On 15th November, 1917, orders reached our Ambulance H.Q. for an advance party of 50 men, with two officers, to proceed to Ytres and there prepare to take over from the occupying unit. We were rather sorry to leave tranquil Montenescourt, but for some time had suspected that something was in the wind. The continuous arrival of tanks by rail at the depot not far away, and more especially the fitting of each with a huge superimposed bundle some six feet or more in diameter, made up of beams of wood, railway sleepers, tree trunks, etc., pointed to some scheme being hatched but the tank personnel were secrecy itself, so no clue was to be gleaned from them.
Ytres proved to be a fairly large, though scattered village, some thirty or forty miles S.W. of Arras. The Field Ambulance H .Q. seemed an imposing affair compared with the one we had left. Evidently the sector was a quiet part of the line, permitting construction work to be done at will. The officer’s mess was a lofty and roomy structure of brick, wood and corrugated iron, and they had good billets. Niessen huts comfortably housed the men and provided wards for sick and wounded. In short it was a large and well-equipped M.D.S.
We were hospitably received, spent a pleasant evening and heard more of what was in front of us. A new form of attack was shortly to be made, which, it was hoped, would prove an unpleasant surprise for the enemy. The Highland Division was to have the central position The main object of the attack would be Cambrai.
About five miles east of Ytres lies the huge Bois d’Havrincourt, half a mile north of the ruins of the small village of Metz. The A.D.S. of the unit in charge of evacuation was situated on the southern fringe of this wood, and consisted of numbers of underground chambers of varying sizes, well concealed by the trees. Clear of the forest, to the east, sloped the hillside, on the crest of which were the trenches our troops were to take over, and about midwav in the trench system were the remains of Trescault. This was the ground we had to reconnoitre, and we seized the first opportunity to do so.
Motoring as far as Metz, we walked to the wood and inspected the accommodation at the A.D.S. – none too ample. Thence a guide took us to the trenches. A fair road runs from Metz to Trescault, which could be used at night but was under observation by day. Our route was, therefore, through the forest, following a narrow gauge line which skirted the dressing station, threaded the trees and emerged at the eastern side, running as far as the Metz road.
At this point we left it, climbed the slope on the other side of the road, and very soon afterwards dropped into the first trench. Not much time was required to examine the front. The trenches were deep, good and well supplied with dug-outs, but the sector was a narrow one, and we were chiefly interested in the possibilities of Trescault as regards a Dressing Station or Collecting Post. We decided that it would do. The Field Ambulance would come up to the Bois d’Havrincourt and there open out as a M.D.S., the A.D.S. being in the line. In Trescault we discovered a large dug-out, very deep down and with two shafts of access, one served by a winch, the other by fairly good steps. It was right on the main road and there were one or two outlying dug-outs for our men.
Our A.D.M S. turned up at Ytres and I was told that I was to be bearer officer for the Division during the attack, the date of which was uncertain. The news was received with mixed feelings, as my leave was due! The following days at Ytres were full of interest. “Days” is hardly the correct word. Secrecy being essential, all troops, guns, tanks and transport had to come up by night. The general idea was to conceal as large a force as could rapidly be assembled and successfully hidden, and hurl the lot at the unsuspecting Boche. There was to be no preliminary advertising of the attack by weeks of wire cutting as formerly done. The enemy was not to suspect the necessity for bringing up reinforcements. It was a new experiment and the tanks were to have the honours of the day. They were to go first, to crash through the uncut wire and to make lanes for the following troops! So by day all was kept as normal as possible – just the right amount of artillery fire : special movements of men ; no signs of any stir.
Night, however, ushered in a very different order of things. Troops, guns, tanks and transport of all sorts poured in unceasingly. One could hear the countryside hum with traffic. Late one evening, Sitting in the mess, I was attracted by distant, but at the same time unusually loud, clanking. Tanks were evidently coming up in numbers, and I succumbed to the temptation, wet and dark as it was outside, to sally forth and seek them out. Lanes and fields were in a horrible state, and I had only my ears to guide me, but half-an-hour later had the luck to trip over the broad tape laid down as a guide to their route. And just in time. Shortly there loomed up quite a procession of the huge, unwieldy monsters, each bearing its mammoth burden on its back and preceded by an officer who occasionally fashed a torch to enable him to follow his tape. It was a weird procession.
