With the Tanks
II. Then Wander Forth The Sons Of Belial
By Harold A. Littledale
[[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, January 1919]
Such, then, was the machine that we had to master, but at the dépôt we received only preliminary training in gunnery and driving, and we were rarely if ever sent to battalions until we had passed out of the gunnery and driving schools. These schools were at widely separated points. The School for Gunnery was on the seacoast, and there we used to fire our guns, running our tanks over the dunes to get the swing of uneven ground we should have to traverse in action, and shooting into the sand or out to sea. These occasional trips to the coast we enjoyed hugely, and it came to be a saying in our mob that the sea-front was the best front in France; for here we got relaxation and a good deal of time to ourselves, and in the afternoons we could walk along the shore and look out over the sea to where we knew England to be.
The Driving School, on the other hand, lay in the other direction, near the line; and, indeed, the trenches over which we were taught to drive our tanks were old German trenches, for the front line had been here, and the ground was pitted with shell-holes, and the woods were dead and bare and black wire lay on the ground, snarled and tangled, and the roar of the guns was heavy and the flashes very distinct at night. Sometimes, too, a vagrant shell would come our way and remind us of what was in store for us when that day should come when we should sit at the throttle, or stand at the guns, and in the darkness of dreadful night go over the top.
In all our training the threat of being returned to the infantry was held over our heads. Even in the preliminary instruction at the dépôt we were warned that, if we did not make ourselves efficient, we should go back to the trenches.
'During this course,' said the artillery instructor the first day we were lined up before the battery of guns where we were to get our instruction, 'you will remember that you are artillerymen, and in the artillery everything is done at the double. At the command "Fall in on your guns," you will not walk to your guns but run, and you will run in response to every command. At the end of the week you will be given an examination. Those who do well will remain with the tanks; the washouts will go back to the infantry.'
Probably all our hearts fluttered a little at that, for we had come to look on the long monotony of trench-warfare as a horrible nightmare out of which we had just passed. And we set to learn our guns; most of us passed first class.
It was while we were at the dépôt that the Queen came to visit us. Her plans that morning were to go to Central Workshops, and it was there we saw her, with one or two other ladies, all of them looking very fine to us, for it was long since we had seen Englishwomen. For her benefit tanks of every description were lined up—fighting tanks, supply tanks, wireless tanks, tanks that had been hit by shells, and tanks concealed under various forms of camouflage. Also a 'jump' was prepared, and one tank cavorted about in that hole to the very great amusement of Her Majesty, who became so interested that she wished to go nearer.
'But it is very muddy there,' said the officer who was escorting her through the workshops.
The Queen looked at him. 'I don't mind the mud,' she said, and started; which was all very well, but she probably did not have to clean her own boots.
One disadvantage of the dépôt was the frequency with which men came and went. Friendships, thus, were quickly broken up. Men would meet and become chums, and after a few weeks, sometimes after a few days, would be sent to different battalions, probably never again to meet. It was to meet this that a dozen drivers formed a club. Now, clubs in the army are forbidden. Soldiers are not permitted to band themselves together for social or other purposes. The army sanctions a canteen and considers that sufficient. But the average canteen in France is little more than a general store and bar-room combined; for in the British army beer and stout are sold and light wine, although whiskey is barred; but rum is served as a ration in winter.
At the time the club was formed, the drivers had been moved from the tents to an old brewery, without brew. As cold had been essential, the brewery was well ventilated, and as time had played its part and a great piece of the roof had fallen in and the doorway and the windows had crumbled away, the billet was anything but inviting. So a room was engaged at a nearby farm, for ten francs a week; and here we gathered of nights and wrote our letters or played cards or talked, calling upon Madame for her very excellent coffee or her very thin home-brewed beer.
But one by one we went on draft, gradually the club fell away, and at last Madame lost her enfants, who spoke such very bad French but who were all the time singing in that back room of hers, with its stone floor and its chromos on the wall and the photograph on the mantelpiece of the son who was killed at Verdun. But occasionally thereafter we returned to the dépôt, and then we would go to see Madame, and she would greet us as lost friends and wipe off the seat of a chair and heat some coffee and talk interminably in a jargon that we could only half understand. Then we would have to tell her of this one or that who would come to see her no more, for they had gone to join the great fraternity of men who had given all, and we had buried them in shell-holes in Picardy or Flanders. Then Madame, who had suffered, too, would clutch the corner of her apron and wipe her eyes and murmur, 'Pauvre enfant!'
