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   Chapter 5 THE GREAT RETREAT

Adventures of a Despatch Rider By William Henry Lowe Watson Characters: 29840

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


On the morning of the 27th we draggled into Saint Quentin. I found the others gorged with coffee and cakes provided by a kindly Staff-Officer. I imitated them and looked around. Troops of all arms were passing through very wearily. The people stood about, listless and sullen. Everywhere proclamations were posted beseeching the inhabitants to bring in all weapons they might possess. We found the Signal Company, and rode ahead of it out of the town to some fields above a village called Castres. There we unharnessed and took refuge from the gathering storm under a half-demolished haystack. The Germans didn't agree to our remaining for more than fifty minutes. Orders came for us to harness up and move on. I was left behind with the H.Q.S., which had collected itself, and was sent a few minutes later to 2nd Corps H.Q. at Ham, a ride of about fifteen miles.

On the way I stopped at an inn and discovered there three or four of our motor-cyclists, who had cut across country, and an officer. The officer[8] told us how he had been sent on to construct trenches at Le Cateau. It seems that although he enlisted civilian help, he had neither the time nor the men to construct more than very makeshift affairs, which were afterwards but slightly improved by the men who occupied them.

Five minutes and I was on the road again. It was an easy run, something of a joy-ride until, nearing Ham, I ran into a train of motor-lorries, which of all the parasites that infest the road are the most difficult to pass. Luckily for me they were travelling in the opposite direction to mine, so I waited until they passed and then rode into Ham and delivered my message.

The streets of Ham were almost blocked by a confused column retreating through it. Officers stationed at every corner and bend were doing their best to reduce it to some sort of order, but with little success.

Returning I was forced into a byroad by the column, lost my way, took the wrong road out of the town, but managed in about a couple of hours to pick up the Signal Co., which by this time had reached the Chateau at Oleezy.

There was little rest for us that night. Twice I had to run into Ham. The road was bad and full of miscellaneous transport. The night was dark, and a thick mist clung to the road. Returning the second time, I was so weary that I jogged on about a couple of miles beyond my turning before I woke up sufficiently to realise where I was.

The next morning (the 28th) we were off before dawn. So tired were we that I remember we simply swore at each other for nothing at all. We waited, shivering in the morning cold, until the column was well on its way.

At Oleezy the Division began to find itself. Look at the map and think for a moment what the men had done. On the 21st they had advanced from Landrecies to Bavai, a fair day's march on a blazing day. On the 22nd they had marched from Bavai to the Canal. From the morning of the 23rd to midday or later on the 24th they had fought hard. On the afternoon and evening of the 24th they had retired to the Bavai-Saint-Waast line. Before dawn on the morning of the 25th they had started off again and marched in column of route on another blazing day back to a position a few miles south of Le Cateau. The battle had begun as the sun rose on the 26th, and continued until three o'clock or later in the afternoon. They plodded through the darkness and the rain. No proper halt was made until midday of the 27th.

The General, who had escaped, and the Staff worked with ferocious energy, as we very painfully knew. Battalions bivouacked in the open fields round Oleezy collected the stragglers that came in and reorganised themselves. The cavalry were between us and Saint Quentin. We were in communication with them by despatch rider. Trains full of French troops passed westwards over Oleezy bridge. There were, I believe, General d'Amade's two reserve divisions. We had walked away from the Germans.

We rode after the column. On the way we passed a battalion of men who had been on outpost duty with nothing but a biscuit and a half apiece. They broke their ranks to snatch at some meat that had been dumped by the roadside, and gnawed it furiously as they marched along until the blood ran down from their chins on to their jackets.

I shall never forget how our General saw a batch of Gordons and K.O.S.B. stragglers trudging listlessly along the road. He halted them. Some more came up until there was about a company in all, and with one piper. He made them form fours, put the piper at the head of them. "Now, lads, follow the piper, and remember Scotland"; and they all started off as pleased as Punch with the tired piper playing like a hero.

