By the 3rd December, 1917, the Division, after a rest in the neighbourhood of Baisieux, had taken over from the 56th Division a sector of 6,000 yards astride of the Bapaume-Cambrai road, from Betty Avenue, Demicourt, on the right, to The Strand on the left ; Boursies on the Bapaume-Cambrai road being about the centre.
Our R.A.M.C. Advanced Dressing Stations were dug-outs at Doignies on the right, and Beetroot Factory (where the sous-terrain ran under the R oute Nationale) on the left, with the Main Dressing Station at Beugny and the Divisional Rest Station at Bihucourt. As Forward Evacuation Officer, my residence was one of the dug-outs in Doignies, where we had an uneventful enough stay for three weeks.
The village – what was left of it, anyway – was shelled daily, with an occasional bombing by way of variety. But the men were ensconced in two deep du-outs ; while a sandbagged shelter off the trench served as officer’s messroom, with a two-bunk dug-out opening off it again, into which one descended for sleep at night or for safety by day when more head cover was desirable. In the evening when nothing else was doing we read the awful magazine rubbish that passed for literature in war time and such places, or entertained angels unawares – gunners chiefly – who gave us much mixed news in return for our hospitality.
One fine afternoon we were greatly cheered by a well-informed caller telling us that the Hun was mining the village and that we might all go up at any time. That same night the A.D.S. was vigorously plastered with shells, and Jerry got on to a dump behind us which went aloft with a terrific concussion. It also spoiled our frugal dinner : as our messman, bringing it in on a tray, most excusably lay down on the top of it through one shell landing on the parados of the trench three yards away. What he rescued of our meal was not appetising, and my diary comment that night of “this place is pretty rotten altogether,” was, I believe, justifiable. But next morning, it being Christmas Day, that same chap was out bright and early and had our messroom decorated with ivy which he had got off a ruined wall in the village – “just to make it a bit more seasonable like” Good lad ! Optimism was always an outstanding asset in war.
The following day an English Siege Battery officer blew in to say his people “were killing their pig in view of the festive season” Their pig? O’ yes! For some time they had been carrying two grunters about with them but lately some Americans had stolen, killed, and eaten the better of the two ; vigorously denying, when taxed with the offence, any knowledge whatsoever of the matter. St. Serf, I suggested, would have been the most useful man to get as umpire in such a case, for one remembered his success with the sheep-stealer. This evil-doer also denied a similar charge, and persisted in his denial, even when confronted by the accusing saint ; but
“The sheep then bleated in his wame”
(according to “Wyntoun’s Chronicle” ), which effort, of course, completely gave the show away. But a modern Yank was probably far beyond being got at by such a borborygmous miracle. My English friend, however, was not interested in the reference : -”Never heard of the blighter ! Damn these gum-chewers, anyway!”
On the 27th I was called back to Divisional Headquarters to act as A.D.M.S., owing to Colonel C. C. Fleming, D.S.O., who had come out with us in that capacity, having died of wounds sustained during a bombing raid at Fremicourt the previous evening. His death caused widespread regret amongst the R.A.M.C. of the Division, with whom he was deservedly popular owing to his genial, kindly disposition. Later on my appointment was confirmed at – as I learnt afterwards on General Harper’s request ; and it then fell to me to set up business as a prophet in my own country, a proceeding that we have good authority for recognising as being not without risk. But I had the good luck to fall heir to a most active and efficient D.A.D.M.S: and an ever reliable Q.M S. with – what I never had – an encyclopædic knowledge of all Army Forms. Nor can I pay a sufficient tribute to the unforgettable loyalty and good fellowship of all the M.O.s in the Division, Field Ambulance and Regimental, which made my job a constant pleasure up to the last.
Our Divisional Headquarters, set in hutments amongst the ruins, were at Fremicourt, a few kilometres from Bapaume. A short distance up the Route Nationale to Cambrai was Beugny, also badly knocked about. In the ruins of the church there, amongst all the broken symbols of religion, was a tablet let into the wall, behind what was left of the altar, to commemorate the rebuilding of the church in 1878. The curė of that day had indulged in a gentle innuendo against his wealthier parishioners, for the last paragraph ran : – “Les riches ont donné et les pauvres ont été généreux”‘ A nice distinction !
