The Battle of the Lys, 1918

When the Division had been taken out of the line at Souastre, Divisional Headquarters were successively at Lehurliere, Neuvillette, Fouceuieres and Labeuvrieres, while reinforcement and relitting were going on. 

On 8th April it entered the XIth Corps, and D.H.Q. moved to Robecq, the little country town near Lillers where our 2nd Field Ambulance had been first billeted on coming to France in May, 1915. Once more I slept in my old room at the kindly (and hereditary) tailor’s, who still had his old rheumatic sister, his niece and his gamecocks, his welcome to us being as warm as before. Here there were old acquaintanceships to renew : coffee to be taken with the doctor ‘s widow and her devoted domestic in their little house across the street where, whatever happened, they expressed their intention of staying, for as the old lady said, “Tous les souvenirs de ma vie sont ici” : answers – as soothing as possible-to be given to the groups of anxious-minded people at every doorway.

Here, too, to make good our officer losses in the last battle, we were joined by an excellent and efficient reinforcement of ten Australian medical graduates, who were deservedly popular with all ranks throughout their stay in the 51st Division.

9th April, I918. Next morning at 4. a.m. the enemy started a bombardment to have a thrust at the Portuguese troops holding the sector. Shortly afterwards we made the personal acquaintance of a surprising number of our gallant allies ; and at 5 a.m. the 152nd Brigade had to hurry into the line. The Field Ambulances were then located at Cantraine, Robecq drawbridge and La V allée, all at their usual work of collecting and evacuating brigade sick.

An Advanced Dressing Station for the 152nd Brigade was immediately formed near Zelobes by a party of the 3rd F.A., the rest of the unit forming a Main Dressing Station at the drawbridge over La Bassée Canal in front of Robecq. All available bearers were sent up from Cantraine to the M .D.S. to be distributed later as required, with the O.C. 2nd Field Ambulance. acting as Forward Evacuation Officer. As the 154th Brigade was going under orders of the 55th Division, the 2/1st F.A. was to be at the disposal of its A.D.M.S.; but telephone communication with him was found to be impossible, and the unit worked throughout under Brigade orders. 

By afternoon the Advanced Dressing Station near Lelobes, a Collecting Post at Les Huit Maisons, and the M.D.S. at the drawbridge, La Bassée Canal, were all in full swing and evacuation of wounded going on steadily. An additional M.O., with extra bearers, cars, stretchers, blankets and dressings, was sent up to Lelobes to assist there, as work was rapidly getting heavier. Ford cars were now working right up under fire to the Regimental Aid Posts and in some cases were clearing cases directly back to the Main Dressing Station, as the Advanced Dressing Station accommodation was only farmhouses with no head-cover whatever.

In the evening contradictory and impracticable Corps medical orders came in one to move the M.D.S. back to Busnes Château (where the Corps Rest Station and a Field Ambulance of the 55th Division were already located ) ; another for it to occupy Robecq Mill (already filled by Marine Artillery) and a third for it to move to Busnes village, where it would be shewn its next location. This last was done the others being impossible – but the unit found itself side-tracked and useless in Busnes for twelve hours without receiving any further orders. The result was inevitable confusion, as the cases from the Advanced Dressing Stations were evacuated through the 55th Division Field Ambulance at Busnes Château, and our divisional cars made to carry back to the C.C.S.s, thus depleting the supply for the front line and hindering evacuation therefrom. The 2/Ist F.A. had now formed an Advanced Dressing Station for the 154th Brigade at Avelette, with two M.O.s and all available cars and bearers. The 153rd Brigade A.D.S. was at midnight near Pacaut, and fully occupied with numerous casualties.

10th April, 1918. As the 3rd F.A. was by 9 a.m. still at Busnes without any orders having been received from Corps for its disposal, it was obviously necessary to indulge in the Nelson touch and apply the telescope to the blind eye. The O.C. was therefore instructed to open a Divisional Main Dressing Station on his present site, as our ambulance cars were still running back to the C.C.S. (i.e., doing M.A.C. work instead of their legitimate business), and no record of 5Ist Division cases was being kept at Busnes Château. The 152nd Brigade Advanced Dressing Station was being kept clear, with two cars evacuating all the wounded from R.A.P.s. 

