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   Chapter 16 THE HINDENBURG LINE.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 26761

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(August 27th to October 8th, 1918.)

We had become masters of our tanks. Faults had been traced and eliminated; defective parts had been replaced?-?three tanks had received complete new engines?-?and invaluable experience had been acquired not only in the upkeep and repair of tanks, but in the art of extorting "spares" from Field Stores, in preserving the necessary "stock" in the Technical Quartermaster-Sergeant's stores, and in arranging for the correct "part," even if it were an engine complete, to be rushed forward by lorry to the invalid tank. I knew now that, if I ordered a tank or a section of tanks to trek any reasonable distance within a reasonable time, there was no need for me to wonder how many of my tanks would reach their destination. This may seem a small thing, but you must remember that five months before not half a dozen of my men had had the slightest idea of a petrol-engine's insides.

So it mattered little that, when I received instructions to entrain at Villers-Brettoneux, my tanks were scattered over the countryside?-?Ryan's at Hamelet, Harland's and Westbrook's in the Cérisy Valley, and Ritchie's survivors at Querrieu Wood. On the 26th, the tanks trekked without incident to an orchard half a mile from the ramp, camouflaged and, pushing in their sponsons, made ready to entrain, while Mac, with an advance party, dashed away to Boisleux-au-Mont, our destination.

On the 30th, after I had seen Harland and Westbrook entrained in great style from a travelling ramp, I drove north to Boisleux, which lies just half-way between our old friends, Wailly and Behagnies. There I discovered Mac weary and wrathful after a tussle with a battalion commander over some choice dug-outs which we coveted. We consoled ourselves with a clean stretch of turf at the back of some old trenches, against the parados of which we afterwards constructed shacks and stores, and fortunately well away from the village.

At 1 A.M. on the 31st Westbrook's train pulled in to the ramp at Boisleux. Read, Mac, and I had been waiting for it since 9 P.M. After we had spent an hour or so in listening to German aeroplanes, admiring the ineffective patterns which the searchlights made, and wondering whether the ramp might not be bombed, we procured some chairs and dozed.

We were suddenly awakened by a hideous crash, the grinding of enormous timbers and frightened shouts. We listened for the noise of the engine and the hiss of the next bomb?-?until in the blackness of the night we realised that it was only a tank train which a foolish engine-driver had driven into the ramp....

At Boisleux we rested pleasantly after we had thoroughly overhauled our tanks, fitted grids inside the sponsons to prevent the loads from falling into the engines or the crew, and drilled a little. There were, of course, minor diversions. On two or three nights the village was bombed, but we, who were in the open, escaped. We did not escape so easily from a storm which blew down the majority of our numerous tents. There was much shouting for batmen that night.

I took the opportunity of indulging in a little Paris leave. On the second night Paris was bombed. I was awakened by a discreet tap at the door of my room. Sleepily I heard the calm voice of the unruffled Swede who owned my favourite hotel in Montparnasse?-?

"It is an air-raid, and my clients gather below; but M. le Commandant, who is accustomed to war's alarms, will doubtless prefer to continue his sleep."

It was too absurd to be bombed when stretched comfortably in the softest of beds with a private bathroom next door.... I thought that I must be dreaming. Anyway, nothing on earth or above it could have induced me to leave that bed.

My car met me at Amiens on September 25th. The driver told me that my Company had moved forward to Manancourt, a village a few miles south of Ytres, and was expecting shortly to take part in an attack. So with the famous air from that sophisticated operetta, "La Petite Femme de Loth," running in my head, I drove through Villers-Brettoneux and Warfusée to Proyart, where I dropped an austere American Staff Officer, who had come with me in the train from Paris, and thence over the Somme through the outskirts of Peronne, to a tidy little camp on clean grass by a small coppice half-way between Manancourt and Nurlu. I found the Company making ready for action.

At Boisleux we had come under the orders of the 4th Tank Brigade, which had suffered such heavy losses during the battle of Amiens, both in a series of actions with the Canadians and later in the Happy Valley, that it had been placed in reserve. The stern defence of Bullecourt by the enemy, who held it as desperately in 1918 as they had in 1917, nearly drew the Brigade from its rest; but at last even Bullecourt fell, and the British Armies swept on to the suburbs of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line.

It was with the Hindenburg Line that the 4th Tank Brigade was concerned.