Interesting visitors we had occasionally. In the earlier part of the year various U.S.A. officers were at D.H.Q: for instruction. One was Major-General Alexander, by descent a Forfarshire Scot, his folk having left there in 1717, after being mixed up in the ’15. since then they had been Marylanders. A fine, bluff, hearty man he was, who had seen a lot of service in the Philippines and Mexico. Another was Colonel Stimson, who had been Secretary of State for War in Taft’s Cabinet. He had a good tale about an Alabama regiment which, on landing in England, was played from the quay to its quarters by a well-meaning British military band enthusiastically pumping out “As we went marching through Georgia!” a very much mistaken compliment. which the new arrivals took uncommonly badly ! On another occasion we had a visit from four French journalists, representing the Matin, Journal, etc. One had the Medaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre and a wooden leg, all gained in the war.
Going about the area it was always worth noting the different nationalities European, African, Asian. The French Algerians, picturesque fellows in blue tunics with red trousers (old French infantry uniform) and red fezzes, were busy putting up temporary sectional houses for the returning inhabitants. One day a lot ran amok, as they objected to living in such a freely bombed area, and had to be rounded up with revolvers by the Divisional gendarmerie. (Their objection was not without reason : one bomb that was dropped behind our Divisional Rest Station at Bihucourt made a hole 30 feet in diameter by 20 deep. ) On our part we had Chinese and Indian Labour Companies. The Chinese were a cheery, chattering crowd, but vicious when roused. An R.C. padre told me that in his area ten of them attended mass regularly and could recite their prayers in Latin converts of some Catholic mission.
Walking behind a man of a Labour Company on the Cambrai road one day I read this interesting inscription on his gas helmet satchel :- “Peter Dean. This is mine ! Stolen goods ! PUT IT DOWN !” Peter had, after much experience, evidently lost faith in military mankind and methods, and set about putting his house in order on purely individualistic lines.
Gymkhanas were held at intervals – betting by totalisator – on a slope behind Fremicourt, in full view of Bourlon Wood hurdle and flat, with occasional bare-back mule racing for Hindu R.A. drivers and ditto for Jocks in kilts !
Divisional baths at Beugny, Lebucquiere Fremicourt dealt weekly with 11,000 men. The Foden Lorry Thresh Disinfector, in constant demand, toured the district regularly, the merry merchant who drove it sleeping inside the steam chamber ! He was pre-eminently and to the end a civilian in khaki, and his highest attempt at a military salute never rose beyond touching his cap with one finger and the bestowal of a friendly grin on those he favoured. When you had thoroughly gained his approbation, he usually dispensed with his meagre acknowledgment of differences in rank. We meet him again.
Medical work remained of the routine nature usual in trench holding until March, when it became evident that an attack by the enemy was impending. On the 11th our Divisional G.O.C., Major-General Sir G. M. Harper, K.C.B., D.S.O., was promoted to the command of the IVth Corps.
Up to now all our R.A.M.C. experiences had consisted of attending to casualties while “sitting tight” in trench warfare, taking part in pushes, or in the more rapid advance of Cambrai. But here we were for the first time to face the far greater difficulties of evacuating wounded during a retreat.
On 2Ist March the long expected storm broke, and broke with hurricane fury. The enemy’s barrage commenced at 5 a.m., extending from “the front line to Paris.” In our sector Doignies, Beaumetz, Lebucquiere, Velu, Fremicourt, Beugny and the Bapaume-Cambrai road were all heavily shelled. At Fremicourt, the first shell fell in D.H.Q., killing a signaller, and the wooden hutments had to be rapidly evacuated in favour of a large and deep dug-out. “In rear of the Divisional area, places such as Bapaume, Albert, Frevent and St. Pol were all shelled by long range guns, while Paris was engaged by `Big Bertha.’”) The bombardment lasted with its original intensity for four hours.
