into the valley.
To the right the tanks were moving over the crest of the shoulder of
the hill. To the left there were no tanks in sight. They were already
in among the enemy.

Beyond the enemy trenches the slopes, from which the German gunners
might have observed the advancing tanks, were already enveloped in
thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red
flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring
bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable
aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro.

The enemy made little reply. A solitary field-gun was endeavouring
pathetically to put down a barrage. A shell would burst every few
minutes on the same bay of the same trench. There were no other enemy
shells that we could see. A machine-gun or two were still trained
on our trenches, and an occasional vicious burst would bring the
venturesome spectator scrambling down into the trench.

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man's
Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans
in twos and threes, elderly men for the most part, were wandering
confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hands in tragic
and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander.

The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere
we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

A column of tanks, equipped with a strange apparatus, passed across our
front to clear a lane through the wire for the cavalry.

On our left another column of tanks had already disappeared into the
valley on their way to Flesquieres. It was Ward's company, but Ward was
not with them. A chance bullet had killed him instantly at the head of
his tanks. When we heard of his death later, the joy of victory died
away....

At 8 A.M. Cooper, Jumbo, a couple of runners, and myself started after
our tanks. We questioned a group of Germans, who confessed that, while
they had expected a raid in a day or two, they had known nothing of the
tanks. We jumped down into the famous Hindenburg Line. At first we were
unhappy: a machine-gun from the right was enfilading the trench and the
enemy gunners were still active. We pushed along to the left, and after
a slight delay came to a deep sunken road, which cut through the trench
system at right angles.

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side
were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup
were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had
defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and
fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn
about the road like drunken men.

A Highland sergeant who, with a handful of men, was now in charge of
the place, came out to greet us, puffing at a long cigar. All his men
were smoking cigars, and it was indeed difficult that morning to find
a Highlander without a cigar. He invited us into a large chamber cut
out of the rock, from which a wide staircase descended into an enormous
dug-out. The chamber was panelled deliciously with coloured woods
and decorated with choice prints. Our host produced a bottle of good
claret, and we drank to the health of the Fifty-first Division.

A few German prisoners, with a large, stiff sergeant-major at the head
of them, were halted outside while their escort snatched a hurried
breakfast. The sergeant-major was trying earnestly to make himself
understood. He seemed to have something important to say. His escort
became impatient and irritated, but, before proceeding to more summary
punishment, the corporal in charge brought him to me.

The sergeant-major explained to me rapidly that the place would
undoubtedly be shelled. He knew that his artillery had already
registered upon it. He realised that as a prisoner he must do as he was
bid, but he besought me to instruct his escort to breakfast a little
farther on. His words were confirmed immediately by a large shell which
exploded in the bank above our heads.

I handed over the problem to a Highland officer who had come in for
shelter, and we, who had already dallied longer than we had intended,
left the corpses, the wine, and the panelled chamber....

In fifty yards or so the cutting came to an end, and we found ourselves
in the open with a tank a hundred yards away. We walked to it and
discovered my section-commander, Wyatt, with Morris, who had been hit
in the shoulder. They told me that we were held up outside Flesquieres,
which was being cleverly defended by field-guns. Several tanks had
already been knocked out and others had nearly finished their petrol.
And there was an unpleasant rumour that Marris was killed.

We took to a narrow half-completed communication trench and pushed on
up the hill towards the village, meeting the survivors of two crews
of another battalion, whose tanks had been knocked out in endeavouring
to enter Flesquieres from the east along the crest of the ridge. The
trench was being shelled. From the sound of the guns it appeared that
they were only a few hundred yards away. We walked steadily up the
trench until we came to the railway embankment, five or six hundred
yards from the outskirts of the village, and we could go no farther,
for on the other side of the embankment were the enemy and some of my
tanks.

Leaving Cooper to keep in touch with the situation, I hurried back
two miles to the nearest battalion headquarters with my runner. The
infantry Colonel would not believe my report. He was assured that
everything was going well, and, according to programme, we must be well
beyond Flesquieres. So I sent a couple of messages to my own Colonel,
whose headquarters were at those of the infantry brigade with which
we were operating. I pointed out to the infantry Colonel that, if we
had taken Flesquieres, it was difficult to account for the machine-gun
fire which apparently was coming from the neighbourhood of the village,
and half-convinced, he sent his Scout Officer with me to find out what
was happening generally, and to endeavour in particular to approach
Flesquieres from the west.

We set out at once, taking our direction by a little copse which lies
on the hillside a mile or so to the west of Flesquieres itself.

We were tramping across the open down, happily exposed, when the
Battalion Scout Officer was convinced by a long burst of machine-gun
fire that at least the western end of the village was still held by
the enemy. A spent bullet struck the heel of my boot. We hurried on
with more haste than dignity, and looking towards the village, I
thought I could catch the flash of the gun in the window of a large
white house. A particularly unpleasant burst and the Scout Officer was
crawling on his hands and knees towards a convenient trench. At that
moment I knew no one wiser than the Scout Officer, and I followed his
example. For the next five minutes the man in the window of the large
white house must have enjoyed himself thoroughly. The air sang with
bullets. With tremendous care we continued to crawl, until after a
lifetime of suspense we came to within fifty yards of the trench. I
jumped up and dashed forward, the Scout Officer and our two runners
following me, and in a moment we were lighting our pipes and feeling
acutely that somebody had made a fool of us both. We parted stiffly.
The Scout Officer trotted down the hill to solve the doubts of his
battalion commander. I pushed on again towards Flesquieres, keeping to
the trench until the curve of the hill interfered with the view of the
machine-gunner in the large white house.

Since there was little hope that I should be allowed to approach too
closely to the village, I walked to the battalion rallying-place under
shelter of the railway embankment, a mile or so to the west of the
section where I had been held up a few hours previously. I found a few
tanks there and the survivors of some crews.

I gathered that all attacks on the village had been unsuccessful. A few
field-guns, cleverly sited in ruins and behind hedges, had knocked out
at least a dozen tanks. The infantry, bereft of tanks, had been unable
to advance. It had been a stubborn and skilful defence.

Of my eleven tanks four had been knocked out. S., brooding over his
misfortune on the Poelcapelle Road, had engaged in a duel with a
field-gun; his tank had been hit fair and square by the surviving
gunners, and it was thought that he and his crew were either casualties
or prisoners. The majority of the remaining three crews had succeeded
in getting away. F. and one of his sergeants had shown the utmost
gallantry in collecting the wounded under fire and rallying the men.

The other companies of my own battalion, and that company of another
battalion which had attacked Flesquieres from the east, had met a
similar fate. The village was surrounded with derelict tanks, like a
boar at bay with dead hounds. Marris himself, who had gone forward in
one of his tanks, was missing, and it was said that he was killed.

Of my remaining seven tanks three had been ditched. Two of these
unfortunates in their eagerness to kill had collided and slipped
together inextricably into a trench. The remainder had rallied, and
were ready, if necessary, to go forward again, but they were alarmingly
short of petrol, and the tank with the supply-sledge had broken
down. It was impossible, too, at this stage, to secure the necessary
co-operation with the infantry, and an attack made by tanks alone would
obviously fail.

We were about to start down the hill when I received a message to rally
in the Grand Ravine, the title of the insignificant valley behind the
front system of the German trenches. I had already sent some of my men
to the regimental headquarters in the Sunken Road for food and shelter.
I now ordered the remainder of my men to rally there after they had
left their tanks under a skeleton guard in the Ravine itself.

An hour later we set out from the Sunken Road on our weary tramp back
to the camp in Havrincourt Wood. It was late in the afternoon. We
were inexpressibly tired, and of course it began to rain steadily. We
plodded along, passing guns, limbers, infantry coming up to make good
the victory. The five miles were like fifty, and a year at least went
by before we staggered into camp, slipping feebly in the mud....

The adjutant was much distressed, for he had had no news of the
Colonel, who apparently had left the infantry brigade headquarters
early in the day. A pile of messages were waiting for him, including,
to my chagrin, those which I had sent him in such haste when I had
discovered that the Highlanders were held up at the railway embankment.
It was after nine, and I was wondering whether or not to inform the
brigade, when the Colonel came in with Cooper.

The Colonel, who had gone forward early in the battle, had found Cooper
in the communication trench by the embankment, where I had left him
with Jumbo to keep in touch with the situation. In the afternoon they
had collected a few tanks and sent them into Flesquieres. The tanks
had paraded through the outskirts of the village, and not a shot was
fired at them; but later, when the infantry attacked again, the enemy
came up from their hiding-places and let fly with machine-guns. At dusk
Flesquieres was still inviolate.

We cared little about anything, except sleep. The Colonel told us that
we should not be required on the next day. So after a meal and a pipe
we turned in for the night.



CHAPTER XI.

THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--BOURLON WOOD.

(_November 21st to 23rd, 1917._)


In the morning we were able to look soberly at the situation. We had
entered Flesquieres at dawn: the gallant, stubborn major who had
defended the village so skilfully with his guns was killed in the
final assault. On the left we had swept forward to the outskirts of
Bourlon Wood, and tanks of "G" Battalion, including one detached tank
of "D" Battalion, had actually reached Bourlon village, but we had not
been able to enter the wood, for the few infantry who had reached it
were utterly exhausted and the cavalry never appeared to carry on the
attack. "G" Battalion had covered themselves with glory.

On the right we were everywhere through the Hindenburg System, although
in places there had been bitter fighting. At Marcoing, Hamond had made
a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to force a crossing by driving
a tank into the Canal when the enemy had blown up the bridge,[17]
intending to drive a second tank over the first, but the Canal was too
deep. Of the cavalry which arrived later in the day a few of the Fort
Garry Horse alone had been able to cross by the foot-bridges. We had
not reached Cambrai--we had not even occupied Bourlon Wood--but it was
reported that there were few troops in front of us and that these were
retiring northwards. It was decided, in consequence, to exploit the
initial success.

We did not know it at the time, but it was too late. If only the
cavalry had pushed forward into Bourlon Wood on the first day,
when, according to all reports, it was held only by a bunch of
machine-gunners! But it is not for a company commander to criticise,
and I do not presume to do so. I am expressing merely a pious
aspiration.

We ourselves had lost Ward, Marris, and a third of our men and tanks.
It was almost impossible to believe that we should never see again
"Roc" Ward, the great athlete, the very embodiment of energy, the
skilled leader of men, the best of good fellows--and never hear
again his enormous voice rolling out full-blooded instructions. As
for Marris, we hoped that he might have been captured, but we feared
that he was dead.[18] In my company we had lost S., a stout tank
commander,[19] and several of my best drivers.

We were able, however, to form two strong companies, of which I
commanded one and Cooper the other, and we set to work in the afternoon
of the 21st to put our tanks again in order.

On the morning of the 22nd we received orders to collect every
available tank and move to Graincourt-lez-Havrincourt, a large village
two miles north of Flesquieres, with a view to attacking Bourlon Wood
early on the 23rd.

We first concentrated our tanks in the Grand Ravine, and endeavoured
to load up with sufficient stores for the coming battle; but supplies
were hard to get, and finally we were told that a large dump would be
established at the chapel on the Flesquieres road, half a mile out of
Havrincourt. Foolishly credulous, I moved my tanks to the appointed
place and waited for the dump to appear.

We had, however, entered the state of open warfare, and we soon began
to realise its disadvantages. My messengers scoured the countryside
without success, and at last, when it grew dusk, I despaired and sent
on my tanks to Graincourt, intending to arrange that my share of the
dump, wherever it might be, should follow them.

I was unable to accompany my tanks, for I had been bidden to attend
a Brigade Conference at this most desolate shrine. I had an hour to
spare, and I spent it pleasantly enough in a neighbouring comfortable
dug-out, where a machine-gunner entertained me to a magnificent meal of
coffee, hot salmon cakes, and plentiful bread and butter.

When I returned to the shrine, I found the battalion and company
commanders of the brigade waiting for the brigade staff. It was chilly
with a fluster of rain, my throat was sore, and I longed to return to
the warm dug-out, but I did not dare. We waited for an hour and a half
until our tempers were frayed and we had finished our stock of good
stories. At last an officer from the brigade happened to pass by, and,
taking pity on us, he informed us casually that the conference was now
in full session at Havrincourt Chateau. He was sorry we had not been
told of the change of place. We were all so tired and cold and hungry
that for a moment nobody spoke. Finally, the Colonel expressed our
feelings, and we tramped into Havrincourt.

It was rather a one-sided conference. Generals and people of real
importance dashed in and out of rooms. I learned by cross-examination
that the dump was somewhere on the road between Havrincourt and
Graincourt--he was sorry we had not been told, but of course it was
for company commanders to find those things out for themselves--and
the Colonel discovered that we should attack in the morning with the
Fortieth Division.

After this interesting discussion we went out into the night and
trudged painfully through Flesquieres, where the battered houses looked
a little self-conscious in the dim moonlight, to Graincourt itself. The
battalion advance party had discovered excellent cellars, safe though
damp. I left the Colonel and went in search of my tanks, hoping against
hope that by some miracle they had run across the dump which was
believed by the brigade staff to be somewhere east of Havrincourt.

I found my tanks where they should be, but, to my utter dismay, the
only officers with them had not come with the column, and did not know
whether the tanks had been "filled" or not. X., an officer from another
company, who was acting temporarily as my second-in-command, was in a
dug-out near by, they told me, but nobody knew where the dug-out was.
I began an endless and intolerable search. Every bank, road, field,
or trench in the neighbourhood of Graincourt had its dug-outs. There
were hundreds of dug-outs within quarter of a mile of my tanks. I might
have been a dog looking for its master in London; and it was of the
most urgent necessity that I should know for certain what my tanks
had on board. I could not even find out for myself--the tanks, quite
properly, were locked. I rushed from dug-out to dug-out, rousing an
infinite multitude of sleepy officers and men. I quartered the ground
scientifically. I followed every possible clue. How could I possibly
go back to the Colonel and tell him that I did not know whether my
tanks could fight on the morrow or not? The situation would have been
ridiculous, if it had not been so serious. I nearly wept with rage.

I had searched for three hours or more and the dawn was near, when,
returning in utter despair to battalion headquarters, I was greeted by
a familiar voice. It was X.! Thinking that I would surely arrive by the
Havrincourt Road, he had taken possession of a dug-out on the side of
that road, half a mile or more out of the village. My tanks had been
lucky. On their way from the shrine they had by chance run right into
the middle of the errant dump. Little damage had been done, and though
the dump was not as large as it might have been, they had been able to
take on board stores sufficient for one day's fighting.

It was no time for speeches. I reported our success to the Colonel,
who informed me that "zero" would be at 10.30 A.M. My composite company
was detailed to co-operate with the infantry, who were attacking up
the hill immediately to the west of the wood itself. Cooper's company
was to be on my left. "E" Battalion was to advance along the ridge
from the west with the Ulster Division, and "G" Battalion was to clear
the wood. On the right, that is to the east of the wood, companies
of the 2nd Tank Brigade were to assist the infantry to capture
Fontaine-Notre-Dame, and to complete an encircling movement round the
north-eastern outskirts of the wood. We should all meet, it was hoped,
in Bourlon village. A rough diagram may make the plan clear.

[Illustration]

Neither my tank commanders nor I had even seen Bourlon Wood, and we
knew our front line only by the map. Further, we had not met the
infantry with whom we were to co-operate. These, however, were trifling
difficulties. Experts who had seen the wood told me it was plain enough
to the eye. I hoped for the best, wrote a few orders, and snatched an
hour's sleep....

Our tanks were parked in the western outskirts of Graincourt. An hour
after dawn they drew clear of the village, and it may be presumed that
the enemy observed them, but he displayed no interest. At dawn he had
shelled a little. When dawn had passed and we had made no attack, the
shelling ceased. It did not occur to him that we might attack in the
middle of the morning, and he settled down to a quiet day.

At 9 A.M. my tanks were just about to move off, when I received a
disturbing message from the Colonel. "G" would not be able to arrive
in time--their supplies had gone astray--one of my two sections was
to tackle the wood itself. The situation was a trifle humorous, but I
solemnly gave the necessary orders, instructing four of my tanks to
assist the 40th Division in the capture of Bourlon Wood.

My tanks started for the battle, and after a little breakfast I walked
to the high ground south-west of the village, and watched through my
glasses the opening moves of the attack.

Across the foreground of the picture ran the great highroad from
Bapaume to Cambrai. It was wide, perfectly straight, and fringed with
orderly trees. Beyond it and to my left was a low hill, which the
enemy still held. Our line ran diagonally up the slope of it, and
away to the west we were on the ridge. Immediately in front of me
on the hillside was the great dark mass of Bourlon Wood, square and
impenetrable, covering the highest point of the hill and stretching
over the skyline to the farther slope, which we could not see. The
wood dominated the whole countryside, and beyond it there was nothing
but low open country, extending to the marshes of the Scarpe. We could
not live north of Havrincourt while the enemy held the wood, and if
we captured the wood there was nothing to prevent us from sweeping
northwards to the Scarpe or westwards into Cambrai. At the moment our
line ran along the southern outskirts of the wood and to the south of
Fontaine, which the enemy held in force.

At 10.30 A.M. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a
living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of
smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could
mark the course of the battle,--the tanks with tiny flashes darting
from their flanks--clumps of infantry following in little rushes--an
officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and
fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head--the
men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out
to surround the gun--the wounded staggering painfully down the hill,
and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake
of the attack--the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and
side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.

We watched one tank hesitate before it crossed the skyline and our
hearts went out to the driver in sympathy. He made his decision, and
the tank, brown against the sky, was instantly encircled by little
puffs of white smoke, shells from the guns on the reverse slope. The
man was brave, for he followed the course of a trench along the crest
of the hill. My companion uttered a low exclamation of horror. Flames
were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire
and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised
what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late.
Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors
never opened and the crew never came out.... When I left my post half
an hour later the tank was still burning....

At noon I determined to push forward into the wood and discover what
had happened to my tanks. We skirted the village, walked along a sunken
road lined by dug-outs, and started to cross the low ground between
us and the road. I at once began to wonder whether it was not perhaps
a little early yet to go forward. The path to the highroad was the
object of direct or indirect machine-gun fire, and an officer, who was
sitting in a trench, told me cheerfully that Cooper and Smith, his
second-in-command, had already been hit by chance bullets. We pushed
on, however, to the inn on the highroad, and as the road was being
shelled, we took to the ditch until a shell, bursting in the ditch
itself, persuaded us to use the road. We did not get very far, and soon
we returned to the top of the bank at the side of the sunken road. By
this time "G" Battalion were beginning to arrive and their tanks were
moving across to Anneux Chapel.

After lunch I went forward again and reached a clearing on the south
side of the wood, where the tanks had been ordered to rally. The
enemy must have realised our intention, for the clearing was being
shelled most systematically. The only tank in the clearing belonged
to another battalion. The crew, realising their danger and a little
lost, evacuated their tank and joined me in a small quarry where I had
temporarily taken cover.