Oving or the Fat Boy volunteered to take a message to a body of cavalry that was covering our rear. He found them, and then, being mapless (maps were very scarce in those days), he lost his way. There was no sun, so he rode in what he thought was the right direction, until suddenly he discovered that he was two kilometres from Saint Quentin. As the Germans were officially reported to be five miles south of the town he turned back and fled into the darkness. He slept that night at a cottage, and picked up the Division in the morning.

I was sent on to fill up with petrol wherever I could find it. I was forced to ride on for about four miles to some cross-roads. There I found a staff-car that had some petrol to spare. It was now very hot, so I had a bit of a sleep on the dusty grass by the side of the road, then sat up to watch lazily the 2nd Corps pass.

The troops were quite cheerful and on the whole marching well. There were a large number of stragglers, but the majority of them were not men who had fallen out, but men who had become separated from their battalions at Le Cateau. A good many were badly footsore. These were being crowded into lorries and cars.

There was one solitary desolate figure. He was evidently a reservist, a feeble little man of about forty, with three days' growth on his chin. He was very, very tired, but was struggling along with an unconquerable spirit. I gave him a little bit of chocolate I had; but he wouldn't stop to eat it. "I can't stop. If I does, I shall never get there." So he chewed it, half-choking, as he stumbled along. I went a few paces after him. Then Captain Dillon came up, stopped us, and put the poor fellow in a staff-car and sent him along a few miles in solitary grandeur, more nervous than comfortable.

Eventually the company came along and I joined. Two miles farther we came to a biggish town with white houses that simply glared with heat.[9] My water-bottle was empty, so I humbly approached a good lady who was doling out cider and water at her cottage door. It did taste good! A little farther on I gave up my bicycle to Spuggy, who was riding in the cable-cart.

We jolted along at about two miles an hour. For some time two spies under escort walked beside the limber. Unlike most spies they looked their part. One was tall and thin and handsome. The other was short and fat and ugly. The fear of death was on their faces, and the jeers of our men died in their mouths. They were marched along for two days until a Court could be convened. Then they were shot.

Just before Noyon we turned off to the left and halted for half an hour at Landrimont, a little village full of big trees. We had omelettes and coffee at the inn, then basked in the sun and smoked. Noyon was unattractive. The people did not seem to care what happened to anybody. Perhaps we thought that, because we were very tired. Outside Noyon I dozed, then went off to sleep.

When I awoke it was quite dark, and the column had halted. The order came for all except the drivers to dismount and proceed on foot. The bridge ahead was considered unsafe, so waggons went across singly.

I walked on into the village, Pontoise. There were no lights, and the main street was illuminated only by the lanterns of officers seeking their billets. An A.S.C. officer gave me a lift. Our H.Q. were right the other end of the town in the Chateau of the wee hamlet called La Pommeraye. I found them, stumbled into a loft, and dropped down for a sleep.

We were called fairly late.[10] George and I rode into Pontoise and "scrounged" for eggs and bread. These we took to a small and smelly cottage. The old woman of the cottage boiled our eggs and gave us coffee. It was a luxurious breakfast. I was looking forward to a slack lazy day in the sun, for we were told that we had for the moment outdistanced the gentle Germans. But my turn came round horribly soon, and I was sent off to Compiègne with a message for G.H.Q., and orders to find our particularly elusive Div. Train. It was a gorgeous ride along a magnificent road, through the great forest, and I did the twenty odd miles in forty odd minutes.

G.H.Q. was installed in the Palace. Everybody seemed very clean and lordly, and for a moment I was ashamed of my dirty, ragged, unshorn self. Then I realised that I was "from the Front"-a magic phrase to conjure with for those behind the line-and swaggered through long corridors.

After delivering my message I went searching for the Div. Train. First, I looked round the town for it, then I had wind of it at the station, but at the station it had departed an hour or so before. I returned to G.H.Q., but there they knew nothing. I tried every road leading out of the town. Finally, having no map, and consequently being unable to make a really thorough search, I had a drink, and started off back.

When I returned I found everybody was getting ready to move, so I packed up. This time the motor-cyclists rode in advance of the column. About two miles out I found that the others had dropped behind out of sight. I went on into Carlepont, and made myself useful to the Billeting Officer. The others arrived later. It seems there had been a rumour of Uhlans on the road, and they had come along fearfully.

