The Ablaincourt Sector, February 1917
From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
EARLY in 1917 it became known to our intelligence service that the enemy was contemplating retirement on a large scale from the Somme battle-front. Reports from prisoners and aeroplane photographs of a new line, famous afterwards as the Hindenburg line, running from west of Cambrai to St. Quentin, left in doubt only the date and manner of the withdrawal. To the latter question some answer was possible by reference to our mentors or from a text-book appreciation of the situation, though no one guessed until the movement had in reality started with what
circumstances the Germans would see fit to invest it. The date was a more difficult problem. For its solution recourse must be had by commanders, staff officers and experts to the infantry A competition open to all battalions holding the line (and without other entrance fee) thereupon commenced. To whom should fall the laurels of a correct diagnosis of the march-table of the German rearguards, who be the first to scatter them by the
relentless pursuit of out victorious arms? To out higher staff the question whether the enemy was still manning with normal garrisons the front opposite out armies seemed relatively simple.
Readers, however, with experience of trench warfare will remember that in the line by day it was impossible to surmise correctly one item of what was happening a hundred yards away in hostile trenches- certainly one knew well enough when shells were falling, and ‘minnies,’ rifle-grenades and snipers’ bullets argued that a pernicious, almost verminous, form of life was extant not far away” but despite all this, stared a sentry never so vigilantlv.through his periscope he could hardly, predict whether two, ten, or a hundred of the enemy tribe were hidden below earth almost within a stone’s throw. At night it seemed probable that a patrol of a few brave men could crawl right up to the
German wire and listen, or by setting foot in them enquire whether ‘Fritz’ was at home in his trenches or no and so our patrols could, and did. In practice, however, out most active patrols were frequently deceived. Shots and Verey lights, which
came from several directions, might be discharged by a solitary German, whose function it was to go the round of the enemy posts and fire from each spasmodically in turn. A trench entered and found empty might be a disused sap or bar habituallv unoccupied. To maintain the normal semblance of trench-warfare was an easy task for the German, and one that he never failed in.
Repeatedly in his retirements during the war he removed his real forces, his artillery and stores unbeknown to our watching infantry and their questioning staff. The screen of a retreating enemy is not easily caught up and pierced by an advaneed guard not superior to it in strength and inferior in mobility. On the Somme in 1917 and from the Lys salient in 1918 the Germans retired from wide to narrower divisional fronts (giving themselves greater ‘depth’ in the process), which fact, coupled with destruction of bridges and roads, prevented us from forcing an issue with their main bodv on the move. There were exceptions, as when the 32nd Division captured guns near Savy, but the enemy, in retiring, played for safety and denied much opportunity to our troops, despite their zeal in keeping touch, to deal him damage. Such was the tactical situation when the 184th lnfantry Brigade relieved the French in the Ablaincourt sector.
The Berks, who first held the left subsector, had an uneventful tour. Trenches taken over from the French were usually quiet at first owing to the different methods employed by us and our allies in the conduct of trench-warfare. Within a day or two of the relief the frost had finally broken and the trenches everywhere started to fall in, making the outlook in this respect ominous.
On the afternoon of Februar 23, we marched up to relieve the Berks. Near Foucaucourt the cookers gave us tea. There also we changed into gumboots. Guides met us at Estrées cross-roads,
a trysting place possible only when dusk had fallen and the lugubrious procession started along a tram-way track among whose iron sleepers the men floundered considerably, partly from their precau- tion of choosing gumboots several sizes too large.
On this occasion the usual stoppages and checks were multiplied by a brisk artillery ‘strafe’ upon the front, accompanied by all manner of coloured lights and rockets. The noise soon dying down we were able to continue a bad journey” with men frequently becoming stuck and a few lost. The relief was not over until nearly dawn, by when the last Berks had left and our worst stragglers been collected.
The Battalion took over a three-company front. Brown with A Company guarded the left. Robin- son with C (containing a large proportion of a recent draft now paying its first visit to the trenches) was in the centre, and D Company on the right. Some
500 vards behind our front lay the Ablaincourt Sucrerie, a dismal heap of polluted ruins, like all sugar factories the site of desperate fighting.
