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   Chapter 14 THE CARRIER TANKS.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 19753

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(January 31st to August 1st, 1918.)

At my leisure I visited the Headquarters of the Tank Corps in Regent Street, and after a somewhat undignified appeal to the good nature of a corporal?-?the staff captain was busy, or out at lunch, or dictating?-?I obtained a fortnight's leave. The fortnight passed expensively, but it was pleasant, if dull, to take the train at the end of it from Waterloo and not from Victoria. In due course I arrived at Wool Station, and with two cheery subalterns, who had experienced enthralling adventures in Bournemouth, I drove in a taxi along narrow winding lanes to the camp on the crest of a hill.

I reported, but the charming officers who received me had not been warned of my arrival and were perplexed. Majors, it appeared, were a drug on the market?-?unattached majors swarmed in Bovington. Would I go to the Depot at Wareham? I refused politely. I knew something of the Depot. Two skeleton battalions were just being formed? They might not go out to France this year? I refused again: I did not intend to stop at Bovington any longer than was necessary.

At last it was suggested that I should be posted to the "Carrier Tanks." I had not heard of them, and asked for information. I was told vaguely "that they would carry infantry about," and it was expected that they would embark within the next three months.

So I found my way through the nice, clean, well-ordered camp to the lines of the Carrier tanks. That night I slept uncomfortably on a borrowed blanket in a bare and chilly hut. It had never struck me that I should require my camp-kit at home.

In the morning I was given the command of the 4th Infantry Carrier Company.

The six Carrier Companies were under the command of Lieut.-Colonel L. A. de B. Doucet, R.E. They were to consist of tanks specially constructed to carry infantry. In the past the infantry had followed the tanks. Now it was intended that they should go forward in the tanks. If, for example, it was necessary to storm a village, the Carrier tanks would fill up with infantry and deposit them in the middle of the village, to the confusion of the enemy. The prospect was certainly exhilarating.

But soon these hopes began slowly to disappear. Perhaps the plan was a little startling. The Carrier Companies would not carry infantry "at first." They must begin their lives by carrying supplies. We were called "Tank Supply Companies," and we began to suspect that we should become finally a branch of that splendid Corps, the Royal Army Service Corps. We struggled vigorously against the depression which the prospect produced?-?we felt we were not worthy. We refused to believe that we should never carry infantry through a barrage to certain victory. The Staff, however, were brutally frank. An order was published, informing us that although we were not "fighting troops," we should remember that discipline was useful. This order was none too helpful, especially since it was firmly believed both by officers and men that an officer, alleged to have spent three years of the war in England, was responsible for it. Of course there was no truth in this rumour or the allegation!

From the 12th February to the 12th June I was at Bovington Camp, and never have I liked soldiering less. Bovington Camp must have been designed to encourage men to serve in France. In France there was life, interest, even glamour. At Bovington the bones of soldiering stuck out disgustingly. We saw too clearly the formalities, the severities. But I had not been at the Base. If I had, I should have been more prepared for Bovington.

The raw material of my company was splendid?-?eighteen out of the twenty officers, and the majority of the men, had served overseas?-?and, since the company was over strength, I was able to weed out the weaker brethren in the course of training. I found it increasingly difficult to realise that my officers and men were not "fighting troops."

For the first three weeks we concentrated on drill. Then batches of officers and men were sent to be trained by the instructors of the camp. At the beginning of May we drew Mark IV. tanks, and used them by a system of reliefs from dawn to dusk. Towards the end of the month, when we waited breathlessly for every scrap of news from France, we began to train as a Lewis Gun Company, in case it should be necessary for us to be sent overseas at once; but the crisis passed, and we returned to our tanks.

It had been almost unbearable to sit lazily in the hot garden of a Dorchester villa and read of the desperate happenings in France. Why should the newspapers doubt, when we had never doubted, ... but it was impossible that our line should ever be broken? Those civilians, these young fellows who had never been to France, did not understand what it meant. And my old Company? What had happened to them? They, at least, had had their lesson, and would not be caught unprepared. So day after day passed, and on the worst days I had no heart to train my new company. At last the clouds began slowly to clear, but I was not satisfied until I had heard that my company was still in being and fighting as a Lewis Gun Company on the Lys Front. Well, it meant beginning all over again, and perhaps the sheer number of the slow Americans would make up for the lack of that skill which hard experience alone can give....

Gradually the company began to find itself, and to feel that the 4th Carrier Company was without doubt the finest company at Bovington. Once again my company's football team was invincible. Our equipment and our transport arrived. Soon we were ready, and eagerly awaited our marching orders.

I have not wearied you with details of training or of life at Bovington, because I have no desire to recall them, but it would not be fair to write only of soldiering. I should be churlish, indeed, if I did not set down how an amateur soldier, stale and tired of war, was refreshed and encouraged. The cold flame of gorse in the clear dusk, the hot lawn of the shabby rectory, the healthy noise and bustle of Dorchester streets, the simple magic of Maid?n, the steady tramp from stuffy Abbotsbury over Black Down with its cleansing winds and through the quietude of Winterborne, the smooth rich downs by Charminster, the little footpath walk at evening by the transparent stream under the dark trees to the orderly cottages of Stinsford, the infinite stretch of half-seen country from the summit of Creech Barrow?-?these memories bred a stouter soldier than any barrack-square.

At 9 A.M. on June 12th we paraded for the last time at Bovington. The usual farewell speech was made. We marched off in bright sunshine. The band, whose strange noises in the huts behind my orderly-room had so vilely disturbed me, played us down to the station. At Southampton there was the usual delay. In the afternoon we embarked on the Archimedes for Havre, and sailed at dusk.

Four years before?-?in August 1914?-?I had crossed from Dublin to Havre in the Archimedes. Then I was a corporal, slept on a coil of rope, and drew my rations from among the horses. Now I was "O.C. Ship," with an Adjutant who saw that my orders were obeyed, slept in the Captain's cabin, and dined magnificently. During those four years the Archimedes had been employed without a break in carrying troops, and the Captain had received a decoration. It was a proud "O.C. Ship" who stood on the bridge as the Archimedes made her stately way into the harbour.

We disembarked at the same old quay, though, instead of the Frenchmen, who in 1914 crowded to help us, singing patriotic songs, there was in 1918 a baggage party of Americans with marked acquisitive tendencies. Whether No. 2 Rest Camp was an improvement on the wool warehouses with their fleas is a matter of opinion.25

When we were not drawing rations, testing our gas helmets and attending lectures, undergoing medical inspections or feverishly endeavouring to comply with the myriad regulations and formalities of the camp, we would sit in the cosmopolitan mess. Americans in hundreds were passing through, some quietly confident that their army had absorbed the best from all other armies, some humbly hopeful and thirsty for knowledge, and some, as the evening grew late, a little irritating to us who had been in France since '14. Then there were men on leave from Italy with strange tales of mountain sickness, of No-Man's-Land a few miles wide, and adventurous leaves spent in Rome. Or we would discover in a corner a bunch of sickly, cheerful fellows, who would eagerly persuade you that Salonica was no child's play, tell you how the army was riddled with malaria, and how leave came to them only once in a lifetime. It was not too cheerful a mess. On the whole I preferred the wool warehouse.

We entrained, as the 5th Divisional Signal Company had entrained, at Point Six, Hangar de Laine; but this time, instead of travelling through to Landrecies, with cheers at every level-crossing, we spent the day at Rouen, to the benefit of that sumptuous tavern, H?tel de la Poste. At dawn on the 15th we found ourselves at Etaples, where we managed to give the men breakfast, and shave and wash, and at 9 A.M. we arrived at Blangy, where the 4th Battalion was once again billeted, and marched wearily to Blingel Camp half-way between Blangy and Auchy-lez-Hesdin.

