CHAPTER XXXII.

THE SMASHING OF THE DROCOURT-QUEANT LINE.

September 2nd, 1918.



    ON Saturday, August 31st, I paid a visit to our Battle Headquarters, and the General asked me to have a Celebration of the Holy Communion there the next morning at eight. I knew that the attack was almost due, so I prepared for it and took my iron rations with me. We had the Communion Service in a tent at the General’s Headquarters. There were only three present, but the General was one of them. I had breakfast in a quaint little hut in the side of the trench, and then started off to the forward area. The great stretch of country was burnt dry by the summer heat and the roads were broken up and dusty. I was taken by car to the Headquarters of the 2nd Brigade which were in a trench, and from thence I started on foot to Cherisy. Here the 8th Battalion were quartered, the 5th being in the line. Zero hour, I was told, was early the next morning. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades were to make the attack. The 5th Battallion was to have advanced that day and taken possession of a certain trench which was to be the jumping off line on the following morning. I heard that they had had a hard time. They had driven out the Germans, but had been seriously counter-attacked and had lost a large number of men. I determined therefore to go out and take them some cigarettes and biscuits which the Y.M.C.A. generously provided. I started off in the afternoon to go to the front line, wherever it might be. I went down the road from Cherisy past the chalk-pit, where we had a little cemetery, and then turning into the fields on the left walked in the direction in which I was told the 5th Battalion lay. It was a long, hot journey, and as I had not quite recovered from my attack of influenza I found it very fatiguing. On all sides I saw gruesome traces of the recent fighting. I came across the body of a young artillery officer of the 2nd Division, but, as all his papers had been taken away, I could not discover his name. My way passed through the remains of what had been an enemy camp. There were a number of well-built huts there, containing much German war-material, but they had been damaged by our shells. The Germans [Page 292] had evidently been obliged to get out of the place as quickly as possible. I was just leaving the camp when I met several of our men bringing up a number of prisoners. While we were talking, some shells fell, and we all had to dive into two trenches. The Huns took one; we Canadians took the other. We had no desire, in case a shell landed in our midst to have our bits mingled with those of the Germans. When the “straffing” was over, the others went back, and I continued my way to the front. It must have been about six or seven o’clock when I arrived at the 5th Battalion Headquarters, which were in a deep German dugout. The Colonel was absent at a conference, so the Adjutant was in command. I told him that I had come provided with cigarettes and other comforts for the men, and asked him to give me a runner to take me to the front line. He absolutely refused to do anything of the kind, as he told me he did not know where it was himself. The situation was most obscure. Our men had attacked and had been driven back and then they had attacked again, but he thought they were now in shell holes and would be hard to find. In fact, he was most anxious about the condition of affairs and was hoping the Colonel would soon return. I asked him if he would like me to spend the night there. He said he would, so I determined to settle down and wait for an opportunity of getting up to the men.
    I went over to a trench a little way off, passing two dead Germans as I did so, and saw the little white flag with the red cross on it which showed that a dugout there was used as the regimental aid post. I went down into the place, which had two openings, and found the M.O. and his staff and a number of machine-gunners. Being Sunday, I told them that I would have service for them. We all sat on the floor of the long dugout. Two or three candles gave us all the light we had, and the cigarettes which I had brought with me were soon turned into smoke. In the meantime a young stretcher-bearer, unknown to me, made a cup of tea and brought that and some buttered toast for my supper. When I had finished and we were just going to begin the service, a voice suddenly shouted down the steps in excited tones. “We’ve all got to retreat; the Germans are coming.” At once a corporal shouted up to him, “Shut up, none of that talk out here.” Of course, I had not said a word to any of the men about the condition of our front line, but remembering what the Adjutant had told me about it, I thought now that there might be some reason for the alarm. As I have said on a [Page 293] former occasion, I had a great objection to being bombed in a dugout, so I said to the men, “Well, boys, perhaps we had better take it seriously and go up and see what the matter is.” We climbed up to the trench, and there on looking over the parapet we saw an exciting scene. It was not yet dark, and in the twilight we could see objects at a certain distance, but it was just light enough and dark enough to confuse one’s vision. Along the line to the right of our front trenches, rockets and S.O.S. signals were going up, showing that the Germans were attacking. Our reserve battalions were far back at Cherisy, and our artillery had not yet come up. At any rate, somewhere in the glimmering darkness in front of us the Germans were advancing. They actually did get between us and our front line. The machine-gunners at once went to their posts, and the M.O. wanted orders as to what he and his staff were to do. I went back down the trenches past the dead Germans to Battalion Headquarters, and asked the Adjutant what orders he had for the M.O. He said we were all to congregate at Headquarters; so I went back and gave the message. I remember looking over the waste of ground and wondering if I could see the Germans. For a time it was really very exciting, especially for me, because I did not know exactly what I should do if the Germans came. I could not fight, nor could I run away, and to fold one’s arms and be taken captive seemed too idiotic. All the time I kept saying to myself, “I am an old fool to be out here.” Still, we got as much fun out of the situation as we could, and, to our intense relief, the arrival of some of our shells and the sudden appearance of a Highland Battalion of the 4th Division on our left, frightened the Germans and they retired, leaving us to settle down once more in our trench home.