On the 19th November we moved into the wood, selecting a tiny dug-out which boasted two wire beds. The rest of the unit was expected late that evening and there was much to do in the way of preparing the billeting arrangements. Where all the men were to sleep was a puzzle. Tarpaulin bivouacs would have to be used. The day soon passed in this way and in prowling about the confines of the wood, noting how alive the whole place had become since our first visit. Tanks along the edges, fresh batteries everywhere, and all cunningly concealed. In the evening I sallied out to meet the Ambulance, Striking across country for the Ytres-Metz road. I failed in my object, as the unit had, unknown to me, been ordered to come by a different route, but I was held spell-bound by the spectacle the road presented. It was one solid mass of troops, all making in the same direction, but apparently hopelessly mixed up. Troops. guns, limbers, g.s. wagons, etc., etc., even a stray tank in difficulties and obstructing the traffic! Military police at various points were driven frantic trying to keep the stream flowing. The tank had evidently wandered from its rightful place in the open and was proving a tremendous obstacle. And all around one heard the clank, clank of the engines and saw the continuous flashes of torches in the hands of the guides. It appeared impossible that the Boche should fail to spot the activity. Till one reflected on the width of “No Man ‘s Land” in these parts – said in places to be fifteen hundred yards – one imagined the enemy could not help seeing the lights or hearing the row. But there were no signs that his suspicion was aroused ; no unusual strafing or shelling of Metz or the wood.
The Field Ambulance arrived late and tired and all were got under cover somehow. Next day was devoted to settling down and making hurried arrangements for the attack. There was much to do. Offices had to be planned, “wards” arranged for the dressing of the wounded, tent sub-divisions allotted their duties, bearers equipped, cookhouse built and feeding schemes matured, stretchers and blankets piled and a thousand other things attended to. We now learnt that Zero hour was at dawn on the 21st. Not much time to perfect one’s plans! My men were to assemble that evening and be marched by me to Trescault, there to occupy the A.D.S. which was to be my H.Q. during the first stage of the battle. That the attack must be made immediately had become obvious. Masses of men were everywhere concealed : tanks lurked in bunches ; batteries littered the open. The Boche could not possibly remain in ignorance of what was afoot. The narrow gauge line running past the Main Dressing Station on the edge of the wood, which we hoped to use next day for the evacuation of the arriving tanks. wounded, suffered cruelly from Squads of our men were kept busy repairing it each time a monster crossed the rails. But, apart from the military activity around, it was strangely quiet. Hardly a shell appeared to be coming over, and our own guns kept uponly a desultory fire. It was the calm before a storm!
I had but vague information to go upon as regards the disposition of the enemy trenches or the lie of the land. I was ignorant of the arrangements made for our Brigades, or which were to open the ball. I knew our own position. Roughly, it lay along the crest in front of us, with Trescault about the middle of it. Far to the left of our front the ridge made a half circle towards the north, and the village of Havrincourt could vaguely be made out from Trescault, but the attack on this was to be shared by the Division stationed on our left. In front, the view across “No Man’s Land” was merely of undulating country. Two series of Boche trenches were concealed there, one a part of the famous Hindenburg Line. I learned that this immensely wide and deep trench was expected to give trouble to the tanks and this was why they had been supplied with the bundles. On reaching the trench each was to shed the bundle off its snout by loosing the chains in the interior. The bundle, it was hoped, would fall to the depths and provide a stepping- stone for the tank to cross by. Beyond these trenches there was, according to the map, more undulating country, then a ravine running crosswise with an embankment and railway line, and beyond these a some- what steep slope with the village of Flesquieres on the crest. There was only one main road, from Trescault to Ribecourt and from the latter to Flesquieres. Ribecourt, I was given to understand, was not in our area, and this road, for all I knew, might be barred to us. The Highland Division would advance rather to the left of it, the main direction of the attack being almost directly north- east, towards Cambrai.
