IN THE ABLAINCOURT SECTOR,
German retreat foreshadowed.The
Battalion takes over the Ablaincourt Sector.Issues
in the making.Lieutenant Fry mortally
wounded.The raid by German storm-troops
on February 28. The raid explained.
Early in 1917 it became known to our
intelligence service that the enemy was contemplating
retirement on a large scale from the Somme battle-front.
Reports from prisoners and aeroplane photographs of
a new line, famous afterwards as the Hindenburg line,
running from west of Cambrai to St. Quentin, left
in doubt only the date and manner of the withdrawal.
To the latter question some answer was possible by
reference to our mentors or from a text-book appreciation
of the situation, though no one guessed until the
movement had in reality started with what circumstances
the Germans would see fit to invest it. The date
was a more difficult problem. For its solution
recourse must be had by commanders, staff officers
and experts to the infantry. A competition open
to all battalions holding the line (and without other
entrance fee) thereupon commenced. To whom should
fall the laurels of a correct diagnosis of the march-table
of the German rear-guards, who be the first to scatter
them by the relentless pursuit of our victorious arms?
To our higher staff the question whether
the enemy was still manning with normal garrisons
the front opposite our armies seemed relatively simple.
Readers, however, with experience of trench warfare
will remember that in the line by day it was impossible
to surmise correctly one item of what was happening
a hundred yards away in hostile trenches; certainly
one knew well enough when shells were falling, and
‘minnies,’ rifle-grenades and snipers’
bullets argued that a pernicious, almost verminous,
form of life was extant not far away: but despite
all this, stared a sentry never so vigilantly, through
his periscope he could hardly predict whether two,
ten, or a hundred of the enemy tribe were hidden below
earth almost within a stone’s throw. At
night it seemed probable that a patrol of a few brave
men could crawl right up to the German wire and listen,
or by setting foot in them enquire whether ‘Fritz’
was at home in his trenches or no; and so our patrols
could, and did. In practice, however, our most
active patrols were frequently deceived. Shots
and Verey lights, which came from several directions,
might be discharged by a solitary German, whose function
it was to go the round of the enemy posts and fire
from each spasmodically in turn. A trench entered
and found empty might be a disused sap or bay habitually
unoccupied. To maintain the normal semblance
of trench-warfare was an easy task for the German,
and one that he never failed in. Repeatedly in
his retirements during the war he removed his real
forces, his artillery and stores unbeknown to our
watching infantry and their questioning staff.
The screen of a retreating enemy is not easily caught
up and pierced by an advanced guard not superior to
it in strength and inferior in mobility. On the
Somme in 1917 and from the Lys salient in 1918
the Germans retired from wide to narrower divisional
fronts (giving themselves greater ‘depth’
in the process), which fact, coupled with destruction
of bridges and roads, prevented us from forcing an
issue with their main body on the move. There
were exceptions, as when the 32nd Division captured
guns near Savy, but the enemy, in retiring, played
for safety and denied much opportunity to our troops,
despite their zeal in keeping touch, to deal him damage.
Such was the tactical situation when
the 184th Infantry Brigade relieved the French in
the Ablaincourt sector. The Berks, who first
held the left subsector, had an uneventful tour.
Trenches taken over from the French were usually quiet
at first owing to the different methods employed by
us and our allies in the conduct of trench-warfare.
Within a day or two of the relief the frost had finally
broken and the trenches everywhere started to fall
in, making the outlook in this respect ominous.
On the afternoon of February 23, we
marched up to relieve the Berks. Near Foucaucourt
the cookers gave us tea. There also we changed
into gumboots. Guides met us at Estrees cross-roads,
a trysting place possible only when dusk had fallen,
and the lugubrious procession started along a tramway
track among whose iron sleepers the men floundered
considerably, partly from their precaution of choosing
gumboots several sizes too large. On this occasion
the usual stoppages and checks were multiplied by
a brisk artillery ‘strafe’ upon the front,
accompanied by all manner of coloured lights and rockets.
The noise soon dying down we were able to continue
a bad journey with men frequently becoming stuck and
a few lost. The relief was not over until nearly
dawn, by when the last Berks had left and our worst
stragglers been collected.
