Chapter 31

Fireworks Display Foils Attack

 

Two things cheered our soldiers up: the heavy rain that slowed down the enemy and the French crack troops which took up positions some distance to our rear. Shells exploded around our battery, some very close, and three exploded near the emergency horse lines; the horses broke loose and cantered into a wood.

A wide shell killed Colonel R. Hamilton (heir to the Belhaven and Stanton Estates). Only ten minutes before his death I had held his fine horse and admired the gold buttons on his beautifully-made uniform as he conversed with an officer. Now there was little left but the buttons.

It was evident the Hun artillery knew where we were, for two other enemy batteries opened up on our ridge. We limbered up with only four horses, each to a gun and in less than half an hour we were lobbing high explosives into the batteries which had made us their target earlier in the day.

Before nightfall we took up a flanking position near a clump of trees. I did not see them, but an officer and two gunners at an observation post reported that our cavalry had driven the German soldiers out of scrubland. They proved reasonably proficient at this task but we could see that some of our Generals were incapable of conducting the war effectively if they thought cavalry could defeat machine-guns. A few more tanks were needed.

The next day, April Fools, opened quietly and it continued to rain. Nearby was a stream, so we were given the order 'Spruce up'. All the men, except myself, had their first shave since 20th March.

I found a little poo1, the water was cold. I had a refreshing wash down. With my spare tooth brush I rubbed off all the nits from the seams of my shorts, tunic and pants and liberally dusted in Keatings powder. After a shave I dressed, put on new socks and dubbined my boots. The long ordeal seemed over, it was good to have tension relaxed. When we were next called to action stations we were all trim and keen and ready to do battle.

Our new target was enemy transport and our ammunition was used with splendid results. As one observer reported, 'Jerry has lost his nerve, his communication lines are too long, transport is disorganized. The enemy is digging trenches!' Now we knew the truth.

A field kitchen came up and we had quite a menu. 'Bully stew', potatoes and army spotted duff dumpling and a good supply of tea, biscuits and cheese. As usual I filled my water bottle with un-milked tea, it was so refreshing to sip during a lull in firing.

The 2nd April began clear and sunny. Odd shell bursts were too near for comfort, so a move was made for a prearranged area.

Judge our pleasant surprise when we found our neighbours were French gunners with '75' guns which were faster than our eighteen-pounders. The French were keen and ready to attack. Shells and bombs from Jerry aeroplanes harried us, but we retaliated with vigour.

Our Major considered that our position was a risk to the French, so we took the guns to a rear flank copse. French infantry were all around and there was much face kissing and hugging as they welcomed us. They generously gave us cooked chicken, potatoes, bread and offered wine and cigarettes to all who wanted them. The French did not hesitate to requisition and kill a cow, or pig, or chicken that they needed for food. We were forbidden to 'take' or steal. We were allowed only to catch stray animals for killing and cooking.

Quite a lot happened from 3rd to 5th April. Our 24th Division Infantry had regrouped and the French had moved forward ready to attack. Our aircraft were active, confirming our information that the enemy had dug trenches and laced wire entanglements. A plane even spotted enemy heavy guns retreating. We kept up our shelling of important targets. We held good observation points and saw far into places we had retired from.

Late on the afternoon of 5th April I accompanied two officers to the hillock overlooking the enemy. I saw and noted scores of direct hits on transport, guns, dumps, earthworks and advanced mortar sites. The Germans were having a bad time indeed. It was late and dark as we left the hillock. My last view was of many fires blazing and our shells bursting everywhere.

Next day fresh British divisions arrived. The French attacked and dislodged the enemy from their earthworks. The counter offensive had started and we gunned the fleeing enemy.

From 7th April we bombarded only in emergency situations by taking orders from spotter aircraft until targets were out of our range. It was a memorable seventeen days. Hard slogging, hard fighting and men determined to see a job well done. British planes came into action, they bombed, dived and machine-gunned difficult enemy positions.

On 8th April we marched some ten miles before setting up the guns. The 10th April was a day of rest and good food for men and animals. We had a fairly long journey under quiet and pleasant conditions on 11th April and between the 12th and 16th we more or less rested at a place called Sorel. It was real recreation. We toured many villages and the beautiful city of Abbeville. The people were very kind. They looked upon us as the saviours of their city.

Eight of us were invited into a lovely home. The couple were elderly and had lost one son, killed in 1916. They had saved up food for such an occasion. We had a three course meal, lots of coffee - none of us drank wine - and we left with fruit, scones, butter and chocolate.

When Major Hobday heard about the kindness of the French husband and wife he had a box made up of corned beef, pork and beans, a chunk of cheese, a packet of tea and tin of skimmed milk. Along with another corporal I returned to Abbeville and delivered the gift. The old couple were in tears. Our poor rations were luxuries and a Godsend to them for, as the Major correctly guessed, they had used most of the food they possessed on our entertainment.