By 11 a.m. the 154th Brigade, less one battalion, was once again in our Division, but by Corps medical operation orders its wounded were still being evacuated through 55th Division medical arrangements. Numerous wounded French civilians were being taken back from Robecq, which was being badly shelled. One old peasant with an abdominal wound had walked the whole way from Vieille Chapelle. At every street door you met terrified women, children and old men, all seeking a little comfort. A high velocity gun had kept going all night trying for the canal bridges ; a Boche aeroplane had flown over in the afternoon and fired a belt of cartridges on the streets . and the inhabitants had not even the spurious safety of cellars, as the ground was toò marshy for such things. So here they were, waiting in dread and expectancy for a lead. 

My poor old rheumatic landlady, sitting in her arm-chair, was hoisted on to a motor lorry, en route for safer quarters further back. A motley lorry-load it was, embracing as it did an ancient dame of ninety-eight lying on a mattress laid on a long, low barrow – on which movable bed she had spent the last three years of her life and her daughter of seventy-five. With the latter, I grieve to say, I had “words” ; as she. when her mother had been safely loaded. barrow and all, desired to place most of their household gods after her. On being told that the vehicle was only for passengers and that many other of her neighbours needed place therein, she vituperated me. This, in a crowded street, was annoying, and led would-be humorous brother officers to ask, “Who’s your lady friend?” and indulge in other stereotyped and hoary jests. So I cut it all short by getting two lusty A.S.C. men to hoist her in and pack her out of sight, well to the front of the lorry. Out of sight- Yes ! But from the depths, as the lorry rumbled off, came her voice shrilling out, “Féroces ! Barbares ! Misérables !” with many personal and libellous references to myself, until the conveyance turned the corner and disappeared . 

Curious folk they were, and often desperately “sweer” to leave their old homes, even when safety demanded it. At one farm nearer the line -and all this flat fertile country was studded with little farms – the rest of the people had cleared out, leaving only a young woman of twenty-five and her grandfather over seventy.  As the fight progressed it became an Advanced Dressing Station, and the vicinit  was heavily shelled. At the urgent request of our troops the girl at last went back, but the old man blankly refused. He spent the day sitting at the side of his stove, occasionally going out to feed his pigs and hens. Why not? His alternative was to bundle and go along shelled roads whither he knew not : the great majority of refugees had no fixed objective : thev were simply trying to get away anywhere – from it all. 

By mid-day the A.D.S. of the 153rd Brigade was on the Boheme-Pacaut road and that of the 152nd Brigade behind Zelobes, whence later it moved slightly back to a site more suitable for car loading. In the afternoon both A.D.S.s were near Pacaut and working conijointlv to facilitate rapid evacuation . The Forward Evacuation Officer was now sent back to Busnes to superintend and control supply of cars, stretchers, stores. etc.. to the A.D.S.s, so as to free the O.C 3rd F.A. for purely medical work – which was heavy – at the M.D.S. The 2/1st H.F.A., with the 154th Brigade, was doing A.D.S. work, and lending assistance to the 55th Divisional Field Ambulance at Hingette. 

By evening motor lorries were taking back walking wounded from Robecq to Busnes, and a better service of M.A.C. cars clearing the Main Dressing Station there.

11th April, 1918.

By morning the 153rd Brigade A.D.S. had again parted company with that of the 152nd Brigade, and was further back on the Pacaut-Merville road, having been shelled out of its previous site ; while the 152nd Brigade A.D.S. was near Bacquerolles Farm and liable to be forced back to the drawbridge at La Bassée Canal at any moment. A provisional A.D.S. was, therefore, opened there in view of this eventuality. The 153rd Brigade A.D.S. was later pushed back behind Pacaut, where three extra cars. were sent to clear their large list of casualties, and where it again got in touch with the 152nd Brigade A.D.S. for conjoint work, although by afternoon it was once more “on its own” near Riez-du- Vinage. Here it again received extra bearers, while the M.O.s of a Brigade of the 61st Division, which had come up to reinforce, had also to get supplied with our bearers, as their own Field Ambulance had not yet detrained. By evening the Corps Rest Station had at long last evacuated. Busnes Château, and this was free to be used by us as a Main Dressing Station. Many civilian and military casualties were cleared from Robecq in the evening and on two occasions cars had to go to Calonne to clęar a R.A.P. there of the 12th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, as the 61st Division ‘s Field Ambulances were still not detrained. At midnight Robecq and the Robecq- Busnes road were being heavily shelled, with many resulting casualties.