On the front of the 4th Army, with which our Brigade was now operating, the Hindenburg Line, a series of defences 7,000 to 10,000 yards in depth, was itself defended by the St Quentin Canal. For three and a half miles, between Vendhuille and Bellicourt, the canal passes through a tunnel, and this stretch it was determined to attack. But before the main operation could take place, it was urgently necessary to capture certain outlying points of vantage known as The Knoll and Quennemont and Guillemont Farms. Already we had attempted unsuccessfully on three occasions to carry them by storm. A final attempt was to be made by the 108th American Infantry Regiment on September 27th, and one section of Carrier tanks was ordered to assist. Ryan, who had been in command of the company during my absence, had detailed his own section for the job.

On the afternoon of the 25th, Ryan and I reported at the Headquarters of the American Division concerned, the 27th. The American Staff was a little flustered and confused, ... but we found to our gratification that Australian Staff Officers were "nursing" the Americans?-?there were a number of Australians with each American unit?-?and we soon obtained the orders and the information which we required. The Australians knew us and we knew the Australians: nothing could have been more satisfactory. The Americans, on the other hand, had never heard of Carrier tanks, although they appreciated in theory their use at once.

Ryan's tanks moved by easy stages to a copse three-quarters of a mile from Villers-Faucon, where they were loaded on the 26th with ammunition, wire, water, and sandbags. They were joined by unloading parties of American infantry, eight men to each tank, bright young fellows who had not previously been in action. I doubted whether they would be of use: to follow a slow Carrier tank into action and to unload it in sight of the enemy under heavy fire needs the coolness and skill of veterans.

It was a little characteristic that, while the quartermaster who brought the supplies to Ryan's tanks was more than eager to help and almost embarrassed me with his explanations and suggestions, the unloading parties gave us a sad fright by arriving at the last moment. They had received no written orders, and, after wandering aimlessly round the country "for some other tanks," came in at dusk dead-tired.

On the night before the battle the tanks moved up to points in the rear of our posts, and thirty minutes after "zero" they followed the fighting tanks and the infantry. The shelling was severe.

The first tank under Sergeant Broughton reached its objective, but, as the unloading party had lost touch with it on the trek forward, the crew were compelled themselves to unload the tank. Apparently the attack had been checked, for Sergeant Broughton found that he was so close to the enemy that he could see them firing. He completed the dump, swinging the tank to give the men as much cover as possible from machine-gun bullets, though without help it was painfully slow work, and half his men were wounded. On the way back the tank struck a land-mine, and it was set on fire. The survivors crawled back into camp late in the afternoon.

The second tank, under Thomas,35 became "ditched" in a huge crater a few hundred yards from its objective. It was so heavy loaded that the unditching beam could not be used, and such intense machine-gun fire was directed at the tank that Thomas quite properly did not ask his men to attempt to unload the roof. It would, in any case, have been a laborious job, since the unloading party had missed the way. Three attempts were made to extricate the tank from the crater into which it had slipped, but each attempt failed. The German gunners were more successful, for by dusk they had blown the tank into a fantastic tangle of twisted wreckage.

The third tank struck a land-mine on the way forward. Two of the crew were killed instantly, and a third man was severely wounded. Ryan, who was walking beside the tank, was badly injured?-?his ankle was shattered by the force of the explosion.

Read and I had tramped up to Ronssoy, a large industrial village in which were the headquarters of the 108th Regiment. It was a damp steamy day. The Americans were puzzled and disconsolate. Their infantry, led gallantly by tanks of the 4th Battalion, had undoubtedly advanced, but the reports were so conflicting that no one could say definitely how the line ran. It appeared that the Americans had not "mopped up" with any success, since there were parties of the enemy between the Americans who had attacked and the posts which they had left at "zero." In places the Germans seemed to be farther forward than they had been before the attack commenced. Of the fighting tanks the majority had received direct hits,36 and the crews, mostly wounded, were staggering back by twos and threes into Ronssoy. It was no wonder that Sergeant Broughton had found himself under the very noses of the enemy. With the main attack still to come, the situation could not have been more unsatisfactory.

Even the headquarters of the 108th Regiment were to suffer. We had noticed a little nervously that although a German observation balloon was looking into Ronssoy, a crowd of orderlies and officers were collected in the road outside the headquarters. The lesson was sharp. Twenty minutes after we had left the village in an ammunition lorry a salvo of 5.9's, entirely without warning, burst among the crowd.