The troops marched in, singing and cheering. It was unbelievable what half a day's rest had done for them. Of course you must remember that we all firmly believed, except in our moments of deepest despondency, first, that we could have held the Germans at Mons and Le Cateau if the French had not "deserted" us, and second, that our retreat was merely a "mouvement stratégique."

There was nothing doing at the Signal Office, so we went and had some food-cold sausage and coffee. Our hostess was buxom and hilarious. There was also a young girl about the place, Hélène. She was of a middle size, serious and dark, with a mass of black lustreless hair. She could not have been more than nineteen. Her baby was put to bed immediately we arrived. We loved them both, because they were the first women we had met since Mons who had not wanted to know why we were retreating and had not received the same answer-"mouvement stratégique pour attaquer le mieux." I had a long talk that night with Hélène as she stood at her door. Behind us the dark square was filled with dark sleeping soldiers, the noise of snoring and the occasional clatter of moving horses. Finally, I left her and went to sleep on the dusty boards of an attic in the Chateau.

We were called when it was still dark and very cold (August 30). I was vainly trying to warm myself at a feeble camp fire when the order came to move off-without breakfast. The dawn was just breaking when we set out-to halt a hundred yards or so along. There we shivered for half an hour with nothing but a pipe and a scrap of chocolate that had got stuck at the bottom of my greatcoat pocket. Finally, the motor-cyclists, to their great relief, were told that they might go on ahead. The Grimers and I cut across a country to get away from the column. We climbed an immense hill in the mist, and proceeding by a devious route eventually bustled into Attichy, where we found a large and dirty inn containing nothing but some bread and jam. The column was scheduled to go ten miles farther, but "the situation being favourable" it was decided to go no farther. Headquarters were established by the roadside, and I was sent off to a jolly village right up on the hill to halt some sappers, and then back along the column to give the various units the names of their billets.

We supped off the sizzling bacon and slept on the grass by the side of the road. That night George burned his Rudge. It was an accident, but we were none too sorry, for it had given much trouble. There were messages right through the night. At one in the morning I was sent off to a Chateau in the Forest of Compiègne. I had no map, and it was a pure accident that I found my way there and back.

The next day (Aug. 31) was a joyous ride. We went up and down hills to a calm, lazy little village, Haute Fontaine. There we took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a blackberry lane. It was the hottest, pleasantest of days, and forgetting all about the more serious things-we could not even hear the guns-we filled up with the softest, ripest of fruit. Three of us rode together, N'Soon, Grimers, and myself. I don't know how we found our way. We just wandered on through sleepy, cobbled villages, along the top of ridges with great misty views and by quiet streams. Just beyond a village stuck on to the side of a hill, we came to a river, and through the willows we saw a little church. It was just like the Happy Valley that's over the fields from Burford.

We all sang anything we could remember as we rattled along. The bits of columns that we passed did not damp us, for they consisted only of transport, and transport can never be tragic-even in a retreat. The most it can do is to depress you with a sense of unceasing monotonous effort.

About three o'clock we came to a few houses-Béthancourt. There was an omelette, coffee, and pears for us at the inn. The people were frightened.

Why are the English retreating? Are they defeated?

No, it is only a strategical movement.

Will the dirty Germans pass by here? We had better pack up our traps and fly.

We were silent for a moment, then I am afraid I lied blandly.

Oh no, this is as far as we go.

But I had reckoned without my host, a lean, wiry old fellow, a bit stiff about the knees. First of all he proudly showed me his soldier's book-three campaigns in Algeria. A crowd of smelly women pressed round us-luckily we had finished our meal-while with the help of a few knives and plates he explained exactly what a strategical movement was, and demonstrated to the satisfaction of everybody except ourselves that the valley we were in was obviously the place "pour reculer le mieux."

We had been told that our H.O. were going to be at a place called Béthisy St Martin, so on we went. A couple of miles from Béthisy we came upon a billeting party of officers sitting in the shade of a big tree by the side of the road.

