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   Chapter 6 No.6

Life in a Tank By Richard Haigh Characters: 13734

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE FIRST BATTLEToC

At dawn the next morning, the tanks were already lined up, sullen and menacing in the cold half-light. The men shivered in the biting air. One by one the crews entered the machines, and one by one the little steel doors closed behind them. The engines throbbed, and they moved off sluggishly.

Darwin and Talbot, with their orderlies, waited impatiently. The moments just before an attack are always the hardest. A few batteries were keeping up a desultory fire. They glanced at their watches.

"Only a minute to go," said Darwin. "I bet the show's put off or something. Isn't this snow damnably cold, though!"

Suddenly a sixty-pounder in our rear crashed out. Then from all sides a deafening roar burst forth and the barrage began. As we became accustomed to the intensity and ear-splittingness of the sound, the bark of the eighteen-pounders could be faintly distinguished above the dull roar of the eight-inches. The sky-line was lit up with thousands of flashes, large and small, each one showing, for a second, trenches or trees or houses, and during this tornado we knew that the "Willies" must have started forward on their errand.

As the barrage lifted and the noise died down a little, the first streaks of light began to show in the sky, although we could distinguish nothing. No sign of the infantry or of the tanks could be seen. But the ominous sound of machine guns and heavy rifle-fire told us that the Boche was prepared.

We could stand this inactivity no longer. We trudged forward through the snow, taking the broad bands left by the tracks of the busses as our guide, the officers leading the way and the orderlies behind in single file.

"The blighter's starting, himself, now," said Talbot, as a four-two landed a hundred yards away, and pieces of earth came showering down on our heads. Then another and another fell, each closer than the one before, and instinctively we quickened our steps, for it is difficult to walk slowly through shell-fire.

The embankment loomed before us, and big splotches of black and yellow leaped from its surface. The deafening crashes gave us that peculiar feeling in the stomach which danger alone can produce. We scrambled up the crumbling, slaggy sides, and found when we reached the top that the sound of the machine guns had died away, excepting on the extreme left in front of B--, where the ordinary tap of ones and twos had developed into a sharp crackle of tens and twenties. By listening carefully one could feel, rather than hear, the more intermittent bursts from the rifles.

"There's one, sir," shouted one of the orderlies.

"Where?"

"Half-right and about five hundred yards ahead."

By dint of straining, we discovered a little animal-or so it looked-crawling forward on the far side of the Hindenburg Line. Already it was doing a left incline in accordance with its instructions, so as to enfilade a communication trench which ran back to N--. The German observer had spotted her. Here and there, on each side of her, a column of dirt and snow rose into the air. But the little animal seemed to bear a charmed life. No harm came to her, and she went calmly on her way, for all the world like a giant tortoise at which one vainly throws clods of earth.

As it grows lighter, we can now see others in the distance. One is not moving-is it out of action? The only motion on the whole landscape is that of the bursting shells, and the tanks. Over the white snow in front of the German wire, are dotted little black lumps. Some crawl, some move a leg or an arm, and some lie quite still. One who has never seen a modern battle doubtless forms a picture of masses of troops moving forward in splendid formation, with cheering voices and gleaming bayonets. This is quite erroneous. To an observer in a post or in a balloon, no concerted action is visible at all. Here and there a line or two of men dash forward and disappear. A single man or a small group of men wriggle across the ground. That is all.

"Well, they haven't got it in the neck as I supposed," said Darwin. "Remarkably few lying about. Let's push on."

"All right," Talbot assented. "If you like."

We crawled over the top of the embankment and continued down the side. About two hundred yards to the left, we saw one of the tanks, with her nose in the air. A little group of three or four men were digging around her, frantically. We rushed over to them, and found that the Old Bird's 'bus had failed to get over a large pit which lay in the middle of No Man's Land, and was stuck with her tail in the bottom of the ditch. Here occurred one of those extraordinary instances of luck which one notices everywhere in a modern battle. The tank had been there about ten minutes when the German gunners had bracketed on her, and were dropping five-nines, all of them within a radius of seventy yards of the tank, and yet no one was hurt. Finally, by dint of strenuous digging, she started up and pulled herself wearily out of the pit.

Copyright by Underwood & Underwood, N.Y.

A TANK HALFWAY OVER THE TOP AND AWAITING THE ORDER TO ADVANCE IN THE BATTLE OF MENIN ROADToList

Suddenly, Darwin shouted:-

"Look here, you fellows! What are these Boches doing?"

Looking up, we saw about forty or fifty Germans stumbling over their own wire, and running toward us as hard as they could go. For a moment we thought it was the preliminary step of a counter-attack, but suddenly we discovered that they carried no arms and were attempting to run with their hands above their heads. At the same time something occurred which is always one of the saddest sights in war. One hears a great deal about the "horrors of war" and the "horrors" of seeing men killed on either side of one, but at the time there is very little "horror" to it. One simply doesn't have time to pay any attention to it all. But the sad part was that the German machine gunners, seeing their men surrendering, opened a furious fire on them. There they were, caught from behind, and many of them dropped from the bullets of their own comrades.

Twenty or thirty of them came straight on, rushed up to the pit where the tank had come to grief, and tumbled down into this refuge. Evidently, they knew of the British passion for souvenirs, for when our men surrounded them, the Germans plucked wildly at their own shoulder straps as if to entreat their captors to take the shoulder straps instead of anything else!