I left the quarry during a lull and walked up a sunken road into the
wood, but I soon realised, first, that I should never find my tanks by
tramping after them, and second, that I should be infinitely happier
in my quarry. So I returned and spent the next hour in watching the
rallying-place and in moving at intervals from one side of the quarry
to the other. The news was moderately good. The 40th Division, assisted
by my few tanks, had driven the astonished Germans to the further
fringes of the wood, and were now mopping up a few pockets of the enemy
who were still holding out in the vain hope that they would be rescued
by counter-attacks. But on the right--so I was told by two immaculate
young cavalry subalterns who were reconnoitring forward--Fontaine was
defying our sternest efforts.

About three I saw a couple of tanks cross the road at the inn,
three-quarters of a mile away. So, as one shell had already burst on
the lip of the quarry, I hastened to the cross-roads at Anneux Chapel
on my way back to Graincourt. At the cross-roads I met an infantry
battalion coming up to complete the clearance of the north-west corner
of the wood. The Colonel asked me whether my tanks would assist him. I
told him that they were already in action. It was indeed a pity that
"G" Battalion, which did not arrive until after the main portion of
the wood was in our hands, had not been held in reserve for such an
emergency.[20]

I reached battalion headquarters about 4 P.M. Both Bourlon village and
Fontaine-Notre-Dame were holding out. It was reported, too, that "E"
Battalion had suffered very heavily.

I walked along to my dug-out, where I discovered that the majority
of my tanks had already returned in safety. They had realised the
danger of rallying at the clearing and had come back direct to their
starting-point, followed all the way by the German gunners.

Two of the tanks, commanded by Lloyd and Hemming, had successfully
crossed the ridge and entered Bourlon village, but the infantry were
prevented by the intense machine-gun fire from occupying the place. Two
more of my tanks had experienced such concentrated machine-gun fire
themselves that every man in them was wounded by flying splinters,
including Wyatt, who had commanded his section from a tank.

All the tanks had done their work well, having assisted the infantry
to the limit of their advance. All of them reported that they had been
given excellent targets, while our own casualties were astonishingly
light. For us it was a most satisfactory day, spoilt only by the fact
that Wyatt and Cooper had been wounded.

My last tank had just come in when the enemy, furious at the loss of
the wood, began to shell Graincourt with "heavy stuff." The Colonel,
realising what must happen, had already departed for the calm of
Havrincourt Wood, while we were out of the danger area. To the
accompaniment of distant crashes we sat down to our evening meal....



CHAPTER XII.

THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI--GOUZEAUCOURT.

(_November 24th to December 1st, 1917._)


It was pleasant enough to wake up in the musty candle-lit dug-out,
sniff at the frying bacon, and murmur--

"Yesterday we helped the 40th Division to take Bourlon Wood. Two of my
tanks crossed the ridge and entered Bourlon village. All my tanks have
returned. A thoroughly sound and altogether satisfactory day's work...."

The morning was fine and fresh, with a nip in the air. We breakfasted
cheerily, and then, after a last look at the great wood, unchanged and
imperturbable, I started to tramp the six miles back to Havrincourt
Wood, leaving the others to follow with those tanks that had not come
in until dusk on the preceding day. It was an exhilarating walk through
the ruins of Havrincourt, past the enormous crater in the road, over
the old trenches, and through Trescault, since transport and troops
were pouring forward.

But in the afternoon we were told that the battle of the 23rd had been
a most incomplete and melancholy success. "E" Battalion, which had
attacked along the ridge from the direction of Moeuvres, had lost
the majority of their tanks. Five of their tanks were still missing,
and their casualties had been ghastly. On our right the fighting had
been heavy indeed. Fontaine had remained in German hands, and the 2nd
Tank Brigade had been quite unable, in consequence, to complete their
enveloping movement. Finally, at dawn the enemy had counter-attacked
and retaken the northern half of the wood itself.

It is not for me to relate the history of the pitiful struggle during
the next few days, when the great wood was drenched with gas and
half-destroyed by shells. I did not see Bourlon again until exactly a
year later, when I passed to the north of it on my way from Arras to
Cambrai for a court-martial. If only the cavalry could have taken it on
the 20th, according to plan, when it was defended merely by a handful
of machine-guns!

We began to make ourselves thoroughly comfortable in Havrincourt Wood,
and "temporary structures" arose with astounding rapidity. My own
Armstrong Hut, which had followed me for four months like a faithful
dog, arrived at last, together with certain kit which had been left
at Meaulte, so that we might not be over-burdened in our pursuit of
the enemy through the streets of Cambrai. We felt a trifle guilty in
our luxury as we watched the grim infantry going forward to the dark
terrors of Bourlon, and my men in their kindness would give them part
of their rations, for, during these days, the rations of the infantry
were painfully short. But war is war, and, putting Bourlon out of our
minds, we made an expedition to Bapaume, had tea at the officers'
club, a hair-cut and a shampoo, bought potatoes and eggs and dined
sumptuously.

Only an inspection on the 29th depressed us, for nothing can be more
depressing than an inspection. As usual, we had such a lengthy wait
before the arrival of the General that, with all due respect, we
thought of little except the end of his speech. And, if we had been
Romans, we should have cried out in horror, for, during the parade, an
enemy aeroplane brought down in flames one of our observation balloons.
It was a most inauspicious omen, and that evening I went to bed with an
unquiet mind....

We had received orders to entrain within the week at Fins, a railhead
about three miles south of Metz-en-Couture, and we had been preparing
our tanks for the journey. None of them were now in a proper condition
to fight, and most of them needed a thorough overhaul before we could
attempt even the short trek to Fins with any feeling of security. Our
work had been delayed further by a temporary stoppage in the supply of
spare parts. This, however, gave us little cause for anxiety, since
there was a whole week in front of us.

Early in the morning of the 30th, Battalion Headquarters, with all
our motor-cars and lorries, left Havrincourt Wood for Meaulte, our
destination and rumoured winter quarters.

If my narrative is to be truthful, I must confess that I was asleep in
bed when the Colonel departed, and that we did not breakfast until 9.30
A.M. We had barely sat down when we noticed that strange things were
happening, and we walked out of the wood into the open to investigate.
We could hear distinctly bursts of machine-gun fire, although the
line should have been six miles away at least. German field-gun
shells--we could not be mistaken--were falling on the crest of a hill
not three-quarters of a mile from the camp. On our left, that is to
the north, there was heavy gun fire. On our right, in the direction of
Gouzeaucourt, shells were falling, and there were continuous bursts of
machine-gun fire.

We had not fully realised what was happening, when a number of wounded
infantrymen came straggling past. I questioned them. They told me
that the enemy was attacking everywhere, that he had broken through
near Gouzeaucourt, capturing many guns, and was, to the best of their
belief, still advancing.

This was cheerful news and made me think hard. Look at this rough
diagram--

[Illustration]

Our line on the 29th formed a bulge or salient. I knew the enemy had
attacked at A and had broken through. I suspected from the heavy gun
fire that he was attacking at B. If these two attacks were successful,
our troops inside the bulge would be surrounded and the two attacking
forces would meet in the neighbourhood of the + on the diagram.[21] But
the + also represented my own position on the morning of the 30th, with
a batch of tanks in every stage of disrepair and the Colonel by now at
Meaulte.

I hurried to the camp of "E" Battalion, a hundred yards away, but
that battalion was temporarily under the command of a captain, as the
Colonel and the three company commanders had preceded their tanks in
the move to Meaulte. "G" Battalion, the third battalion of the brigade,
was encamped on the farther side of the wood, four miles distant, and
I had no time to go and see who was in command of it. Besides, the
Colonel's car had disappeared with the Colonel, and I had no transport
except three battered motor-cycles.

So I assumed command of the two battalions and gave instructions for
all tanks that were in any way mobile to be filled and loaded. This
took a little time, as the petrol dump was some distance away, and
we had no lorries. Then, as it seemed to me that if we were about to
fight--and I certainly did not intend to withdraw--we should probably
be surrounded, I collected those officers and men who were not actually
needed to fight the tanks, and ordered Field, whom I placed in charge,
to march them back to Royaulcourt, where I hoped that they would be out
of the way.

After I had made these preliminary arrangements I started with Spencer,
my servant, in search of the nearest Divisional Headquarters. I had
then no idea which or where it was. By this time all the roads into
Metz were blocked with transport of every description. The enemy
gunners were endeavouring to register on the Trescault road, but they
were shooting consistently short or over, and a couple of "shorts" gave
Spencer and myself the fright of our lives.

In Metz we discovered the headquarters of the Guards Division. I
reported to the Divisional Commander that I was the proud possessor of
an odd collection of second-hand tanks. He was not much impressed, but
wired the news to his corps and told me to wait for orders.

The cross-roads in Metz about 11 A.M. on the 30th November 1917 would
have gratified any German. In spite of the desultory shelling there
was, of course, no panic, but the thick confused stream of traffic
pouring westwards was unpleasant. It reminded me too vividly of
Estrees on the afternoon of Le Cateau, three years before. Mingled
with the transport were odd groups of men, the survivors of batteries,
stragglers who had lost their units, walking wounded--bitter, because
they felt that this sudden counter-attack should have been prevented,
and sullen, because although they realised that Metz was no place for
men who could fight, they did not know what to do or where to go.
There is nothing so tragical as the bewilderment of a broken army. For
every man who retires because he is afraid, there are a thousand who
retire because they are not organised to advance.

The A.P.M. proved himself a man indeed. One minute he would be out
in the traffic lashing the drivers with a stinging tongue, until,
literally frightened, they would perform marvels of driving, and so
disentangle a block of traffic. Another minute he would drive a bunch
of stragglers into the courtyard, consigning them with deep oaths to
the lowest hell. Or he would interrupt passionately with a wealth of
curses a gunner subaltern with three men, who, with tears in his voice,
was trying to explain that they alone of his battery had survived, and
that they had at least saved the breech-blocks and the sights. The
A.P.M. was a huge man with mad blue eyes, but, thanks to his intolerant
fury, the stream of traffic continued to flow, and no possible fighting
man passed beyond Metz. My own servant, who had lost me in the crowd,
was arrested as a straggler.

At about 12 noon a message came through from the Corps--

"One battalion of tanks will attack Gouzeaucourt from direction of
Fins, and one battalion of tanks from direction of Heudecourt."[22]

The General considered that this message was an order for me to attack
with my two battalions, but as both Fins and Heudecourt were further
from me than Gouzeaucourt, which the enemy had taken, I read the
message as a piece of information. Probably two battalions of the 2nd
Brigade were about to advance. The General, however, desired me to
attack.[23]

I walked back to the wood, and found that in my absence the tanks had
been drawn up in line at intervals of one hundred yards to defend the
Trescault-Metz road. This unnecessary deployment caused delay, but by 1
P.M. "E" Battalion had moved off to attack Gouzeaucourt from the west,
and the tanks of my own battalion to attack the village by the shortest
possible route. I did not know how many of the tanks would reach
Gouzeaucourt. They were all quite decrepit.

When I had seen my tanks under way I returned to Metz, reported, and
waited for further orders. The situation was distinctly obscure. We
knew that the enemy had not been able to debouch from Gouzeaucourt, and
soon we learnt that the Irish Guards had retaken the village at the
point of the bayonet, but the corps told us that enemy cavalry were
said to be in Heudecourt, a village south of Fins, and well behind our
line. The news from the north was reassuring. Apparently the enemy
attack on that flank had been broken.

The tanks of my own battalion had arrived at Gouzeaucourt too late to
assist the Irish Guards, but the sight of the tanks on the ridge to
the west of the village may have assisted in the discouragement of the
enemy, since he made no further effort to advance, although, if he had
known it, there was little enough in front of him. Finally, acting
under the orders of the infantry commanders on the spot, my tanks
withdrew to the neighbourhood of Gouzeaucourt Wood, half-way between
Gouzeaucourt and Metz. Of "E" Battalion I had heard nothing as yet.

I went back to camp, where I found that steps were being taken to send
rations out to the crews. Just before dusk I received a message from
the Colonel, instructing me not to become involved and to report to
Colonel Hankey commanding "G" Battalion. So Jumbo and I, by now more
than weary, tramped round the wood, and after an hour's hard walking
came to the "G" Battalion bivouac. I explained the situation to the
Colonel, who was most kind and understanding, and informed him that I
had placed myself under the orders of the Guards Division, and proposed
to continue to offer that Division any help that was possible. Colonel
Hankey agreed.

While I was with Colonel Hankey, our Brigade-Major arrived and told
us that a lot of nice sound tanks were coming up for our use. He was
astonished that I had more than twenty mobile tanks under my command.
It seemed that in an official return to the brigade we had shown only
one tank as "fit for action." However, he appreciated the course we
had taken, and confirmed Colonel Hankey's instruction that I should
continue to operate with the Guards Division.

I trudged back to camp through the mud, and, after a little food,
finding that no orders had come for me, I walked into Metz, which was
by now free of traffic.

The General was arranging a counter-attack at dawn on Gonnelieu and
the ridge to the south of it. Gonnelieu was a small village on high
ground commanding Gouzeaucourt, and its recapture would be the first
step towards regaining the valuable ground that we had lost. To the
south of Gouzeaucourt a dismounted cavalry Division had managed to form
some sort of line, and this Division would co-operate with the Guards
Division in the counter-attack proposed.

The General and his G.S.O.I. were determining the form which the
counter-attack should take. We were in a dim and bare schoolroom. The
candles on the General's table threw the rest of the room into deep
shadow. Outside there was low eager talking in the courtyard, the tramp
of a sentry, the rhythmical rattle of a limbered waggon with horses
trotting, a man singing quietly, the sudden impertinent roar of a
motor-cycle, the shouting of a driver, and then the silly whine and the
clear reverberating crash of a shell bursting by night among houses.
The General was speaking evenly, without emphasis....

I was called into consultation. Apparently a battalion of tanks from
the 2nd Brigade now lay at Gouzeaucourt Wood, ready to assist the
Guards. We discussed the counter-attack, and a decision was made. It
was becoming dangerously late. The staff-officer hurriedly began to
write orders. I left the schoolroom and started to walk up the hill
through the frozen night to Gouzeaucourt Wood.

Outside the wood in a rough plantation I discovered the headquarters of
a brigade of Guards, and with them the colonel of the tank battalion,
with whom I arranged that my tanks should attack Gonnelieu itself,
while his tanks should advance with the infantry against the ridge to
the south of that village.

A message came through to me from the captain temporarily in command
of "E" Battalion that he had lost touch with his tanks, and did not
know where they were now. I was in consequence forced to rely upon "D"
Battalion alone.

I found my section commanders, and instructed them to move their tanks
round Gouzeaucourt Wood, and concentrate to the east of it, so that
they could go forward to their final positions prior to the attack
without difficulty. I foolishly did not make certain myself that they
had sufficient petrol for the fight.

Then I walked over the short grass round the northern outskirts of the
wood in search of another brigade headquarters, and ran them to ground
in a large tent pitched in the open on the downs. Luckily for me it
was a clear night, with a moon and no clouds. The brigade commander
had not yet received his orders, and he told me to find the colonel
of a certain battalion of Grenadier Guards, warn him that we should
make a counter-attack on Gonnelieu at dawn, and arrange, as far as was
possible, pending orders from the division, the lines on which my tanks
would assist.

I tramped on over the cold bare downs--it was now about
midnight--until, to my relief, I struck the sunken road coming from
Trescault. I followed it, and, just short of the first houses in
Gouzeaucourt, I found the headquarters for which I was looking in a
dug-out at the side of the road.

The Colonel had just returned from an inspection of his outposts.
The division on the left was working forward from the north towards
Gonnelieu, and the Colonel had been listening to and watching the enemy
machine-guns. The village was thick with them. It was doubtful if the
division would be able to advance farther.

I gave him my message, and after a few minutes' discussion he sat down
to write his orders. The Colonel of the Welsh Guards arrived, and
together they analysed the situation.... I hesitate to write of the
Guards, and I dare not describe the scene.

I was about to go back to my tanks when two of my officers suddenly
appeared, bringing the worst possible news. The tanks had run short
of petrol! Their commanders in the hurry and excitement of the day
naturally had not realised how much they had used. And it had not
been intended that after they had entered Gouzeaucourt they should
withdraw all the way to Gouzeaucourt Wood. There was no transport. The
lorries were with the Colonel. In any case it was too late. And the
attack would take place in five hours--the Guards were relying on our
tanks--Gonnelieu was crammed full of machine-guns. The Colonel had just
said so.

I felt sick and frightened. My mind flew back to a morning when I was
late for school and stood outside the door, desperate and trembling,
miserably wondering whether it would be worse to go in and face
the smiles of the class and the cutting words of the master, or to
stop away for the whole day on the plea that I was really ill. The
Guards were relying on our tanks, and Gonnelieu was crammed full of
machine-guns!

A moment before I had listened in apprehension to the shells bursting
along the sunken road. Now, throwing my officers a few brief
instructions, I dashed up the road, and regardless of shells or
anything else, I ran at top speed back to the Brigade Headquarters
in the large tent, two miles away. It was an eternity before I came
choking to the tent and rushed to the telephone. I called up the
colonel of the other tank battalion and besought him to send at least
a section against Gonnelieu, for I did not know how many of my tanks
would have sufficient petrol to enter the battle. He replied that his
tanks had already started for their final positions, but he promised
that he would do what he could.

I explained the situation shortly to the brigadier and then hurried off
to my tanks. I found the crews endeavouring, with little success, to
siphon the petrol from one tank to another. At last, when it had become
too late to do more, I sent off those tanks which had any petrol at all
in them, hoping that by some miracle they would be able to join in the
attack. I had done all I could. I slunk back to Brigade Headquarters
and waited in anguish for the dawn. The downs were lonely and cruel
that night.

There was nothing of a barrage, for our heavy guns were in the hands of
the enemy or dismantled in Gouzeaucourt or without ammunition. A slight
bombardment and the Guards stormed up the hill. No news came to us at
Brigade Headquarters, but we could hear with terrible distinctness the
never-ending chatter of the enemy machine-guns. We tried to deceive
ourselves and to imagine that these machine-guns were our own, but we
knew our deceit, and we knew, too, that if we had carried the hill and
were fighting on the farther slopes of it, we should hear little of the
machine-guns.

About 7.30 A.M.--it was the morning of December 1st--the brigadier and
I tramped over the hillside to the sunken road at Gouzeaucourt, passing
several machine-gun pits cunningly camouflaged. We crossed the ridge,
and as we began to descend I saw for the first time Gouzeaucourt, a
cheerful little town in the valley, and Gonnelieu, a jumbled village
set on the hillside beyond with the white stones conspicuous in its
cemetery, and a church. In a large field below us and on the edge of
Gouzeaucourt were hutments, shelled and deserted. They had been left in
a hurry, and before one hut was a table laid for breakfast with a real
tablecloth. Over Gouzeaucourt and in front of Gonnelieu shrapnel was
bursting lazily.