Late in the evening of the 20th my men paraded in the intense darkness under the trees. They comprised the effective bearer strength of the three Field Ambulances, and I was to be reinforced at the A.D.S. by drafts from Trench Mortar Batteries and other odds and ends, so that a large body of men would be available. Previous experience proved the necessity for this. There is no more exhausting work than that of the stretcher-bearers and it is almost impossible to have too many in a push.
Soon we moved off, and I marched, with trolley line as guide, through the wood, across the open to Trescault road, and reached the A.D.S. within the hour. Once there, I set about drafting off the various parties of bearers to their respective Aid Posts and made all arrangements possible for the comfort of those remaining. Seeing the “carry” was likely to be a long one, should the attack prove successful, it was essential to have a large body in hand at H.Q.
M.O.s of Battalions had been made aware that Trescault was my H.Q., to which they could apply for supplies, and intimate to me there any change in the position of their Aid Posts. My duty would be to keep personally in touch with them, so that I would have not only the organising, writing and planning to do at Trescault, but this job also, while the Aid Posts, in all probability, would be rapidly advanced! It sounded impossible to do both adequately, and I feared that in the attempt to do it I might fail to effect either.
One gets little sleep under such circumstances and I did not need the crash of the guns to waken me. How astonished the enemy must have been on the morning of the 21st when unsuspected pandemonium broke loose! Our guns were in full blast by 6.30 a.m. and the noise was truly devastating. They must have been firing there had been few largely by the map, because opportunities for registering targets. But fire they did, and that most heartily. I was off at the earliest possible moment for the front line, eager to view the sight, accompanied by a Sergeant of our own Ambulance.
The tanks, I knew, must already be in action. All night long they had been creeping, each to its allotted place, in No Man’s Land, the scheme being that dawn breaking was to disclose one long line of them, far as the eye could reach. When Zero came every engine would be running and the leviathans would move slowly forward, mowing down, or crashing through the uncut wire and making lanes for the following battalions, every companv of which knew exactly which tank or tanks they were to accompany.
We made our way along the front line trench to a commanding spot ; but so feeble was the Boche response to our barrage that we were able to climb out into the open and join the second line troops waiting orders to advance. Dimly in the distance one could see the long line of tanks, and even, here and there, minute objects representing the men behind them. They appeared stationary, So slow was the progress. Most of the shelling was well forward from our position, and no doubt directed at the advancing troops and tanks. I was told that practically every tank had reached its position on time, and at Zero hour every engine started up. A wonderful feat! We pressed forward for a short distance to try to learn the hang of the land, but T judged T should first return to the A.D.S. Here I found our D.A.D.M.S. eager for news, and supplied him with a guide to our old front line. Wounded had already begun to trickle in, and some shrapnel was bursting over the station, but we were escaping wonderfully. I started out at once with the sergeant and an orderly to explore the forward area.
Keeping more to the left, we had barely cleared Trescault quarry and the trenches when I ran up against the M.O. of the 5th Gordons, who told me his Battalion H.O. was moving forwards and he was on the look-out for a forward Aid Post. So he and his orderlies joined my party and we soon found a narrow lane running in the direction we wanted. My desire was to go forward as far as possible in the middle of the divisional area, So that I could pick up a good idea of the country. On our right we occasionally had glimgpses of the Ribecourt road along which wounded could be seen passing. It was a relief to be in the open, and an interesting journey. Few shells came our way. Our own guns had quietened down and one could hardly believe a battle was in progress. The first object of interest to present itself was a deep quarry which had evidently been found useful by the enemy. Ladders led down to its depths and galleries ran round the walls, giving entrance to various roomy dug-outs. The place seemed eminently suited for a Relay Post, and at once sent back orders for a party of bearers to come forward and occupy it.
A couple of hundred yards further on we came to the Hindenburg trench, immensely wide and deep. Stuck on the parapet of it, inextricably jammed though not much knocked about, were three abandoned tanks. Together they made a splendid landmark for the quarry Relay Post. One glance at the trench made us realise the wisdom and forethought of the bundles on the tanks. Even with their help I marvelled that they could cross at all.
