Chapter 33

The Beginning of the End

Brigadier General Nairne, R.A., a master in gunnery, inspected us near to St Eloy. He was full of praise for the splendid work the Royal Field Artillery, 24th Division, had accomplished since August 1915 and he gave us a hint of what was before us. His words were, 'Mons and Manbenge are our objectives and the 24th Division shall be in the advancing army. Such an honour is worthy of the record that the 24th Division now holds.' He bid us Au revoir.

Towards the line we passed through Arras. A town, in times of peace, of rich architectural beauty, now just heaps of rubble. The massive Cathedral, once second only to Rheims, still looked serene, though wrecked.

We halted at Guemappe, once the scene of bitter fighting. Battered tanks, damaged guns, scores of smashed transports and thousands of shell holes, told the story of the gallant 29th.

In the first days of October 1918 we were back in the area we had pounded so heavily exactly thirteen months before. Cambrai was reached and we stayed the night near what was once French barracks. For miles and miles the road which had been made up by Sappers and Royal Engineers passed through thousands of acres of devastation. Every square foot was ploughed up by our shells. How Germans survived passed imagination.

The well known canal had an air of dignity, though all bridges were blown up. Royal Engineers had fixed pontoon bridges over which all transport except tanks could pass. Being interested in the French barracks a few of us made a tour of the squares, rooms and kitchens. For years, the German soldiers had lived in comfort, being tuned for battle.

On the white walls of the barracks I saw hundreds of coloured chalk, charcoal and oil paint pictures. The subjects were varied, columns of British soldiers surrendering to one German officer, German prisoners being lashed with whips in our interment camps, British families lying on filthy floors dying from hunger, allied generals and captains giving themselves up and we soldiers eating dog flesh.

It was all amazing and of course, a parcel of downright lies. There were pictures of Kaiser William, Crown Prince Willie and many other high ranking officers of the German army. I just cannot write the words some of our 'Tommies' had written across the pictures.

Through the window of one German officer's mess, I saw watches, rings, helmets, coins, ornamented shell cases and a camera. They were all booby trapped. Notices were up which said, 'Do not enter', or, 'Do not touch. Danger!' A few places had 'Safe' signs.

As we were going out the main barrack entrance we heard a mighty bang. It was a delayed action bomb, under the barrack main square. No one was hurt. The hole was so deep and wide that a tank could be buried inside it. Such was German revenge.

In the second week of October 1918, the word came for action. We were glad to be in the line again, moving up. We met batches of prisoners and they looked quite happy to be in our hands. Our lads gave them cigarettes, matches and sweets. The officers looked very depressed and arrogant, refusing everything.

Canteens that were once well-behind our lines were now close to us, advancing too, so we had a lot of luxuries. I watched about a dozen prisoners eyeing the canteen. They just could not believe their eyes: pies, cakes, sweets, hair cream, razor blades, soap, writing paper, pencils. One of our officers took pies, sweets, soap and cigarettes from the counter, paid for them and gave them to a soldier to give to the prisoners.

One German said in broken English, 'Pardon talk but thanks, be good, friend kind,' and all soon devoured the pies.

The Major called officers and NCOs together.

His words were to the point: 'Our infantry are advancing fast, we must be ready, with swift, lightning strikes, to give them every support.' The day for moving in the dark was over. In daylight we trotted forward, turning into action and, according to plans, bombarding gun positions, transport and retreating enemy.

 

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