Of the land-mines which had proved fatal to two of my tanks and to several tanks of the 4th Battalion we had received information, but the information was found to be inaccurate. Warning had reached us of a British anti-tank minefield laid in March, and we had marked the mines on our maps. The minefield, however, was in fact five hundred yards from its supposed position, and its full extent was not discovered until on the 29th ten American tanks endeavoured to pass across it and were destroyed.

On the 28th it was clear enough that, although parties of American infantry were out in front of their original line, The Knoll, together with Quennemont and Guillemont Farms, remained in German hands. The attack of the 108th Regiment was more than unsuccessful. If it had never been launched the attack on the 29th might have taken place at least under cover of a barrage; but now that scattered bodies of Americans, surrounded by the enemy, were ahead, no barrage could be employed.

While the survivors of Ryan's section, under the command of Thomas, were salving what remained of their tank equipment, the three remaining sections moved forward from Manancourt with the battalions to which they had been allotted. Fortunately, my officers reconnoitred their own routes, for two of the convoys with which they were trekking temporarily lost their way.37 My tanks were detailed once again to carry supplies for the fighting tanks, a dull and thankless task.

Two hours after "zero," on the 29th, my car felt its way through thick mist into Hargicourt, a dilapidated village a mile or so from the "infantry start line." The Brigade had ordered that the Refilling Point for tanks should be an open stretch of rough pasture on the farther side of the village. The map reference of the point was L5b4.1. It was intended that on the afternoon of the battle lorries should bring supplies to the Refilling Point, that the loads should there be transferred to my tanks, and that my tanks with a day's supplies on board should follow the fighting tanks across the broken desolate country of the Hindenburg system of trenches. I had decided in consequence to make L5b4.1 my headquarters.

The enemy did not approve of this decision. As soon as the mist began to clear Hargicourt itself was shelled methodically, while the proposed Refilling Point, which was surrounded by a number of half-concealed batteries, was the object of a bitter hate. A wireless tank, destined for the same unhappy spot, had retired into the garden of a cottage, and I accompanied the wireless tank. It belonged to my old battalion. We heard all the news, and the driver knew how to make tea.

Soon it became clear that for once the battle was not proceeding in accordance with plan. Obviously the enemy was still clinging to the Quennemont Ridge, and the left flank of the attacking infantry was uncover

ed. The direction from which the bulk of the shelling came could not be mistaken. Hargicourt itself was being shelled with light stuff, while, if we had reached our objectives to time, the village would by now have been out of range.

The news was melancholy. The wounded, streaming back through the village, told us that the enemy machine-guns were murderous; reports from tank officers showed that an appalling number of tanks had received "direct hits"; of the Americans nothing had been heard. From our right, however, came the astounding rumour that the 46th Division had achieved the impossible by forcing the passage of the canal and capturing Bellenglise.

A gunner officer was being carried down the street of the village on a stretcher. He was so badly wounded that his nerve was gone, and he asked me piteously as he passed me whether he was now quite safe. I had left him and was fifty yards or so away when a field-gun shell burst close to the stretcher. For a moment the smoke enveloped the little group. Then it blew away?-?the stretcher-bearers were standing quite still. I hurried to them. Not one of them had been touched. Mercifully the officer had lost consciousness. The stretcher-bearers just grinned, gave their straps a hitch, and strode off down the street again.

Soon Ritchie, Harland, and Parslow reported to me that they had dumped their loads and, seeing that the proposed refilling point was being heavily shelled, had come to me for orders.

I instructed my sections-commanders to concentrate at certain points in the rear of the village, and pushed forward along the Quennemont road myself. In a few minutes I met Major Hotblack, the intelligence officer at Tank Corps Headquarters. He had been wounded in the head. Later I learned that he with two tanks had just captured Quennemont Ridge, which for so long had defied us. And the tank crews had held the ridge until they were relieved.

I obtained as much information as I could from the many walking wounded?-?our attack on the left had been checked?-?and returning to my headquarters, which were rapidly becoming distasteful to me, despatched a report by wireless.

There was an element of humour in this delay to our advance. It was so unexpected that many headquarters found themselves farther forward than they had intended. Puzzled mess-sergeants, pushing on blindly to villages which were still in the enemy's hands, were hurt and indignant when they were warned to return. The neighbourhood of Hargicourt was crowded with pathetic little camps, disconsolate staff-captains and suspended headquarters. Personally I had no wish to remain even in Hargicourt. The enemy had begun to use gas shells, and one heavy howitzer at least made Hargicourt its target for a time. The Refilling Point could not come into operation; the surviving tanks would find plentiful supplies at the dumps which my section had already made. On the other hand, two miles back, there were some excellent quarries at Templeux-le-Guérard, where we could rest in safety and comfort until we were wanted. You will remember that, as we were not "fighting troops," but merely a humble collection of "supply tanks," we could retire from the fray without hurt to our self-respect.

