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A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 22475

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

(October 9th to October 30th, 1918.)

On October 9th the enemy broke off the engagement, retiring six miles to the neighbourhood of Le Cateau, in order that they might re-form and again present some sort of front to our advance. Clouds of fast tanks should have pursued them closely and prevented them ever from rallying. In the absence of tanks the cavalry pressed forward on either side of the Roman Road, gallantly charged machine-guns, and returned more than a little shaken with news which the aeroplanes had already reported. We wondered what would have happened if the enemy rearguards had possessed a few "whippets" in addition to stoutly-fought machine-guns. It is a desperate business?-?to charge machine-guns, and it is pure suicide for cavalry to await the attack of tanks.

My old Carrier tanks were not to be left behind. On the 11th I moved my headquarters to a deserted inn on the Roman Road in the neighbourhood of Beaurevoir. The sections were encamped close by. This inn, which, together with a few houses and a beetroot factory, was known as Genève, had its advantages. The rooms were large and comparatively undamaged; within a few yards was a German R.E. dump: it was conveniently on the main road and the direct tank route forward. It had, however, been the centre of a stiff little fight. Within a radius of a hundred yards were thirty to forty corpses, mostly Americans. We commenced reverently to bury them, but one morning a somewhat severe American padre came in and bade us exhume his compatriots, and carry them to a little cemetery half a mile away, of which we had known nothing. We were only too glad to help him, and I lent him some men and a limbered waggon.

The mile along the old enemy defences to the village of Beaurevoir was a dolorous walk. The defences were only holes, scratched on the reverse side of banks by entrenching tools, and shallow machine-gun posts. The dead had not all been buried, and sometimes the searcher would discover a man who must have been long in dying?-?open warfare is not pleasant for those who fall wounded in hidden places.

Beaurevoir itself, set on a hill, was not yet empty of the dead. The ruined cottages had been evacuated hurriedly, but in each cottage the handloom had been smashed, and not by shells. The statue of Jeanne d'Arc had been taken from its pedestal, and had not been found.

The only live civilian near Beaurevoir was a cow, which kept Thomas's section supplied with milk until the Chinese came to clear the battlefield.

We were given but a few days to explore the country at our leisure. The enemy apparently had determined to make their first stand on the line of the Selle river, a very definite obstacle. Le Cateau itself was doubtful territory.

A series of conferences was held at brigade headquarters, which had suddenly jumped forward to Serain. It was determined to attack on the 17th. Now that we had reached good roads and open country my tanks were not required to carry supplies for the fighting tanks, but, as a measure of precaution, I was instructed to send a section forward to Maurois, a ten-mile trek from Genève. Parslow's tanks completed the trek without incident on the 15th.

I motored up to see him, and every yard of the road was for me a solemn triumph. We were avenging the confused retreat of the British Army on the afternoon and night of the first battle of Le Cateau; we were driving through really clean unshelled country, which might never have been touched by the finger of war if it had not been for the craters blown at the cross-roads and the occasional corpse by the roadside; and never in my life have I seen happier people, men and women more flustered and confused with happiness, than the thin underfed villagers who stood gazing in the crowded main street of Maretz.

Short of Maurois village the Germans had blown into the cutting the road-bridge over the railway from Cambrai to St Quentin. The traffic was being diverted, when we arrived on the scene, over heavy fields to a level crossing, and the engineers were working against time to construct a new bridge capable of bearing the heaviest transport. It had been raining, and the men were finding it difficult indeed to haul the great girders into position. A couple of hundred yards away were Parslow's tanks. The remedy was obvious. A tank was brought round on to the rails and spent a profitable hour in doing a job which would have taken fifty men a full day. The bridge was completed rapidly, and the traffic once more flowed steadily over the bridge instead of floundering over the fields.

On the 17th and 18th Parslow's tanks were not required. On the 19th they trekked back to Genève. The 4th Tank Brigade was being relieved by the 2nd Tank Brigade. We expected orders to move to Hargicourt for entrainment, and we made an expedition over the log-road to discover the whereabouts of the ramp. But a railway accident outside Cambrai delayed the arrival of the 2nd Carrier Company,?-?to our disgust we were ordered to remain temporarily with the 2nd Tank Brigade.

We became involved at once in our last battle of the war. From the 17th to the 20th we had straightened our line in a series of fierce and costly little attacks. The enemy had been driven definitely from Le Cateau and now lay just beyond the outskirts of the town. To the west of the town we had crossed the Selle. The Army Commander decided to throw the enemy back to the Mormal Forest by a grand attack on a fifteen-mile front. I received orders from the 2nd Tank Brigade to assist the XIIIth Corps by carrying supplies.

