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   Chapter 8 THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES — ST JULIEN.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 23819

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(August 1917.)

The opening moves of the battle were not too fortunate. The first objectives were gained on the left and in the centre, but the cost was high. The Welsh Division in particular suffered heavily: the enemy had learned through treachery the Welsh plan of attack. On the right we made little impression on the western end of the Passchendaele Ridge. Once the first great onrush was over, we reverted to the old siege tactics?-?to blow a trench system to pieces and then to occupy it under cover of a thick barrage. The rain came down, and the whole battlefield, torn up already by our guns, became impassable. We advanced more slowly. The enemy brought up every spare gun, and the artilleries hammered away mechanically day and night, while the wretched infantry on either side lay crouched in flooded shell-holes. The preliminary bombardments became longer, and the objectives of the infantry more limited. Soon the attacks ominously began to fail?-?at Hooge and Polygon Wood attack after attack had broken on the enemy defences. "Pill-boxes," little forts of concrete, proved at first almost impregnable. The enemy could congratulate themselves that they had brought to a standstill the great British attack of the year.

That was the first stage. Then there were changes in command and in tactics. The Second Army extended its front to the north, and Plumer began slowly to solve the problem with the aid of a little fine weather. Tactics were adapted to the nature of the ground and the character of the enemy defences. Tanks were at last permitted to use the roads. The Australians were "put in" on the Passchendaele Ridge. Once again the vast creaking machine began to move slowly forward, but very slowly. We reached the outskirts of the Houthulst Forest; we crawled along the top of the ridge and to the north of it. At last we were within reach of Passchendaele itself, and we had hopes of Roulers....

It was too late. The weather definitely had broken: the Italians were pouring back to the Piave: the Russians had left us to ourselves. November had come, and to distract the enemy's attention we made a strong little effort down at Cambrai. When the copse of Passchendaele finally was taken, we were occupied with other things.

We had forced the enemy back at Ypres six or seven miles in three and a half months. Our casualties, I believe, had amounted to a quarter of a million. The Salient had indeed preserved its reputation, and that grim spirit who broods over the hills beyond Ypres must have smiled maliciously when in a few months we were again compelled to withdraw our lines.

In the third battle of Ypres the reputation of the Tank Corps was almost destroyed. When we went south to Cambrai we must have left behind us two or three hundred derelict tanks sinking by degrees into the mud. The fighting virtues of the crews could not be questioned, for the gallantry of the corps was amazing. Time after time the men started out to fight in the full knowledge that unless some miracle intervened they must stick in the mud?-?and either spend hours under a deadly fire endeavouring to extricate their tanks or fight on, the target of every gun in the neighbourhood, until they were knocked to pieces. There was the famous tank "Fray Bentos," which went out in front of our infantry and "ditched." The crew fought for seventy-two hours, bombed, shelled, and stormed by day and by night, until, when all of them were wounded, they gave up hope that the infantry ever would reach them and crawled back to our own lines.

At last it was decided that the tanks might use the roads. This must not be misunderstood. A civilian could search for a road in the forward area and not recognise it when he came to it. The roads had been shelled to destruction, like everything else in that ghastly, shattered country, but they possessed at least some sort of foundation which prevented the tanks from sinking into the mud. Operating on the roads, we had one or two little successes?-?a mixed company of "G" Battalion surprised and captured a few pill-boxes at a ridiculously low cost, and later the 10th Company, "D" Battalion, carried out a splendid feat in moving from St Julien, assisting the infantry to capture half the village of Poelcapelle and some strong points near, and then returning to St Julien with all tanks intact and two men wounded.

It would require a partial historian to assert that the tanks seriously affected the course of the battle. Every action was a deadly gamble, and soon the infantry realised as transparently as the stout-hearted crews that, in the Salient, a company of tanks, however skilfully driven and gallantly fought, could not be relied upon at need. And the divisions, which came up in the later stages of the battle, had only to use their eyes. It is not very encouraging to pass a succession of derelict tanks. Luckily for the future of the Corps, the infantryman was generous enough to attribute at least part of our failures to the appalling ground. The average infantry officer15 could not understand why on earth tanks had ever been brought to the Salient. We made the most of our successes and said nothing of our failures. Then came the battle of Cambrai, and those poor old battered derelicts, rusting in the mud, were forgotten.... After all, not only the tanks failed in the Third Battle of Ypres....

I have given this little picture of the battle in order that the reader, spoon-fed on journalese, may not come to my story under the delusion that this tragic battle was a glorious victory. The details of operations he may find elsewhere: a proper history of the tank corps may soon be written: the careful critic may find my dates inaccurate. I want to give the atmosphere in which we fought, and this battle was a gloomy, bitter business....