The Battalion took over a three-company
front. Brown with A Company guarded the left.
Robinson with C (containing a large proportion of a
recent draft now paying its first visit to the trenches)
was in the centre, and D Company on the right.
Some 500 yards behind our front lay the Ablaincourt
Sucrerie, a dismal heap of polluted ruins, like
all sugar factories the site of desperate fighting.
Ablaincourt itself, a village freely mentioned in
French dispatches during the Somme battle, was the
very symbol of depressing desolation. Peronne,
eight miles to the north-east, was out of view.
Save for the low ridge of Chaulnes, whence the German
gunners watched, and the shattered barn-roofs of Marchelepot the
former on our right, the latter directly to our front the
scene was mud, always mud, stretching appallingly
to the horizon.
Students of music are familiar with
the rival motifs that run through operas. In
an earlier paragraph I have indicated one such motif,
and if in this opera of war a curtain be lifted to
shew the future act which this motif dominates, you
would see the German staff busy with maps over its
retreat, planning the time-table of explosion and
burning, and designating the several duties of fouling
wells and laying booby-traps.
Another scene, in which the rival
motif is heard, shews a strong body of ugly-looking
Germans at practice over some shallow trenches some
distance behind their line. By a quaint coincidence
these trenches are a facsimile of those just taken
over by the Battalion. The ugly Germans are members
of a ‘travelling circus.’ For long
past they have lived in the best billets and been
receiving extra rations. They play no part in
the retreat house-wrecking, the flooding
of cellars, the hacking through of young fruit trees
and throwing over of sundials and garden ornaments,
much as they might enjoy it, is not their function.
They are a professional raiding party,
with two successful raids at Loos, one at Ypres and
one near Hebuterne to their credit. Wherever
the English have just relieved the French they are
sent for to perform. They are accompanied by
two 8-inch howitzers and several batteries of 5.9s
and 4.2s belonging to the ‘circus’ and
by a Minen-Werfer Abteilung. Their raid upon
the Oxfords is fixed for February 28, when the
moon will be a third full. The last aeroplane
photograph admirably shews the Sucrerie, communication
trenches leading forward and the whereabouts of all
dug-outs. The pioneer detachment whose
thoughts are turned only to the retreat, of which
rumours have been plentiful must move from
its comfortable dug-outs in the railway embankment
to make room for H.Q. of the raiding party.
The front held by the Battalion was
tactically not satisfactory. Being three on a
front, with B Company placed nearly 1,000 yards in
rear, companies had to find their own supports, which,
owing to absence of other dug-out accommodation, were
disposed in positions not only too far back but inadequately
covering those portions of the front which they were
engaged to defend. Moreover, practical means of
communication to and by these support platoons were
likely to prove, in event of need, negligible.
They were, in fact, isolated in places themselves
not defensible and equally remote from company and
battalion commanders. This situation was bad enough
as point d’appui for an advance; to resist
a counter-attack or raid it was deplorable. Like
many similar situations, it was due to the lack of
habitable trenches on the ground that should have
been occupied and defended. It could be no one’s
fault either high up or low down that the line was
held in this way, though perhaps had fewer men been
allowed to crowd into trenches and dug-outs in the
forward line, casualties in killed and prisoners might
have been spared to the Battalion.
A few hours after the relief was complete
orders came up for patrols to go out to see if the
enemy had or had not gone back yet. Our artillery,
which was not yet strongly represented behind this
sector, also began to fire at extreme ranges on the
German back area east of Marchelepot and Chaulnes.
The enemy, on his part, sniped at and bombed our patrols
at night. The behaviour of his guns and aeroplanes
by day suggested no passive retreat in the near future.
While BAB code messages, providing mingled toil
and excitement, announced the impending departure
of the enemy and asserted the necessity for keeping
touch, aeroplanes flew a thousand feet overhead and
directed the fire of fresh batteries of 5.9s and 4.2s
upon our trenches. No doubt the Germans had stocks
of ammunition they preferred to fire off rather than
cart backwards. Gas shelling became common for
the first time in the Battalion’s experience.
In the front line masks had often to be worn.
Headquarters also were gassed more than once and suffered
much inconvenience. This activity by the enemy
was reasonably regarded as his normal policy with
which to impede our preparations for advance, so that
complaints of registration coming from the front
line received no special attention from the authorities,
who were themselves tossed to and fro and kept quite
occupied by the many conflicting prophecies of the
On the morning of February 27 German
howitzer batteries commenced some heavy shelling on
the Battalion sector, especially on the communication
trenches passing under the former French titles of
B.C.4 and B.C.5. Working parties who were busy
digging out mud from those trenches were compelled
to desist. At 10 o’clock I heard that Fry,
the commander of N Platoon, had been hit by shrapnel
on his way from Company H.Q. to the Sucrerie.
To get him to the nearest shelter (C Company H.Q.)
was difficult through the mud, and uncomfortable enough
with 5.9s coming down close to the trench, but the
men, as always, played up splendidly to assist a comrade.
Soon afterwards, the doctor, in answer to a telephonic
summons, appeared at my H.Q. On our way to reach
Fry we were both knocked down in the trench by a 4.2,
which also wounded Corporal Rockall in the shoulder-blade.
I regret that Fry, though safely moved from the trenches
the same night, had received a mortal wound.
In him died a fine example of the platoon officer.
He met his wound in the course of a trivial duty which,
had I guessed that he would do it under heavy shelling,
I should have forbidden him to undertake. His
type of bravery, though it wears no decorations, is
distinguished, more than all other, by the unwritten
admiration of the Infantry.
During that night I had a peculiar
and interesting task. It was to report on the
condition of all roads leading through our front line
across No-Man’s-Land. Mud, battle and frost
had so combined to disguise all former roads and tracks,
that to decide their whereabouts it was often necessary
to follow them forward from behind by means of map
and compass. Seen by pale moonlight, these derelict
roads, in places pitted with huge craters or flanked
by shattered trees, wore a mysterious charm.
More eloquent of catastrophe than those thrown down
by gale or struck by lightning are trees which shells
have hit direct and sent, splintered, in headlong
crash from the ranks of an avenue. If wood and
earth could speak, what tales the sunken roads of
France could find to tell!
Morning and afternoon of the next
day, February 28, were fine and ominously quiet.
Excessive quietness was often no good sign. Presentiments
could have been justified. At 4.15 p.m. a strong
barrage of trench mortars and rifle grenades began
to beat upon the front line, accompanied by heavy
artillery fire against communication and support trenches
and the back area. This sequel to the previous
registration clearly indicated some form of attack
by the enemy. The rhythmic pounding of the heavy
howitzers, whose shells were arriving with the regular
persistency of a barrage table, suggested that a long
bombardment, probably until after dusk, was intended.
Under such circumstances it was the part of the Company
Commander to ‘stand to’ and await events
with the utmost vigilance. This never meant that
the men should be ordered out into the trenches and
the fire-steps manned, for to do so would have invited
heavy casualties and demoralised the garrison before
the opportunity for active resistance had arrived.
To keep look-out by sentries, to watch for any lifting
in the barrage, and to maintain communication with
H.Q. and with the flanks were the measures required.
Otherwise, except to destroy maps and papers, there
was nothing to do but wait, for only in the most clumsily
organised shows did the other side know zero.
On this occasion, at the moment the German raiding
party came over, a patrol consisting of Corporal Coles
and Timms had only just returned from D Company front
line. They said that though the shelling was heavy
immediately behind and on the flanks, the wire was
intact and there was no sign of attack. At dusk,
therefore, there was nothing save the heavy shelling
to report to Cuthbert over my telephone, which by luck
held until cut by German wire-cutters.
Within a few minutes, shouts and a
few rifle shots were heard, and the next moment bombs
were being thrown into my dug-out.
The lights went out and the interior
became filled with fumes, groans, and confusion.
A German raiding party had penetrated
C Company, seized the front line, which was a bare
80 yards from my H.Q., and, without touching my own
front (which indeed was 200 yards distant and to the
flank), had picketed my dug-out, and awaited their
haul of prisoners.
Now, a bombed dug-out is the last
word in ‘unhealthiness.’ It ranks
next to a rammed submarine or burning aeroplane.
