Grand Party by Graham Brooks

FOREWORD

WAR is an affair of a multitude of little things which add up in sum total to something of tremendous consequence.

Now it is a curious thing that the soldier fighting in a war thinks very little of the tremendous events he is playing a part in shaping. War for him is not what happens to nations but what happens to a few men around him. Yet it is what happens to these few men that decides the fate of nations.

Long, long before the ordinary men and women of this country made up their minds that Munich did not mean peace, a few more far-seeing citizens made up their minds to prepare to defend their country. They joined the Territorial Army. They began to learn something about the new weapons of war. They began to train themselves in the new theory of war.

This book is the story of such a group of men. I have a very special interest in it because I knew many of them in peace time long before the story began.

I saw them when the clouds gathered, and the storm broke in course of welding into a grand regiment. I saw them months later their return from Dunkirk, torn, but with glory in their eyes. They had achieved immortal renown as the first British artillerymen to fire on the Germans when the Western advance began. They had fought their way home side by side with some of the greatest regiments in the British Army, and when they disembarked in England again, they had proved themselves to be as good soldiers as the best that held the line with them.

To us old soldiers of the last war, this little story will bring back many memories, for the fields and villages through which they fought were the fields and villages in which we, in our day, fought. Old names live again. Old scenes come to life again.

But there is more to this little story than merely the adventures of one group of men. In what happened to these men you can see clearly what happened to the British Army. And more important why it happened. These were the men who never had a fair chance. Man for man they were the equal of the Germans-as their fathers were before them. Nothing could shake them. Nothing dismayed them. They were not beaten by the Germans, but by ineptitude in their own country. By the fossilised brains who forgot to give them tanks and an adequate Air Force, and who even after two years of war still did not realise the vital importance of airfields. They were the sacrifices demanded for the years of folly. They paid the price that we might learn the truth.

From this little human story of what happened to one regiment you will get a clear picture of what happened to the entire British Army. If it stimulates you to ask why, and what is being done about it, it will have served a very useful purpose.

JOHN GORDON (editor, Sunday Express) 1941.

 

 

WHIMSICAL PARTIES OF GUNNER X.

I WAS talking to the Battery-Sergeant-Major, so did not see the punch -if indeed there were one. But the yell of derision swept my gaze back to the makeshift boxing-ring we had erected in camp.

He was writhing on the tarpaulin floor, gloves clutching his belly, groaning lustily. Neither blood nor sweat gleamed beneath the shock of brick-red hair; indeed, sweat could not have been expected, for the fight had barely lasted a minute. From beneath their lashes, his eyes were peeping to make sure we were watching.

Reassured, he rolled over with a moan and lay still. “Get up, Ginger! Have a go!” jeered the mob.

Ginger was taking no risks. Only when the referee awarded the fight to his opponent, did he stagger to his feet. With a sidelong grin at the group of officers, he limped away.

Five minutes later I passed the canteen. There he was, cynosure of an admiring eddy of youngsters, swilling pints at their expense. Had he not gone into the ring against the boxing terror of the Regiment? Maybe some of these rookies really believed that he had taken punishment.

Thus, did Gunner X first bring himself to notice. Born show man. Incorrigible exhibitionist. From then on, he was seldom out of mind. He had a flair for getting in your path and a salute which brought his thumb precariously near his nose. Were volunteers required, X was always first to volunteer-if officers were watching. He boasted he was an Old Soldier. Indeed he was-in many ways.

All this was just before the war. On mobilisation he took the stage at once.

“It’s my wife, sir. And the little kiddies, sir. They’re being evacuated this evening.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Mr. Mackay will lend me his car to take them into the country. Just a few hours, sir, to get them into safety. God knows I may never see them again.” X believed in the dramatic.

Next morning Second-Lieutenant Mackay complained that his car had disappeared. Three days later, a battle-scarred Hillman snorted into Headquarters with Gunner X. Under arrest in the guardroom, an indignant X produced a staggering mass of documents; one testimonial, from a Hampshire schoolmaster, extolled the grand work done by X in evacuating schoolchildren; another, from some provincial official, lauded the Samaritan activities of X in fetching provisions for stranded families when local arrangements had broken down; a third testified that the car had been damaged through no fault of the gunner. There were other documents. At face value, they almost convinced one that here was a man who, far from wishing to absent himself without leave, was actually forced to stay away, wearing himself out in the public service.

When, however, a week later, his grandmother was to be evacuated, I thought it time for someone else to attend to such matters. I cannot believe that my refusal was the cause of her sudden death. However, I did give him leave to attend the funeral.

It must have been a grand funeral. It lasted three days. That, and Gunner X’s ruse of avoiding P.T. by reporting sick first thing every morning without apparent justification, resulted in the loss of the stripe which he had gained through sheer bluff. He stood before me in the Orderly Room. Tears coursed down his cheeks. With one dramatic sweep, he wrenched the stripe from his left arm and flung it on the floor. “You had better remove the other one, too, X,” I said quietly.

He grinned. “I’ll have them back soon, sir,” he announced gaily.

“Prisoner and escort! Right turn!” bawled the Sergeant Major. Gunner X marched off, a smart-looking soldier. Only as he reached the door did he remember that he had reported sick that morning and lapsed into a pronounced limp. Undaunted, he approached his Troop Commander a week later with the usual tears in his eyes. “Them poor little birds, sir,” he choked. “It makes my heart bleed to think of ’em.”,

“What birds?” “Nineteen of ’em, sir.” X never did things meanly. “Nineteen lovely little canaries, sir. You should ‘ear ’em sing, sir-like nightingales. Forgotten all about ’em, sir, till a letter come from my missis this morning. All left behind in the cellar, sir, and the ‘ouse is locked up. If I could just run ‘ome for the evening, just to feed ’em and ‘and ’em over to someone to look after before the poor little mites die of starvation, sir. But we were beginning to get stony-hearted, even in those early days. The next onslaught was more subtle. fond of dogs. Anyone who knows her knows that a dog is the surest My wife is passionately way to her heart. In those early days she did the catering and shopping for our Mess. Each morning my car took her to the shops, the Sergeant-Major detailing a driver.

One morning she burst into my headquarters in a state of great excitement. “You must let that driver go home on leave for the day,” she ordered, unfolding a pitiful tale. Apparently, this poor driver had a lovely Alsatian. He loved this animal more than anything in the world. On mobilisation he had left the dog with neighbours. Now he had heard that these brutes were starving and ill-treating it. If only he could get home for a few hours to rescue the dog from this torment! “The poor man is heart-broken,” my wife declared.

“Who is this driver?” I asked. “I don’t know his name.”

I walked to the window. There was his red head turned towards me in the car. He saluted solemnly.

I was not surprised when his wife was taken very ill soon after wards. But he was amazed when I told him that the local police had replied to our enquiry that she was really in splendid health. I must say, he might have appeared more relieved at the good news. He informed me that he was going to consult his solicitors about this question of leave, giving the name of the firm. I was not impressed, principally because I knew that the firm he named were in reality the Estate Agents whose board appeared outside our headquarters.

The next round, however, went to Gunner X. Our battery was to give a concert in the Village Hall. On the day before the affair, it was discovered that the promised drums could not be obtained. “What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Everything’s O.K.” replied the subaltern in charge of the arrangements. “X has volunteered to borrow drums from the Palladium. He knows the people there and can get the drums without any difficulty. I’ve sent him up to London for the day to get them.”

There are people who still believe that the ornate drums which graced the stage really did come from the famous Music Hall. At any rate the instruments, which ultimately accompanied us to France, were always known as the “Palladium Drums.”

By this time X had become quite a legendary figure among the rank and file. It was whispered that he “had influence.” Certainly, he manoeuvred himself into sleeping in the Sergeants’ billet, probably because he owned an expensive wireless set-Heaven knows where it came from. Mysteriously enough, he always seemed to have money. He once walked up to an officer, fumbling in his pocket for money to pay a taxi and offered a pound from a fat wallet he produced. I am told he boasted that he was ‘well in’ with the ‘old man’ (me). It was our next concert which provided another minor triumph

for Gunner X. The lads who performed in these concerts worked very hard after parade hours for several days; rehearsals took hours in the evening, the stage had to be fitted up, lighting fixed, props made, countless other jobs done. I therefore excused from the following Saturday morning parades those who had taken part in the concert.

On the Saturday morning following our second concert I inspected the billets. There was X, cigar in mouth, book in hand, reclining on his blankets, listening to the wireless. “Why aren’t you on parade?” I demanded, as he sprang up to attention.

“Excused parade, sir.” “Who excused?” “You did, sir. Concert party, sir.” “You weren’t in the concert party.” “Yes, sir. Managed the curtain, sir.”

On enquiry, it proved true. By spinning the yarn that in a nebulous past he had been in charge of the curtain at some theatre in Canada, X had induced a gullible subaltern to give him this cushy job, thus enabling him to escape a whole morning’s parades. The number of things which X had been or done in his career was incredible.

Shortly afterwards our battery, having beaten the local police at football, challenged them at darts in the long cowshed we had converted into a canteen. Stoves, made from oil-drums, gave us warmth and periodically smoked us out. We had fixed up our own electric light. Feeding-troughs had been converted into seats. The bar was at the end. An old piano provided music of the tin-can variety.

I visited the canteen while the match was in progress, to find the police well in the lead. X was playing. The local Inspector and I were chatting together when X came blandly up with some pitiful tale, asking for a day’s leave on the morrow. I amused the Inspector by relating X’s previous exploits canaries, Alsatian, drums, and the rest. This seemed to cause X huge joy. When I had finished, he grinned and said: “Well, sir, if I win this match for the battery, will you let me go? There ain’t no bunkum about that anyway.” Whereupon he proceeded to pull the match out of the fire and win a handsome victory for the battery.

Somewhere about this time the Regiment was moved from its Hertfordshire station [TOTTERIDGE] down to Gloucestershire [DURSLEY]. As we had great quantities of stores but hardly any transport, such lorries as we did possess had to do the journey several times.

Gunner X was detailed to drive one of these lorries. Had he not been such an exhibitionist, he would have made a first-class driver; but his nature always impelled him to do the spectacular which is not conducive to good driving. Give X a field gun behind a lorry, and he would thunder them full tilt through a narrow gate at forty miles an hour as if it were the musical drive at Olympia. Unfortunately, he only knew two speeds-Flat Out, and Stop. Nevertheless, he was one of those chaps who could get any vehicle anywhere in any conditions; hence the fact that he was chosen to do this long journey again and again. It puzzled me how cheerful he was about it, and how willing he seemed to repeat the journey each time. It was some time before we learned the reason.

This was in November 1939. The B.E.F. had not yet seen fighting, but it was rumoured that British contingents had been sent down to Alsace for a spell with the French in front of the Maginot Line.

On the first trip to Gloucestershire, X stopped at a country pub. The publican was an old soldier whose heart warmed towards anyone who had seen active service. He drank in the tale of the artillery driver just returned from a spell in the trenches way out beyond the Maginot Line. Memories of his own battle-days surged back as he listened to tales of raids, box barrages, and hairbreadth escapes in the maze of woods where the Boche could slip in and out unseen. Day after day those tales meant free beer, food, and cigars for X. He was a hero. That was the breath of life to him. Then came the incident of the thumb.

Rumours were abroad. We were going overseas. France, Egypt, Palestine, were confidently predicted. Excitement waxed intense. Gunner X reported sick; he could not use his right hand-the thumb was useless. When did this happen to his thumb? asked everybody. Twelve years ago. But how? Stories varied.

For one whole morning X laboriously cleaned windows with his left hand, his right arm thrust into the bosom of his battle-dress. Maybe I felt sympathetic-maybe not; at any rate, having watched him clean the Mess windows in this fashion, I called him in and held out a glass of beer towards him. I made no remark as he grabbed it with his RIGHT hand. Gunner X duly went to France. We left him at the Base.

It was no surprise when, weeks later, a letter arrived from an officer saying that X had been posted to his unit and claimed to be a Bombardier and Motor Mechanic, but unfortunately his Pay Book contained no entries verifying these statements. Would I please elucidate the position? I did.

Then came the Blitz and, what with one thing and another, I forgot X. Way back in England again, with the smoke and dither of Dunkirk behind us, a subaltern came up to me with a local newspaper in his hand. “Good Lord, sir,” he cried. “Look at this.” It contained the story of an interview with a soldier. “If ever a man deserved the V.C., it is Gunner X.” I read. I could picture old X, surrounded by gaping topers in the local pub. My thoughts flew back to canaries, Alsatians, drums-so now it was the Boches.

Months later, I had a letter from him. He wanted us to know how, when on the road to Dunkirk he heard the ‘old battery’ was near, he fought his way through the intervening Boches to join us only to find we had gone. Wherever X is to-day, I can imagine the tales he is telling. I know him well enough to wager that if he ever reads this yarn he will chuckle till tears roll down his cheeks, and he’ll show it round for all to read, boasting: “You see, I was well in with the old man.”

***

Why have I started this book with the tale of Gunner X? Maybe it’s because I’ve often said: “One day I’ll put old X in a book.” Maybe it’s because it illustrates the human side of soldiering; for it’s the human side of the Army that binds it together, making it the fighting unity it is. This book is no war diary; just the human story of a London Territorial Field Artillery Regiment that sprang from a list of names on a scrap of paper in May 1939, went out to France and fought the Hun, and came back sadly fewer than it went.

I call it Grand Party. That word ‘party’ is a curious word. Expressive English is built up from slang, and slang is ever changing. To-day in the Army nothing is ‘arranged’-it is ‘laid on’; an Army car is not a ‘car,’ but a ‘truck’; a fool is not an ‘ass,’ but a ‘twerp’; nothing is ‘ready,’ but ‘teed-up.’ So with ‘party’; every experience, every happening, every bit of work or play, is a ‘party.” The fighting retreat of the B.E.F. from the River Dyle to Dunkirk Beach was the party in France.’ For me the birth, puberty, and manhood of my old Regiment have made a Grand Party.  So now for the tale.

**********

II

BUGLE PARTY

I JERKED myself up in bed, blinded by the torch which the Adjutant was poking through the tent-flap. “Sorry to wake you, sir. The C.O. wants you.” “It’s come then?” I asked, slipping into gum-boots. No need to mention the code telegram ordering first steps towards embodiment of the Territorial Army for war. We had been expecting it since being fetched back to camp off manoeuvres some hours before. The Adjutant nodded. “It’s just three o’clock. If you’ll join the C.O., sir, I’ll get my batman to make some tea.”

As I squelched past the guns and across the camp a sentry challenged me. Five minutes later the four senior officers of the Regiment were discussing preparatory orders for our move. We had ceased to be civilians.

Four months before, the bugles had lured us back to the Army. Now the bugles were sounding for war. Ribbons on the tunic we had slipped over our pyjamas showed this was no novel experience for any of us four.

On 1 May 1939 the Regiment had been formed as part of the doubling-up of the Territorials. On that day it consisted of C.O., Adjutant, and expectation of recruits enlisted by the ‘parent unit.’ Joining as senior battery commander, I was given a list of two hundred and fifty names and the assurance that officers would be found. Soon the names materialised into bodies and the grand fun of building Something out of Nothing began.

They were grand chaps. The threat of war was in the air, so the men we got were not the type who join for a uniform or just for the fun of camp; they were men who came forward with a purpose, believing they would have to fight. Useless indeed would it have been to join for the sake of a uniform, for we had none to give them.

First thing was to get to know the men individually-and their potentialities, for from amongst them we must discover and make our N.C.Os. So we evolved a questionnaire, some thirty questions, for each man to answer about himself, his family, trade, hobbies, interests, experience, hopes, worries and ambitions. We then interviewed each man, and systematically began to memorise names and faces, then memorise details of their questionnaires. It would go something like this:

MYSELF (looking out of Battery Office window across the parade ground): “Who’s that little dark chap in grey flannel bags, blue, high-necked sweater, and old brown jacket he has obviously tried to clean up for parade? (He has darned those holes very neatly.) Jones? Johnson? No, Jackson’s the name. George James Jackson. Married; two kiddies, girl aged three, baby boy just born. Works in a baker’s. Previously worked in garages (make a note of that.) Has driven cars and lorries and rides a motor-bike. (Useful.) Made his own radio set. (Remember that when we get Army sets.) Tried out for Fulham Reserves, but no football these days. (Must see he gets a game at camp.) No time for hobbies now, what with wife and kids, and being a handyman about the house, and wages and rents being what they are. Takes life seriously. Worried about wife’s health. Doesn’t mind what job he’s given with us, only wants to do his bit. Make a note of that lad. If we can fire ambition and more self-confidence into him, he’ll make an N.C.O. one day.”

Then we would tackle them with questions. But you must be certain of your facts first. Disraeli impressed his followers in the House with the belief that he took great interest in their personal affairs. The old cynic declared he achieved this reputation by stopping them in the street and asking: “How’s the old complaint?” It was, he said, a sure winner. But you can’t bluff Thomas Atkins like that-certainly not Territorial Thomas.

Training was a difficult problem. The men, in ‘civvy’ clothes, were marched and drilled in the back-streets of Kennington near the Oval with shrieking urchins chasing around and bowling hoops through the ranks, and ladies of the district shrilling comments which the men affected to ignore.

Fortunately, a London newspaper published a picture of our fellows drilling with 18-pounder guns in a back-street amid hordes of screaming kids. With amazing rapidity proper quarters were then found for us where we could have space to train. This was a girls’ school near Clapham Common. (There was great disappointment on learning that the girls were no longer in residence.) Regimental Headquarters and my battery shared the premises with a Territorial Tank unit, our share of buildings and grounds providing ample facilities for lecture rooms, stores, offices, Officers’ Mess, Sergeants Mess, Canteen, gun park and parade grounds. Our other battery was recruited and stationed at Woolwich.

The men’s thirst for instruction was amazing. asking them to come two nights a week, but soon found fellows begging to come every night if we could arrange drill or instruction. We started by asking them to come two nights a week. The problem was equipment. We borrowed as much as possible from our parent unit. Some nights we got 18-pounder guns which had to be towed through the streets to us in the afternoon and returned late that night after parade. Sometimes we borrowed Army vehicles and civilian lorries for instruction in driving and maintenance officers’ cars being roped in for this, too. We borrowed Army telephones and technical artillery instruments when possible. Rifles we got nearly every night.

But mostly we had to improvise. One keen recruit made some amateur signalling lamps; we made our own signalling flags; with these we could teach Morse. Rough imitations of intricate artillery instruments were constructed so as to explain the uses of the real thing against the day when we should have it to play with. Into this spirit of makeshift and make-believe the boys threw themselves with zest, vying with each other to produce novel gadgets which would serve some training purpose.

At this stage there was little of the soldier about them-though all the qualities of which fine citizen-soldiers are made. To say they had no sense of discipline would be untrue, but it was a discipline all their own. On parade, though in civilian clothes, some pitifully threadbare and soiled, they caught the Army spirit from the outset. Off parade they were their natural selves. One evening in the early days I asked on parade for a carpenter but got no response. Later I was wrestling with administrative problems in the office, when a man knocked timidly at the door. He came in, followed by another man in overalls, cap in hand. “You’re the bloke wot was asking for a carpenter, wasn’t you?” asked the first. I nodded. “Well,” he continued, jerking his thumb at his companion. “There’s a gentleman ‘ere wot does a bit o’ carpentering. Didn’t like ter speak up fer ‘isself in front of all them others, so I brought ‘im along.”

