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A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 28941

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

(August 1st to August 27th, 1918.)

The Officers' Club on the hill above Doullens has a reputation, and we could not pass it without discourtesy. It was a good dinner in its way, and we continued our journey in a cheerful, though not hilarious, mood, through novel country, seamed with brand-new trenches and with all camps and houses heavily sandbagged against bombs.

At last we came at dusk to the railhead at Poulainville, discreetly hidden under the trees at the side of the main road. Tanks were drawn up under any scrap of cover?-?like frogs sheltering under mushrooms. The staff work was superb. There were so many guides that it was quite two hours before we found our own. Then we waited for the train. It was quite dark, and it began to rain heavily.

The first train drew in at 10 P.M. The tanks displayed a more than mulish obstinacy. Every possible defect developed, and we found it difficult to reach the engines and effect the proper repairs on account of the supplies which we had on board. My drivers, too, were inexperienced. For two and a half hours26 we struggled, coaxed, and swore in the utter darkness (no lights were allowed) and the driving rain, before the tanks were clear of the ramp.

We hoped feverishly that we should have better fortune with the second train, which arrived at 3 A.M.... Dawn was breaking, when a wearied R.T.O. told me with icy politeness that if my tank?-?the last?-?was not off the train in ten minutes, the train would pull out with the tank on board. The tank heard the remark. She had resisted our advances for many, many hours, but now she "started up" as though in perfect tune, and glided away down the ramp in the best of spirits.

We threw ourselves into the car, limp and soaked. During the night the enemy had been shelling Amiens, four miles from our railhead, with slow deliberation?-?vast explosions re-echoing among the wretched houses. We drove through the suburbs of the city, silent as a Sunday morning in London. Every third house along our road had been hit by shell or bomb. Then we turned towards Albert, and four miles out came to Querrieu Wood, where we discovered Company Headquarters, unshaven and bedraggled, sleeping in the mud among the baggage. Only our cook, humming a cheerful little tune, was trying nobly to fry some bacon over a fire of damp sticks.

We had become a unit of the 5th Tank Brigade, which consisted of the 2nd, 8th, 15th, and 17th (Armoured Car) Battalions.27 The Brigade was concentrated behind the Australian Corps, and preparations were already far advanced for a sudden heavy attack. How far the attack would extend north and south of the Somme we did not know, but we had heard that the Canadians were gathering on the right of the Australians, and on our way we had passed their artillery on the road. All the woods were choked with tanks, troops, and guns. The roads at night were blocked with thick traffic. By day the roads were empty, the railheads free?-?our "back area" as quiet as the front of the XIth Corps in the summer of '16.

We were soon caught up in the complicated machinery of preparation. I attended Brigade conferences without number. Ritchie's section, to my sorrow, was transferred, temporarily, to the 3rd Carrier Company (Roffey's), by way of simplification, and I received in exchange a section of the 5th Carrier Company, equipped with sledges drawn by decrepit tanks, which straggled into the wood on the evening of the 6th. The sledges were so badly designed that the cables by which they were towed were always fraying and breaking. I refused to be responsible for them, and began to collect in their place a job lot of baggage and supply tanks.

My sections had no time to make themselves comfortable in Querrieu Wood. On the 3rd, Ritchie, with his six tanks, left me for Roffey and the Canadians. On the night of the 4th, Ryan crossed the Somme and camouflaged among the ruins of Aubigny, moving to an orchard in Hamelet, not two miles behind the line on the 6th; Harland reached Fouilloy, the next village, on the same night; while Westbrook, on the previous night, had joined the 8th Battalion in a small wood near Daours. The majority of our tanks were still giving trouble, for they were ancient overloaded Mk. IV.'s.

The attack was to be launched at dawn on the 8th. After mess on the 7th I started from the wood with two old tanks, which had just arrived, in a wild endeavour to rush them forward in time. It was dreary and profitless work. Mac managed to reach the fringe of the battle before the tank, which he was leading, finally broke down, while at three in the morning I lost patience with mine and, leaving it to its commander, returned to camp.