21st March : First Day of Enemy Offensive – When the enemy offensive began the medical arrangements for the evacuation of Divisional wounded were on the following plan. The Forward Evacuation Officer at the time was the O.C. 2/1st Highland Field Ambulance, whose personnel was supplemented in the routine way by the bearer divisions from the other two Field Ambulances. His headquarters were at Gropi Camp, Leb ucquiere. Advanced Dressing Stations were situated at Doignies and at Beetroot Factory on the Bapaume-Cambrai road, with Relay Bearer Posts at Beaumetz and Demicourt. The bearers of all three Field Ambulances were employed in the evacuation of wounded under his orders, and distributed so as to give :
8 bearers at each Regimental Aid Post.
50 bearers at Beetroot Factory A.D.S.
30 bearers at Doignies A.D.S.
30 bearers at Relay Post, Beaumetz.
20 bearers at Relay Post, Demicourt.
20 bearers at Relay Post, Level Crossing, Lebucquiere.
The remainder were held in reserve at Gropi Camp, Lebucquiere.
The tent division of the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance was employed at the Divisional Rest Station, Bihucourt: that of the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance at the Corps Main Dressing Station, Beugny : while that of the 2/1Ist Highland Field Ambulance was employed at the Advanced Dressing Station, as its O.C. was Forward Evacuation Officer.
All motor ambulance cars, less one car which remained at the Rest Station, Bihucourt, and all horse ambulance wagons, were parked at Beugny ; from there to be distributed as required under orders of the Forward Evacuation Officer. Wheeled stretcher-carriers (collapsible Miller-James type) were parked at Gropi Camp, Lebucquiere, and at Main Dressing Station, Beugny, to be sent up in cars when wanted.
A Corps Main Dressing Station was established at Beugny, to which were to be sent all cases except those urgently requiring evacuation direct to the Casualty Clearing Station from the Advanced Dressing Station. Evacuation from the Main Dressing Station was by Motor Ambulance Corps right through by road to the C.C.S.s at Grevillers or by the light railway to a detraining centre at Bapaume, from which place M.A.C. cars conveyed patients to the C.C.S.s. A Walking Wounded Collecting Station was established in marquees at Beugny, beside the Corps Main Dressing Station-Horse ambulance wagons were available at Beaumetz, and road junction of Nine Elms Road with main Cambrai Road, to pick up walking wounded and convey them to their Collecting Station.
In the event of a retirement the arrangement made was that the Advanced Dressing Station, Doignies, was to fall back on Gropi Camp, Lebucquiere, leaving a Collecting Post at Beaumetz Relay Bearer Post, to which cars were to run as long as possible. Doignies A.D.S. was then to become a Regimental Aid Post, and casualties from it were to be evacuated to Beaumetz by wheeled stretcher and hand carriage. Similarly, the A .D.S. at Beetroot Factory was to fall back on Beugny, Beetroot Factory becoming then an R.A.P. A Collecting Post was then to be established at Nine Elms, to which cars were to run as long as possible. Cases from R.A.P’.s were to be taken there by wheeled stretcher and hand carriage. The Corps Main Dressing Station at Beugny was, on retreating, to fall back on huts at Loch Camp on the Bapaume-Cambrai road near Fremicourt.
For three months before the action commenced construction work had gone on steadily at the two Advanced Dressing Stations at Beetroot Factory and Doignies, with the view of strengthening them and increasing the accommodation. A new sloping entrance to Beetroot Factory dug-outs which ran in beneath the Bapaume-Cambrai road – had been completed, and the dug-outs themselves enlarged. At Doignies, where the accommodation had consisted of only two deep dug-outs, a new elephant shelter for an extra 20 lying cases was constructed, sunk in to the side of the trench and covered with iron rails, bricks, etc., so as to leave a bursting space’ for further safety. A good supply of blankets, stretchers and medical stores was always maintained in each post ; in the anticipation that, had our troops to retire and cases to be left in the enemy’s hands, our casualties would to a certain extent benefit by this supply.
