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A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 20552

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

(December 1st, 1917, to January 31st, 1918.)

We were not yet out of the wood. I was smoking a pipe in contemplative solitude behind my hut after an excellent little dinner, when, without warning, there was a shattering explosion. A shell had burst a few yards away in the bushes, and a moment later a couple fell in the farther end of the camp. Evidently the Germans wished us to remember the 1st December 1917. I shouted to the men to take cover in the tanks, since inside or under a tank is a place of comparative safety. For twenty minutes the shelling continued, and then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. We investigated the damage. One man had been killed and three wounded.

I ordered the men to sleep under cover that night, so that, although our corner of the wood was shelled four times before dawn, there were no further casualties. I passed the night in a shallow dug-out, and I was glad in the morning that I had not returned to my hut, for, when I went to it before breakfast, I found that a scrap of shell had drilled a neat hole through my bed.

Early on the 2nd I received orders from everybody, and if I had obeyed them all "D" Battalion would have remained where it was, entrained at the Fins railhead, and moved to Dessart Wood on the route from Metz to Fins. So I went in a "box-body," which I had commandeered, to seek counsel of Colonel Hankey. I tracked him from the wood to Fins, and found him there at a ruined "cinema" in company with our Brigade-Major, from whom I learnt that our display of tanks on the hills to the west of Gouzeaucourt had been more valuable than I had realised.

I suggested to the Brigade-Major that I should withdraw the battalion to Ytres, the railhead at which we had detrained when we had first arrived in this troublesome neighbourhood.24 We knew the route to Ytres; there were two ramps at the railhead; we should be out of everybody's way; accommodation there should be ample for the battalion. He agreed to my suggestion, and gave me definite orders to move as soon as possible.

With a light heart?-?for it was a splendid sunny day?-?I hurried back to discover the battalion plunged into the deepest melancholy. The rations had not arrived! That on one day there should be a shortage of rations might seem to the civilian reader a commonplace of war, and he may marvel when I state with an eye to the whole truth that this was in very fact the first occasion, while I was with my company of tanks, on which rations had definitely not appeared. And the reason for it, as we learnt afterwards, was ample. The enemy had begun to shell the railhead at Bapaume with a long-range gun, and our particular lorries with rations on board had been blown into matchboard and scraps of metal.

We repaired the deficiency by a raid on a dump, which I had noticed, and were packing up when the enemy again began to shell our pet corner of the wood?-?this time with a high-velocity gun. Thus encouraged, the battalion was ready to move in record time. In the middle of it all our rations arrived: the Equipment Officer, undeterred by long-range guns, had secured fresh rations and fresh lorries.

I went ahead of the tanks in my "box-body," and that night the men slept peacefully in the brickyard at Ytres, the officers in a large "Adrian" hut at the R.E. dump, and I, who had made friends while searching for billets with an admirable and elderly subaltern in charge of a Labour Detachment, after playing bridge successfully in a hut with a real fireplace, went to bed in a real bed.

On the 3rd we regained touch once more with the outside world. Four days' mail arrived, sundry foodstuffs, and a new pair of light corduroy breeches; while the Colonel motored up from Meaulte to see us, and gave us most gratifying messages from the Brigade Commander. On the 4th, since I was still without transport, I tramped five miles across the downs in deliciously bright and frosty weather to Fins, and arranged for the entrainment of certain tanks.

That evening after mess I was sitting with the elderly subaltern over a huge fire. We were discussing in extreme comfort painting, the education of artistic daughters, and the merits and demerits of the Slade School. Suddenly we heard a musical and distant wail, something flew past the window, and there was a wee "plonk."

"A dud!" said I wearily.

"They've never shelled the place before," he asserted with confidence.

"It was rather near," I murmured.

We were silent, and then once again we heard the musical wail, which this time was followed by an overwhelming explosion. The hut trembled, and clods of frozen earth rattled sharply on the roof.

He rushed off to his coolies, and I came back to the fire after I had given instructions to my officers; but another "dud" fell within a few yards of the hut, so I determined to explore the farther end of the dump, but, of course, when I was walking sedately away, I slipped on the ice and took most of the skin off my thigh.