We had met few wounded, and there had been a pleasant absence of “horrible spectacles”, as we crossed what had been No Man ‘s Land. Evidently the first line had been captured with ease and small loss, and our hopes were high for the success of the day. That the tanks had succeeded with the wire was obvious to us the moment we left the trenches. The lanes in the wire we walked through were splendid. Reconnoitring further we came in due course to a second series of trenches. Parties of German prisoners were pouring back and the shelling here became more serious. We were glad to find a communication trench running our way and congratulated ourselves that we were in it. Suddenly l caught sight of a Red Cross on the trench wall, and at the same time spied a Boche prisoner wearing a brassard. We collared him at once and made him guide us to the “Sanitats” which proved to be a capacious, two-roomed dug-out further down the trench. The 5th Gordons M .O. pounced upon it for his new Aid Post and I made a note of the map reference for despatch to the A.D.M.S. At least I now knew where one advanced Aid Post was situated!
Leaving him, my party hurried back to Trescault, where I plunged up to the neck in work. The scene was a busy one. Wounded were pouring in and all were hard pressed to cope with them. German prisoners were working the winch, and the ambulance cars were loading at the A.D.S. itself. Only occasional doses of shrapnel were being administered by the enemy. I found any number of chits from M .O.s all asking for more bearers, blankets, stores, etc., and notifying me of the positions of new advanced Aid Posts. These had all to be answered as satisfactorily as possible, parties of bearers made up and sent off with stretchers, supplies and a note from me re the Relay Post. In addition, all information possible had to be sent to the A.D.M.S. I had, besides, to report to the acting O.C. Field Ambulance that the advance of our troops was so rapid that either the A.D.S. and our car depot must be pushed forward or there would be a colossal carry for the bearers.
Word now reached me that our only main road, that leading to Ribecourt, was impassable for cars because of a huge mine exploded by the enemy. With another M .O. I made for the spot to see what was what. There we found a gap of forty or fifty yards in the road! No car could circumnavigate it, and the engineers stated that it would be some time before a bridge could be constructed. We agreed that the only thing to do was to bring the cars to the proximal end of the gap and have a party of bearers posted at the distal to help carry the Stretchers around the crater. Possibly the Fords might be manoeuvred round it, and, if so, they would at least take some of the burden off the bearers’ shoulders. Fortunately there was any number of prisoners by this time and they were freely used to bring in the wounded. Still, the scheme was only a makeshift and not at all satisfactory. Our troops were fighting beyond Ribecourt, which village was fully two miles from the car depot at Trescault.
Evening came on and I was tired enough. With an early start, so much worry, walking and work, and so little food, I was glad to get back to the dressing station. The news, on the whole, was good, but the Highland Division was held up below Flesquieres village. This occupied a commanding position on the crest and our troops had failed to storm it, a German officer having earned fame by the number of our tanks he had knocked out with direct hits. On the other hand, the Divisions on either side of us were well in front and a big haul of prisoners had been made.
Towards the small hours of the 22nd I tried to get some sleep in the dug-out, but, tired as I was, it was impossible. All hands were hard at work dressing the wounded which still poured down our shaft, and the resulting groans and yells, coupled with the tramp of heavy feet, effectually kept me awake.
I rose as daylight began to appear. There was no chance of a shave or wash and but a pretence of a breakfast. Necessary work completed, I determined again to go forward and, if possible, see for myself how the evacuation of wounded was progressing: This time I struck a shallow ravine rather to the left of the previous day’s route. From fellows I met I learned that the good old Highland Division, refusing to be held up by any village, height or no height, had attacked in the night and were now firmly lodged in Flesquieres itself. News from Ribecourt road was bad : the R.A.M.C. were finding it next to impossible to keep up with the rapidly advancing troops. However, I proceeded on my way, crossed the Hindenburg and second line trenches and reached the Railway Ravine. Here Flesquieres could be plainly seen, and f made a direct line for it, over the embankment and up the hillside. Before noon I was in the village. What a spectacle of messed-up tanks and mutilated bodies presented itself ! There were trenches all along the crest, and in a deep dug-out below one of these I found the O.C. and a cheery crew of the 5th Gordons. They were in great form and gave me a hearty reception, and all the news. It was a splendid dug-out, well stocked with food, solid and fluid. I drank their health and passed on to explore the village for a possible dressing Station. This soon presented itself in the shape of a huge, though battered building, once a monastery, apparently. Two courtyards, with buildings around. Just the place and situated on the main road ! All we had to do was to get our transport past the mine crater ! But a biggish “all!”