If you think that this helpful chap, lacking military experience, also lacked respect for his officers, you don’t know your Cockney. Now for the tale of George William (Gorblimey) Cox, the man with the smile.

I have already said we had to find our N.C.O.s. My eye, searching for likely material, fell on Cox. Night after night he turned up for drill. He had such a zest for work. He had such a smile. He was such a typical, glorious Cockney. We were doing foot drill, when I called him out of the ranks.

“Cox,” I said. “You take the squad.”

“Coo,” he stammered. “You can do it. Try.”

He hopped bashfully from one foot to the other. “Cor Crikey, sir !” he said at length. “I’ll ‘ave a go.” Like the immortal Mrs. Fezziwig, he was just ‘one vast substantial smile’. I won’t pretend his first effort was a howling success.

Next Sunday we had a whole day’s training. Cox was on parade at 8 a.m. After a hard day, he came to me about four-thirty in the afternoon. “Could I go off, sir, please? I’ll be back at six.”

I hope you are as curious as I was. Apparently, Cox had charge of forty cart-horses. He fed, watered, and groomed them at 5.30 a.m., then spent the day drilling with us. He went off to That was give them their evening feed, then hurried back smiling to be a soldier again for as many hours as we would let him. Cox’s ‘Day Off’. That was the type of man we were getting. I think Mrs. Cox deserved credit, too.

Cox has now been a sergeant since shortly after outbreak of war. In charge of his gun, he fought through the blitz in France, looking after his men just as he had tended those horses in South London. I remember his smile when a shell hit his gun near Tournai, wounding one of his men. I can still see that smile as, rifle in hand, he searched a wood for the Fifth Columnist who had shot one of his gunners in the back at Bouvines. I can picture his smile on Dunkirk Beach. And I shall never forget that smile as he said ‘goodbye’ when his 366 battery was sent away from us to Iceland in 1941. Those forty cart horses must miss George William Cox an awful lot.

Throughout June and July, we had these long day trainings every other Sunday. It required much ingenuity. For instance, we had to get into the men’s heads the composite picture of a battery on the march and in action but had no vehicles or equipment to do this with. So, we got out printed cards for the men to pin on their sleeves. These cards gave the name of the vehicle, the personnel in it, the equipment it carried. The men were then marshalled ‘by vehicles’ with cards on sleeves and practised manoeuvre that way. It is amazing how much was learnt. Many made their own sets of cards and studied them at home.

Those who have not been through it can hardly imagine the immense difficulties of training the modern soldier without proper equipment and of creating and organizing an efficient unit with no experienced personnel to assist. But those same difficulties serve a useful purpose; they evoke in all ranks energy, resource, a genius for improvisation, and grim determination-qualities of which the modern soldier is made. Then, too, the exhilaration of building something out of nothing. We had to go through it all over again after Dunkirk.

On these training Sundays a good dinner was provided in the canteen by contract with caterers, for we could not draw Army rations. But we could not keep the men off the guns long enough to enjoy their meal properly. Dinner was at one o’clock, afternoon parade not until 2.15, but those chaps would be back on the guns drilling on their own by 1.30.

The canteen was in what had been the girls’ gymnasium, where there was room to parade the whole battery on rainy days. Many a successful evening we had there-dances, boxing, gym, darts, sports talks; our good friend, George Allison of the Arsenal, talked about football in his inimitable way; Jack Lovelock, Olympic champion, told us how to keep fit. Esprit de corps developed in the regiment at a very early stage.

Uniforms at last! Two days before camp they arrived. On 13 August, in battle-dress and full kit, the battery marched off to Clapham Junction, detrained in the New Forest, swung proudly into camp at Beaulieu, headed by the band. Among the first faces we saw was that of Anthony Eden, in camp with the Rangers in the next lines. Many of us would not get out of uniform again for years.

A grand camp. But the mud! And later, the heat! We were lent guns, vehicles, all necessary equipment, so could train properly and the men seized the opportunity whole-heartedly.

Judged by the standard of guards and sentries, a fortnight worked wonders. Imagine the horror of the orderly officer doing his rounds the first dawn when greeted by a sentry with: “Hullo, sir, you’re up early !”-instead of the usual challenge; by the end of camp it was an achievement to convince the fierce sentries that you should pass.

Which reminds me of the gullibility of the average British sentry. You have only got to crack what he thinks is a joke, and he is convinced you must be all right. When, to a challenge, I have replied “C.O.” or “Commanding Officer”, I have always been subjected to scrutiny with a torch; but when, to see what would happen, I have responded with “Hitler” or “Mussolini” or “Marshal Goering”, I have invariably heard through the darkness, “Pass, friend.”

A true incident, illustrating this mentality, occurred in southern England during the Battle of Britain. A sentry (not of our regiment), hearing steps approaching in the dark, challenged with the usual “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Foe !” came the reply.

“Aw, stop kiddin’, mate,” said the sentry. “I ‘ope you’ve got a late pass, ‘cos the sarge is fair ‘ot on it to-night.” It took the intruder a long time to convince the sentry that he really was a baled-out Boche airman who was trying to give himself up. Actually, I have found in the past that the easiest places to get into unchallenged were Divisional and Corps Headquarters; but things have been tightened up now. We had fun, too, in camp in those last sunny days of peace. In the Mess, the day’s work done, the subalterns in their blues and spurs had to pass initiation in swarming up the marquee pole to climb through the ventilator in the roof, then back through the hole the other side, and down the pole again. Which brings me to the point where I should introduce some of our gang. But first I should mention the nickname racket.

Be it understood that in the Service it is taboo to call your brother officer by his proper name. This being a Christian country, he has got a Christian name. Worse still, he has probably been inflicted with a nickname. So, he must be ‘George’ or ‘Stinker’, or whatever it is, to you. No matter that you have never seen him before; no matter that you loathe each other; George or Stinker he has got to be.

This disease even obtains among Brass Hats, even among Big Brass Hats. It is carried to absurd lengths. There was the case of a colonel whose unit was sent hurriedly from one formation to another during the battle in France. Getting his guns into action, he was visited by a Brass Hat who was Very Affable but in a Great Hurry. The colonel was in dire need of certain equipment, so he tackled the Very Affable Brass Hat about it. The Brass Hat, as I have said, was in a Great Hurry, so, pushing into his car, he replied: “Of course you must have it at once. Get my headquarters on the ‘phone and tell Charles I said so.” He drove off.

The colonel still wonders who Charles was. He cannot believe that the Brass Hat meant the answering telephonist who, when asked if there was anyone called Charles at those headquarters, blandly retorted: “Yessir. Me.” The origin of most nicknames is past comprehension. If you ask why our Australian subaltern Bob Crichton-Brown is called ‘Boots’, or David Mackay ‘Pluto’, or Stephen Muir ‘Fanny’, I simply don’t know. Those names will often crop up in this story.

Cedric Odling, Wykehamist, champion skier, connoisseur of wines, was the first C.O.; Nevill Christopherson (Chris), of the cricketing dynasty, member of Lloyd’s, was second-in-command; schoolmaster Edward Milton commanded one battery, I the other. The first two are prisoners-of-war, recovering from wounds; the third died of wounds after being captured at Cassel; I have been invalided out as the result of a hangover from Dunkirk.

Other senior officers were mostly old soldiers like Tommy Westley (now a prisoner) who relinquished his rank of major to get back and serve as captain. Junior officers were largely recruited from that nursery of gunners, the Honourable Artillery Company. We were thus made up of undergraduates, a solicitor, barrister, stockbroker, journalist, architect, surveyor, civil servant, bank manager, research chemist, three members of Lloyd’s, and several businessmen; a fairly representative body of London Territorials.

In building up our battery I had imported two Fleet Street friends as subalterns. Dennis Clarke (son of Tom Clarke, distinguished editor and journalist), who had already been under fire, getting a Nazi bullet through his hat while representing the Daily Express in Vienna during the pre-Anschluss riots; and Tony Philpotts, assistant general manager of the Evening Standard.

Tony, now a six-foot-four colonel with an O.B.E., became military secretary to General Auchinleck, and later “military spokesman” in the Middle East. Dennis, also a major now, was mentioned in dispatches after Dunkirk and has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia. With his grasp of languages and intimate knowledge of enemy and occupied countries, he could have had a cushy intelligence appointment, but maintained that a man of his age should be doing a job of fighting-and has done it.

Clifford Hackett, first subaltern to join us, now major command ing my old battery, was called ‘Dormouse’ in those days; but he did not sleep in battle, so the nickname lapsed and he is just known as ‘Cliff’. He, with Basil Strachan and ‘Pluto’ Mackay, made up the Three Musketeers. Jack Leaman, boisterous and irrepressible, to whom his troop paid tribute by christening their pet mongrel dog ‘Noisy’. Roddy Hawes, Etonian, imperturbable, only surviving officer of the 367 Woolwich battery after Dunkirk, helped me to rebuild the regiment and is now a skilful conscientious battery commander elsewhere.

With nicknames in the Sergeants’ Mess we find Signal Sergeant ‘Piggy’ West, Sergeant-Major ‘Ape’ Harris, Sergeant (now Lieutenant) ‘Mac’ McKenna, famed for his rendering of ‘My brother Sylvester’; in the men’s canteen, goalkeeper ‘Blackie’ Hyatt, boxer ‘Len’ Hearn, and the rest.

The men had a nickname for me, too, but I could never discover what it was.

So, there is the cast. The curtain is up. As Stanley Holloway says: “Let battle commence.”

 

****

UP AND DOWN PARTIES OF GUNNER Y

ON 25 August we sped back to the girls’ school to prepare for the smooth carrying-out of mobilization when final orders should come. ‘Key Parties’ were already mobilized. All other officers and men were sent home till called for.

A rear party had been left at Beaulieu to strike camp. It was on their return that my attention was first drawn to Gunner Y, the officer in charge reporting that this man had been lazy, dirty, troublesome, the only one who failed to pull his weight. I sent for Gunner Y.

He was the grimiest specimen of humanity I had ever seen and seemed averse to work of any kind. I wondered why he had volunteered. But then I did not know that he was a man with an Ambition, a distinct personality.

In the Army there are many jobs of a less congenial nature known as fatigues. There is one even less congenial than the rest. It is known as Sanitary Orderly. It is called other things as well. In addition to certain unpleasantness, this job involves a deal of hard work, digging, building latrines, making incinerators, soakaways, all sorts of drainage systems. Not the job to attract volunteers as a rule. But to Y it was a Vocation. He had heard the Call.

Nobody remembers how Y first managed to slide into the job, but soon he became established as an Artist, and the usually despised fatigue an exalted post of the Highest Importance. I think Y regarded himself as combining the roles of Consulting Engineer, Landscape Artist, and Medical Officer of Health.

I have said that he was lazy and dirty. From the moment he secured this appointment, all laziness vanished; the other drawback to his advancement was cured for him by mates in the billet. I will not insult you by asking whether you have ever had a Dry Scrub. I am told it is not a pleasant experience. Certainly, the metamorphosis of Gunner Y was complete. When a dapper, clean-looking soldier gave me a smart salute next day, I had to inquire his name.

Thus started the first Up Party of Gunner Y. If he made enemies, ultra-politeness was the cause. Officers did not appreciate having to respond to his “Good-morning, sir” several times each day. If you annoyed him, he could contrive to meet you every few minutes during his rounds, accompanying his salute with a cordial “Good-morning, sir” on each occasion. I remember, after having dealt with him for some minor offence, passing an apparently unattended column of stationary lorries when a loud “Good morning, sir”, coming seemingly from nowhere, quite startled me. Eventually I located his solemn face peeping from beneath the lorry which he was cleaning, reclining on his back.

Rumour said he was a plumber in civilian life. If a drain was blocked, a cistern stopped up, an airlock occurred in a pipe, Gunner Y was on the spot. On the slightest excuse, a whole drain would be dug up for anything from five to fifty yards. Result was always the same. Floods, more floods, then a plumber fetched post haste from the town.

Once I arrived at the scene to find him waist-deep in a trench from which water was flooding the farmyard. Covered with mud from head to waist, he was striving to dam with sandbags the hole he had made with his pick in the pipe. He looked up from his work. “Good morning, sir,” he spluttered through the filth.

The move overseas put the spotlight on Gunner Y. We were short of drivers for the journey to the embarkation port, so Y was detailed to drive a lorry. The column started off at 7 a.m. Standing at the gateway, watching the vehicles move off, I saw Y among the spectators around me. “Good-morning, sir,” he said.

“Why the hell aren’t you in your lorry?” I demanded.

He was bundled into the driving seat, and off he went. Then it was discovered he had left his kit behind. This was rushed after him in a car which caught up the column twenty miles on, kit and equipment being hurled into the lorry bit by bit as it moved ahead.

Some days later Y accosted me in the cobbled street of a French village. “Beg pardon, sir,” he began. “You ain’t going to keep me drivin’ this ‘ere lorry, are you, sir? I reckon I can make a good thing of this ‘ere sanitary business, and it’d break my ‘eart to give it up after workin’ so ‘ard to learn the job. It’s somethin’ you can take a perfessional interest in, sir-not like drivin’ an old lorry.”

The next three months were definitely an Up Party for Y. Every time we moved into fresh billets, up popped Gunner Y with his much-thumbed, much-soiled ‘Bible’-the Manual of Military Hygiene. “Now, sir,” he would say, as we discussed methods of drainage from wash-benches to be erected in a farmyard. “It’ll have to be the ‘erring-bone pattern ‘ere.”

He had his own design for incinerators, very effective. He built grease-traps, dug drains, cleaned out farmyards, constructed latrines palatial ones for officers with straw-thatched roofs and flyproof gadgets, the only drawback being his habit of paying social calls to canvass approval of his handiwork. He became invaluable and developed into a smart soldier who could make others work, so earned a stripe.

Then came Dunkirk. Last impression of Y in France was driving a truck away from Messines Ridge, spade and bucket on the seat beside him. He re-joined us in Devonshire days after most of our survivors. The story spread that he had volunteered to return to France to bring wounded away and had done the journey several times. Certainly, has the guts to have done it-but also the cunning to be romantic.

Then began a terrible Down Party. Living in billets with normal conveniences for washing, drainage, and what-not, of course detracted from the importance of his job, depriving him of scope for his creative genius. Maybe professional pride was hurt. rate, within a month he had lost his stripe. This, I think, surprised him. After all, what was there in just hopping on to a lorry for an unofficial trip from Lincolnshire to the village where we had been stationed those first few weeks of war? Unfortunately, the search for old friends took him to the vicarage where the wife of one of our officers was staying. “Blimey, mum,” exclaimed Y candidly. “I didn’t never expect to see you ‘ere.”

The rot set in. More absence without leave, one petty crime after another, all brought punishments which involved continual loss of pay. He was up in the Orderly Room time and time again. “Good-morning, sir,” he invariably remarked when halted by his escort before my desk.

Strange to say, he seemed proud of these appearances. Once, when I let him off, he seemed hurt. On another occasion, when I asked what he wanted to say in his defence, he replied jovially, “Nothin’, sir. Fourteen days’ field punishment, I suppose, sir.” When this turned out to be the verdict, he seemed proud at having made so accurate a forecast.

One appearance was on a charge of negligently causing damage to property. He had backed a lorry straight into a greenhouse, smashing numerous panes of glass.

“What is the value of the damage?” I asked the witness. “Twelve pounds, I should think, sir.”

Y bristled with indignation. As if he, Y, would be guilty of such trivial damage. “It’s twenty pounds, if it’s a penny, sir,” he volunteered emphatically.

Another visit to the Orderly Room. “Would why you have disappeared for the night without leave?” I asked.

“Yessir. The chaps in the billet was makin’ such a noise, singin’ and dancin’, that I ‘ad to go away to get some rest.” Of course, these escapades became expensive.

The pay of a Gunner is little enough when free from stoppages; crimes reduce it almost to vanishing-point for weeks. I was therefore surprised at receiving a letter from some auctioneers stating that Y had attended an auction sale and bid a large sum of money for furniture which had been knocked down to him. What interested the auctioneers was that Y had not returned to fetch the goods or pay for them. What interested me was that the sale had apparently taken place during parade hours.

This Down Party went on until we went under canvas for the summer of 1941. Then Up went the Party with a bang. Back to professional life went Gunner Y.

A week after our arrival in camp, an amazing but impressive spectacle brought me to a halt. A squad of six men in overalls was being marched along. Three of them carried spades ‘at the slope. Three carried buckets. Left arms swung vigorously in unison. Smartly they stepped out to the voice of the man in charge. “Left! Right! Left! Right! Swing them arms now! Swing them arms! Left! Right! Hold that spade up, you in the rear file!” A resplendent figure in brand new service dress (not battledress), highly polished leather belt, red and blue forage cap stuck jauntily on his head, Gunner Y was marching his sanitary squad off to their labours.

I am sorry to say that Y is now serving a long prison sentence.

In the civil court it was revealed that this is by no means his first.

 

****

IV

MYSTERY

GLORIOUS PARTY OF GUNNER Z [Driver William John Martin]

THE correction of the title of this chapter is no mistake of mine or of the publishers-for this was to have been the thrilling story of the exploits of Gunner Z. In the last war we had the Mystery Ships; in this, we have the mystery D.C.M.s-for which you must blame (or praise) the censor.

Not that there is any mystery to Z’s comrades in the regiment or to anyone who can be told by word of mouth-but, until the victory trumpets blow, apparently no printed word must let the world at large know how Z earned the regiment’s only Dunkirk D.C.M. So, this becomes a problem chapter.

There is, of course, neither rhyme nor reason in putting this chapter out of chronological order, except to demonstrate at the outset the stuff of which the old regiment was made; but, having fabled the foibles of Gunners X and Y, I would have liked to have sung the saga of Z. I can at least say that Martin is his name.

Martin is a sallow, lanky youngster with an apologetic air and a smile that creeps wistfully around his lips. Hardly the type you would visualize as likely to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was in the 367 Woolwich battery. I cannot imagine that he ever brought himself to the notice of his superiors in the early days, beyond proving himself competent to drive Army vehicles. Personally, I had never heard of him until his name appeared on the roll of missing after Dunkirk. The first time I set eyes on him was when he reported back to the regiment after he had journeyed many hundreds of miles over land and sea.

It was at Cassel, twenty miles from Dunkirk, that he took part with scores of comrades in a hectic scrap in which every round of ammunition was used up against surrounding enemy tanks. Of those who took part in that scrap, only three have returned to tell the tale – one of these is Martin.

From them we learned of the seventeen Boche tanks knocked out, of the wounded who went on firing the guns until no shells were left; of jovial, burly Lieutenant Jack May, lying wounded on the ground, singing out his orders until hit again this time so badly that, although smuggled back to safety in England, he died of his wounds; how, after destroying their 18-pounders and fighting with rifles and Lewis guns until no bullets were left, those who could walk made a valiant but vain bid to pierce through the surrounding hordes. [BREAKOUT TO WATOU]

Wounded Sergeant Harcombe, like Jack May, was carried away in the early stages.* The remainder of those in this little ‘party’ were killed or taken prisoner, many of the prisoners (including the colonel and the second-in-command) also being wounded, but some of them managing to remain at large for days or weeks in hiding before being captured. [Capt Coll Lorne MacDOUGALL]

(*Poor Harcombe has recently been killed in Tunisia 1941).

