The Great War, I was there - Part 26

THE RUINED ROAD OF THEIR RETREAT When the Germans retired in front of the British and French Annies in 1917 to occupy their newline that stretched from Arras to Soissons they left behind a trail of utter ruin and systematic havoc. Vantage points considered to be valuable to the enemy were wrecked, trees were felled, wells were made useless and mines were inlaid abundance. Here is a street in Mons-en-Chaus£e as it appeared in March 1917- A shell from the departing Germans has just exploded, leaving yet another house in ruins. #*Imperial War Museum object oi our attack. The trench was battered— amongst dirty straw alike midden. British ground-sheets and used rockets sprawled the corpses of a few Germans. Everything showed signs oi recent occupation, but, strangely enough, we had made no prisoners and the front waves had gone on. One enthusiast picked up an empty Very light pistol as a souvenir. We advanced again, wondering if we were marching into a trap. The fog grew thicker the cold and damp increased. W/e were now directed entirely by compass, the visibility being about fifteen or twenty yards, sometimes less. The men kept very quiet the ground rose gently and was strewn everywhere with German equipment there was no sound of shooting. We gazed curiously at another dead German with arms outspread like wings as though he had dropped from a height as we slowly passed by.Word was received from the patrol in front that there was no opposition to their advance, so we trudged forward. Now and again I got a glimpse of men in the first wave, apprehensively clus­tered together the voice of the second- in-command was constantly heard bawl­ing at them to out—spread they separated reluctantly as though their safety depended on physical contact with each other. A report came through that we were in touch with the battalion on the right —that was something. Nothing stirred before us as we went on. Not a shot had been fired. Suddenly we came on the first wave halted in an abandoned trench. Which was it ?No one could locate it. There was an acute divergence of opinion between company comman­ders as to our direction. We stared at the indicator pointing north, but which­ever Way we looked we saw no land­mark. As we bent intently over our outspread maps the first shot whizzed past. Men were sent off to the left to find contact with the Manchesters, who should have been walking alongside us, elbowing on Serre. We had to wait until they came back. We had then advanced about 600 yards. The waves had then to be re-formed, as the men had again grouped together the first wave led the way. We were steering north-north-east towards a trench. A slight wind made local holes in the fog, and groups of men appeared before us, vague and individually indis­tinguishable, mere patches of khaki on a yellow background. As an enemy machine-gun opened fire and bullets span round us fired from the right, everybody crawled like rats into shell-holes, and our bayonets faced all sides. Although we couldn’t have been seen up,coming already four men were hit. The advance was resumed. Feet dragged through the slush and sank at every step. A known shirker, covered in mud, his puttees all undone, persisted in hanging behind, although several times the second-in-command had cursed him and threatened him with his revolver, which hadn’t increased his enthusiasm. I suggested that he should be sent back, ashe was setting a bad example to the other men. So with a parting kick in the direction of the starting-line the dejected figure dis­appeared into the fog. Little did we know that he would walk straight into the arms of the enemy, who were behind us all the time. A company of men appeared out of the fog walking across our line. Who were they ?The Manchesters !If their direction was right, ours was wrong. As they were not in touch with anyone, we made them outspread and extend our line, and we all started forward again, forming aline heading north. We could see no one but the men in our immediate vicinity. Some were ex­pressing in chosen terms their opinion of the uncertainty of the direction as well as the condition of the ground. I seemed to recognize some of our freshly- made footmarks, which inclined tome believe we were going round in circles. Come German shrapnel had so far only torn the fog above our heads, and we had taken little notice until some of the soldiers lay groaning in the mud and shouts for stretcher-bearers went up. By then our barrage was rolling away well beyond us, probably where we were expected to have been at the time. Again we came on a newly deserted German trench. This was Pendant Trench. As no one was in it, we began to wonder if the first waves had missed it. No word had come from them. We passed an old German gun posi­tion completely smashed up by our guns, where nearby three dead Ger­mans lay facing their line, probably hit as they were running back. The fog having thinned, our missing wave was suddenly seen halted in the open, out of touch with their right and left. Something had to be done. I took a man with me, and within fifty 1021
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