I instructed Parslow's section, which had just completed a ten-mile trek, to return with Thomas's section to the camp by Maurois Station, and when they were on their way I reported at Corps Headquarters. I arranged with the Corps Staff that Thomas's section should operate with the 33rd, 34th, and 35th Infantry Brigades of the 11th Division, while Parslow should help the 25th Division. The Corps further requested urgently that any spare tanks which I might have should be detailed to carry ammunition for the 104th Army Brigade R.F.A., the guns of which could not be reached by horse transport without difficulty on account of the nature of the ground. I brought up Harland from Genève, gave him two tanks, and ordered him to carry on.

On the afternoon of the 20th I established my advanced headquarters in an orchard, quarter of a mile from the bridge which we had helped to construct. After mess we all attended a first-rate "show" given by the Divisional Troupe of the 25th Division, and returned to our camp greatly encouraged, but a trifle unhappy that we had not billeted ourselves in one of the many excellent houses in Maurois.

That night one officer at least was disturbed in his slumbers. The enemy shelled Maurois persistently, sending over a few shells to the neighbourhood of the bridge. Finally a large aeroplane bombed along the main road, dropping one group just short of the camp, and another group, intended presumably for the bridge, between the bridge and the camp. The aeroplane was flying so recklessly low?-?it was a clear night with a moon?-?that for once our machine-gunners brought her down in a field about a mile beyond the bridge.

Much damage had been done in Maurois. We were thankful that we were in tents outside the village and had not been tempted by the houses. One shell had exploded just behind the hall in which the concert had been held. For such shelling and bombing the casualties were heavy.

On the 21st I was quite busy. After a visit to my rear headquarters at Genève to arrange for the supply of spare parts by lorry, I reported again to the Corps for final orders. Then with Parslow I visited the 25th Division and went with the Divisional Commander to see the Commander of the Brigade to which Parslow's tanks would be attached. We settled every detail to our satisfaction.

In the afternoon I ran over with Thomas to Reumont, where we hoped to find the 11th Division, but a relief had not yet been completed and its staff had not arrived. We spent our spare time in walking out to the cottage, which had been the headquarters of the 5th Division on August 26, 1914, but time had swept away every trace of that first battle. The pits which had been dug on either side of the road to shelter the signallers had been filled in. The tiles of the cottage, loosened by the scaling-ladders of our intelligence officer, had been replaced. The little trenches had disappeared. But there was the hedge from the cover of which our one heavy battery, the 108th, had fired?-?it ran short of fuses in the old-fashioned way, and Grimers was sent hastily down the road on his motor-cycle for more. In that barn to the left we had slept hoggishly among the straw on the night before the battle, the first night's sleep since we had detrained at Landrecies and the last until we reached the Aisne. To my amazement the church behind the barn was still standing, intact except for a couple of shell-holes. I could have sworn that four years ago, as I was riding out of the village, I saw flames bursting from the roof. The Germans certainly entered the village not long after I had left it. Perhaps they may have extinguished the flames and repaired the damage.

I had no time to question the good people of Reumont or to discover whether those exiguous, badly-sited trenches on the Le Cateau road were still to be distinguished. The 11th Division had at last taken over, and the G.S.O.(i) of the relieved Division was describing his experiences among the outposts to his successor. I reported, and was referred to the "Q" branch of the Division, located doubtfully in Maurois.

We searched Maurois without success. We were somewhat delayed by a stream of ambulances bearing through the rain and the darkness the gassed civilians of Le Cateau. These civilians?-?men, women, and children?-?had refused to leave their homes. Even the French mission could not move them. They protested airily that in a day or two Le Cateau would be safe. Now through Le Cateau passed the stores and ammunition of a corps: the cellars contained infantry; the houses sheltered guns. The enemy accordingly shelled it heartily with gas and H.E., and the gas was fatal to the civilians. We sent forward as many gas-helmets as we could, but even if they had been sufficient it would have been beyond man's wit to distribute them among the inhabitants, who had gone to ground in cellars. I found it difficult to blame the enemy. Who, then, was to blame for these tortured children with their ghastly green faces, and the still bodies covered with carefully-mended sheets?

At last we met an intelligent staff captain, who directed us to Maretz. There we discovered an appreciative colonel with whom we commenced to make necessary arrangements. The final details the section commanders worked out for themselves with the staffs concerned. We arrived back at our camp a little weary and bedraggled, hoping for a quiet night. Our hopes were fulfilled.

