Thursday 3 May 2012

Four Days With The Guns

Lisburn Officer's Thrilling Experiences.  

Shells Too Numerous To Dodge.  

80 Walked Straight Through German Barrage.

The following further hair-raising experiences of a young Lisburn artillery officer in the opening days of the present German offensive will, doubtless, be read with keen interest. Few officers have seen more of the horrors of war and preserved a whole skin, while few, we think our readers will agree, posses a more facile pen:--

I have already given you, he says, a very short account of the awful week commencing March 21st, but as I am sure you would like to hear all, the details, I will try to give you them as far as the Censor will permit. In the mess we still hardly care to talk much about our adventures, for though some of us have the Somme in '16, Arras in '17, Messines and Ypres behind us, not one of us has ever experienced such a perfectly hellish time. Still, I think the greatest of all our blows is the loss of our beloved major. I have had quite a few commanding officers, good, bad, and indifferent, but never has it been my fortune to serve under such an efficient battery commander and such a perfect gentleman. I am sure I can truly say that there was not one officer or one man in our battery who would not have followed him to certain death and been glad to go. He was always thoughtful, always appreciative, justly kind and justly stern, as the case required. It will take more than a few years before his memory grows dim in our hearts.

I don't quite know where to start my experiences, but I had better begin with the morning of the 21st, and I can hardly be telling anything more than everybody knows by way of the Press, We were in position in front of ---------------, well up the famous valley which is perhaps best known as Death Valley. Certainly it lived up to its name on the 21st and 22nd. We had also a detached section behind ---------------, but I will finish with --------------- first, as did the Huns. On the 20th I was orderly officer, which, as work was heavy, was not a particularly enviable job, and the 20th was a busy day. I had several shoots and concentrations to run, and during the night a long programme to keep an eye on. The brigade adjutant was also very busy, for he kept me on the 'phone almost continuously during the night, with the result that instead of snatching a few hours' sleep I was up the whole time. At 4-30 a.m. I lay down, and began to think I had at last finished, but just as I was dosing off the Boche opened out with drum-fire. That had me up at once. S.O.S. was only about five minutes in coming through, and as we were ready laid and loaded we opened full blast at once. I tried to get the forward observation officer, but, as he told me afterwards, the lines had gone as soon as the barrage came down. Consequently, so far as we were concerned, we knew nothing of what was going on forward.

At 5-15 the right section reported that they were being heavily shelled with 5.9's; immediately afterwards the left section reported they were getting it rather hot too, but could carry on. A message with a new target came through from brigade, so I worked it out, but found the line to the guns had been cut, so had to get a runner. How he got through I don't know, for round the guns there was nothing but a lashing hail of bursting shells. Nobody could speak too highly of the gunners. That day never was our rate of fire reduced, though the detachments were thinned by casualties, and I estimate the shells were falling about three per minute all round our pits. The major was everywhere, confident, fearless, cheerful, bucking up everybody. My post became rather uncomfortable about 8 o'clock, with the result that we had to move, taking all maps and instruments with us. It was however, rather out of the frying pan into the fire. Close mathematical work under shellfire is not very entertaining. Anyhow, we got all our new targets out in good time, which is the chief consideration.

German infantry soldiers engage in combat during the Spring Offensive.

One of the section officers was hit, and the man who was to relieve me at 9 o'clock went to the guns to take his place, so the skipper and I carried on in the B.C. post under a bank, with target after target pouring in on us. The Hun was now doing an area strafe, which is simply pumping into an area and hoping for the best, thereby making that area decidedly uncomfortable, as one can never judge what he is trying for or where the next shell is going to burst. He stopped for a short while shelling the guns, which let us relieve what was left of the detachments, though I am afraid it was not much relief. All this time we had no idea of the situation except from rumour, and even that was very vague, brigade being much too busy to be worried by us. However, about 12-30 p.m. the guns reported that machine-gun bullets were coming over, and at one o'clock my Lewis gunners declared that what they judged to be hand-to-hand scrapping was going on some 1,000 yards on their right front; and half an hour later that they were firing on a party of enemy coming down the valley. At the same time we got orders to fire on a paint only some 1,200 yards in front, and the guns reported two casualties from machine-gun fire. We mustered what few rifles we had and stood by.

The major went forward to reconnoitre, and when he came back gave orders to scupper the guns and, retire, as he could see no infantry in front of us. I think it must have broken his heart to give that order, for he stayed on until everyone had gone, and, according to a bombardier who was with him, visited every dugout to make sure everybody was away. Coming back he was hit in the head by a bullet -- machine guns were sweeping the road -- and we never saw him again. We set out, carrying away what we could -- instruments, maps, a little kit, and our wounded -- and made for our rear section. I don't think I shall ever forget that walk. it was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. I was carrying my trench coat, a pack, a rifle, and the O.P. officer's coat, as he, poor fellow, was in a state of collapse and could hardly stagger along. The men were split up in small parties, and it was a trying job to keep them from either bunching or straggling. The first was dangerous owing to the Hun planes, which were doing low flying and machine-gunning every visible object; the second because once our parties got separated it meant valuable minutes wasted collecting them. That march was a nightmare. To reach our rear section was a matter of about six kilometres across country, edging a little back all the while. The roads were terrible -- long-range guns, transports moving, walking wounded, retreating gunners, dust and heat. I stopped at a cross roads to collect stragglers, and having collected some 20 men, pushed on again.