Our stay at the dépôt was to come to an end in unusual scenes of activity. Had we been longer with the corps, we should have understood that this activity indicated action; but we did not dream of that and wondered only why men in such numbers were being sent to battalions, their places being taken by recruits from the dépôt in England.
One of the activities was the assigning of several drivers to operate tanks at Central Workshops. These tanks were used to make great bundles of wood. These bundles were gathered together by Chinese laborers and drawn tight by ropes passed around them and attached to the back of the tank. Once the rope was in position, a signal was given to the driver and the tank was put in motion. The ropes came taut and the bundles were tied firmly together in this strange fashion. At the time we had not the faintest idea what these bundles were for, but within a few weeks we carried them to the Hindenburg Line and dropped them into it, and used them as steppingstones to get out of that deep trench!
While this was being done, those of us who had not been to the Driving School were dispatched up there in lorries. There followed two weeks of intensive instruction, and although the weather was bad and the mud very deep, not a morning or an afternoon passed but we took the tanks over the old line there, dipping in and out of trenches and shell-holes, through water often so deep that it flooded in through the doors. On one or two nights, also, we went out after nightfall; for before action the tanks go up in the darkness, and as tank battles usually begin before dawn, practice in driving at night without a light showing and without a light to guide is most essential.
At last our course was over and vie were ordered to pack up. We were doing this when a rumor spread around that we were going up to the line. This was welcome news to those of us who were heartily sick of the dépôt; but we could not verify it. Our non-commissioned officers were in ignorance, and this and other things made us believe the rumor to be true.
After two hours lorries called for us. We were formed up and a roll was read. Then a fatigue party was told off to put two days' rations aboard the lorries—for troops always travel with two days' rations—and the rest of us were bundled in. Even then we were not quite sure whether we would not go back to the dépôt; but when the lorries started, they made off towards the line; so we settled down and sang till we were tired, when we draped ourselves as comfortably as we could on each other's boots and equipment, and smoked.
Into Bapaume we went; then down the road which led to Albert, passing through flat country which had seen the tide of battle and was almost bare. Approaching Albert, we were brought to our feet by the cry that here were the hulks of the first tanks ever to be lost in action. They were lying by the roadside, sorry-looking objects, six of them, the old camouflage of paint just visible through the new coating of rust.
Some distance out of Albert we saw the tottering figure of the Virgin, holding Jesus, which had tilted over from the spire of the church but had not fallen; and one who had passed that way before said that the French averred that not until the figure fell would the war be over. 'And what do you think,' he continued: "the damn fools went and tied it up with wire cables and now it can't fall.'* [*The figure fell during the fierce British attacks of last summer, and is supposed to have been buried in expectation of joyful resurrection after the war.—THE EDITOR.]
We all laughed at that, and strained our necks far out of the lorry when we passed through the city, to take a good look at the strange sight.
Straight through Albert we went, arriving at last at a place which had been set apart for tanks. Here we found .great quantities of tank-equipment and supplies, and feverish activity; for all of it was being sent up nearer the line, although that was not far away, and we knew that without doubt a show was about to come off.
Indeed, scarcely had we been assigned to tents, when some of us were warned for draft the next morning.
'Full marching order at six o'clock,' the sergeant told us. 'You will be given breakfast before you go.'
And so we did not unpack our kits at all, but spent the night with our overcoats for covering and sleeping as close to each other as possible, that we might feel the warmth of each other's bodies. But to most of us sleep did not come immediately, for even then the guns, were thumping, and we felt that action could not be far off.
Early the next morning the orderly sergeant passed through the lines.
'Fall in, the draft for breakfast," he shouted; and going from tent to tent, he struck each with a stick, so that slumbering men might hear and heed.
We looked at our watches. It was not quite half-past five. Outside it was dark, and the guns were talking angrily. Those of us who were on draft roused ourselves and, lighting candles, peered into our haversacks for soap and the wherewithal to shave and wash. Then, pulling on our boots, we unlaced our tents and groped, our way to the water-tank, where in an empty petrol tin we performed our morning ablutions.