So off once more on the return journey to report. This time I went by Ribecourt and was held up a long while, for my pains, by our cavalry streaming forwards. But at length I got through and down the slope to the crater and so to Trescault. There I learned that part of the transport had now got as far as the hollow below the crater, and that I must have missed it by circling round the far edge on the other side. As there were no fresh orders for me I had just to carry on. I sent back a report on the possibilities of Flesquieres and set off there again. It worried me that we had no forward post and I thought that a nominal A.D.S. would be better than none. If the Fords managed to get round the crater they must come through Ribecourt and would find us a mile further on. It was dark long before we reached our destination, at which we arrived very exhausted and covered with mud. Although I knew the way so well, we missed it in the dark and floundered miserably for a long time in what seemed a maze of lanes and cuttings. At least we now occupied a forward post. Soon messages found us from the battalions in front, all bringing urgent requests for bearers and supplies. Fortunately a Ford, well loaded, had now got over the road obstacles and we spent most of the night making up and sending forward bundles of dressings and medical comforts. A few wounded trickled in, but there was ample accommodation for them. Towards morning I dossed down on the stone floor and managed to get some badly-needed sleep.
On the morning of the 23rd I was up very early stiff, dirty and uncomfortable. No shave, patchy washing and haphazard feeding these last days. The monastery buildings, or whatever they were, of Flesquieres failed to cheer one in the thin morning light. A huge courtyard surrounded by large but much shelled stone buildings and outhouses. Those sufficiently intact were soon adapted to the various purposes of a Field Ambulance, and the unit, which had been coming in during the small hours, was already settling in ; the men and N.C.O.s in one block, wounded in another, officers in a third. A good deal of shelling was going on, and it struck me that the prominent buildings we occupied were not so desirable as I had thought ; all right if our advance continued and Cambrai was captured, but bound to be pounded to pieces in the event of a hold up or reverse. However, it was the only possible spot available.
After a scratch wash up and breakfast, I decided to do a tour round the Battalion Aid Posts and see how the medical arrangements were working. The various M.O.s had kept in touch with me and I had marked on the map the position of the R.A.P.s given me by them, So there appeared to be no special difficulties ahead. One of our padres’ accompanied me and we set off together, soon leaving the village of Flesquieres behind. An open country stretched before us, and we trudged along a good enough road, here and there gaping with nasty shell holes. lt led in the direction of Fontaine, a large village some kilometres short of Cambrai, on the Bapaume-Cambrai road. Passing the small Bois de L’Orval on our left, we soon came to the farm of La Justice, where was the first Aid Post, and I spent some time ascertaining and noting the inevitable wants of the M.O., who had a room full of wounded and no means of evacuating them. So far there had been little in the way of shelling to trouble us and the walk had not been unpleasant. On the outskirts of Flesquieres we had passed a derelict tank, with two headless bodies lying beside it.
Pickets of the 7th Gordons were digging themselves in to left and right, and further forward were the wagon lines of the R.F.A. in the shelter of the spinney. The guns were halted on the further side to the left. Near to La Justice the road ran between a row of holes, breast high and manned by a Lewis gun section who were able to give us some hazy notion of the actual Front. At the Aid Post the padre picked up a German dictionary left by the retreating troops. There were many Germans amongst the wounded, one an abdominal case in a serious condition.
This job over we passed on our way. The direct route to Fontaine, where I believed I would find the 5th Gordons, was straight forward by the road we were on but as an Aid Post was indicated on my map at Anneux, on our left, I decided to deviate there in the first place and make fresh plans at that spot. Anneux was only about half-a-mile distant, the morning fine, and there appeared to be a reactionary quietness in the matter of shelling. Some shells were falling in the dip between Anneux and Fontaine, but none at all near us. Halfway to Anneux we met a 7th Argyll, who had been sent back in guard of prisoners, resting in a sunk pit by the side of the road on his way back to his battalion, which he said (with a sweep of his hand including Bourlon Wood and Fon- taine) “were holding that ridge!” The ruins of Anneux seemed quite deserted, but we discovered some West Riding Yeomanry leisurely examining two mine shafts. They had no clear idea how things were in front of them, did not belong to our Division, and knew little of their own! As we afterwards learned, there existed a gap between the 51st and the Division on its left (62nd I think), and we had unwittingly struck this hiatus ; nor could these men give us any idea of where the enemy were. All the information they could give was that it might be unwise to go across country to Fontaine from where we were, because a sniper frequently got busy in that direction.
The padre and I consulted what to do. It seemed to me that the large forest, the famous Bois de Bourlon, on our left front must be in our hands as it dominated both the Bapaume Road and Fontaine. Unless we held it I failed to see how our troops could be in Fontaine. Our choice of routes to the latter place was between the main road, which skirted the Bois de Bourlon less than a mile north of Anneux, and directly across the country over which the sniper was said to be busy.
Everything being quiet, and the road not appealing to us, we decided to chance the sniper, and therefore followed a track made by a tank and proceeded across the country in the direction of Fontaine, some three or four kilometres distant as far as we could judge. Occasional shells threw up large pillars of earth on our right, but not near enough to be alarming, and the walk was really quite enjoyable, the padre being in his usual good spirits. My idea was to gradually bear to the left towards the main road and strike it shortly before it passes into Fontaine. We dropped into a sunken road which soon emerged into the open flat and was there newly metalled, but the stones did not pounded in or rolled in any way. Like all the German construction work it was extremely well done and had bricked edges.
We still walked through quiet, but pretty scenery, and were troubled very little by shells. If there were a sniper he took no notice of us. As we were nearing the road, however, our steps were arrested by shouts coming from our left. The padre said he saw some men he took to be West Yorks on account of their short coats and woolly jackets. We halted, listened, and again heard the shouts, coming apparently from the edge of Bourlon Wood quite close to us. I could see nothing.
Thinking it possible that some wounded might by lying there and that my Red Cross brassard had been recognised by them, I suggested to the padre we should slant in the direction of the shouts and ascertain what was the matter. I had my Zeiss glasses with me but failed to discover anything suspicious, though, perhaps, the scrutiny was careless owing to neither of us imagining the enemy was so near as he turned out to be ! On getting close to the main road we were hailed by unmistakably Boche voices, a number of soldiers with rifles at the present sprang into view on the edge of the wood and we were fairly caught! Escape was out of the question. The sunken road was too far behind us, neither of us particularly fleet of foot, and we would in any case have been riddled with bullets before we had gone fifty yards. “Hands up’ we were ordered, and hands up it was till we reached the wood. Here we found quite a large party of men under an officer ambushed at the edge of the wood in a well-engineered earthen redoubt, with loop-holed banks and a number of light guns. On our arrival we were lightly searched for arms by the officer, questioned as to who we were and placed under guard. As the padre said, the scene was like one from a brigand story. Lines of soldiers, like posts in a fence, each standing in a cut of his own length held the fringe of the wood, and extending as far as we could see.
But our halt there was of short duration; two very young lads, with open and cheerful countenances, were placed in charge of us, given their orders, and we were marched off through the wood in a northerly direction. I don’t know how the padre felt, but for my part the shock was pretty great and I felt most horribly depressed. It had come on so suddenly. At one moment we were free and having a walk which was enjoyable enough considering where we were and what was afoot ; the next we were prisoners. We had suddenly dived behind that impenetrable screen before which we had moved for nearly three years. It was an unexpected plunge behind the scenes ! My guard was a mere lad, I should think about nineteen, most likely a farm labourer from some quiet country spot. There had been at first unpleasant glances all around us at the fort, but once it was known it was a case of “Artzt” and “Pfarrer” these changed to good-humoured amusement ! Depressed as I was, I found the march to Bourlon village, to which we were conducted, intenselv interesting. What first attracted my attention was the extent to which the Boche used the trees as look-out places and sniping posts, stout crow’s nests being visible high up the stems of many of them. No wonder there were reports of sniping over the ground we had crossed !
The Bois consisted of stout and very tall trees, closely set together, with paths and clearings, and here and there a road cut through. The crow’s nests must have been ideal spots to snipe from, but nasty for the occupants during shelling ! The wood proved to be full of Boches – in dug-outs, trenches, behind roads, in bushes, etc.
Through this wood we were guided and, in half an-hour or so, reached the railway station of Bourlon village just to the north.
Here, apparently, was a H.Q. of some sort. We were kept on the station platform while our arrival was reported, and soon there emerged from the Station buildings an officer of some rank, a colonel, or brigadier, perhaps, who immediately set about questioning us eagerly. His main object was to extract from us the Zero hour for the day. He said in broken English : *When the attack? One o’clock? Two? Three?” Of course there was nothing doing with us, nor did we ourselves know anything about it. The time of our capture must have been about 10a.m., and so far as we knew our troops might not be going to attack at all. We had started on our tour too early for the news of the day’s doings to have leaked out.
Suddenly, while we were being questioned on the station platform, there came the scream of a shell and we got our first sight of how a British shell explodes! Most satisfactory it was too! Another, and yet another, followed in rapid succession, each falling nearer and nearer to where we stood. It was quite obvious they were meant for the station. My own mood was such that I felt I cared not a single jot. For the first (and only) time I did not care if it snowed shells! But with the Boche it was not so. Where there had been quite a little crowd around us – officers, soldiers, guards, orderlies, etc. – there was soon only open platform. Every man Jack, even our guards, bolted to the buildings and no doubt went rapidly below ground. So comical was it, that my first thought was “Why not do a bunk?” But a moment’s reflection made me realise the hopelessness of it. We would have to hide until dark, make our way through a huge forest crammed with Germans, and chance being shot at. For two elderly non-combatants any such adventure would have been merely silly.
The next incident to happen was the arrival right above us of a British aeroplane. Whether it was to observe the shooting we were unable to say, but we hoped no bomb was coming our way. In any case the shelling stopped, the plane disappeared and the officer and crowd emerged once more. After much more talk, a motor lorry passing along the road near us was hailed, and we two prisoners directed to climb in. The padre with one guard disappeared into the interior, while I was soon perched in front between the driver and the other. The lorry had evidently conveyed small arms ammunition to the front and was returning empty.
The drive, however, was not to be uneventful. Shelling was in full force once more and our driver was of the “windy” species. The road was fairly good, quite straight, lined with tree trunks and, though none too wide, was of good enough surface for the speed we were travelling. What disturbed me more than the shelling was the driving ! The padre was inside and missed our erratic swerves, but I had the full benefit. Our driver was much more interested looking backwards to see “where that one went” than in attending to his wheel. Once we missed a tree by inches! I found my few words of German flowing back to me, and these I used in the most energetic fashion, while more than once I could not help grasping the wheel to try to prevent a disaster.
Happily the danger of this grew less as we made our way back from the line, and the drive became really interesting, despite the shocking smell of the petrol, benzol, or whatever it was that propelled the machine. There were Boche troops and guns to look at, the myriads of notices stuck about, etc., etc. It was chilly without an overcoat, however, and I for one was not sorry when the engine, which for some time had given trouble, gave out altogether, and we were ordered to get down and march along on foot. Of course we had no idea of our destination. We got out at a crossroads, and, after a march of some miles, reached Sailly Lestrem, a good sized village. German guns were blazing away all along that road in the direction of Fontaine. Although we were unaware of it, Fontaine was being heavily attacked, and, as we afterwards learned, was captured during the day. Had we reached that spot as we intended before our capture, there is small doubt that we would have participated in the disaster, and not unlikely in unpleasant fashion!