Operation Michael: British troops retreat, March 1918
My party was a sorry looking lot, composed of the last detachments on the guns, three slightly wounded, and some of the oldest and least fit men in the battery. Some of the men off the guns were without coats, some carrying rifles, and some what little kit they could snatch up. One or two had been continuously on the guns since 6 a.m. on the 20th, and were beaten to the world. It took us until 5-30 to reach our position. I think what heartened me more than anything was the sight of our two guns blazing away, and a party of R.E.'s playing football a short distance off. A cup of hot tea, a biscuit, some bully beef, my coat on the floor of a dugout, and for four hours the war was forgotten. Unfortunately, about 10 o'clock the Huns started on harassing fire, and we had to take to our rear trench for two hours. After that we were all too cold to sleep again. All this time the guns were blazing hard, and it is wonderful we had no casualties, for it was a perfect pandemonium. One shell fell only ten yards from a gun. At five we had a sort of stand-to. I went out with my Lewis gun and a small party of rifles, but at seven o'clock, the Boche showing no sign of attacking, we came into breakfast.

All day we kept up our full rate of fire, only resting to change targets or let the guns cool. Our officer went forward to try and get some information, but after six hours came back, having discovered nothing definite. Brigade assured us that all was well until four o'clock, when they asked us if we had any information. Naturally we had not, but afterwards noticed a battery of equal size to our own commence to pull out. We reported this to brigade, but the reply was to "carry on." About an hour later a field battery beside us said they were bringing up their team, but had no orders about pulling out or going forward. This we also reported, and were directed to have our own transport standing by, and were given a rendezvous some miles back. Up till now, except for stray shell, we had been more or less left alone, but at five o'clock something unpleasantly like a barrage began to come down just in front of us. A thick ground mist blotted out everything within half a mile radius, but it was not until a field battery came back along the road that we had even a suspicion that all was not well. Again we asked for instructions, only to find our line to brigade was blown to bits. The captain waited half an hour, but as the line was not yet working and rumour had it the Hun had broken through on our right, he gave orders to pull out. As it turned out, rumour spoke true, and an hour later our position was the scene of some hard hand-to-hand fighting. The guns reached the rendezvous about 10 p.m., and at 11 we were all hard at work, digging in, though officers and men were pretty well used up.

Dawn found us ready for action. Except for a few firing stores we had nothing, as we had not had transport to bring them away, but we had enough to fire 100 rounds and another 300 which came up during the day. None came up that night -- 23rd -- but one gun went out of action and could not be repaired, so during the night of the 23rd and the day of the 24th we tried to double our rate of fire with our remaining gun. At 4 p.m. on the 24th brigade wired through for us to send an officer forward to get in touch with our infantry, or to get some reliable information. This duty fell to me, and having collected four orderlies, I set out. The Hun was doing some counter-battery work which made my progress rather difficult -- so difficult, indeed, that finally I gave up all hope of dodging and decided to go straight up and take my chance. The battery area being passed, things were quieter, but ahead the Boche was shelling hard. More by good luck than good guidance, I struck the infantry brigade H.Q. to which I had been sent.

The news was not very reassuring nor very definite, but I sent it back by two of my runners, while I set off to find another brigade which was roughly pointed out to me on the map. This time luck was all against me. I ran into a barrage to start with, and one runner got slightly wounded, which of course delayed my progress. I scoured the country for this H.Q., but could find it nowhere. There was still some shelling, and the night was inky black. I tried to retrace my steps, but got quite lost. Eventually I found a field artillery H.Q., who made me very welcome. There I evacuated my casualty, and learned the "cheerful news" that the enemy were attacking on our right and had made some headway. Away went my remaining runner, and it was when our brigade got this message and our last gun went out of action that the battery pulled out once again. An hour later three fresh runners turned up for me. By this time the Hun appeared to be held, so two were again sent back with this report. Hardly had they gone when I learned our right flank had been broken, and the brigade I was with were told to clear their guns away. I waited with them until they had all their batteries out, and than set off to discover something on my own.

All I could find were some infantry digging in, and who were very indefinite about the position of their H.Q.; so after stumbling about for half an hour and finding no information of value, I made my way back. Eventually I reached a new brigade of R.F.A., who were only keeping in action till the brigade I was with were in position. They could tell me nothing, so I carried on back. By this time I could hardly walk, not having had my boots off for four days and being on my feet most of the time. However, I got back to the position to find it -- bare, and not a soul to be seen. I could have cried. I rested a few minutes, but as my runner went to sleep and I nearly did the same, I thought it best to report at once to brigade. It took us an hour to do two miles, and the chair and drink at the end of it just about saved my life.

The dates given in the above account coincide with the German offensive, Operation Michael.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 3 May 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

No comments:

Post a Comment