The Tide Begins to Turn
We were very tired and fatigued, but not dispirited by our rearguard actions. One consolation in retreating which we never had when advancing was that we were able to meet field kitchens at places where we could fill our mugs with tea, cocoa and soup, or draw hot water for a wash and also, in my case at least, for a shave. I still had a few of my last food-parcel meat cubes in my haversack and so I could enjoy meat extract drinks which I preferred as real tonics, especially as the weather became wet.
The Germans were swift to bring up their artillery of all calibres enabling them to keep up a continuous bombardment. Of course, we did the same. As soon as we reached new sites we opened fire. At one point I was asked to stay put with two officers and a signaller as the guns retired nearly one mile. I lay on the ground with a fallen tree trunk for shelter, looked, rubbed my eyes and looked again in disbelief, as I just could not believe my eyes. The Huns were swarming across the ground we had left the day before and their artillery, now set up in the open without protection, began blazing at us. Their commanders were obviously underestimating our true strength and resolve by thinking that we were beaten in this sector.
Scores of observers, like ourselves, sent back word, coordinates and ranges to our guns. Our eighteen-pounders, howitzers and larger guns, even further to our rear, commenced firing and I saw the enemy take a terrible hammering. Gun after gun ceased and great gaps appeared in the ranks of massed infantry, just like a line of placed dominoes toppling over. I saw German officers charging forward on horseback, with swords slicing the air and glinting in the light, being blown to bits. It all seemed so unreal.
We also had our bad times with many dead and wounded men, disabled guns and slaughtered horses. No praise is too great to express the admiration we had for the way our officers acted during this difficult period. They were cool, daring and yet cautious, when it came to go back and regroup.
There was one occasion when Major Hobday wanted to fire the gun and Colonel Spiller wanted to act as observer so that he could record the hits - or misses! Perhaps they had a bet on something for they were like two schoolboys enjoying a game. I fixed the range and opened and closed the breach block, so I was more than a spectator. When machine-gun bullets started to straddle our gun, they decided that it was time to move to pastures new. We were all but surrounded by the enemy.
Soon, heavy shells were bursting all around, a young officer made a quick decision and told our lead driver to gallop along the Beaucourt road which was cluttered with smashed transport and fleeing civilians. Luckily the officer's hunch worked and our withdrawal became a mad, mad, stampede without panic. The guns and limbers rattled along the road as our superb drivers and their brave horses twisted and turned at high speed, so evading all obstacles without incident or loss. At a given signal we took to the fields.
In the distance we saw our Major and other officers. All their plans were made. We swung into action and used up nearly all our shells before making another getaway to a nearby ammunition dump. Now replenished with shells we started rapid fire, but the place became too hot for us as the enemy found our range.
For the third time that day our horsemen set the pace with amazing skill and tenacity, until someone shouted, 'We're coming to a river!'
It proved to be a river straddled by long-range German gun-fire.
The ground was sticky, the crossing required great efforts from everyone. We were damp with sweat, from drizzle and splattered with mud - yet we still found reserve strength to cheer our officers as we got to the other side of the river at Castel without losses.
The drizzle gave way to rain, but we kept up the pace. Dawn seemed to be breaking as we halted near a sunken road and set up our guns behind a slight rise, whilst the drivers and their horses rested in the sunken road. We expected to go into immediate action. Instead we were told to relax. I popped my last meat cube into my mouth, lay down on the wet ground and, like the others, slept very soundly.
A salvo of shells burst near us and we all jumped up, instantly awake and ready for action. A surprise awaited us in the form of a Mobile Kitchen. Soon we were enjoying hot tea.
I filled my water bottle with my first mugful and drank the second mugful as I chewed my iron rations. Someone said, 'Any more for anymore?'
I was there like a shot and used the hot water to shave and then I sloshed the rest on my face, then I dried and changed my socks. I felt fresh.
A stubby bearded, grimy sergeant, looked my way and asked sarcastically, 'What bloody barber's shop have you been in?'
My reply was, 'I believe in keeping my body and spirit clean. It pays big dividends!'
His looks said that he did not understand; he probably thought I was daft.
Later we half-heartedly fired only a few shells as did the Germans because heavy rain and mud soaked everything and everybody. We were near a clump of trees and buds were beginning to break into leaves. 'Spring showers,' quipped someone.
In the late afternoon an Irish lad who was full of fun, shouted, 'Oi see a cow.
It was not a joke but a lone wandering calf and we killed it. In the dampness two hundred fingers gathered twigs and a fire was lit. The resulting roast beef was sooty and good. What a feast we had, nothing since has ever tasted better!
That night in heavy rain some flares illuminated a German forward gun detachment. It took us exactly seven minutes and less than forty shells to blast it into silence. On the last day of March 1918, two German attacks failed. The tide had turned.
This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993. All rights reserved. Used here by express permission.