The atmosphere was chill and damp, and clouds held back the dawn. We could just about distinguish each other as we lined up with our mess tins in our hands, smoking to keep warm.
Breakfast, as usual, consisted of a slice of fried bacon, a slice of bread, and a cup of tea. We took it to our tents, and ate it in silence, for we had a feeling of uncertainty as to what was to happen that November day. Then we strapped our mess-tins to our equipment and waited. One wrote a hurried note, but tore it up when he was told that the mails were closed indefinitely because of the impending battle.
Again came the order to fall in, and lifting up our equipment, we carried it out of our tents and placed it at our feet where we lined up. It was growing slowly lighter and friend called to friend to take the place at his side; for they hoped not to be separated in the coming show, but to see it through together or together meet whatever fate was in store for them.
At last we numbered off. Then the roll was called. In the semi-darkness we answered to our names; the draft was ready and correct, and we were told to stand at ease. We talked a little then, with forced gayety, and some furtively smoked cigarettes.
At six an officer appeared, and we were numbered off again. Then we were told to pick up our kits, and we lifted them to our shoulders. When this was done and the men were still, the officer surveyed us for a moment. Then he said,—
'Move to the right in fours, form fours.'
The even numbers took a step to the rear and a pace to the right. Then the command, 'Right,' and all of us turned in that direction. After that came the 'Quick march,' and we marched off to the road where transport awaited us.
Instead of familiar lorries we found London busses waiting for us on that road which led to battle. It seemed odd to be going up to action in that way, and some of us smiled a little and perhaps welcomed the opportunity to climb to the top, although it had begun to rain a little, a bitterly cold rain, and we were forced to snuggle into our greatcoats for warmth.
At last we were all on board, some inside and some outside. The officer took the seat beside the driver of the leading bus and gave the order to start. So we pulled out, with many a 'Cheery-oh!' from the men who were not to go, for the camp had stirred itself and, before settling down to the day's routine, they had come to see us off.
With a creak and a groan and a swaying that caused momentary alarm the busses, which had been built for the perfect pavement of Piccadilly or the Strand, moved along that road of mud which led to the line; far before us stretched the battlefield of the Somme, and we were to pass over ground that had been made historic by our men, and were to see the trenches out of which they climbed that July morning, and the graves where so many bravely died.
For sheer desolation nothing can surpass the Somme. The terrain is undulating, and scarcely a tree remains. Shell-holes and craters, broken-in dugouts and demolished trenches are everywhere. The grass which was once so green is green no more, and the poppy is the only wild flower to grow there, blowing more red it seems upon the graves of men who died.
This battlefield will remain the greatest graveyard of all time. Three times armies have struggled over it in a titanic grip, and crosses are to be seen on all sides, Everywhere there are organized cemeteries, the dead lying in rows, rank upon rank, as if on parade in death. And in many unexpected places one comes upon a rude cross, with perhaps a French, or British, or German helmet resting on it, and in a bottle or a tin a slip of paper giving the name of the man who died there. 'An unknown-English soldier is buried here,' is an only too familiar inscription, and if only the dear dead could speak, someone grieving for her beloved missing might be comforted.
To men going up to battle all this was anything but a pleasant sight. The solemnity of it silenced and depressed us, and it was not until the busses pulled up at a crossroads where the trees seemed marvelously to have been spared, and we were permitted to alight to stretch our legs, that we broke silence.
After a short interval we climbed back to our places and continued our Journey. It had stopped raining, but a heavy mist had fallen, and to see more than two hundred feet was impossible.
Suddenly there came to our ears the sound of a motor overhead. Then another and another. We were a little apprehensive for a moment because the sound was unfamiliar. Certainly it was not an English motor; nor did it sound like any German make we had ever heard. We looked into the fog above us, but could see nothing. The noise came nearer, nearer. Then three French aeroplanes swooped down on us and sailed around us, examining us with great care, and, finally satisfied, flew off into the obscurity of the mist.
It was well into the afternoon before we drove up to where a light railway joined a wide-gauge line. Here the busses stopped. The officer alighted and disappeared. We got down again to stretch our legs and smoke.
After five minutes the officer returned with another officer. We were told to put on our kits and fall in on the road. Then we were marched to a switch of the light railway, and throwing our equipment into the cars, we tumbled in on it.