The night was fine, though misty. We waited nervously for some indication that the enemy knew of the numberless tanks moving forward softly, the thousands of guns which had never yet spoken, the Canadian Divisions running28 to the attack. But the night passed quietly. There was only one brief flurry of gun-fire, when the irrepressible Australians raided to discover if the enemy suspected.

At "zero" I was standing outside my tent. There was thick mist in the valley. Through some freak of the atmosphere I could only just hear the uneven rumble of the guns. It was so cold that I went in to breakfast.

Half an hour after "zero" my tank engineer and I set out in my car to catch up with the battle, giving a lift on the way to a pleasant young subaltern in the R.H.A. returning from leave, who was desperately eager to find his battery. We left the car stupidly at Fouilloy,?-?we might have taken it farther forward,?-?and tramping up the Villers-Brettoneux road, cut across country, among invisible guns, through the mist, which did not clear until we reached what had been the German trenches.

Apparently we had repeated Cambrai. Companies of prisoners, stout-looking fellows, were marching back in fours. Here and there lay German dead on the rough coarse grass, or in the shallow unconnected trenches. A few hundred yards to our right was the Roman road that runs west from Villers-Brettoneux. Light-armoured cars of the 17th Battalion, with the help of tanks, were picking their way through the shell-holes.

Just short of a large ruined village, Warfusée-Abancourt, straggling along the road, and two miles from our old front line, we found a little group of supply tanks with a couple of waggons. One waggon suddenly had exploded on the trek forward. Nobody had heard the noise of an approaching shell, and we suspected a trip-mine, with which the battlefield was sown. We were discussing its fate when a large German aeroplane swooped down and drove us to take cover. A British aeroplane appeared, but the German forced it to land hurriedly. And the enemy began to send over a few small shells.

We moved forward unobtrusively, Read, myself, and Puddy, my orderly, to an inconspicuous knoll. There we lay in comfort, watching the farther advance of the Australians. The country was quite open and bare, though broken with unexpected valleys. A slight breeze had swept away the mist, and the morning was bright and sunny. A few hundred yards in front of us the Australians were walking forward nonchalantly, led by a score of tanks. Occasionally a shell would fall among them and they would scatter momentarily, but it was rarely that a man was left upon the ground. From the valley beyond, which we could not see, came the rattle of Lewis guns, and once or twice bursts from the enemy machine-guns. To the left and behind us our field-guns, drawn up in the open, were firing for dear life, and away to the right along a slight dip a battery of field-guns was trotting forward. Overhead the sky was loud with the noise of our aeroplanes, some flying low above the battle and others glistening in the sun high among the clouds.

The Australians disappeared with the tanks over the skyline, and the supporting infantry in little scattered bodies passed us, marching forward cheerily over the rough grass. We were already three miles within the enemy defences.

We pressed on northwards to the Cérisy Valley, which we knew had been full of German field-guns. This deep gully, with steep grassy sides, fringed with stunted trees, runs from the tiny village of Cérisy-Gailly, on the south bank of the Somme, to Warfusée. Our gunners had done their work with terrible thoroughness. The bottom of the valley was so broken with shell-holes that it was barely possible to drive a limber between them. Four or five of the enemy guns remained desolate among a wild confusion of shattered waggons and dead horses. A trembling pony, still harnessed to his dead fellow, was the only survivor.

A hundred yards down the valley tanks were climbing the steep bank, and the flag of a tank battalion fluttered bravely on the crest.

We crossed the valley, toiled up the farther slope, and munched some sandwiches on the hill, where sappers were calmly marking out new trenches. At a little distance a shabby Australian field-battery was in action.

