AUTUMN AT ARRAS AND THE MOVE TO CAMBRAI,
OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER, 1917.
The Battalion’s return to Arras.A
quiet front.The Brigadier and his staff.A
novelty in tactics.B Company’s raid.A
sudden move.The Cambrai front.Havrincourt
Wood.Christmas at Suzanne.
From Arras the 61st Division came
to Ypres: to Arras it returned. After a
week spent in the back area, advance by the usual stepping
stones was made to the front line. The 184th was
the last Brigade to go into the trenches; not till
the beginning of October did it take over the line.
The front held by the 61st Division stretched from
the Chemical Works of Roeux upon the right to a point
south of Gavrelle upon the left. Two Brigades
were in the line at once and stayed twenty-four days,
Battalions changing places during the period.
A rest of twelve days back at Arras followed.
This process of relief and the general
conditions brought a return of trench-warfare almost
on its old lines. As autumn waned gumboots were
even spoken of. The trenches were mostly of chalk,
and had been left by the 17th Division in excellent
condition. The experience of a former winter
prevented the error being made, at all events in theory,
of leaving trenches unfloored and unrevetted, until
winter, bringing its consequence of mud, arrived.
Especially the mile-long communication trenches called
‘Chili’ and ‘Civil’ Avenues,
if they were to be kept passable, required attention.
A thorough programme of work with R.E. and the Pioneers
was put in hand. Dry trenches would have repaid
its labour spent in carrying and digging, had the
Battalion stayed in this sector for the winter.
As not unexpectedly happened, we had left the scene
of our labours before winter set in.
More than three weeks of October were
spent by the Battalion in the trenches. This
was no great hardship. Half of the time was spent
nearly two miles behind the line in an old German trench
known as the Gavrelle Switch. In this position
there was little restriction, if indeed there could
ever be any short of its prohibition on
the making of smoke, and with good rations and day
working parties the men were happy enough. But
these long periods in the trenches, when no proper
parades or drill were possible, though acquiesced in
by the men themselves, were bad for the Battalion’s
discipline. Much regard was always paid especially
in the 61st Division to what is called ’turn
out.’ This meant more than button-polishing.
It was that quality of alertness and self-respect
which even in the trenches could be maintained.
Trench-life bred loafers, and loafers never made the
best soldiers. It was a good thing when October
28 came and the Battalion moved back to Arras for
a twelve days’ spell in rest. Billets were
the French prison, whose cells provided excellent
Arras in the autumn of 1917 was an
attractive place. The clear atmosphere, through
which the sun shone undimmed by factory-smoke, lent
to its majestic ruins almost Italian colouring.
Upon the western side of the town quite a number of
undamaged houses still remained; at its centre the
theatre and concert hall had luckily escaped destruction,
and to hear the various divisional troupes most crowded
audiences assembled every night. The streets,
though unlighted, were thronged with jostling multitudes.
The Arras front, as though in acknowledgement of greater
happenings elsewhere, had become dormant since midsummer.
Against the trenches themselves little activity by
the enemy was shown, and in the back area, pending
a change of policy by us, quietude reigned during
the early autumn. A big German gun occasionally
threw its shells towards our Transport lines at St.
Nicholas or into Arras Station. One day a party
which had come several hours early to secure good
places on the leave train was scattered by the unscheduled
arrival of a shell.
During the stay of the Battalion at
the prison, Thomas, our champion boxer, issued a challenge
to the divisions near the town. A man from the
15th Division, heavier than Thomas, accepted.
In the fight which ensued before many spectators the
Oxford man won on a knock-out in the fourth round.
So strong at this time was the Battalion in boxing
that Brigade competitions became foregone conclusions.
Another feature of this period was
a Brigade school, with Bennett as its commandant,
at Arras. A week’s course was held for each
platoon in the Brigade. The school was well run
and partly recompensed for the lack of training during
the long tours in the trenches.