The officers shook hands and parted, and the train started. Through a wood we went, passing any number of ammunition dumps; then out into the open for a mile, and at last plunged into another wood. Here the train stopped, and we got out. Then with our equipment on our backs, we pushed through the growth of bushes, until suddenly we came upon some tanks. They were sheeted and camouflaged, and men were working furiously upon them preparing them for battle.
We took off our equipment and flung ourselves on the ground, opening tins of bully beef and taking the two biscuits per man which were handed round. The ride had tired us, but we could see at a glance that we were to get no rest, and we had not finished eating before we were told to fall in as soon as possible. So we swallowed the little food we had in hand, took a drink from our water-bottles, and lined up in two squads, all the drivers in one, all the gunners in the other. We were allotted to various tanks and told to report to them; so we broke off and were put to work.
Inside and outside the busses there was great activity. Men were testing the engines and the tracks, others were greasing up; still others were bringing up supplies and cleaning guns and ammunition. The supplies consisted of petrol, oil, and grease, and emergency rations to be carried in the tank.
At last a party was told off to get fascines. They went away quite bewildered as to what these were, but the non-commissioned officer in charge led them to, what looked like huge bundles of faggots, quite six feet long and three feet in diameter; indeed, they were the bundles the tanks had helped to make at Central Workshops. These were hauled on top of the driver's cab and attached in such a way that, while they were secure, they could easily be released and set free.
The men had never seen anything like these huge fascines and did not know what they were for; so they lost no time in asking, and were told that they were to be dropped into the Hindenburg Line, which was so deep that it was feared tanks once in it never would be able to get out. The idea seemed humorous at the time, and the men smiled a little skeptically: but it proved feasible, and without fascines the tanks probably would have been unable to cross that great bulwark of the German defense.
To those of the tanks to which fascines had not been carried great anchors were taken. These anchors had four prongs and were made of iron. Thick wire hawsers were attached to them and the other end was secured to the tank, so that the anchors could be dropped and would drag.
Late in the afternoon there was a pause in the work, and bread and margarine and jam and tea were served; but as soon as the meal was over, the men were hard at it again, and by nightfall all was ready. Then they were told to stack their kits and get dressed in battle-order; so, taking the ammunition that was served out to them, they filled their pouches and cleaned their revolvers, and piling the rest of their equipment together, fell in on the tanks to which they were assigned.
At last the word to move was given, and the men climbed inside and cranked up, while the first driver worked the throttle until the cylinders began firing. Then he relinquished the seat to the second driver, for they were not then driving into action but were driving up to a starting-point from which they would go into action, and it is customary for the second driver to carry on while the first driver rests, so that he may be fit to take over for the battle.
The darkness was intense and the ground difficult. Most of the men walked outside or rode on top, while the tank officer walked in front, a flash-light in his hand with which he signaled to the driver, one flash meaning go ahead, two flashes being the signal to swing to the right, and three flashes to swing to the left; for it was quite too dark for the driver to see the ground, and the danger of being ditched in a shell-hole was ever present. This was driving under difficulties, and frequently the tanks found themselves badly placed in holes and had trouble in extricating themselves.
But at last the armored cavalcade reached the starting-place, which was in a wood, a thousand yards from the German front line. The engine was switched off then, and the camouflage nets strung up, and when that was done the crews turned in, for it was after midnight and most of them were deathly tired and they knew that they were to go into action in a few hours. So they removed none of their clothing, but crawled into the tanks and stretched out on the steel floor or sat on the gearbox or the differential, and fell asleep against each other's shoulders.
At half-past three the crews were awakened. The cooks had been up for an hour, and breakfast of bacon and bread and tea was ready. So they set to and ate heartily, for they did not know when the next meal might come.oil, and grease consumed on the trip up to the starting-place. All this was done in the dark, in great silence and with no little apprehension, for it was suspected that the enemy had heard the noise of the exhaust as the tanks moved up. About a quarter past four the engines were started up and the guns looked to. Then everybody waited.