At Sailly we were marched into an imposing house in a garden, probably a Brigade H .Q. Here a photographer was taking a group of orderlies in the doorway where we were halted. The padre believed that we were included, but we tried to dodge the compliment. Inside, we were again questioned, but only in a perfunctory way. Lunch was on the table and one Boche officer was loudly partaking. Another was poring over a map at the phone. We were not offered food, though very ready for it. An officer then buttoned on his coat and beckoned us to follow. A fine touring car awaited him and into it we all got, the officer saying to us, “Gentlemen, you are my prisoners.” For half an hour we bowled easily along. The car was a good one (though the spirit again smelt vilely), and I was much charmed with the musical whistle employed in lieu of a horn.
From accounts given to us by other officer prisoners later on we realised how fortunate we were to be driven. Possibly the fact of our being non-combatants and not in the first bloom of youth had to do with our luck in this respect ! We were taken to quite a large château about ten miles distant, evidently newly taken on as H.Q., as the telephones were in the course of being installed. We learnt later that Cambrai had been evacuated hurriedly, fearing its capture by our troops, and this was one of the fresh H.Q. Lunch was being served, and we did not know whether we hoped to be offered any or not. We were frightfully hungry, but also very dirty, and cut poor figures as British officers. I was unshaven, and both of us were wearing the oldest of breeches and tunics, much disfigured by the muck picked up during the battle. However, there was no invitation and we remained hungry. I had no idea what time it was, as my watch had broken down and been left by me at Flesquieres. More perfunctory questioning, and we were conducted to what was possibly Corps H.Q., and then to the office of the Intelligence Department, where a long wait ensued, fortunately beside a nice stove! Then came the real questioning, and for this we were taken separately – I suppose to see if our answers tallied. The questions were put abruptly, not to say roughly, but there was no real impoliteness. Of course every attempt was made to extract information, but on our denial there was no exhibition of “frightfulness.” Some amusement was caused by my refusal to give Division, Brigade, Brigadier’s name, etc., seeing that the information was plastered over my uniform and helmet, and when I refused the name of my Brigadier I was told “He is Pelham Burn and he goes on leave next week!” They knew more than I did!
Apart from attempts to extract information, we were asked all sorts of informal questions, here as everywhere else where we were questioned: How long did we think the war would last? How did our men like it? What did we think of the U boats?, etc.
We had to hand over all written matter in our possession, my fine field glasses, maps, etc. I tried to keep my business book, which, as I pointed out, contained nothing but family and personal business entries, but it was no use. The padre, similarly, lost his cheque book, private letters and other odds and ends, his Sam Browne belt, prayer book and other religious books. Our watches, pocket knives and money were not touched. Two new guards now took us in charge and marched us to the Town Major’s, where a chit was given us for a meal! This was afforded at what seemed to be a newly opened soldier’s club kitchen, a beautifully equipped and spotlessly clean apartment.
There we ate soup, bread and sausage, and were removed later to the guardroom, a long, large, wooden hut with a stove at one end, four wire beds on each side of the room, some forms, a table and half a dozen soldiers. They were decent fellows, quite ready to be amicable, and set us down by the fire and tried to talk to us. One, a Pole by his name, told the padre he too was a Catholic. My scanty knowledge of the language here began really to be of use I suggested “How about beer?” They were visibly cheered by the question, and said it could easily be got. They had to pay for it themselves, however, as our French money was of no use! This was at Marquette, a small village north of the Sensee Canal and due north of Cambrai. Here we remained until early evening, occasionally talking to the men in the guardroom who were, of course, keenly interested in us and all we managed to say to them. I. too, was interested to see their military routine going on. Everynow and then a soldier got up, buckled on his equipment and disappeared, while others, whose spell on guard was over, returned to the comfort and ease of the guardroom. Their politeness of manner and instinctive avoidance of offence nearly equalled that of our own men in similar circumstances.
So much for the first impressions of a prisoner of war!