12th April, 1918

In the early morning a message came in from the joint A.D.S. of the 152nd and 153rd Brigades to the draw-bridge, La Bassée Canal, to the effect that it was moving back there at once, as the enemy was advancing rapidly and the post was under machine gun fire. The 152nd Brigade H.Q., in their near neighbourhood, had been captured by the enemy, including the liaison M.O. there. A Ford car of the 2nd H.F.A., along with the M.O. 6th Gordon Highlanders and its driver, had also fallen into enemy hands. Although the car was lost, the M.O. and the driver both subsequently escaped in the mist which prevailed. At 9 a.m. Divisional Headquarters moved from Robecq to Busnes, and the Drawbridge A.D.S. in front of Robecq was withdrawn.

Later, the M.D.S. was moved back from Busnes Château to the Red Cross Society’s Huts at Ham-en- Artois, and car posts were established at the drawbridge over La Bassée Canal on the Robecq- Busnes road and at Epinette : Busnes Château becoming the A.D.S. in the hands of the 2nd F.A. In the evening an M.O. with motor cyclists was posted to the H.Q. of the Composite Force (now holding the line in front of La Bassèe Canal on the Robecq- Busnes road), with a car in Robecq. 150 other ranks R .A.M.C., reinforcements for losses in March, arrived at Busnes Château, and were distributed to the different Field Ambulances.

13th April, 1918. Things were quiet, with few casualties passing through, and remained so until D.H.O. moved back to Lambres, when the Division came out of the line on 16th April. 

As the Advanced Dressing Stations were, in every case throughout this engagement, located in farmhouses exposed to shell and machine gun fire and with no overhead cover, rapid evacuation of casualties was the primary necessity. Our only transport losses, fortunately, were one Ford car – the famous “Turra Coo”0  captured by the enemy, and one horse ambulance wagon, ditched and abandoned under fire as the horses were killed. Cars throughout ran cases from the R.A.P.s to the A.D.S.s, one Ford car – the lost “Coo” acting for a considerable time as a mobile R.A.P. while a new site was being searched for further back. 

When the Advanced Dressing Stations fell back they had previously cleared all wounded and medical stores, and in several cases this was done with the enemy in sight and the stations under machine gun fire. In spite of this, R.A.M .C. casualties were low – 2 M.O.s and one other ranks missing prisoners), and 7 other ranks wounded. As reinforcements to replace the losses of other ranks sustained in the last battle did not arrive until 12th April, the Field Ambulances were, up to that time, working 150 (mostly bearers) under strength, and had in addition to supply bearers to the units of the Division coming up in support. It was exceedingly fortunate that 10 officers of the Australian A .M.C. had reported on the 8th.

The old difficulty, inevitable under such circumstances, of getting returning cars rapidly back to the Advanced Dressing Stations from the Main Dressing Stations (owing to the congestion of the narrow roads with transport, and at night owing to the darkness), was experienced . Cars also had frequently to pick up a load of stretcher cases en route and clear them first to the M.D.S. Only 16 M.A.C. cars were available to clear the M.D.S. from its first unsuitable site in Busnes, and this frequently resulted in our F.A. cars having to do the whole journey to the C.C.S.s until the M.D.S. got entry to Busnes Château, where there was sufficient accom- modation for temporarily holding casualties up.

The Corps medical arrangements were, throughout the engagement, confused, imperfect and unworkable. During the 9th, 10th and 11th all the R.A.M.C. in the front line worked, short-handed as they were, without rest and in the most indefatigable manner. 

In the course of this battle an officer, dodging his way across country amidst heavy enemy fire, thought he noticed some movement in a shell hole. Going up to it he found an old civilian and his wife, dressed – as these people often were when fleeing from their homes – in their Sunday best, and crouching at the foot of the hole. The old lady, a ruddy-faced agriculturist, had a bonnet fringed with beads and cherries which dangled and bobbed as she ducked at each explosion. Recognising her visitor as a British officer and wishing to express herself in a way he could understand, the poor old dame tersely but comprehensively remarked, “No bon ! Ah ! No bon!” Later she and her spouse were successfully rescued.

One party of King Edward’s Horse gallantly held the enemy in check for several hours in the vicinity of a farmhouse and under very heavy shell and machine gun fire. The men were exhausted and there were many casualties. All the civilians had cleared back except one old woman. During the action she milked her cows, herself taking the milk under fire to the men, and also making hot coffee for them : while, throughout, she tended the wounded as best she could. She was repeatedly pressed to leave, but her reply was always, “Why? I am of use here !” And she only left when the troops retired. No limelight for her : no hysterical female journalism. Just a big-hearted, courageous woman of the old-fashioned type,of which history has given us So many examples, regardless of her own safety while there was the work of the ministering angel to do.

From Lambres D.H.O. moved to Norrent-Fontes.

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