At last the shelling stopped. We again returned to the fire and drank hot cocoa. I undressed and went to bed, daring the German to do his worst. I was dozing, when a shell burst just outside the hut. The side of the hut appeared to bulge inwards, everything fell off the shelves, and a large piece of frozen earth flew through the window. It was too much, and no man is a hero in silk pyjamas. I wrapped myself in a British warm and ran out into the night?-?the shell had fallen ten yards from the hut. Another came. I stumbled into a trench, but it was so cold and humiliating there that I returned to my hut, dressed rapidly, and went to spend the night with a friend who lived at the opposite end of the dump. We had just begun to make some tea, when the German gunner lengthened his range. We might have remained where we were, but we were too tired and annoyed. We decided to take a drink off the Town Major.

In the morning we moved to the brickyard half a mile away. I was making for my new quarters after a little dinner with the Town Major, and looking forward to a quiet night, when a shell burst in front of me. I ran to the brickyard, but my quarters then were under eighteen feet of solid brick, so, although we were shelled again during the night, we slept most peacefully.

On the 6th I managed to entrain the remainder of my tanks at Fins by anticipating another battalion who were a little late. Then I started off on a motor-cycle to warn Battalion Headquarters that the tanks would arrive a day before their scheduled time, but I had magneto trouble at Haplincourt. I completed the journey in accordance with the custom of the country, by securing a lorry lift to Bapaume, a lift in a car from Bapaume to Albert, and then walking to the camp at Meaulte.

Even when the tanks had been detrained at Le Plateau, the most desolate railhead on earth, and driven to the chilliest of tankodromes by the ruins of Bécordel-Bécourt, half an hour's walk from the camp, we were not rid of the war. The line to which we had fallen back was none too stable, and to strengthen it tanks were posted at intervals behind the guns. It was intended that these tanks should break the enemy attack, demoralise their infantry, and act as rallying-points for our own men. This curious method of defence was never tested, perhaps luckily, but we were compelled to take our turn in providing garrisons or crews. Other tanks, manned by my men, were used at night to drag back heavy guns, which had been abandoned in the first flurry of the counter-attack on November 30th, and were now just behind our advanced posts.

During these days I was again in command of the battalion, for the Colonel was on leave, and twice it was necessary for me to drive over the Somme battlefield by Peronne to Fins. It was freezing hard, and the wind cut to the bone.

At last we were free even of these duties, and were able to spend our time in repairing a job lot of fifty old tanks, in starting their engines frequently to avoid the effects of frost, and in making ourselves thoroughly comfortable. And we began to look for pigs.

The camp on the hillside above the village of Meaulte at first consisted of large huts, but like good soldiers we added to it as usual a variety of "temporary structures." I could not be parted from my Armstrong Hut; and Forbes, my orderly-room sergeant, would have wept bitter tears if that hut which a party from Behagnies had found "somewhere in France"?-?it was a dark and shapeless erection?-?had not provided shelter for himself and his papers.

The camp had its advantages. The canteen at Meaulte was then the finest in France. Albert, within walking distance, had revived, and its inhabitants were fast returning to set up shop and make much money out of the British troops. Amiens and all its luxuries was only an hour away for those who possessed cars. We had something of a football ground.

Then in the Colonel's absence I was able to use the Colonel's horses, and with the Doctor or the Adjutant, we would canter over the downs and pay visits to those other battalions who were in huts on the edge of the Happy Valley above Bray.

As Christmas drew near our search for pigs became feverish, but at last we found them, and the beer too arrived; so that we were able to give to each man, in addition to his rations of beef and plum-pudding, one pound of roast pork and one gallon of beer.

Of Christmas Day I have probably a clearer recollection than many. We began badly, for half the battalion paraded in one part of the camp and half in another, and the padre was in doubt. Finally we combined and shivered through the service. A little later came the men's dinner. The Colonel and his company commanders started to go round, but there had been some slight anticipation.... We went away cautiously. In the evening there was high revelry, speechifying, shouting, bursts of crude song. Some wild spirits endeavoured to abstract the captured field-guns which "G" Battalion displayed temptingly outside its huts, but "G" Battalion was not convivial on this matter and talked sternly of fights. This was sobering, for the last thing we wanted was to fight with our most excellent friends?-?so, feeling that our joke had been a trifle

misunderstood, we drank with them instead. But somebody a night or two later ran the guns down into the village from under the noses of "G" Battalion. It was a pity, because the porridge was cold.