They were marched back many miles, then packed into lorries. Roads behind the Hun lines were jammed with transport. Down swooped the R.A.F. The Boches made no pretence of coolness or discipline; drivers and guards all fled from vehicles to cover, leaving engines running and prisoners to do as they pleased.

Not until long after the ‘planes had disappeared did the Boches emerge from the ditches and shell-holes to move the That delay had been precious to three prisoners. Unnoticed, convoy on again they had crawled several hundred yards to a wood where they lay hidden, gleefully watching the havoc wrought by our airmen. Would the guards count the prisoners before moving on? Everything depended on that. A cursory glance into the crowded lorries seemed to satisfy them. The fugitives split up to make their separate ways to the coast. One disguised himself in civilian clothes but was arrested and identified as a British soldier by the interrogating Hun officer by reason of his Army boots which he was still wearing; then broke away from his captors and reached Dunkirk. Of the other two, no news has been heard.

Meanwhile, on with the convoy went Martin. The prisoners were all weary beyond sleep, weak for want of food, parched with thirst, but fortified with the belief that in delaying the Boches at Cassel they had played their part in enabling the B.E.F. to reach the beaches where the Navy would transport them to be re-armed and fight again.

The Huns had robbed them of cigarettes and blew the smoke arrogantly in their faces.

One dark evening days later the train stopped at a little town. The prisoners had marched, lorried, marched again, and trained thus far in stages. Here Martin slipped off the cattle truck and melted into the darkness.

And here begins the mystery of [William John] Martin’s D.C.M.

 

************

V

CHILDREN’S PARTY

WE were like a band of children in those first weeks of war, fumbling our way through this new world of black-out and adventure. Even the old warriors found it strange, for soldiering is vastly different to what it was twenty-five years ago.

The actual outbreak of war is imprinted on my mind by that first dawn peep at London’s impressive balloon barrage, and by three incidents.

First was the Man Who Reported Too Soon. Bombardier ‘Len’ Hearn is a tiger in the ring (he never even looked like getting beaten, and won the Northern Command middleweight in 1940), a sturdy N.C.O., a good mechanic, a daring motorcyclist who had ridden at Donnington Park, a first-class driver. aggressive qualities, he was very much ‘Mum’s Boy’. A devoted family are the Hearns. Yet, despite his

On 25 August our Key party was mobilized, the remainder (including Hearn) sent home until further orders. Those orders did not go out until 2 September. On 31 August, however, Hearn arrived with all his kit. Someone may have been pulling his leg; at any rate, he had heard that mobilization orders had gone out and, like a good soldier, had not waited for the telegram to arrive. When told it was a mistake and he must go back home, he resolutely refused. “I can’t, sir,” he protested. “I’ve said ‘goodbye’ to Mum. I can’t go back home now.” So, for two days he served with us without pay.

Second incident was the Man Who Wanted An Hour Off. On the first morning after mobilization, he came up and asked if he could possibly have permission to be absent from twelve until one. “I just want to get married, sir,” he explained. “I suppose you really mean you want forty-eight hours’ leave,” I said.

“No, sir, just an hour. I had arranged to meet her at the Register Office at twelve-thirty. I can be back soon after one.” “You can have twenty-four hours’ leave,” I said. “Report back to-morrow night at ten.”

But this chap was adamant. All he wanted was one hour off. He came back without delay, handed in his marriage certificate to the battery office, and went on with his soldiering.

Third incident was the First Air Raid Warning, five minutes after Neville Chamberlain had broadcast that we were actually at war. Some said it was a mistake. Some vowed there really had been hostile ‘planes over Kent. Various stories went the rounds. Personally, I have always believed it was a subtle and effective piece of propaganda.

Putting several hundred men through the process of mobilization in a few hours is exhausting work. Forms must be filled up for each man and sent off to the Regimental Paymaster to ensure that dependants get proper allowances; more forms to the Officer in charge of Records, the War Office, and the County Territorial Association; nominal rolls prepared; each man’s pay book completed, and his employer notified that he has been called up; every man issued with kit, medically examined, and his medical history sheet completed; every man fed-not easy when they are reporting at all hours throughout the day and night, and no rations are supplied. Actually, all went smoothly. The canteen echoed hilariously with ‘Down Mexico Way’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. The only worry seemed to be a general fear that the French might polish off the enemy before we could get out to join in the fun.

The men now had uniform and kit. We had a few rifles and a little ammunition; two 4.5-in. howitzers, fit for drill purposes only; two or three antiquated artillery instruments, some amateur instruments and equipment we had improvised ourselves, some binoculars which must last have been used in the Crimea. For transport we had nothing but officers’ private cars and a few push-bikes some men had brought along. With this formidable armament we set off for the pretty little Hertfordshire village [Totteridge] where we were to wait and train for the first ten weeks of war.

Battery headquarters, stores, gun park, and parade ground were in a vacant farm. Some of the men were in private billets, some in empty houses. Feeding was a knotty problem at first, for we were not issued with Army rations and had no cooking equipment, so had to arrange for all to be fed by civilians in return for the meagre official rates of payment. In the case of most of those billeted in private houses, this was not difficult, but in the case of those living in empty houses, it called for considerable organization and cajolery. Eventually one householder undertook to provide thirty men with three meals a day; the vicarage organized the feeding of more than thirty daily in the Parish Room; here and there, with the aid of kindly civilians, we arranged the feeding of the whole battery. Fortunately, after three weeks we were able to draw rations, build stoves with bricks, make ovens out of old cisterns and biscuit tins and feed the troops in the normal Army way. Officers were also billeted out, Dennis Clarke and I at the vicarage. The vicarage folk became really attached to our men and were very good to them.

The old vicar had been a Rugger player in his day. He had a passionate hero-worship of Frank Benson, a conviction that he himself had missed his vocation by not going on the stage, a remarkable liking for sherry, a bad heart, and the habit of reciting Henry V’s speech before Agincourt on every possible, and impossible, occasion. Every night he went round the house putting up the black-out with countless drawing-pins which he kept dropping.

At every window he would solemnly pause and shout “Damn Hitler!” before doing the job. At the end of it all he would pour out a glass of sherry, raise the glass, shout a final “Damn Hitler!” and swallow it at a gulp.

We filled his little church every Sunday at a special service for the troops. Every Sunday we had the same psalm; he explained it was the shortest one in the book. There was always a prayer for soldiers, sailors and airmen, where he used to get tied up over the order of the three Services-sometimes it became ‘sailors, soldiers and airmen’ sometimes the R.A.F. got precedence. Our subalterns used to make bets, placing the Services in the correct ‘order of the day,”

He was a handsome old boy with a mop of iron-grey hair. Sad that he could not live to see the day of victory he so confidently predicted.

My fat young batman was also billeted at the vicarage. He was asked to mind the house for the family one evening while they attended some village function. Kindly Mrs. Vicar gave him a massive apple pie and a large cake and told him to help himself to anything he wanted. Three hours later they returned to find him sunken into an armchair by the fire, having eaten apple pie, cake, a loaf of bread and some dripping, four eggs (presumably raw), a tin of sardines, and the remains of a shoulder of lamb. “Don’t ‘arf tire yer out, sittin’ abaht wiv nuffin’ to do,” was his only comment.

Training was a most difficult problem. We had received a few more guns-18-pounders and 4.5-in. howitzers-and some second-hand civilian lorries; otherwise, we were still having to improvise equipment. Everyone was keen, everyone worked with zest. From the outset we tried to bring home to all the vital importance of learning to do everything in the pitch dark in silence. We began this training with a simple scheme. Sentries were posted at intervals varying from a hundred yards to half a mile across country. Each sentry was able to describe the way to the next. The men were then sent one by one to find their way silently round the course by following the directions given by each sentry in turn. The total distance was little more than two miles. It was a pitch-black night.

We started them off at nine-thirty. The first to complete the course arrived back at ten-forty-five. By midnight only thirty-six out of two hundred and fifty were home. At three o’clock in the morning patrols were still out searching for lost sheep. Four men fell into a stream. One was found miles away with a sprained ankle, another walked into a tree and cut his nose. Which all demonstrates how difficult it is for untrained men to find their way in silence across unknown country in the dark. training in those early days. Its value was soon proved in France. We did a lot of this night

Another problem was Funds. There are numerous things you must do or get for the unit’s efficiency or the men’s comfort, for which no authority to expend the necessary money exists. If you ask for authority you are told that payment must be made ‘out of unit funds’. That is all right in the Regular Army or old Territorial units, where funds have accumulated for years. But how does a new unit, receiving no initial grant to start such a fund, raise the money? At first everything came out of officers’ private pockets, but we got tired of that. Eventually we found several answers to this problem. Here is one.

Boot repairs were supposed to be carried out by civilian contract at a price not exceeding five shillings a pair. We had authority to find some local boot-repairer, pay him five bob a pair for mending the men’s boots, and everyone would be happy except the men who had to wait weeks for their boots to be returned.

We had two amateur boot-repairers in the battery. I bought tools and leather and fixed up a ‘shop’ in a shed at our farm. They worked after parade hours and were paid twopence a pair. We charged the Government, by debiting our imprest account, three shillings a pair. After paying for tools and leather and the men for their labour, we made eighteen-pence a pair for ‘unit funds’. The boot-repairers were happy, because they were making several shillings a week extra; the soldiers were happy, because they could hand in boots one evening and get them back repaired next morning; we were happy, building up unit funds; and you might have thought that, as we were saving the Government two shillings a pair, the authorities would have been happy-but they were not. However, after much palaver, this ‘unprecedented procedure’ was sanctioned.

As always, one chief anxiety was amusement of the troops. Football, boxing, dances, and concerts formed the staple diet. Our first concert earned us quite a local reputation. Our boys were greatly encouraged by generous actions of friends; John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, impressed with our amateur talent, gave seats at the Palladium to our comedian so that he could hear and imitate ‘Run, rabbit, run’; Strube [famous Daily Express Cartoonist] did cartoons on the stage; good old Stainless Stephen, always a friend to our regiment, gave one of his inimitable turns.

To give more men the chance of a game, resourceful Tony Philpotts invented a weird brand of football called ‘Allee, Allee,’ presumably because all could play. There was no limit to the number of players-sometimes sixty or seventy a side. All you needed was a large field. The object was to get the ball over the hedge at your opponent’s end. There was only one rule-no biting. You could kick, throw, carry, or fall on the ball. You could collar your opponent, charge him roll on him. There were no scrums, touchline, goal-kicks, offside rules, or penalties. The ball was thrown in the air by the referee and the battle began. Real Commando stuff. About this time Tony got his first insight into the psychology of the British Tommy regarding Food. Your soldier will fight uncomplainingly without anything to eat for days; but when not fighting he has very definite views on the subject of food and the regularity with which it should be consumed. One evening Tony stopped a young N.C.O. and detailed him for some minor task which would take barely five minutes. The man looked at Tony in consternation. “Ain’t ‘d me tea yet, sir,” he mumbled. This quickly became a cliché in the Officers’ Mess.

One thing your soldier is very definite about-nothing but a hot meal counts as food at all. In times of movement, when the men get haversack rations of sandwiches or bread and cheese during the day, being given their dinner in the evening, they invariably have had ‘nothing at all’ to eat.

I remember one man telling me quite seriously: “Ain’t nothin’ to eat all day, sir.”

“No breakfast ?” I asked.

“Oh, yessir. I ‘ad breakfast.”

“What?”

“Only bacon.”

“No bread ?”

“Oh, yes, bread.”

“And jam-and some tea?”

“Yessir.”

“Weren’t you given haversack rations to take with you?” “Well, a bit of bread and cheese.”

“And cocoa was dished out to you on the march?”

“Yessir.”

“What’s that sticking out of your pocket?” “Only chocolate, sir, and a bit of cake.”

“If you were hungry, you could have eaten that.” “I ain’t ‘ad me dinner,” he persisted sullenly.

“Your dinner will be ready in about ten minutes,” I said. Whereupon he promptly proceeded to stuff himself with the chocolate and cake from his pocket.

The real trouble is that, unless rigid control is exercised over

them, the men will eat their haversack rations (meant to last the day)

immediately they are issued after breakfast. Those were happy days in that village. I had only one sad day there. The day my little dog died, our faithful pal for fourteen years. We buried her in the vicarage garden where she had loved to chase the cats. Then orders came for the regiment to move to a small industrial town in Gloucestershire, where we were to join the Third Corps. [DURLSEY]

Teething troubles were over. Here in Gloucestershire, we could get more advanced training; equipment was beginning to arrive; impressed civilian vehicles, though of wretched quality, were handed over to us; the surrounding country was suitable for artillery manoeuvre. Expert instructors were attached to us for short periods, our own officers sent away on courses of instruction, and we were enabled to take part in large-scale exercises. Only thing lacking was opportunity of combined training with infantry, the vital importance of which did not seem to be fully appreciated in those days.

No wives were allowed within twenty miles. Knowing both sides of this vexed question, I am convinced it is a bad thing for all concerned to have womenfolk following the drum.

In wartime an officer’s job is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. He must be father, nursemaid and friend to his men, as well as teacher and guide. Their welfare must always be his first thought. To lead them in battle, his technical knowledge of his job must be faultless, and this requires continuous application. His allegiance cannot be divided. If his wife is on the doorstep, he cannot give full allegiance either to her or to his men, and everybody suffers. I have seen excellent officers transformed into just clock watchers when their wives are in the neighbourhood. Moreover, if countless wives are milling around it is indeed a miracle if something does not happen to upset the general harmony. The real answer is Leave. Don’t let the womenfolk go to the men; send the menfolk to the women. That, of course, can only be at infrequent intervals. It may seem hard, but then war is hard, and must be accepted as hard if it is to be won.

The same applies to N.C.O.s and men, but there is one way in which help should be given to enable them to keep in regular touch with their families. The cost of postage inflicts real hardship on the soldier. Twopence-halfpenny is a big slice out of what remains of his day’s pay after he has made an allotment to his wife. If abroad, he can write home post free, and how greatly he avails himself of this privilege is known by all officers who have to censor the vast correspondence. If the same privilege were extended to the soldier at home, most husbands would write to their wives much more frequently. Much heartache-even broken marriages-would be prevented by this long-overdue concession. It is doubly important now that the soldiers’ hometowns are filled with foreign troops who have much more money to spend.

In Gloucestershire the whole regiment was concentrated in an empty factory (CHAMPIONS CARPET FACTORY- now Housing). What a target for the bombers! But there was no bombing in those days. We gave the troops a grand Christmas dinner in the warehouse with gay decorations, Christmas tree, crackers, turkeys, plum puddings, mince pies, fruit, cigarettes, and plenty of beer.

At the Boxing-Day concert I was presented with a mascot for the battery. Alice the goose was a cute old bird, very talkative, and would come waddling towards you if called by name. She lived in the Sergeants’ Mess, consuming quantities of beer and whisky- if offered water, she would turn away in disgust. No other animal was tolerated in the Mess by Alice; cats and dogs were chased out of the place with a tornado of flapping wings and angry squawks. She was a terror.

Alice accompanied us overseas, hidden in a gun tractor. She slept the whole way across the Channel, probably due to excess of beer. The last time I saw her was in the little French town of Bolbec. She waddled towards me with loud squawks of recognition. Next morning, she had disappeared. Our boys were mad with rage. Not one of them would have eaten Alice if he had been starving.

After Christmas severe weather made training difficult but toughened the men perceptibly. Hilly roads were blocks of ice. Snowdrifts everywhere. Telegraph wires straddled your path; poles and trees snapped like matchwood. A rending crack would resound above as you drove along and a huge tree, overcome by weight of ice and snow, would crash across the road where you had passed. In this weather we journeyed seventy miles to spend four days shooting with our guns, which had arrived at last. At the close of this test, we proudly heard the brigadier say he would report that we were ‘fit to fight’. In late January a most curious phenomenon of this war was first brought home to me. One evening a sergeant came up in great excitement. “The King is inspecting us next Wednesday, sir,” he said.

“Where did you get that yarn?” I asked. He had been told by civilians in a pub. this was true. Surprised himself, he ‘phoned the brigadier, who was equally sceptical. Just another yarn, we thought. But sure enough, I asked the colonel if three days later, came orders for a ceremonial inspection by a ‘High Personage’ the following Wednesday. Now this is an extraordinary thing, but again and again in this war we have found that the ordinary civilian in the street gets to know about coming military movements before the military concerned, even senior officers, know themselves. You will hear of another instance almost immediately. This ‘bush telegraph’ is a phenomenon that should be investigated, the cause discovered, and drastic action taken. It still exists and is a serious matter.

The morning of the inspection was icy cold with an east wind blasting over the high ground where five artillery regiments were paraded along a wide main road. I felt jealous of my old friend George Ames, commanding the next regiment, because his men looked so smart in gaiters; ours still had puttees (rather frayed in spite of efforts to mend the offending parts). A famous Horse Artillery battery-subsequently to take part with our Woolwich battery in the scrap at Cassel- was on the right of the line. [Royal Horse Artillery famous for Hondegheim]

A policeman on a motorbike roars up. Orders echo down the line. Royal Salute from the band. The long tramp down the ranks begins.

The King still looks very young; the Queen vivacious, of course, in powder blue. She stops to ask Sergeant Johnson what the second ribbon on his breast is- the last war special medal for the Mercantile Marine. Johnson’s prestige soars high among his comrades. A shy, quiet man is Johnson. I’ll bet his wife and pretty kids read all about this in his letter home to-morrow. Last time I saw them was in the Sergeants’ Mess at the old girls’ school at Clapham.

Caps off! Three cheers! The ‘High Personages’ pass on to the next regiment. We march back-old Johnson a bit more erect than usual, I notice.

So, the civilians had been right. Were they right, we wondered eagerly, when they told the troops we were going overseas this week? That was on a Monday. Not even Corps Headquarters knew anything of this. But at two-thirty next afternoon secret orders reached us. All guns, transport and equipment were to move by road on Saturday with sufficient personnel to get them to the port and guard them on the voyage. The rest were to follow by rail a week later.

First care was to warn all ranks not to let anyone know the port from which we were sailing. [SOUTHAMPTON] Not that we officers knew which port ourselves; but we were afraid they might learn it from civilians. No telegrams, letters or telephone messages must be sent from the port when they got there. I think we made them realize how vital this was for the safety of themselves and other troops who might be sailing from that port. Pre-war selection of embarkation ports had been a jealously guarded secret at the War-house; when war broke out no more than the minimum of persons to make the necessary arrangements were let into the secret. Imagine therefore the horror when news arrived that at one port wives, mothers, and sweethearts turned up to see their menfolk sail. The men had stayed overnight at the port and had been allowed in town on pass. Telegrams and telephone messages had flown all over the land, bringing the women down for a last embrace. Fortunately, that cannot happen now.

For three days and four nights life was hectic indeed. Nearly two hundred vehicles-3-ton lorries, 30-cwt. lorries, 8-cwt. and 15-cwt. trucks, gun tractors, water-carts, and armoured carriers ammunition, machine-guns, anti-tank rifles, signalling and wireless equipment, technical instruments and equipment of all kinds, poured in from all parts of the country at all hours of the day and night. A.T.S. girls brought gun tractors scores of miles to us-grand drivers they were, too.

All these vehicles had to be camouflage-painted, painted with special signs applicable to our unit and formation, fitted with our own particular gadgets, packed and weighed. The last of the vehicles did not arrive until three o’clock on Saturday morning, yet all were painted, packed, weighed, and ready to move off at seven thirty.