More than a year had passed since
General White first took command of the 184th Infantry
Brigade. During that time the Brigade had improved
out of all recognition. For such result its commander
was more than partially responsible. The General
had to the full the quality called ‘drive’;
that, rather than profound knowledge of military science,
made him a first-rate Brigadier. War is a department
of the world’s business, in which capacity not
only to work oneself, but to make others work, begets
success. I should hesitate to say of General White
that he ‘used’ others, but his prudent
selection of subordinates ensured that all units in
his Brigade were well commanded. He was more
than a good judge of character: hollow prevarication
was useless with him, and bluff though,
when he liked, he was himself a master of it a
dangerous policy. Among the shrewd qualities of
this man there were the abilities to summarize rapidly
whatever he had been told, and to remember most of
everything he saw. His power of observation was
so developed that sometimes the actual picture of
some detail such as a dirty rifle, a man
without equipment, or a few sand bags laid awry lent
him a false impression of the whole. Yet his memory
and rapid power of observation made him a real tactician I
use the adjective advisedly. No man who knew
less, and there were few who knew more, of the front
line than he did, could afford to argue with him about
the position of a machine-gun, although if the matter
had been presented as of theory at some headquarters
rather than upon the ground, the machine-gun expert
would perhaps have held his own.
‘Bobbie’ did not interfere
with his staff officers in their ‘paper-work,’
but if ever occasion demanded he did not hesitate to
draw his pen, not in self-defence, but in defence of
the Brigade and his subordinates. He was no party
to that unctuous politeness that sprang up during
the war when staff met staff upon the telephone.
He thought nothing of ringing up Corps, and expected
speech with the head of a department, for he was the
enemy of all high-placed obstructionists. His
fame spread widely on the telephone. Impatient
of camouflage, he learnt with difficulty the language
of code-names under which it was sought to disguise
our units to the enemy. ’Brigadier of 184
speaking,’ he would say; ’Are you the Bucks....
What regiment are you?’ There was an ‘amplifier’
at ‘Tank Dump’; it was always most faithfully
manned about 8 p.m.
The example which the General set
was especially fine. He spent every day and nearly
all day in the front line. Nothing annoyed him
more than, say, at 9 a.m. to receive the message of
a divisional conference fixed for his headquarters
at 11. Equipped in his short overalls and shrapnel-helmet
(conspicuous in a light cover) and carrying a white
walking-stick, he used to quit Brigade Headquarters
with matutinal punctuality. His outset borrowed
something of the atmosphere of ’John Peel’
on a fine morning. Battalion Headquarters, if
not warned surreptitiously of his arrival, would scramble
through their breakfast (not that the General designed
to interfere either with rest or eating) as his form
outlined itself in the doorway, accompanied by cheery
greeting. In the front line itself his visits
were refreshing. Prospects of shelling never
deterred him. No post was too far forward for
him to pay it a call. Often, when shells fell,
he deliberately remained to share the danger.
Once I knew him to return to a trench, which had been
quite heavily shelled while he was there, because the
Germans started on it again. A prodigious walker,
he tired of daylight imprisonment to trenches and
chose the ‘top.’ His figure must have
been familiar to enemy observers. But his route
was so erratic that, though he drew fire on many unexpected
places after he had left, he was rarely himself shot
at during his progress.
The General is a great representative
of esprit de corps, and believes strongly in
military comradeship. In a sense his claim for
‘esprit de Brigade’ was a little far-fetched,
for Battalions held to themselves very much, and the
fact that they relieved each other, though often a
bond of alliance, was sometimes also a cause of friction.
Between Battalions he did not shrink from making comparisons.
‘My Berks’ had done this; ‘My Bucks’
should do the same. Much good resulted.
The standard of efficiency was raised. Though
at times he was discovered to be naively inconsistent,
one thing was certain the 184th Brigade
felt throughout its members that it was the best in
the Division. The war has not produced many great
men, but it has produced many great figures amongst
whom Robert White is by no means the least.
If it was well commanded by its General,
the 184th Brigade was as well served by its staff.
Gepp, the Brigade Major at Laventie, had been the
pattern of a staff officer. His advice was at
the service of the most recent company commander or
newest subaltern. With Gepp as author, no march-table
ever went wrong. Moore fell no whit short of his
predecessor in ability. He was alike eager to
acquire and to impart his knowledge, which in military
matters was both profound and practical. He made
friends readily with regimental officers, for he remained
one of them at heart and in outlook. His powers
were truly at the service of the whole Brigade.
When George Moore left in September, 1917, to take
command of a Battalion, the third Brigade Major who
makes a figure in my history appeared H.
G. Howitt. In the sequence fortune continued
to favour the Brigade. Howitt was a Territorial
whose prowess had been proved in the Somme fighting.