The morning of the 22nd was spent in reconnaissance. At dusk Thomas's and Parslow's sections, accompanied by unloading parties of infantry, moved fo

rward from Maurois: Harland had already commenced to supply his guns with shells.

As soon as it was light on the 23rd, Mac and I drove to the railway embankment, from which Parslow's tanks had started on their trek into the battle. We walked over a few fields until, at a road which at "zero" had been our front line, we overtook a Carrier tank which had been much delayed by mechanical trouble. We followed the route of the attacking infantry through orchards and rich enclosed fields?-?here and there were dead, the prey of machine-guns?-?until we came to a mill stream, overhung by thick undergrowth, which had so troubled our intelligence officers that elaborate preparations for building field-bridges had been made. We crossed it by the shallowest of fords. To our astonishment shells began to fall behind us; later we knew that on our right the enemy were not dislodged from the edge of the Pommereuil Wood until the following day. We pushed on over more delicious fields, friendly gardens, and fine pasture, leaving the village of Pommereuil on our right, until, having followed the unmistakable tracks of our tanks,40 we ran Parslow's section to ground in an enclosure. His tanks had not yet been unloaded. The situation in front was obscure, and it was doubtful whether they could usefully carry their supplies farther forward.

Parslow told me that the experiment of attacking at 1.30 A.M. instead of at dawn had not been quite successful. The fighting tanks had been handicapped by the darkness, thick mist, and gas. The infantry, running blindly upon machine-gun posts which the tanks could not see, had suffered heavily. It was not until dawn that any appreciable progress was made. Parslow, immediately behind the battle, was compelled continually to stop, but fortunately his tanks escaped shells and his crews gas.

His miserable section passed the night in the enclosure where we had found them. On the 24th another attack was launched to clear the right flank, but it met with little success. The dense undergrowth in the woods and hollows in the ground screened the enemy machine-gunners. At last on the 25th the wood finally was cleared and the Carrier tanks were able to move forward and dump their loads, returning to Maurois on the 26th. It will be clear that the best use was not made of this section. Lorries and limbered waggons can carry up supplies after the battle. To use tanks for such a purpose is pure extravagance.

We left Parslow to his chilly nights and began our five-mile tramp back to Le Cateau along the Landrecies road, keeping a good look-out to the north for Thomas's tanks, but seeing only transport moving on the skyline along the Bavai road, which had known the 5th Division in advance and in retreat. We wondered what the 5th Division would have thought of the thirty or forty aeroplanes fighting mazily overhead in the cloudless sky, or what effect these aeroplanes would have had upon the battle. In those days you were not believed if you told your fellows that there had been three aeroplanes in the sky at once.

So in company with an anecdotal padre we came at dusk to the town of Le Cateau, which had been so furiously shelled that, as we discovered later, the German artillery officer responsible received a decoration. Torn, shattered Le Cateau remained an ancient and dignified town, an aristocrat who had suffered cheerfully the blows and buffets of a desperate fight. Old women in their best black-silk dresses stood chatting at the entrances to their cellars. A few children were playing soberly in the quiet streets. Groups of happy soldiers billeted in the place were strolling up and down with their usual air of consummate self-possession. Here and there angry old Frenchmen were searching for valuables among the rubbish and rubble that had been their homes. Along the traffic routes the noisy transport in endless columns shouted and clattered. But the old houses remained undisturbed, proud and a little aloof; you could hear one say to another?-?

"Of course, my dear, last night was dreadful, but I remember my mother told me that in the year 1554 the French before they set fire to the place.... Of course these plebeian factories and gaudy young villas! How can they know that Cateau Cambrésis was stormed at least ten times during the fifteenth century? After all, we have only been French for a trifle over two hundred years. The old bishop was so charming and such a gentleman...."

We left the old houses to their talk, and passing through the seediest suburbs, great yards, solitary warehouses, sidings and stations, we came to our car, and drove back to Maurois at walking-pace?-?the roads were terribly congested. Thomas reported in the evening.

Thomas and his section had moved forward to the neighbourhood of Montay, a little village immediately to the west of Le Cateau, at dusk on the night of the 22nd–23rd, arriving about 8 P.M. The crews had no sleep, for the enemy shelled and gassed Montay unmercifully, the bombardment becoming a barrage in the early hours of the morning. Thomas and Connor pressed forward to make a final reconnaissance of the route. It was necessary for the tanks to cross the Selle by a specially-constructed bridge. The ground on either side of the route was marshy.

One tank under Sergeant Fenwick had been equipped with a special apparatus for laying cable. The tank, accompanied by a signal officer, passed over the bridge at dawn, and following closely behind the infantry laid cable throughout the day to the enormous content of Divisional Headquarters. No sooner was an objective reached than Fenwick arrived with his cable. On one occasion he was a little premature, overrunning the advance, and as his tank drew shell-fire, he was ordered back angrily by a disturbed colonel.