Ablaincourt itself, a village freely mentioned in French dispatches during the Somme battle, was the very symbol of depressing desolation. Péronne, eight mlles to the north-east, was out of view.
Save for the low ridge of Chaulnes, whence the German gunners watched, and the shattered barn-roofs of Marchélepot–the former on our right, the latter directly to our front–the scene was mud, always mud, stretching appallingly to the horizon.
Students of music are familiar with the rival motifs that run through operas. In an earlier paragraph I have indicated one such motif, and if in this opera of war a curtain be lifted to shew the
future act which this motif dominates, you would see the German staff busy with maps over its re- treat, planning the time-table of explosion and burning, and designating the several duties of
fouling wells and laying booby-traps.
Another scene, in which the rival motif is heard, shews a strong body of ugly-looking Germans at practice over some shallow trenches some distance behind their line. By a quaint coincidence these trenches are a facsimile of those just taken over
by the Battalion. The ugly Germans are members of a ‘travelling circus.’ For long past they have lived in the best billets and been receiving extra rations. They play no part in the retreat house-
wrecking, the flooding of cellars, the hacking through of young fruit trees and throwing over of sundials and garden ornaments, much as they might enjoy it, is not their function.
They are a professional raiding party, with two successful raids at Loos, one at Ypres and one near Hébuterne to their credit. Wherever the English have just relieved the French they are sent for to perform. They are accompanied by two 8-inch howitzers and several batteries of 5-9s and 4-2s belonging to the ‘circus’ and by a Minen- Werfer Abteilung. Their raid upon the Oxfords
is fixed for February 28, when the moon will be a third full. The last aeroplane photograph admir- ably shews the Sucrerie, communication trenches leading forward and the whereabouts of all dug-outs. The pioneer detachment–whose thoughts are turned only to the retreat, of which rumours have been plentiful – must move from its comfortable dug-outs in the railway embankment to make room for H.Q. of the raiding party.
The front held by the Battalion was tacticallv not satisfactory. Being three on a front, with B Company placed nearly 1,000 yards in rear, companies had to find their own supports, which, owing to absence of other dug-out accommodation, were disposed in positions not only too far back but inadequately covering those portions of the front which they were engaged to defend. Moreover, practical means of communication to and by
these support platoons were likely to prove, in event of need, negligible. They were, in fact, isolated in places themselves not defensible and equally remote from company and battalion commanders. This situation was bad enough as point d’appui for an advance; to resist a counter-attack
or raid it was deplorable. Like many similar situations, it was due to the lack of habitable trenches on the ground that should have been occupied and defended. It could be no one’s fault either high up or low down that the line was held in this way, though perhaps had fewer men been allowed to crowd into trenches and dug-outs in the forward line, casualties in killed and prisoners might have been spared to the Battalion.
A few hours after the relief was complete orders came up for patrols to go out to see if the enemy had or had not gone back yet. Our artillery, which was not vet strongly represented behind this sector, also began to fire at extreme ranges on the German back area east of Marchélepot and Chaulnes. The enemy, on his part, sniped at and bombed our patrols at night. The behaviour of his guns and aeroplanes by day suggested no passive retreat in
the near future. While BAB 1 code messages, providing mingled toil and excitement, announced the impending departure of the enemy and asserted the necessity for keeping touch, aeroplanes flew a thousand feet overhead and directed the fire of fresh batteries of 5.9 s and 4-2s upon our trenches. No doubt the Germans had stocks of ammunition they preferred to fire off rather than cart backwards.
Gas shelling became common for the first rime in the Battalion’s experience. In the front line masks had often to be worn. Headquarters also were gassed more than once and suffered much inconvenience. This activity by the enemy was reasonably regarded as his normal policy with which to impede our preparations for advance, so that complaints of registration coming from the front line received no special attention from the authorities, who were themselves tossed to and fro and kept quite occupied by the man conflicting prophecies of the enemy’s retreat.