In place of a long staff training he brought business
powers. He was indulgent of everything save fear,
laziness, and inefficiency. Stout-hearted himself,
he expected stoutness in others; this was the right
attitude of a staff officer. Though a business
man by training, he did not negotiate with the war;
in him everything was better than his writing.
Of these three, Gepp, Moore, Howitt,
it would be difficult to name the best Brigade Major;
the 184th Brigade was happy in the trio.
On November 9 the 2/4th Oxfords
returned to the trenches in weather that was still
relatively fine. The Brigade sector had been changed;
its front now stretched across the Douai railway below
the slope of Greenland Hill. The previous quietude
of the trenches now gave place to more activity.
German shelling much increased. The ruins of the
famous Chemical Works, which covered several acres
of ground, were daily stirred by the explosions of
shells among the tangled wreckage of boiler-pipes
and twisted metal. In the front line trench-mortaring
became frequent. On November 14 Cuthbert was wounded
by a bomb which fell inside the trench, and other
casualties occurred, including the General’s
runner. Many new officers and men had joined since
Ypres. Wiltshire took up the adjutantcy when
Plans were afoot for a big demonstration
to cover the surprise by English tanks at Havrincourt
on November 20. A series of gas projections,
smoke barrages, and raids were to take place.
The better to maintain secrecy from the German ‘listening-sets’
no telephones were used. The Battalion bore its
share in the programme; already at Arras plans for
a novel raid were under contemplation. Cuthbert
had devised a scheme, which Colonel Wetherall adopted
and chose B Company, under Moberly, to carry out.
The details of this raid, inasmuch as their novelty
is of some historical interest, demand an explanation.
Gas fired in shells was of two sorts,
lethal and non-lethal. The former was a deadly
poison. Unless taken in large quantities, the
latter had no fatal, nor indeed serious, effects; designed
to irritate the throat and eyes, it caused such sneezing
and hiccoughing that whosoever breathed this sort
of gas lost temporarily his self-control. Lethal
and non-lethal gas were intermingled both by the Germans
and ourselves with high explosive shells; the effect
of each assisted the effect of the other. If
one began to sneeze from the effect of non-lethal
gas, one could not wear a gas-helmet to resist the
lethal; the high-explosive shells disguised both types.
Now it was planned by Wetherall to fire lethal gas
against the enemy for several nights. On the
night of the raid and during it, non-lethal only would
be used. The two gases smelt alike and the presumption
was that on the night of the raid the enemy would
On the evening of November 17, only
an hour before the raid was to take place, it was
announced that the wrong type of shells had been delivered
to the artillery. Barely in time to avert a fiasco,
the affair was cancelled. Two nights afterwards,
when the wind luckily was again from the right direction,
the raid was carried out. The Germans, of whom
some were found in gas-helmets, had no inkling of our
plan. B Company, though they missed the gap through
the enemy’s wire, entered the trenches without
opposition and captured a machine-gun which was pointing
directly at their approach but never fired. Wallington,
the officer in command of the storming party, killed
several Germans. As often, there was difficulty
in finding the way back to our lines; in fact, Moberly,
the commander of the raid, after some wandering in
No-Man’s-Land, entered the trenches of a Scotch
division upon our right. His appearance and comparative
inability to speak their language made him a suspicious
visitor to our kilted neighbours. Moberly rejoined
his countrymen under escort.
For a long time it seemed that no
material results had been achieved in the raid.
But the next morning Private Hatt, who for his exploit
gained the D.C.M., crawled into our lines carrying
the machine-gun which he had hugged all night between
the German lines and ours. This raid took place
the night preceding the great Cambrai offensive, and
the success of Moberly and B Company formed part of
the demonstration designed to attract enemy reserves
away from the area of the operation mentioned.
On the last day of November the Division
was withdrawn from the Arras sector: its move
to relieve some of the troops who had been severely
handled by the enemy at Bourlon Wood seemed probable.
Events occurred to change the destination. The
Battalion, after two nights at Arras, entrained amid
all symptoms of haste on the morning of November 30
and travelled without the transport to Bapaume.