I was fortunate enough to meet the General's car between Templeux and Roisel. He approved of my suggestion. I returned rapidly to Hargicourt, and withdrew my miserable headquarters to a grassy depression near the quarries, where Harland's section had rallied. Mac went in search of suitable dug-outs, while I listened to Harland's report.

Harland, like a good section commander, had given his men an excellent breakfast before the day's work?-?fried bacon, hot toast, and tea, followed by rum.38 Each tank had been loaded at Manancourt Copse with 240 gallons of petrol, 40 gallons of oil, 80 gallons of water, 40 lb. of grease, 20,000 rounds of Hotchkiss ammunition, and 400 rounds of 6-pdr. ammunition. Thus heavily laden, they crawled on for three hours, until they reached the appointed spot for unloading, immediately behind our original line. They were noticed by an enemy aeroplane flying low, and shelled heavily in consequence. Small dumps were formed in shell-holes?-?the operation was completed with astonishing celerity?-?and the tanks, running light, raced away. One man had been gassed and one wounded.

Within the next two hours the German gunners destroyed half the supplies which had been dumped, but they were not required, since the majority of the American tanks, for whose benefit the dumps had been formed, lay derelict on the minefield, which had blown up two of my tanks on the 27th.

Ritchie's section had experienced no adventures. They had dumped their supplies punctually, and rallied without hindrance from the enemy.

We retired at dusk to our dug-outs in the quarries above the village of Templeux-le-Guérard.39 These quarries penetrated confusedly into a steep and isolated hill, upon which a stout castle might have been built. The workings were approached by slippery paths. The hill was a very maze of tunnels, ravines, pits, shelters, which provided impenetrable cover for numerous guns and a brigade or more of infantry. The enemy appreciated its qualities, and refused to waste shells upon it. Their gunners confined themselves to the lower slopes and to the level-crossing in Templeux itself.

The quarries were tenanted with wrathful Australians. It had been planned that the Americans should storm the first trench-system of the Hindenburg Line, and that the Australians, passing through the Americans, should continue the attack by storming the second trench-system. But when the Australians went forward an hour or so after "zero," they discovered to their cost that in many places the enemy infantry were sitting happily in the trenches which the Americans had captured. Large numbers of Americans had disappeared. Not even our aeroplanes could tell us what points they had reached, or how many had survived. The result was that the Australians, with an unknown quantity of Americans "out in front," did not dare to use their artillery. They resigned themselves to the inevitable, and attacked the Hindenburg Line grimly with bomb and bayonet. They hammered in little wedges of men, and foot by foot, with savage cunning and merciless determination, fought their way through the gigantic system of intricate defences, often coming suddenly upon detached bodies of Americans, helplessly surrounded, but still holding out.

It was indeed true that on our right the 46th Division, "equipped with lifebelts, and carrying mats and rafts," by a gallant feat of arms had crossed the St Quentin Canal and established themselves on the eastern bank,?-?the right flank of the Australians was thus secured; but to my mind even the feat of the 46th Division did not surpass the astonishing exploits of the Australians, who took disaster by the throat and choked victory out of it. For various reasons this phase of the battle has been somewhat obscured.... By October 5th the Australians had broken through the Hindenburg Line, and with the help of tanks stormed Montbrehain. They had fought continuously since September 29th.

In these intermediate actions we took no part. After two nights in the quarries I moved my company to Haute Wood, a stunted copse sheltering a quiet grassy slope, a couple of miles out of Templeux, on the Roisel road. There we remained placidly until October 7th in the multitudinous tents which we had by this time collected, overhauling our tanks, playing a little football, and visiting as frequently as our duties permitted the strictly rationed canteen at Peronne. We were disturbed only by an occasional shell from a long-range gun.

Once Montbrehain was stormed the enemy could cling only to the farther fringes of the Hindenburg Line, and on October 8th we drove them out of organised trenches altogether into the clean open country. My tanks were again employed to follow the fighting tanks with supplies, but on this occasion my sections were not allocated to battalions, but remained under my own command, so that we were able to choose our own times and places, and by "pooling" supplies to effect very necessary economies.