Abbeville, on the Somme, had some very beautiful buildings including churches, a townhouse, large stores and residential houses. As two of us wandered through and admired the construction we were stopped over and over again by elderly gentlemen trying to give us their precious cigars, cigarettes and wine. Corporal Coull and I were gunners and the people recognised our RFA numerals and bandoleers. Every local paper wrote about the role of the Royal Field Artillery in holding up the enemy in their offensive to reach Abbeville. We were treated like heroes! Though neither of us smoked nor drank we accepted the gifts for we had many companions who would welcome a smoke.

Our very pleasant break from battle came to an end. Again we were a fully-equipped fighting force, now with lots of modern gear, iron rations, clothing and lice repellent.

For three days we marched, on average fifteen miles each day, rested on the fourth and filled up limbers with fresh shells. The following day we seemed to recross familiar ground. We halted about five miles from St Pol. We knew we were clear of the Somme front and wondered if we were going to Arras or Lens.

On 1st May, 1918, we camped down for the night. I was on guard. A mist hung over the ground. I pulled some wet grass and as I was shouting, 'Wakey, wakey,' I washed a Sergeant's face with May dew.

'What's the game?' he bellowed.

Said I, 'A sprinkle of May dew, keeps you lovely all the year through.' He was anything but lovely, but he saw the joke and laughed his head off.

We heard gunfire in the distance and twice we took cover from German aircraft bombers. They were wide and wild strikes and caused no harm. We moved towards the front. Looking at a map, I said to our new young officer, 'Sir. Our battery was here in September, 1915. That's Corkscrew Post, over there is Fosse 16 and on the left is the famous Double Craseier.'

His reply was sharp, 'Don't be so damned sure of yourself, Caseby. You have never been here before.' Then he added in a cynical and accusing tone in his posh accent, 'You've picked these spots from a map just now.' I had to ignore his insolence.

That evening we got the guns in a secure position with deep trenches fifty yards to the rear and within reach of quite a number of gas-proof dugouts because of my previous knowledge of the terrain.

The young officer's behaviour must have been overheard and reported, for while the major was going his round of the four guns he politely asked me in his presence, 'Are you familiar with this sector, Caseby?'

I replied, 'Yes, Sir. I was at Loos in September, 1915 and on Hulluich Plain and other areas.

Turning to the young officer, Major Hobday quietly asked him, 'Where were you in September 1915?'

The blushing young man could only reply, 'Entering Eton, Sir.' The major just smiled!

Our six guns were used to support raids and for sniping at enemy transport. One afternoon an observation officer said to me, 'May I see your map?' He peered at mine, then handed it back and said in a puzzled way, 'Damned funny, same as mine, yet I see what looks like camouflage over two tree stumps in yonder Fosse.' I gazed through my glasses. Sure enough the captain was right.

Messages were sent back to guns, eighteen rounds were fired and as one of the shells bursts near to the suspect spot there were fireworks, for red, green, white and orange Verey lights illumined the German area. A dump of Verey lights must have been hit. Small arms and grenades started bursting, followed by the detonation of mortar bombs. It was a lovely sight.

Word got back to Divisional Headquarters and hundreds of our guns opened up on the 'illuminations', causing many more and greater detonations. It was a cache of ammunition intended for an attack.

Instead of getting back for an evening meal I had to remain to observe shrapnel shells blasting wire, followed by a lightning infantry raid on the flanks of the 'firework display', using it as a diversion. The Jerries were taken by surprise for they were blasted in what they thought was the shelter of their dugouts and many were taken prisoner. They were all fresh troops. The close scrutiny by the observation officer nipped an enemy attack in the bud and treated thousands of friends and some foe alike to a very entertaining firework display.

The Germans also had long range guns and as many as a dozen shells would shatter the calm of a dozen villages occupied by civilians in one evening. Our wagon line at Sainten-Gotrelle, a pretty place, was bombed one evening. Dr Coleman, our Medical Officer, four drivers, many horses, including the major's two chargers, were killed.

Our own gun sites were shelled one evening, so much so we had to move to a new position, unobserved by the enemy under the cover of the dark night. When we fired from our new sites flash flares were set off from our former place to deceive the enemy concerning our true gun positions. Within minutes German 5.9 shells fell on our former stronghold, damaging nothing. We successfully used this ruse for over a week before the foe discovered our tactics.

So many reserve gunners were now attached to our unit that they were used to dig reserve gun pits at Fosse 16, Dynamite Road, St Pierre, Lievin, Maroc and near Bully. To date in the war we had never known the luxury of being embarrassed by so much well-trained manpower.

We also had the luxury of unlimited supplies of ammunition at all spare gun sites, action stations and in anti-tank areas. We had a string of fine observation posts, new field glasses and periscopes.

We also had aerial photographs and some revealed a concentration of some strange objects eight miles behind the German lines. The Garrison Artillery long range guns pounded the objects which turned out to be new German tanks. Our new anti-tank guns took up position at Fosse 11 and Posen Alley and the gallant Canadian forces were moved up for offensive purposes.

 

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