On the 31st July, the first day of the battle, it began to rain, and it rained until August 6th, and then it rained again. We, who were in Corps reserve, had nothing to do except to wait restlessly in our camp?-?we might receive orders to move up at any moment, if the enemy line gave any indication of breaking; but, although on our Corps front we had successfully reached our first objectives, and the Pilkem Ridge, from which we had been driven by gas in April '15, was once more in our hands, the German defence remained intact. It was clear that the enemy, who, like us, had made every possible preparation, must once again be thrown back by sheer force. And the continual downpour made the task day by day more difficult. The more it rained, the more necessary a prolonged preliminary bombardment became, and a lengthy bombardment made the ground increasingly unsuitable for the use of infantry and tanks. It was an altogether vicious circle.

The necessity, however, for a series of siege attacks with limited objectives relieved the tension for us, and the rain, which gravely hindered all preparations, postponed indefinitely the day on which my company, the reserve company of the reserve battalion, would come into action. We again made a thorough overhaul of our tanks, and fearing that the officers and men might become stale, I granted generous leave out of camp.

The war for us consisted in watching the arrival of prisoners at the Army Cage, which was just round the corner; in putting out our lights when the enemy 'planes came over; in reconnoitring once again our routes forward; in making little expeditions to neighbouring towns when the strain of waiting became too insistent....

There was no hate in our hearts for the gangs of prisoners who, on the morning and afternoon of every attack, poured miserably along the Poperinghe road. They looked such wretched, sullen outcasts. Even the pride of the officers?-?a quaint ridiculous dignity?-?was a little pitiful. When the gangs halted by the roadside, just by the camp, it was impossible at first to prevent our men from giving them tea and cigarettes, though later this practice was sternly forbidden. In some ways we treated these prisoners well. When we drew biscuits instead of bread, we would always say that a fresh batch of prisoners must have arrived. But the Cage itself rapidly became a swamp, and we sympathised, in spite of ourselves, with the poor devils lying out in the mud. I used to wonder in the following year whether those of our men who were taken prisoner looked so unutterably woebegone as these Germans, or whether, perhaps, they bore themselves more bravely....

The bombing at night, even back at La Lovie, was an infernal nuisance. During August it rapidly developed, and it reached its height towards the middle of September. We possessed, apparently, no means of defence against it. The "Archies" seemed useless. Machine-gun fire was effective only when the 'planes flew daringly low. The enemy came over when he liked, and we could not understand why he did not show himself more frequently.

We in our camp were only annoyed?-?never damaged, and we began to treat it all rather as a joke. Then the two Casualty Clearing Stations on the railway were bombed. Several nurses, moving quietly among the screaming wounded, were killed. We hoped that it was a terrible mistake, but the hospitals were deliberately bombed a second time, and the ghastly scenes were repeated. I do not know whether in very shame we invented some shadow of excuse, but it was rumoured at this time that, in our nightly shelling of Roulers Station, a shell had dropped into the German Hospital near by, and that the enemy were now retaliating. I do not vouch for this explanation, and it is quite probably an invention.

The heavy rain had made the reconnaissance of approach routes to Ypres and the Canal the hardest labour. The tracks had been churned up by passing tanks until they were knee-deep in mud?-?not the slimy, oozy kind, but the damp spongy mud which sticks. In spite of the rain it was a month of close muggy days, and these tramps through the steaming odorous mud were a very sore infliction. But the routes were so various, wandering, and difficult that the most thorough reconnaissance was necessary. At any rate we acquired a knowledge of the countryside, and the more we saw of it the less we loved it.

Once the country must have been rough heath, with big woods, isolated clumps of firs, and everywhere stagnant pools and dirty streams. Then the painstaking natives took hold of it and determined to make a living out of it. They cultivated and cultivated with meticulous care. In the back areas hops, corn, turnips, beans, market gardens, all in their enclosures, came right up to the roads and the woods, but forward all the country was returning to heath. Little cottages or farms lined the roads or stood at the corners of the fields, while, farther back again, the main roads were fringed with queer temporary bungalows or shelters, where the evacués eked out a livelihood by selling food, cigarettes, vegetables, or bad beer to the troops, or by making coarse lace.

Now fill every wood with camps and every open space with dumps or parks, cover the country with such a close network of railways that there is a level-crossing every three hundred yards along any road, and block all the roads with transport. Further forward there are guns everywhere?-?behind cottages, in houses, along hedges, camouflaged in the open....

The country seemed out of proportion. The fields were so small, the hedges so numerous, the roads so narrow.... It was a battlefield over allotments, cultivated on a marshy heath.