The sunken road was full of wounded. We came to the headquarters which
I had visited. They were occupied now by another battalion of Grenadier
Guards. For the battalion which I had met in the middle of the night
were fighting desperately in the cemetery at Gonnelieu.

The news was disquieting. The Grenadier Guards had not been able to
force an entry into the village, while the Welsh Guards on their
right had made little progress. Both battalions had lost practically
all their officers. They had been withdrawn and replaced by fresh
battalions. The dismounted cavalry had managed to establish themselves
on the ridge with the help of tanks, but they could make no farther
advance until Gonnelieu was cleared. Tanks could be seen on the slopes
of the hill. Two, silhouetted against the skyline, were burning
fiercely. Of my own tanks nothing could be heard. The Colonel was doing
valiant things in Gonnelieu.

Then came a grave rumour: "The Colonel is badly wounded!" but a moment
later he walked into the dug-out, his arm in a rough sling and his face
drawn with pain. They persuaded him against his will to go to the main
dressing station.... The wounded were streaming past, walking wounded
and stretcher after stretcher.

I left the dug-out and went in search of my tanks, but there was no
sign of them. They were not to be traced, although I walked down to
the Villers-Plouich road, and later, coming back up the hill, climbed
a little mound and scanned the opposite slope with my glasses. Certain
tanks to the right of Gonnelieu obviously belonged to that other
battalion. Perhaps a report had reached our camp at Havrincourt Wood,
which was, in fact, nearer to Gouzeaucourt than was Metz-en-Couture.

So at last I turned, and more weary than I can describe--since, like
many others, I had been more or less on my feet for twenty-four
hours--I trudged up the sunken road and, taking a last look at
Gonnelieu and at Gouzeaucourt, struck out across the downs to
Havrincourt Wood, a matter of three miles.

At the camp there was still no news. It was now about 11 A.M. I
breakfasted and turned in, telling Jumbo to call me if any message
came from the tanks.

I awoke at three. The crews had reported. The tanks had not been
able to climb out of a sunken road for want of petrol, and had never
entered the battle. Of "E" Battalion there was still no news. Tanks
from that other battalion had assisted the Guards--that was a little
satisfying,--but the Guards had failed to storm Gonnelieu.

I walked out of the wood into the open. A few centuries ago I had stood
on the same spot and wondered why there were bursts of machine-gun fire
in the direction of Gouzeaucourt.



CHAPTER XIII.

HAVRINCOURT TO HARROW.

(_December 1st, 1917, to January 31st, 1918._)


We were not yet out of the wood. I was smoking a pipe in contemplative
solitude behind my hut after an excellent little dinner, when, without
warning, there was a shattering explosion. A shell had burst a few
yards away in the bushes, and a moment later a couple fell in the
farther end of the camp. Evidently the Germans wished us to remember
the 1st December 1917. I shouted to the men to take cover in the tanks,
since inside or under a tank is a place of comparative safety. For
twenty minutes the shelling continued, and then it stopped as suddenly
as it had begun. We investigated the damage. One man had been killed
and three wounded.

I ordered the men to sleep under cover that night, so that, although
our corner of the wood was shelled four times before dawn, there were
no further casualties. I passed the night in a shallow dug-out, and I
was glad in the morning that I had not returned to my hut, for, when I
went to it before breakfast, I found that a scrap of shell had drilled
a neat hole through my bed.

Early on the 2nd I received orders from everybody, and if I had obeyed
them all "D" Battalion would have remained where it was, entrained at
the Fins railhead, and moved to Dessart Wood on the route from Metz
to Fins. So I went in a "box-body," which I had commandeered, to seek
counsel of Colonel Hankey. I tracked him from the wood to Fins, and
found him there at a ruined "cinema" in company with our Brigade-Major,
from whom I learnt that our display of tanks on the hills to the west
of Gouzeaucourt had been more valuable than I had realised.

I suggested to the Brigade-Major that I should withdraw the battalion
to Ytres, the railhead at which we had detrained when we had first
arrived in this troublesome neighbourhood.[24] We knew the route to
Ytres; there were two ramps at the railhead; we should be out of
everybody's way; accommodation there should be ample for the battalion.
He agreed to my suggestion, and gave me definite orders to move as soon
as possible.

With a light heart--for it was a splendid sunny day--I hurried back
to discover the battalion plunged into the deepest melancholy. The
rations had not arrived! That on one day there should be a shortage of
rations might seem to the civilian reader a commonplace of war, and he
may marvel when I state with an eye to the whole truth that this was
in very fact the first occasion, while I was with my company of tanks,
on which rations had definitely not appeared. And the reason for it,
as we learnt afterwards, was ample. The enemy had begun to shell the
railhead at Bapaume with a long-range gun, and our particular lorries
with rations on board had been blown into matchboard and scraps of
metal.

We repaired the deficiency by a raid on a dump, which I had noticed,
and were packing up when the enemy again began to shell our pet corner
of the wood--this time with a high-velocity gun. Thus encouraged, the
battalion was ready to move in record time. In the middle of it all our
rations arrived: the Equipment Officer, undeterred by long-range guns,
had secured fresh rations and fresh lorries.

I went ahead of the tanks in my "box-body," and that night the men
slept peacefully in the brickyard at Ytres, the officers in a large
"Adrian" hut at the R.E. dump, and I, who had made friends while
searching for billets with an admirable and elderly subaltern in charge
of a Labour Detachment, after playing bridge successfully in a hut with
a real fireplace, went to bed in a real bed.

On the 3rd we regained touch once more with the outside world. Four
days' mail arrived, sundry foodstuffs, and a new pair of light corduroy
breeches; while the Colonel motored up from Meaulte to see us, and gave
us most gratifying messages from the Brigade Commander. On the 4th,
since I was still without transport, I tramped five miles across the
downs in deliciously bright and frosty weather to Fins, and arranged
for the entrainment of certain tanks.

That evening after mess I was sitting with the elderly subaltern
over a huge fire. We were discussing in extreme comfort painting, the
education of artistic daughters, and the merits and demerits of the
Slade School. Suddenly we heard a musical and distant wail, something
flew past the window, and there was a wee "plonk."

"A dud!" said I wearily.

"They've never shelled the place before," he asserted with confidence.

"It was rather near," I murmured.

We were silent, and then once again we heard the musical wail, which
this time was followed by an overwhelming explosion. The hut trembled,
and clods of frozen earth rattled sharply on the roof.

He rushed off to his coolies, and I came back to the fire after I had
given instructions to my officers; but another "dud" fell within a few
yards of the hut, so I determined to explore the farther end of the
dump, but, of course, when I was walking sedately away, I slipped on
the ice and took most of the skin off my thigh.

At last the shelling stopped. We again returned to the fire and drank
hot cocoa. I undressed and went to bed, daring the German to do his
worst. I was dozing, when a shell burst just outside the hut. The side
of the hut appeared to bulge inwards, everything fell off the shelves,
and a large piece of frozen earth flew through the window. It was too
much, and no man is a hero in silk pyjamas. I wrapped myself in a
British warm and ran out into the night--the shell had fallen ten yards
from the hut. Another came. I stumbled into a trench, but it was so
cold and humiliating there that I returned to my hut, dressed rapidly,
and went to spend the night with a friend who lived at the opposite end
of the dump. We had just begun to make some tea, when the German gunner
lengthened his range. We might have remained where we were, but we were
too tired and annoyed. We decided to take a drink off the Town Major.

In the morning we moved to the brickyard half a mile away. I was making
for my new quarters after a little dinner with the Town Major, and
looking forward to a quiet night, when a shell burst in front of me. I
ran to the brickyard, but my quarters then were under eighteen feet of
solid brick, so, although we were shelled again during the night, we
slept most peacefully.

On the 6th I managed to entrain the remainder of my tanks at Fins by
anticipating another battalion who were a little late. Then I started
off on a motor-cycle to warn Battalion Headquarters that the tanks
would arrive a day before their scheduled time, but I had magneto
trouble at Haplincourt. I completed the journey in accordance with the
custom of the country, by securing a lorry lift to Bapaume, a lift in a
car from Bapaume to Albert, and then walking to the camp at Meaulte.

Even when the tanks had been detrained at Le Plateau, the most desolate
railhead on earth, and driven to the chilliest of tankodromes by the
ruins of Bécordel-Bécourt, half an hour's walk from the camp, we were
not rid of the war. The line to which we had fallen back was none too
stable, and to strengthen it tanks were posted at intervals behind
the guns. It was intended that these tanks should break the enemy
attack, demoralise their infantry, and act as rallying-points for our
own men. This curious method of defence was never tested, perhaps
luckily, but we were compelled to take our turn in providing garrisons
or crews. Other tanks, manned by my men, were used at night to drag
back heavy guns, which had been abandoned in the first flurry of the
counter-attack on November 30th, and were now just behind our advanced
posts.

During these days I was again in command of the battalion, for the
Colonel was on leave, and twice it was necessary for me to drive over
the Somme battlefield by Peronne to Fins. It was freezing hard, and the
wind cut to the bone.

At last we were free even of these duties, and were able to spend our
time in repairing a job lot of fifty old tanks, in starting their
engines frequently to avoid the effects of frost, and in making
ourselves thoroughly comfortable. And we began to look for pigs.

The camp on the hillside above the village of Meaulte at first
consisted of large huts, but like good soldiers we added to it as
usual a variety of "temporary structures." I could not be parted from
my Armstrong Hut; and Forbes, my orderly-room sergeant, would have
wept bitter tears if that hut which a party from Behagnies had found
"somewhere in France"--it was a dark and shapeless erection--had not
provided shelter for himself and his papers.

The camp had its advantages. The canteen at Meaulte was then the finest
in France. Albert, within walking distance, had revived, and its
inhabitants were fast returning to set up shop and make much money
out of the British troops. Amiens and all its luxuries was only an
hour away for those who possessed cars. We had something of a football
ground.

Then in the Colonel's absence I was able to use the Colonel's horses,
and with the Doctor or the Adjutant, we would canter over the downs and
pay visits to those other battalions who were in huts on the edge of
the Happy Valley above Bray.

As Christmas drew near our search for pigs became feverish, but at last
we found them, and the beer too arrived; so that we were able to give
to each man, in addition to his rations of beef and plum-pudding, one
pound of roast pork and one gallon of beer.

Of Christmas Day I have probably a clearer recollection than many. We
began badly, for half the battalion paraded in one part of the camp and
half in another, and the padre was in doubt. Finally we combined and
shivered through the service. A little later came the men's dinner.
The Colonel and his company commanders started to go round, but there
had been some slight anticipation.... We went away cautiously. In the
evening there was high revelry, speechifying, shouting, bursts of
crude song. Some wild spirits endeavoured to abstract the captured
field-guns which "G" Battalion displayed temptingly outside its huts,
but "G" Battalion was not convivial on this matter and talked sternly
of fights. This was sobering, for the last thing we wanted was to fight
with our most excellent friends--so, feeling that our joke had been a
trifle misunderstood, we drank with them instead. But somebody a night
or two later ran the guns down into the village from under the noses of
"G" Battalion. It was a pity, because the porridge was cold.

There are other stories about that Christmas which will be told time
and again in the mess. You will never hear from me what the old soldier
said to the Brigade Commander in the streets of Meaulte.

We had thought that we should not move again during the winter, and
we were just beginning to settle down when a rearrangement of units
in the Tank Corps and the arrival of certain new battalions in France
unsettled the situation.

You will remember that after the battle of Arras, "D" Battalion, which
had now become the 4th Battalion, "E" (5th), and "G" (7th) Battalions,
formed the 1st Brigade. To the three brigades in the Tank Corps a
fourth and fifth were now added. The 4th Brigade was commanded by
Brigadier-General E. B. Hankey, D.S.O., and included at first only the
4th and 5th Battalions. This Brigade was ordered to billet in the old
Blangy area, and one of the brand-new battalions was instructed to take
over our huts.

I must state with regret that the advance party of this new battalion
was a shade tactless. After all, we were "D" Battalion, formed out of
the old "D" Company, the senior Tank company in France. Further, every
officer and man of us had volunteered for the job. We were inclined
to look for a little respect, perhaps even a little awe, from these
newcomers. Now during the fourteen months of the battalion's existence
the carpenters had been busy. Forbes, my orderly-room sergeant, had
a collapsible desk. There were racks, card-tables, special chairs,
fittings of one kind or another which, since we were then allowed
generous transport, and the tanks can carry much, we took with us from
place to place. These cherished possessions were claimed by the advance
party as billet fixtures to be left with the huts, which had been more
bare than a dry bone when we had first come to them. Finally, the
advance party had the temerity to claim the Colonel's own wine-cupboard.

That was enough. We could not suffer this attempted rape of our
Colonel's cherished possession without some forcible protest. Of what
actually occurred I know little, for I was laid low in my hut with a
bout of trench fever. My memory cannot be trusted, and the strange
things which I heard may be attributed to delirium. I imagined that
extra lorries were obtained, and everything possible loaded upon them.
I dreamt that during these last days there was no lack of firewood.
Half unconscious, I thought of men plying axes.

They put me into an ambulance and sent me to the Casualty Clearing
Station at Dernancourt, where my nurse was even more charming than
nurses usually are. It was a pleasant ward, and for company there was
an ancient A.P.M. with a fund of excellent stories, and a succession of
unlucky but cheerful flying men. When we became convalescent the A.P.M.
and I would stroll through the snow to the hospital trains that came
into the siding, but we decided that we preferred our own nurses.

We could not hope to remain for long in that delicious paradise, and,
although we tried hard, the south of France was beyond our reach. The
car came for me on a dull liverish morning, and I had to say good-bye.
There are lesser tragedies, which leave a wound.

I found my company luxuriating at Auchy-lez-Hesdin, the most desirable
village in the Blangy area. It was full of good billets and estaminets,
and there was an officers' tea-room where the law of the A.P.M. did not
run. Many of us decided that it was indeed time for us to brush up our
French. We had neglected it too long.

Soon the company became amazingly smart. This happy state may have
been the natural result of careful inspections and concentration upon
drill, but I am myself inclined to think that credit should be given
to the far-seeing Frenchman who established a cotton-mill in Auchy and
employed a number of girls with large admiring eyes.

You will remember that during the last season at Blangy-sur-Ternoise
the company had made a name for itself in the football world, and we
did not intend to allow this reputation to slip away. No Selection
Committee discussed with more care, insight, and real knowledge of the
game the merits of each candidate for the company eleven than that over
which I had the honour to preside, and as a very natural result we won
during the month of January a series of overwhelming victories. But I
have not yet decided to my satisfaction whether Spencer was more useful
in the centre or on the wing.

And B., a major from the Glasgow Yeomanry, who was attached to the
company for instruction, took charge when football was impossible,
and led the company with intolerable energy over many weary miles of
country.

In the evening he was the life and soul of the mess. We still had
that piano which had been taken forward in the first lorry that ever
attempted the Puisieux-le-Mont road from Albert to Achiet-le-Grand
after the enemy had retired in March. Our guest-nights were unequalled.
Who could ever forget our "Beauty Chorus," with B. as "prima
ballerina," or Happy Fanny singing a song in his more cheerful mood?

There was only one little cloud. The Russian Armies, infected with
strange enthusiasms, had left the battlefield. The Italians had their
backs to the wall. We heard rumours that the French Armies were
sullen and despairing. It was certain that the enemy would make one
last enormous effort before the tardy Americans arrived. We were, of
course, confident--no man in France even for a moment considered the
possibility of ultimate defeat--and we thought that it would not be
difficult to break the enemy attack, however determined it might prove
to be.

We practised the defence of Auchy, though we thought such precautions
to be far-fetched; but it was a more serious matter when we were told
that, instead of wintering at Auchy, it would be necessary for the
battalion to move up to the neighbourhood of Peronne, where our nights
might be interrupted by bombs and shells.

But it was under the command of B. that the company left Auchy for the
Fifth Army area. One gloomy day I was ordered home with other company
commanders to help form new battalions at the celebrated Bovington
Camp. The orders came suddenly, although they had not been unexpected.
On the 31st January I handed over the command of the company to B., and
the parting was the less bitter because I knew that the company would
be safe and happy under him.

I drove away from Auchy on a sunny morning with frost in the air and
snow on the ground. I caught the afternoon boat. I could not forget
that great farewell dinner, but the sea was kind.

My thoughts ran back a year to Blangy and the dim smoky dining-hall
of the Hospice, where first I had met my company. Then we had been
confident that in the great battle of the year we should utterly defeat
the enemy, principally by reason of our tanks,--our imaginations
reeled with dreams of what tanks could do. And what a joke those dummy
tanks had been!... I recalled our pride when we had been selected to
take part in the Arras battle, our annoyance when the enemy retreated
and brought our careful plans to nothing, our disappointment that
we must fight with old Mark I. tanks.... Then Achiet-le-Grand, the
detrainment in the blizzard, the anxious nights at Mory Copse, the
sudden conference at Army Headquarters, the struggle against time, the
biting anxiety when no news of my tanks came to me in the Armstrong Hut
at the headquarters of the Australian Division, the explanation of the
coming battle of my officers in the sheer darkness of the little ruin
at Noreuil, the confidence in victory and the despair at failure--could
tanks be used again?--tempered by the stubborn thought that we had
done our best, and from the hillside the picture of my surviving tank,
unfairly crippled by a chance shell.

At Behagnies we had been happy enough. Then after Haigh's show there
had been Wailly, with the liquid grass sprouting in the cornices of the
church, the delicious summer at Humières, and the dismal foreboding
when we heard that we were destined for the Salient. I remembered the
everlasting blare of the aeroplanes at La Lovie, the steaming and
odorous mud of the tank routes, our noisy adventures at the "Dead End,"
the long days of weary waiting, the hopeless attempt at St Julien, and
the black tragedy of the Poelcapelle Road. Why had tanks ever been sent
to destruction at Ypres? There must be whole cemeteries of tanks in
that damnable mud. And we had lost Talbot there.

It was more comforting to dwell on that astonishing sight at dawn on
November 20--lines of tanks stretching away into the distance as far as
we could see,--it was a full day,--the sunken road with its kitchens,
the dead and sprawling Germans, the glass of wine in the delicately
panelled chamber, the climb up the narrow chalk trench to the railway
embankment, and the discovery that we could not enter Flesquieres, the
dash back to the unbelieving Colonel, the unpleasant quarter of an hour
under machine-gun fire, the shock of Ward's death....

And then Bourlon Wood, sitting square and imperturbable on the
hillside, with the tank burning piteously on the ridge to the left of
it--what a feverish search there had been for X.'s dug-out on the night
before! How I had thanked the Fates for that convenient quarry until a
shell burst on the lip of it!

Finally, Gouzeaucourt, Ytres. Had tanks achieved the successes which we
had prophesied? It was a difficult question to answer. Anyway, whatever
our successes, whatever our failures, no man had ever commanded a finer
company than mine.