It was also fully anticipated that the routes Beetroot Factory to Beugny and Doignies to Beaumetz would be extremely difficult to work ; but the absolute occlusion of these routes by the intensity of the initial enemy fire put the Advanced Dressing Stations completely out of action at once and finally. All personnel there became casualties, while the cars and motor cycles in use were destroyed by shell fire. One medical officer made an attempt to work across from Beaumetz to Beetroot Factory, but found it quite impossible and returned to Beugny. Another M .O., newly reported for duty from England, and detailed for Doignies, managed to get through the barrage after the action commenced, guided by our gallant and indefatigable senior chaplain,’ only to be taken prisoner there in his company.
After the action began no cases were evacuated from Beetroot Factory and no messenger or car got through. Similarly, no cases were evacuated from Doignies ; but in response to the only message that got through from the M.O. in charge there, dated 12 30 P.M., an attempt was made to send up three horse ambulance wagons from Beaumetz by the fair weather track to Doignies. The message had stated that a steady stream of casualties was arriving ; that a large amount of gas shells had been thrown over ; that the Advanced Dressing Station had received several direct hits, but that no casualties to the personnel had been so far sustained. After proceeding about half way under very heavy fire the drivers came in full view of the hordes of advancing field-greys, and saved the wagons by galloping back to Beaumetz.
At 11 a.m. the Forward Evacuation Officers was killed by a shell at his headquarters at Gropi Camp, Lebucquiere, while getting his men into a sunken road for shelter, and the same shell mortally wounded one of his officers, who died two hours later at the Main Dressing Station, Beugny. The duties of Forward Evacuation Officer were at once taken over and ably conducted throughout by the second in command of the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance.
As all telephonic communications had now broken down, various attempts were made by motor cyclists and runners to get in touch with Doignies and Beetroot Factory, but without effect. One motor cyclist got within sight of Doignies about 12 noon, but through field glasses could see no sign of movement there.
Meanwhile the staff at the Main Dressing Station, Beugny, the Relay Posts at Beaumetz and at the Level Crossing, Lebucquiere, and the Medical Inspection Room of D.H.Q. at Fremicourt, were fully occupied with local casualties due to the continuous and heavy shelling of the area. Early in the morning the Corps Main Dressing Station and Walking Wounded Collecting Station at Beugny, the latter of which was in the hands of a party from an ambulance of the 25th Division, came under heavy enemy fire. Both institutions consisted only of huts and tentage with no deep dug-outs or other reliable cover, and a medical officer of the 25th Division was killed.
In the afternoon the M.O.s of the 6th and 7th Black Watch were reported missing, and as the M.O. of the 7th Gordon Highlanders was ascertained to be at a new R.A.P. a kilometre to the right of Morchies, an additional M .O. was ordered up at night from Beugny, with bearers, to join him and help to carry on the medical work of the three battalions in that area. Through the night this R.A.P. was vacated and moved to a deep dug – out at Chaufour’s Wood, whence the cases were carried to the Highland Division Soup Kitchen site, between Beugny and Beetroot Factory, and then trollied along the light railway and met by cars on the Cambrai road. These two officers remained at this post till the enemy were within 300 yards of them, and managed to evacuate all their cases. In the late afternoon also, three cars were got up by Hermies to within 100 yards of Demicourt, and evacuated cases from battalions on the right, which had side-slipped there owing to the Doignies- Beaumetz road being impracticable. An R .A.P. at the old Relay Post in the Sunken Road at Beaumetz was also. got in touch with, and cases there taken to Beugny. A Ford car was knocked out at Lebucquiere at 4.30 p.m.
At 5 P.M., as the Main Dressing Station and Walking Wounded Collecting Station at Beugny were again being freely shelled, these were moved back, according to the arrangements previously made, to Loch Camp at Fremicourt, some three kilometres nearer Bapaume on the Route Nationale, the details of the 2/ISt Highland Field Ambulance at Gropi Camp, Lebucquiere, also moving there ; while a party of the 77th Field Ambulance of the 25th Division accompanied them to carry on the Walking Wounded Collecting Station. The Forward Evacuation Officer remained with a party at Beugny to conduct an Advanced Dressing Station as long as possible, and to maintain touch with what R.A.P.s he could locate, by cars, cyclists or runners. An officer and party were also left at the Level Crossing elephant shelter, Lebucquiere ; and an N.C.O. and IO bearers at Sunken Road, Beaumetz, with the same end in view.