Had we heard that the Germans were at Compiègne, ten miles or so over the hill? No, we hadn't. Was it safe to go on into Béthisy? None of us had an idea. We stopped and questioned a "civvy" push-cyclist. He had just come from Béthisy and had seen no Germans. The officers started arguing whether or no they should wait for an escort. We got impatient and slipped on. Of course there was nothing in Béthisy except a wide-eyed population, a selection of smells, and a vast congregation of chickens. The other two basked on some hay in the sun, while I went back and pleased myself immensely by reporting to the officers who were timorously trotting along that there wasn't a sign of a Uhlan.

We rested a bit. One of us suggested having a look round for some Uhlans from the top of the nearest hill. It was a terrific climb up a narrow track, but our bicycles brought us up magnificently. From the top we could see right away to the forest of Compiègne, but a judicious bit of scouting produced nothing.

Coming down we heard from a passing car that H.Q. were to be at Crêpy-en-Valois, a biggish old place about four miles away to the south the other side of Béthancourt. We arrived there just as the sun was going to set. It was a confusing place, crammed full of transport, but I found my way to our potential H.Q. with the aid of a joyous little flapper on my carrier.

Then I remembered I had left my revolver behind on the hill above Béthisy. Just before I started I heard that there were bags of Uhlans coming along over the hills and through the woods. But there was nothing for it but to go back, and back I went. It was a bestial climb in the dusk. On my way back I saw some strange-looking figures in the grounds of a chateau. So I opened my throttle and thundered past.

Later I found that the figures belonged to the rest of the motor-cyclists. The chateau ought to have been our H.Q., and arriving there they had been entertained to a sit-down tea and a bath.

We had a rotten night-nothing between me and a cold, hard tiled floor except a waterproof sheet, but no messages.

We woke very early (September 1st) to the noise of guns. The Germans were attacking vigorously, having brought up several brigades of Jaegers by motor-bus. The 15th was on our left, the 13th was holding the hill above Béthancourt, and the 14th was scrapping away on the right. The guns were ours, as the Germans didn't appear to have any with them. I did a couple of messages out to the 15th. The second time I came back with the news that their left flank was being turned.

A little later one of our despatch riders rode in hurriedly. He reported that, while he was riding along the road to the 15th, he had been shot at by Uhlans whom he had seen distinctly. At the moment it was of the utmost importance to get a despatch through to the 15th. The Skipper offered to take it, but the General refused his offer.

A second despatch rider was carefully studying his map. It seemed to him absolutely inconceivable that Uhlans should be at the place where the first despatch rider had seen them. They must either have ridden right round our left flank and left rear, or else broken through the line. So he offered boldly to take the despatch.

He rode by a slightly roundabout road, and reached the 15th in safety. On his way back he saw a troop of North Irish Horse. In the meantime the Divisional Headquarters had left Crépy in great state, the men with rifles in front, and taken refuge on a hill south-east of the town. On his return the despatch rider was praised mightily for his work, but to this day he believes the Uhlans were North Irish Horse and the bullets "overs"[11]-to this day the first despatch rider contradicts him.

The Division got away from Crépy with the greatest success. The 13th slaughtered those foolish Huns that tried to charge up the hill in the face of rifle, machine-gun, and a considerable shell fire. The Duke of Wellington's laid a pretty little ambush and hooked a car containing the general and staff of the 1st Cavalry Division. The prisoners were remorsefully shot, as it would have been impossible to bring them away under the heavy fire.

We jogged on to Nanteuil, all of us very pleased with ourselves, particularly the Duke of Wellington's, who were loaded with spoils, and a billeting officer who, running slap into some Uhlans, had been fired at all the way from 50 yards' range to 600 and hadn't been hit.

I obtained leave to give a straggler a lift of a couple of miles. He was embarrassingly grateful. The last few miles was weary work for the men. Remember they had marched or fought, or more often both, every day since our quiet night at Landrecies. The road, too, was the very roughest pavé, though I remember well a little forest of bracken and pines we went through. Being "a would-be literary bloke," I murmured "Scottish"; being tired I forgot it from the moment after I saw it until now.

