Chapter 34

The Grand Surrender

 

Sometime before the grey dawn of 7th November, 1918, Lieutenant A.H. Hamilton Gordon, woke me and asked, 'Are you game to go forward to harass the fleeing Hun?'

I was game indeed, with few fears under the command of such a talented officer.

I picked Gunners Robin, Cowley and Purvey from the many others who willingly volunteered for this dangerous mission. We decided to carry two hundred shells, one hundred each of shrapnel and high explosives, and galloped at high speed, crossing a stone bridge over a stream at Wragnies-le-Petit.

Royal Engineers on motor cycles shouted to us as we approached the bridge but their shouting was not for our daring, which one engineer said was, 'Damned foolishness!' Later the Engineers found and defused a 100 lb landmine that was hidden under the bridgework. Their instincts were right and we were lucky. Our incautious actions were not based on glory-seeking, for our experience of the unwitting slaughter and inhumanity we had all been party to left us in no doubt that war was pure evil. Our keenness was rather rooted in our desire to take advantage of the German retreat to make the lightning strikes that had so often proved to be necessary, but not followed through because of stretched communications difficulties with HQ. We wanted the killing to stop and to be at home living decent lives.

Young Hamilton Gordon galloped forward of the bridge, selected a gun position and called us up. In minutes we were shooting with rapid fire and blasting machine-gun nests, transports and German troops running back along the roads. German rifles lay everywhere.

Our Lieutenant courageously galloped forward into the nearby village of St Waast to be completely surrounded by Joyous French civilians. They told him the enemy had just 'Thrown down their weapons and run away' when their observers said that the British 24th Division were on the outskirts. We rushed into the town with our guns, intending to set them up on the other side. The civilians had other ideas for they mobbed us, stopping our progress, threw flowers and leaves at us and even kissed us. We were only allowed to enjoy their adulation for a few minutes.

Hamilton Gordon had been busy finding a gun position in a park where we went into action, with him acting as Observer. The French people crowded around us cheering every time we fired. They would not stay away and were rather more of a hindrance than a help as they expressed their pent-up emotions of hatred for the Bosche. They were careless of the real danger our presence meant.

During all this shemozzle one of our spotter planes located us and dropped a message from HQ, telling us that German artillery lined up gun to gun, thus affording them little protection and backed by massed troops, were about to perform a 'last ditch' stand.

A Royal Engineer motorcyclist had joined us and was ordered to take a message back to our rear guns asking them to move forward and blast targets we designated some six miles ahead of our intended advance. We had to rely on the engineer as we were moving too fast and too far for signallers to set up morse code lines or read flags. Communications, as ever, were a problem in such fast forward movements which relied on our initiatives for success.

Being mindful of the villagers' safety we left the town, set up about a mile outside and before our guns could open up the sky rained terror on the civilians as hundreds of enemy shells burst around St Waast. The civilians' rejoicing turned to bedlam as the injured and scared rushed for shelter, spluttering from choking gas fumes. We put on our gasmasks, looked on helplessly as their houses were blasted and sadly started our counter bombardment. We had escaped unhurt. Later we learned that many of the four hundred householders were killed, gassed or injured.

A few hours later our infantry and fresh supplies came up and they were very surprised to see us. We hooked up our gun and galloped full speed for two miles to the crest of a hill. Then all our guns, hundreds of them, opened up rapid fire on the enemy concentration and soon the enemy firing ceased.

Before us we saw or heard many detonations as the Huns stacked their rifles and other supplies on top of their ammunition dumps and blew the lot up. Guns that were not damaged were disabled and transport burned. The German army's last stand was futile. We had almost fired our last shots of the war.

That afternoon our Colonel, Major, the Infantry General and a Major Walsh from a neighbouring Brigade, galloped up to our lone gun to compliment us on our example of daring and dashing artillery initiative. The Lieutenant was told that he would be recommended for an MC and that some decoration was coming my way and also for my tireless Gunners, Cowley and Robin. I never knew such courage was possible as I had experienced in my battery.

We were re-united with our unit on 8th November. They had been mourning us, for they had been informed that our battery had been wiped out. The publication of our demise was now very obviously premature and our comrades voiced their delight at this and the promise of medals to be added to our Divisional tally.

We moved forward without resistance. Now the continuous sight before our eyes was one of devastation where the Germans had fought their last ditch stand. I stood and marvelled at the accuracy of our shells. Scores of guns had direct hits on them, probably killing all the crew and huge mounds marked the hurried burial ground of German dead.

A despatch rider stopped beside me. All he could say was, 'That's a hell of a mess!' He confirmed what some German soldiers had told us: an Armistice was to be signed soon.

It was on 11th November, 1918, at about nine o'clock, that we officially heard hostilities would cease at eleven a.m. on that morning. A young officer, who was an Oxford Blue, ordered me to give him my pony Dolly to go across to a neighbouring battery. Reluctantly I agreed.

Somewhere one of our Batteries took a few pot-shots at distant Germans, who in return fired just one last shell, which killed my pony Dolly and the officer, needlessly risking the open ground. I loved Dolly, for we had been through hell together - and so nearly back.

Later in the evening of that Armistice Day I walked alone in my grief to a smashed fort, near Manbenge. In the distance I saw column upon column of weary, disenchanted, hungry footsore Germans, thousands of them, trudging homewards - a broken army, an army of broken, defeated men, forsaken by all their officers.

As I looked and prayed I felt the world's groan of grief and joy for all who had perished or been maimed for life and those who had survived. It was impossible to harbour any animosity towards this sad remnant of a once proud, clever and powerful nation. The dejected grey columns faded with the light into the mangled countryside as so many of our comrades had done. God's will for men could not include this shambles caused by man's disregard for His eternal truths.

The forty official words that ended the bloodiest of wars were posted on Armistice Day evening and we read the cold orders:

 

Hostilities will cease, 11.00 hours today, 11th November. Troops will stand fast, on line reached at that hour, which will be reported to Corps HQ.
Defence precautions will be maintained.
There will be no intercourse of any description with 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.