A continuous stream of local casualties continued to be dealt with at all these posts. During the night enemy fire slackened considerably, and cars managed to run well forward on the Cambrai road to the Soup Kitchen and Nine Elms, beyond Beugny, clearing numerous cases from the line and local casualties from the roads and encampments.
22nd March : Second Day of Enemy Offensive – At 1.25 a.m. and 3.55 a.m. the Main Dressing Station reported that the Motor Ambulance Convoy service was unable to cope with the very large number of wounded requiring evacuation ; and that sufficient blankets were not available from the Casualty Clearing Stations at Grevillers, as these were moving back and that to do this the M .A.C. was called on to help. All horse ambulance wagons with some motor ambulance cars obtained from the 57th Field Ambulance, were therefore turned on to clear the M .D.S., and its casualties were also evacuated by Decauville railway to the detraining centre at Bapaume. By 5 a.m., as wounded were coming in steadily and in very large numbers, the Main Dressing Station still reported the M.A.C. service inadequate for rapid clearance. This delay, however, was inevitable owing to the double duties of the M.A.C., the great congestion of traffic on the evacuation routes, and the consequent holding up of the car service.
At 10.30 a.m. the progress of evacuation, though still somewhat slow, was held to be as satisfactory as it could be under the extremely difficult circumstances prevailing.
Owing to the continued and increasing shelling of Beugny the Forward Evacuation Officer was now ordered to fall back on Loch Camp, and to keep on running his cars up the Cambrai road as far, and as long as. he could.
At 1 P.M. Divisional Headquarters moved back from Fremicourt to Grevillers. At 4 P.M., as the Loch Camp Main Dressing Station (merely a collection of huts without dug-outs or other shelter) was getting sharply shelled the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance was shelled, ordered to move back to the site at Grevillers vacated by No.20 Casualty Clearing Station. to deal with Iying cases : while the site of No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station was taken over by an ambulance of the 41st Division as a Walking Wounded Collecting Station. The Highland Field Ambulance opened a Main Dressing Station at 7.30 p.m., and very soon had over 500 casualties dumped on it by ambulance cars of other Divisions, who were unaware that the C.C.S.s had closed down and were on the move. The Forward Evacuation Officer remained behind with a party and cars at Loch Camp to run an Advanced Dressing Station as long as it was feasible. At this stage, too, the A.D.S. at the Level Crossing, Lebucquiere, was vacated by 51st Division personnel by arrangements made with the A.D.M.S., 19th Division, the personnel retiring to Loch Camp.
In response to a message from a new R.A.P. of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in front of Velu, cars were run up there to evacuate cases, but failed in the darkness to find the place. A Brigade staff officer stated that everybody was supposed to have gone. The M.O. 4th Gordon Highlanders, however, was got in touch with in the same vicinity and his cases evacuated. Later, the other location was got at and also cleared.
At 8 p.m., as the Loch Camp area was again being heavily shelled, the Forward Evacuation Officer was ordered to fall back on Grevillers, leaving cars and a small party to continue clearing the Cambrai road. The 2nd Highland Field Ambulance reported from Divisional Rest Station, Bihucourt, that it had been dealing all day with casualties from the 40th Division, which had found their way there via Sapignies, that the site was now coming under steady shell fire, and that it had sustained several casualties.
23rd March : Third Day of Enemy Offensive . – In the morning definite information could be got regarding the position of only three battalions, viz. : 7th Argvll and Sutherland Highlanders in front of Velu, 6th Seaforth Highlanders at Lebucquiere, and 6th Gordon Highlanders at Middlesex Camp.
