The Great War, I was there - Part 2

I found my regiment half a mile back in a soaking cornfield, whose every sheaf drenched one as one touched it. No lights were to be shown, and it was almost out of the question to lie down, for the ground was sodden. We had had only avery few light casualties in the regiment Pat Fitzgerald, our machine-gun commander, had his cheek slit open with a bullet. I sewed up the wound, several inches long, by the screened light of a candle ashe and I crouched behind a sheaf. The road past the field was crowded with Belgian peasants and their children hurrying away in the dark..................................... For a moment or two I watched the refugees, trying to think what on earth could be happening. It was un­believable that any part of the British Army should have begun to retire in the first few hours of Armageddon. Would not some of us be court- martialled ?The Army and Navy had for years been looking forward in confidence to a sharp decisive scrap with Germany. In the naval ward-rooms 1 had visited and the military messes 1 had lived in, conversation constantly returned to that subject. We had all been cheerfully assured of victory prepared to the last range-finder, ready to the last gaiter-button— and now !UP INFLAMES Presently a bright light flared up behind u s some of the refugees turned, their white faces lit by the glare. “What’s that?” I asked. “It must bethe town hall, m’sieur. It is the only building of that size in Thulin.” So the expected had happened. I have always had a horror of fire, especially in hospitals I thought of that crowded building with so many nearly helpless men and confused and frightened priests and sisters— of the suffocating blaze and smoke from damp straw, khaki clothing and mattresses. How ghastly !But with all those men smoking it needed no prophet to foresee what was almost a certainty. And my V.C. hero— too weak from loss of blood from that jagged stump to walk !Poor devil! He had looked as white as a sheet— was heat that moment being burnt alive? I fumbled for my notebook. At least this gallant soldier should have posthu­mous honour— his mother and his relations, his corps and his country should know of his self-sacrifice. My notebook was gone! I had had it in my hand when the sister warned me. That panic-stricken dash from the town hall, the mad override those greasy cobble-stones, accounted only too easily for the loss. Should any Royal Engineer who fought near Thulin that night read these lines, possibly even now the man’s name might be discovered. Perhaps he has already been post­humously honoured, or best of all possibly he escaped from that blazing building and was cared for by the enemy. As I learnt afterwards, the Germans— all things considered— devot­ed great care and skill, sometimes even were very kind to our wounded. CONFUSED FIGHTING Gradually our men were being pressed back to the outskirts of Elouges [August 24] ...It is hard to describe clearly what happened ...or just when and where the trouble began but as it concerns one of the most famous incidents of the retreat from Mons it maybe worthwhile to make some attempt, though I was abut puzzled spectator, not an actor. The difficulty in giving a clear account was increased by the confusing nature of the country. Within a radius of about three thousand yards of Elouges and of one another lay at least six little villages: Angre, Angreau, Audregnies, Montignies, Onnezies and Wiheries— similar in size, each situated in a little valley, their names having to English ears a similar sound. [Seethe sketch map given in page 54.] Outside each village, and as alike as two peas, were one or more little cemeteries surrounded with brick walls. orIn near this area, strange to onus that eventful morning, dotted as it was with conical slag-heaps about sixty feet high, and intersected with many sunken roads, railways and trolley lines, no fewer than three brigades or twenty-seven squadrons of our cavalry were active between Sa.m. and noon, in addition to several bat­talions of infantry and many artillery units. If my account of what I saw appears confused, this must be my only excuse. ..It must have been about 11 a.m. when the brigade turned about at the shrine and rode back through the two villages towards the small cemetery at Wiheries. “The brigade halted twice. Artillery fire had begun on our right this I supposed to be our guns on the hillside to the south and east of us. Then heavy firing began from the German line— that is, to the north and east, and also on our left. Some— not very much—- shrapnel was over.coming I had the impression that an important move was about to take place, and as my position in an action should be alongside my 66 own colonel, who was on ahead, I de­cided to overtake him. I saw him and a few of his staff upturn to the right and then halt. The remainder of the regiment— all three squadrons as I thought— turned to the left, towards the Germans. I missed my groom and stopped for a moment to look for him then a squadron of the 9th who had got justin front of me turned about, and I had perforce— because of the narrowness of the lane— to turnabout with them. They turned down to their right between two walls, and there they halted, facing the Germans. I turned about again, intending to rejoin the headquarters of my own regiment. Instead of overtaking them, I found myself with some of the 18th Hussars riding up a slope above some railway lines towards where our field and horse batteries were halted. The firing had become much heavier. Some of our cavalry were riding towards the railway lines between us and the Germans, making apparently for the tall brick building— a sugar factory. A perfect hurricane of shelling began. Then the whole scene was blotted out in smoke and dust. Like most of the others, I had heard no orders, did not know a charge was taking place. 1 don’t think anyone except those taking part in it did, and many of them told me afterwards they thought it was only a reconnaissance. The noise was now terrific. Shells were bursting higher up the hill some seemed to be skimming just overhead. With two mounted signallers andaman of the 18th Hussars I rode in between two walls close to a cemetery, where we sheltered. The broad slope of the hill above and behind, to the south of us, was now one white cloud of bursting shell. Then some of the 9th and 18th came galloping past us excitedly. Everybody seemed to be shouting, though the din was so deafening we could not hear what they said but with the signallers I followed some of them, only to find myself again in one of the villages we had passed through nearly an hour before. INSTILL RETREAT It must then have been about 11.30 a.m. The Hussar— an officer’s servant— had followed after us. He and I rode up to the hilltop crowned by the little shrine at the fork roads. The artillery fire all round was very heavy. I could see troops moving down below me— across our front— but whether English or German I could not be cer­tain (probably the Chcshires or part of our 19th Brigade). Unaware that my regiment— and indeed the whole
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