Zero that morning was half-past four, and at that hour the guns opened a barrage which for intensity had not been equaled since the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Getting into motion, the tanks pushed forward to give battle. Each had a definite objective and a definite field of operations, and each followed white tapes which had been laid down for its guidance as far as the English front line. Inside, the officer peered at his map, the driver stared through the darkness broken how by the vivid flashes of the guns, the men stood at their stations, loading their revolvers as a finale to the preparation for action. Far behind them lay all that was dear to them, their loved ones and the smiling English fields, and before them was the intrenched enemy and the danger of shells and gas and tank traps; for here and there the Germans had constructed deep pits out of which no tank could come unless the men went outside and with their shovels cut away the perpendicular of one of the sides; and to go outside a tank in action meant to be met with a rain of machine-gun bullets; and to work for hours under such circumstances was not a prospect to which any of them looked forward with pleasure.
The tank itself was in darkness, for to turn on the lights inside might mean to be observed. The engines were audible enough, and to show any lights would be fatal.
Up and down, in and out of shell-holes and over trenches, the tanks labored. Now and then the men were taken unawares by a quick drop and flung against the sides of the tank, where they braced themselves and hung on until the bus was on an even keel again. From somewhere a bottle of whiskey came and was passed round, and men drank hard from it, for there is no such thing as joy of battle, and most men are ready to take stimulant, especially when they are tired and the body is unwilling.
The German guns were replying now, and occasionally a machine-gunner in the German lines would pick up one of the tanks and momentarily there would be a rattle of lead against the armor, which sounded like hailstones beating on a window.
Then something snapped under the tracks, and the tanks found themselves in those great stretches of barbed wire which lay in front of the German position. Through the wire they went, and the wire snapped or was flattened out, for there was no resisting these things that came out of the dark; then, passing over it, those on which the anchors had been placed turned around almost on the parapet of the Hindenburg Line, and casting loose their anchors, started back towards the British position, pulling the very stakes out of the ground, dragging the wire through No-Man's Land, and clearing the front of the German trenches so that the British infantry could pass in safety and make that No-Man's Land their own.
Again and again the tanks twisted and turned, picking up the field of barbed wire in their anchors and dragging it after them. And while this was being done, those other tanks upon which the fascines had been placed pushed on against the German line, and, reaching that, dropped their fascines into the trench, and dipping down to them stepped up again from them, and, climbing the further side of the great ditch, attained the parados and passed on, keeping as close to the barrage as possible and mopping up all who stood in the way of the infantry who were pressing on after the creeping artillery fire.
And the British infantry, coming on behind the tanks, passed over the ground from which the wire had been torn and, leaping into the trench, killed or took prisoners those who had not died in the shelling or the advance of the tanks, and entering the dugouts, with their bombs raised, shouted to some of the best of the German army to stand still or die. And thus many prisoners were taken that day, and in the support lines men were found quietly playing cards or eating breakfast, so confident were they that the great defensive work they had so strongly built could not be pierced.
But not all men surrendered so easily as that, and one old German cook, preparing breakfast, stood by his boiling kettles, holding in his hands a rifle he had picked up from somewhere. Highlanders surrounded him and called upon him to surrender, but he slowly shook his head and cried, 'Nein! Nein!'
For a few minutes the dramatic scene lasted, with the battle bursting on all sides. The 'Jocks' did not wish to kill him because he was so old and so pathetically brave, and they called upon him again and again, sternly at times and then with good humor; but to no avail. Other Highlanders came up and looked on at the strange sight of one standing against so many, the one ready to die, the others wishing to spare his life. And in the end they pushed in closer; but he drew back behind his rampart of boiling kettles, with pointed bayonet; so they rushed him with the butts of their rifles; but he fought and killed—and then was killed.
And another, a major of the field artillery, who wore the ribbon of the Iron Cross, stood by his gun behind an elevation in the ground, his crew dead around him, and at point-blank range, operating the gun unaided, knocked out tank after tank, each passing in the wake of the other, not knowing the danger that was there. But in the end he, too, was killed.
And Britons did not lack for pluck that day. Out of one tank there crawled a huge man bearing in his powerful arms the only other living member of his crew; for the tank had been demolished and all but two of its crew killed. And this man hoisted his wounded sergeant on his back and struggled to where he saw another tank, and arriving there, passed in the sergeant and was about to crawl in after him when a shell came and blew up that tank, killing all except the man who stood outside. And he, seeing still a third tank in the distance, pressed on over the smitten battlefield to that, and carried on with its crew and came back safe that night. A few months later that man, finding tank-actions altogether too dull, got a commission in the air-force for the greater adventure of the skies.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald