Breaking the Hindenburg Line/Part 4
The last phase: Catillon to Sains
The advance to Sains du Nord
On November 1st, after a slight pause for the advance of railhead and for the bringing-up of the necessary heavy artillery, a general assault was once more ordered. The attack was to be on a greater scale than ever before, the battle-front stretching from well north of Valenciennes to west of Guise. The whole weight of the First, Third, and Fourth British Armies and of the French Army on our right was to be thrown against the new German line in one huge sledge-hammer blow.
On our own small section of the front, the IX Corps, facing the line of the Sambre-Oise Canal, was opposed by a formidable obstacle, but, such was the enthusiasm of the men, that no one felt the slightest doubt regarding the outcome of the attack.
On the 3rd November, the 1st Division on the right and the 32nd Division on the left of the Corps front attacked and breached the line of the Canal, the 46th Division Artillery assisting in the barrage fired to cover the advance. The 46th Division, who had during the preceding days moved forward in readiness to exploit any success, passed through the 1st Division and advanced, via the Catillon-Mezières Road, to take up the pursuit of the retreating enemy. Here, at last, was really open warfare. Never was the difference in moral between the British and German Armies at this period of the war better shown than on that day, when, their improvised defences once more broken, the enemy Armies fled pell-mell towards the Belgian frontier. Along the main roads leading from the battlefields streamed columns of prisoners, the dirt and stains of the battlefield yet on their persons, demoralized by their defeat and with open expressions of joy at their capture. Here or there among them strode an occasional officer or man who still held up his head and looked the whole world in the face, refusing to admit his own or his country's defeat. Such men were scarce, however, and those outbursts of defiance which did occur were mostly contradicted by the circumstances of the surrender of the men themselves.
The German rearguards fought well and with devotion, but signs were many that the main mass of the rank and file were beaten to a finish. Visions of a triumphal match to the Rhine were beginning to colour the day-dreams of our men as the battalions swung by singing and whistling, to try conclusions for the last time with an enemy who was already morally defeated. So they marched steadily forward with well-bronzed faces, neat uniforms, and workmanlike packs, no mean sample of the irresistible human tide which had burst the dam constructed by the greatest military Power of our day across the face of Europe. Now the column of German prisoners is past, and a very different sight greets the eye of the advancing troops. It is the 1st Division returning from its victory, and never before had troops marched back from the battlefield more spick and span, as though from a review. Not a strap was out of place, not a button dull. Four by four the men swung past, exchanging a fusillade of chaff with their comrades who marched forward to carry on the good work they had so well begun. In their one night of leisure, all traces of conflict had disappeared, and the premier Division of the British Army marched to its well-earned rest as to a Ceremonial Parade. Well might the German prisoners straggling along, fifty or sixty in charge of one nonchalant guard, feel that Nemesis was at hand and the day of their triumph passed for ever.
At the end of October, the Headquarters of the 46th Division had been moved to Bohain and, after a few days' rest, the whole Division commenced to match to their positions immediately in rear of the 1st Division. Headquarters moved successively to Molain and l'Arbre de Guise, where the General Staff remained, closely connected by telephone with the Staff of the 1st Division in their advanced Headquarters at Bellevue Farm. Here after the battle, the G.O.C. 46th Division took over command of the sector, and orders were issued to the 138th Brigade to relieve the 1st Brigade and endeavour to locate the position of the retiring enemy.
Active patrol work was carried out on the night of the 4th/5th November and, in the early hours of the 5th, our Infantry had pushed forward as far as Zobeau and Grand Toaillon Farm. During the advance, little resistance was encountered, and four 77-millimetre and three 10.5-centimetre guns were captured.
On November 5th, the 139th Brigade from their new billets at Catillon, and the 137th Brigade from Bois de l'Abbaye and the district round La Louvière Farm, were instructed to pass through the 14th Infantry Brigade and the 138th Infantry Brigade and to take up the pursuit, keeping the enemy on the run so far as possible. Both Brigades met with little opposition and, by the evening of the 5th, an outpost line was established on the line Barzy-Prisches and to the north, touch being obtained with the French at Barzy. Here some opposition was encountered from the enemy posted on high ground north and east of Prisches, and the advance of the 139th Brigade was supported by a barrage of 18-pounders and 4.5 howitzers.
For the advance, one R.G.A. Brigade and two additional R.F.A. Brigades had been allotted to the Division. Of these, one Brigade R.F.A. was attached to each of the fighting Brigades, the other three Artillery Brigades being held in reserve under the orders of the C.R.A. 46th Division.
The enemy having very thoroughly destroyed the bridge over the Canal at Catillon, all the Divisional transport and the Field Artillery were compelled to cross the Canal by a pontoon bridge thrown across by the Divisional Engineers west of Bois de l'Abbaye. Transport difficulties were thus considerable. The pontoon bridges were in themselves barely sufficient to take the traffic, and the approach to the bridges from both banks was across open fields. These were soon churned into a sea of mud in which limbers and guns more often than not stuck fast, in their attempts to pass over. Traces and harness were broken again and again and, finally, transport had to be lined up in a queue some distance from the bridge and each separate vehicle rushed over at the gallop. It was quite clear that, unless the situation was quickly taken in hand and the approaches improved, the Divisional transport might be held up for an indefinite period. The 465th Field Company, who were working on the bridge, rose to the occasion, however, and a corduroy road was constructed, the bridges were improved, and the transport finally flowed across in a steady stream. So was the first of the river-obstacles surmounted without too much delay, and the Artillery enabled to dash forward, make up for lost time, and cover the advance of their respective Infantry Brigades.
In the meantime, the site of the old bridge at Catillon had been reconnoitred, and the gap partially filled with fascines, sandbags, and débris. The Canal was thus made passable for Infantry, who could cross with no further in- convenience than wet feet. Motor-cyclist despatch riders were also able to cross, volunteers carrying their machines over, but all other transport had to be directed via Bois de l'Abbaye until the 6th, by which date the Corps Engineers had completed a bridge for lorry traffic.
On the morning of the 6th November, the 139th Brigade advanced under a comparatively light barrage and, when an advance of 1,000 yards had been made, the enemy abandoned his positions and little more resistance was experienced during the day. Both Brigades reached their objectives without difficulty, the speed of their advance being limited only by the necessity of keeping them in signal touch with Division and supplied with rations and ammunition.
The leading battalion of the 139th Brigade, the 5th Sherwoods, had spread outwards on either side to envelop Prisches, while one company of the 8th Sherwoods was detailed to mop up the village itself. This battle was in marked contrast to everything that had gone before it. To the initiated, who knew that in a few minutes a barrage would open up, it was an extraordinary sensation to see the old men and women of the village and the farmhouses about, moving their household effects peacefully in wheelbarrows and odds and ends of carts up and down the road between Battalion Headquarters and the gun-positions. As the barrage opened, civilians appeared in crowds from every direction, laughing and gesticulating as if the battle were being fought for their amusement alone. Fortunately, the "Boche" had withdrawn his guns and there was no reply, or many lives would have been lost in the streets of Prisches. As if was, the battle passed off like a parade. The Sherwoods advanced cautiously, but with few casualties, and the enemy machine gunners melted away before the fire of out guns, to be seen no more until Cartigny was approached.
While the battle was still in progress, the 8th Sherwoods in support were making a triumphal entry into Prisches.
Nowhere had the khaki uniform been received with greater demonstration. The inhabitants greeted the "point" of the leading company with flowers and fruit and with a strange concoction—a liquor made from a species of prune. It was impossible fo keep formation. The advance into the town soon resolved itself into a procession in single file; officers and men pushed their way gently but firmly along, surrounded by crowds of civilians giving vent to their feelings as only French people can do. A lad of eighteen, who had been hidden for four months in a room behind a German officers' mess, climbed up the church steeple with the tricolour in his hand, while German snipers were taking shots at him from posts beyond the town. Little cared he as he climbed until he achieved his ambition, and immortalized himself by nailing the colours triumphantly to the very top of the steeple. Here, as everywhere else, the rescued inhabitants set themselves to do the little they could, both to increase the comfort of the men to whom they owed relief, and to assist them to the utmost of their ability in the task of speeding the "Boche" back to the home he should never have left. Leading citizens of the town at once organized gangs of the more able-bodied members of the population. Soon, willing hands were hard at work filling up the craters left in all the principal roads by mines fired by the enemy as he retreated. Not all of these had exploded, however. Delay-action mines were numerous, but few of these had escaped the notice of eyes eager to serve their country and her Allies. Mine after mine was pointed out and labelled, and it was in no small degree due to this gratuitous help that casualties from mines were to a great extent avoided.
During the day the advance was continued to Cartignies, which was entered by the 5th Sherwoods and troops of the 137th Brigade, in spite of some opposition from enemy machine gunners. The weather had been bad, rain pouring down steadily all day, but nothing served to damp the enthusiasm, either of the troops, or of the inhabitants who turned out in great numbers to greet them.
Here was seen the extraordinary sight of a battalion marching in fours into a town the outskirts of which were still held by enemy machine gunners, a continuous stream of bullets from across the River Petite Helpe striking the houses. A billeting party, undeterred by this too warm reception, continued its work and the battalion, tired after its day's match, settled down in billets in the outpost line. Many were the amusing contretemps due to this proximity to an irritated enemy, who had had to leave his comfortable quarters for wet and windy bivouacs on the safe side of the river. Two officers of the Sherwoods, having round a complete German officer's kit abandoned by its owner, inadvertently settled down on the exposed side of a house to examine the booty. Wrapped in their congenial task, they failed to notice the attention they were receiving, until a spatter of machine-gun bullets on the walls above reminded them that the owner of the kit might not be so very far away after all, and that it was indiscreet as well as impolite to open it under his observation.
The night passed in quietness, disturbed only by occasional angry bursts of fire from across the river, where the enemy retained his positions until daylight.
On the following day, November 7th, the 138th Brigade relieved the 137th and 139th Brigades and continued the advance across the Petite Helpe. Here a momentary check was experienced, for the rains had been heavy and the little river was in flood. All bridges had been destroyed by the enemy and, once more, the Engineers were called upon to provide the means of crossing. The men of the 468th Field Company were at once set to work and, before the daylight had fled, no less than three bridges spanned the stream. Later in the day, the 465th Field Company, who had been engaged in filling mine-craters on the main Prisches-Cartignies Road, reached the bank of the river farther to the south and commenced work on a bridge for motor transport, which vas completed by 4.30 p.m. on November 9th.
On November 8th, also, the 466th Field Company were ordered to construct a bridge across the river sufficient to carry 60-pounder guns. The site of the old bridge was reserved for a motor-transport bridge, which was to be built at a later date by the Corps, but a place was chosen near by to give the maximum of road approach. A bridge of 75 feet span was constructed, but could only be reported fit for horse transport by nightfall. The enemy was retiring quickly, however, and the passage of the heavy guns was a matter of urgency in order that the whole Division might continue the pursuit. The reconstruction of the bridge to a stronger design was therefore commenced at 10.30 p.m., fresh material having been received from Prisches. 12.30 a.m. on the 9th, the bridge was certified fit for the guns, was examined and approved by the Artillery officer in charge of them, and the "heavies" limbered up and crossed.
It is estimated that 3,000 guns and other vehicles crossed the bridge within twenty-four hours of its completion, comprising the heavy transport of our own Division, part of the transport of the French Corps on our right, and the whole of the transport of the 32nd Division on our left. From these figures, some idea can be gleaned of the impedimenta of a Division on the march. Keeping touch with the enemy by means of mounted troops and scouting Infantry is the least part of the task involved, and these days, when three British Armies chased the Germans across a country devoid of food and forage, were not the least severe test on the organization which had to ensure the arrival and distribution of the supplies and ammunition, without which pursuit would have been futile and dangerous.
Busy days indeed for both "G" and "Q." Divisional Headquarters moved every two or three days, and, the higher the formation, the more difficult is the movement of its Headquarters. A company packs up its tin box of papers and the balance of its imprest account and is ready to move at a moment's notice, with or without transport. The move of Battalion Headquarters is a little less simple, and Adjutants have been known to look worried when moves were frequent and unexpected. Brigade is the first formation with a tendency to split into advanced and rear headquarters. Brigade Headquarters transport is of respectable dimensions, though still horse-drawn, and so able to tackle pontoon bridges and the viler roads which lead thereto. Moves of Divisional Headquarters, however, require some thought and preparation and, of even more importance under present circumstances, two-way roads for lorry transport. The enemy's thorough demolition of roads and bridges was. therefore, a serious obtacle to the advance of the Division. Divisional Headquarters as a whole could not move in advance of the main motor-traffic roads, so lines of communication forward of the Division increased in length and problems of supply became more and more acute. In a similar manner, the enemy's systematic destruction of the railways delayed the advance of railhead and made the supply of Division and Corps a much more complicated and difficult problem. The railway lines, as far back as St. Quentin and Le Cateau, were full of delay-action mines, cunningly hidden and, even if found, impossible of extrication without the chance of an explosion. Day after day, fresh mines went up, when all work forward of the new gap would be rendered useless. So railhead wavered backwards and forwards, and the lorry transport of the Armies was overtaxed and unable to cope with the situation. At this time, it became evident to the Higher Command that a pause would soon have to be called in the pursuit. Large numbers of liberated civilians had to be fed out of the British soldiers' ration and this, while the necessity was met ungrudgingly, still further complicated the food question.
On the 8th November, Divisional Headquarters moved to Prisches and, on the following day, a warning was received from the Corps that further forward movement would be impossible for several days.
The lengthening of the Divisional lines of communication threw heavy work on the Signal Company. At the commencement of the advance, a forward party consisting of three cable detachments and a complete Signal Office Staff was made up and placed under the command of one of the subalterns of the company. He was given instructions to keep in close touch with the leading Brigade advancing along the main Divisional route, to find out from the Brigadier each evening his probable moves for the following day, and to anticipate these moves as far as possible. In this way, at least one cable pair was laid along the road hedges or poled over open spaces and kept well ahead of Brigade Headquarters, ready for use when a new headquarters was established for the night. This pair was reinforced as soon as possible by a second pair, and the lines made as secure as possible. A Corps cable detachment then followed up at its leisure, making the cables quite safe and improving the route. Whenever possible, old German permanent routes were used, stretches several miles long being sometimes round so little destroyed that it was possible to make them good. In this way, good speaking was obtained between Brigade and Division—far better indeed than between Division and Corps, where lines were even longer. Visual signalling was impossible in the close country through which we were advancing, but, by means of leapfrog tactics, continuous wireless communication was maintained. Wireless proved very useful also for the collection and dissemination of news of general interest.
The ether was overcharged with epoch-making items of news in these stirring days, and the crowds of English and French round the Wireless Press notices, where the English and French communiqués were displayed side by side, were quite one of the features of the street-scenes in Prisches, Cartignies, and later in Sains du Nord.
The bridging of the Petite Helpe having been completed sufficiently to allow horsed transport to pass, the pursuit was once more pressed with vigour. The 138th Brigade were instructed to make towards Avesnes, and pushed forward to establish themselves on the high ground to the south-east of that town.
Considerable resistance was next encountered in the country south-west of Avesnes and along the Avesnes-Etroeungt Road. Late in the day, the 5th Leicesters overcame the enemy's resistance along this road and established themselves astride of it, capturing a four-gun battery and sixteen prisoners. The French on our right, however, were counter-attacked and forced to retire, thus exposing the flank of the Brigade, and, until the situation was restored, a defensive flank had to be thrown back. On out left, we were in touch with the 32nd Division near Avesnelles and little resistance was en- countered in this direction.
The check was only momentary, however, though at one time the enemy's shelling reached an intensity remotely resembling that of former days. For a few hours during the day, the neighbourhood of Grand Maison Farm, where some of our artillery was in position, was heavily punished, but this was the last occasion the enemy's guns were to trouble us at all. The rapid advance of the Infantry and of the screen of Cavalry forced the retirement of such guns as escaped capture.
