Chapter 25

Something Hellish was a Tank

 

In the interval between my being wounded and returning to my unit of the 24th Division, the gunners had secured salient points, especially around Panama Canal and Zonnebeke. I was able to walk openly over the place at which I was wounded. Now calm prevailed, so different from the morning of 9th July. As I stood reverently and looked around I saw scores of crude crosses formed by rifles stuck in the ground marking graves and all over the place there were red poppies blooming in profusion.

I thanked God that I had been spared and I knew that I would go to Africa one day.

When I got back from my sentimental tour I saw that all the men were working feverishly loading up wagons. So this was it, the whisper I heard earlier from two military policemen was true, the 24th Division was moving south to St Quentin.

While in hospital I had read all about the advance, deep into the St Quentin section and the capture of many Germans and their material. The journey was too far by road so we entrained at a siding near Proven and moved to the town of Bapaume. Waiting for us were service personnel, twenty-four horses, one new gun and badly needed spare parts.

Resting there for three days we all got to know each other and had fine meals all properly seasoned and hot. All our kit was inspected and what was missing was made good. We had two days' forced marching, until we camped at Baulincourt.

We relieved the 37th Division and at night we moved our guns towards positions called Cobra Copse, some three hundred yards to the rear of Le Verguier. The place looked ideal with good gun pits, dugouts, trenches and camouflage.

I heard one officer remark, 'A comfortable place, too damned comfortable, too quiet!'

Two sentries were near the Cobra Copse and one told me, 'This place is a picnic. I hope you keep your guns quiet.'

He had just finished when the action whistle sounded. Horses arrived, we limbered up two guns and galloped them to a mound only nine hundred yards from the front line.

I was appointed Corporal Battery Observer and was supplied with a periscope, field glasses and maps with nearly every inch of German lines marked on them. All that night, we pounded a dozen places with shrapnel, high explosives and at intervals, gas shells.

On my map I marked hits on dumps (one blew up), new earthworks, snipers' nests, machine-gun posts, a light railway track and a convoy. The enemy kept silent, but their planes and observation balloons (which we called sausages) kept watch, as did our many planes and 'sausages'.

There were dogfights above the clouds and many planes were downed. One shot-down German plane fell near our rear guns. The pilot was dead and his map had many of our gun sites carefully marked.

We heard on the 'grapevine' that General Byng was in the vicinity with staff officers and that their binoculars were frequently pointed towards Cambrai. Next forenoon I was in a support trench with two officers. Looking back I saw a frightening machine approaching and shouted the warning to them, 'Something hellish is moving our way.

It was a tank, the first I had seen. Its nose rose high into the air and then plunged down to disappear down a trench, then up again. Momentarily I felt quite seasick.

Behind the tank an anchor was dragging away enemy wire entanglements. Our guns were ordered to open up with smoke shells, in advance of the tanks. Through the gaps ripped open by the tanks followed our infantrymen, at the double and with fixed bayonets.

Within minutes we were hampered at our work as hundreds of prisoners surrendered their weapons to our soldiers and then quickly trooped to our positions. My officers took the initiative and detailed some infantrymen to escort the Germans to our rear and out of the war zone.

This 'Byng plan' threw the enemy from a stand-by to a disarray force. The tank was a new weapon and a fearful weapon when its fore, aft and side guns were blazing. Our penetration was deep.

With my officers I walked over to the vacated German trenches. They were good dugouts and at various points were stocks of small armaments, cylinders of gas and forsaken machine-gun nests.

The tanks' routes, the men at the guns in the tanks and the infantrymen with rifle and bayonet were perfectly co-ordinated under the Byng attack plan, but it seemed as if other high ranking officers were not convinced about the tanks' advantages for they failed to give the orders to immediately pounce and consolidate in a similar way along our whole front. The victory was short lived. The enemy regrouped and launched several counter-attacks, causing us huge losses. Soon our guns came under attack, but the reserve infantry were too late in arriving to stem the Hun reprisal. In short, we were back to square one.

 

 

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