The noise of battle and excited staff-officers greeted
its arrival. In the back area it was on everybody’s
lips that the enemy had broken through. Bapaume
was being shelled, many officers had travelled unprepared
for an early engagement with the enemy, and the General
was not yet on the scene; the situation was as unexpected
as it was exciting. At 3 p.m. we were placed
in buses under Bicknell’s directions and moved
rapidly to Bertincourt, a village four kilometres
west of Havrincourt Wood. The night of November
30/December 1 was spent in an open field. It was
intensely cold. At 4 a.m. a flank march was made
to Fins, where some empty huts were found. Enemy
long range shells, aimed at the railway, kept falling
in the village. Through Fins at 10 a.m. on December
1 the Guards marched forward to do their famous counter-attack
on Gouzeaucourt; on the afternoon of the same day
the Battalion moved up to Metz, whither Brigade Headquarters
had already gone. During the night, which was
frosty and moonlight, the Colonel led the Battalion
across country to occupy a part of the Hindenburgh
Line west of La Vacquerie. On the following morning
the enemy delivered a heavy attack upon the village,
from which, after severe losses in killed and prisoners,
troops of the 182nd Brigade were driven back.
To assist them C Company was detached from the Battalion.
The trenches our front was now the Hindenburg
Line were frozen, there was snow on the
ground, and the temporary supremacy of the enemy in
guns and sniping produced a toll of casualties.
It was an anxious time, but the Battalion was involved
in no actual fighting; the German counter-attack,
for the time-being, was at an end.
The 61st Division was left holding
a line of snow-bound trenches between Gonnelieu and
La Vacquerie, consisting of fragments both of the
Hindenburg Line, the old German front line, and our
own as it stood before the Cambrai battle opened.
Except in the 184th Brigade the casualties suffered
by the Division during the heavy German counter-attacks
had been heavier than those at Ypres. The 2/4
Oxfords by luck had escaped a share in this fighting,
and the Battalion’s casualties during these
critical events were few.
The German counter-attack from Cambrai
was an important step in the war’s progress.
At the time it was considered even more important than
it was. Judged by the rapidity with which they
were replaced, the loss of guns and stores by us was
not of high moment; it mattered more that for the
first time since the Second Battle of Ypres the enemy
had driven back our lines several miles. A counter-surprise
had been effected. On a small scale the panic
of defeat was proved by its physical results upon
the ground. The valley north-east of Gouzeaucourt
was littered with all kinds of relics, which in trench
warfare or in our attacks had been unknown. Whole
camps had been sacked and their contents, in the shape
of clothing, equipment and blankets, were strewn broadcast.
Packets of socks and shirts showed where an English
quartermaster’s stores had been, and flapping
canvas and dismantled shelters were evidence of a
local debacle to our side. The sight of
derelict tractors, motor cars, and steam rollers,
left in the sunken road at Gouzeaucourt, produced
a sense of shock. A broad-gauge railway train,
captured complete with trucks and locomotive and recovered
in our counter-attack, bore witness to a victory seized
but not secured. The battles of Ypres and Cambrai,
1917, though well-fought and not without results,
robbed the British army for the time being of the initiative
upon the Western Front. America became spoken
of 1918, it was said, would be a defensive
year. Yet the German success had in reality no
effect upon our Infantry’s morale. By the
troops engaged in it Cambrai had been almost forgotten
before Christmas. Less than a year afterwards
the Germans had lost, not only Cambrai, but the war.
The end of 1917 was as cold as its
beginning. Snow and frost, destined to play utter
havoc with the roads, laid their white mantle on the
battlefield. Fighting had slackened when the Battalion
went into the line in front of Gonnelieu. The
trenches there ran oddly between derelict tanks, light
railways, and dismantled huts; in No-Man’s-Land
lay several batteries of our guns.
On December 7 the 183rd Brigade relieved
the Battalion, which moved back to tents in Havrincourt
Wood. It was bitter! Shells and aeroplane
bombs made the wood dangerous as well as cold.
On the 10th a further tour in the front line commenced
This time trenches north-east of Villers Plouich were
held. Wiring was strenuously carried out, but
save for activity by trench-mortars the enemy lay quiet.
The Battalion returned to Havrincourt Wood on December
15 and remained in its frozen tents until the Division
was relieved by the 63rd. After one night at
Lechelle the Battalion entrained at Ytres and moved
back to Christmas rest-billets at Suzanne, near Bray.
Huts, built by the French but vacated
more than a year ago and now very dilapidated, formed
the accommodation. In them Christmas dinners,
to procure which Bennett had proceeded early from the
line, were eaten. And O’Meara conducted
the Brigade band.