As M.A.C. cars continued to be insufficient to clear Main Dressing Station, Grevillers, over 150 cases had accumulated ; and as the area was being shelled, 20 extra cars were got from Corps and put on the route, while four lorries, also from Corps, were sent to Grevillers to salve all possible medical stores there for removal to Corps H.Q. The M.A.C. was still having very heavy work owing to the extra task of assisting in moving and clearing the C.C.S.s to positions further back. At Grevillers the Main Dressing Station and the Walking Wounded Collecting Station were quite evidently soon to be shelled out of their present site owing to the presence of batteries in their immediate vicinity, which brought the enemy fire unpleasantly close, while the area was also being bombed. As the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance reported 5 killed and 8 wounded at the Bihucourt Divisional Rest Station from shell fire, it was ordered to move, after it had cleared its cases, to Puisieux.
To adjust the medical arrangements to the movements of troops the Forward Evacuation Officer was sent to reconnoitre Bancourt for a Collecting Post to take cases from the battalions in front. He got in touch with the M .O. 7th Gordon Highlanders ; and a party of bearers with stretchers and dressings went up with a car to evacuate cases. He could not then find Brigade Head- quarters, but they were got later and the location notified. The M.O. 4th Gordon Highlanders was also got in touch with and supplied with much-needed dressings and stores.
At 6 P.m. the Main Dressing Station was being better cleared by the extra 20 cars put on ; and as shelling of the vicinity of the M .D.S. was continuing; the transport lines of the 3rd and 2/1st Highland Field Ambulances were now moved further back on the Grevillers-Achiet- le-Petit road. Five horses had been killed and one driver wounded.
The chief difficulty all day was the unavoidably slow evacuation of the wounded by the M.A.C. cars, whose work was much impeded both by the congested state of traffic on the roads and by the extra work thrown on them of assisting the retiral of the C.C.S.s.
24th March : Fourth Day of Enemy Offensive .- At 3 a.m. cases were still being brought in steadily ; but the greatest difficulty was experienced in keeping in touch with the, constantlv changing R.A.P.s of the retreating troops. It was now definitely ascertained that the medical officers of the 6th and 7th Black Watch and 4th and 5th Seaforth Highlanders were missing, believed prisoners while, later, the medical officer of the 8th Royal Scots and the medical officer of the 7th Black Watch (who had just returned from leave and rejoined his battalion ) were wounded and evacuated.
As the Main Dressing Station at Grevillers was now rapidly becoming untenable owing to shelling and bombing, orders were sent to the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance at Puisieux to fall back on either Beaucourt or Miraumont, after a site had been prospected and chosen, and to open as Main Dressing Station. The 3rd Highland Field Ambulance was ordered to close down the Main Dressing Station at Grevillers whenever it had cleared all its casualties ; and, failing a sufficient supply of M.A.C. cars for evacuation to C.C.S.. to get rid of surplus cases by horse ambulance wagons and motor lorries to the new Main Dressing Station, Beaucourt, where the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance had reported it was now open. No cases were to be left behind at Grevillers, and all blankets, stretchers and medical stores that the unit could possibly carry were, in addition, to be removed.
At 1 p.m. the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance reported all its cases cleared. Shortly after it left the site all the huts and tentage remaining there were in flames ; while it, along with the 2/1st Highland Field Ambulance, moved back to Beaucourt to join the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance the Forward Evacuation Officer, with a medical officer and party with cars, being left at Grevillers to send back to Beaucourt any Divisional cases that came in. Divisional Headquarters at 2 p.m. moved back to Achiet-le-Petit, and at 7 p.m. again moved to Puisieux ; the Field Ambulances at Beaucourt being ordered to retire to Auchonvillers and establish a Main Dressing Station there.
In the evening the Forward Evacuation Officer tried personally to get in touch with Brigade Headquarters at Bancourt with a car and dressings, but could not do so owing to the shelling of the route. He filled his car with wounded, roadside cases, which he evacuated to Albert, returning later to Grevillers ; but, finding this place heavily shelled, he proceeded to Main Dressing Station at Auchonvillers.