There was no rest at Nanteuil. I took the Artillery Staff Captain round the brigades on my carrier, and did not get back until 10. A bit of hot stew and a post-card from home cheered me. I managed a couple of hours' sleep.

We turned out about 3, the morning of September 2nd. It was quite dark and bitterly cold. Very sleepily indeed we rode along an exiguous path by the side of the cobbles. The sun had risen, but it was still cold when we rattled into that diabolical city of lost souls, Dammartin.

Nobody spoke as we entered. Indeed there were only a few haggard, ugly old women, each with a bit of a beard and a large goitre. One came up to me and chattered at me. Then suddenly she stopped and rushed away, still gibbering. We asked for a restaurant. A stark, silent old man, with a goitre, pointed out an estaminet. There we found four motionless men, who looked up at us with expressionless eyes. Chilled, we withdrew into the street. Silent, melancholy soldiers-the H.Q. of some army or division-were marching miserably out. We battered at the door of a hotel for twenty minutes. We stamped and cursed and swore, but no one would open. Only a hideous and filthy crowd stood round, and not one of them moved a muscle. Finally, we burst into a bare little inn, and had such a desolate breakfast of sour wine, bread, and bully. We finished as soon as we could to leave the nightmare place. Even the houses were gaunt and ill-favoured.

On our way out we came across a deserted motor-cycle. Some one suggested sending it on by train, until some one else remarked that there were no trains, and this was fifteen miles from Paris.

We cut across country, rejoined the column, and rode with it to Vinantes, passing on the way a lost motor-lorry. The driver was tearing his hair in an absolute panic. We told him the Germans were just a few miles along the road; but we wished we hadn't when, in hurriedly reversing to escape, he sent a couple of us into the ditch.

At Vinantes we "requisitioned" a car, some chickens, and a pair of boots. There was a fusty little tavern down the street, full of laughing soldiers. In the corner a fat, middle-aged woman sat weeping quietly on a sack. The host, sullen and phlegmatic, answered every question with a shake of the head and a muttered "N'importe." The money he threw contemptuously on the counter. The soldiers thought they were spies. "As speaking the langwidge," I asked him what the matter was.

"They say, sir, that this village will be shelled by the cursed Germans, and the order has gone out to evacuate."

Then, suddenly his face became animated, and he told me volubly how he had been born in the village, how he had been married there, how he had kept the estaminet for twenty years, how all the leading men of the village came of an evening and talked over the things that were happening in Paris.

He started shouting, as men will-

"What does it matter what I sell, what I receive? What does it matter, for have I not to leave all this?"

Then his wife came up and put her hand on his arm-

"Now, now; give the gentlemen their beer."

I bought some cherry brandy and came away.

I was sent on a couple of messages that afternoon: one to trace a telephone wire to a deserted station with nothing in it but a sack of excellent potatoes, another to an officer whom I could not find. I waited under a tree eating somebody else's pears until I was told he had gone mad, and was wandering aimlessly about.

It was a famous night for me. I was sent off to Dammartin, and knew something would go wrong. It did. A sentry all but shot me. I nearly rode into an unguarded trench across the road, and when I started back with my receipt my bicycle would not fire. I found that the mechanic at Dammartin had filled my tank with water. It took me two hours, two lurid hours, to take that water out. It was three in the morning when I got going. I was badly frightened the Division had gone on, because I hadn't the remotest conception where it was going to. When I got back H.Q. were still at Vinantes. I retired thankfully to my bed under the stars, listening dreamily to Grimers, who related how a sentry had fired at him, and how one bullet had singed the back of his neck.

We left Vinantes not too early after breakfast,-a comfort, as we had all of us been up pretty well the whole night. Grimers was still upset at having been shot at by sentries. I had been going hard, and had had only a couple of hours' sleep. We rode on in advance of the company. It was very hot and dusty, and when we arrived at Crécy with several hours to spare, we first had a most excellent omelette and then a shave, a hair-cut, and a wash. Crécy was populous and excited. It made us joyous to think we had reached a part of the country where the shops were open, people pursuing their own business, where there was no dumbly reproaching glance for us in our retreat.