In a few minutes we saw something of the display and gallantry of war. A battery of Horse Artillery picked its way across the valley. The men were clean, inconceivably clean, and smart. Their horses' coats gleamed. The harness shone and glittered. The guns were newly painted. Never could a battery more splendidly arrayed have entered the plebeian turmoil of a battle. A series of swift commands and the little guns, with their ridiculous bark, were firing impudently. The Australians were overshadowed?-?their horses were unkempt and the guns dirty?-?but they had got there first.29

We were reminded by a salvo, which burst nicely just beyond the Australian guns, that, although in this particular battle we had little to do, the enemy could not be expected to realise our position. So we finished our lunch, and walking along the crest for half a mile, dropped down into the valley again, and came upon Ryan's section engaged in refilling the 13th Battalion. Westbrook's tanks were coming in one by one?-?they had all had their mechanical troubles.

So far as we could learn from our friends in the valley, the huge surprise attack had been a cheap and complete success?-?south of the Somme. The thick mist at dawn had protected the tanks, while it had not been dense enough seriously to hamper the drivers. The advance had been rapid, and only in one or two villages had the enemy shown any resolute defence.

But north of the Somme it was clear that something was wrong, for the enemy were shelling mercilessly the southern bank of the river. Even the Cérisy Valley was harrassed, and we were privileged to watch a brigade of artillery gallop, team by team, over the crest, through the smoke of the shells, down into the comparative safety of the valley. The German gunners must have rejoiced at the target, but they made poor use of their opportunities, for only one horse was hit; the team swerved as the shell burst, and, galloping madly down into the valley, only just missed a tank. Ten minutes later an enemy aeroplane circled overhead. We held our breath?-?the valley was packed with artillery and tanks?-?and listened for the whirr of the bombs or the crackle of the machine-guns; but "Jerry" was for the moment harmless, although in quarter of an hour an H.V. gun made frantic efforts to land her shells in the valley. She could not manage it?-?her shells burst on the crest or high up on the farther bank.

Westbrook and Ryan were now under the orders of the battalions which they were refilling, and Harland had completed his job. So Read, Puddy, and I tramped back along the river wearily to Fouilloy, taking tea on the way from a hospitable Australian, whose name I should always have blessed if I had not forgotten it.

Later I heard that Harland had done his work well, following the Mark V. Star tanks of the 15th Battalion to the Blue Line, the farthest limit of the attack, and forming there a dump of supplies. He led his tanks on a horse, which he had taken very properly from a prisoner. The 15th Battalion carried in their tanks machine-gunners, who were detailed to defend the Blue Line against counter-attack. Luckily, no counter-attack was launched, for the machine-gunners, unused to tanks, fell out of the tanks choking and vomiting and retired by degrees to the nearest dressing station, some of them on stretchers. The tank crews remained in possession until the infantry came up.

And the light-armoured cars, manned by tank crews, whom we had seen picking their way through the shell-holes?-?their deeds of daring that day have become historical. It will not easily be forgotten how they dashed through the German lines and planted the Tank Corps flag on the headquarters of the German corps in Foucaucourt; how they fusiladed the German Staff at breakfast through the windows of their billet; how they captured a train full of reinforcements; how they destroyed a convoy of lorries. We were convinced that light-armoured cars and fast tanks had driven the cavalry into a museum.

I doubt whether in the early days of the Amiens battle my three sections of Carrier tanks were usefully employed. The supplies with which they were overloaded could have been taken forward more rapidly and more economically by lorries or by waggons both on the first day and during the following week, when they dragged across country supplies of petrol, oil, and ammunition to dumps which were served by excellent roads. The true function of the Carrier tank, it appeared to us, was either to follow the infantry closely into the battle area with supplies, or to transport heavy and bulky material. The experiences of Ritchie's section were valuable.

Ritchie and his six tanks had left Querrieu Wood on the night of the 3rd, making for the tank bridge across the Somme by Lamotte-Brebière. In a cutting short of the village the convoy of forty odd tanks?-?Ritchie was with Roffey's company?-?met a column of Australian transport. Neither the tanks nor the waggons could turn, and for three hours there was a masterful display of language. At last, after prodigies of driving on both sides, the waggons and the tanks were disentangled, but the night was unpleasantly short, and the tanks were compelled to seek shelter from the day in the village of Glisy.

