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A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 28341

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

(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:?-?

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; an

d 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.

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