We had had so few vehicles that we had been unable to train sufficient drivers. Moreover, the training vehicles had been civilian vehicles, and did not include anything comparable to gun tractors or armoured carriers. The result was that when we moved off that morning, quite seventy-five per cent were driving vehicles of a type they had never driven before, and we actually had men driving who had never driven before in their lives-we just picked intelligent chaps, gave half-an-hour’s instruction, put them in the driver’s seat, and off they went. Incredible, but true.

Amazing indeed, but the whole lot accomplished the long trip to the port without mishap and in France completed four hundred miles to the Belgian frontier without accident or loss. By the end of that journey, I’ll say those boys could drive.

My wife led the column past the starting point in my private car. Then we sped ahead and halted to watch the column go by an inspiring sight, six miles long. The boys were all elated. A week later the rest followed by train morning our womenfolk waved us off at the station. We felt proud in the misty grey of the smiling, cheery show they put up. Some may have had the foreboding they would not see their men again, as, alas, it proved.

At the port Frank Bower, our quartermaster, smuggled his huge Newfoundland dog on board while others diverted the embarkation officer’s attention. Poor Nan, like Alice, did not live long. She caught pneumonia just before the blitz, and Frank buried her with tears streaming down his cheeks.

We were the first second-line Territorial regiment to join the B.E.F. Before we left, the colonel addressed all ranks. Weeks afterwards I was censoring letters in our little French Mess. “Before we left England,” wrote one correspondent, “our colonel said this was going to be a Great Adventure. I call it a Bloody Nuisance!”

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VI

BRASS-HAT PARTY

I MUST hark back to the last war. There is a reason for it. In those days it was fashionable to sneer at Brass Hats. They joined mothers-in-law, Wigan, and false teeth as the stock jokes of the music-halls. Not without justification.

Kissing went almost entirely by favour, except in the Dominion forces. If old Tom had been at Eton or Sandhurst with the People Who Matter, it was the very best reason for them to appoint old Tom’s son to a command. There seemed to be an idea that a man who could bring down grouse on the moors or outbid his opponents at Bridge had the obvious qualifications for driving the Boches out of France or outplaying Falkenhayn and Rupprecht at strategy. The Men Who Really Count actually believed that Waterloo had been won on the playing-fields of Eton. How nations without an Eton ever won battles was presumably a mystery.

In the pre-1914 Army it had been generally regarded as ‘bad form’ to treat the profession of arms as a serious career demanding concentrated study and continuous application. Happily, there were a few exceptions; not popular, prior to that war.

Good strategists were so rare that if a commander showed genius in one war, he was inevitably given command in the next war, no matter how infirm in mind or body he had meanwhile become. There used to be much sneering at Dug-outs; but the Dug-ins were far more dangerous. The Brass Hat Brigade consisted mainly of tired old war-horses whose star had set, and the Coming Young Men (in late middle age) who had never had opportunity of handling large formations. It is difficult to realize now that prior to 1914 Britain had not fought a first-class war for a hundred years. Zululand, Matabele land, Sudan, South Africa never reached the status of major operations; even the Crimea was a puny expedition. Formations higher than a division were unknown here. How could even the keen and able few master the complicated art of handling and administering large armies in the field?

When things eventually went awry, politicians blamed the generals, generals blamed the politicians. The man to blame was the taxpayer who would have thrown out any government which sought to make him pay for the defence of his country on the same scale as he demanded protection for private property or vested interests. There was, too, a mad idea that a small army sufficed because one English man was a match for at least ten Germans or twelve Frenchmen which was all very comforting, except for the wretched British soldier who had to take on the said Germans or Frenchmen. In the first months of war, it worked out at about one hundred and thirty Germans to Thomas Atkins!

The inevitable result was that we got the Brass Hat we deserved. Greatest of the failings of this Old Gang was their determination to keep each other in good jobs. “You can’t keep a bad man down!” was the slogan. There was the case of the General who went out with the B.E.F. as Brigade Commander. Something went wrong, and he was sent home, where he was promptly promoted to com mand one of Kitchener’s newly formed divisions. Nothing intrinsically wrong in that, perhaps, for a man who has become too old or weak to command a brigade in battle may yet be fit to train a division away from the scene of active operations-though it is doubtful whether he can appraise, apply, and inspire into that training lessons learned as latest battles evolve. It did come as a shock, however, when he was allowed to take the division to France the man who had been sacked thus returning with greater responsibilities. Before long, he was again sent home-but reappeared later at the front in the still higher role of Corps Commander.

These old warriors were terribly proud of their ribbons. Whilst on sick leave I was sitting in a seaside hotel chatting to one of them. He had two rows of ribbons, headed by the D.S.O. and tailing off with a brace of Piccadilly medals. He would puff out his chest like a pigeon to display them to the best advantage. Across the lounge a dear old dame sat knitting. She kept staring admiringly at the Brass Hat’s breast. After a while she finished her knitting and rose to go. As she passed our chairs, she asked the old boy sweetly: “Excuse me, General. How did you get all those wonderful medals?” I thought the old boy would burst. “Good God, ma’am!” he you think? Won ’em in a raffle” he spluttered. “How do bloody Another old chap I knew, whenever he took over a new com mand, would send for all officers on his staff. They would stand to attention while he glared at them through his monocle. Then he would announce in icy tones: “Now, gentlemen, my name’s Blimp.” (That was not his real name.) “There are two Blimps. One’s a nice kind-hearted feller. The other’s a swine. You can have which you like. Gentlemen, you may go.” They would march solemnly out of the room, older ones apprehensive, younger ones chuckling audibly.

The young officer’s contact with Brass Hats was mainly at inspections. Inspections meant Spit and Polish, Eyewash, and Answering Questions-unless you were ‘up the line’, when it meant just Answering Questions.

On one occasion, as a battery commander on the Somme, I received the general of a famous division who had come to inspect us. The men were all paraded, officers lined up in front. The general arrived, shook hands, then told me to introduce my officers. On my introducing a lad who had only joined from England the day before, the general asked some stupid question about how many bones there were for the men’s soup (we were living on bully beef), which the youngster was too nervous to answer promptly. Where upon the general fixed the rest of us with his eye and, in a loud voice which the assembled troops could hear, cried: “Gentlemen, repeat after me… . Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.”

He beat time with his cane and, like kindergarten kids, before our grinning men, we had to chant in unison: “Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.” After the war that Brass Hat became an M.P. I often wonder if he conducted similar demonstrations from his political platform.

On another occasion on the Somme we were inspected by a Really Big Brass Hat. He examined guns, ammunition, dug-outs, gas precautions, system of communications; made most minute inspection of cooking, feeding, and sleeping arrangements, smelling the meat, poking the bread, making sure we had rum in store; all without uttering a word. After two hours of this silent ordeal, he strode back to his car. Holding out his hand, he said: “Well, Tomkins, I hope you like this better than Gallipoli.” I pointed out respectfully that my name was not Tomkins and I had never been nearer Gallipoli than Vienna. Whereat he mumbled: “I must be thinking of someone else,” and drove away. Nobody ever heard what he thought of everything he had so minutely inspected. Then there is the classic tale of the Brass Hat who toured the Anzac trenches. One tough old Aussie, who had been out raiding the night before and had been rewarded too generously with rum, had just collapsed at the bottom of a communication trench when word flew down that the inspecting general was approaching. Comrades bundled him on to a stretcher and covered him with a groundsheet.

The Brass Hat arrived. Seeing the motionless form under the sheet, he drew himself stiffly to attention. His hand rose solemnly to the gold peak of his cap. “Men!” he boomed. “Your general salutes the glorious dead!” Whereat the covering was thrown aside, and a throaty voice croaked: “Who’s the old bastard calling dead?”

Which reminds me of the Very Important Brass Hat, walking up a sunken road in the reserve battalion area, who spotted a subaltern emerging from a dug-out without equipment. “Where, sir, is your gas-mask?” bellowed the general. “In the dug-out, sir,” faltered the sub.

“In the dug-out!” snorted the Brass Hat. “Don’t you know you must have it with you. Orders seem to mean nothing to you modern subalterns. I don’t suppose you even know how to put the thing on.”

“Yes, I do, sir.”

“Then show me,” retorted the General. “Take my gas-mask, as you haven’t got your own.” Suddenly realizing he had left his own gasmask in the car, he grabbed his A.D.C.’s respirator and thrust it at the subaltern.

The sub. promptly slung it round his neck, undid the fastener, put his hand inside to withdraw the face-piece. Out tumbled a dirty pair of socks and a pipe-and that was all.

Those were the Brass Hats of the old war. A few were good. Most of them definitely were not. Hardly any were really virile. Now why I have delved into all this past history is to emphasize how different is the Brass Hat of to-day.

Much wild criticism by uninformed persons has recently been directed against Army leadership. There is indeed much to condemn in Army administration; there is certainly something amiss with the mental outlook of the average Regular Army officer; and these aspects of the Army will be dealt with in the concluding pages of this book. But the standard of leadership is high. The great majority of those who have attained Brass Hat rank to-day are younger, more determined, far more virile, and infinitely more elastic and intelligent than their 1914-1918 counterparts and have studied their profession seriously. Despite partisan allegations to the contrary, the generals of this war are alert to sense the lessons of each new battle and to apply them without delay-and if those lessons have apparently not brought forth results, it is not the generals who are to blame, but Whitehall As you would expect, those with the personality to be unorthodox are the best; men such as Alexander, Montgomery, K. A. N. Anderson, and Beak (the V.C. now commanding in Malta).* We have recounted anecdotes of the old Brass Hats. Here are two of the new Brass Hat. They may illustrate the difference.

About this particular general there are many stories. first-class soldier, a whale for work, wiry, ruthless, unswerving in grim determination to annihilate the Boches, unstinting in his efforts to achieve that end. He is in one word-TOUGH Above all, he is a fanatic about physical fitness. Every officer and man in his corp had to run six miles, every week, winter, summa, rain or shine-and the general ran his six miles, too.

The story goes that he was taken to see a cabinet minister one day. “General,” said the Minister, proffering a cigar. “Have a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” replied the general.

The cabinet minister poured out a glass of champagne and handed it to his visitor. “Thanks, I don’t drink,” said the general. “Ever since war broke out I have neither drunk nor smoked, and I am one hundred per cent. physically fit.”

“Dear me!” smiled the Minister. “Why, ever since war broke out I’ve smoked twice as much as I did before, and drunk twice as much-and I’m two hundred per cent. physically fit.”

It was this man who first among British generals appreciated the value of parachute troops. It is said that when in the early days following Dunkirk he asked for parachutists to train with his troops, he received a diplomatic reply suggesting that in existing circumstances with fear of invasion in the area of his command there would be grave risk of some of these parachutists being shot down by

the Home Guard. “Of course,” retorted the general. “But you can’t let little things like that interfere with training.”

* This was written before the Battle of Egypt and the Allied landings in North Africa. Events have since proved the justice of the selection of these names.

He certainly is tough. Now let me introduce two of the best Brass Hats, finest soldiers and grandest men you could find in any army. It is the first week in March 1940. The scene is Ervillers, near Bapaume, in Picardy. Two alert and smiling soldiers have driven many miles to greet our regiment on joining the First Corps of the B.E.F. They are Brigadier Davidson, then commanding the artillery of the corps, now Major-General and Director of Military Intelligence; and Brigadier Pratt, commanding the Corps medium artillery; known affectionately as David and Ambrose.

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VII

GROWN-UP PARTY

THE Brigadiers appeared as we were hiding guns and vehicles away in the farmyards and orchards of Ervillers, brisk, business-like, and smiling. Obviously, they had come to welcome and help, not to nark and nag, but those keen eyes were roving appraisingly; you felt you could not bluff these men-nor did you want to. They soon extracted details of our history-second-line Territorial regiment, only received equipment just before embarking, reached Ervillers with some drivers who had never driven before the start of that journey. I don’t think they believed these tales at first; when belief did dawn it was accompanied, I suspect, by trepidation at the in experienced material they were getting. Telling us that before going up to the so-called Front we should do some shooting “to see what we could do,” the Brigadiers left us to settle down.

It had not taken long to reach Ervillers. Staff organization of the journey from Gloucestershire had been excellent; no waiting anywhere. On landing at Le Havre we had entrained for Bolbec, twenty miles away, where we found guns, transport, and those who had gone ahead. I was billeted on a Lancashire man who had lived in France for forty years. We fed in a café where officers had their first taste of Pernod, insidious absinthe drink so treacherous to the novice.

Here we had our first experience of a French air-raid warning. In those days there was no black-out in French towns until the Alerte was sounded; there were lights in café windows, lights in the street,

the normal cheerful atmosphere of peace. Then the Alerte! Pandemonium breaks out everywhere, everyone pulling down blinds, sticking up shutters, banging doors, putting out lights, shouting, swearing; no one is allowed to leave or open a door until the Alerte is over; traffic must remain stationary without lights until the raid is over; terrific, terribly Latin excitement. However, as raids were then infrequent and of short duration, it was quite sensible.

Coming from England, whereas yet there were few restrictions and absence of men was not noticeable, we were struck with the more warlike atmosphere of France. There were spiritless days and beer less days. No whisky on Tuesdays and Thursdays, no beer on Mondays or Wednesdays. Basil Strachan and I went into Rouen to the Field Cashier; having done our business, we went into a tea shop. We were allowed tea and rusks, but were told that no bread, butter, cakes or biscuits could be sold on Tuesdays. Later we went to a café overlooking the Seine; the orchestra was composed of women, waitresses had supplanted waiters, there was not a man in the place out of uniform. Trams were driven by women. I went into a man’s outfitters and was served by a girl.

Mourning the loss of Alice the goose, we left Bolbec three days later without regret, particularly as meningitis had broken out among other troops there. We left Boots Crichton-Brown behind to pay for billets and settle claims. On re-joining us next day, he told us that the filthy old château which had been our headquarters was burned to the ground. As in civilian life Boots is at Lloyd’s, he came in for a good deal of leg-pulling over that.

Next night we stopped at Allery, a hundred miles further on, notable only for the facts that we parked our guns in the village churchyard with the approval of the curé, that one young subaltern fell head over ears in love with a voluptuous blonde, that we had delicious omelettes aux champignons and Volnay at an estaminet, and that the inhabitants seemed anxious to get rid of British troops.

For me the next day passed like a dream. A long trek through country so familiar twenty-five years before, yet now so strange. A haunted land. All through Amiens the gamins ran screaming out at us, thumbs in air. Past Querrieux, where Allenby once had his headquarters; Corbie, the railhead from which one went on leave. Kilometre after kilometre of the long straight road to Albert; one used to see the Verey lights and gun flashes at the front from fifteen miles away along that road, coming back from those rare trips into Amiens for dinner at the Godbert.

So, the old cathedral at Albert has been rebuilt. No Hanging Virgin now. Just through the town, along the Bapaume Road, we came to a halt. Dismounting, I point out to Pluto where our guns were in action early in the Somme battle and the spot where I spent months at an observation post in the bank of a sunken road. It’s a queer feeling looking down on the past with all the old faces missing.

We move on again. There, on the right, is rebuilt La Boisselle; the great mine-crater which engulfed the Boche front line on 1 July 1916 is still there. Ovillers, on our left; there were several thousand dead stinking in the pitiless sun across No Man’s Land here in those July days-the stench made one retch until one got used to it. saw a Tommy squatting among these corpses to eat his bully and biscuits after the Boches had been driven from Poziéres ridge; his callousness revolted me-yet next day I was doing the same myself quite naturally.

We pass through Poziéres with its vast cemeteries of Allied dead. Beyond, I point out to Hearn the site of the old Mill, now railed off; it had been in No Man’s Land when we crawled out to it on our bellies in front of the Anzac lines to find a forward observation post. Away to the left in the sunshine, towers the imposing monument at Thiepval. High Wood and Delville Wood are just distinguishable on our right. So, past the Butte de Warlencourt, we enter Bapaume and swing left along the Arras Road to Ervillers. Last time I had seen Ervillers was on 26 March 1918. Not much of it was left then. We had been ordered up to Mory to rein force the quivering line, but found the Boches had beaten us to it, so got our guns into action around the brick dust which had been Ervillers church. It was an eerie night. Chaos reigned everywhere. No one knew what the situation was. It was pitch dark and on our immediate front was mainly silence, with bursts of machine-gun at intervals. Our own guns boomed fitfully. Every now and then a party of infantry would retreat past us. Suddenly machine-gun fire spattered round us from a nest of stables three hundred yards ahead. We must save the guns. One we could not get away, so stripped it of breechblock and sights. It was getting grey along the road to Courcelles and one could just make out the road ahead; those Boches-a small patrol, I imagine-must have been even more surprised than we were, for they let us drive past without a shot. Next day, a counter-attack temporarily regaining Ervillers, we got our other gun away. We found one of our bombardiers asleep in a trench beside it, totally oblivious of the fact that the Boches had held the village round him for some hours. To this place of memories, I now returned twenty-two years later. Our chaps rather liked the place. We had trouble over drink the second night. There was a fight in an estaminet, and our police picket had difficulty in turning fellows out of the cafés. The miscreants were suitably dealt with, and my surprise at this incident vanished next evening when censoring letters in which some of the men described the drinks they had sampled. One man wrote that he had had Dubonnet, beer, cherry brandy, cognac, vin blanc, vin rouge and vermouth. It was the novelty of the drinks and their cheapness that caused the trouble. Selling of spirits to the troops was forbidden. Like all forbidden fruit

The promised day’s shooting took place at Monchy-le-Preux, of battle fame, off the Arras-Cambrai Road. Ambrose showed sadistic glee in bursting shrapnel close to the subalterns so they could get a real view of its effect. They came back with the case of a shell which had dropped not many yards from them, and vast respect for Am brose. Having seen what we could do, the Brigadier said he would ask for our Regiment to be allotted permanently to the Corps.

I was glad to leave Ervillers. It had an eerie atmosphere, like all these old villages resurrected over the rubble and bones of the Somme slaughter-yard, where you still find battered steel helmets and bits of the old barbed wire. Every night as I turned from the Mess into the straight leading to my billet, there was a bent old hag with a black cloak over her head tapping her way up the street with a stout oak stick. She would cross first to one side, then to the other just the tapping of her stick and the clap-clap of her clogs to break the silence in the dark. The first night I said ‘Bonsoir,” but the head remained motionless beneath the cloak. Tap-tap-tap went her stick on the cobbles. Each night after that I hurried past as fast as dignity would permit.

It was a cold bright morning as the long snake of our column wound its way through Arras and out along the Douai Road. Passing through Gavrelle we could see the slagheaps of Lens and the battlefield of Loos away on the left. All along these roads one passed cemeteries and memorials to the legions who had fallen on sur rounding soil.

Douai seemed a cheerful spot, good shops, broad boulevards, odd historic corners. Out along the Tournai Road, an interminable tree-lined stretch, we drove at the normal fifteen miles an hour towards the point where guides were to meet us-the water-tower at Orchies, six miles from the Belgian frontier.

Regimental Headquarters and Milton’s battery were to go to Auchy, close by; my battery was led past them to tiny Visterie, a mile nearer the frontier. We were relieving a Home Counties Yeomany Regiment who were sending a battery down to the Star.