On the morning of February 27 German howitzer batteries commenced some heavy shelling on the Battalion sector, especially on the communication trenches passing under the former French titles of B.C.4 and B.C.5. Working parties who were busy digging out mud from those trenches were compelled to desist.
(A secret trench code, intended for use in operations.
Deliberate shelling to ascertain exact range of targets for a future bombardment.
B.C. = Boyau de commmunicatione, communication trench.)
At 10 o’clock I heard that Fry, the commander of No. I6 Platoon, had been hit by shrapnel on his way from Company H.Q. to the Sucrerie. To get him to the nearest shelter (C Company H.Q.) was difficult through the mud, and uncomfortable enough with 5.9s coming down close to the trench, but the men, as always, played up splendidly to assist a comrade. Soon afterwards, the doctor, in answer to a telephonic summons, appeared at my H.Q. On our way to reach Frv we were both knocked down in the trench by a 4″-‘, which also wounded Corporal Rockall in the shoulder-blade. I regret that Fry, though safely moved from the trenches the same night, had received a mortal wound. In him died a fine example of the platoon officer. He met his wound in the course of a trivial duty which, had I guessed that he would do it under heavy shelling, I should have forbidden him to undertake. His type of
bravery, though it wears no decorations, is distinguished, more than all other, by the unwritten admiration of the Infantry.
During that night I had a peculiar and interesting task. It was to report on the condition of all roads leading through our front line across No- Man’s-Land. Mud, battle and frost had so combined to disguise all former roads and tracks, that to decide their whereabouts it was often necessary to follow them forward from behind by means of map and compass. Seen by pale moonlight, these derelict roads, in places pitted with huge craters or flanked by shattered trees, wore a mysterious charm. More eloquent of catastrophe than those thrown down by gale or struck by lightning are trees which shells have hit direct and sent, splintered, in headlong crash from the ranks of an avenue. If wood and earth could speak, what tales the sunken roads of France could find to tell!
Morning and afternoon of the next day, February 28, were fine and ominously quiet. Excessive quietness was often no good sign.
Presentiments could have been justified. At 4.15 p.m. a strong barrage of trench mortars and rifle grenades began to beat upon the front line, accompanied by heavy artillery fire against communication and support trenches and the back area. This sequel to the previous registration clearly indicated some form of attack by the enemy. The rhythmic pounding of the heavy howitzers, whose shells were arriving with the regular persistency of a barrage table, suggested that a long bombardment, probably until after dusk, was intended. Under such circumstances it was the part of the Company Commander to ‘stand to’ and await events with the utmost vigilance. This never meant that the men should be ordered out into the trenches and the fire-steps manned, for to do so would have invited heavy casualties and demoralised the garrison before the opportunity for active resistance had arrived. To keep look-out by sentries, to watch for any lifting in the barrage, and to maintain communication with H.Q. and with the flanks were the measures required. Otherwise, except to destroy maps and papers, there was nothing to do but wait, for only in the most clumsily organised shows did the other
side know zero. On this occasion, at the moment the German raiding party came over, a patrol consisting of Corporal Coles and Timms had onlv just returned from D Company front line. They
said that though the shelling was heavy immediately behind and on the flanks, the wire was intact and there was no sign of attack. At dusk, therefore, there was nothing save the heavy shelling to report to Cuthbert over my telephone, which by luck held until cut by German wire-cutters.
Within a few minutes, shouts and a few rifle shots were heard, and the next moment bombs were being thrown into my dug-out.
The lights went out and the interior became filled with fumes, groans, and confusion. A German raiding party had penetrated
C Company, seized the front line, which” ‘was a bare 80 yards from my H.Q., and, without touching my own front (which indeed was 200 yards distant and to the flank), had picketed my dug-out, and awaited their haul of prisoners.