25th March: Fifth Day of Enemy Offensive. As the medical officer of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders was now reported a casualty, the Division had up to date lost 12 medical officers. An M.O. was sent up to the Brigade Headquarters, Irles, to join the 6th Seaforth Highlanders and the Forward Evacuation Officer proceeded to Achiet- le-Petit with a party, cars, and dressings, to endeavour to run a mobile Collecting Post, keeping in touch with Brigade Headquarters through a liaison medical officer sent there with motor cyclist, this officer in turn trying to keep in touch with the R.A.P.s- a very difficult task but the only practical proposition. The Forward Evacuation Officer remained at Achiet-le-Petit until he was shelled out of it, when he moved to Bucquoy and worked with a medical officer and party of a 19th Divisional Ambulance until Bucquoy also had to be vacated owing to enemy fire.
As a Brigade Headquarters was reported in the afternoon at Puisieux, a car with a supply of shell dressings was sent up there at 10 a.m. The M .O. of the 4th Gordon Highlanders reported later at D.H.Q., along with the M.O. of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, both having lost touch with their units through their joint R.A.P. being set on fire and destroyed by enemy shells. These two officers were in a state of complete exhaustion, having worked without sleep since the offensive began.
In the afternoon Divisional Headquarters moved to Colincamps and later to Foncquevillers. A medical officer with three cars was sent to try and reach Puisieux and Brigade Headquarters, taking all available dressings with him. Orders were now sent to the Field Ambulances to move the Main Dressing Station back to Bertrancourt, and to send their cars to scout all routes of retiral and pick up straggling casualties. The Ambulances moved back later to Henu, carrying out the same programme : and cars were also sent to search Mailly-Maillet, where it was reported there was a large number of walking cases from our own and other Divisions.
In the evening the Forward Evacuation Officer, after having conducted his work throughout in the most gallant and efficient manner, was injured through the ambulance car on which he was travelling being upset at Boquemaison, and was evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station at Frevent.
26th March : Sixth Day of Enemy Offensive – At 8 a.m. Divisional Headquarters moved to Souastre, the Field Ambulances being busily engaged working with cars on all possible roads where straggling casualties might be found. At 6 p.m. D.H.Q. moved again to Laherliere, the Field Ambulances moving back to Saulty. The Division was withdrawn from the line in the evening.
Owing to the length of time the Division was in the line, the initial heavy losses of R.A.M.C. officers, personnel and motor transport, the nature of the fighting, the difficulty of locating and getting in touch with the constantly moving R.A.P .s, especially at night, the heavy shelling of the routes and the extraordinary traffic congestion on the roads, any collection and evacuation of the wounded throughout the engagement was a most difficult task. Further, the M.A.C., on which the bulk of the evacuation to C.C.S.s always falls, had the additional duty of assisting in the evacuation and removal of the retiring C.C.S.s. At the front the constantly changing line with the R.A.P.s rapidly moving to con- form thereto, the loss of M.O.s of battalions (which was usually not known until hours after it had occurred), and the numbers of messages sent back for bearers and stores which never reached their destination, all tended to increase the difficulty. For the first four days the R.A.M.C. in the forward area worked, like the rest of the Division in the line, practically without sleep. A very large number of the more seriously wounded stretcher cases inevitably fell into the enemy’s hands, although the most Strenuous efforts were made to get them back ; but in no case did a Main Dressing Station or other Field Ambulance post, on vacating its position, leave before clearing all its casualties either to the Clearing Station or to the new M.D.S. formed on the route of retiral.
During the enemy offensive 911 lying cases and 60 sick were passed through the books of the Main Dressing Station exclusive of the many hundreds of walking cases dealt with by the Walking Wounded Collecting Station and, in addition, over 5oo stretcher cases were dealt with at Grevillers which had passed through the books of other divisional ambulances and been sent to Grevillers under the belief that the C.C.S.s there were still open.
The foregoing, mainly taken from the official medical narrative sent in after the Division was withdrawn, gives an idea of the actual moves of the medical units. The main object throughout was to keep them intact as units and near enough to the retreating line to be able to carry out their job ; while at the same time to ensure that they were neither captured nor knocked out en bloc. Handicapped as the R.A.M .C. was from the outset by the initial loss of 150 all ranks (chielly from the bearer divisions of the ambulances) and by the constant increase, as the days went on, of M .O. casualties, it was some , what surprising that so large a number of wounded were actually evacuated.
