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   Chapter 18 THE END OF THE WAR.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 14982

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(October 31st, 1918, to January 12th, 1919.)

We returned from the bustle of active warfare, the sharp interest of solving immediate problems, the pleasantness and at times the comfort of clean country, to a squalid village on the edge of old, rotting trench systems. It was as if the offensive had failed miserably, and we had been thrust back to '16. At first we were exhilarated by the prospect of billets and faint incredible rumours that the end of the war was near....

On the 31st I established my headquarters in a farm at Bailleulmont, the squalid village. The tanks crawled in on the morning of the 1st. The men were distributed among ramshackle barns and leaky huts. We set ourselves at once to make the place tolerable, and were, perhaps, a little successful. Other tank units were not so fortunate. No villages could be found for them in northern France, and they were compelled to spend weeks in erecting laboriously new huts.41

On November 10th there was some excitement at Brigade Headquarters?-?it was possible that an Armistice might be arranged, but "we had heard that tale before." On the 11th a telegram was brought to me before breakfast, while I was in bed, that hostilities would cease at "11 hours."

The news was so overwhelming that I could not absorb it, and I am inclined to think now that, because there had been no anticipation, we lost at first the fine savour of it. I could not understand?-?until two of my officers started to ring the bell of the village church. The day became a smiling dream. I found myself walking up and down the village street, stopping everybody I met and saying?-?

"Do you realise that in one hour the war will be over?"

At 11 A.M. I stood opposite the church and exclaimed in a loud voice to nobody in particular?-?

"Gentlemen, the war is now over?-?absolutely!"

The company, naturally enough, had begun already to celebrate the occasion with appropriate rites, and its steadiness on parade, when before lunch the General came round to make a little speech, was truly remarkable. Only one officer in the rear was humming a little ditty to himself, and only one man interrupted the speech by a faint "hear! hear!" Salutes at the conclusion of the parade were superb....

We had a cold lunch, but one faithful mess waiter served us nobly with a set face. The two cooks with arms around each other's waists were strolling up and down outside the window. I think they must have been singing.

In the afternoon we went for a long walk?-?the news had come too early in the day. We returned a little refreshed. At night there was a bonfire; but I cannot do better than quote from the vivid narrative of one of my most trusted officers:?-?

"November 11th was a great day?-?and a greater night. The dreariness and loneliness of the place vanished suddenly on the receipt of the news of the enemy's capitulation. Would we not soon all be back in Blighty? The thought came like champagne to our thirsting souls. Imagination responded promptly. The bareness of officers billets vanished before visions of cosy sofas and arm-chairs, carpeted floors and clean-sheeted beds. Better still, faces of those we longed to see, especially of those we longed to kiss, came to us. Their owners moved amidst the pictured cosiness, sat in those arm-chairs, shared their sofas.... What a picture after the gritty holes and cramping caves of earth-covered ammunition boxes in the Cérisy Valley, or the stuffy, fly-ridden dilapidation of billets in Fouilloy! And it was the same with the men. No doubt their visions were as fair. The delight of these things shone in every one's faces. Unwonted cheerfulness was general. Every one smiled.

"And at night every one cheered. A way must be found to give free and full expression to bounding spirits. A huge bonfire was decided upon.... At twenty hours the massed logs that had been heaped on the top of the fallen masonry were saturated with petrol, a match was thrown, and a sheet of flame shot up. A war of cheering followed. Songs burst forth. Every one sung who could or thought he could. The rest shouted. It didn't matter?-?noise was the thing. Half an hour later the officers joined the shouting throng. The din grew louder. Some one shouted Speech!... Next the Adjutant, and in turn every other officer was called. Reversing the order, the officers then called upon the sergeant-major and senior N.C.O.'s. Finally, the 'other ranks' vociferously sang of the officers, 'For they are jolly good fellows,' and the officers in similar fashion paid compliments to the men. By this time the flames had died down. Flickering light and shadow replaced the ruddy glow, and slowly the crowd broke up. But for hours yet a small group of enthusiastic maffickers sat around the dying embers...."

I should like to leave you with that picture?-?I feel that after "dying embers" the word "Finis" might suitably be written?-?but, if this halting chronicle is to present an honest picture, it must stumble on for a few more paragraphs just as my Company dragged out a wearisome existence for a few more months.