    On the return of the Colonel, we learned that, on account of the heavy losses which the 5th Battalion had suffered that day, the 7th Battalion would attack on the following morning. Later on in the evening, I saw some machine-gunners coming up, who told us that they had left some wounded and a dead man in a trench near the road. I determined to go back and see them. The trench was very crowded, and as it was dark it was hard to find one’s way. I nearly stepped on a man who appeared to be sleeping, leaning against the parapet. I said to one of the men, “Is this a sleeping hero?” “No, Sir,” he replied, “It’s a Hun stiff.” When I got down to the road, I met two men and we hunted for the place where the [Page 294] wounded had been left, but found they had been carried off to Cherisy. So I started back again for Battalion Headquarters, and as numbers of men were going forward I had no difficulty in finding it.
    The dug-out was now absolutely crowded. Every available space, including the steps down from the opening, was filled with men. I managed to secure a little shelf in the small hours of the morning, and had two or three hours sleep. The atmosphere was so thick that I think we were all overcome by it and sank into profound slumber. At last, one of the men suddenly woke up and said to me, “It’s ten minutes to five, Sir.” The barrage was going to start at five. As far as I could see, everyone in the dug-out but ourselves, was sound asleep. I climbed up the steps, waking the men on them and telling them that the barrage would start in ten minutes. The sentries in the trench said that the 7th Battalion had gone forward during the night with a number of 4th Division men. The morning air was sweet and fresh after that of the dug-out, but was rather chilly. A beautiful dawn was beginning, and only a few of the larger stars were visible. The constellation of Orion could be seen distinctly against the grey-blue of the sky. At five o’clock the barrage started, and there was the usual glorious roar of the opening attack. Very quickly the Germans replied, and shells fell so unpleasantly near, that once again we crowded into the dugout. After a hasty breakfast of bacon and tea the battalions moved off, and I made my way to the front. I saw an officer of the7th Battalion being carried to the M.O.’s dug-out. He was not badly hit, and told me he was just back from leave and had been married only a fortnight ago. I shook hands with him and congratulated him on being able to get back to Blighty and have a wife to look after him. He was being carried by some Germans and had two of our bearers with him. I went down into a communication trench and the next instant a shell burst. I did not know then that anybody had been hit by it, but I learned afterwards that the officer, the stretcher-bearers and the Germans had all been killed.
    I made my way to a mud road, where to my infinite delight I saw large numbers of German prisoners being marched back. By the corner of a wood the 8th Battalion were waiting their turn to advance. To the left was the hill called The Crow’s Nest, which our 3rd Brigade had taken that day. I crossed the Hendecourt-Dury [Page 295] road, which had trees on both sides of it, and then meeting the 2nd Battalion went forward with them. There were some deep trenches and dug-outs on the way, which our units at once appropriated and which became the headquarters of two of our Brigades. Our artillery had also come up and their chaplain was with them. The C.O. of the 7th Battalion was having breakfast in the corner of a field, and feeling very happy over the result of the morning’s work. Far off we could see the wood of Cagnicourt, and beyond that in the distance we could see other woods. I went off in the direction of Cagnicourt and came to some German huts, where there was a collection of military supplies. Among them was a large anti-tank rifle. As it had begun to rain, I was very glad to find some German water proof sheets which I put over my shoulders as I was eating my bully-beef. Cagnicourt lay in a valley to the right and, when I got there, I found a battery of artillery had just arrived and were taking up their positions by a road which led on the Villers-Cagnicourt. We were all in high spirits over our fresh achievement. In some dug-outs on the way, I found the headquarters of the 13th and 14th Battalions, and learned of the very gallant deed of the Rev. E. E. Graham, the Methodist chaplain attached to the 13th Battalion. He had carried out, under the barrage, five wounded men of the 2nd Division, who had been left in No Man’s Land. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but unfortunately, for some reason or other, only got the D.S.O. In a trench near Villers-Cagnicourt I found the 4th Battalion, who told me that they thought our advance was checked. I sat talking to them for some time, but was so tired that I absolutely could not keep awake. The men were much amused to see me falling asleep in the midst of a conversation. I managed, however, to pull myself together, and went over to the main Cherisy road, on the side of which one of our ambulances had taken up its position and was being attended by one of our military chaplains. I was feeling so seedy by this time that I got a seat by the side of the driver on a horse ambulance, and made my way back to Cherisy. The road was narrow and crowded with traffic, and had been broken in places by shells. Quite a number of bodies were lying by the wayside. I arrived back at my billet in Arras in the evening feeling very tired. At the Corps dressing station that night I saw large numbers of our men brought in, among them the C.O. of the 2nd Battalion, who had especially distinguished himself that day, but was very badly wounded. [Page 296]
    In spite of the fact that we had not been able to go as far as we had intended, another glorious victory was to our credit, and we had broken the far-famed Drocourt-Queant line with its wire entanglements which the Germans had thought to be impregnable. Two days afterwards, on September 4th, our Division was taken out of the line and sent back for rest and reorganization. [Page 297]