Now, a bombed dug-out is the last word in ‘unhealthiness.’ It ranks next to a rammed sub- marine or burning aeroplane. For severaI minutes I awaited death or wounds with a degree of certaintv no soldier ever felt in an attack. But in such emergencies instinct, which, more than the artificial training of the mind, asserts itself, arms human beings with a natural cunning for which civilization provides no scope. Life proverbially is not cheap to its owner.
That evervone inside was not killed instantly was due, no doubt, both to the sloping character of the stairs, which made some bombs explode before they reached the bottom, and to the small
size of the bombs themselves. A gas bomb finished the German side of the argument. Hunt’s useful knowledge of German commenced the answer. We ‘surrendered.’ I went upstairs at
once and saw three Germans almost at touching distance. In place of a docile prisoner they received four revolver shots, after which I left as soon as possible under a shower of bombs and liquid fire. Shortly afterwards, but too late to follow me, Hunt also came forth and round the enemv had vanished Afterwards the Sergeant Major and Uzzell, sanitary lance-corporal, who on this occasion showed the genius of a fieId marshal, emerged and prevented the return of our late visitors.
After an hour’s struggle through mud and barrage I reached the two platoons in Trench Roumains, who (I mention this as a good paradox of trench discipline) were engaged in sock-changing and foot-rubbing according to time table! From there the counter-attack described in Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatch of Match 1st was carried out. Ifear this ‘counter-attack’ was better in his telling
than in the doing, for the Germans had already decamped an hour before, taking with them Lieutenant Guildford and some 20 prisoners from C Company, several Lewis guns, and their own
Against a front line crowded with untried troops (I refer to the new draft of which the platoons holding C Company front line were principally composed) a well-planned raid powerfully pressed home under a severe box barrage and assisted by gas and liquid fire, was almost bound to succeed. The mud, strange trenches and weak artillery support were other factors for which allowance might have been made before such degree of blame was laid upon the Battalion as was seen fit for it to receive. The only cure for being raided is to raid back. That was happily done exactly two months later against the very regiment to which the German raiding party on this occasion belonged. Nor was it true that the enemy was not fought with. Some parties which attacked
Brown’s front were, under the able example of that officer, driven off with Lewis guns, and D Company, whose loss in prisoners was nil, also maintained its front intact. Casualties were inflicted
on the enemy, but these mostly regained their own lines or were carried back by stretcher parties. Our loss in killed that night amounted to some twenty.
The story of this raid I should not have allowed to reach this length but for the fact that the affair created some stir at the time, and correspondence raged on the subject till long afterwards
Hunt, who was with me during the bombardment and the bombing of my H..Q., was not captured on emerging from the dug-out, but himself, some hour or more afterwards, while wandering among the blown-in trenches in an effort to follow me, entered a German listening post and became a prisoner. As a prisoner he was present at a German H.Q. when the details of an exactly similar raid upon a neighbouring division were being arranged ; which raid proved for the enemy an equal success.
The aftermath of this fighting proved a trying experience. The dug-out to which I returned to spend the remainder of the tour was a shambles.
The stairs were drenched with blood. Of my companions, Thompson, a signaller, Timms, Smith (Hunt’s servant, a fine lad) and Corporal Coles one of the bravest and most devoted N.CO.’s the Battalion ever had were dead or died soon afterwards. Longford and Bugler Wright were severely wounded. Longley and Short had escaped before the first bombs exploded in the dug-out, but the remaining survivors, the Sergeant-Maior, Lance
Corporal Rowbotham, Roberts and myself were all partially gassed and hardly responsible for further action. Under these circumstances the task of carrying-on involved a strain, lessened, as always on such occasions, by management of everything for the best by Battalion Headquarters.
On the night of March 2nd the Battalion was relieved by the Berks, now under the command of Colonel Beaman, and moved back about 2,000 yards to some support trenches near Bovent Copse. From here companies were employed ration-carrying to the front line and cleaning the trenches. Considerable activity continued to be displayed by the German artillery and aeroplanes, in each of
which respect we lacked superiority. The enemy retreat appeared postponed or cancelled.