There are other stories about that Christmas which will be told time and again in the mess. You will never hear from me what the old soldier said to the Brigade Commander in the streets of Meaulte.

We had thought that we should not move again during the winter, and we were just beginning to settle down when a rearrangement of units in the Tank Corps and the arrival of certain new battalions in France unsettled the situation.

You will remember that after the battle of Arras, "D" Battalion, which had now become the 4th Battalion, "E" (5th), and "G" (7th) Battalions, formed the 1st Brigade. To the three brigades in the Tank Corps a fourth and fifth were now added. The 4th Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General E. B. Hankey, D.S.O., and included at first only the 4th and 5th Battalions. This Brigade was ordered to billet in the old Blangy area, and one of the brand-new battalions was instructed to take over our huts.

I must state with regret that the advance party of this new battalion was a shade tactless. After all, we were "D" Battalion, formed out of the old "D" Company, the senior Tank company in France. Further, every officer and man of us had volunteered for the job. We were inclined to look for a little respect, perhaps even a little awe, from these newcomers. Now during the fourteen months of the battalion's existence the carpenters had been busy. Forbes, my orderly-room sergeant, had a collapsible desk. There were racks, card-tables, special chairs, fittings of one kind or another which, since we were then allowed generous transport, and the tanks can carry much, we took with us from place to place. These cherished possessions were claimed by the advance party as billet fixtures to be left with the huts, which had been more bare than a dry bone when we had first come to them. Finally, the advance party had the temerity to claim the Colonel's own wine-cupboard.

That was enough. We could not suffer this attempted rape of our Colonel's cherished possession without some forcible protest. Of what actually occurred I know little, for I was laid low in my hut with a bout of trench fever. My memory cannot be trusted, and the strange things which I heard may be attributed to delirium. I imagined that extra lorries were obtained, and everything possible loaded upon them. I dreamt that during these last days there was no lack of firewood. Half unconscious, I thought of men plying axes.

They put me into an ambulance and sent me to the Casualty Clearing Station at Dernancourt, where my nurse was even more charming than nurses usually are. It was a pleasant ward, and for company there was an ancient A.P.M. with a fund of excellent stories, and a succession of unlucky but cheerful flying men. When we became convalescent the A.P.M. and I would stroll through the snow to the hospital trains that came into the siding, but we decided that we preferred our own nurses.

We could not hope to remain for long in that delicious paradise, and, although we tried hard, the south of France was beyond our reach. The car came for me on a dull liverish morning, and I had to say good-bye. There are lesser tragedies, which leave a wound.

I found my company luxuriating at Auchy-lez-Hesdin, the most desirable village in the Blangy area. It was full of good billets and estaminets, and there was an officers' tea-room where the law of the A.P.M. did not run. Many of us decided that it was indeed time for us to brush up our French. We had neglected it too long.

Soon the company became amazingly smart. This happy state may have been the natural result of careful inspections and concentration upon drill, but I am myself inclined to think that credit should be given to the far-seeing Frenchman who established a cotton-mill in Auchy and employed a number of girls with large admiring eyes.

You will remember that during the last season at Blangy-sur-Ternoise the company had made a name for itself in the football world, and we did not intend to allow this reputation to slip away. No Selection Committee discussed with more care, insight, and real knowledge of the game the merits of each candidate for the company eleven than that over which I had the honour to preside, and as a very natural result we won during the month of January a series of overwhelming victories. But I have not yet decided to my satisfaction whether Spencer was more useful in the centre or on the wing.

And B., a major from the Glasgow Yeomanry, who was attached to the company for instruction, took charge when football was impossible, and led the company with intolerable energy over many weary miles of country.

In the evening he was the life and soul of the mess. We still had that piano which had been taken forward in the first lorry that ever attempted the Puisieux-le-Mont road from Albert to Achiet-le-Grand after the enemy had retired in March. Our guest-nights were unequalled. Who could ever forget our "Beauty Chorus," with B. as "prima ballerina," or Happy Fanny singing a song in his more cheerful mood?

