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   Chapter 4 No.4

Life in a Tank By Richard Haigh Characters: 12437

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


MOVING UP THE LINEToC

Two or three days before we were due to leave, we had received orders to pack our surplus kit, and have it at the Quartermaster's Stores at a certain time. We drew a long breath. This meant that the actual date, which up to the present had been somewhat indefinite, was close at hand. We were given orders to draw our tanks and the whole Company was marched over to work sheds about two miles away at E--, where tanks and stores were issued.

The variety and number of little things which it is necessary to draw when fitting out a tank for action is inconceivable. Tools, small spares, Pyrenes, electric lamps, clocks, binoculars, telescopes, petrol and oil funnels, oil squirts, grease guns, machine guns, headlights, tail lamps, steel hawsers, crowbars, shovels, picks, inspection lamps, and last, but not least, ammunition. The field-gun ammunition has to be taken out of its boxes and placed in the shell racks inside the tank. The S.A.A. (small arms ammunition) must be removed from its boxes and stacked away. At the same time every single round, before being put into the drum, must be gauged. All this has to be done in the last two or three days, and everything must be checked and countersigned. There is always a great deal of fun for Tank Commanders in drawing their stores. It is a temptation, when in the midst of all these thousands of articles, to seize the opportunity, when no one is looking, to pocket a few extra spares and dainty little tools, not, of course, for one's own personal benefit, but simply because such things are always being lost or stolen, and it is exasperating, to say the least, to find one's self, at a critical moment, without some article which it is impossible to duplicate at the time.

During these last few days it was a continual march for the men from B-- to E--. Very often they were called back when their day's work was over to draw some new article or make some alteration which had been forgotten at the time they were in the workshops.

At last, however,-on the third day following the grand concert,-the kits were packed, loaded on to the lorries, and sent off to E--. The troops said "Good-bye" to the village which had been such a happy home and school during that winter of 1916, and the officers made their fond adieus to the mothers and daughters of the houses in which they had been billeted.

The companies formed up and marched along to the workshops. Every one was in high spirits, and there was a friendly race to see which Company of the Battalion could load up their tanks in the shortest time on to the specially constructed steel trucks.

A few days before all these activities commenced, Talbot and another Tank Commander had gone on to the tanks' ultimate destination, A--, a village which had been evacuated a few days before by the Germans on their now famous retirement to the Hindenburg Line. It was a most extraordinary sight to ride along the road from Albert to Bapaume, which during the summer and winter of the preceding year had witnessed such heavy fighting. The whole country on each side of the road was a desolate vista of shell-holes as far as the eye could see. Where villages had been, there was now no trace left of any sort of habitation. One might think that, however heavy a bombardment, some trace would be left of the village which had suffered. There was literally nothing left of the village through which had run the road they were now travelling. Over this scarred stretch of country were dotted camps and groups of huts, with duck-boards crossing the old shell-holes, some of which were still full of water.

On approaching B-- they saw traces everywhere of the methodical and organized methods by which the Germans had retired. The first sign was a huge shell-crater in the middle of the road, about forty feet deep, which the Boche had arranged to prevent armoured cars from following him up. If they did succeed, the transports would be delayed in reaching them, at all events. These holes were rather a nuisance, for the road itself was a mass of lesser shell-craters and the soft ground on each side was impassable. The road was crowded with engineers and labor battalions, filling in the shell-holes, and laying railways into the outskirts of A--.

In A-- the old German notices were still standing as they had been left. Strung across the road on a wire was a notice which read: "Fuhrweg nach Behagnies." Every house in the town had been pulled down. The wily Boche had not even blown them up. Instead he had saved explosives by attaching steel hawsers to the houses and by means of tractors had pulled them down, so that the roof and sides fell in on the foundation. Every pump handle in the village had been broken off short, and not a single piece of furniture was left behind. Later, we found the furniture from this and other villages in the Hindenburg Line.

Saddest of all, however, was the destruction of the beautiful poplar trees which once bordered the long French roads built by Napoleon. These had been sawn off at their base and allowed to fall on the side of the road, not across it, as one might suppose. If they had been allowed to fall across the road, the Boche, himself, would have been hindered in his last preparations for his retreat. Everything was done with military ends in view. The villages were left in such a condition as to make them uninhabitable, the more to add to our discomfort and to make our hardships severer. The trees were cut down only on those parts of the road which were screened from observation from his balloons and present trenches. In some places where the road dipped into a valley the trees had been left untouched.