The boat slid past the quayside. We crowded at the gangway, and there
was the usual rush for the train. I secured a seat as usual by climbing
in on the wrong side. We reached London in thick fog. They told me I
might just as well take a week's holiday at home before reporting at
Regent Street and asking for leave on arrival. It was three hours by
District to South Harrow, and at Ealing Common a young officer had
walked off the platform and fallen under a train. That made me late.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE CARRIER TANKS.

(_January 31st to August 1st, 1918._)


At my leisure I visited the Headquarters of the Tank Corps in Regent
Street, and after a somewhat undignified appeal to the good nature of a
corporal--the staff captain was busy, or out at lunch, or dictating--I
obtained a fortnight's leave. The fortnight passed expensively, but it
was pleasant, if dull, to take the train at the end of it from Waterloo
and not from Victoria. In due course I arrived at Wool Station, and
with two cheery subalterns, who had experienced enthralling adventures
in Bournemouth, I drove in a taxi along narrow winding lanes to the
camp on the crest of a hill.

I reported, but the charming officers who received me had not been
warned of my arrival and were perplexed. Majors, it appeared, were a
drug on the market--unattached majors swarmed in Bovington. Would I go
to the Depot at Wareham? I refused politely. I knew something of the
Depot. Two skeleton battalions were just being formed? They might not
go out to France this year? I refused again: I did not intend to stop
at Bovington any longer than was necessary.

At last it was suggested that I should be posted to the "Carrier
Tanks." I had not heard of them, and asked for information. I was told
vaguely "that they would carry infantry about," and it was expected
that they would embark within the next three months.

So I found my way through the nice, clean, well-ordered camp to the
lines of the Carrier tanks. That night I slept uncomfortably on a
borrowed blanket in a bare and chilly hut. It had never struck me that
I should require my camp-kit at home.

In the morning I was given the command of the 4th Infantry Carrier
Company.

The six Carrier Companies were under the command of Lieut.-Colonel
L. A. de B. Doucet, R.E. They were to consist of tanks specially
constructed to carry infantry. In the past the infantry had followed
the tanks. Now it was intended that they should go forward in the
tanks. If, for example, it was necessary to storm a village, the
Carrier tanks would fill up with infantry and deposit them in the
middle of the village, to the confusion of the enemy. The prospect was
certainly exhilarating.

But soon these hopes began slowly to disappear. Perhaps the plan was
a little startling. The Carrier Companies would not carry infantry
"at first." They must begin their lives by carrying supplies. We
were called "Tank Supply Companies," and we began to suspect that
we should become finally a branch of that splendid Corps, the Royal
Army Service Corps. We struggled vigorously against the depression
which the prospect produced--we felt we were not worthy. We refused
to believe that we should never carry infantry through a barrage to
certain victory. The Staff, however, were brutally frank. An order was
published, informing us that although we were not "fighting troops,"
we should remember that discipline was useful. This order was none too
helpful, especially since it was firmly believed both by officers and
men that an officer, alleged to have spent three years of the war in
England, was responsible for it. Of course there was no truth in this
rumour or the allegation!

From the 12th February to the 12th June I was at Bovington Camp, and
never have I liked soldiering less. Bovington Camp must have been
designed to encourage men to serve in France. In France there was life,
interest, even glamour. At Bovington the bones of soldiering stuck out
disgustingly. We saw too clearly the formalities, the severities. But
I had not been at the Base. If I had, I should have been more prepared
for Bovington.

The raw material of my company was splendid--eighteen out of the twenty
officers, and the majority of the men, had served overseas--and, since
the company was over strength, I was able to weed out the weaker
brethren in the course of training. I found it increasingly difficult
to realise that my officers and men were not "fighting troops."

For the first three weeks we concentrated on drill. Then batches of
officers and men were sent to be trained by the instructors of the
camp. At the beginning of May we drew Mark IV. tanks, and used them by
a system of reliefs from dawn to dusk. Towards the end of the month,
when we waited breathlessly for every scrap of news from France, we
began to train as a Lewis Gun Company, in case it should be necessary
for us to be sent overseas at once; but the crisis passed, and we
returned to our tanks.

It had been almost unbearable to sit lazily in the hot garden of a
Dorchester villa and read of the desperate happenings in France. Why
should the newspapers doubt, when we had never doubted, ... but it
was impossible that our line should ever be broken? Those civilians,
these young fellows who had never been to France, did not understand
what it meant. And my old Company? What had happened to them? They,
at least, had had their lesson, and would not be caught unprepared.
So day after day passed, and on the worst days I had no heart to
train my new company. At last the clouds began slowly to clear, but
I was not satisfied until I had heard that my company was still in
being and fighting as a Lewis Gun Company on the Lys Front. Well, it
meant beginning all over again, and perhaps the sheer number of the
slow Americans would make up for the lack of that skill which hard
experience alone can give....

Gradually the company began to find itself, and to feel that the 4th
Carrier Company was without doubt the finest company at Bovington. Once
again my company's football team was invincible. Our equipment and
our transport arrived. Soon we were ready, and eagerly awaited our
marching orders.

I have not wearied you with details of training or of life at
Bovington, because I have no desire to recall them, but it would not
be fair to write only of soldiering. I should be churlish, indeed, if
I did not set down how an amateur soldier, stale and tired of war, was
refreshed and encouraged. The cold flame of gorse in the clear dusk,
the hot lawn of the shabby rectory, the healthy noise and bustle of
Dorchester streets, the simple magic of Maidûn, the steady tramp from
stuffy Abbotsbury over Black Down with its cleansing winds and through
the quietude of Winterborne, the smooth rich downs by Charminster, the
little footpath walk at evening by the transparent stream under the
dark trees to the orderly cottages of Stinsford, the infinite stretch
of half-seen country from the summit of Creech Barrow--these memories
bred a stouter soldier than any barrack-square.

At 9 A.M. on June 12th we paraded for the last time at Bovington. The
usual farewell speech was made. We marched off in bright sunshine.
The band, whose strange noises in the huts behind my orderly-room had
so vilely disturbed me, played us down to the station. At Southampton
there was the usual delay. In the afternoon we embarked on the
_Archimedes_ for Havre, and sailed at dusk.

Four years before--in August 1914--I had crossed from Dublin to Havre
in the _Archimedes_. Then I was a corporal, slept on a coil of rope,
and drew my rations from among the horses. Now I was "O.C. Ship,"
with an Adjutant who saw that my orders were obeyed, slept in the
Captain's cabin, and dined magnificently. During those four years the
_Archimedes_ had been employed without a break in carrying troops, and
the Captain had received a decoration. It was a proud "O.C. Ship" who
stood on the bridge as the _Archimedes_ made her stately way into the
harbour.

We disembarked at the same old quay, though, instead of the Frenchmen,
who in 1914 crowded to help us, singing patriotic songs, there was in
1918 a baggage party of Americans with marked acquisitive tendencies.
Whether No. 2 Rest Camp was an improvement on the wool warehouses with
their fleas is a matter of opinion.[25]

When we were not drawing rations, testing our gas helmets and attending
lectures, undergoing medical inspections or feverishly endeavouring
to comply with the myriad regulations and formalities of the camp, we
would sit in the cosmopolitan mess. Americans in hundreds were passing
through, some quietly confident that their army had absorbed the best
from all other armies, some humbly hopeful and thirsty for knowledge,
and some, as the evening grew late, a little irritating to us who had
been in France since '14. Then there were men on leave from Italy with
strange tales of mountain sickness, of No-Man's-Land a few miles wide,
and adventurous leaves spent in Rome. Or we would discover in a corner
a bunch of sickly, cheerful fellows, who would eagerly persuade you
that Salonica was no child's play, tell you how the army was riddled
with malaria, and how leave came to them only once in a lifetime.
It was not too cheerful a mess. On the whole I preferred the wool
warehouse.

We entrained, as the 5th Divisional Signal Company had entrained,
at Point Six, Hangar de Laine; but this time, instead of travelling
through to Landrecies, with cheers at every level-crossing, we spent
the day at Rouen, to the benefit of that sumptuous tavern, Hôtel de
la Poste. At dawn on the 15th we found ourselves at Etaples, where we
managed to give the men breakfast, and shave and wash, and at 9 A.M.
we arrived at Blangy, where the 4th Battalion was once again billeted,
and marched wearily to Blingel Camp half-way between Blangy and
Auchy-lez-Hesdin.

Blingel Camp had a history. It had been designed many months before as
a brigade camp, and beautiful blue prints were in existence, showing
positive streets of huts, and a plethora of canteens, recreation rooms,
bath-houses, messes, and incinerators. The camp had been commenced. In
a few weeks somebody had not been quite certain whether after all the
Tank Corps would expand, and the work in the camp stopped. The staff
in due course relented, and back came the sappers and the Chinamen--to
be taken away in a month or so for more important duties. When we
arrived only a small part of the camp had been built. So we helped the
three sappers and the five Chinamen,--it was never completed. That was
characteristic of the long-suffering Tank Corps, which, in fact, became
finally and properly organised ten days after the Armistice.

The command of a brand-new unit, freshly landed in France, possessed
its trials, annoyances, and humours. There were so many little tricks
of the trade that the Company as a whole had to learn. Veteran officers
who had been three months in France came over from other units to smile
and advise, and so closely were we all connected that it was hard to
explain that some of us had been a little longer than three months
in France on a previous occasion. We were regarded, too, with slight
disdain, as something newfangled and non-combatant, for by June 1918
the enthusiasts and the experts of the early days were outnumbered
in the Tank Corps by the mass of officers recruited from home and
transferred, for example, from the cavalry, who regarded machinery as a
necessary evil, and anything new as an infernal nuisance. We realised
this attitude--the tank battalions had met it from the infantry
eighteen months before--and we encouraged ourselves by saying to each
other, "We'll show them!" But General Elles can never have realised how
he broke our hearts, when he inspected us on our arrival, by telling
the three proud company commanders that the men were too good for the
Carrier Companies, that probably we should have to send them as drafts
to the fighting battalions and receive in their place inefficients,
invalids, and crocks. We just pretended that we didn't mind....

We remained at Blingel until July 20th, suffering from that fatal
inspection, an epidemic of Spanish influenza, and lack of whisky. We
drew twelve tanks (Mk. IV.) from old friends at Erin, and trained
mightily, carrying out a number of competitions and experiments.
Forgetting for the moment that we were not "fighting troops," we
discovered and used a revolver-range, and, like proper Tank companies,
practised battle-firing at Fleury. We might be Carrier Tanks, whose
only duty is to "supply," but you never know.

While I had been snugly at home, my old company had fallen upon hard
times. They had moved up in February to the neighbourhood of Peronne,
and their tanks had been placed in position immediately in the rear of
the trenches. Then came the great German offensive, and they were swept
back to Amiens, losing on the way the majority of their tanks, because
the bridges over the Somme were destroyed before the tanks could
cross, and all their kit and the famous piano, because all the lorries
available were required to transport Battalion Headquarters. In front
of Amiens they were used as a reserve Lewis Gun Company. Then they were
"lorried" to the Lys front, and for weeks held grimly a section of the
line. Now they were back once again in Blangy, refitting and drawing
the new Mk. V. tanks. It was sixteen months since they had left Blangy
to detrain in a blizzard at Achiet-le-Grand and fight in the snow at
Bullecourt.

There had been a rumour afloat soon after we had arrived in France
that in August or September we should turn and rend the enemy. We
were inclined to scoff at the thought--the situation was then none
too favourable--but staff officers, though mysterious, were decidedly
insistent. We did not expect, in consequence, to be employed until this
boasted offensive materialised, but on July 19th we received orders
to relieve the 1st Tank Supply Company, who were helping the 2nd Tank
Brigade to guard the Arras front. So once again I was driving along
that stout ally, the highroad from St Pol to Arras.

The 2nd Tank Brigade at this period consisted of the 10th, 12th, and
14th Battalions. To each of the battalions was allotted an area of
manoeuvre, in which it would co-operate with other arms in organised
counter-attacks, for the First Army was on the defensive, and Prince
Rupprecht was expected to attack. The old method of stationing tanks
behind or in the battle zone had been discarded.

The Carrier Company in this scheme of defence was reduced to carrying
tank supplies. Each of my sections would attend to the wants of one
battalion. In the event of an enemy attack the battalion would dash
into the fray, and at the end of the day's work would meet a section of
Carrier tanks at a rendezvous and refill without reference to lorries,
trains, or other more fallible means of transport.

We moved forward in a multitude of lorries, leaving behind us the tanks
which we had begun to "tune" with such ardour. We had been ordered to
take over a scratch lot of Mk. IV. tanks from the Company which we were
relieving, and that Company, a maid-of-all-work in the Brigade, had not
found time to repair them or to keep them in good order.

My own headquarters were near Caucourt, in a delicious valley sheltered
by woods, where happy singing Chinamen were working lazily. Our Nissen
huts were gaily painted. Peas and potatoes had been planted, and we had
geraniums. In summer the camp was perfection. There was even a demure
maiden, who brought us each morning eggs, butter, and milk.

Of my four sections, Ryan's was in Noulette Wood, behind Vimy;
Harland's and Westbrook's near the vile and dirty village of
Montenescourt, where Brigade Headquarters had been during the Arras
battle; and Ritchie's in the famous Winnipeg Camp. We were all
contented, and during the daylight safe, but at night we soon learnt
that in the past few months the enemy had discovered how to bomb. We
were kept awake.

Our one trouble was the Mk. IV. tanks, which for our sins we had
inherited. Some of them looked clean: some of them looked dirty. All of
them required thorough overhauling and repair, and we worked upon them
day and night in case Prince Rupprecht should take it into his head to
attack, or we should anticipate his attack by a local offensive.

A visit to the headquarters of the Canadian Corps on our right hurried
our preparations. The Canadians, jealous of the reputation which
the Australians had won, were longing for a fight. There was talk
in the higher and more careful circles of an operation to recapture
Monchy-le-Preux.

We soon decided to concentrate the company in the centre of the area,
and the staff captain of the brigade and myself went exploring to find
a suitable site for the camp. The Bois de la Haie pleased us. It was
bombed, but so were all woods, and this particular wood was not too
conspicuous. We called two sappers into consultation and planned a camp
complete with all the most modern improvements, down to the very latest
thing in grease-traps. We began to say farewell to our gentle damsel.
But the camp was never built.

For on the 28th, when I had returned from my daily round rather
late--there was much movement of troops on the roads--and was calling
for tea, buttered toast, and the cake that had come in the parcel,
a code message was handed to me. We did not know the code--Carrier
companies were often forgotten--but we interpreted the message that
we were now in G.H.Q. Reserve, and should be ready to entrain at
twenty-four hours' notice. The order might mean anything or nothing. I
suspected a move to the neighbourhood of Amiens, where two successful
little tank actions had already taken place, and sent McBean, my
reconnaissance officer, to make a corner in Amiens maps. We returned to
our repairs with desperate vigour and waited in excitement for further
orders.

After mess on the 30th I was summoned urgently to Brigade Headquarters
and instructed verbally by the General over a glass of excellent
port to entrain at Acq early on the 1st. The utmost secrecy was to
be observed. The entrainment was to be considered as a practice
entrainment. With my doubtful tanks no time was to be lost. Mac
plunged into the night with orders for Ryan, who was ten miles from
railhead, while my despatch-riders bustled off to Ritchie, Harland,
and Westbrook. I was more than doubtful whether the tanks under repair
would be ready.

Mac reached Ryan in the early hours of the morning, and the section
was on the move by 6.45 A.M. Much happened to the tanks on the way,
but with the exception of one they made Acq in the course of the
afternoon, and the laggard arrived during the night.

Ritchie, who was always thorough, covered his tank with branches, and
his moving copse caused much excitement. Westbrook and Harland, who
each had a tank in hospital, so inspired their enthusiastic crews that
by dawn on the 1st every tank was more or less able to entrain. We were
not helped by the fact that we were ordered to entrain "full," that is,
with our tanks crammed with petrol, oil, and ammunition. Since before
entraining it is necessary to push in the sponsons until they are flush
with the sides of the tank, the order involved unloading the sponsons
at railhead, pushing them in and then loading the tanks again. We
wondered bitterly if there were no supplies at our destination.

We discovered that we were bound for Poulainville, a railhead near
Amiens. I looked proudly at our box of maps--the battalions were still
asking for them days later. Early on the 1st our convoy of lorries
took the road. At 3 P.M. the first train left Acq, and at 5 P.M. the
second. All the tanks had managed to scramble on board, although none
of my drivers had ever before driven a tank on to a train: that useful
accomplishment was not taught us at Bovington. I watched the second
train pull out--the men were cheering--and left in my car for the
scene of battle. It was quite like old times. What part the Carrier
tanks would play in the great offensive I had not the remotest idea: I
knew only that I was sorry to leave the milk, the fresh eggs, and the
butter.



CHAPTER XV.

THE BATTLE OF AMIENS.

(_August 1st to August 27th, 1918._)


The Officers' Club on the hill above Doullens has a reputation, and we
could not pass it without discourtesy. It was a good dinner in its way,
and we continued our journey in a cheerful, though not hilarious, mood,
through novel country, seamed with brand-new trenches and with all
camps and houses heavily sandbagged against bombs.

At last we came at dusk to the railhead at Poulainville, discreetly
hidden under the trees at the side of the main road. Tanks were drawn
up under any scrap of cover--like frogs sheltering under mushrooms. The
staff work was superb. There were so many guides that it was quite two
hours before we found our own. Then we waited for the train. It was
quite dark, and it began to rain heavily.

The first train drew in at 10 P.M. The tanks displayed a more than
mulish obstinacy. Every possible defect developed, and we found it
difficult to reach the engines and effect the proper repairs on
account of the supplies which we had on board. My drivers, too, were
inexperienced. For two and a half hours[26] we struggled, coaxed, and
swore in the utter darkness (no lights were allowed) and the driving
rain, before the tanks were clear of the ramp.

We hoped feverishly that we should have better fortune with the second
train, which arrived at 3 A.M.... Dawn was breaking, when a wearied
R.T.O. told me with icy politeness that if my tank--the last--was not
off the train in ten minutes, the train would pull out with the tank
on board. The tank heard the remark. She had resisted our advances for
many, many hours, but now she "started up" as though in perfect tune,
and glided away down the ramp in the best of spirits.

We threw ourselves into the car, limp and soaked. During the night
the enemy had been shelling Amiens, four miles from our railhead,
with slow deliberation--vast explosions re-echoing among the wretched
houses. We drove through the suburbs of the city, silent as a Sunday
morning in London. Every third house along our road had been hit by
shell or bomb. Then we turned towards Albert, and four miles out came
to Querrieu Wood, where we discovered Company Headquarters, unshaven
and bedraggled, sleeping in the mud among the baggage. Only our cook,
humming a cheerful little tune, was trying nobly to fry some bacon over
a fire of damp sticks.