Cooper and I would go beyond the Canal and gaze at the villages which we might attack. It has always fascinated me to see the inviolate country?-?the pleasant green fields and nice red houses behind the enemy line that must, when we advance, become a brown shell-pocked desert and shapeless heaps of rubble. In the old trench battles we achiev

ed victory only by destruction. The houses and fields stood terrified at our advance, praying that it would be stopped, so that they could be spared. We looked through our glasses at Passchendaele and Westroosebeke, standing on the ridge. It was a clear day and the villages might have been in Surrey. By the end of November they were nothing but a few bricks and stones lying about in the mud.

These little expeditions forward to convenient Observation Posts had their excitements. The Canal was curiously the frontier of the war. On this side of the Canal it was peaceful enough save for a deafening railway-gun, a super-heavy howitzer, or a chance shell from the enemy. On that side it seemed that all the guns in the world were packed together, and the enemy, when he became annoyed, shelled the whole area indiscriminately. We had one particularly bad day....

By the last week in August it had been found impossible for tanks successfully to operate over the open country of the Salient, and they were tied strictly to the remains of roads....

On the front which concerned my battalion we had driven the enemy back over the Pilkem Ridge into the valley of the Hannebeek, and at the foot of the further slopes he was holding out successfully in a number of "pill-boxes" and concreted ruins. St Julien itself was ours, a little village along the main road to Poelcapelle at the crossing of the stream. Beyond, the ground was so ravaged with shell-fire that it had become a desert stretch of shell-holes, little stagnant pools, with here and there an odd hedge or a shattered tree. The enemy defences, which consisted of strong points skilfully linked up by fortified shell-holes, overlooked the opposite slope, and our guns were compelled to remain behind the shelter of the Pilkem crest.

A few of the strong points on the west of the main road, notably the "Cockroft," had already been cleared by a mixed company of "G" Battalion in a successful little action. The tanks, using the roads for the first time, had approached the forts from the rear, and the garrisons in their panic had surrendered almost without a fight.

Ward's company had made a similar attack along the road running east from the village. On the day before the action the enemy had spotted his tanks, which were "lying up" on the western slope of the Pilkem Ridge, and had attempted to destroy them with a hurricane bombardment of 5.9's; but a tank has as many lives as a cat, and only three or four were knocked out, though the flanks of the remainder were scarred and dented with splinters.

The action itself was typical of many a tank action in the Salient. The tanks slipped off the road and became irretrievably ditched, sinking into the marsh. They were knocked out by direct hits as they nosed their way too slowly forward. One gallant tank drew up alongside a "pill-box," stuck, and fought it out. We never quite knew what happened, but at last the tank caught fire. The crew never returned.

The road out of St Julien was littered with derelicts, for tanks of another battalion, endeavouring by that road to reach another part of the battlefield, had met their fate.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that I received the order to get ready a section with a view to co-operating with the infantry in an attack on the same front.

I had already moved my company without incident to the Canal, where they remained peacefully, camouflaged under the trees.

I selected for the enterprise Wyatt's section, which, it will be remembered, had fought on the extreme right at the first battle of Bullecourt. His four tanks were at this time commanded by Puttock, Edwards, Sartin, and Lloyd. It was a good section.

First, we consulted with the G.S.O.I. of the Division, which lived in excellent dug-outs on the banks of the canal. The infantry attack was planned in the usual way?-?the German positions were to be stormed under cover of the thickest possible barrage.

We were to attack practically the same positions which Ward's company had so gallantly attempted to take. The direct road, perhaps luckily, was blocked by derelicts. A rough diagram will make the position clear:?-?

It will be obvious that, since my tanks could not leave the road, and the direct road was blocked, it had become necessary to use the main road across the enemy front and attack the strong points down the road from the north. Further, the tanks could not move out of St Julien before "zero" in case the noise of their engines should betray the coming attack. We were reduced, in consequence, to a solemn crawl along the main road in sight of the enemy after the battle had commenced.

We decided boldly to spend the night before the battle at St Julien. We had realised by then that the nearer we were to the enemy the less likely we were to be shelled. And the idea of a move down the road into St Julien actually on the night before the battle was not pleasant. No margin of time would be left for accidents, mechanical or otherwise.

Cooper, Wyatt, and I carried out a preliminary reconnaissance into the outskirts of St Julien on a peaceful day before coming to our decision. The sun was shining brightly after the rain, and the German gunners were economising their ammunition after an uproar on the night before, the results of which we saw too plainly in the dead men lying in the mud along the roadside. Wyatt made a more detailed reconnaissance by night and planned exactly where he would put each tank.

On the night of the 25th/26th August Wyatt's section moved across the Canal and up along a track to an inconspicuous halting-place on the western side of the crest. It was raining, and, as always, the tracks were blocked with transport. An eager gunner endeavoured to pass one of the tanks, but his gun caught the sponson and slipped off into the mud. It was a weary, thankless trek.

On the following night the tanks crawled cautiously down the road into St Julien with engines barely turning over for fear the enemy should hear them. The tanks were camouflaged with the utmost care.