There were compensations. Christmas brought its festivities; we played football desperately, and all but won the Brigade Cup; we were second in the Brigade Cross Country Run; a Concert Party visited us; a lecturer was heckled by our pet Socialist. It was, however, an almost impossible task to find the men something to do. We heard vaguely of an Army Education Scheme, or, more correctly, we read much about it in the newspapers, and we endeavoured to organise classes to shorten the long evenings, but we had no lamps or candles, no paper, no pencils, and no books.

We could think only of demobilisation, and soon my orderly-room staff was allowed to think of little else. We were overwhelmed with complicated regulations. We struggled through them, and discovered that Pte. X., who, entering the Army notoriously under pressure, had arrived in France quite recently, was due to go at once, while Sergt. T., an old and trusted N.C.O., was to remain in France indefinitely. The system of demobilising men by classes could not possibly have been meant to apply to a company billeted in a filthy village on the edge of an old trench system. Such a system disregarded entirely the natural feelings of the men?-?"First out, first back,"?-?and it was very necessary to consider such feelings after the Armistice. The men were no longer soldiers; they were civilians impatient of control and eager to get home. Only an army, which was undoubtedly the best disciplined army in France, could have suffered such a system of demobilisation with so little disturbance. It was astonishing to us that the émeutes, the existence of which is now common knowledge, were not more numerous. The system, admittedly perfect in theory from the standpoint of industrial reconstruction, could not be administered strictly without disregarding entirely the ordinary soldier's sense of justice.

Well, after four years of war we amateur soldiers were not dismayed by regulations. We made no fuss. We would receive an instruction to despatch a certain number of men to be demobilised at certain specified centres, and the men were despatched to time and in good order. By some mischance Sergt. T. went into the first batch and the demobilisation of Pte. X. was unaccountably delayed. It was unfortunate, but I was not sorry. The Company remained happy and contented. Further, we found to our ama

zement and delight that the vast majority of officers and men belonged to certain favoured classes, with the result that the demobilisation of the Company proceeded with remarkable rapidity....

The days were long and indescribably monotonous, until on January 11th I received the bunch of papers for which every officer and man in France was yearning, and on the 12th I slipped away from my already depleted Company.

I was desperately sorry to leave my men and my tanks. It must break the heart of a man to retire from a famous regiment in which he has spent his life, but the regiment continues to live. A Carrier Company was a humble, temporary unit in a vast organisation, a momentary improvisation. Like every other Company, it had found itself and created its own personality. It had fought for its existence against the ignorance and laughter of the more conservative elements in the Tank Corps. I knew that soon the remnants of the Company would return home and the Company finally be dissolved. Yet there it was?-?something which I had "formed" though not created. From an odd crowd of men with a few obsolete tanks and some cases of equipment it had become a "Company" of whose honour we were jealous, whose achievements we extolled, whom all of us could leave only with lasting regret....

I was motored into Arras, and travelled down to the coast in a cattle-truck with thirty-one soldiers and civilians of all ranks and classes and four nationalities. The train was bound for Calais, but the driver in answer to my appeal said that he might be able to pass through Boulogne. I do not know whether he had any choice in the matter?-?strange things happened on the railways in France?-?but at 10 A.M. on the morning of the 13th the train did stop outside Boulogne, and the stoker ran hastily down the line and helped me to throw my luggage off the truck.

A train-load of prisoners from Germany had just arrived?-?childishly feeble, still shamefaced, and so emaciated that when I saw a man stripped to the waist washing, I could have cried for the pity of it. Outside the station three of these men, excited by their release, were jeering at two shabby cowed German boys pushing a barrow....

I crossed that afternoon a little sadly, and as usual obtained a seat in the Pullman by climbing in on the wrong side,?-?I shall never be able to afford a Pullman again. At 10.25 A.M. on the 16th I was demobilised at the Crystal Palace. I felt that I should have been demobilised twice as I enlisted twice....

Now I travel daily to St James's Park station by the 9.31, and when a "file" returns to me after many days, I sometimes wonder how I ever managed, without writing a single "minute," to command a Company of Tanks.

PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS.

FOOTNOTES

1 Every intelligent person in every French village or town knew the numbers of all the divisions in the neighbourhood.

2 Detached posts, which could not be approached by day, in front of the main trench system.

3 Now Major-General Lord Edward Gleichen, K.C.V.O., C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.

4 A famous dug-out.

5 Now Major-General H. J. Elles, C.B., D.S.O.

6 Major R. Cooper, M.C., Royal Fusiliers, had replaced Captain R. Haigh, M.C.

7 Now Brigadier-General J. Hardress Lloyd, D.S.O.

8 Paget, the Corps Camouflage Officer, was of the greatest assistance.

9 We learned later that they had been heard.

10 An airman who flew over the battlefield is inclined to doubt this story. We must wait for the official history.

11 Major R.O.C. Ward, D.S.O., killed at Trescaut in November while leading his tanks forward.

12 This paragraph was written in the comfortable days before the lorries disappeared into battalion or brigade "pools." In the spring of 1918, when movement was necessarily hurried, my company had to do without?-?higher formations had so much of value to move.

13 Major P. Johnson, D.S.O.

14 The Tank Corps was always the very soul of economy.

15 The regimental officer always appreciated our difficulties, praised our achievements, and sympathised with us in our misfortunes.

16 S. entirely retrieved his reputation as a skilful and gallant tank commander by attacking a field-gun single-handed at Flesquieres on November 20th.

17 It was incorrectly reported later that the tank had fallen through the bridge. I have obtained the facts from Major P. Hamond, D.S.O., M.C., who was in command of the tanks at the bridge.

18 He was seriously wounded and captured.

19 Captured.

20 But it was "G" Battalion that captured the wood a year later.

21 It was known later that the two attacking forces were instructed to meet at Metz, a mile or so from my camp.

22 I quote from memory, but I am certain of the words "will attack."

23 It was in fact intended to inform the General that two battalions of the 2nd Tank Brigade would attack from the directions indicated.

24 See p. 169.

25 See 'Adventures of a Despatch Rider,' p. 15 et seq.

26 An average time for detraining twelve Mk. IV. tanks is thirty minutes.

27 The 2nd and 8th Battalions were armed with the Mk. V. tank, a swifter and handier tank than the Mk. IV., and the 15th Battalion with the lengthy Mk. V. Star.

28 Certain Canadian battalions only reached the "start-line" in time by doubling.

29 It was, of course, only the luck of the game. This particular battery of Horse Artillery was brigaded with the Australian Artillery and went where it was told. It finished the day in close support of the infantry at Morcourt.

30 Sergeant Bell was awarded the D.C.M. He was killed in action on September 28.

31 Lieut. F. M. Holt was one of my most promising and gallant subalterns, who, if he had lived, would certainly have received early promotion. He was a charming companion in the mess. We could ill afford to lose him.

32 At that period the sponsons of Carrier tanks were made of boiler-plate, which was not proof against bullets.

33 The numbers include orderlies, cooks, batmen, &c.

34 For the actual carrying?-?cooks, &c., excluded.

35 Lieutenant (later Captain) S. A. Thomas, M.C.

36 It was in these local attacks that tanks suffered most severely.

37 In any case it was bad policy for Mk. IV.'s and Mk. V.'s to move in the same convoy.

38 We could always obtain rum: every tank carried a supply to revive its exhausted crew. At Cambrai each of my tanks carried a bottle of whisky in place of rum, but this innovation tended to bunch the infantry?-?Argylls?-?dangerously near to the tanks, and in subsequent actions we reverted to rum.

39 I hope I shall be forgiven if I mention the fact that this village was commonly known as "Teddie Gerard."

40 These were easily distinguished, as my tanks were the only Mk. IV.'s in the neighbourhood. Mk. V.'s and "whippets" leave a different track.

41 One battalion, or at least one company of it, spent the first Christmas after the Armistice in building a camp for itself, although there were several pleasant villages in the neighbourhood.

Transcriber's Notes

Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

Simple typographical errors were corrected.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.

Page 90: "workshops" was misprinted as "workships".

Page 216: "A little later" was misprinted as "latter".

Page 267: "sections-commanders" was printed that way.

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