The remaining tanks, heavily loaded with stores, rations, and ammunition, crossed Montay Bridge in column. The first tank caught the door of its sponson in the rails of the bridge, and Thomas, coming back wrathfully to investigate the cause of delay, found the tank commander and one of his men up to their waists in the cold and muddy water fishing for the door, which had been lifted off its hinges. They found it, hauled it up and replaced it; but even Thomas was astounded by the extent of the tank commander's vocabulary, and, his rebuke dying on his lips, he hurried away to the calmer atmosphere of the battle.

The Division with which Thomas was operating advanced in three bounds?-?on a brigade front, the second brigade "leap-frogging" the first, and the third the first and second. Thomas's section was divided into three sub-sections, each of which attended to the wants of one brigade. Thus, when the first brigade, after stiff fighting, had reached its objective, the first sub-section of Carrier tanks which had followed the attack arrived with rations, water, bombs, ammunition, wire, spades, picks, &c., reported to the staff captain of the brigade, and unloaded at sequestered points. The second and third sub-sections followed the example of the first. In each case the scheme worked with mechanical perfection. The infantry were never disappointed. Without employing much-needed fighting men as carrying parties?-?without frenzied efforts to push forward tired horse transport over shelled roads, often impassable, a staff captain could be assured that his brigade would receive the necessities of existence as soon as they could be used. And, however far forward the infantry might be, however dangerous the approach to them, the problem was the same for the Carrier tanks.

The tanks serving the first two brigades returned to Maurois when their day's work had been completed, arriving in camp at dusk. The third sub-section came back on the following day. Fenwick and his cable-laying tank was so useful that it was as much as I could do to extract it from the Division on the third, with its crew cheery but thoroughly exhausted.

We received letter of congratulation both from Thomas's Division and from the corps; we had, to my mind, given conclusive proof of the utility of Carrier tanks, properly employed, even in semi-open warfare. Before the battle we had helped to build a bridge. During the battle we had kept the Divisional Commander in communication by laying cable forward as the advance progressed; we had carried stores for three brigades, supplying them on the spot with the necessaries of warfare; we had transported an enormous quantity of shells from the roadside over country impassable to horse transport. And this we had accomplished with obsolete tanks, entirely unsuitable for carrying bulky loads. On no single occasion did we fail "to deliver the goods." Again we were independent of roads when good roads were so scarce that a corps was fortunate if it possessed one road to itself. We could avoid shelled areas, and we could afford to neglect shell-fire or machine-gun fire. At a pinch we could fight. To my mind our experiences in the later stages of the battle of Amiens and in the second battle of Le Cateau show clearly the remarkable future which must lie in front of Carrier tanks.

Coxhead's Company continued the good work, until the 4th Army had passed beyond the Mormal Forest. Near Landrecies a section of his tanks captured an important bridge-head in curious circumstances.

The tanks were laden with bridge-building material, heavy girders, timbers, hawsers, and so on. According to programme the bridge-head should have fallen to the infantry, the tanks arriving with material for the reconstruction of the bridge, which it was anticipated that the enemy would have destroyed. There was unfortunately a little hitch. When the tanks came on the scene, the enemy were still defending the bridge-head with the utmost vigour. The section commander did not hesitate. His tanks continued to move forward as though they had been fighting tanks. The infantry, who had trained with tanks, advanced in the proper formation. The enemy broke and fled. It was a bloodless victory gained, curiously enough, by officers and men who were not rated as "fighting troops."

We had been relieved formally on the 25th. Thomas's and Harland's tanks trekked back to Genève on the 26th, Parslow arriving on the night of the 27th. There was no rest for the crews. We had received orders to entrain on the 30th at Roisel, and Roisel was thirteen to fourteen miles by tank route from Genève, which in its turn was more than twenty-five miles from the farthest point which my tanks had reached on the 23rd. But the men were cheerful, and the tanks were carrying only light tables, wire beds, cupboards, deck-chairs, felt and planks from the German R.E. store, jam and goulasch from a German ration dump near Le Cateau, fresh vegetables from Maurois, tents from three Armies,?-?they meant nothing to tanks accustomed to carrying ten tons without flinching, and we knew that whatever our destination we should find there nakedness. The weather was fine, the route was familiar, the going was good; in spite of multifarious mechanical troubles we made Roisel on the 29th and entrained on the 30th for the railhead at Beaumetz, a few miles from our old quarters at Wailly.

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