The Great War, I was there - Part 26

= B SECT ION XXVIII I elf V v eat icy -Hind e n&u Ay£ u i e February —April 20,1917 /T\URING March 1917 General Ludendorff executed a strategic withdrawal to a strong X /defensive line that had been constructed across the chord of the arc Lens— Noyon — Reims. This was known to the Germans as the Siegfried, to the British as the Hindenburg Line. The retreat was followed up somewhat tardily by the British, but the period was full of danger and excitement, as the narratives in this section will show. Every­thing of value was destroyed and the British inherited a territory of smoking ruins, of shattered trees, of poisoned wells and booby traps.< J Writers in this section are Paul Maze, H.R. Williams, G. Greenwell, H.G. Malins, C. Edmonds, and H.M. Tomlinson. Ernst Jiinger writes a German account of these thrilling days C J A naval interlude is provided by N. Lewis, who spent nineteen days as a prisoner in a U-boat. Through out February 1917 our aeroplanes detected signs of the enemy’s preparation for a general retirement in front of the Fifth British Army and the French farther south. They had also traced the building of anew system of defence lines stretching for about seventy miles from Arras down to ^.oissons, which was to become famous later as the Hindenburg Line. All this activity excited suspicion. It soon became obvious that the enemy contemplated the evacuation of the salient formed by their present line. To hide their design from us the enemy increased their activity, especially at night, when they lit the line con­tinuously with their flares and kept up a constant machine-gun and rifle fire. One night one of our patrols succeeded in getting through the German front line and boldly wandered about beyond it for a considerable time without finding a trace of occupation. This confirmed all our conjectures. The Army Commander [Gen. Sir Hubert Gough], who had decided on a general forward movement to probe the situation, allotted tome a battalion that was to take part in the attack, and whose first objective was a trench called Ten-Tree Alley. We were, if possible, to continue to advance, occupy the high ground beyond, take the village of Serre in our stride, and if no serious opposition were encountered push onto Puisieux, a village on the way to Bapaume. Both the right and left divisions were to attack simul­taneously. The overground which the attack was to be made was a waterlogged area of shell-holes as near to each other as the holes of a tapestry canvas. It had been incessantly shelled by both sides since October 1914. Looking at an aerial photograph, one would have wondered how troops could move at all in such a pitted morass, the only prominent features of which were a few ruins of Serre on the left, and on the right the dozen tall branchless stumps of Pendant Copse. Since the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, when the village had passed into our *185 March 1917 The GERMANS Left Us DESOLATION On a Front o f Seventy Miles by Paul Maze, D.C.M., M.M. hands, we occupied the enemy’s old defence line which we had shot and blasted to pieces prior to our occupation, leaving little comfort for our troops to live in. Incessant rain had com­pleted the destruction. Communication- trenches could not be made, as the water draining from the shell-holes turned them into streams. We had to move about exposed on slippery duckboards overlaid the old trenches and shell- holes, many of which were five or six feet deep, and if one slipped in one got a muddy ducking up to the neck. It was in this morass that the battalions had to deploy at tonight get ready for the advance. My battalion was to form up in three waves, supplied by three companies, and two platoons were to follow behind in reserve. Strong patrols were to precede the waves immediately after the barrage. A LAST LOOK R O U eND| a v y -headed by the smell and smoke of our subterranean shelter, I woke to seethe Colonel getting ready, his runner standing by loaded with kit. I always remember the moment when officers, ready to leave their dug-outs for an attack, gazed wistfully round their stuffy little home as if it were the dearest place on earth. Already the bunks had been cleared by the servants valises were being sent back with the baggage, and there only remained at the table the leavings of a meal. Water was oozing from the sides of the long gallery which led up to the muddy steps from which we plunged, dazed, into the darkest night ever known. Above the noise of few but regular explosions rose the voices of N.C.O.s cursing the men to come on, 1019 HJ as haltingly they felt their way along the duckboards. We had to stand and wait until we had become accustomed to the darkness, the flickering gun-flashes lighting with aglitter the ripples made by the mud falling off our boots into the water-filled shell-holes. All was darkness in front. oiL l ding a torch very low, we picked our slippery way along the duck-boards. Suddenly we all stopped. Two men in front had fallen into the muddy water and were being hauled out. At a snail’s pace the march was resumed, everyone trying to be even more careful of his foothold. At last we came to the rendezvous and waited, as arranged, for the adjutant who was superintending the forming of the waves. Arising mist was enveloping us with gripping melancholy. The attack had to be directed by compass each company took its bearings on definite objectives, which only with God’s help could they hope ever to find. The second-in-command having returned to say that everything was ready, I went forward with him to await the five minutes’ bombardment that was to precede a barrage which no human being in that mud could have followed up. A few rockets were making holes of whitish light in the clinging mist in the near distance. It was now exactly 5.30 a.m. We were very tired. As the barrage crept up the rising ground in front, a slow movement from the forward men launched the rest into the fog. Picking our way in the dark, we stumbled on, and eventually slid down a steep, greasy bank, landing, to our great relief and surprise, in Ten-Tree Alley itself, the l c 1
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