Visterie was like a desert island. No café, no estaminet, no church. Just four small farms and about five little houses. sign of interest was when the old garde champetre cycled through the hamlet blowing his tin trumpet. Nearest place where the men could get anything was an estaminet at the railway crossing a mile and a half away. To provide some sort of amusement at once, we decided to have a concert.

We rigged up a stage with planks laid over trusses of straw in a barn. For lighting, headlamps of lorries were turned on the stage. The boys borrowed old hats and dresses from folk in the farms. We had the Palladium Drums’, a piano-accordion borrowed from a Guards battalion nearby, a piano scrounged from Auchy. concert was a success, particularly with the village gamins.

One of the farmers asked if he might come and we welcomed him gladly, wondering why he was so keen. It transpired that as a boy in the last war he had lived under the heel of the Hun in this same vil lage for over four years. Then, in November 1918, came the British advance. The first night the British occupied the village, they had a singsong in that very barn. The young French boy went to that concert. Twenty-odd years later, he came to ours. I would like to be at the next British concert he attends in that barn.

****

 

VIII

DIGGING PARTY

THREE memories of Visterie stand out in strong relief: Digging. Censoring letters. ‘Flaps.’ However, none of those was foremost in our minds in the first days there. Most urgent was the problem of getting the men comfortable. Each Troop was in a separate farm, with guns and transport hidden away in barns, yards and orchards, its stores, cook houses and office in sheds, with men sleeping in long low lofts over the barns.

Sixty men in a loft sounds uncomfortable. Actually, it can be made into quite a snug home. Electric light was laid on, our chaps connecting up with the farmhouse supply, the only trouble being that the resultant load was so great that fuses kept blowing. We got straw from the farms to stuff palliasses made from cement sacks, but many men would not have these, as it meant they could not smoke with straw about; most of them made bunks with wire netting or sandbags. Stoves, made from oil-drums or borrowed from civilians, were installed. Each Troop bought a wireless set, and we cadged supplies of books. The billet after dark, with stove burning, electric light on, wireless going, and a home-made table down the centre at which the chaps could write or play cards, was not so bad after all, even though you might crack your head against the loft rafters or someone might tread on you whilst picking his way to his blankets. Then came the question of baths. Once a week the men could visit the mobile bath, one of which is attached to each division, but that was not enough. There was competition between the Troops to improvise a shower-bath. C Troop’s was the best, made from four-gallon petrol tins. I have made a sketch of it. If you pulled the string slowly, you got a decent warm bath.

Which brings me to the subject of Eyewash. Eyewash, of course, covers all those extra bits of individualism or spit and polish which we imagine impress our superiors. Some think of it as bluff. Actually, this not so, for unless eyewash serves some definite purpose, either of promoting efficiency or of furthering the comfort or personal pride of the men, it does not impress any intelligent person at all, except unfavourably.

We had lots of eyewash at Visterie. Sentry-boxes of corrugated iron with thatched straw roofs and miniature Union Jacks and Tricolours sticking out of the straw; the box kept the sentry warm, the thatched roof kept the rain out, the flags pleased the French peasants and improved the local entente. Rope fire-escapes from the lofts and home-made fire-buckets filled with water and sand, all painted in the artillery colours. Painted signs all over the place, stating what each billet was and pointing the way to this and that. A home-made plant for distilling water for the batteries of our vehicles. This eyewash impressed the civilians who turned out daily to watch guard-mounting.

At night the village looked like a miniature Piccadilly Circus with illuminated signs, made from perforated petrol cans, outside Battery Headquarters, the Officers’ Mess, and each Troop billet. I was puzzled one night, on passing C Troop’s billet, to see the words CHOPPER’S CHEERFUL CHERUBS’ blazing at me in mid-air through the blackness. I guessed the cherubs were aloft but could not think who ‘Chopper’ might be. I remembered having seen Sergeant ‘Blackie’ Hyatt painting that name on his gun. It was some time before I discovered that ‘Chopper’ was the men’s nickname for Cliff Hackett, their Troop Commander.

So now I have got on to the subject of painting names on things. In the old days the artillery driver loved his horse. The problem in a mechanized unit is to get your modern driver to care for his mechanical charge. You might think it impossible that a human being could become fond of an unromantic, inanimate mass like a Fordson 3-ton lorry, a 15-cwt. Bedford truck, or a Guy Quad gun tractor. Yet these drivers do; and they seem to get into that state quicker if you let them give the vehicle a name and paint it on her for all to see. Usually, the vehicle gets christened after the driver’s girl. The number of Roses, Lilies, Joans and Marys jolting over the cobbles of France was startling. When you noticed Driver Snooks busily painting out ‘Agnes‘ and substituting ‘Yvonne‘, you knew what had happened. Probably ‘Agnes‘ would reappear some weeks later. The guns were given names, too. These were painted on the shield and were usually of the aggressive type like ‘Hun Hunter‘ or ‘Boche Buster’ or ‘Avenger’. You could rely on the chap who gave his gun a name to keep that gun clean.

The peasant farmers, with one exception, were decent fellows and kind to the troops. The only real difficulty with them was over the question of cleanliness. You know what the courtyard of a farm in North-Eastern France is like, with its piles of straw manure right under the bedroom windows, cows wandering in and out; dogs, cats, pigs, horses, and the farmer’s fat old wife all treating the yard as the natural and most convenient toilet, everything being capped by complete absence of drainage and a hot morning sun. Heaven knows why these people don’t die off like flies.

Naturally, we set about cleaning out the farmyards and organizing drainage. You’ve never heard such a hullabaloo. You would have thought we were stealing their most precious possessions. They really liked that filthy mess-I suppose home was not home without it.

To keep the men fit and cheerful during this waiting period we challenged neighbouring units at football, had P.T. daily, organized sports meetings, and took the battery out for long paper chases though well over forty, I managed the ten miles in breeches and field boots without finishing last.

The hours of darkness were the real difficulty. We did a lot of night training, but the men must have amusement. Except when there was a ‘flap’ on, a limited number were allowed into Lille on two days a week, but the train service was such that it only gave them three hours there. The cinema in Orchies was nothing like big enough to cater for the thousands of troops in the neighbourhood. occasions we were allotted seats for ENSA shows miles away, but on rare the men began to fight shy of these entertainments because more than once, after being told it was a show with some big star, they found no star but a really poor programme. Our French liaison officer, [Georges Kemir] a big smiling fellow with a keen sense of humour, gave French lessons to those who were interested.

Our canteen was in a barn, the walls of which were still covered with inscriptions and notices in German, painted during the last war occupation. It was not a cheerful spot, try as we did to brighten it with radio, dartboards, etc.; it was well-stocked, but the men would just rush in for a glass of beer or some chocolates or cigarettes and go back to their loft where they could get up a good fug and a sing-song and write their letters. This was a great disappointment to us, for we have always made a great point of canteens and they have been successful wherever else we have been. I have always successfully fought for permission to run our own canteens instead of having one of those abominable NAAFIS; the men have far more interest in a show of their own, and we could sell cheaper and still make more money for the men’s funds.

Cigarettes were plentiful; in addition to the free ration issue, they were obtainable in quantities at one and sevenpence for fifty. French beer was a penny a pint, but most men thought it undrink able, so, as the price of English bottled beer was prohibitive, your froth-blower began to cultivate a taste for cheap French wines. The parcel post was always heavy, and with luxuries from home added to the good quality rations, the men fed well; the only short age was in vegetables-for some mysterious reason there was a dearth of potatoes, and for weeks we had onions and leeks alternately until everyone was sick of them.

Our Officers’ Mess was in a small empty house we had snaffled for Battery Headquarters. The headquarter staff were billeted overhead and a boisterous singsong would bring the ceiling plaster down into our soup.

Every night, almost without exception, our dinner menu was:

Marmite Soup

Fish Cakes (Made from tinned salmon)

Bully Beef (Stewed, fried, or neat, with onions)

Tinned Apricots

Sardine (one) on Toast or leeks

On Thursday nights when we had guests and drank “The King’, Mess-Secretary Boots would make a valiant effort to change the menu-usually by ordering some of the tasty mushroom patties which little Marie Louise in Orchies would make for you at short notice, crooning ‘Parles-moi d’amour the while. Drink was plentiful and cheap. Whisky five-and-six a bottle, gin the same. (Which reminds me that at the beginning of the last war we used to get pre-1914 whisky at the front for a pound a case one-and-eightpence a bottle!) Through Georges Kemir, our French liaison officer, we got Moët-Chandon 1929 for the equivalent of two-and-fivepence a bottle. Good vin ordinaire could be obtained for eight francs (a shilling) a bottle, and for four-francs-fifty you could buy a litre of some vile Algerian wine called Imperial Kaspar we had another name for it.

Occasionally our officers went into Lille, the Three Musketeers most frequently. The Strasbourg, Miami and Metropole were the main attractions, and for food the Café André was certainly the place. The arrogant behaviour of some British officers-not Gunners, I am glad to say, was fast becoming a scandal, but this was taken firmly in hand by the authorities before real harm was done.

The Mess consisted of a tiny dining-room in which we could just cram ourselves round the table, and an even smaller room we called the Censor’s Department. Into this room all day poured hundreds of letters, all of which (except the few in green envelopes) must be censored. Those who have not had this drudgery to endure cannot imagine the incredible amount of officers’ time it takes up. On active service abroad all letters are rightly post-free. There is no limit to the number each man may write. Add to this the fact that in these parts there was little evening amusement and the fact that the more people a man wrote to, the more parcels he got and you can imagine the mass of correspondence. It was nothing unusual for one man to write a dozen letters in one day.

At Visterie one man wrote to three women every day. To two. he signed himself ‘Your loving husband’, to the third, ‘Your loving husband-to-be’. When, months after our return to England, he confessed he had committed bigamy, I naturally assumed it must have been with one of these ladies. But no. This Gay Lothario had ‘married’ some poor little thing he had only recently met. Yet he was a docile, simple, harmless creature, and a grand worker.

I have always felt how galling it must be for the men to know their letters will be read by their officers and the contents possibly bandied about in the Mess. If the men could but know how officers feel about this duty, they would be reassured. It is far from being welcomed as a means of satisfying curiosity, spying on the men, or broad casting confidential matters read in the letters. Actually, all letters have to be censored in the officers’ spare time, preventing them from writing their own letters or doing other private tasks, often long into the night; the result being that censorship becomes so mechanical that the reader seldom even notices whose letter he is censoring. The idea that there is any moral or political censorship is quite false; the sole test being whether the writer has said anything likely to help the enemy in one way or another.

Officers are invariably conscientious about personal matters disclosed in correspondence. Advantage adverse to the man is not taken over such things. It is true that these disclosures sometimes help officers to fathom what is going on in the minds of their men, but they only use this knowledge for the purpose of help. On reading a disgruntled letter, an officer may send for the man to talk about the grievances he was airing; not by way of reprimand, but to try and put things right, often with the result that the man changes

his attitude towards life to his own happiness and advantage. There was the instance of the chap who wrote to his girl com plaining bitterly that he was not allowed to name his lorry ‘Mabel‘ after her and paint it on the vehicle. Why this had been forbidden, I don’t know, but he was very upset about it. So the ugly old lorry became ‘Mabel’ next day.

There is a great difference in the attitude of the soldier in his letters as compared with the last war. In those days, one read cunning eulogies about oneself-then one knew one would be asked some favour next day; one would also read sly digs against oneself. That technique does not seem to be the vogue this war.

Occasionally one reads some funny letters. I remember in 1915 censoring a terrible tirade by a man to his wife. Apparently, she was supposed to send cigarettes at regular intervals, and the appropriate period had elapsed without the expected supply. After six pages of supremely foul abuse and threats, he concluded:

“P.S. Since Writing the Above them cigerets as Arrived but i send you these Few Words just the Same so as You can see wot You would av Coming to You if you doant send them cigerets in Future oping this Finds You in the Pink has it leaves Me at Present from yore loving Husband Bill XXXXXXXXXXX don’t forget them bloody cigerets or You git wot i wrote Above XXXXXXXXX.”

The kisses seemed a trifle superfluous. The code words ‘ITALY’ and ‘SWALK’ inscribed on the backs of envelope flaps puzzled young officers at first. They imagined it was some illicit means of getting forbidden information through, l was informed that these stood for ‘I Truly Always Love You,’ and ‘Sealed With A Loving Kiss’. With hundreds of letters to be got through, the censoring officer who actually did the sealing seldom felt like doing it with a loving kiss.

The other bugbear of officers was the question of baths. One had to go into Lille or Douai, long journeys which a busy officer could not manage as often as he wanted a bath. We heard of an enterprising civilian in nearby Orchies who had started a bath business, so Stephen Muir and I thought we would try it. Arriving at 5 p.m., we were ushered into the kitchen where four other officers were seated round the walls, waiting their turn. In the centre was a stove on which kettles, pails and jugs were steaming. Against one wall was a gas stove, also crowned with boiling kettles. Between these stoves sat a middle-aged female, rather like a Walt Disney elephant, with a baby on her lap. There was a stench of garlic, and every now and then the woman would let forth a violent belch. Every time the woman belched, the baby screamed.

A few minutes later an officer emerged from the next room. The woman belched loudly, dumped the screeching baby on the floor, waddled to the door, and yelled: “Henri!”

Immediately Bedlam broke out. A fierce-moustached man with a squint hurtled down the stairs into the kitchen and through the door from which the last bather had emerged. The woman waddled to the stove and lifted kettles, pails and jugs on to the floor. Meanwhile, puffing and panting, the man kept dashing out of the bathroom with pails of dirty water which he hurled through the window into the yard. After several journeys he staggered out with the grey metal bath itself. Shoving one end through the window, he wrenched a bung out of the hole to which normally a waste-pipe would be fitted, and drained the last drops of dirty water into the yard. Back went the bung into the hole. Back went the bath into the next room. Amid clattering, belching, and shouting, the man and woman carried kettles, pails and jugs after it. Clouds of steam poured through the doorway as their contents plunged into the bath.

“Voilà!” bellowed the man, beaming at the officer at the head of the queue. “Maintenant, c’est vous, monsieur le capitaine.” After watching this performance repeated four times, I got my bath about seven o’clock.

So, Dennis and I bought a bath for two hundred and seventy francs. We then found that we could hardly ever get the use of our own bath, because others were always borrowing it. So, after some bickering, it was agreed that the bath should become Mess property, everyone would pay their share, and a proper bath rota would be drawn up. Unfortunately, the blitz broke out and the bath got left behind. From the above you might think we did no work at Visterie.

Actually, we worked and trained extremely hard. Training consisted of large-scale Corps and Divisional exercises, of individual and technical training, and of rehearsing the action we were to take in the event of invasion of Belgium. Even though the B.E.F. had spent months constructing defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier and getting to know the country, we were to leave these and take up unprepared, unreconnoitred positions eighty miles away in Belgium on the River Dyle-the French General Staff’s Plan D. We were told exactly what part of that front was to be held by the First Division with whom we were to operate; we knew the route on the map to the area allotted to our regiment; we knew the spot where we were to cross the frontier in accordance with carefully worked-out timetables.

We were not allowed into Belgium to reconnoitre but did what we could to prepare ourselves; from the map we made a relief model of the area to which we were to go and of the proposed B.E.F. front; we practised again and again in the dark the journey along the route to the frontier crossing, keeping a careful check of times to ensure that we conformed to the timetable exactly. Frank Bower missed a turning one pitch-black night and drove right into neutral Belgium-but, of course, was allowed to return. The amazing feature of these night marches was the readiness of railway-crossing officials to hold up trains indefinitely to let a column go through. To my horror I discovered that on one occasion we had held up the Paris-Lille express for three-quarters of an hour-nobody had asked for this to be done.

The main part of our time was spent in digging. First of all, we dug drains, inspection-pits for vehicles, pits for A.A. machine-guns, air-raid trenches, command posts, and gun-pits. Next piece of digging was tragic-the grave for the first casualty, our boot-repairer. Then real digging started when we were ordered to construct gun pits at La Commune in front of Nomain.

These were to be our battle-positions for defence of the frontier presumably in case Plan D was abandoned. So, concealment was of vital importance. One gun-pit was realistically camouflaged as a haystack; another concealed by extending the tiled veranda of a house; a third built on the site of an existing rubbish-heap, the old scrap, tins, and rubbish of all kinds being tied on to wire-netting raised over the pit. We had other novel ideas. 

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps, we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

*************

IX

BOTTLE PARTY

WE were crawling through the night along the cobbled Route Nationale between Douai and Arras. Standing up on the seat beside Hearn, head and shoulders through the canvas roof, I could make out the dimmed sidelights of the next vehicle through the mist; behind for miles crept the long column guided by motor cyclists who roared up and down to ensure that no gun or lorry lost its way. It is a severe strain driving at the wearisome pace of ten miles an hour through the dark along an unfamiliar road, and I must soon relieve Hearn at the wheel.

It was then I heard the nightingales through the mist in the woods on our right. My thoughts flew back from France to Penshurst Place, the Derbyshire Dales, moonlight on the rippling Norfolk Broads, the wooded road that skirts Loch Lomond, the winding lanes that lead to Ross and the lovely valley of the Wye. Then Hearn nodded, and the truck lurched before he was master of himself again. Knowing Jack Leaman to be a romantic youngster, I sent back wireless instructions to listen for the nightingales as he approached those woods.

It was a drizzling grey morning as the muddy guns and trucks slid into Herissart. We had had two nasty motor-cycle accidents on the way.

Our Mess was established in the little farm of the maire, the best type of thrifty, hard-working, public-spirited peasant farmer. He and his wife, both nearly seventy, soon showed they would welcome British troops. The old couple, despite our protests, insisted on clearing out of their bedroom and parlour to make room for us, taking their own bed into the kitchen. He was a burly, grisly moustached veteran who had fought at Verdun; she, a kindly soul who looked on our men as comrades of her absent soldier-son and lavished coffee, fruit and vegetables upon them. Every evening after our meal they would bring us coffee and cognac for which they would accept no payment and would sit singing us French songs to which we retaliated with some of ours. Though she never said so, I am afraid Madame Maire did not approve the pictures from Lilliput and La Vie Parisienne which adorned the Mess walls. She was, however, intrigued with the huge cartoon of Hitler (with swastika pupils to his eyes) which Strube had drawn for us with a caption alluding to Adolf’s lost patience with our battery. We brought this souvenir safely as far as Dunkirk beach, but nobody has traced its ultimate fate.

Situated as we were within easy reach of all the famous battle grounds of the Somme, we could now make training more realistic, instructive, and interesting. Each day I would think out a scheme based on memories of the old battles. We would take, say 25 September 1916, the day we captured Thiepval. Before starting out, we provided each vehicle with a descriptive guide which explained the route through which we were to pass, naming the villages and their significance, telling anecdotes about the places, picturing the old gun positions, captive balloon sites, headquarters, trenches, shell-holes and ruins which used to be there on that date. By the time the column had rumbled through Acheux, Hedauville, Engelbelmer, Martinsart to Mesnil, the chaps had got a fair picture of the old scene in their heads.

We would then put the guns in positions that guns had occupied in those old days and describe to the men how the dug-outs were made, what camouflage we had had, how we brought up our ammunition, what had happened to us there, how we had been shelled, gassed, or machine-gunned. actually

We would then take them up to the high ground from which you could see the old enemy lines. We would describe how the network of trenches had run, pointing out Thiepval, Hamel, Beaumont Hamel, Beaucourt, Grandcourt and the rest, and then try to paint the picture of the noise and smoke through which you could just make out the dark forms moving forward to the attack, stum bling, lying still. I managed to locate the site of Jacob’s Ladder from which, as an artillery observer, I had watched all this. I was amazed to find how vivid one’s memory still is after twenty-five years, and how one could still identify the old places without having to consult a map.