We had become a unit of the 5th Tank Brigade, which consisted of the
2nd, 8th, 15th, and 17th (Armoured Car) Battalions.[27] The Brigade
was concentrated behind the Australian Corps, and preparations were
already far advanced for a sudden heavy attack. How far the attack
would extend north and south of the Somme we did not know, but we
had heard that the Canadians were gathering on the right of the
Australians, and on our way we had passed their artillery on the road.
All the woods were choked with tanks, troops, and guns. The roads at
night were blocked with thick traffic. By day the roads were empty, the
railheads free--our "back area" as quiet as the front of the XIth Corps
in the summer of '16.

We were soon caught up in the complicated machinery of preparation.
I attended Brigade conferences without number. Ritchie's section, to
my sorrow, was transferred, temporarily, to the 3rd Carrier Company
(Roffey's), by way of simplification, and I received in exchange a
section of the 5th Carrier Company, equipped with sledges drawn by
decrepit tanks, which straggled into the wood on the evening of the
6th. The sledges were so badly designed that the cables by which
they were towed were always fraying and breaking. I refused to be
responsible for them, and began to collect in their place a job lot of
baggage and supply tanks.

My sections had no time to make themselves comfortable in Querrieu
Wood. On the 3rd, Ritchie, with his six tanks, left me for Roffey
and the Canadians. On the night of the 4th, Ryan crossed the Somme
and camouflaged among the ruins of Aubigny, moving to an orchard in
Hamelet, not two miles behind the line on the 6th; Harland reached
Fouilloy, the next village, on the same night; while Westbrook, on
the previous night, had joined the 8th Battalion in a small wood near
Daours. The majority of our tanks were still giving trouble, for they
were ancient overloaded Mk. IV.'s.

The attack was to be launched at dawn on the 8th. After mess on the 7th
I started from the wood with two old tanks, which had just arrived,
in a wild endeavour to rush them forward in time. It was dreary and
profitless work. Mac managed to reach the fringe of the battle before
the tank, which he was leading, finally broke down, while at three in
the morning I lost patience with mine and, leaving it to its commander,
returned to camp.

The night was fine, though misty. We waited nervously for some
indication that the enemy knew of the numberless tanks moving forward
softly, the thousands of guns which had never yet spoken, the Canadian
Divisions running[28] to the attack. But the night passed quietly.
There was only one brief flurry of gun-fire, when the irrepressible
Australians raided to discover if the enemy suspected.

At "zero" I was standing outside my tent. There was thick mist in the
valley. Through some freak of the atmosphere I could only just hear the
uneven rumble of the guns. It was so cold that I went in to breakfast.

Half an hour after "zero" my tank engineer and I set out in my car to
catch up with the battle, giving a lift on the way to a pleasant young
subaltern in the R.H.A. returning from leave, who was desperately eager
to find his battery. We left the car stupidly at Fouilloy,--we might
have taken it farther forward,--and tramping up the Villers-Brettoneux
road, cut across country, among invisible guns, through the mist, which
did not clear until we reached what had been the German trenches.

Apparently we had repeated Cambrai. Companies of prisoners,
stout-looking fellows, were marching back in fours. Here and there lay
German dead on the rough coarse grass, or in the shallow unconnected
trenches. A few hundred yards to our right was the Roman road that
runs west from Villers-Brettoneux. Light-armoured cars of the 17th
Battalion, with the help of tanks, were picking their way through the
shell-holes.

Just short of a large ruined village, Warfusée-Abancourt, straggling
along the road, and two miles from our old front line, we found a
little group of supply tanks with a couple of waggons. One waggon
suddenly had exploded on the trek forward. Nobody had heard the noise
of an approaching shell, and we suspected a trip-mine, with which the
battlefield was sown. We were discussing its fate when a large German
aeroplane swooped down and drove us to take cover. A British aeroplane
appeared, but the German forced it to land hurriedly. And the enemy
began to send over a few small shells.

We moved forward unobtrusively, Read, myself, and Puddy, my orderly,
to an inconspicuous knoll. There we lay in comfort, watching the
farther advance of the Australians. The country was quite open and
bare, though broken with unexpected valleys. A slight breeze had swept
away the mist, and the morning was bright and sunny. A few hundred
yards in front of us the Australians were walking forward nonchalantly,
led by a score of tanks. Occasionally a shell would fall among them
and they would scatter momentarily, but it was rarely that a man was
left upon the ground. From the valley beyond, which we could not see,
came the rattle of Lewis guns, and once or twice bursts from the enemy
machine-guns. To the left and behind us our field-guns, drawn up in the
open, were firing for dear life, and away to the right along a slight
dip a battery of field-guns was trotting forward. Overhead the sky was
loud with the noise of our aeroplanes, some flying low above the battle
and others glistening in the sun high among the clouds.

The Australians disappeared with the tanks over the skyline, and the
supporting infantry in little scattered bodies passed us, marching
forward cheerily over the rough grass. We were already three miles
within the enemy defences.

We pressed on northwards to the Cérisy Valley, which we knew had
been full of German field-guns. This deep gully, with steep grassy
sides, fringed with stunted trees, runs from the tiny village of
Cérisy-Gailly, on the south bank of the Somme, to Warfusée. Our gunners
had done their work with terrible thoroughness. The bottom of the
valley was so broken with shell-holes that it was barely possible to
drive a limber between them. Four or five of the enemy guns remained
desolate among a wild confusion of shattered waggons and dead horses.
A trembling pony, still harnessed to his dead fellow, was the only
survivor.

A hundred yards down the valley tanks were climbing the steep bank, and
the flag of a tank battalion fluttered bravely on the crest.

We crossed the valley, toiled up the farther slope, and munched some
sandwiches on the hill, where sappers were calmly marking out new
trenches. At a little distance a shabby Australian field-battery was in
action.

In a few minutes we saw something of the display and gallantry of war.
A battery of Horse Artillery picked its way across the valley. The
men were clean, inconceivably clean, and smart. Their horses' coats
gleamed. The harness shone and glittered. The guns were newly painted.
Never could a battery more splendidly arrayed have entered the plebeian
turmoil of a battle. A series of swift commands and the little guns,
with their ridiculous bark, were firing impudently. The Australians
were overshadowed--their horses were unkempt and the guns dirty--but
they had got there first.[29]

We were reminded by a salvo, which burst nicely just beyond the
Australian guns, that, although in this particular battle we had little
to do, the enemy could not be expected to realise our position. So
we finished our lunch, and walking along the crest for half a mile,
dropped down into the valley again, and came upon Ryan's section
engaged in refilling the 13th Battalion. Westbrook's tanks were coming
in one by one--they had all had their mechanical troubles.

So far as we could learn from our friends in the valley, the huge
surprise attack had been a cheap and complete success--south of the
Somme. The thick mist at dawn had protected the tanks, while it had not
been dense enough seriously to hamper the drivers. The advance had been
rapid, and only in one or two villages had the enemy shown any resolute
defence.

But north of the Somme it was clear that something was wrong, for the
enemy were shelling mercilessly the southern bank of the river. Even
the Cérisy Valley was harrassed, and we were privileged to watch a
brigade of artillery gallop, team by team, over the crest, through the
smoke of the shells, down into the comparative safety of the valley.
The German gunners must have rejoiced at the target, but they made
poor use of their opportunities, for only one horse was hit; the team
swerved as the shell burst, and, galloping madly down into the valley,
only just missed a tank. Ten minutes later an enemy aeroplane circled
overhead. We held our breath--the valley was packed with artillery and
tanks--and listened for the whirr of the bombs or the crackle of the
machine-guns; but "Jerry" was for the moment harmless, although in
quarter of an hour an H.V. gun made frantic efforts to land her shells
in the valley. She could not manage it--her shells burst on the crest
or high up on the farther bank.

Westbrook and Ryan were now under the orders of the battalions which
they were refilling, and Harland had completed his job. So Read, Puddy,
and I tramped back along the river wearily to Fouilloy, taking tea on
the way from a hospitable Australian, whose name I should always have
blessed if I had not forgotten it.

Later I heard that Harland had done his work well, following the Mark
V. Star tanks of the 15th Battalion to the Blue Line, the farthest
limit of the attack, and forming there a dump of supplies. He led his
tanks on a horse, which he had taken very properly from a prisoner.
The 15th Battalion carried in their tanks machine-gunners, who were
detailed to defend the Blue Line against counter-attack. Luckily, no
counter-attack was launched, for the machine-gunners, unused to tanks,
fell out of the tanks choking and vomiting and retired by degrees to
the nearest dressing station, some of them on stretchers. The tank
crews remained in possession until the infantry came up.

And the light-armoured cars, manned by tank crews, whom we had seen
picking their way through the shell-holes--their deeds of daring that
day have become historical. It will not easily be forgotten how they
dashed through the German lines and planted the Tank Corps flag on the
headquarters of the German corps in Foucaucourt; how they fusiladed the
German Staff at breakfast through the windows of their billet; how they
captured a train full of reinforcements; how they destroyed a convoy of
lorries. We were convinced that light-armoured cars and fast tanks had
driven the cavalry into a museum.

I doubt whether in the early days of the Amiens battle my three
sections of Carrier tanks were usefully employed. The supplies with
which they were overloaded could have been taken forward more rapidly
and more economically by lorries or by waggons both on the first
day and during the following week, when they dragged across country
supplies of petrol, oil, and ammunition to dumps which were served by
excellent roads. The true function of the Carrier tank, it appeared to
us, was either to follow the infantry closely into the battle area with
supplies, or to transport heavy and bulky material. The experiences of
Ritchie's section were valuable.

Ritchie and his six tanks had left Querrieu Wood on the night of the
3rd, making for the tank bridge across the Somme by Lamotte-Brebière.
In a cutting short of the village the convoy of forty odd
tanks--Ritchie was with Roffey's company--met a column of Australian
transport. Neither the tanks nor the waggons could turn, and for
three hours there was a masterful display of language. At last, after
prodigies of driving on both sides, the waggons and the tanks were
disentangled, but the night was unpleasantly short, and the tanks were
compelled to seek shelter from the day in the village of Glisy.

For once a number of Australians were to know what fear was. Dawn
was breaking, and an enemy aeroplane, hoping to catch the belated
scurrying for cover, was low overhead. One tank decided to shelter
beside a house, but, swinging a little hastily, it carried away the
corner of the house, and the bricks and masonry fell with a crash. The
Australians, who had heard the noise of the aeroplane, thought at once
that a bomb had fallen. They rushed out of the house in their shirts
and dashed for cover. Then, as the tank snuggled more closely to the
house, they realised what had happened. Luckily the doors of a tank
cannot be opened from outside.

On the day of the battle four tanks, loaded with shells, bombs, wire,
shovels, and water, started from the ruins of Cachy, immediately behind
our trenches, and endeavoured to keep pace with the infantry, but that
day the Canadians advanced eight miles. The tanks, accompanied by the
D.A.A.G. of the 1st Canadian Division, toiled along after them. It was
a hot and weary trek. The D.A.A.G. was saddle-sore, and Jacobs, whose
tank he was accompanying, was a little chafed. A halt was made, and a
tin of tank grease broached. The remedy was odorous, but effective.

On the heels of the infantry the tanks arrived on the following day
at Caix, ten miles from their starting-point, and disgorged. Two of
them made a round of the more advanced machine-gun posts, and, despite
heated protests from the enemy, supplied much-needed ammunition,
returning in triumph.

Some of the men found it difficult to remember that, strictly speaking,
Carrier companies were not "fighting troops." Wallace, for instance,
a runner, finding the time heavy on his hands, disappeared for a
few hours, when he was not required, and joined the Canadians in a
successful little bombing raid.

The section returned by night. The enemy aeroplanes, attracted
presumably by the glow of their exhaust-pipes, bombed them
unmercifully, but without success.

After a series of marches and counter-marches, inspired by false
alarms, Ritchie's section returned to Querrieu Wood on the 18th. I had
intended to give him a week to rest his men and overhaul his tanks,
which had already covered a hundred miles without respite, but I
received orders to assist the 47th Division in an attack north of the
Somme, and my remaining sections had already been ear-marked for the
1st Australian and 32nd Divisions.

So on the 21st Ritchie's weary old tanks trekked six miles over
difficult country to Bonnay, a pleasant little village on the Ancre,
a mile above the confluence of the Ancre and the Somme. It was a
hurried business: I fetched the necessary maps in my car from brigade
headquarters. Two of the tanks loaded up immediately with machine-gun
ammunition, and, trekking another four miles, about midnight came to
a brickyard just behind our trenches. North of the Somme the enemy
was fighting stubbornly, and his guns pounded away day and night. The
neighbourhood of the brickyard was shelled and gassed until the crew
longed for the battle.

At dawn the two tanks under Jacobs crawled forward into the gas and
smoke, and, passing through the enemy barrage, dumped their loads of
machine-gun ammunition among the advanced posts and returned with the
crews slightly gassed but otherwise unharmed.

Two of the remaining tanks went forward with infantry supplies late
in the morning when the struggle was swaying to and fro over the Happy
Valley, a couple of miles south of our old camp at Meaulte. There was
never a more deadly struggle, and the issue was always in doubt.

The first tank was led by Sergeant Bell. He came to the place where he
should have unloaded his stores. The Germans were pressing fiercely,
and the tank was in the forefront of the battle. Under bitter
shell-fire and machine-gun fire Bell endeavoured to unload at least his
precious ammunition, but two of his crew were killed and one man was
seriously wounded immediately after they had left the shelter of the
tank. Bell collected another party of infantrymen, but by this time the
Germans were close to the tank, and our infantry, who had lost heavily,
were withdrawing. Bell could do nothing, for a Carrier tank possesses
only one Hotchkiss gun to fire ahead, and, as his tank had turned to
provide cover for the unloading party, that gun would not bear. He was
unable to move the tank, because by this time every man of his crew
had been killed or wounded. He waited helplessly until the Germans had
almost surrounded the tank, and then, firing one last burst from a
Lewis gun which he had secured, he ran across to a trench in which our
infantry had rallied. The tank stayed in No-Man's-Land. Twice during
the day Bell, with two of my men, tried to crawl out to it and drive it
in, but the German machine-guns were too vicious.[30]

The second tank was led by Holt. He had just climbed inside for a
moment, when a shell pierced the sponson and burst, killing instantly
Holt and one of his men and wounding the remainder.[31] We could
recover nothing at the time, although Wallace made a brave attempt;
the Germans had regained too much ground, and to approach the tank was
certain death.

It was a disastrous day. The attack had failed and the failure had
been costly. The Happy Valley was strewn with derelict tanks, and the
cemetery on the Meaulte road is very full.

On the 23rd Jacobs, with his two tanks, carried ammunition forward to
isolated machine-gun posts, although his men were still shaken and
suffering from gas and returned without casualties. I then ordered
Ritchie, who had himself been in the thick of the fight, to withdraw
his battered section by easy stages to Querrieu Wood.

Since the 8th we had indulged in a series of expensive nibbles south of
the Somme. Although on the day of the great surprise we had penetrated
south of the Somme to a depth of ten thousand yards, disorganised
the enemy's communications by concentrated bombing and the raids of
armoured motor-cars, and captured innumerable prisoners and an enormous
quantity of material, the Germans with astounding skill filled the
gap with fresh troops, who defended their positions with the utmost
resolution.

In these minor operations the tanks suffered heavily. We could not
understand why they had not been withdrawn. Obviously the enemy were
aware that there were tanks on their front, and they made every
possible preparation to receive them. And the Mk. V. was not so handy
and so fast a tank that it could afford to despise field-guns whose one
object was to hit tanks. If the tanks had been withdrawn after the big
surprise attack, the striking power of the British Armies in the next
"full-dress" offensive would have been increased by one strong, fresh
tank brigade....

From the 14th, Ryan's, Harland's, and Westbrook's sections had not
been used. The men were given a few days' rest--I brought them back
to Fouilloy or to Querrieu Wood--and I arranged for the majority of
the officers to go in turn by car or lorry to Doullens for a breath of
civilisation. Then we set to work on the tanks, and by the end of the
week the tanks of the two sections were once again fit for action. We
waited for orders.

It was decided to attack on the 23rd at Herleville and Proyart, two
stubborn villages a few miles south of the Somme. My company had been
placed directly under the orders of the Australian Corps; and, after
I had completed the preliminary arrangements at an interview with the
Brigadier-General, General Staff, of the Corps at Glisy, I instructed
Harland and Westbrook to work out the details with the staffs of the
divisions involved, the 1st Australian and the 32nd.

On the 21st Harland's tanks in the Cérisy Valley, near Warfusée, were
loaded with a splendid assortment of barbed wire, water, detonated
bombs, grenades, rations, picks, shovels, and other necessaries.
During the night of the 22nd they moved forward, and by 2 A.M. they
were in position behind the line, severely shelled and bombed.

At dawn they followed the attack closely, and, when after stiff
fighting the Australians had reached their final objective, the
infantry were supplied instantly with food and water, with barbed wire
to defend them against counter-attacks, and with all the ammunition
they could need.

The tanks made two journeys, the second in the broad light of day,
within full view of the enemy gunners, who naturally did their utmost
to prevent this impudent unloading of stores under their very noses.
One tank was hit on the track, but succeeded in crawling away. All the
tanks were shelled briskly enough, but good fortune attended them,
though by the rules of the game they should never have escaped. One of
my men was killed and five were wounded. The Australians, who assisted
in the unloading, were less lucky.

At Herleville, Westbrook with three tanks had been equally successful.
Two tanks had followed the infantry through the ruins of Herleville,
and seen to their wants at the moment of victory. After the third
tank (Rankin's) had unloaded, a nest of machine-guns was discovered
behind our support lines. The "fighting" tanks had already withdrawn.
The Carrier tank with "soft" sponsons,[32] and its solitary Hotchkiss
gun, decided to attack, and the Colonel of a battalion of Highlanders
climbed on board to act as guide, but before the tank could reach the
nest an interfering officer with a battery of Stokes guns had forced
the surviving Germans to surrender.

Company headquarters had not been entirely inactive. Mac, of all
reconnaissance officers the most conscientious, who on one famous
occasion had described so clearly to a section the routes they should
not take, that the section nearly forgot which route they should take,
had spent the night of the 20th with Dron his orderly in finding a way
for Ritchie's tanks through the difficult country to Bonnay. In the
course of their wanderings they came upon a mysterious camp, deserted
and full of stores. There were even several cases of whisky in a
tent. I can conceive no greater tribute to the discipline of the Tank
Corps than the fact that this reconnaissance officer, after making
a note of this important discovery, did not dally in the tent for a
moment, but went out into the night. On the 22nd he reconnoitred a
route for Westbrook's section from Bayonvillers, where the tanks were
camouflaged, to the forward posts. There was no time to lay tape: white
stakes were placed at intervals across difficult stretches. It was
not too easy to discover a convenient "lying-up place," because the
"fighting" tanks had already secured the desirable "banks," and we had
been instructed not to go too near them for fear of confusion on the
morning of the battle.