There was only one little cloud. The Russian Armies, infected with strange enthusiasms, had left the battlefield. The Italians had their backs to the wall. We heard rumours that the French Armies were sullen and despairing. It was certain that the enemy would make one last enormous effort before the tardy Americans arrived. We were, of course, confident?-?no man in France even for a moment considered the possibility of ultimate defeat?-?and we thought that it would not be difficult to break the enemy attack, however determined it might prove to be.

We practised the defence of Auchy, though we thought such precautions to be far-fetched; but it was a more serious matter when we were told that, instead of wintering at Auchy, it would be necessary for the battalion to move up to the neighbourhood of Peronne, where our nights might be interrupted by bombs and shells.

But it was under the command of B. that the company left Auchy for the Fifth Army area. One gloomy day I was ordered home with other company commanders to help form new battalions at the celebrated Bovington Camp. The orders came suddenly, although they had not been unexpected. On the 31st January I handed over the command of the company to B., and the parting was the less bitter because I knew that the company would be safe and happy under him.

I drove away from Auchy on a sunny morning with frost in the air and snow on the ground. I caught the afternoon boat. I could not forget that great farewell dinner, but the sea was kind.

My thoughts ran back a year to Blangy and the dim smoky dining-hall of the Hospice, where first I had met my company. Then we had been confident that in the great battle of the year we should utterly defeat the enemy, principally by reason of our tanks,?-?our imaginations reeled with dreams of what tanks could do. And what a joke those dummy tanks had been!... I recalled our pride when we had been selected to take part in the Arras battle, our annoyance when the enemy retreated and brought our careful plans to nothing, our disappointment that we must fight with old Mark I. tanks.... Then Achiet-le-Grand, the detrainment in the blizzard, the anxious nights at Mory Copse, the sudden conference at Army Headquarters, the struggle against time, the biting anxiety when no news of my tanks came to me in the Armstrong Hut at the headquarters of the Australian Division, the explanation of the coming battle of my officers in the sheer darkness of the little ruin at Noreuil, the confidence in victory and the despair at failure?-?could tanks be used again??-?tempered by the stubborn thought that we had done our best, and from the hillside the picture of my surviving tank, unfairly crippled by a chance shell.

At Behagnies we had been happy enough. Then after Haigh's show there had been Wailly, with the liquid grass sprouting in the cornices of the church, the delicious summer at Humières, and the dismal foreboding when we heard that we were destined for the Salient. I remembered the everlasting blare of the aeroplanes at La Lovie, the steaming and odorous mud of the tank routes, our noisy adventures at the "Dead End," the long days of weary waiting, the hopeless attempt at St Julien, and the black tragedy of the Poelcapelle Road. Why had tanks ever been sent to destruction at Ypres? There must be whole cemeteries of tanks in that damnable mud. And we had lost Talbot there.

It was more comforting to dwell on that astonishing sight at dawn on November 20?-?lines of tanks stretching away into the distance as far as we could see,?-?it was a full day,?-?the sunken road with its kitchens, the dead and sprawling Germans, the glass of wine in the delicately panelled chamber, the climb up the narrow chalk trench to the railway embankment, and the discovery that we could not enter Flesquieres, the dash back to the unbelieving Colonel, the unpleasant quarter of an hour under machine-gun fire, the shock of Ward's death....

And then Bourlon Wood, sitting square and imperturbable on the hillside, with the tank burning piteously on the ridge to the left of it?-?what a feverish search there had been for X.'s dug-out on the night before! How I had thanked the Fates for that convenient quarry until a shell burst on the lip of it!

Finally, Gouzeaucourt, Ytres. Had tanks achieved the successes which we had prophesied? It was a difficult question to answer. Anyway, whatever our successes, whatever our failures, no man had ever commanded a finer company than mine.

The boat slid past the quayside. We crowded at the gangway, and there was the usual rush for the train. I secured a seat as usual by climbing in on the wrong side. We reached London in thick fog. They told me I might just as well take a week's holiday at home before reporting at Regent Street and asking for leave on arrival. It was three hours by District to South Harrow, and at Ealing Common a young officer had walked off the platform and fallen under a train. That made me late.

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