For once a number of Australians were to know what fear was. Dawn was breaking, and an enemy ae

roplane, hoping to catch the belated scurrying for cover, was low overhead. One tank decided to shelter beside a house, but, swinging a little hastily, it carried away the corner of the house, and the bricks and masonry fell with a crash. The Australians, who had heard the noise of the aeroplane, thought at once that a bomb had fallen. They rushed out of the house in their shirts and dashed for cover. Then, as the tank snuggled more closely to the house, they realised what had happened. Luckily the doors of a tank cannot be opened from outside.

On the day of the battle four tanks, loaded with shells, bombs, wire, shovels, and water, started from the ruins of Cachy, immediately behind our trenches, and endeavoured to keep pace with the infantry, but that day the Canadians advanced eight miles. The tanks, accompanied by the D.A.A.G. of the 1st Canadian Division, toiled along after them. It was a hot and weary trek. The D.A.A.G. was saddle-sore, and Jacobs, whose tank he was accompanying, was a little chafed. A halt was made, and a tin of tank grease broached. The remedy was odorous, but effective.

On the heels of the infantry the tanks arrived on the following day at Caix, ten miles from their starting-point, and disgorged. Two of them made a round of the more advanced machine-gun posts, and, despite heated protests from the enemy, supplied much-needed ammunition, returning in triumph.

Some of the men found it difficult to remember that, strictly speaking, Carrier companies were not "fighting troops." Wallace, for instance, a runner, finding the time heavy on his hands, disappeared for a few hours, when he was not required, and joined the Canadians in a successful little bombing raid.

The section returned by night. The enemy aeroplanes, attracted presumably by the glow of their exhaust-pipes, bombed them unmercifully, but without success.

After a series of marches and counter-marches, inspired by false alarms, Ritchie's section returned to Querrieu Wood on the 18th. I had intended to give him a week to rest his men and overhaul his tanks, which had already covered a hundred miles without respite, but I received orders to assist the 47th Division in an attack north of the Somme, and my remaining sections had already been ear-marked for the 1st Australian and 32nd Divisions.

So on the 21st Ritchie's weary old tanks trekked six miles over difficult country to Bonnay, a pleasant little village on the Ancre, a mile above the confluence of the Ancre and the Somme. It was a hurried business: I fetched the necessary maps in my car from brigade headquarters. Two of the tanks loaded up immediately with machine-gun ammunition, and, trekking another four miles, about midnight came to a brickyard just behind our trenches. North of the Somme the enemy was fighting stubbornly, and his guns pounded away day and night. The neighbourhood of the brickyard was shelled and gassed until the crew longed for the battle.

At dawn the two tanks under Jacobs crawled forward into the gas and smoke, and, passing through the enemy barrage, dumped their loads of machine-gun ammunition among the advanced posts and returned with the crews slightly gassed but otherwise unharmed.

Two of the remaining tanks went forward with infantry supplies late in the morning when the struggle was swaying to and fro over the Happy Valley, a couple of miles south of our old camp at Meaulte. There was never a more deadly struggle, and the issue was always in doubt.

The first tank was led by Sergeant Bell. He came to the place where he should have unloaded his stores. The Germans were pressing fiercely, and the tank was in the forefront of the battle. Under bitter shell-fire and machine-gun fire Bell endeavoured to unload at least his precious ammunition, but two of his crew were killed and one man was seriously wounded immediately after they had left the shelter of the tank. Bell collected another party of infantrymen, but by this time the Germans were close to the tank, and our infantry, who had lost heavily, were withdrawing. Bell could do nothing, for a Carrier tank possesses only one Hotchkiss gun to fire ahead, and, as his tank had turned to provide cover for the unloading party, that gun would not bear. He was unable to move the tank, because by this time every man of his crew had been killed or wounded. He waited helplessly until the Germans had almost surrounded the tank, and then, firing one last burst from a Lewis gun which he had secured, he ran across to a trench in which our infantry had rallied. The tank stayed in No-Man's-Land. Twice during the day Bell, with two of my men, tried to crawl out to it and drive it in, but the German machine-guns were too vicious.30

The second tank was led by Holt. He had just climbed inside for a moment, when a shell pierced the sponson and burst, killing instantly Holt and one of his men and wounding the remainder.31 We could recover nothing at the time, although Wallace made a brave attempt; the Germans had regained too much ground, and to approach the tank was certain death.