The enemy aeroplanes had little chance to see them, for on the 27th it rained. A few shells came over, but the tanks were still safe and whole on the night before the battle, when a storm of wind and rain flooded the roads and turned the low ground beyond the village, which was treacherous at the best of times, into a slimy quagmire.

Before dawn on the 28th the padre walked from ruin to ruin, where the crews had taken cover from shells and the weather, and administered the Sacrament to all who desired to partake of it. The crews stood to their tanks. Then, just before sunrise, came the whine of the first shells, and our barrage fell on the shell-holes in which the enemy, crouched and sodden, lay waiting for our attack. The German gunners were alert, and in less than two minutes the counter-barrage fell beyond the village to prevent reinforcements from coming forward. Big shells crashed into St Julien. The tanks swung out of their lairs in the dust and smoke, and, moving clear of the village, advanced steadily in the dim light along the desolate road, while the padre and Wyatt slipped back through the counter-barrage to brigade headquarters.

It was lonely on the Poelcapelle Road, with nothing for company but shells bursting near the tanks. After the heavy rain the tanks slipped about on the broken setts, and every shell-hole in the road was a danger?-?one lurch, and the tank would slide off into the marsh.

Very slowly the tanks picked their way. Three tanks reached the cross-roads. The fourth, Lloyd's, scraped a tree-trunk, and the mischief was done. The tank sidled gently off the road and stuck, a target for the machine-gunners. Two of the crew crept out, and the unditching beam was fixed on to the tracks. The tank heaved, moved a few inches, and sank more deeply. Another effort was made, but the tank was irretrievably ditched, half a mile from the German lines.

Three tanks turned to the right at the first cross-roads, and, passing through our infantry, enfiladed the shell-holes occupied by the enemy. The effect of the tanks' fire could not be more than local, since on either side of the road were banks about four to five feet in height. The enemy were soon compelled to run back from the shell-holes near the road, and many dropped into the mud; but machine-gun fire from the shell-holes, which the guns of the tanks could not reach effectively, prevented a further advance.

One tank moved south down the track towards the strong points, but found it blocked by a derelict tank which the enemy had blown neatly into two halves. My tank remained there for an hour, shooting at every German who appeared. Then the tank commander tried to reverse in order to take another road, but the tank, in reversing, slid on to a log and slipped into a shell-hole, unable to move. One man was mortally wounded by a splinter.

The barrage had passed on and the infantry were left floundering in the mud. The enemy seized the moment to make a counter-attack, two bunches of Germans working their way forward from shell-hole to shell-hole on either side of the tank. Our infantry, already weakened, began to withdraw to their old positions.

The tank commander learned by a runner, who on his adventurous little journey shot two Germans with his revolver, that the second tank was also ditched a few hundred yards away on another road. This tank, too, had cleared the shell-holes round it, and, bolting the garrison of a small strong point near it with its 6-pdr. gun, caught them as they fled with machine-gun fire.

There was nothing more to be done. The tanks were in full view of the German observers, and the enemy gunners were now trying for direct hits. The tanks must be hit, sooner or later. The infantry were withdrawing. The two wretched subalterns in that ghastly waste of shell-holes determined to get their men away before their tanks were hit or completely surrounded. They destroyed what was of value in their tanks, and carrying their Lewis guns and some ammunition, they dragged themselves wearily back to the main road.

The remaining tank, unable to move forward as all the roads were now blocked, cruised round the triangle of roads to the north of the strong points. Then a large shell burst just in front of the tank and temporarily blinded the driver. The tank slipped off the road into the mud, jamming the track against the trunk of a tree. All the efforts of the crew to get her out were in vain....

Meanwhile, we had been sitting drearily near Divisional Headquarters on the canal bank, in the hope that by a miracle our tanks might succeed and return. The morning wore on, and there was little news. The Germans shelled us viciously. It was not until my tank commanders returned to report that we knew the attack had failed.

When the line had advanced a little, Cooper and I went forward to reconnoitre the road to Poelcapelle and to see our derelicts. Two of the tanks had been hit. A third was sinking into the mud. In the last was a heap of evil-smelling corpses. Either men who had been gassed had crawled into the tank to die, or more likely, men who had taken shelter had been gassed where they sat. The shell-holes near by contained half-decomposed bodies that had slipped into the stagnant water. The air was full of putrescence and the strong odour of foul mud. There was no one in sight except the dead. A shell came screaming over and plumped dully into the mud without exploding. Here and there was a little rusty wire, climbing in and out of the shell-holes like noisome weeds. A few yards away a block of mud-coloured concrete grew naturally out of the mud. An old entrenching tool, a decayed German pack, a battered tin of bully, and a broken rifle lay at our feet. We crept away hastily. The dead never stirred.

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