Looking down on Hamel and the river Ancre, I recalled the first day the Jocks took over from the French here in 1915. The relief had been carried out at night. About 5 p.m. next day a couple of shots, followed by much shouting, came up from the trenches below. Five unarmed Boches with canvas buckets were surrounded by Jocks, all jabbering and gesticulating wildly, neither side understanding the other. It had come as a great surprise to the Boches to find the Jocks there. Apparently, there was a water shortage in the enemy lines opposite Hamel, but no shortage of chocolate, so there had been a local gentlemen’s agreement whereby the French had allowed the Boches to get water from the Ancre on certain days in exchange for chocolate. When the Boches found that the Jocks weren’t standing for this nonsense, they thought they were being very shabbily treated. I told our boys this tale as we looked down on the Ancre from Mesnil Ridge.

In this way we introduced them to Albert, Aveluy, Ovillers, La Boisselle (where the enemy trenches had been only twelve yards from our own near the cemetery), Mouquet Farm, Poziéres, Fri court, Mametz, Carnoy, Hebuterne, and other famous places. Behind Thiepval there are still traces of the old trench system, fallen in and overgrown but easily identifiable, with barbed wire straggling about and the remains of old tin hats. I could just identify parts of Regina Trench.

One day we went north to where our left flank had halted the German advance in the spring of 1918 round Boisleux, Ayette and Boyelles. At Hendecourt I was thrilled to find after twenty years of peace the actual remains of one of my old gun pits still under the three trees just off the road behind the village.

These schemes were not intended to be conducted tours of the battlefields, but definite tactical exercises, using the battlefield setting to create realism, interest and illustration. We did, however, take the men to two places which had no connection with our schemes. Newfoundland Park, near Auchonvillers, and Vimy Ridge. Here the old trench systems have been preserved, the land having been given by the French Republic to the Governments of New foundland and Canada, respectively. The former is perhaps more realistic, the latter more imposing; each has its epic, there for all to see. The men were noticeably quiet as they came away from these places.

On the way to Vimy Stephen and I stopped in Lens for lunch at a little Italian restaurant where we had the most delectable hors d’œuvre, ravioli and Chianti-our last meal of distinction on French soil.

‘Black Sunday’ I called our tenth day in Herissart. It subse quently transpired that this was the twenty-first birthday of one of the signallers. Whatever the excuse, three-quarters of the battery headquarter staff indulged in the wildest of drinking bouts. At least twenty were blind drunk, two were found lying unconscious under the trees-one, really ill-the rest were in various stages ranging from pugnacity to girlish giggling.

We discovered that the delinquents had been drinking vodka and cognac-drinks to which they were not accustomed and which civilians were forbidden to sell to the troops; so, we placed all cafès and estaminets in the village out of bounds. Next thing was for the guilty ones to have the alcohol driven out of them in a way which would leave an impression-so they were ordered to parade in full kit, steel helmets, packs and the rest at 2.30 a.m.

It was a chilly misty morning, still dark, as we led them off for a route march at a brisk pace, deliberately choosing a hilly course. Going uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, mile after mile, is not very enjoyable in full kit at the best of times; it is even more unpleasant in the dark; it is worse still if your head, stomach, and wind are suffering from a severe hangover-particularly when you have been awakened at I a.m. and made to shave and clean your kit before starting.

Two hours later, when we got back, they were a chastened lot.

Even though most of them must have been feeling like death, I have never seen troops hold themselves more erect or march more smartly. Their attitude was that they had let their officers down and those officers had turned out themselves at two in the morning to take the route march, so they would show the officers they could take their punishment like soldiers and sportsmen.

Army drinking has undergone a miraculous change in recent years. Your real hefty beer-swiller is so rare as to be almost a freak. The average soldier, though not teetotal, is abstemious, and the number of actual teetotallers is remarkable. Given the chance, Thomas Atkins drinks more tea than beer these days. Frequently in our canteens we have found beer goes slowly, whereas bottles of orangeade are emptied by the thousand. This may be all to the good, for the modern soldier is a technical expert whose brain should be unclouded by hangovers. Yet I have always found it is your heaviest drinkers who are the best fighters. Your heaviest drinker is not a drunkard; don’t confuse the two. Let me tell you the story of Sergeant M.

M already had the Belgian Croix de Guerre when I first met him. Whilst under my command he added a D.C.M. and Military Medal. He was a sturdy Scot with a sly grin, and attached himself to me like a faithful dog, always at my side if he thought there might be a chance of danger. This was during the final year of the last war.

Sent to take over a battery which had lost its commander, I found it short of equipment, particularly field telephones and cable. My first sight of M was when he reported the deficiencies in signalling equipment.

“Very well,” I said. “The battery must be up to strength in all signal stores by midnight, M. I don’t care where or how you get them. But you’ll get them. Understand?” “Verra guid, sir.” He saluted and disappeared.

Some hours later I was sitting in our Mess in concrete sub terranean stables which French artillery had dug, when M reported all equipment present and correct. smothered with mud, but happy. He was soaked to the skin, “You had better have a whisky to drive the cold out of you,” I

said, picking up the bottle and pushing a glass towards him.

“Verra guid, sir.” I was answering the telephone and did not notice how much I was pouring out, until I turned my head and saw that the tumbler was nearly filled with neat Johnny Walker. “Afraid there’s not room

for much water, M,” I said. “Never take water, sir.”

He lifted the glass, drained it almost at a gulp, put it down without even a cough, clicked his heels, saluted, and turned to go. amazement. “Could you manage a

“Wait a minute,” I cried in drop more?” I was curious.

Verra guid, sir.”

This time I deliberately filled the glass with neat whisky to the brim. He repeated the performance, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at me, hesitating hopefully before saluting good night. “Good God!” I ejaculated. “How much can you drink like that?”

“I’ve never really tried, sir.”

“A bottle?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” Disdainfully. “Well, I’m not going to waste a bottle on you to-night, M,” I said, and bade him good night.

Some weeks later we had a Minor Brass Hat to dinner. He was speaking disparagingly of the modern subaltern. “Why, they can’t even drink!” he snorted. “Either they don’t drink at all, or else they can’t hold their liquor. In my young days, a subaltern who couldn’t down a bottle of port on his own after dinner and hold it like a good’un-well, he just didn’t exist.”

“I’ve got a sergeant who’ll down a bottle of neat whisky and not turn a hair,” I said.

“What!” cried the Brass Hat. “Not at a sitting?”

“Without even a cough,” I affirmed. “But he’d be as drunk as an owl in five minutes.”

“No, sir.”

“Rot!”

“Will you bet?”

“Don’t be a fool,” said the Brass Hat. “I don’t want to take your

money.”

“A level hundred francs, sir?”

“Right.”

Old M came in, saluted, and grinned broadly when asked if he could manage a bottle of whisky. I handed him the bottle and a corkscrew. There was dead silence as he drew the cork, held the bottle up to the light, squinting suspiciously to make sure it was full, then raised it to his lips. Twice he withdrew it from his mouth to take breath, then replaced it on the table empty, saluted smartly, and marched out.

“He’ll be as blind as a coot,” said the Brass Hat. I shook my head. Just to prove it, I sent for M an hour later. He was absolutely normal.

A week later the Minor Brass Hat brought a Big Brass Hat along.

The Big Brass Hat had heard of M’s feat but would not believe it. So, a demonstration was arranged. When M put down the empty bottle without a cough, I thought the Big Brass Hat would have a fit. “Good God!” he gurgled. “Could you do that again?”

M’s eyes twinkled. “Verra guid, sir,” he replied. “I’ll pay for the bottle, of course,” added the Big Brass Hat

magnanimously, as the second one appeared. M tossed it off as calmly as he had swallowed the first. Now comes the real point of the story. Months later we were

out at rest well behind the lines. One night a terrible din, scuffling

and shouting, broke out in camp. “What’s that noise?” I asked, as the sergeant-major came running

in answer to my summons.

“We’re trying to get Sergeant M to bed, sir.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“Drunk, sir.”

Words failed me.

Next morning a crestfallen M stood before me in the Orderly Room. Just one glass of vin blanc, sir, that’s all I had,” he pleaded. “M,” I said. “You’re a good soldier. You’ve done grand

work. I might be prepared to overlook this first offence, as we are out at rest and you were off duty. But I won’t be taken for a fool. If you want me to take a lenient view, you must tell the truth. Remember, I’ve seen you drink two bottles of neat whisky and remain sober. What you must have had to get fighting drunk, I can’t imagine.”

He stuck to his story. One glass of vin blanc.  Moreover, the story was corroborated by the Quarterbloke and three other sergeants who had been with him and had returned unquestionably sober themselves.

The explanation? It transpired that M, his father, and his grandfather before them, had all worked at a whisky distillery. They had been brought up on whisky from childhood; to them, it was like water. But M had never tasted any other alcoholic drink in his life-and vin blanc is treacherous stuff.

Personally, I have always believed that whisky and rum played a great part in winning the last war. The rum issues were a fine thing both for health and morale of the troops. Unfortunately, in this war there is a Pussyfoot attitude regarding rum; no rum issue is permitted without authority of the highest medical officer on the staff of the Corps or Division to which you belong. In most cases these fellows hold strong views, and permission is refused; in other cases, by the time permission arrives the psychological moment has passed and it is too late for the rum to be of real value. Another grandmotherly regulation prescribes that when rum is issued it must not be neat, but diluted in cocoa or tea-a sickly drink.

Believe it or not, in two years of war which included the Battle of France, nights out in the rain, snow and ice, and weeks in cold and muddy camps, our unit never succeeded in getting sanction for a rum issue. Which does not mean that our men never got any rum. We had some on the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk-but that is nobody’s business.

How did all this chatter about drink begin? Ah, it was the drinking bout at Herissart. Our time there was drawing to a close. One evening the regiment went out on a night exercise. The night was spent in getting the guns into position in the dark some miles from Herissart. At dawn we were to get orders for an advance. We did. But not the orders for the advance which had formed part of the exercise. It was for a real advance that orders came, for the gangsters of Adolf Schickelgruber had crashed into Holland and Belgium.

Off went our advance party to the Dyle. Our main body was ordered to pack up at once and move to Faumont, ten miles behind Visterie, to wait for the hour at which we must fit into the timetable for crossing the frontier between Cysoing and Baisieux.

The old couple from the mairie waved us off with tears in their eyes. Our boys were standing up in their vehicles, cheering and laughing, mad with glee that the long period of waiting was over. I often wonder what those vile Boches have done with the old maire.

 

*********

 

X

ARMCHAIR PARTY

HISTORY alone can decide the real causes of the lightning defeat of the Allied armies which led to the disaster of Dunkirk. But history can only be objectively written by posterity when all contributory factors on both sides have been revealed. Meanwhile the inevitable armchair critics have been busy. To the ordinary fighting soldier of the B.E.F. it would appear that seven distinct factors contributed to the extinction of the British as a fighting force. It may be profitable to name them now; for then, as the story of the next three weeks unfolds, the importance of innumerable minor incidents will become apparent. The first four factors are universally appreciated and cannot recur.

They are:

  1. Political

For political reasons, the carefully prepared defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier were abandoned in favour of an advance into a neutral country which had persistently refused any opportunity for reconnaissance or co-operation. This meant:

(a) Lengthening the B.E.F.’s lines of communication, with

consequent added difficulties of supply.

(b) Taking up unprepared positions in strange country, instead of meeting the first shock of enemy onslaught in a familiar area which had been prepared for defence. (c) Operating in areas for which no accurate maps were available.

(d) Thinning out the troops available for defence of the lines of communication.

  1. French Defection

The right flank of the B.E.F. was left in the air. Long before the blitz broke out, many British officers had formed the view that a proportion of the French army never meant to fight.

  1. Too Many Old Soldiers

Before proceeding overseas, some thousands of officers were addressed by the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Ironside, who solemnly declared that the Allied armies had one great advantage in that the German military forces did not possess a single officer who had held rank higher than that of captain in the last war. Contrary to this contention, it is a fact that the B.E.F. was seriously handicapped by its surfeit of old soldiers. Every officer of general rank and most officers of field rank had served in the last war and the habits of trench warfare were ingrained in them. Although for months before the blitz the B.E.F. had been rightly trained on the lines of ‘defence in depth’, yet when battle broke in Belgium last-war ideas prevailed and all this sound training was thrown to the winds.

  1. Lack of Equipment

This is too well-known to merit comment. Yet even now some may be surprised to read of the position regarding ammunition for the infantry’s mortars. The next, and last, three factors are the three which the next few chapters will illustrate and emphasize.

They are:

  1. Fifth Column
  2. Bad Intelligence training and discipline
  3. Absence of Civilian Control

These three are bracketed together because a successful Fifth Column is impossible without the other two.

The principal aims of Fifth Columnists are, of course:

(a) Diversion of Troops and Supplies and Creation of Panic, Sabotage, Rumours by Bogus Orders

(c) Guerrilla activities in rear of the army. Strict civilian control of the movement of the population will prevent this to a large extent. The activities of the few who manage to circumvent this control will be frustrated by good intelligence discipline, by which is meant the alertness to sift fact from rumour and the self-restraint to act on nothing but fact.

It will be seen how greatly the B.E.F. was hampered by these last factors. Lack of intelligence discipline allowed the spread of all sorts of rumours and bogus orders which thickened the fog of war, diverted energy and manpower to needless tasks, added unduly to the nerve-strain of battle. Absence of civilian control led to obstruction of military movement by refugees, animals, lunatics, and in other ways; to difficulty in identifying bona fide citizens from enemy agents; to diversion of military personnel from purely military tasks.

Invasion of our own homeland may yet come one day. To prevent our armed forces from facing these same difficulties again, the Invasion Committees, Civil Defence, and police will then have an important part to play.

Now to pick up the threads of the tale.

**********

XI

ADVANCE PARTY

“BATTERY Routine Orders will cease to be issued from to-day. The Battery Commander therefore takes this opportunity of wishing all ranks good luck.”

I dictated this last routine order on 11 May, sitting on the grass by my truck in the orchard at Faumont. By a freak of memory, I can recall that it was Order No. 770 of 1940. In fact, it was to be the last Battery Routine Order I was ever to dictate, for when the time came for return to such things, I had ceased to be a battery commander and was commanding the regiment.

What a change in the general atmosphere those last twenty-four hours had wrought. Now guns and vehicles were really hidden away. Anti-aircraft machine-guns were alertly manned. There was a real attempt to avoid conspicuous movement in the open. There seemed to be a real purpose behind everything at last. Inscriptions like ‘Non-Stop to Berlin’ appeared in chalk on the lorries. Even the men’s salutes seemed to take on more meaning.

We were to move up through Tournai, Nederbrackel and Ninove to Brussels, on the outskirts of which our guides would be waiting to lead us through the maze of the city to the gun positions which by then our advance party would have reconnoitred, covering the river Dyle to the south of Louvain.

This sounds easy, but circumstances combined to make it formidable. The first, more difficult, half of this long journey was to be carried out in the dark. No headlights were permitted. Side lights were drastically masked to allow no more than a pinpoint of light – useful as a warning to oncoming traffic, but useless to the driver himself. Add to this the fact that the march-table of the division was naturally so worked out that it was essential for the leading vehicle of each unit to pass certain points at certain exact times and for the last vehicle of each unit to be clear of those points by specified times. It is not easy to keep strictly to a rigid timetable with the whole of your six-mile-long column in the dark with seriously inaccurate maps along strange roads for a hundred miles, particularly if there is hostile interference.

True, we were told we should find balissage-blue lights by the roadside-to guide us, and that there would be traffic-control posts to assist us, but I was not sanguine about this. As things turned out, my pessimism was justified about the balissage, for the only blue lights we saw were in Tournai; but there certainly were some traffic control posts at intervals of many miles.

Our immediate problem was so to time things as to pass the official starting point beyond Cysoing, ten miles away, at exactly the right moment. We were due there at nine minutes before midnight. Throughout the day our motto was ‘rest and good food for all ranks’. The men were made to lie down and rest, and we stuffed as much food into them as we could lay our hands on; containers of hot tea were prepared and distributed among vehicles so that every part of the column would find tea within easy access during halts. That afternoon the men produced the most enormous batch of letters for censoring that I have ever seen.

At 9.45 p.m. Dennis, Cliff, Basil, Peter, Jack, Boots, Harry and myself drank a final toast in the café where we had made our Mess. Stephen and Pluto had gone with the advance party. At 10.30 p.m. we moved off in silence and almost impenetrable darkness. Ahead the Boches were dropping bombs; obviously after Divisional Headquarters, which had been in the next village, but the birds had flown. There was considerable air activity all around.

Through Bersée-Pont à Marcq-Templeuve-we crawled; the long curving road-woods on either side-then Cysoing. Going through the main street, I was stopped by a blue light swinging to and fro. The control post for the starting point. I looked at the luminous hands of my watch. We were ten seconds before time.

“Serial number ten?” asked a voice. Two staff officers stepped up to my truck as I responded in the affirmative.

“You are the – Field Regiment?” Again, I assented. “Shan’t keep you waiting long,” continued the voice. “The unit ahead of you is clear.” He disappeared. His companion made conversation during his absence. “Bit of a bombing party been going on-not much though. You should have quite a cushy trip. O.K. for whisky? Have a nip out of my flask, sir?”

His senior returned at that moment. “Right oh, sir! Off you go! Good luck!”

“Cheerioh!” I re-joined, and the column moved on. Ten minutes later we were over the frontier into Belgium.

Everything was peaceful, silent, and lonely all the way to Tournai. The city seemed deserted as we wound our way through its gloom. We had just passed the last houses when a figure sprang out of the darkness, waving a blue light. “Traffic control, sir!” “Serial number ten,” I said.

He shone a torch on the signs on my vehicle to check this statement, then stepped up to me. “Keep a good look-out, sir,” he warned mysteriously. “They’ve been dropping them for the last

half-hour a mile or two up the road.” “Dropping what?” I asked. “Bombs?”

“Parachutists,” he replied, as though imparting a great secret. I confess I believed him at the time. I sent a despatch rider back along the column warning everybody, and for the next few miles stood up on my seat peering out of the roof with Hearn’s rifle in my hand, the boys in the back of the truck doing the same towards the rear. I am quite convinced now that no parachutist was ever dropped in those parts that night. This was the first instance of the wild statements and bad intelligence discipline which were to characterize this campaign.

Now comes the greyness that precedes the dawn; the first pink blush; the splash of orange. It is really cold as I stand up gazing back at the column creeping inexorably over the pavés towards whatever fate may lie ahead. Vehicles are travelling at intervals of one hundred yards, but I can count more than twenty in sight along this stretch.

The whistle and thud of bombs sounds away to our front as we near Nederbrackel. A traffic-control post is in sight; the man on duty steps out to ask the usual questions and to warn us that they are bombing the town ahead. But it is obvious that, despite his warning, nothing is really going on there now, so we ignore it.

