Lull Before the Storm A Hun Attack
General Daly's speech at Monche-le-gasche was a source of great argument, so much so that soldiers began to bet as to when the attack would take place and how far the Germans would get.
After the 'Byng' attacks enemy prisoners began to look shabby; their uniforms were of poor quality, so different from the smart ones of 1916. One German told us things were not going well and that all efforts at home were concentrated on weapons of war of every kind. He even told one officer that the new gas shells were silent and deadly.
For part of February, 1918, I was on an education course with a view to a commission. My rating, averaging over
was high in all five subjects and even higher in gunnery and all that goes with active service in an Artillery unit. My only poor mark was flag signalling. I was examined by two army medical officers and their tests confirmed I was partially colour blind.
So I was failed. The doctors would pass me for an infantry commission but I wanted to be in the artillery only and so I returned to my Battery with promotion to Acting Sergeant. I was most keen as a corporal for most work was on active service with the guns. I did not like the humdrum monotony of the infantryman's ordered life of forming fours, marking time and constantly grooming horses for inspection, mostly in sheltered rear areas.
Major Hobday was pleased to have me back. He promised I would continue with observation work and guns. We switched guns to three positions in three weeks. It was a case of bombarding certain areas, moving and firing at other targets and then switching back to our previous positions and so keep the enemy guessing about our strength and position.
On 16th March, Major Hobday called all gunners together and unfolded his latest plan: two guns would remain forward at Cobra Copse under Lieutenant A.H. Hamilton Gordon, Sergeant Irle and ten gunners; four guns under Major Hobday would move to Vermand to the rear. This operation was easily performed. I was asked to take over night observation duties, with access to the Major in an emergency. On the 17th, 18th and 19th of March, we kept up intermittent fire on set targets.
The enemy did not reply. On 20th March two German soldiers crossed to our lines by mistake. I heard one prisoner say to his guard, 'The big attack is tomorrow, get me to the back, quick!' He wanted to be interned!
For once a German had told the truth - but Headquarters remained silent when supplied with the information. On the evening of 20th March, a fog came down and blanketed our position.
The Major called me to his dugout, his orders were, 'All men must remain fully clothed, kitbags and haversacks packed, clearance made for rapid exit of guns. When the siren is sounded, men and guns with gas masks at the ready. Wish the men Good Luck from me.'
Every soldier, of all regiments on the St Quentin front, knew the attack was imminent and yet HQ for some reason remained silent. Coming back from my education course, I saw great dumps of eighteen-pounder ammunition, most with new fuses that exploded on impact, the deadly '106' fuse and I saw gas shells by the thousands. Our batteries had no such shells. When I confided to the Major what I had seen, he hesitated and said, 'Are you sure, Caseby?'
To get back to 20th March, all was quiet, but next morning at two thirty a.m. the mist came down heavy as I toured the guns and spoke to each sentry. At four fifty-five a.m. the Germans put down a very heavy concentration of shells, including gas. I blew my whistle at the first crump and rushed to the Major's dugout. He met me at the entrance and he was fully dressed. Our guns went into action at once, each gunner wearing a gas mask. I took charge of one gun. The enemy fire was so intense and the gas so strong that we had to halt firing for ten minutes. An officer arrived too late with '106' fuse shells.
It was about noon when Lieutenant A.H. Hamilton Gordon, clad only in an overcoat over his pyjamas and his crew from advance guns arrived. They destroyed both the Hun guns that were shelling us with gas ammunition. Their presence cheered us.
As we retreated later through Vraignes the Major found the dump I had told him existed and we quickly unloaded our present shells and filled up with '106' fuse shells.
This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993. All rights reserved. Used here by express permission.