It was a disastrous day. The attack had failed and the failure had been costly. The Happy Valley was strewn with derelict tanks, and the cemetery on the Meaulte road is very full.

On the 23rd Jacobs, with his two tanks, carried ammunition forward to isolated machine-gun posts, although his men were still shaken and suffering from gas and returned without casualties. I then ordered Ritchie, who had himself been in the thick of the fight, to withdraw his battered section by easy stages to Querrieu Wood.

Since the 8th we had indulged in a series of expensive nibbles south of the Somme. Although on the day of the great surprise we had penetrated south of the Somme to a depth of ten thousand yards, disorganised the enemy's communications by concentrated bombing and the raids of armoured motor-cars, and captured innumerable prisoners and an enormous quantity of material, the Germans with astounding skill filled the gap with fresh troops, who defended their positions with the utmost resolution.

In these minor operations the tanks suffered heavily. We could not understand why they had not been withdrawn. Obviously the enemy were aware that there were tanks on their front, and they made every possible preparation to receive them. And the Mk. V. was not so handy and so fast a tank that it could afford to despise field-guns whose one object was to hit tanks. If the tanks had been withdrawn after the big surprise attack, the striking power of the British Armies in the next "full-dress" offensive would have been increased by one strong, fresh tank brigade....

From the 14th, Ryan's, Harland's, and Westbrook's sections had not been used. The men were given a few days' rest?-?I brought them back to Fouilloy or to Querrieu Wood?-?and I arranged for the majority of the officers to go in turn by car or lorry to Doullens for a breath of civilisation. Then we set to work on the tanks, and by the end of the week the tanks of the two sections were once again fit for action. We waited for orders.

It was decided to attack on the 23rd at Herleville and Proyart, two stubborn villages a few miles south of the Somme. My company had been placed directly under the orders of the Australian Corps; and, after I had completed the preliminary arrangements at an interview with the Brigadier-General, General Staff, of the Corps at Glisy, I instructed Harland and Westbrook to work out the details with the staffs of the divisions involved, the 1st Australian and the 32nd.

On the 21st Harland's tanks in the Cérisy Valley, near Warfusée, were loaded with a splendid assortment of barbed wire, water, detonated bombs, grenades, rations, picks, shovels, and other necessaries. During the night of the 22nd they moved forward, and by 2 A.M. they were in position behind the line, severely shelled and bombed.

At dawn they followed the attack closely, and, when after stiff fighting the Australians had reached their final objective, the infantry were supplied instantly with food and water, with barbed wire to defend them against counter-attacks, and with all the ammunition they could need.

The tanks made two journeys, the second in the broad light of day, within full view of the enemy gunners, who naturally did their utmost to prevent this impudent unloading of stores under their very noses. One tank was hit on the track, but succeeded in crawling away. All the tanks were shelled briskly enough, but good fortune attended them, though by the rules of the game they should never have escaped. One of my men was killed and five were wounded. The Australians, who assisted in the unloading, were less lucky.

At Herleville, Westbrook with three tanks had been equally successful. Two tanks had followed the infantry through the ruins of Herleville, and seen to their wants at the moment of victory. After the third tank (Rankin's) had unloaded, a nest of machine-guns was discovered behind our support lines. The "fighting" tanks had already withdrawn. The Carrier tank with "soft" sponsons,32 and its solitary Hotchkiss gun, decided to attack, and the Colonel of a battalion of Highlanders climbed on board to act as guide, but before the tank could reach the nest an interfering officer with a battery of Stokes guns had forced the surviving Germans to surrender.