As we enter the town, one house on the left is wrecked and smoking. We are held up in the main street, so I walk ahead to explore; we have landed on the tail of the unit which crossed the frontier before us; they are held up while British and Belgian soldiers clear the blockage caused by fallen debris and a traffic accident at the cross-roads. It is still early and there are no civilians about yet, but we are passed by hordes of Belgian reservists on cycles, pedalling their way to the depots to which mobilization -orders have recalled them.

The column moves on. Near Ninove we have a halt. In front everything is held up again. We have passed numerous lorries overturned in ditches; the strain of this long advance in the dark was bound to tell on some drivers. I thank our stars that we have given our men such intensive training in this sort of thing, for not a truck of ours is lost.

The civilians are coming to life. Out from the houses they trickle with jugs of coffee, cakes, buns and cigarettes. In these parts at any rate the Belgian folk seem glad to see us. I notice one of our toughest guys, dirty, unshaven, with Balaclava helmet over his ears, pluck a howling infant from its mother’s arms and wheedle it into a smile. Call it tact, cunning, propaganda, or just honest British nature, what you will; at any rate, out come more cakes, more coffee, and some wine. Girls crowd round the vehicles, point o ‘Mary’, ‘Maisie’, and other names on them, asking what they mean. There is much giggling, gesticulation and what not. The women are jabbering Flemish, our boys shouting a medley of Cockney, Lancashire, Scotch and pidgin French. Why do they think it is so much easier to make a foreigner understand if you shout? Nobody understands a word. Perhaps that’s why they are such good friends.

The column ahead of us is moving off. I give the signal. Men scamper across the road, there is a lot of waving, shrill cries, saucy remarks and whistles-and the miles of road slide by again. Four Hun ‘planes make towards us from the east, flying at a thousand feet. Machine-gunners get a thrill, but are doomed to disappointment, for the machines veer off without coming within range. An argument in the back of my truck about the make of ‘plane nearly leads to blows.

Ahead lie the suburbs of Brussels. A mile or so in front I can see traffic turning to the left. A truck is waiting at the road junction. I snap my field-glasses to my eyes. Yes, it is Stephen. I wave. The sun glints on his glasses now. He recognizes me in my red and blue forage cap. His truck pulls off the grass verge and shoots towards us. There was no time to swap stories. “I am leading you right through the city to a suburb on the far side called St. Antoine,” said Stephen. “There is plenty of cover there for guns and trucks while the men get a meal. I’ll tell you the rest of the programme when we get there.” I had not seen Brussels since being a student there twenty-eight years before. Would we go down the Avenue Louise, past the Rue Defacz, where my digs had been?

All along the narrow streets of the outer suburbs gamins ran shrieking beside the column. Men stood in doorways and lounged about the pavements. Many cheered and waved spontaneously, many more waved in response to our salutes and smiles, some stood scowling sullenly. Windows were flung open for women and girls to look down on the scene; there was no doubt where their sympathies lay.

Suburbs widened into boulevards. We were approaching the centre of the city. Suddenly the storm broke. Like the Battle of Flowers at Nice. Women dashed out with garlands which they slung across the bonnets of the trucks. Flowers were hurled into the vehicles, on to their roofs, and at the men. Posies were lobbed on to the laps of drivers. In a few moments, the whole column was one moving mass of colour; you could not see guns for flowers and evergreens. Here, in the city’s centre, the people were wild with enthusiasm. I learned later that, although isolated parties had gone this way, we were the first column to pass through the heart of Brussels. On we rolled into the wealthy suburbs of the east, to St. Antoine. A spacious boulevard wound its way down the hill overlooking a wide expanse of lake beyond which a monastery perched upon a knoll. On the other side of the highway, dividing it from walled-in mansions, was a double line of massive chestnuts completely roofing the ground between. Into this avenue, under its chestnut canopy, we drove the regiment’s horde of guns, lorries, watercarts, wireless trucks and armoured carriers. Strong guards were posted. The advance party had already got dinner under way in vacant Belgian barracks close at hand.

It was then for the first time that we sensed the uncanny Men kept atmosphere of the Fifth Column. Within seconds of our arrival, we were hemmed in by a seething mass of civilians. Some no doubt were patriotic citizens. Many most certainly were not. sidling up, or approaching boldly, asking questions which, of course, we did not answer. Others tried to peer into the vehicles or hung around the guns. Some kept watching the sky. Every now and then some man would whisper to you: “Monsieur, you see that fellow over there the one in the black hat and dark brown suit? Do not tell him anything, monsieur-he is agent allemande.” Almost invariably the man indicated would come up to you later and say: “Monsieur le commandant, that man who was speaking to you just now-take care-I warn you!” And so it went on. We roped off the avenue, but they keep milling around and idling about, and our work was cut out preventing them from getting near the vehicles. I was afraid of slashed tyres, punctured petrol tanks-and, of course, we made a glorious target for ‘planes which had been warned of our hiding-place. There was a sinister atmosphere of hovering.

“Stephen,” I said to Muir. “I don’t like these vultures. We’ll get everything away from here as soon as we can.” Colonel [Odling] was of the same mind, but we would not be allowed to move for about three hours.

I found the Stephen had arranged for me to get a bath at the place where he had snatched some sleep whilst awaiting our arrival. The owner of the flat, over his lingerie shop, was hospitable and not the least bit anti-British, but it was easy to see how far Fifth Column propaganda had succeeded. He was quite philosophical. “You cannot help it, monsieur. Nothing can be done against these Boches.” shoulders shrugged indifferently. “You British fight well, but the Boches will be here in five days. In five days, I tell you. I began to argue, but he would have none of it. Moreover, he was quite resigned. “They did not treat us so badly after all in the last war, once things settled down,” he said. “It would be a great pity to have fighting round this beautiful city.”

I asked him if he meant he wanted the Boches in Brussels. “No, no,” he whispered, peering around him nervously. “But you cannot stop them here in Belgium. They are too strong. Let the fighting be on French soil. That is better.”

I was shown the bathroom. There was a metal bath, under which was a gas burner. The bath was full; the water would be hot in five minutes, I was told. After this interval, I put my finger in the water. It was cold. Five minutes later, it was still cold. Ten minutes later, no better. Fed up, I jumped into the cold water, only to leap out again with a yell. The water was cold, but the bottom of the bath was red-hot. I turned off the gas, let the metal cool, had a cold bath and shave, then made my way back to the Avenue of the Vultures.

Towards evening we set off on the final stage. Of the move into our gun positions there is little of interest to record. It is, however, worth noting that my friend of the lingerie shop and the bath was uncannily correct; the Boches were in Brussels in exactly five days. Moreover, the Avenue of the Vultures was savagely bombed by low-flying aircraft within half-an-hour of our having cleared out.

******

XII

SHOOTING PARTY

UNTIL he has seen his troops in battle, there is always one thing in the mind of every commander of whatever grade; the question of how his officers and men will react, collectively and individually, under fire. He seldom has to worry about collective reaction. But in the case of individuals he may get surprises; he may find some he thought the best are not so outstanding in leadership as he expected, whereas some whom he regarded as lacking drive or personality find both in action. He watches them all closely during their baptism of fire.

Ours came early next morning, a lovely sunny morning, in the form of a swoop of ‘planes from the blue, dive-bombing, incendiaries, and machine-gunning.

I was shaving at the time, but got three distinct impressions. First was Jack Leaman’s laugh, followed by unprintable descriptions of the enemy. Second was fat old Peter Booth glaring angrily at an incendiary which had dropped between his legs, growling: “What bloody sauce!” Third was a Lewis-gunner blazing away at a dive bomber which seemed to be making straight for him.

Greenhouses in a neighbouring nursery-garden were destroyed, bushes set on fire, two bombs fell beside the command-post but failed to explode, one small house damaged, some tiles and windows on other houses shattered, a cow killed by machine-gun fire near our guns; military casualties-military damage-NIL.

The effect of the enemy’s effort had been of threefold benefit to us. It had reassured me as to the calibre of my boys; it had given the men confidence in their officers; it had aroused their fighting spirit by stirring up hatred of the Hun, for the sole human casualty had been a little girl of twelve or so who, with other refugees, was trudging wearily along the road clutching a doll. Our chaps were soon to have satisfaction; for that very day our guns were to be the first in the B.E.F. to open fire on the Boches in this war.

Our 366 battery was at Smeisberg, a tiny pocket of cottages. [Near Huldenberg] When we arrived, there were a few civilians, but these soon fled, taking with them nothing but bedding and mattresses piled on wheelbarrows, prams and bicycles. The morning’s bombing changed the minds of the three who had hitherto decided to remain. The sight of those panic-stricken human beings, abandoning everything they owned, everything they had worked for, their homes, their petty treasures, achieved more in a few seconds than all my efforts in nine months in making the boys hate the Hun and all his works. An old man on crutches; toothless old women, stumbling as they pushed creaking perambulators loaded with pillows and blankets; a child with staring eyes; all going, they knew not whither or to whom or to what. And then the ‘planes, the machine-guns, the bombs directed, not at the soldiers or the guns, but at these harmless

creatures. We had seen plenty of refugees on our way up through Belgium, but they had been different. First there had been the wealthy in Mercédès cars, loaded with suitcases and luxuries, plentifully supplied with money, womenfolk bedecked with jewels, speeding for safety and good living in France; secondly, families with carts and wagons laden with furniture and possessions, running away it is true, but more or less calmly, having taken time to choose what they would salve, journeying to the homes of friends or relatives. But these new sights were different. The former had been sad, some of it contemptible. This was sheer horror, savagery of the vilest kind.

It is the deliberate policy of the Hun to create this refugee problem. Fifth Column agents spread panic; Fifth Column agents, disguised as soldiers or civilian officials, advise the folk to get out quick; terrorism from the air adds its spur. Out on the roads scramble the wretched people. Roads are blocked, fields on either side are blocked, with men, women, children, horses, carts, cars, perambulators, bicycles, even cows and goats, all laden with bedding, and the sick, the dying, the infirm. You see some cripple carried on a stretcher improvised from a door, a woman with babe at breast. Some crying, some calm, some just stupefied. They block the roads for the army, but the army must get up to fight, so the army must harden its heart and push them off the road into the ditches and fields-and then they glare at you, you foreign cads, as if you were the hated enemy. It hurts. And it makes you hate the Hun still more.

The Hun works hard to keep this refugee problem acute, to keep the roads blocked against the army. Over and over again his ‘planes have flown just above our heads on the march, and every minute we have expected the bombs to come crashing down on us; but no, the ‘planes have left us alone, to unload death and panic on the mass of refugees in the villages and fields ahead.

If he ever invades this country, one of his first objects will be to create that same refugee problem here; and by that time, if it ever comes, he may decide to use gas as well. Adequate control by the civilian authorities could prevent a repetition of the trouble with which the army was faced in Belgium.

At Smeisberg, A and B Troops were in the open on the forward slope behind the road, C Troop a mile forward to the left in the front edge of a wood on high ground. Front edges of woods were then considered good gun positions; now we know the Boche sprays them with incendiaries and machine-gun bullets habitually. Our wagon lines were some miles in rear, hidden in woods near a cigar factory. You will hear about those cigars later.

Digging was the order of the day. First, slit trenches; then dug-outs; gun-pits; trenches for ammunition; command-posts; pits for machine-guns and posts for the men manning anti-tank rifles. But could we get those men to dig? They just would not dig. The moment you turned your back, they stopped. I raved and stormed, for I knew how vital this work was, how speed was vital, too. Then came bombing, shelling, machine-gunning. After that, you couldn’t stop the men digging. For the rest of our time overseas, we never had to tell the men to dig again.

Now let me take you where you can see the line. The position taken up by the B.E.F. is a strong one. You can see the divisional front from our observation posts on the high ground behind Rhode Saint Agathe. Below is the river Dyle. Normally it is not a wide river but has two forks and the Belgian authorities have flooded the area in between, so that it is a wide expanse of water that you look down upon. No tank could get across that, you think-but it is very shallow and the Boche has amphibian tanks. On the far side the ground rises steadily back, so that the forward areas of what will be enemy country are well exposed to view, though there are numerous woods providing cover. At the moment our outposts are still across the Dyle, but will be withdrawn soon, and the main line of our defences stretches about half a mile in front of us. There is a fine battalion here-the Duke’s; behind and around us the Guards, in reserve; a lot of digging is going on everywhere; deserted houses are being fortified or pulled to pieces so that doors, timber and masonry can be used for defence works elsewhere.

We were with the First Division. Until I read Lord Gort’s published dispatches, I had not realised that only two Divisions besides ours moved up beyond Brussels. The rest of the B.E.F. did not get so far. It is a curious feeling watching the country beyond the river, knowing that somewhere behind it are the Boches. How far away are they now? How long before you get a glimpse of them? How long before you will hear the crack of the guns behind you and watch for the shell to burst among the Boches? Every now and then your signallers beside you test the line and the wireless to satisfy themselves that when that moment comes you will be able to control the fire of your guns by telephone or over the air without hitch.

Sad for me that when that moment came, I was not there myself to see, but was busy at the command-post. Luck fell to Dennis Clarke, and good use he made of it. The first hint Dennis had was movement of animals. Away on high ground beyond the river, two or three miles away, he noticed moving herds of cows. They were not panic-stricken, but were moving as though they had been disturbed, away from the road, obliquely in our direction. Animal movement is most helpful to the artillery observer. Sure enough, motorcyclists soon came into view, then an armoured car or two; these passed out of sight, down towards the river. Dennis now knew the spot on which to lay his guns. Down the phone went his orders.

The rattle of machine-guns from below told that the cyclists had come under fire from our infantry. This warning must have been heard by the Boche columns, too; if mechanized, they must have debussed on hearing machine-gun fire ahead; at any rate, the next to appear were marching infantry. Over the crest they came, a glorious target. Dennis waited until at least two hundred were in sight on the forward slope.

I was in the command-post when I heard C Troop’s guns open fire. “What are you shooting at?” I inquired by telephone, expecting the reply that they were just registering some feature we might want to shoot at in the future. “BOCHES!” came the proud response.

In some ways the Hun infantryman has not changed. Though our shells were dropping among them, men were falling and others running for safety, more infantry kept appearing over the crest, just as they used to come doggedly on in the last war without using any intelligence. This continued for some time before they changed their plan. In the meantime, we had done useful execution.

Those were the first shells fired in anger on the Dyle. Altogether we were there four days. I propose to give just a brief general impression of that phase.

One of our greatest difficulties was the question of animals. It was a heart-rending business. Civilians, in their panic, had left their animals behind, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, even birds in cages. Some of these animals were left shut up, others roaming about. No attempt had been made by the civilian authorities to meet this problem.

First trouble came with the cows. The poor brutes needed milking; as their udders became distended and sore, they raced about the place, bellowing pitifully. Our chaps did their best to milk them, but we were all busy digging and fighting, and the cows were legion, so it was an impossible task. It seemed cruel to shut them up; on the other hand, we could not let them run about, because they were fast becoming maddened with pain, and madness was hastened by fright from the bombs. They were becoming savage and really dangerous; and their movement attracted attention from the air. I therefore decided to shut up the few we could manage to milk and shoot the rest of the poor creatures. What finally decided me was the sight of a little calf dying in agony. We shot it at once.

Next came the dogs. It was pathetic, searching deserted houses, to find dogs chained up, locked up, going mad for want of food and water, terrified by bombing and the noise of our guns. One dog, quite mad, flew at us when we entered, and we had to shoot in self-defence.  Finally, we deputed Sergeant Watts, himself a dog-lover, to go round and put them out of their misery. You would see him, pipe in mouth, rifle in hand, stroll into a house. Then you would hear a crack. Out would come Watts, pipe still in mouth, jerk his thumb towards the house and say to a gunner: “Bury that poor dog, son!”

The chickens we ate. The goats we milked; we thought of taking them with us when we moved, but as things turned out that was impossible. The pigs were the least trouble, and the most phlegmatic of creatures. They wandered about as they pleased. Cliff Hackett, returning from a tour of duty at the observation post, went for a lie-down in an empty house. When I went to wake him, I found an old sow in the act of climbing on the bed where he was asleep. Eventually when orders came to retreat we shot the pigs as well and soaked the carcasses of all dead animals with petrol, for nothing must be left of use to the Boches.

Don’t imagine we spent most of our time shooting animals. Our 18-pounder guns were busy day and night. It was like those days on the Somme in ’16, especially at night, and our boys were having no mean introduction to artillery work in action. It was not all one-way stuff, either; we were getting some back at us. In fact, the Boche let us know quite definitely that he had spotted the positions of all three troops; if the boys had not dug so heartily, we should have had many casualties; even as things were it was decided to move some guns, so I went looking for new positions.

That morning we had received a document about Fifth Column activities which described an instance where a clover field had been cut to leave a sign in the form of an arrow visible from the air and pointing to a vital spot in our defences. When, therefore, in reconnoitring new gun positions, I looked down from a ridge at a clover field in which had been mown a large and distinct arrow pointing towards 25-pounder guns some three hundred yards away, I naturally thought this was the case referred to in that document. Horrified that it was allowed to remain there, we hurried to the officer on the guns. He was shaken to the core, obviously ignorant of the sign’s existence; clearly this was not the same case. Armed with spades, we soon had that clover field so knocked about that the sign was no longer visible, but the area was heavily shelled that afternoon.

There was Fifth Column activity in other ways. Our telephone cables were cut over and over again, not by shellfire or traffic, but the clean cut of shears. I was suspicious of a civilian who had stayed on for no apparent reason in a small house on the hill above us, but we could never catch him out. There was no control of evacuation by the civilian authorities; civilians went or stayed as they pleased; and why did some remain behind, we wondered?

One clever enemy agent, at least, managed to score. Dressed as a senior British staff officer, he went to a battery position, declared there was a general retirement, and ordered the guns to get out of action quick. He succeeded in getting the battery away-Here indeed was bad intelligence discipline! but fortunately this was rectified before harm resulted. Rumour said that the man was later caught red-handed, trying to get another battery to move, and was shot.

It may have been this same man who tackled Cliff Hackett. One night Cliff, having been relieved at his observation post, came back with the story that the French had retreated on our flank, that the Boches were across the Dyle, and that all observation posts were being called in. He had been told this by a British officer down the lane leading from our command-post. We rushed after the ‘British officer’, but could find no trace of him in the dark.

This happened in the middle of a night when things were very jumpy. We had had a false gas alarm, given by infantry who had seen the mist which creeps up the valley at night there. We had had several SOS calls for fire, some of which were undoubtedly a Boche ruse. We had had a party out searching for parachutists reported to have been dropped in the vicinity-another canard, I am sure. And then something else suspicious happened.

We had made our command-post in a sunken track between two high banks. The track itself was sandy. We had torn doors and walls from the sheds of neighbouring houses with which we completely roofed the track; then spread sand over this roof, so that from above it looked like the track itself, enabling us to work under neath well camouflaged.

During that night we smelt something burning. On searching, we found a tiny bonfire of twigs smouldering on the roof over our command-post. Nobody had heard or seen any one about, and a vigorous search failed to find anyone. That same night the Boches got troops over the Dyle in rubber

boats but they were eventually all killed, captured, or driven back. Soon after dawning next day Peter Booth and I stood on top of the sunken track, watching a hedge-hopping Lysander with Belgian markings. It was only about fifty feet up and we were just going to wave to the pilot when the ‘plane skimmed towards us and opened up with its machine-gun from about two hundred yards away. Peter and I dived headfirst into the sunken track like pearl-fishers into the ocean. Flying the other chap’s colours is, of course, a typical Boche trick. We were not caught napping again. In fact, orders were subsequently received to open fire on any ‘plane flying below a certain height, whatever its markings.

