Chapter 23

Living with the Rats of Vimy Ridge

 

The Somme front looked different when I got back to the firing line. Many times I had shelled such places as Guillemont, Ginchy, Morval and Combles. Now I was walking through such places, taken from the Germans.

I was shocked to learn of the loss of life in my 24th Division, including Brigadier-General Philpots and Brigade-Major Crippen, two men I admired for their courage and bravery by coming to the front-line to gather first-hand intelligence and to inform and encourage us. To my mind they were first class soldiers who always tried to consider the soldier and his needs as a priority, rather than political or personality factors and this was rare in my short experience. I had always been selected as their guide to the dangerous observation posts. Their loss somehow brought home the pointlessness of what nations were doing to their young in the cause that we all called civilization.

Near the end of 1916 we were relieved from forward positions and rested four days in a safe rear area, then we made our way to Amiens. Outside this great railway centre General Capper addressed a large assembly of artillerymen. He said it was imperative that all batteries should have six guns, two guns to be mobile to move at a moment's notice to hard-pressed key points. We all sighed as units were split up and familiar friends who had worked so well in teams were parted. I was very pleased with our new unit for we were to be under a reputedly good man, Major Hobday. The overall man was to be a Colonel Bourne, DSO.

Things moved too rapidly, especially for the artillery drivers who had stubborn mules supplied to make up for losses to their teams of six horses to each limber. Under the cover of darkness we moved by way of Doullens, Frevent and Aubigny to Acq, near Mont St Eloy. Things went smoothly, map reading was so easy as land marks were prominent. It almost seemed like a quiet exercise on Salisbury Plain. Without a hitch we dug in on Vimy Ridge.

Then the surprise - not shells, not lice, not hunger, but rats. The loathsome rodents were everywhere. We lit and stuffed cordite into one hole, clayed up a dozen or more holes to leave only two escape routes. The cordite fumes forced the rats out of the two holes and we killed scores. It made no difference and as the heavy winter snow came on, the rats moved into our dugouts and gun pits. They bred well as there was a plentiful food supply, dead or even badly wounded human and horse flesh! Infantrymen spoke about the screams from no man s land as the badly wounded were eaten and gnawed by swarms of rats and we saw the results on the corpses of erstwhile friend and foe.

The guns went into action for an infantry raid on the German lines. It was easy to spot where our shots landed as brown holes showed in the snow before being drifted or covered over. Unfortunately the Huns had the same advantage. Our raiders were clothed in white smocks and the prisoners that were taken told us that they were also plagued with rats and had found no cure.

Canadian soldiers moved up the line. We sensed that something was going to happen and within hours we were at our guns keeping up a sustained creeping barrage in front of the steadily advancing Canadians. As I sat at the gun the rats were running over my feet and the feet of other gunners and trying to chew at anything and everything.

For days and nights we had raids followed by counter infantry attacks by the enemy, but the Canadian repulsed every one. On one dead German staff officer the troops found valuable documents, including some which indicated impending pincer attacks by the enemy on Vimy Ridge.

Two guns were moved to a support trench ranged at eight hundred yards from the front line. I was put in charge of one and our orders were to use ammunition only in an emergency. To our delight we had no rats.

Christmas Day, 1916 was quiet along the whole of our sector. In our secure dugout we were served a surprise meal of cold roast pork, cold roast potatoes, cold goose, salad, cold plum pudding and cold drinks, plus a gift of chocolate. We learned later from prisoners that the Germans had lots of wine to wash down their normal rations of sausage and hard biscuits, for the Canadian raids had destroyed their Christmas meals.

Two days after Christmas we were withdrawn to a quiet spot called Ecquedecques for ten days' rest. I had home leave and managed a delightful holiday at home, returning just in time for a move to a spot called Bully Grenay. It was the quietest position we ever had.

Guns were located in gardens which were well protected in every way. The civilians were in their homes and we were billeted with them in spare rooms. Shells were few and far between, being usually aimed at crossroads, sunken roads, railway lines and ammunition dumps. We used our unexpected spare time to make dummy runs with limbers and guns. Each time I was careful to leave markers for future aiming points and note these and other possible gun locations.

Most days I was up at Observation Posts in the front-line and so to me our troop build-up was plain. The Canadians were ready to go over the top for the Battle of Arras and Vimy Ridge.

Very quietly we moved from our sheltered gun pits taking huge supplies of shells with us. One hour after our arrival, hundreds of our guns opened fire simultaneously in support of the Canadian attack. Our new orders were 'Switching fire, with creeping barrage.' The enemy was surprised, an advance was made and many prisoners were taken.

 

 

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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.