My tank engineer and his men had been indefatigable. Our tanks
were obsolete, and usually they were overloaded. The crews were
inexperienced. Tank after tank would break down, and a stream of
demands for spare parts flowed into headquarters. On more than one
occasion it became necessary to lift out the whole engine complete and
give the tank a new or more often an overhauled engine from the field
stores. At Querrieu Wood we were short of men--the establishment of a
Carrier Company is not generous--so that when heavy spares arrived,
every one, from the mess-cook to the adjutant, would lend a hand.
Before the battle the tank engineer would rush on his motor-cycle from
one invalid tank to another. At Proyart, for example, a few minutes
before "zero," he was repairing under continuous shell-fire a spare
tank which had broken down tactlessly at a cross-roads immediately
behind the line.

With his sections operating independently on a wide front the Company
Commander could only tour the battlefield, for once the plans were laid
he could exercise little influence upon the result. So you may imagine
him visiting Ritchie and his tanks north of the Somme, paying a brief
unhappy visit to Proyart, and then with Westbrook pushing forward to a
gully beyond Rainecourt to look for Rankin and his tank. The enemy were
unkind that day.

In these later actions the Carrier tanks had proved their worth
incontestably. South of the Somme forty-six tons of stores and
ammunition had been carried by nine ancient, unsuitable tanks, manned
by eight officers and fifty men[33] to nine different points, each
within 400 yards of the enemy, and each inaccessible by day to wheeled
transport. If the old bad system of carrying parties had been employed,
2500[34] men would have been needed instead of 58. Further, these loads
were carried forward eight to nine miles in all, and at least sixteen
lorries were therefore set free. Lastly, the Carrier tanks followed so
closely the advancing infantry that in the majority of cases the stores
and ammunition were handed over as soon as they could be received.

The success and importance of the Carrier tanks were pleasantly
recognised. One General wrote a special letter of thanks and
congratulations about us to the 5th Tank Brigade, stating that the
Carrier tanks were "a great feature of the day's operations." An
Australian General recommended one of my section commanders for a
decoration, and at the first opportunity sent by his car a present to
the section of two jars of rum and a few cases of chocolate.

It had become increasingly difficult for us to convince ourselves that
we were not "fighting troops." We had followed the infantry "over the
top"; we had dumped supplies in full view of the enemy; one of my tanks
had received a direct hit, and had been set on fire; another tank had
been abandoned practically in No-Man's-Land because every man in the
crew except the tank commander had become a casualty; a third tank,
with a Highland colonel on board, had started to mop up a machine-gun
nest. We began to wonder whether, after all, we were a fit receptacle
for "crocks." And we did not forget that Carrier Tanks were manned
only by skeleton crews, and that, in consequence, every member of the
crew was driven to work day and night.

We set ourselves at once to make ready our fourteen surviving tanks,
in case we should be required again, and I issued orders for the
reconnaissance of the forward area south of the Somme; but on the 21st
August the battle of Bapaume had commenced, and on our front the enemy
began to withdraw to the Canal de la Somme, with the Australians in
pursuit. Our brigade were placed in G.H.Q. Reserve, and I was ordered
to concentrate my company at Villers-Brettoneux. On the 26th we
received instructions to entrain.



CHAPTER XVI.

THE HINDENBURG LINE.

(_August 27th to October 8th, 1918._)


We had become masters of our tanks. Faults had been traced and
eliminated; defective parts had been replaced--three tanks had received
complete new engines--and invaluable experience had been acquired not
only in the upkeep and repair of tanks, but in the art of extorting
"spares" from Field Stores, in preserving the necessary "stock" in
the Technical Quartermaster-Sergeant's stores, and in arranging for
the correct "part," even if it were an engine complete, to be rushed
forward by lorry to the invalid tank. I knew now that, if I ordered
a tank or a section of tanks to trek any reasonable distance within
a reasonable time, there was no need for me to wonder how many of my
tanks would reach their destination. This may seem a small thing, but
you must remember that five months before not half a dozen of my men
had had the slightest idea of a petrol-engine's insides.

So it mattered little that, when I received instructions to
entrain at Villers-Brettoneux, my tanks were scattered over the
countryside--Ryan's at Hamelet, Harland's and Westbrook's in the Cérisy
Valley, and Ritchie's survivors at Querrieu Wood. On the 26th, the
tanks trekked without incident to an orchard half a mile from the ramp,
camouflaged and, pushing in their sponsons, made ready to entrain,
while Mac, with an advance party, dashed away to Boisleux-au-Mont, our
destination.

On the 30th, after I had seen Harland and Westbrook entrained in great
style from a travelling ramp, I drove north to Boisleux, which lies
just half-way between our old friends, Wailly and Behagnies. There
I discovered Mac weary and wrathful after a tussle with a battalion
commander over some choice dug-outs which we coveted. We consoled
ourselves with a clean stretch of turf at the back of some old
trenches, against the parados of which we afterwards constructed shacks
and stores, and fortunately well away from the village.

At 1 A.M. on the 31st Westbrook's train pulled in to the ramp at
Boisleux. Read, Mac, and I had been waiting for it since 9 P.M. After
we had spent an hour or so in listening to German aeroplanes, admiring
the ineffective patterns which the searchlights made, and wondering
whether the ramp might not be bombed, we procured some chairs and dozed.

We were suddenly awakened by a hideous crash, the grinding of enormous
timbers and frightened shouts. We listened for the noise of the engine
and the hiss of the next bomb--until in the blackness of the night we
realised that it was only a tank train which a foolish engine-driver
had driven into the ramp....

At Boisleux we rested pleasantly after we had thoroughly overhauled
our tanks, fitted grids inside the sponsons to prevent the loads from
falling into the engines or the crew, and drilled a little. There were,
of course, minor diversions. On two or three nights the village was
bombed, but we, who were in the open, escaped. We did not escape so
easily from a storm which blew down the majority of our numerous tents.
There was much shouting for batmen that night.

I took the opportunity of indulging in a little Paris leave. On the
second night Paris was bombed. I was awakened by a discreet tap at the
door of my room. Sleepily I heard the calm voice of the unruffled Swede
who owned my favourite hotel in Montparnasse--

"It is an air-raid, and my clients gather below; but M. le Commandant,
who is accustomed to war's alarms, will doubtless prefer to continue
his sleep."

It was too absurd to be bombed when stretched comfortably in the
softest of beds with a private bathroom next door.... I thought that
I must be dreaming. Anyway, nothing on earth or above it could have
induced me to leave that bed.

My car met me at Amiens on September 25th. The driver told me that my
Company had moved forward to Manancourt, a village a few miles south
of Ytres, and was expecting shortly to take part in an attack. So with
the famous air from that sophisticated operetta, "La Petite Femme de
Loth," running in my head, I drove through Villers-Brettoneux and
Warfusée to Proyart, where I dropped an austere American Staff Officer,
who had come with me in the train from Paris, and thence over the Somme
through the outskirts of Peronne, to a tidy little camp on clean grass
by a small coppice half-way between Manancourt and Nurlu. I found the
Company making ready for action.

At Boisleux we had come under the orders of the 4th Tank Brigade, which
had suffered such heavy losses during the battle of Amiens, both in a
series of actions with the Canadians and later in the Happy Valley,
that it had been placed in reserve. The stern defence of Bullecourt
by the enemy, who held it as desperately in 1918 as they had in 1917,
nearly drew the Brigade from its rest; but at last even Bullecourt
fell, and the British Armies swept on to the suburbs of Cambrai and the
Hindenburg Line.

It was with the Hindenburg Line that the 4th Tank Brigade was concerned.

On the front of the 4th Army, with which our Brigade was now operating,
the Hindenburg Line, a series of defences 7,000 to 10,000 yards in
depth, was itself defended by the St Quentin Canal. For three and a
half miles, between Vendhuille and Bellicourt, the canal passes through
a tunnel, and this stretch it was determined to attack. But before the
main operation could take place, it was urgently necessary to capture
certain outlying points of vantage known as The Knoll and Quennemont
and Guillemont Farms. Already we had attempted unsuccessfully on three
occasions to carry them by storm. A final attempt was to be made by
the 108th American Infantry Regiment on September 27th, and one section
of Carrier tanks was ordered to assist. Ryan, who had been in command
of the company during my absence, had detailed his own section for the
job.

On the afternoon of the 25th, Ryan and I reported at the Headquarters
of the American Division concerned, the 27th. The American Staff was a
little flustered and confused, ... but we found to our gratification
that Australian Staff Officers were "nursing" the Americans--there were
a number of Australians with each American unit--and we soon obtained
the orders and the information which we required. The Australians
knew us and we knew the Australians: nothing could have been more
satisfactory. The Americans, on the other hand, had never heard of
Carrier tanks, although they appreciated in theory their use at once.

Ryan's tanks moved by easy stages to a copse three-quarters of a
mile from Villers-Faucon, where they were loaded on the 26th with
ammunition, wire, water, and sandbags. They were joined by unloading
parties of American infantry, eight men to each tank, bright young
fellows who had not previously been in action. I doubted whether they
would be of use: to follow a slow Carrier tank into action and to
unload it in sight of the enemy under heavy fire needs the coolness and
skill of veterans.

It was a little characteristic that, while the quartermaster who
brought the supplies to Ryan's tanks was more than eager to help and
almost embarrassed me with his explanations and suggestions, the
unloading parties gave us a sad fright by arriving at the last moment.
They had received no written orders, and, after wandering aimlessly
round the country "for some other tanks," came in at dusk dead-tired.

On the night before the battle the tanks moved up to points in the
rear of our posts, and thirty minutes after "zero" they followed the
fighting tanks and the infantry. The shelling was severe.

The first tank under Sergeant Broughton reached its objective, but,
as the unloading party had lost touch with it on the trek forward,
the crew were compelled themselves to unload the tank. Apparently the
attack had been checked, for Sergeant Broughton found that he was so
close to the enemy that he could see them firing. He completed the
dump, swinging the tank to give the men as much cover as possible
from machine-gun bullets, though without help it was painfully slow
work, and half his men were wounded. On the way back the tank struck a
land-mine, and it was set on fire. The survivors crawled back into camp
late in the afternoon.

The second tank, under Thomas,[35] became "ditched" in a huge crater a
few hundred yards from its objective. It was so heavy loaded that the
unditching beam could not be used, and such intense machine-gun fire
was directed at the tank that Thomas quite properly did not ask his
men to attempt to unload the roof. It would, in any case, have been
a laborious job, since the unloading party had missed the way. Three
attempts were made to extricate the tank from the crater into which
it had slipped, but each attempt failed. The German gunners were more
successful, for by dusk they had blown the tank into a fantastic tangle
of twisted wreckage.

The third tank struck a land-mine on the way forward. Two of the crew
were killed instantly, and a third man was severely wounded. Ryan, who
was walking beside the tank, was badly injured--his ankle was shattered
by the force of the explosion.

Read and I had tramped up to Ronssoy, a large industrial village in
which were the headquarters of the 108th Regiment. It was a damp steamy
day. The Americans were puzzled and disconsolate. Their infantry, led
gallantly by tanks of the 4th Battalion, had undoubtedly advanced,
but the reports were so conflicting that no one could say definitely
how the line ran. It appeared that the Americans had not "mopped up"
with any success, since there were parties of the enemy between the
Americans who had attacked and the posts which they had left at "zero."
In places the Germans seemed to be farther forward than they had
been before the attack commenced. Of the fighting tanks the majority
had received direct hits,[36] and the crews, mostly wounded, were
staggering back by twos and threes into Ronssoy. It was no wonder that
Sergeant Broughton had found himself under the very noses of the enemy.
With the main attack still to come, the situation could not have been
more unsatisfactory.

Even the headquarters of the 108th Regiment were to suffer. We had
noticed a little nervously that although a German observation balloon
was looking into Ronssoy, a crowd of orderlies and officers were
collected in the road outside the headquarters. The lesson was sharp.
Twenty minutes after we had left the village in an ammunition lorry a
salvo of 5.9's, entirely without warning, burst among the crowd.

Of the land-mines which had proved fatal to two of my tanks and to
several tanks of the 4th Battalion we had received information, but the
information was found to be inaccurate. Warning had reached us of a
British anti-tank minefield laid in March, and we had marked the mines
on our maps. The minefield, however, was in fact five hundred yards
from its supposed position, and its full extent was not discovered
until on the 29th ten American tanks endeavoured to pass across it and
were destroyed.

On the 28th it was clear enough that, although parties of American
infantry were out in front of their original line, The Knoll, together
with Quennemont and Guillemont Farms, remained in German hands. The
attack of the 108th Regiment was more than unsuccessful. If it had
never been launched the attack on the 29th might have taken place
at least under cover of a barrage; but now that scattered bodies of
Americans, surrounded by the enemy, were ahead, no barrage could be
employed.

While the survivors of Ryan's section, under the command of Thomas,
were salving what remained of their tank equipment, the three
remaining sections moved forward from Manancourt with the battalions
to which they had been allotted. Fortunately, my officers reconnoitred
their own routes, for two of the convoys with which they were trekking
temporarily lost their way.[37] My tanks were detailed once again to
carry supplies for the fighting tanks, a dull and thankless task.

Two hours after "zero," on the 29th, my car felt its way through
thick mist into Hargicourt, a dilapidated village a mile or so from
the "infantry start line." The Brigade had ordered that the Refilling
Point for tanks should be an open stretch of rough pasture on the
farther side of the village. The map reference of the point was
L5b4.1. It was intended that on the afternoon of the battle lorries
should bring supplies to the Refilling Point, that the loads should
there be transferred to my tanks, and that my tanks with a day's
supplies on board should follow the fighting tanks across the broken
desolate country of the Hindenburg system of trenches. I had decided in
consequence to make L5b4.1 my headquarters.

The enemy did not approve of this decision. As soon as the mist began
to clear Hargicourt itself was shelled methodically, while the proposed
Refilling Point, which was surrounded by a number of half-concealed
batteries, was the object of a bitter hate. A wireless tank, destined
for the same unhappy spot, had retired into the garden of a cottage,
and I accompanied the wireless tank. It belonged to my old battalion.
We heard all the news, and the driver knew how to make tea.

Soon it became clear that for once the battle was not proceeding in
accordance with plan. Obviously the enemy was still clinging to the
Quennemont Ridge, and the left flank of the attacking infantry was
uncovered. The direction from which the bulk of the shelling came could
not be mistaken. Hargicourt itself was being shelled with light stuff,
while, if we had reached our objectives to time, the village would by
now have been out of range.

The news was melancholy. The wounded, streaming back through the
village, told us that the enemy machine-guns were murderous; reports
from tank officers showed that an appalling number of tanks had
received "direct hits"; of the Americans nothing had been heard. From
our right, however, came the astounding rumour that the 46th Division
had achieved the impossible by forcing the passage of the canal and
capturing Bellenglise.

A gunner officer was being carried down the street of the village on
a stretcher. He was so badly wounded that his nerve was gone, and he
asked me piteously as he passed me whether he was now quite safe. I had
left him and was fifty yards or so away when a field-gun shell burst
close to the stretcher. For a moment the smoke enveloped the little
group. Then it blew away--the stretcher-bearers were standing quite
still. I hurried to them. Not one of them had been touched. Mercifully
the officer had lost consciousness. The stretcher-bearers just grinned,
gave their straps a hitch, and strode off down the street again.

Soon Ritchie, Harland, and Parslow reported to me that they had dumped
their loads and, seeing that the proposed refilling point was being
heavily shelled, had come to me for orders.

I instructed my sections-commanders to concentrate at certain points in
the rear of the village, and pushed forward along the Quennemont road
myself. In a few minutes I met Major Hotblack, the intelligence officer
at Tank Corps Headquarters. He had been wounded in the head. Later I
learned that he with two tanks had just captured Quennemont Ridge,
which for so long had defied us. And the tank crews had held the ridge
until they were relieved.

I obtained as much information as I could from the many walking
wounded--our attack on the left had been checked--and returning to my
headquarters, which were rapidly becoming distasteful to me, despatched
a report by wireless.

There was an element of humour in this delay to our advance. It was
so unexpected that many headquarters found themselves farther forward
than they had intended. Puzzled mess-sergeants, pushing on blindly to
villages which were still in the enemy's hands, were hurt and indignant
when they were warned to return. The neighbourhood of Hargicourt
was crowded with pathetic little camps, disconsolate staff-captains
and suspended headquarters. Personally I had no wish to remain even
in Hargicourt. The enemy had begun to use gas shells, and one heavy
howitzer at least made Hargicourt its target for a time. The Refilling
Point could not come into operation; the surviving tanks would find
plentiful supplies at the dumps which my section had already made. On
the other hand, two miles back, there were some excellent quarries at
Templeux-le-Guérard, where we could rest in safety and comfort until we
were wanted. You will remember that, as we were not "fighting troops,"
but merely a humble collection of "supply tanks," we could retire from
the fray without hurt to our self-respect.

I was fortunate enough to meet the General's car between Templeux and
Roisel. He approved of my suggestion. I returned rapidly to Hargicourt,
and withdrew my miserable headquarters to a grassy depression near the
quarries, where Harland's section had rallied. Mac went in search of
suitable dug-outs, while I listened to Harland's report.

Harland, like a good section commander, had given his men an excellent
breakfast before the day's work--fried bacon, hot toast, and tea,
followed by rum.[38] Each tank had been loaded at Manancourt Copse
with 240 gallons of petrol, 40 gallons of oil, 80 gallons of water, 40
lb. of grease, 20,000 rounds of Hotchkiss ammunition, and 400 rounds
of 6-pdr. ammunition. Thus heavily laden, they crawled on for three
hours, until they reached the appointed spot for unloading, immediately
behind our original line. They were noticed by an enemy aeroplane
flying low, and shelled heavily in consequence. Small dumps were
formed in shell-holes--the operation was completed with astonishing
celerity--and the tanks, running light, raced away. One man had been
gassed and one wounded.

Within the next two hours the German gunners destroyed half the
supplies which had been dumped, but they were not required, since the
majority of the American tanks, for whose benefit the dumps had been
formed, lay derelict on the minefield, which had blown up two of my
tanks on the 27th.

Ritchie's section had experienced no adventures. They had dumped their
supplies punctually, and rallied without hindrance from the enemy.

We retired at dusk to our dug-outs in the quarries above the village
of Templeux-le-Guérard.[39] These quarries penetrated confusedly
into a steep and isolated hill, upon which a stout castle might have
been built. The workings were approached by slippery paths. The hill
was a very maze of tunnels, ravines, pits, shelters, which provided
impenetrable cover for numerous guns and a brigade or more of infantry.
The enemy appreciated its qualities, and refused to waste shells upon
it. Their gunners confined themselves to the lower slopes and to the
level-crossing in Templeux itself.