On the 5th I had reconnoitred with Mac and my section commander a route forward from Haute Wood to the vicinity of Bellicourt. It was a dismal tramp over ground shelled to utter destruction?-?a maze of crumbling trenches and forgotten posts, strewn with derelict equipment, deserted dumps of ammunition, dead stinking horses, and too often the corpses of unburied Germans. Here and there ran light railways, which we did not desire to damage in case they should be needed; and near Bellicourt was a wilderness of sidings and stores and huts and roadways.

From the high ground above Bellicourt we looked across the log-road to Quennemont Ridge?-?outwardly a peaceful dark-green down, but in fact a loathsome graveyard on which the corpses lay scattered in handfuls, and blackened metal tombs that had been tanks. The distant gunners were still tormenting this hill, which was already dead, and shells, lazily exploding, stirred again the loose mud, rotting bodies, and rusted rifles.

The log-road over the trenches, narrow and insecure, was crammed with thick traffic moving at less than walking pace, for it was the only road from Hargicourt to Bellicourt. It might have been a bridge over a river impassable to all transport except tanks.

To the south were low dark ridges stretching to St Quentin. They were fringed with bursting shells. And in front of us was Bellicourt, tattered, but with red-brick cheerful in a gleam of sun?-?not utterly submerged by war, and with but a faint spirit of the place hovering above the levelled ruins, as were those ravished places which had known war for year after year. Bellicourt, shattered but undismayed, still lived to point gallantly to the tracks of the retiring enemy and the goal for which we had always fought?-?open country.

On the 6th my tanks moved into the trenches, spending the night near Hargicourt, and on the night of the 7th trekked down a valley, less destroyed than others, to Bellicourt, and over the tunnel canal and the main St Quentin road. The sections pitched their tents by some trenches. I had advanced my headquarters meanwhile to a clean stretch of turf by the St Quentin road, just outside Bellicourt, leaving at Haute Wood my stores and heavy baggage, which I had been able only within the last few days to bring forward from the copse at Manancourt. Lorries were none too plentiful, and I had collected a great quantity of stores in case I should find myself out of touch with the sources of supply.

The night was noisy, but no damage was done, and the morning was splendidly fine. My sections had moved soon after dawn. I followed later in my car.

We drove along the canal to Bellenglise, then, bearing to the left, took to the old Roman Road, along which the 5th and 3rd Divisions, defeated, broken, and more weary than I could describe, poured confusedly through the rain on the night of August 26th, 1914. We passed by the strange cottage, still unharmed, where we despatch-riders had given stew and hot coffee to the bedraggled Staff and had slept amongst the straw, and came to Harland's tanks a mile or so short of Estrées, waiting dully to supply the tanks of the 301st American Battalion. So we arrived at the dismal dilapidated village itself, momentarily empty except for innumerable notices in German and a derelict whippet tank standing in the little square in which our Signal Company had rallied four years since. We slipped into a byroad, left the car, and walked across country to a half-grown copse under the shadow of Beaurevoir. There we found Ritchie's four tanks with that excellent Mac of the 1st Battalion, who had helped us to detrain at Achiet-le-Grand. While we were consuming tea and sandwiches with them, it was reported that certain tanks had run short of petrol near Serain, the first of the redeemed villages. I sent two of Ritchie's tanks forward to help.... Ritchie's tanks duly arrived at Serain, where they were overwhelmed by the embraces of the pale hysterical villagers. Both Ritchie's and Harland's tanks trekked back that afternoon to Bellicourt. Two of Harland's tanks passed through a valley crammed with a brigade of cavalry, who at the eleventh hour of the war were hoping for an old-fashioned, sabre-waving pursuit. It was a little ludicrous to think that my old supply-tanks could have put to flight the brigade in the valley. As it was, they merely gave the horses a severe fright. We completed our round, gathering the news and calling at various necessary headquarters. Finally we returned in gentlemanly fashion for lunch....

That night we began to realise the unbelievable?-?there was not a trench between us and Germany. And yet this thing, for which we had been yearning four long years, had come about in the ordinary course of the day's work. That gay, splendid break-through of our imaginations was in fact but the successful completion of a day's fighting disappointingly like any other day's fighting. We could just repeat the words again and again, doubting their truth, yet rejoicing soberly in their significance?-?

"We are through to the open country!"

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