Blingel Camp had a history. It had been designed many months before as a brigade camp, and beautiful blue prints were in existence, showing positive streets of huts, and a plethora of canteens, recreation rooms, bath-houses, messes, and incinerators. The camp had been commenced. In a few weeks somebody had not been quite certain whether after all the Tank Corps would expand, and the work in the camp stopped. The staff in due course relented, and back came the sappers and the Chinamen?-?to be taken away

in a month or so for more important duties. When we arrived only a small part of the camp had been built. So we helped the three sappers and the five Chinamen,?-?it was never completed. That was characteristic of the long-suffering Tank Corps, which, in fact, became finally and properly organised ten days after the Armistice.

The command of a brand-new unit, freshly landed in France, possessed its trials, annoyances, and humours. There were so many little tricks of the trade that the Company as a whole had to learn. Veteran officers who had been three months in France came over from other units to smile and advise, and so closely were we all connected that it was hard to explain that some of us had been a little longer than three months in France on a previous occasion. We were regarded, too, with slight disdain, as something newfangled and non-combatant, for by June 1918 the enthusiasts and the experts of the early days were outnumbered in the Tank Corps by the mass of officers recruited from home and transferred, for example, from the cavalry, who regarded machinery as a necessary evil, and anything new as an infernal nuisance. We realised this attitude?-?the tank battalions had met it from the infantry eighteen months before?-?and we encouraged ourselves by saying to each other, "We'll show them!" But General Elles can never have realised how he broke our hearts, when he inspected us on our arrival, by telling the three proud company commanders that the men were too good for the Carrier Companies, that probably we should have to send them as drafts to the fighting battalions and receive in their place inefficients, invalids, and crocks. We just pretended that we didn't mind....

We remained at Blingel until July 20th, suffering from that fatal inspection, an epidemic of Spanish influenza, and lack of whisky. We drew twelve tanks (Mk. IV.) from old friends at Erin, and trained mightily, carrying out a number of competitions and experiments. Forgetting for the moment that we were not "fighting troops," we discovered and used a revolver-range, and, like proper Tank companies, practised battle-firing at Fleury. We might be Carrier Tanks, whose only duty is to "supply," but you never know.

While I had been snugly at home, my old company had fallen upon hard times. They had moved up in February to the neighbourhood of Peronne, and their tanks had been placed in position immediately in the rear of the trenches. Then came the great German offensive, and they were swept back to Amiens, losing on the way the majority of their tanks, because the bridges over the Somme were destroyed before the tanks could cross, and all their kit and the famous piano, because all the lorries available were required to transport Battalion Headquarters. In front of Amiens they were used as a reserve Lewis Gun Company. Then they were "lorried" to the Lys front, and for weeks held grimly a section of the line. Now they were back once again in Blangy, refitting and drawing the new Mk. V. tanks. It was sixteen months since they had left Blangy to detrain in a blizzard at Achiet-le-Grand and fight in the snow at Bullecourt.

There had been a rumour afloat soon after we had arrived in France that in August or September we should turn and rend the enemy. We were inclined to scoff at the thought?-?the situation was then none too favourable?-?but staff officers, though mysterious, were decidedly insistent. We did not expect, in consequence, to be employed until this boasted offensive materialised, but on July 19th we received orders to relieve the 1st Tank Supply Company, who were helping the 2nd Tank Brigade to guard the Arras front. So once again I was driving along that stout ally, the highroad from St Pol to Arras.

The 2nd Tank Brigade at this period consisted of the 10th, 12th, and 14th Battalions. To each of the battalions was allotted an area of man?uvre, in which it would co-operate with other arms in organised counter-attacks, for the First Army was on the defensive, and Prince Rupprecht was expected to attack. The old method of stationing tanks behind or in the battle zone had been discarded.

The Carrier Company in this scheme of defence was reduced to carrying tank supplies. Each of my sections would attend to the wants of one battalion. In the event of an enemy attack the battalion would dash into the fray, and at the end of the day's work would meet a section of Carrier tanks at a rendezvous and refill without reference to lorries, trains, or other more fallible means of transport.

We moved forward in a multitude of lorries, leaving behind us the tanks which we had begun to "tune" with such ardour. We had been ordered to take over a scratch lot of Mk. IV. tanks from the Company which we were relieving, and that Company, a maid-of-all-work in the Brigade, had not found time to repair them or to keep them in good order.