The quarries were tenanted with wrathful Australians. It had been
planned that the Americans should storm the first trench-system
of the Hindenburg Line, and that the Australians, passing through
the Americans, should continue the attack by storming the second
trench-system. But when the Australians went forward an hour or so
after "zero," they discovered to their cost that in many places the
enemy infantry were sitting happily in the trenches which the Americans
had captured. Large numbers of Americans had disappeared. Not even our
aeroplanes could tell us what points they had reached, or how many had
survived. The result was that the Australians, with an unknown quantity
of Americans "out in front," did not dare to use their artillery. They
resigned themselves to the inevitable, and attacked the Hindenburg Line
grimly with bomb and bayonet. They hammered in little wedges of men,
and foot by foot, with savage cunning and merciless determination,
fought their way through the gigantic system of intricate defences,
often coming suddenly upon detached bodies of Americans, helplessly
surrounded, but still holding out.

It was indeed true that on our right the 46th Division, "equipped with
lifebelts, and carrying mats and rafts," by a gallant feat of arms had
crossed the St Quentin Canal and established themselves on the eastern
bank,--the right flank of the Australians was thus secured; but to my
mind even the feat of the 46th Division did not surpass the astonishing
exploits of the Australians, who took disaster by the throat and
choked victory out of it. For various reasons this phase of the battle
has been somewhat obscured.... By October 5th the Australians had
broken through the Hindenburg Line, and with the help of tanks stormed
Montbrehain. They had fought continuously since September 29th.

In these intermediate actions we took no part. After two nights in the
quarries I moved my company to Haute Wood, a stunted copse sheltering
a quiet grassy slope, a couple of miles out of Templeux, on the Roisel
road. There we remained placidly until October 7th in the multitudinous
tents which we had by this time collected, overhauling our tanks,
playing a little football, and visiting as frequently as our duties
permitted the strictly rationed canteen at Peronne. We were disturbed
only by an occasional shell from a long-range gun.

Once Montbrehain was stormed the enemy could cling only to the farther
fringes of the Hindenburg Line, and on October 8th we drove them out
of organised trenches altogether into the clean open country. My tanks
were again employed to follow the fighting tanks with supplies, but
on this occasion my sections were not allocated to battalions, but
remained under my own command, so that we were able to choose our own
times and places, and by "pooling" supplies to effect very necessary
economies.

On the 5th I had reconnoitred with Mac and my section commander a route
forward from Haute Wood to the vicinity of Bellicourt. It was a dismal
tramp over ground shelled to utter destruction--a maze of crumbling
trenches and forgotten posts, strewn with derelict equipment, deserted
dumps of ammunition, dead stinking horses, and too often the corpses of
unburied Germans. Here and there ran light railways, which we did not
desire to damage in case they should be needed; and near Bellicourt was
a wilderness of sidings and stores and huts and roadways.

From the high ground above Bellicourt we looked across the log-road to
Quennemont Ridge--outwardly a peaceful dark-green down, but in fact a
loathsome graveyard on which the corpses lay scattered in handfuls, and
blackened metal tombs that had been tanks. The distant gunners were
still tormenting this hill, which was already dead, and shells, lazily
exploding, stirred again the loose mud, rotting bodies, and rusted
rifles.

The log-road over the trenches, narrow and insecure, was crammed with
thick traffic moving at less than walking pace, for it was the only
road from Hargicourt to Bellicourt. It might have been a bridge over a
river impassable to all transport except tanks.

To the south were low dark ridges stretching to St Quentin. They were
fringed with bursting shells. And in front of us was Bellicourt,
tattered, but with red-brick cheerful in a gleam of sun--not utterly
submerged by war, and with but a faint spirit of the place hovering
above the levelled ruins, as were those ravished places which had known
war for year after year. Bellicourt, shattered but undismayed, still
lived to point gallantly to the tracks of the retiring enemy and the
goal for which we had always fought--open country.

On the 6th my tanks moved into the trenches, spending the night near
Hargicourt, and on the night of the 7th trekked down a valley, less
destroyed than others, to Bellicourt, and over the tunnel canal and
the main St Quentin road. The sections pitched their tents by some
trenches. I had advanced my headquarters meanwhile to a clean stretch
of turf by the St Quentin road, just outside Bellicourt, leaving at
Haute Wood my stores and heavy baggage, which I had been able only
within the last few days to bring forward from the copse at Manancourt.
Lorries were none too plentiful, and I had collected a great quantity
of stores in case I should find myself out of touch with the sources of
supply.

The night was noisy, but no damage was done, and the morning was
splendidly fine. My sections had moved soon after dawn. I followed
later in my car.

We drove along the canal to Bellenglise, then, bearing to the left,
took to the old Roman Road, along which the 5th and 3rd Divisions,
defeated, broken, and more weary than I could describe, poured
confusedly through the rain on the night of August 26th, 1914. We
passed by the strange cottage, still unharmed, where we despatch-riders
had given stew and hot coffee to the bedraggled Staff and had slept
amongst the straw, and came to Harland's tanks a mile or so short
of Estrées, waiting dully to supply the tanks of the 301st American
Battalion. So we arrived at the dismal dilapidated village itself,
momentarily empty except for innumerable notices in German and a
derelict whippet tank standing in the little square in which our Signal
Company had rallied four years since. We slipped into a byroad, left
the car, and walked across country to a half-grown copse under the
shadow of Beaurevoir. There we found Ritchie's four tanks with that
excellent Mac of the 1st Battalion, who had helped us to detrain at
Achiet-le-Grand. While we were consuming tea and sandwiches with
them, it was reported that certain tanks had run short of petrol near
Serain, the first of the redeemed villages. I sent two of Ritchie's
tanks forward to help.... Ritchie's tanks duly arrived at Serain, where
they were overwhelmed by the embraces of the pale hysterical villagers.
Both Ritchie's and Harland's tanks trekked back that afternoon to
Bellicourt. Two of Harland's tanks passed through a valley crammed with
a brigade of cavalry, who at the eleventh hour of the war were hoping
for an old-fashioned, sabre-waving pursuit. It was a little ludicrous
to think that my old supply-tanks could have put to flight the brigade
in the valley. As it was, they merely gave the horses a severe fright.
We completed our round, gathering the news and calling at various
necessary headquarters. Finally we returned in gentlemanly fashion for
lunch....

That night we began to realise the unbelievable--there was not a trench
between us and Germany. And yet this thing, for which we had been
yearning four long years, had come about in the ordinary course of the
day's work. That gay, splendid break-through of our imaginations was in
fact but the successful completion of a day's fighting disappointingly
like any other day's fighting. We could just repeat the words again
and again, doubting their truth, yet rejoicing soberly in their
significance--

"We are through to the open country!"



CHAPTER XVII.

THE SECOND BATTLE OF LE CATEAU.

(_October 9th to October 30th, 1918._)


On October 9th the enemy broke off the engagement, retiring six miles
to the neighbourhood of Le Cateau, in order that they might re-form and
again present some sort of front to our advance. Clouds of fast tanks
should have pursued them closely and prevented them ever from rallying.
In the absence of tanks the cavalry pressed forward on either side of
the Roman Road, gallantly charged machine-guns, and returned more than
a little shaken with news which the aeroplanes had already reported. We
wondered what would have happened if the enemy rearguards had possessed
a few "whippets" in addition to stoutly-fought machine-guns. It is a
desperate business--to charge machine-guns, and it is pure suicide for
cavalry to await the attack of tanks.

My old Carrier tanks were not to be left behind. On the 11th I
moved my headquarters to a deserted inn on the Roman Road in the
neighbourhood of Beaurevoir. The sections were encamped close by.
This inn, which, together with a few houses and a beetroot factory,
was known as Genève, had its advantages. The rooms were large and
comparatively undamaged; within a few yards was a German R.E. dump: it
was conveniently on the main road and the direct tank route forward. It
had, however, been the centre of a stiff little fight. Within a radius
of a hundred yards were thirty to forty corpses, mostly Americans. We
commenced reverently to bury them, but one morning a somewhat severe
American padre came in and bade us exhume his compatriots, and carry
them to a little cemetery half a mile away, of which we had known
nothing. We were only too glad to help him, and I lent him some men and
a limbered waggon.

The mile along the old enemy defences to the village of Beaurevoir was
a dolorous walk. The defences were only holes, scratched on the reverse
side of banks by entrenching tools, and shallow machine-gun posts. The
dead had not all been buried, and sometimes the searcher would discover
a man who must have been long in dying--open warfare is not pleasant
for those who fall wounded in hidden places.

Beaurevoir itself, set on a hill, was not yet empty of the dead. The
ruined cottages had been evacuated hurriedly, but in each cottage the
handloom had been smashed, and _not by shells_. The statue of Jeanne
d'Arc had been taken from its pedestal, and had not been found.

The only live civilian near Beaurevoir was a cow, which kept Thomas's
section supplied with milk until the Chinese came to clear the
battlefield.

We were given but a few days to explore the country at our leisure.
The enemy apparently had determined to make their first stand on the
line of the Selle river, a very definite obstacle. Le Cateau itself was
doubtful territory.

A series of conferences was held at brigade headquarters, which had
suddenly jumped forward to Serain. It was determined to attack on the
17th. Now that we had reached good roads and open country my tanks
were not required to carry supplies for the fighting tanks, but, as a
measure of precaution, I was instructed to send a section forward to
Maurois, a ten-mile trek from Genève. Parslow's tanks completed the
trek without incident on the 15th.

I motored up to see him, and every yard of the road was for me a solemn
triumph. We were avenging the confused retreat of the British Army
on the afternoon and night of the first battle of Le Cateau; we were
driving through really clean unshelled country, which might never have
been touched by the finger of war if it had not been for the craters
blown at the cross-roads and the occasional corpse by the roadside;
and never in my life have I seen happier people, men and women more
flustered and confused with happiness, than the thin underfed villagers
who stood gazing in the crowded main street of Maretz.

Short of Maurois village the Germans had blown into the cutting the
road-bridge over the railway from Cambrai to St Quentin. The traffic
was being diverted, when we arrived on the scene, over heavy fields
to a level crossing, and the engineers were working against time to
construct a new bridge capable of bearing the heaviest transport. It
had been raining, and the men were finding it difficult indeed to haul
the great girders into position. A couple of hundred yards away were
Parslow's tanks. The remedy was obvious. A tank was brought round on
to the rails and spent a profitable hour in doing a job which would
have taken fifty men a full day. The bridge was completed rapidly,
and the traffic once more flowed steadily over the bridge instead of
floundering over the fields.

On the 17th and 18th Parslow's tanks were not required. On the 19th
they trekked back to Genève. The 4th Tank Brigade was being relieved
by the 2nd Tank Brigade. We expected orders to move to Hargicourt for
entrainment, and we made an expedition over the log-road to discover
the whereabouts of the ramp. But a railway accident outside Cambrai
delayed the arrival of the 2nd Carrier Company,--to our disgust we were
ordered to remain temporarily with the 2nd Tank Brigade.

We became involved at once in our last battle of the war. From the
17th to the 20th we had straightened our line in a series of fierce
and costly little attacks. The enemy had been driven definitely from
Le Cateau and now lay just beyond the outskirts of the town. To the
west of the town we had crossed the Selle. The Army Commander decided
to throw the enemy back to the Mormal Forest by a grand attack on a
fifteen-mile front. I received orders from the 2nd Tank Brigade to
assist the XIIIth Corps by carrying supplies.

I instructed Parslow's section, which had just completed a ten-mile
trek, to return with Thomas's section to the camp by Maurois Station,
and when they were on their way I reported at Corps Headquarters. I
arranged with the Corps Staff that Thomas's section should operate with
the 33rd, 34th, and 35th Infantry Brigades of the 11th Division, while
Parslow should help the 25th Division. The Corps further requested
urgently that any spare tanks which I might have should be detailed to
carry ammunition for the 104th Army Brigade R.F.A., the guns of which
could not be reached by horse transport without difficulty on account
of the nature of the ground. I brought up Harland from Genève, gave him
two tanks, and ordered him to carry on.

On the afternoon of the 20th I established my advanced headquarters
in an orchard, quarter of a mile from the bridge which we had helped
to construct. After mess we all attended a first-rate "show" given by
the Divisional Troupe of the 25th Division, and returned to our camp
greatly encouraged, but a trifle unhappy that we had not billeted
ourselves in one of the many excellent houses in Maurois.

That night one officer at least was disturbed in his slumbers. The
enemy shelled Maurois persistently, sending over a few shells to the
neighbourhood of the bridge. Finally a large aeroplane bombed along
the main road, dropping one group just short of the camp, and another
group, intended presumably for the bridge, between the bridge and the
camp. The aeroplane was flying so recklessly low--it was a clear night
with a moon--that for once our machine-gunners brought her down in a
field about a mile beyond the bridge.

Much damage had been done in Maurois. We were thankful that we were in
tents outside the village and had not been tempted by the houses. One
shell had exploded just behind the hall in which the concert had been
held. For such shelling and bombing the casualties were heavy.

On the 21st I was quite busy. After a visit to my rear headquarters at
Genève to arrange for the supply of spare parts by lorry, I reported
again to the Corps for final orders. Then with Parslow I visited
the 25th Division and went with the Divisional Commander to see the
Commander of the Brigade to which Parslow's tanks would be attached. We
settled every detail to our satisfaction.

In the afternoon I ran over with Thomas to Reumont, where we hoped to
find the 11th Division, but a relief had not yet been completed and its
staff had not arrived. We spent our spare time in walking out to the
cottage, which had been the headquarters of the 5th Division on August
26, 1914, but time had swept away every trace of that first battle.
The pits which had been dug on either side of the road to shelter the
signallers had been filled in. The tiles of the cottage, loosened by
the scaling-ladders of our intelligence officer, had been replaced.
The little trenches had disappeared. But there was the hedge from the
cover of which our one heavy battery, the 108th, had fired--it ran
short of fuses in the old-fashioned way, and Grimers was sent hastily
down the road on his motor-cycle for more. In that barn to the left we
had slept hoggishly among the straw on the night before the battle,
the first night's sleep since we had detrained at Landrecies and the
last until we reached the Aisne. To my amazement the church behind the
barn was still standing, intact except for a couple of shell-holes.
I could have sworn that four years ago, as I was riding out of the
village, I saw flames bursting from the roof. The Germans certainly
entered the village not long after I had left it. Perhaps they may have
extinguished the flames and repaired the damage.

I had no time to question the good people of Reumont or to discover
whether those exiguous, badly-sited trenches on the Le Cateau road
were still to be distinguished. The 11th Division had at last taken
over, and the G.S.O.(i) of the relieved Division was describing his
experiences among the outposts to his successor. I reported, and was
referred to the "Q" branch of the Division, located doubtfully in
Maurois.

We searched Maurois without success. We were somewhat delayed by a
stream of ambulances bearing through the rain and the darkness the
gassed civilians of Le Cateau. These civilians--men, women, and
children--had refused to leave their homes. Even the French mission
could not move them. They protested airily that in a day or two Le
Cateau would be safe. Now through Le Cateau passed the stores and
ammunition of a corps: the cellars contained infantry; the houses
sheltered guns. The enemy accordingly shelled it heartily with gas and
H.E., and the gas was fatal to the civilians. We sent forward as many
gas-helmets as we could, but even if they had been sufficient it would
have been beyond man's wit to distribute them among the inhabitants,
who had gone to ground in cellars. I found it difficult to blame the
enemy. Who, then, was to blame for these tortured children with their
ghastly green faces, and the still bodies covered with carefully-mended
sheets?

At last we met an intelligent staff captain, who directed us to Maretz.
There we discovered an appreciative colonel with whom we commenced to
make necessary arrangements. The final details the section commanders
worked out for themselves with the staffs concerned. We arrived back at
our camp a little weary and bedraggled, hoping for a quiet night. Our
hopes were fulfilled.

The morning of the 22nd was spent in reconnaissance. At dusk Thomas's
and Parslow's sections, accompanied by unloading parties of infantry,
moved forward from Maurois: Harland had already commenced to supply his
guns with shells.

As soon as it was light on the 23rd, Mac and I drove to the railway
embankment, from which Parslow's tanks had started on their trek into
the battle. We walked over a few fields until, at a road which at
"zero" had been our front line, we overtook a Carrier tank which had
been much delayed by mechanical trouble. We followed the route of the
attacking infantry through orchards and rich enclosed fields--here
and there were dead, the prey of machine-guns--until we came to a
mill stream, overhung by thick undergrowth, which had so troubled
our intelligence officers that elaborate preparations for building
field-bridges had been made. We crossed it by the shallowest of
fords. To our astonishment shells began to fall behind us; later we
knew that on our right the enemy were not dislodged from the edge
of the Pommereuil Wood until the following day. We pushed on over
more delicious fields, friendly gardens, and fine pasture, leaving
the village of Pommereuil on our right, until, having followed the
unmistakable tracks of our tanks,[40] we ran Parslow's section to
ground in an enclosure. His tanks had not yet been unloaded. The
situation in front was obscure, and it was doubtful whether they could
usefully carry their supplies farther forward.

Parslow told me that the experiment of attacking at 1.30 A.M. instead
of at dawn had not been quite successful. The fighting tanks had been
handicapped by the darkness, thick mist, and gas. The infantry, running
blindly upon machine-gun posts which the tanks could not see, had
suffered heavily. It was not until dawn that any appreciable progress
was made. Parslow, immediately behind the battle, was compelled
continually to stop, but fortunately his tanks escaped shells and his
crews gas.

His miserable section passed the night in the enclosure where we had
found them. On the 24th another attack was launched to clear the right
flank, but it met with little success. The dense undergrowth in the
woods and hollows in the ground screened the enemy machine-gunners. At
last on the 25th the wood finally was cleared and the Carrier tanks
were able to move forward and dump their loads, returning to Maurois
on the 26th. It will be clear that the best use was not made of this
section. Lorries and limbered waggons can carry up supplies after the
battle. To use tanks for such a purpose is pure extravagance.

We left Parslow to his chilly nights and began our five-mile tramp
back to Le Cateau along the Landrecies road, keeping a good look-out
to the north for Thomas's tanks, but seeing only transport moving on
the skyline along the Bavai road, which had known the 5th Division in
advance and in retreat. We wondered what the 5th Division would have
thought of the thirty or forty aeroplanes fighting mazily overhead
in the cloudless sky, or what effect these aeroplanes would have had
upon the battle. In those days you were not believed if you told your
fellows that there had been three aeroplanes in the sky at once.