The further back we got during the retreat the worse the congestion of the roads became ; and by the fourth day of the offensive, when we were forced back into the non-devastated, or only partly devastated areas, the retreating troops became increasingly mixed up with civilian refugees. The routes were one steady, slowly moving mass of heterogeneous traffio, two, and sometimes three, deep ; but, while there was inevitable confusion, there was no panic, no loss of discipline. Guns, tractors, g.s. wagons, motor lorries, ambulance wagons and cars-these last often, fighting their way against the stream to make for the line – walking wounded, motor ploughs, Labour Companies, Indian coolies shuffling apathetically along, with stick on shoulder and bundle at each end of it, officers at the roadside, some diverting selections from the traffic stream into the fields in an attempt to reconstruct units, others in charge of stragglers’ posts making new combinations of fighting material–all contributed to form an unforgettable picture. Here, perhaps wedged in between a caterpillar and a gun, was a little hooded country cart, loaded to excess with household goods and children- one infant, I saw, wrapped in a shawl, was three days old ,and the adults, many of them aged men and women, toiling along in the dust beside it. Other such carts, overloaded, lay with a broken or lost wheel in the ditch abandoned by the owners who had perforce to go on.
One old man I met sat on the front of his loaded chariot, where a small crossroad intersected the larger one, gazing dispassionately at the never-ceasing Stream of traffic which prevented his crossing to the other side.
How long had he been there? “Four hours, Monsieur but perhaps the opportunity might come soon : one must have patience!” Warning him to be ready to cut in, I went back a few yards and told a g .s. wagon driver to pull up for a second or two when he came opposite the old boy. So he got over ; and his venerable cart with its pathetic mixed cargo of domestic relics and human misery went creaking and swaying up the ruts of the sunken road on the other side.
Another peasant, an old woman with long wisps of grey hair blowing about a hard-featured, black-eyed, aquiline type of face, stood upright in an empty cart on the lip of a deep chemin creux into which she could not descend. She had been going against the traffic on the main road, making for a village that must have been long ago in the enemy ‘s hands, and it had been necessary to side-track her for her own safety. It was useless to tell her that her errand was in vain : trembling with rage at having been turned aside, she only replied, with voluble abuse, that she had grandchildren there And they had sent a message that she must come for them ! Had she not sent a reply that she would come? These accursed soldiers had led her here, and she could not get further ! Poor old soul! One could not but admire her steadfast determination, barren as it was bound to be of any practical result.
At Colincamps, where Divisional Headquarters remained for a few hours, the inhabitants were packing up and clearing out -for the second time in this war. T roops were coming and going ; the Hun was known to be advancing rapidly ; and everywhere was bustle. Standing in the dusk beside an ambulance car, which we had just filled with cases picked up in the village, I was outside the arched entrance to a farmyard, when a two- wheeled handcart, laden with the packs, dixies and other miscellanea of a Labour Company, shot suddenly out into the road, narrowly missing a devastating collision with our car. Between the shafts, but with his big flat feet paddling wildly in the air as he was pressed on high by two excited comrades Shoving in the rear of the vehicle, was a very stout little mottle-faced man of middle age, whose appearance suggested (for the moment) an eighteenth century tombstone cherub, and also that it would have been cheaper to have papered his nose than painted it. As he cleared us by a hair’s breadth he gave a yell of.
“Hout o’ the way, you old Irish man-o’-war! Don’t you see the Flyin’ Corps’s a-comin’!”
Then as I came into his line of vision and he landed on his feet with a flop, he added :
“Beg pardon, sir ! But I’ve ‘auled this ‘ere little moo-seum hall the way from Bapumey and it ain ‘t gettin’ no lighter neither!”
“Bapumey” was Tommy’s invariable pronunciation of Bapaume ; and when I wished the friendly cherub the best of luck, he replied :
“Thanky, sir ! Same to you!”
And then, with a heave at the trams and a “Come on, you – couple o’ cross-eyed fairies !” to his pals, he went off up the road, cheerfully chaffing his way through the traffic. Bless his affable, Cockney, pothouse soul! I trust that he returned safely in due time to a kindlier environment.