We gave two or three of the wounded Germans some cigarettes and a drink of water. They were then told to find their quickest way to the rear. Like other German prisoners we had seen, they went willingly enough. German discipline obtains even after a man has been made a prisoner. He obeys his captors with the same docility with which he had previously obeyed his own officers. Left to themselves,

and started on the right road, the prisoner will plod along, their N.C.O.'s saluting the English officers, and inquiring the way to the concentration camp. When they find it, they usually appear well pleased.

The Old Bird's tank moved on.

"I suppose everything's going all right," said Talbot. "Suppose we move on and see if we can get some information."

"Yes, or some souvenirs," Darwin replied with a laugh.

We pushed on slowly. Three tanks which had completed their job were coming back and passed us. A little later we met some fellows who were slightly wounded and asked them how the battle was going. Every story was different. The wounded are rarely able to give a correct version of any engagement, and we saw that no accurate information was to be gleaned from these men.

We had been out now for an hour and a half and still had no news to send back to Headquarters. We knew how hard it was for the officers behind the lines, who had planned the whole show, to sit hour after hour waiting for news of their troops. The minutes are like hours.

"My God, Darwin, look!" Talbot cried. "Something's happened to her. She's on fire!"

In the distance we saw one of our tanks stuck in the German wire, which at that point was about a hundred yards thick. Smoke was belching from every porthole. A shell had registered a direct hit, exploding the petrol, and the tank was on fire. We dashed forward toward her.

A German machine gun rattled viciously. They had seen us. An instant later, the bullets were spattering around us, and we dropped flat. One man slumped heavily and lay quite still. By inches we crawled forward, nearer and nearer to the blazing monster. Another machine gun snarled at us, and we slid into a shell-hole for protection. Then, after a moment's breathing space, we popped out and tried to rush again. Another man stopped a bullet.

It was suicide to go farther. Into another shell-hole we fell, and thought things over. We decided to send a message, giving roughly the news that the Hindenburg Line and N-- had been taken. An orderly was given a message. He crawled out of the shell-hole, ran a few steps, dropped flat, wriggled along across the snow, sprang to his feet, ran another few steps, and so on until we lost sight of him.

A moment or two later we started across the snow in a direction parallel with the lines. Behind an embankment we came across a little group of Australians at an impromptu dressing-station. Some of them were wounded and the others were binding up their wounds. We watched them for a while and started on again. We had gone about fifty yards when a shell screeched overhead. We turned and saw it land in the middle of the group we had just left. Another shell burst close to us and huge clods of earth struck us in the face and in the stomach, knocking us flat and blinding us for the moment. A splinter struck Talbot on his tin hat, grazing his skin. Behind us one of the orderlies screamed and we rushed back to him. He had been hit below the knee and his leg was nearly severed. We tied him up and managed to get him back to the Australian aid-post. Two of the original four stretcher-bearers had been blown up a few minutes before. But the remaining two were carrying on with their work as though nothing had happened. Here he was bandaged and started on his way for the dressing-station.

Far across the snow, we saw three more tanks plodding back toward the rear. Little by little, we gained ground until we reached a more sheltered area where we could make greater speed. We were feverishly anxious to know the fate of the crew of the burning tank. "Whose tank was it?" was on every tongue. We met other wounded men being helped back; those with leg wounds were being supported by others less seriously wounded. They could tell us nothing. They had been with the infantry and only knew that two tanks were right on the other side of the village.

A moment or two later, Talbot started running toward two men, one of whom was supporting the other. The wounded man proved to be the Sergeant of the tank we had seen on fire. We hurried up to him. He was hurt in the leg. So, instead of firing questions at him, we kept quiet and accompanied him back to the dressing-station.

Later we heard the tragic news that it was Gould's tank that had burned up. None of us talked much about it. It did not seem real. They had got stuck in the German wire. A crump had hit them and fired the petrol tank. That was the end. Two men, the Sergeant and another, escaped from the tank. The others perished with it. We tried to comfort each other by repeated assurances that they must all have lost consciousness quickly from the fumes of the petrol before they suffered from fire. But it was small consolation. Every one had liked Gould and every one would miss him.

We waited at Brigade Headquarters for the others to return. A Tank Commander from another Company was brought in, badly wounded and looking ghastly, but joking with every one, as they carried him along on a stretcher. His tank had been knocked out and they had saved their guns and gone on with the infantry. He had been the last to leave the tank, and as he had stepped out to the ground, a shell exploded directly beneath him, taking off both of his legs below the knee.

The last of the tanks waddled wearily in and the work of checking-up began. All were accounted for but two. Their fate still remains a secret. Our theory was that they had gone too far ahead and had entered the village in back of the German lines; that the infantry had not been able to keep up with them, and that they had been captured. Two or three days afterwards an airman told us that he had seen, on the day of the battle, two tanks far ahead of the infantry and that they appeared to be stranded. Weeks later we attacked at the point where the tanks had been, and on some German prisoners whom we took, we found several photographs of these identical tanks. Then one day, when we had stopped wondering about them, a Sergeant in our Company received a letter from one of the crew of the missing machines, saying that he was a prisoner in Germany. But of the officers we have never heard to this day.

We sat around wearily, waiting for the motor lorries which were to take some of us back to B--. Years seemed to have been crowded into the hours that had elapsed. Talbot glanced at his watch. It was still only eight o'clock in the morning. Again he experienced the feeling of incredulity that comes to one who has had much happen in the hours between dawn and early morning and who discovers that the day has but just begun. He had thought it must be three o'clock in the afternoon, at least.

The lorries arrived eventually, and took those who had no tanks, back to B--. The others brought the "Willies" in by the evening.

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