On the 8th November, this last organized attempt at resistance was overcome with the assistance of concentrations of our own heavy and light artillery. After several hours fighting, the enemy gave way in all directions and the Brigade marched unhindered to their final objectives for the day. On the 9th November, the advance was resumed, but halted according to orders on a general line Sains du Nord-Semeries, inclusive. At the former place, one of those unfortunate occurrences happened, of which the wonder is that they are not more frequent in modern warfare, fought as it is in three dimensions. While our troops were pressing onwards towards Semeries, leaving Sains on their left flank, French Infantry and Cavalry were pouring along the roads to the south of that town and into the country beyond. The streets of Sains were full of rejoicing civilians clustering round the few Signal and R.A.M.C. officers who had yet found their way into the town, and to whose presence they were not yet accustomed. A party of English officers guided by the Curé were making an examination of the wrecked railway-bridge lying across the main road and of the abandoned stores in and about the railway-station. Suddenly, the air seemed full of the drone of aeroplane engines and, looking up, the sky was seen dotted with British planes circling round the town and evidently trying to make out the identity of the crowd collected in the streets. The conclusion arrived at was soon pointed in a most unpleasant manner.
Bullets sprayed into the town from the machine guns of the planes, while a little farther to the south and east, dull crash after dull crash announced the fact that our planes were bombing the roads near by. For some minutes the bombardment continued, until one plane, sweeping nearer earthwards than the rest, must have picked up the message of the frantically-waving handkerchiefs and hands.
The firing ceased, but not before several casualties had been caused, almost the last cases treated by the medical officers of the Division being some of our French Allies wounded by splinters from the bombs, or by machine-gun fire.
No further fighting took place, though scouting-parties were pushed out through Ramousies and Liessies without gaining touch with the enemy. On the 10th November orders were received for the Cavalry and Corps Cyclists attached to the Division to be transferred to Major-General Bethell's mobile force. The 138th Brigade received orders to stand fast on the outpost line held by them, and the part played by the 46th Division in the war had come to an end.
The 11th November, Armistice Day, while it was received with quiet thankfulness and pride, was marked by no such rejoicings as at home. The Division rested on its arms, thoroughly exhausted after the strenuous work of the last two months. A consciousness of work well done was in the mind of every man, but the main feeling was one of release from strain. The War was won. Time enough for rejoicings in the future; now was the time for utter relaxation of effort. Rest was needed—physical, mental, and moral—and for two or three days the minimum of effort only was asked from the men. Many a quiet toast was drunk at mess that evening, but there was no "mafficking," and the streets of Sains were quiet as on a normal night.
It was a fitting end to a mighty effort. Here, on Armistice night, the Division lay in the town where Kaiser Wilhelm II had his home during the strenuous months of the German spring and summer offensive. Hard by, and well within our lines, was Avesnes, where the Great General Staff had planned and executed their mightiest blows at the Allied Armies. Just ahead of us was the Belgian frontier, already abandoned by the fleeing German Armies, and the crossing of which would pretty well complete the liberation of France from the yoke of the invader. Considering the Division as an entity, as it is to all who have the honour to belong to it, in what better place could its history end?
In future wars the North Midland Division may play a part as great as in the past, but never will its members have reason to be ashamed of the example set in the autumn of 1918.
The work of clearing up the battlefields proceeds apace, but the Scars of War are deep and will not easily be hidden or erased.
To-day, walking along a country road, the author of this account came across a shell hole filled with bloody water. Hard by, the hoof of a horse protruded from a hasty grave. Again, not many yards away, a British soldier's shrapnel-drilled steel helmet lay asprawl upon the ground.
Blood, hoof, and helmet—all three mute witnesses to one small incident in the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen.
To the living are the Fruits of Victory, but let us not forget our glorious Dead. There cannot be a single officer or man of the 46th Division but has cause to mourn the loss of a brother, a comrade, or a friend of more peaceful days. Let us endeavour to make the England in whose defence they fell a better place for ourselves and for our and their descendants. So may we dedicate our lives, as this short history of the exploits of the 46th Division is dedicated, to those who gave their lives for an ideal.
So shall the men who fell at Hohenzollern Redoubt, at Gommecourt, at Bellenglise, at Ramicourt and Andigny, or a thousand other unnamed places, feel that after all their great sacrifice was not made in vain.
Thus we may leave them lying in their oft-times nameless graves in France, but with their memories enshrined in the Souls of their Comrades and their names engraved on a grateful country's Honour Roll.
Shall we prove worthy of the heritage they leave us? This is the question which faces each man of the Allied Armies to-day, and on our answer hangs the Fate, not only of ourselves, but of the World.