Company headquarters had not been entirely inactive. Mac, of all reconnaissance officers the most conscientious, who on one famous occasion had described so clearly to a section the routes they should not take, that the section nearly forgot which route they should take, had spent the night of the 20th with Dron his orderly in finding a way for Ritchie's tanks through the difficult country to Bonnay. In the course of their wanderings they came upon a mysterious camp, deserted and full of stores. There were even several cases of whisky in a tent. I can conceive no greater tribute to the discipline of the Tank Corps than the fact that this reconnaissance officer, after making a note of this important discovery, did not dally in the tent for a moment, but went out into the night. On the 22nd he reconnoitred a route for Westbrook's section from Bayonvillers, where the tanks were camouflaged, to the forward posts. There was no time to lay tape: white stakes were placed at intervals across difficult stretches. It was not too easy to discover a convenient "lying-up place," because the "fighting" tanks had already secured the desirable "banks," and we had been instructed not to go too near them for fear of confusion on the morning of the battle.

My tank engineer and his men had been indefatigable. Our tanks were obsolete, and usually they were overloaded. The crews were inexperienced. Tank after tank would break down, and a stream of demands for spare parts flowed into headquarters. On more than one occasion it became necessary to lift out the whole engine complete and give the tank a new or more often an overhauled engine from the field stores. At Querrieu Wood we were short of men?-?the establishment of a Carrier Company is not generous?-?so that when heavy spares arrived, every one, from the mess-cook to the adjutant, would lend a hand. Before the battle the tank engineer would rush on his motor-cycle from one invalid tank to another. At Proyart, for example, a few minutes before "zero," he was repairing under continuous shell-fire a spare tank which had broken down tactlessly at a cross-roads immediately behind the line.

With his sections operating independently on a wide front the Company Commander could only tour the battlefield, for once the plans were laid he could exercise little influence upon the result. So you may imagine him visiting Ritchie and his tanks north of the Somme, paying a brief unhappy visit to Proyart, and then with Westbrook pushing forward to a gully beyond Rainecourt to look for Rankin and his tank. The enemy were unkind that day.

In these later actions the Carrier tanks had proved their worth incontestably. South of the Somme forty-six tons of stores and ammunition had been carried by nine ancient, unsuitable tanks, manned by eight officers and fifty men33 to nine different points, each within 400 yards of the enemy, and each inaccessible by day to wheeled transport. If the old bad system of carrying parties had been employed, 250034 men would have been needed instead of 58. Further, these loads were carried forward eight to nine miles in all, and at least sixteen lorries were therefore set free. Lastly, the Carrier tanks followed so closely the advancing infantry that in the majority of cases the stores and ammunition were handed over as soon as they could be received.

The success and importance of the Carrier tanks were pleasantly recognised. One General wrote a special letter of thanks and congratulations about us to the 5th Tank Brigade, stating that the Carrier tanks were "a great feature of the day's operations." An Australian General recommended one of my section commanders for a decoration, and at the first opportunity sent by his car a present to the section of two jars of rum and a few cases of chocolate.

It had become increasingly difficult for us to convince ourselves that we were not "fighting troops." We had followed the infantry "over the top"; we had dumped supplies in full view of the enemy; one of my tanks had received a direct hit, and had been set on fire; another tank had been abandoned practically in No-Man's-Land because every man in the crew except the tank commander had become a casualty; a third tank, with a Highland colonel on board, had started to mop up a machine-gun nest. We began to wonder whether, after all, we were a fit receptacle for "crocks." And we did not forget that Carrier Tanks were manned only by skeleton crews, and that, in consequence, every member of the crew was driven to work day and night.

We set ourselves at once to make ready our fourteen surviving tanks, in case we should be required again, and I issued orders for the reconnaissance of the forward area south of the Somme; but on the 21st August the battle of Bapaume had commenced, and on our front the enemy began to withdraw to the Canal de la Somme, with the Australians in pursuit. Our brigade were placed in G.H.Q. Reserve, and I was ordered to concentrate my company at Villers-Brettoneux. On the 26th we received instructions to entrain.

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