My own headquarters were near Caucourt, in a delicious valley sheltered by woods, where happy singing Chinamen were working lazily. Our Nissen huts were gaily painted. Peas and potatoes had been planted, and we had geraniums. In summer the camp was perfection. There was even a demure maiden, who brought us each morning eggs, butter, and milk.

Of my four sections, Ryan's was in Noulette Wood, behind Vimy; Harland's and Westbrook's near the vile and dirty village of Montenescourt, where Brigade Headquarters had been during the Arras battle; and Ritchie's in the famous Winnipeg Camp. We were all contented, and during the daylight safe, but at night we soon learnt that in the past few months the enemy had discovered how to bomb. We were kept awake.

Our one trouble was the Mk. IV. tanks, which for our sins we had inherited. Some of them looked clean: some of them looked dirty. All of them required thorough overhauling and repair, and we worked upon them day and night in case Prince Rupprecht should take it into his head to attack, or we should anticipate his attack by a local offensive.

A visit to the headquarters of the Canadian Corps on our right hurried our preparations. The Canadians, jealous of the reputation which the Australians had won, were longing for a fight. There was talk in the higher and more careful circles of an operation to recapture Monchy-le-Preux.

We soon decided to concentrate the company in the centre of the area, and the staff captain of the brigade and myself went exploring to find a suitable site for the camp. The Bois de la Haie pleased us. It was bombed, but so were all woods, and this particular wood was not too conspicuous. We called two sappers into consultation and planned a camp complete with all the most modern improvements, down to the very latest thing in grease-traps. We began to say farewell to our gentle damsel. But the camp was never built.

For on the 28th, when I had returned from my daily round rather late?-?there was much movement of troops on the roads?-?and was calling for tea, buttered toast, and the cake that had come in the parcel, a code message was handed to me. We did not know the code?-?Carrier companies were often forgotten?-?but we interpreted the message that we were now in G.H.Q. Reserve, and should be ready to entrain at twenty-four hours' notice. The order might mean anything or nothing. I suspected a move to the neighbourhood of Amiens, where two successful little tank actions had already taken place, and sent McBean, my reconnaissance officer, to make a corner in Amiens maps. We returned to our repairs with desperate vigour and waited in excitement for further orders.

After mess on the 30th I was summoned urgently to Brigade Headquarters and instructed verbally by the General over a glass of excellent port to entrain at Acq early on the 1st. The utmost secrecy was to be observed. The entrainment was to be considered as a practice entrainment. With my doubtful tanks no time was to be lost. Mac plunged into the night with orders for Ryan, who was ten miles from railhead, while my despatch-riders bustled off to Ritchie, Harland, and Westbrook. I was more than doubtful whether the tanks under repair would be ready.

Mac reached Ryan in the early hours of the morning, and the section was on the move by 6.45 A.M. Much happened to the tanks on the way, but with the exception of one they made Acq in the course of the afternoon, and the laggard arrived during the night.

Ritchie, who was always thorough, covered his tank with branches, and his moving copse caused much excitement. Westbrook and Harland, who each had a tank in hospital, so inspired their enthusiastic crews that by dawn on the 1st every tank was more or less able to entrain. We were not helped by the fact that we were ordered to entrain "full," that is, with our tanks crammed with petrol, oil, and ammunition. Since before entraining it is necessary to push in the sponsons until they are flush with the sides of the tank, the order involved unloading the sponsons at railhead, pushing them in and then loading the tanks again. We wondered bitterly if there were no supplies at our destination.

We discovered that we were bound for Poulainville, a railhead near Amiens. I looked proudly at our box of maps?-?the battalions were still asking for them days later. Early on the 1st our convoy of lorries took the road. At 3 P.M. the first train left Acq, and at 5 P.M. the second. All the tanks had managed to scramble on board, although none of my drivers had ever before driven a tank on to a train: that useful accomplishment was not taught us at Bovington. I watched the second train pull out?-?the men were cheering?-?and left in my car for the scene of battle. It was quite like old times. What part the Carrier tanks would play in the great offensive I had not the remotest idea: I knew only that I was sorry to leave the milk, the fresh eggs, and the butter.

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