At the place where our tanks were scheduled to arrive, and which had lately been a railhead of the Boche, all the metals had been torn up, and in order to destroy the station itself, he had smashed the cast-iron pillars which supported the roof, and in consequence the whole building had fallen in. But nothing daunted, the British engineers were even now working at top speed laying down new lines. Some of the metals, which a few short weeks before had been lying in countless stacks down on the

quays at the Bases, now unrolled themselves at the rate of about two and a quarter miles a day. One interesting feature of this rapid track-laying was that when the tank train left E--, on its two and a half days' journey down to the railhead at A--, the track on which the train was to run was not completed into A--. But, nevertheless, the track arrived ahead of the train, which was the main point!

As they rode into the ruined village of A-- Talbot and his companion came across still further evidence of the steps which the German will take to inconvenience his enemy. In order to battle against the hordes of rats which are so prevalent in the old parts of the line in France, the Boche breeds cats in enormous numbers. Yet, in order to carry out to the limit his idea that nothing of value should fall into our hands, he had killed every cat in the village. In every house three or four of these poor little creatures lay around with their heads chopped off. Tabby cats, black cats, white cats, and little kittens, all dead. Farther on, over a well at the corner of the main square was posted a sign which read: "This well is poisoned. Do not touch. By order. R.E."

Here and there a house had been left intact, with its furniture untouched. It was not until later that it struck us as peculiar that these houses had been spared from the general destruction. Two or three days later, however, after we had moved in, and headquarters had been established, we discovered that under many of these houses, and at certain crossroads which had not been blown up in the usual manner, the Boche had left mines, timed to go off at any time up to twenty-eight days. One could never be sure that the ground underneath one's feet would not blow up at any moment. These mines were small boxes of high explosive, inside of which was a little metal tube with trigger and detonator attached. Inside the tube was a powerful acid, which, when it had eaten its way through, set free the trigger and exploded the charge. The length of time it took for the mine to explode was gauged by the strength or weakness of the acid in the tube.

A TANK MOVING TO THE ATTACK DOWN WHAT WAS ONCE A MAIN STREETToList

We were also impressed with the mechanical genius of the German. The Boche had made a veritable mechanical toy out of nearly every house in the village which he had spared. Delightful little surprises had been prepared for us everywhere. Kick a harmless piece of wood, and in a few seconds a bomb exploded. Pick up a bit of string from the floor and another bomb went off. Soon we learned to be wary of the most innocent objects. Before touching anything we made elaborate preparations for our safety.

One of the men was greatly annoyed by a wire which hung over his head when he was asleep, but he did not wish to remove it. He had decided that it was connected with some devilish device which would do him no good. Finally, one morning, he could endure this sword of Damocles no longer. With two boon companions, he carefully attached a string about fifteen yards long to the wire. They tiptoed gently out of the house to a discreet distance, and with a yell of triumph, the hero pulled the string,-and nothing happened!

But there was another side to all this. McKnutt some time afterwards came in with an interesting story. Some Sappers, he said, had been digging under a house in the village, presumably for the mysterious reasons that always drive the Engineers to dig in unlikely places. One of them pushed his shovel into what had been the cellar of the house, but as the roof had fallen in on the entrance, they did not know of its existence. When they finally forced their way in, they found two German officers and two Frenchwomen in a terribly emaciated condition. One of the Boches and one of the women lay dead, locked in each other's arms. The other two still breathed, but when they were brought up into the open they expired within a few hours without either of them giving an explanation. The only reason we could find for their terrible plight was that the women had been forced down there by the officers to undergo a last farewell, while the Germans were destroying the village, and that the house had fallen in on top of them. Later, probably no one knew where they had disappeared, and they were unable to get out of the ruins or to make themselves heard. The village of A-- gained a romantic reputation after that, and it was curious to realize that we had been living there for days while this silent tragedy was being enacted.

In addition to the destruction in the towns, the beautiful orchards which are so numerous in France were ruined. Apple, pear, and plum trees lay uprooted on the ground, and here again the military mind of the German had been at work. He did not wish the fruit that the trees would bear in future to fall into our hands.

But although the village was a pretty poor place in which to stay, the near presence of a B.E.F. Canteen was a comfort. It is always amazing to visit one of these places. Within perhaps four or five miles of the firing line we have stores selling everything from a silver cigarette case to a pair of boots, and everything, too, at nearly cost price. The Canteen provides almost every variety of smoking materials, and eatables, and their only disadvantage is that they make packages from home seem so useless. As the tobaccos come straight out of bond, it is far cheaper to buy them at the Canteen, than to have them forwarded from home. These Canteens are managed by the Army, and are dotted all over the country inhabited by the British troops. Since they have sprung into existence life at the front has been far more comfortable and satisfactory in France, and people at home are discovering that money is the best thing to send out to their men.

Finally, one cold, sunny morning, about half-past five, the tank train steamed slowly into A--, and drew up on a siding. It was not possible to begin the work of unloading the tanks until night fell. So the tired crews turned into the roofless houses which had been prepared for them, and slept until dusk. When darkness fell, as if by magic, the town sprang to activity.

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