For several minutes I awaited death or wounds with
a degree of certainty no soldier ever felt in an attack.
But in such emergencies instinct, which, more than
the artificial training of the mind, asserts itself,
arms human beings with a natural cunning for which
civilization provides no scope. Life proverbially
is not cheap to its owner.
That everyone inside was not killed
instantly was due, no doubt, both to the sloping character
of the stairs, which made some bombs explode before
they reached the bottom, and to the small size of the
bombs themselves. A gas bomb finished the German
side of the argument. Hunt’s useful knowledge
of German commenced the answer. We ‘surrendered.’
I went upstairs at once and saw three Germans almost
at touching distance. In place of a docile prisoner
they received four revolver shots, after which I left
as soon as possible under a shower of bombs and liquid
fire. Shortly afterwards, but too late to follow
me, Hunt also came forth and found the enemy had vanished.
Afterwards the Sergeant Major and Uzzell, sanitary
lance-corporal, who on this occasion showed the genius
of a field marshal, emerged and prevented the return
of our late visitors.
After an hour’s struggle through
mud and barrage I reached the two platoons in Trench
Roumains, who (I mention this as a good paradox of
trench discipline) were engaged in sock-changing and
foot-rubbing according to time table! From there
the counter-attack described in Sir Douglas Haig’s
dispatch of March 1st was carried out. I fear
this ‘counter-attack’ was better in his
telling than in the doing, for the Germans had already
decamped an hour before, taking with them Lieutenant
Guildford and some 20 prisoners from C Company, several
Lewis guns, and their own casualties.
Against a front line crowded with
untried troops (I refer to the new draft of which
the platoons holding C Company front line were principally
composed) a well-planned raid powerfully pressed home
under a severe box barrage and assisted by gas and
liquid fire, was almost bound to succeed. The
mud, strange trenches and weak artillery support were
other factors for which allowance might have been made
before such degree of blame was laid upon the Battalion
as was seen fit for it to receive. The only cure
for being raided is to raid back. That was happily
done exactly two months later against the very regiment
to which the German raiding party on this occasion
belonged. Nor was it true that the enemy was
not fought with. Some parties which attacked
Brown’s front were, under the able example of
that officer, driven off with Lewis guns, and D Company,
whose loss in prisoners was nil, also maintained its
front intact. Casualties were inflicted on the
enemy, but these mostly regained their own lines or
were carried back by stretcher parties. Our loss
in killed that night amounted to some twenty.
The story of this raid I should not have allowed to
reach this length but for the fact that the affair
created some stir at the time, and correspondence
raged on the subject till long afterwards. Hunt,
who was with me during the bombardment and the bombing
of my H.Q., was not captured on emerging from the
dug-out, but himself, some hour or more afterwards,
while wandering among the blown-in trenches in an
effort to follow me, entered a German listening post
and became a prisoner. As a prisoner he was present
at a German H.Q. when the details of an exactly similar
raid upon a neighbouring division were being arranged;
which raid proved for the enemy an equal success.
The aftermath of this fighting proved
a trying experience. The dug-out to which I returned
to spend the remainder of the tour was a shambles.
The stairs were drenched with blood. Of my companions,
Thompson, a signaller, Timms, Smith (Hunt’s
servant, a fine lad) and Corporal Coles one
of the bravest and most devoted N.C.O.’s the
Battalion ever had were dead or died soon
afterwards. Longford and Bugler Wright were severely
wounded. Longley and Short had escaped before
the first bombs exploded in the dug-out, but the remaining
survivors, the Sergeant-Major, Lance Corporal Rowbotham,
Roberts and myself were all partially gassed and hardly
responsible for further action. Under these circumstances
the task of carrying-on involved a strain, lessened,
as always on such occasions, by management of everything
for the best by Battalion Headquarters.
On the night of March 2 the Battalion
was relieved by the Berks, now under the command of
Colonel Beaman, and moved back about 2,000 yards to
some support trenches near Bovent Copse. From
here companies were employed ration-carrying to the
front line and cleaning the trenches. Considerable
activity continued to be displayed by the German artillery
and aeroplanes, in each of which respect we lacked
The enemy retreat appeared postponed or cancelled.