We had been told that our H.Q. that night were going to be at the chateau of a little village called La Haute Maison. Three of us arrived there and found the caretaker just leaving. We obtained the key, and when he had gone did a little bit of looting on our own. First we had a great meal of lunch-tongue, bread, wine, and stewed pears. Then we carefully took half a dozen bottles of champagne and hid them, together with some other food-stuffs, in the middle of a big bed of nettles. A miscellaneous crowd of cows were wandering round the house lowing pitifully.

We were just about to make a heroic effort at milking when the 3rd Div. billeting officer arrived and told us that the 5th Div. H.Q. would be that night at Bouleurs, farther back. We managed to carry off the food-stuffs, but the champagne is probably still in the nettles. And the bottles are standing up too.

We found the company encamped in a schoolhouse, our fat signal-sergeant doing dominie at the desk. I made himself a comfortable sleeping-place with straw, then went out on the road to watch the refugees pass.

I don't know what it was. It may have been the bright and clear evening glow, but-you will laugh-the refugees seemed to me absurdly beautiful. A dolorous, patriarchal procession of old men with white beards leading their asthmatic horses that drew huge country carts piled with clothes, furniture, food, and pets. Frightened cows with heavy swinging udders were being piloted by lithe middle-aged women. There was one girl demurely leading goats. In the full crudity of curve and distinctness of line she might have sat for Steinlen,-there was a brownness, too, in the atmosphere. Her face was olive and of perfect proportions; her eyelashes long and black. She gave me a terrified side-glance, and I thought I was looking at the picture of the village flirt in serene flight.

I connect that girl with a whisky-and-soda, drunk about midnight out of a tin mug under the trees, thanks to the kindness of the Divisional Train officers. It did taste fine.

The next day (September 4th) I was attached to the Divisional Cyclists. We spent several hours on the top of a hill, looking right across the valley for Germans. I was glad of the rest, as very early in the morning I had been sent off at full speed to prevent an officer blowing up a bridge. Luckily I blundered into one of his men, and scooting across a mile of heavy plough, I arrived breathless at the bridge, but just in time. The bridge in the moonlight looked like a patient horse waiting to be whipped on the raw. The subaltern was very angry. There had been an alarm of Uhlans, and his French escort had retired from the bridge to safer quarters....

I shared Captain Burnett's lunch, and later went to fetch some men from a bridge that we had blown up. It seemed to me at the time that the bridge had been blown up very badly. As a matter of fact, German infantry crossed it four hours after I had left it.

We had "the wind up" that afternoon. It appears that a patrol of six Uhlans had either been cut off or had somehow got across the river at Meaux. Anyway, they rode past an unsuspecting sleepy outpost of ours, and spread alarm through the division. Either the division was panicky or the report had become exaggerated on the way to H.Q. Batteries were put into position on the Meaux road, and there was a general liveliness.

I got back from a hard but unexciting day's work with the Cyclists to find that the Germans had got across in very fact, though not at Meaux, and that we were going to do a further bunk that night. We cursed the gentle Germans heartily and well. About 10.30 the three of us who were going on started. We found some convoys on the way, delivered messages, and then I, who was leading, got badly lost in the big Villeneuve forest-I forgot the name of it at the moment.[12] Of course I pretended that we were taking the shortest road, and luck, which is always with me when I've got to find anything, didn't desert me that night.

At dead of night we echoed into the Chateau at Tournan, roused some servants, and made them get us some bread, fruit, and mattresses. The bread and fruit we devoured, together with a lunch-tongue, from that excellent Chateau at La Haute Maison-the mattresses we took into a large airy room and slept on, until we were wakened by the peevish tones of the other motor-cyclists who had ridden with the column. One of them had fallen asleep on his bicycle and disappeared into a ditch, but the other two were so sleepy they did not hear him. We were all weary and bad-tempered, while a hot dusty day, and a rapid succession of little routine messages, did not greatly cheer us.

At Tournan, appropriately, we turned. We were only a few miles S.-E. of Paris. The Germans never got farther than Lagny. There they came into touch with our outposts, so the tactful French are going to raise a monument to Jeanne d'Arc-a reminder, I suppose, that even we and they committed atrocities sometime.

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