So in company with an anecdotal padre we came at dusk to the town of
Le Cateau, which had been so furiously shelled that, as we discovered
later, the German artillery officer responsible received a decoration.
Torn, shattered Le Cateau remained an ancient and dignified town,
an aristocrat who had suffered cheerfully the blows and buffets of
a desperate fight. Old women in their best black-silk dresses stood
chatting at the entrances to their cellars. A few children were playing
soberly in the quiet streets. Groups of happy soldiers billeted in the
place were strolling up and down with their usual air of consummate
self-possession. Here and there angry old Frenchmen were searching for
valuables among the rubbish and rubble that had been their homes.
Along the traffic routes the noisy transport in endless columns shouted
and clattered. But the old houses remained undisturbed, proud and a
little aloof; you could hear one say to another--

"Of course, my dear, last night was dreadful, but I remember my mother
told me that in the year 1554 the French before they set fire to the
place.... Of course these plebeian factories and gaudy young villas!
How can they know that Cateau Cambrésis was stormed at least ten times
during the fifteenth century? After all, we have only been French for a
trifle over two hundred years. The old bishop was so charming and such
a gentleman...."

We left the old houses to their talk, and passing through the seediest
suburbs, great yards, solitary warehouses, sidings and stations, we
came to our car, and drove back to Maurois at walking-pace--the roads
were terribly congested. Thomas reported in the evening.

Thomas and his section had moved forward to the neighbourhood of
Montay, a little village immediately to the west of Le Cateau, at
dusk on the night of the 22nd-23rd, arriving about 8 P.M. The crews
had no sleep, for the enemy shelled and gassed Montay unmercifully,
the bombardment becoming a barrage in the early hours of the morning.
Thomas and Connor pressed forward to make a final reconnaissance of
the route. It was necessary for the tanks to cross the Selle by a
specially-constructed bridge. The ground on either side of the route
was marshy.

One tank under Sergeant Fenwick had been equipped with a special
apparatus for laying cable. The tank, accompanied by a signal
officer, passed over the bridge at dawn, and following closely behind
the infantry laid cable throughout the day to the enormous content
of Divisional Headquarters. No sooner was an objective reached than
Fenwick arrived with his cable. On one occasion he was a little
premature, overrunning the advance, and as his tank drew shell-fire, he
was ordered back angrily by a disturbed colonel.

The remaining tanks, heavily loaded with stores, rations, and
ammunition, crossed Montay Bridge in column. The first tank caught the
door of its sponson in the rails of the bridge, and Thomas, coming back
wrathfully to investigate the cause of delay, found the tank commander
and one of his men up to their waists in the cold and muddy water
fishing for the door, which had been lifted off its hinges. They found
it, hauled it up and replaced it; but even Thomas was astounded by the
extent of the tank commander's vocabulary, and, his rebuke dying on his
lips, he hurried away to the calmer atmosphere of the battle.

The Division with which Thomas was operating advanced in three
bounds--on a brigade front, the second brigade "leap-frogging" the
first, and the third the first and second. Thomas's section was
divided into three sub-sections, each of which attended to the wants
of one brigade. Thus, when the first brigade, after stiff fighting,
had reached its objective, the first sub-section of Carrier tanks
which had followed the attack arrived with rations, water, bombs,
ammunition, wire, spades, picks, &c., reported to the staff captain
of the brigade, and unloaded at sequestered points. The second and
third sub-sections followed the example of the first. In each case
the scheme worked with mechanical perfection. The infantry were never
disappointed. Without employing much-needed fighting men as carrying
parties--without frenzied efforts to push forward tired horse transport
over shelled roads, often impassable, a staff captain could be assured
that his brigade would receive the necessities of existence as soon as
they could be used. And, however far forward the infantry might be,
however dangerous the approach to them, the problem was the same for
the Carrier tanks.

The tanks serving the first two brigades returned to Maurois when
their day's work had been completed, arriving in camp at dusk. The
third sub-section came back on the following day. Fenwick and his
cable-laying tank was so useful that it was as much as I could do to
extract it from the Division on the third, with its crew cheery but
thoroughly exhausted.

We received letter of congratulation both from Thomas's Division
and from the corps; we had, to my mind, given conclusive proof of
the utility of Carrier tanks, properly employed, even in semi-open
warfare. Before the battle we had helped to build a bridge. During
the battle we had kept the Divisional Commander in communication by
laying cable forward as the advance progressed; we had carried stores
for three brigades, supplying them on the spot with the necessaries of
warfare; we had transported an enormous quantity of shells from the
roadside over country impassable to horse transport. And this we had
accomplished with obsolete tanks, entirely unsuitable for carrying
bulky loads. On no single occasion did we fail "to deliver the goods."
Again we were independent of roads when good roads were so scarce that
a corps was fortunate if it possessed one road to itself. We could
avoid shelled areas, and we could afford to neglect shell-fire or
machine-gun fire. At a pinch we could fight. To my mind our experiences
in the later stages of the battle of Amiens and in the second battle of
Le Cateau show clearly the remarkable future which must lie in front of
Carrier tanks.

Coxhead's Company continued the good work, until the 4th Army had
passed beyond the Mormal Forest. Near Landrecies a section of his tanks
captured an important bridge-head in curious circumstances.

The tanks were laden with bridge-building material, heavy girders,
timbers, hawsers, and so on. According to programme the bridge-head
should have fallen to the infantry, the tanks arriving with material
for the reconstruction of the bridge, which it was anticipated that the
enemy would have destroyed. There was unfortunately a little hitch.
When the tanks came on the scene, the enemy were still defending the
bridge-head with the utmost vigour. The section commander did not
hesitate. His tanks continued to move forward as though they had been
fighting tanks. The infantry, who had trained with tanks, advanced in
the proper formation. The enemy broke and fled. It was a bloodless
victory gained, curiously enough, by officers and men who were not
rated as "fighting troops."

We had been relieved formally on the 25th. Thomas's and Harland's tanks
trekked back to Genève on the 26th, Parslow arriving on the night of
the 27th. There was no rest for the crews. We had received orders to
entrain on the 30th at Roisel, and Roisel was thirteen to fourteen
miles by tank route from Genève, which in its turn was more than
twenty-five miles from the farthest point which my tanks had reached
on the 23rd. But the men were cheerful, and the tanks were carrying
only light tables, wire beds, cupboards, deck-chairs, felt and planks
from the German R.E. store, jam and goulasch from a German ration
dump near Le Cateau, fresh vegetables from Maurois, tents from three
Armies,--they meant nothing to tanks accustomed to carrying ten tons
without flinching, and we knew that whatever our destination we should
find there nakedness. The weather was fine, the route was familiar,
the going was good; in spite of multifarious mechanical troubles we
made Roisel on the 29th and entrained on the 30th for the railhead at
Beaumetz, a few miles from our old quarters at Wailly.



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE END OF THE WAR.

(_October 31st, 1918, to January 12th, 1919._)


We returned from the bustle of active warfare, the sharp interest of
solving immediate problems, the pleasantness and at times the comfort
of clean country, to a squalid village on the edge of old, rotting
trench systems. It was as if the offensive had failed miserably, and
we had been thrust back to '16. At first we were exhilarated by the
prospect of billets and faint incredible rumours that the end of the
war was near....

On the 31st I established my headquarters in a farm at Bailleulmont,
the squalid village. The tanks crawled in on the morning of the 1st.
The men were distributed among ramshackle barns and leaky huts. We set
ourselves at once to make the place tolerable, and were, perhaps, a
little successful. Other tank units were not so fortunate. No villages
could be found for them in northern France, and they were compelled to
spend weeks in erecting laboriously new huts.[41]

On November 10th there was some excitement at Brigade Headquarters--it
was possible that an Armistice might be arranged, but "we had heard
that tale before." On the 11th a telegram was brought to me before
breakfast, while I was in bed, that hostilities would cease at "11
hours."

The news was so overwhelming that I could not absorb it, and I am
inclined to think now that, because there had been no anticipation, we
lost at first the fine savour of it. I could not understand--until two
of my officers started to ring the bell of the village church. The day
became a smiling dream. I found myself walking up and down the village
street, stopping everybody I met and saying--

"Do you realise that in one hour the war will be over?"

At 11 A.M. I stood opposite the church and exclaimed in a loud voice to
nobody in particular--

"Gentlemen, the war is now over--absolutely!"

The company, naturally enough, had begun already to celebrate the
occasion with appropriate rites, and its steadiness on parade, when
before lunch the General came round to make a little speech, was truly
remarkable. Only one officer in the rear was humming a little ditty
to himself, and only one man interrupted the speech by a faint "hear!
hear!" Salutes at the conclusion of the parade were superb....

We had a cold lunch, but one faithful mess waiter served us nobly with
a set face. The two cooks with arms around each other's waists were
strolling up and down outside the window. I think they must have been
singing.

In the afternoon we went for a long walk--the news had come too early
in the day. We returned a little refreshed. At night there was a
bonfire; but I cannot do better than quote from the vivid narrative of
one of my most trusted officers:--

"November 11th was a great day--and a greater night. The dreariness and
loneliness of the place vanished suddenly on the receipt of the news
of the enemy's capitulation. Would we not soon all be back in Blighty?
The thought came like champagne to our thirsting souls. Imagination
responded promptly. The bareness of officers billets vanished before
visions of cosy sofas and arm-chairs, carpeted floors and clean-sheeted
beds. Better still, faces of those we longed to see, especially of
those we longed to kiss, came to us. Their owners moved amidst the
pictured cosiness, sat in those arm-chairs, shared their sofas.... What
a picture after the gritty holes and cramping caves of earth-covered
ammunition boxes in the Cérisy Valley, or the stuffy, fly-ridden
dilapidation of billets in Fouilloy! And it was the same with the men.
No doubt their visions were as fair. The delight of these things shone
in every one's faces. Unwonted cheerfulness was general. Every one
smiled.

"And at night every one cheered. A way must be found to give free
and full expression to bounding spirits. A huge bonfire was decided
upon.... At twenty hours the massed logs that had been heaped on the
top of the fallen masonry were saturated with petrol, a match was
thrown, and a sheet of flame shot up. A war of cheering followed.
Songs burst forth. Every one sung who could or thought he could. The
rest shouted. It didn't matter--noise was the thing. Half an hour
later the officers joined the shouting throng. The din grew louder.
Some one shouted Speech!... Next the Adjutant, and in turn every other
officer was called. Reversing the order, the officers then called upon
the sergeant-major and senior N.C.O.'s. Finally, the 'other ranks'
vociferously sang of the officers, 'For they are jolly good fellows,'
and the officers in similar fashion paid compliments to the men.
By this time the flames had died down. Flickering light and shadow
replaced the ruddy glow, and slowly the crowd broke up. But for hours
yet a small group of enthusiastic maffickers sat around the dying
embers...."

I should like to leave you with that picture--I feel that after "dying
embers" the word "Finis" might suitably be written--but, if this
halting chronicle is to present an honest picture, it must stumble on
for a few more paragraphs just as my Company dragged out a wearisome
existence for a few more months.

There were compensations. Christmas brought its festivities; we played
football desperately, and all but won the Brigade Cup; we were second
in the Brigade Cross Country Run; a Concert Party visited us; a
lecturer was heckled by our pet Socialist. It was, however, an almost
impossible task to find the men something to do. We heard vaguely of an
Army Education Scheme, or, more correctly, we read much about it in the
newspapers, and we endeavoured to organise classes to shorten the long
evenings, but we had no lamps or candles, no paper, no pencils, and no
books.

We could think only of demobilisation, and soon my orderly-room
staff was allowed to think of little else. We were overwhelmed with
complicated regulations. We struggled through them, and discovered
that Pte. X., who, entering the Army notoriously under pressure, had
arrived in France quite recently, was due to go at once, while Sergt.
T., an old and trusted N.C.O., was to remain in France indefinitely.
The system of demobilising men by classes could not possibly have
been meant to apply to a company billeted in a filthy village on the
edge of an old trench system. Such a system disregarded entirely the
natural feelings of the men--"First out, first back,"--and it was
very necessary to consider such feelings after the Armistice. The men
were no longer soldiers; they were civilians impatient of control
and eager to get home. Only an army, which was undoubtedly the best
disciplined army in France, could have suffered such a system of
demobilisation with so little disturbance. It was astonishing to us
that the _émeutes_, the existence of which is now common knowledge,
were not more numerous. The system, admittedly perfect in theory from
the standpoint of industrial reconstruction, could not be administered
strictly without disregarding entirely the ordinary soldier's sense of
justice.

Well, after four years of war we amateur soldiers were not dismayed
by regulations. We made no fuss. We would receive an instruction
to despatch a certain number of men to be demobilised at certain
specified centres, and the men were despatched to time and in good
order. By some mischance Sergt. T. went into the first batch and
the demobilisation of Pte. X. was unaccountably delayed. It was
unfortunate, but I was not sorry. The Company remained happy and
contented. Further, we found to our amazement and delight that the vast
majority of officers and men belonged to certain favoured classes,
with the result that the demobilisation of the Company proceeded with
remarkable rapidity....

The days were long and indescribably monotonous, until on January 11th
I received the bunch of papers for which every officer and man in
France was yearning, and on the 12th I slipped away from my already
depleted Company.

I was desperately sorry to leave my men and my tanks. It must break
the heart of a man to retire from a famous regiment in which he has
spent his life, but the regiment continues to live. A Carrier Company
was a humble, temporary unit in a vast organisation, a momentary
improvisation. Like every other Company, it had found itself and
created its own personality. It had fought for its existence against
the ignorance and laughter of the more conservative elements in the
Tank Corps. I knew that soon the remnants of the Company would return
home and the Company finally be dissolved. Yet there it was--something
which I had "formed" though not created. From an odd crowd of men
with a few obsolete tanks and some cases of equipment it had become
a "Company" of whose honour we were jealous, whose achievements we
extolled, whom all of us could leave only with lasting regret....

I was motored into Arras, and travelled down to the coast in a
cattle-truck with thirty-one soldiers and civilians of all ranks and
classes and four nationalities. The train was bound for Calais, but
the driver in answer to my appeal said that he might be able to pass
through Boulogne. I do not know whether he had any choice in the
matter--strange things happened on the railways in France--but at 10
A.M. on the morning of the 13th the train did stop outside Boulogne,
and the stoker ran hastily down the line and helped me to throw my
luggage off the truck.

A train-load of prisoners from Germany had just arrived--childishly
feeble, still shamefaced, and so emaciated that when I saw a man
stripped to the waist washing, I could have cried for the pity of it.
Outside the station three of these men, excited by their release, were
jeering at two shabby cowed German boys pushing a barrow....

I crossed that afternoon a little sadly, and as usual obtained a seat
in the Pullman by climbing in on the wrong side,--I shall never be able
to afford a Pullman again. At 10.25 A.M. on the 16th I was demobilised
at the Crystal Palace. I felt that I should have been demobilised twice
as I enlisted twice....

Now I travel daily to St James's Park station by the 9.31, and when a
"file" returns to me after many days, I sometimes wonder how I ever
managed, without writing a single "minute," to command a Company of
Tanks.


PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS.



FOOTNOTES:


[1] Every intelligent person in every French village or town knew the
numbers of all the divisions in the neighbourhood.

[2] Detached posts, which could not be approached by day, in front of
the main trench system.

[3] Now Major-General Lord Edward Gleichen, K.C.V.O., C.B., C.M.G.,
D.S.O.

[4] A famous dug-out.

[5] Now Major-General H. J. Elles, C.B., D.S.O.

[6] Major R. Cooper, M.C., Royal Fusiliers, had replaced Captain R.
Haigh, M.C.

[7] Now Brigadier-General J. Hardress Lloyd, D.S.O.

[8] Paget, the Corps Camouflage Officer, was of the greatest assistance.

[9] We learned later that they had been heard.

[10] An airman who flew over the battlefield is inclined to doubt this
story. We must wait for the official history.

[11] Major R.O.C. Ward, D.S.O., killed at Trescaut in November while
leading his tanks forward.

[12] This paragraph was written in the comfortable days before the
lorries disappeared into battalion or brigade "pools." In the spring
of 1918, when movement was necessarily hurried, my company had to do
without--higher formations had so much of value to move.

[13] Major P. Johnson, D.S.O.

[14] The Tank Corps was always the very soul of economy.

[15] The regimental officer always appreciated our difficulties,
praised our achievements, and sympathised with us in our misfortunes.

[16] S. entirely retrieved his reputation as a skilful and gallant tank
commander by attacking a field-gun single-handed at Flesquieres on
November 20th.

[17] It was incorrectly reported later that the tank had fallen through
the bridge. I have obtained the facts from Major P. Hamond, D.S.O.,
M.C., who was in command of the tanks at the bridge.

[18] He was seriously wounded and captured.

[19] Captured.

[20] But it was "G" Battalion that captured the wood a year later.

[21] It was known later that the two attacking forces were instructed
to meet at Metz, a mile or so from my camp.

[22] I quote from memory, but I am certain of the words "will attack."

[23] It was in fact intended to inform the General that two battalions
of the 2nd Tank Brigade would attack from the directions indicated.

[24] See p. 169.

[25] See 'Adventures of a Despatch Rider,' p. 15 _et seq._

[26] An average time for detraining twelve Mk. IV. tanks is thirty
minutes.

[27] The 2nd and 8th Battalions were armed with the Mk. V. tank, a
swifter and handier tank than the Mk. IV., and the 15th Battalion with
the lengthy Mk. V. Star.

[28] Certain Canadian battalions only reached the "start-line" in time
by doubling.

[29] It was, of course, only the luck of the game. This particular
battery of Horse Artillery was brigaded with the Australian Artillery
and went where it was told. It finished the day in close support of the
infantry at Morcourt.

[30] Sergeant Bell was awarded the D.C.M. He was killed in action on
September 28.

[31] Lieut. F. M. Holt was one of my most promising and gallant
subalterns, who, if he had lived, would certainly have received early
promotion. He was a charming companion in the mess. We could ill afford
to lose him.

[32] At that period the sponsons of Carrier tanks were made of
boiler-plate, which was not proof against bullets.

[33] The numbers include orderlies, cooks, batmen, &c.

[34] For the actual carrying--cooks, &c., excluded.

[35] Lieutenant (later Captain) S. A. Thomas, M.C.

[36] It was in these local attacks that tanks suffered most severely.

[37] In any case it was bad policy for Mk. IV.'s and Mk. V.'s to move
in the same convoy.

[38] We could always obtain rum: every tank carried a supply to revive
its exhausted crew. At Cambrai each of my tanks carried a bottle
of whisky in place of rum, but this innovation tended to bunch the
infantry--Argylls--dangerously near to the tanks, and in subsequent
actions we reverted to rum.

[39] I hope I shall be forgiven if I mention the fact that this village
was commonly known as "Teddie Gerard."

[40] These were easily distinguished, as my tanks were the only Mk.
IV.'s in the neighbourhood. Mk. V.'s and "whippets" leave a different
track.

[41] One battalion, or at least one company of it, spent the first
Christmas after the Armistice in building a camp for itself, although
there were several pleasant villages in the neighbourhood.



Transcriber's Notes:


Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant
preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

Simple typographical errors were corrected.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.

Page 90: "workshops" was misprinted as "workships".

Page 216: "A little later" was misprinted as "latter".

Page 267: "sections-commanders" was printed that way.





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