The Hun is clever at legitimate ruses, too. He is particularly good at inducing you to waste ammunition on places where there is nothing to hurt. It was on the Dyle that we saw a Boche officer ride out ostentatiously from the front of a wood, look about him, then ride back into the wood. Although repeated, this little trick failed, for in that particular light we could see into the wood through a telescope-there was nothing there; but in a wood some way to the right some guns were being brought into action-you could just make them out through the trees. Presumably, the officer had wanted to distract attention from the second wood by focusing it on the first.

On the evening of 16 May we received orders to retreat. Rumours that the French had not come up on our right must be true after all. Yet to leave this magnificent position on the Dyle-when the B.E.F. had its tail right up-it couldn’t be true!

We watched sappers preparing the bridge behind us for demolition. They were to blow it up at midnight. We must get our guns across it first, but at the last possible moment.

That night our little 18-pounders fired 1,200 rounds, a real farewell party. Now and then we got some back.

We spent some time smashing things up, to leave nothing of value to the Boches. We found a civilian motorbike and some push-bikes to augment our own transport. Bombardier (now Second-Lieutenant) Thomas discovered a French dress sword which he annexed; riding his motorbike, with the sword clattering against the back wheel, he looked a comic sight.

Indeed, many of the men began to look comic sights, for one advantage of battle is that you can dress for comfort instead of appearance. Battle dress is a loathsome invention; bitterly cold in the winter, because it gives no protection to the small of your back or your buttocks; gruelling hot in summer with its tight wrists and waistband; you miss the use of the big side pockets a tunic has. It cannot compare for utility or comfort with the old service dress. When not in battle you must bow to the whims of Brass Hats, so I have had to wear battle dress on occasion in this country myself, but once the battle started, I could say goodbye to all that, and went about in comfort in breeches, tunic, and red and blue forage cap. In the end I was glad of this for another reason, when all we could get away from Dunkirk was what we stood up in, it meant that I salved a good tunic, a good pair of breeches and a pair of field boots, instead of just a lousy suit of battle dress.

About midnight we pulled out and made the first step towards the long retreat. None of us could understand why. Everyone on the Dyle had got the impression that the B.E.F. was top dog over the Hun, who once again had shown his traditional dislike of the bayonet. Still,’ we thought, ‘we’ll be back here again very soon.’

As we moved off without lights in the pitch dark; the Hun gave a parting salute. Again, we were lucky-not one casualty. We had been the first guns to open fire; in that sector, we were the last guns to leave.

******

XIII

TIP AND RUN PARTY

“WHERE are we?” I asked. It was still dark, but through the back of the truck I could see the glow from burning buildings. “Brussels,” replied Peter. “Outside the palace.”

I had had no sleep for two days, so, as I knew I should need my wits about me in the morning, I had decided to sleep in the back of the truck while Peter Booth sat in front to navigate.

Next time I awoke it was daylight. “Where are we?” I shouted.

“Brussels,” repeated Peter’s muffled voice.” Outside the palace.” “Good God!” I grumbled. “Haven’t we moved on yet?”

“Yes. We’re back here again,” growled Peter. Things had been difficult in Brussels. Maps, of course, were

useless. Owing to bombing and fires, so many streets could not be used. Fifth Columnists were in action, directing people the wrong way, to cause congestion and confusion. Columns of troops had been going round and round in circles in the darkness, usually landing up outside the palace again. We had a queer medley there now, I could see, as I looked out; infantry in lorries, marching infantry, a car full of Brass Hats obviously lost, guns, armoured carriers, one French tank, some Belgian cavalry, hordes of refugees-and Brussels was not exactly a healthy spot just then. The only way to get out of the city was obviously by compass.

About eight o’clock we reached Steenbeek, hid guns and transport away in orchards, and set about getting the men some breakfast We were expecting orders to get into action in the neighbourhood sometime later that morning. A rear-guard of mobile troops had stayed behind to delay the enemy whilst a new line astride the Senne canals was being occupied. Men on a vehicle which had got lost in Brussels and re-joined us here recounted the magnificent stand of the 12th Lancers in the city with armoured cars surrounded by Boche motor cyclists and tanks, fighting it out to the end.

Having arranged for the men’s breakfast, we searched for somewhere for ourselves. In the little café the good woman, her crippled son, and her pretty daughter of fifteen had not yet made up their minds whether to fly or stay. They were arguing in Flemish as we arrived.

Madame went upstairs to pack while the daughter made coffee, brought us bread and jam, and told us she had some eggs. Amazed that she did not know how to make omelettes, Basil Strachan grabbed the eggs and made us some delicious omelettes himself. I do not remember ever enjoying a breakfast more. Conversation was diffi cult because the girl could not speak or understand French and even Dennis did not know Flemish. However, Stephen talked to her in Dutch, she answering in Flemish, and he assured us they understood each other.

The men had stripped themselves to the waist and were making the most of the first chance of a real wash they had had for days. I had a shave and sat down in the orchard to write a letter to my wife but could not get it posted.

It was then I noticed that every man seemed to be smoking a huge cigar-with its band still on it. I commented on this, whereupon four boxes were handed to me with the information that these were my share. It turned out that the proprietor of the cigar factory where our waggon lines had been on the Dyle had decided to quit before we did. He had told my quartermaster-sergeant to clear away as many boxes of cigars as possible, as he would rather our chaps had them than the Boches. Every officer, N.C.O. and man got two hundred.

While I was taking the cigars to my truck, there was a lot of shouting and the sound of running feet down the road. A nun came running towards us, a British infantryman on her heels. Seizing a bike by the roadside, the nun tried to get away, but we stopped her. The infantryman swore she had dropped by parachute, but everyone had got parachutists on the brain just then and I did not believe him. The nun had, however, been behaving in a most un-nunlike manner and certainly ought to be interrogated. this we did. Outside, we could use the map again-but our maps were hopelessly inaccurate.

She was an angular, muscular, masculine person, and I was prepared to learn that ‘she’ was really a man. She seemed cool and collected, rather defiant, and would answer no questions. We sent her to Divisional Headquarters under escort. What, if anything, they discovered from her, I don’t know; but it is a fact that two days later an order was circulated that all persons in nuns’ clothing should be detained and sent to Divisional H.Q. for interrogation.

It was supposed that information for Fifth Columnists, parachutists, and other enemy agents, in the nature of a code indicating where they could contact the local agent, was contained in large poster advertisements of a Belgian product displayed everywhere. The contract for these advertisements was said to have been given to a German firm who had made use of this opportunity on Nazi instructions. What truth there is in this yarn, I do not know.

We did not have long for rest. Off we were sent to reconnoitre gun positions some distance away; the guns moved off that evening. There was considerable air activity, and we were worried by the presence of two civilians, presumably labourers on a nearby farm, whose work ostensibly brought them round our woodland gun positions at nocturnal hours when normal farmers do not work. However, the night proved uneventful, except for some bombing. At dawn things livened up; then, to our amazement, came orders to retreat again. We were to remain to support a rear-guard infantry action until nine o’clock, but were to be over a bridge many miles away by a certain time, as the bridge was then to be blown up; this meant we must get off the mark smartly at nine o’clock when our job here ceased or we should not reach the bridge in time.

At nine, we ceased fire. I sent the headquarter staff away, then waited to see the guns off. C Troop got away without trouble, then B Troop. When it came to A Troop’s turn, the fun started. First one gun tractor got bogged in the mud, then another, then a third. Jack Leaman, cheerful as ever, got them winched out, then one got bogged again. Three-quarters of an hour dragged by, and I visualized that bridge going up. Then, as we got them away, there was a bit of bombing. I was thankful when we finally got all the guns well on the road.

Some way along, we ran into the usual congestion; the road was crammed with marching infantry, tired and filthy after battle, some wounded, but all with plenty of fight left in them; and then, all over the place, the inevitable refugees. At a bend in the road a car was waiting. In it sat a Brigadier watching his men tramp past. Catching sight of my truck, he beckoned me. “What Regiment are you?” he asked. I told him. Then came words that were as gratifying as they were surprising to one who remembered how the infantry invariably cursed the gunners in the last war. “You gunners did magnificent work on the Dyle,” he said. “Your shooting has given our chaps real confidence.” We reached the bridge two hours late, but the sappers were still there waiting to blow it up. Sometime afterwards, we heard it go. It was a long trek before we reached our destination, the name of which I cannot remember-it was somewhere near Ninove, the idea being to hold the line of the river Dendre. There was an awful flap on as we reached the village, all sorts of rumours that the Boches had broken through the French on our flank; you would have thought by the excitement that they were just round the corner. Everyone was looking forward to a nice little scrap. We got our guns into action, laid cable to our observation posts in record time. No sooner was all this done than orders came for another retreat.

This was really too thick. Twice we had come back already when everybody felt we could hold the enemy. Now we were to run away again, without even firing a shot this time. Just a game of tip and run. However, we did at least have the satisfaction of blazing off our machine-guns at low-flying ‘planes laying eggs all round us.

It was dark before we had gone many miles. We were to go back over the frontier into France, back to the area we had come from. Perhaps we should fight after all in our old gun-pits at La Commune.

Miles ahead the sky was lit with flames. Tournai must be on fire. There was one noticeably big fire and several smaller ones blazing as we crawled through the town later. It was like daylight. Boche planes circled overhead at intervals to keep the fires burning. Every yard of the wide cobbled route to France was packed with refugees and troops. Every now and then we would get blocked for anything from ten minutes to half an hour, then dawdle forward again. It made the Brighton Road on a Sunday, or the long crawl off Epsom Downs on Derby Day, seem like speedway racing. It was four o’clock in the morning when we tucked everything away in the woods at Wannaheim on the French side of the frontier.

Five hours later we were on the move again-back into Belgium. The B.E.F. was taking up a defensive position along the line of the Escaut, and we were to come into action covering Tournai and the canal south of it to Antoing. Our reconnaissance parties moved off to St. Maur forthwith.

We almost had to cut our way through the masses of wretched It was refugees stampeding out of Belgium into France. For miles this was the worst example of the refugee problem I had seen. heart-breaking; but we had to get through to fight, so we had to be ruthless. Among these refugees must have been many enemy agents. Everyone was allowed over the frontier without inspection of documents or identification papers, the French authorities taking no precautions whatever. Indeed, the civilian authorities had disappeared. Any enemy agent could walk over unchallenged with the crowd.

Going through one village, Chris had a narrow escape. A man in civilian clothes stepped from behind a wall, rifle in hand, and deliberately fired at Chris as his truck passed by. The man then had a shot at the next vehicle. A despatch rider drew his revolver and shot the man dead before he could do any damage. The corpse was on its back staring at the sky as I passed. Maybe he was just a poor devil who had gone mad. Or he may have been a released lunatic. That was one of the difficulties with which we had to contend. The authorities opened the gates of the lunatic asylums when the enemy drew near, and the lunatics were simply set at liberty without any provision, or any control being exercised over them by the civilian authorities. There were poor mad creatures wandering about dressed up as women, running off in nightdresses and making the weirdest grimaces and gibberings. All a Boche agent had to do was to pretend to be mad and you couldn’t ‘tell t’other from which’.

That afternoon we got into action in positions where we were at least to put up a fight-though only for three days.

 

XIV

BURIAL PARTY

I SHALL never forget the terror on that baby’s face, or the fierce hatred in its mother’s eyes.

I was reconnoitring on foot. A farm cart was jolting along the road laden with mattresses and bedding, on top of which squatted a youngish woman, suckling a baby in her arms. As the cart drew level with the ruins of a house a 25-pounder gun, camouflaged among the rubble, opened fire. The gun was no more than seven yards from the kiddie’s head-and the 25-pounder lets off a rather good crack. The sight of the baby was piteous. I suppose that to that woman I, as the nearest soldier, represented the war and all the misery it had brought to herself and her world. Understandable; but her glare of infinite hatred hurt.

It was not a health resort to which we had come. In the air, of course, the Hun was supreme. His ‘planes, flying incredibly low, were over our lines ceaselessly. During those days we never saw a British ‘plane. On returning to England, we learned of the valiant exploits of the R.A.F. over enemy territory and in support of the French; but at that time we knew nothing of this-all we knew was that the Boche sat over us day and night, doing exactly as he liked, and we got no respite, not even the encouragement of seeing a ‘plane with British markings.

Since then, of course, it has been the same story in Greece, Crete, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Those of us who experienced it in France and Belgium know what our troops in those other lands must have suffered. Rightly have the critics stormed at this repeated failure to provide adequate air support where it is needed most; but much of the criticism has been misdirected into a howl for dive-bombers.

The dive-bomber may be effective in naval operations-on that, a soldier is not qualified to speak; but for land operations against trained troops the dive-bomber is not the equal of the fighter bomber. The first experience is terrifying-after that comes realization of the great vulnerability of this type to small-arms fire, the very limited local effect of its attack, and the immunity that can be achieved by the soldier by merely lying still.

To return to the Escaut. It was not only from the air we were getting strafed. By now the Boche had got his mortars up, mortars that shot a biggish bomb two miles. His machine-guns swept all forward roads. His infantry guns were coming up, his field artillery would soon join in the fun. Altogether, things looked like getting lively.

St. Maur [Ere] seemed quiet enough when I saw it first on the way up to reconnoitre for observation posts. Anti-tank guns were sited at the cross-roads in the way then accepted, pointing up each road. Good guns thrown away. Next time I saw the village it was a wreck, the anti-tank guns knocked out. Many lessons were learned by the B.E.F. in May 1940. One was how not to site anti-tank artillery.

The bridges over the Escaut were being blown up while I was reconnoitring the area. Every now and then a boom would announce that another bridge had gone. We found good spots from which observation could be maintained, then hurried back to the guns.

I have always believed in finding gun positions near a sunken road if possible. It is easy to drive dugouts quickly into the bank, giving great protection against bombs, besides making camouflage easy. Here we were lucky. There was a narrow, winding, sunken road overhung by trees, a perfect site. The guns of A and C Troops were sited under cover of trees on top of the forward bank, the guns of B Troop concealed among houses to the left front. Command-post, telephone exchange, cookhouses, ammunition dumps, and dug-outs for the men were hewn into the forward bank. We dug like slaves, two ex-miners giving valuable instruction in strutting shafts.

A little house behind B Troop served for our Mess. There was furniture, plate, and crockery, and the batmen made one room comfortable for us to feed in. One window overlooked our guns; there was a cellar below. The first meal we had there was next day. Some of us, relieved from duty for some food, were tackling a hot stew when a whizz and a crash shook the house. Nobody took much notice of it, or of the next one. But when the third arrived and clods of earth hurtled through the window, I ordered everyone into the cellar. We had just got down the steps when another explosion rocked the house. Nothing further came, so we went up to look. The Mess windows had been blown in, there were holes in the walls, the chair where I had been sitting was smashed, the table was a wreck and our food had disappeared.

Things got busy both ways. We were doing a lot of shooting. Our liaison with the infantry was close and cordial and they kept indicating targets to us. One of our observation posts was in a house overlooking the Escaut, on the far side of which was a large warehouse. The infantry battalion commander was anxious for us to bring up an 18-pounder gun to the canal bank after dark to take on this warehouse point-blank, as there were machine-guns in it. This, of course, was not a job for field guns, but a task for the infantry’s own mortars. They could not, however, take it on themselves because the B.E.F. had no H.E. for its mortars in France at all-only smoke.

Which reminds me that soon after our return from Dunkirk I was talking to the Colonel of a Highland battalion when I noticed some brand-new Army trucks outside his headquarters. “You seem to be getting re-equipped with transport pretty quickly,” I said, enviously. “My dear chap,” he replied. “We are completely re-armed. We’re now exactly as we were in France-even to the extent of having no H.E. for our mortars!”

At this observation post we gained real confidence in the Boyes anti-tank rifle. The enemy were trying to use amphibian tanks across the canal. An infantry officer at the observation post picked up the Boyes rifle and took one shot. We had great respect for the weapon after that. It is heavy and unwieldy, but effective.

There was plenty to be seen from this post. The enemy were very aggressive, particularly at night, attempting to get across the Escaut, so we got lots of shooting. The difficulty was in maintaining communications for controlling the fire of the guns, as the whole area around St. Maur, including observation posts and gun positions, was constantly shelled and bombed, so that telephone cable kept being cut to ribbons, and conditions were bad for wireless. Our signallers were constantly repairing lines under heavy shellfire; no easy task, searching in the darkness for broken ends of cable with shells falling around you and machine-gun fire added for a change. Dennis Clarke did magnificent work keeping our guns shooting in support of the infantry for many hours from an observation post constantly under fire, and Sergeant Wartnaby kept mending cable hour after hour through the night in a shelled area. Both were subsequently mentioned in despatches for this and other good work.

During a lull in our shooting the Hun made effective retaliation. The men were busy clearing away empty cartridge cases and hump ing shells from road to guns when the enemy opened up. It only lasted a few minutes and, considering that most shells landed plumb in the gun positions, we were very lucky. One killed, five wounded, three guns knocked out.

Poor old Bombardier [Thomas]Bennett. He had been one of the first recruits in Clapham days, one of the first to get a stripe. We buried him that afternoon, a grand padré from the Durham Light Infantry officiating. Sergeant ‘Slogger’ Slines looked a gory sight with several wounds in both legs but re-joined us in England later. The others were not badly wounded and insisted on carrying on after their wounds had been dressed by the M.O. Sergeant-major (now Major) Lavender, himself wounded, did good work in getting injured away under fire and in getting his guns into action again before allowing himself to be attended to; this was typical of his conduct throughout the blitz and at Dunkirk, for all of which he got mentioned in despatches. Anxious that this episode should not have a depressing effect on the men, I walked to the guns and shouted: “Well, boys, what about having some back at ’em for old Bennett?” There was a roar of approval. We put a dose of shell over at moving targets which could be seen from our observation posts, and it acted like a tonic on the men. When two Boche ‘planes came over us very low, there was not a Lewis gun nor a rifle that didn’t blaze away. About this time one of our cooks brought down a low-flying Messerschmitt with a Lewis gun at our wagon lines.

I was very worried at the loss of these three guns. They were quite unusable. The recuperators were full of holes, sights damaged, tyres in shreds; one gun had a direct hit on the piece itself. As things turned out, the loss of these guns saved our battery from subsequent annihilation, but that story comes later.

The problem of resting the men was becoming acute. The gunners were weary; they had had little sleep for days and had been firing their guns or humping shells backwards and forwards for many hours. When they were not doing either of these, they were digging hard to make shelter for themselves and the ammunition. We were short of gunners, for, in addition to wounded, we had had casualties from accidents and sickness. Fortunately, we had acquired useful reinforcements in two Coldstream Guardsmen and three privates from the Duke’s who had lost their battalions in the retreat. They were splendid fellows and became enthusiastic gunners. Few infantrymen realize how hard is the work and how great the strain for the gunner in battle, unless they have shared it with him as did these men of the Coldstream and the Duke’s.

Feeding the men was becoming another problem. It had not yet reached the stage where no rations could be obtained, but railway communications had been cut and, though the R.A.S.C. got what they could to us, this did not amount to much and mostly took the form of tinned stuff from French sources. A few hundred yards from us was a cluster of abandoned houses, one of which had been a shop. We found coffee, biscuits, and some eatable oddments; we killed some old hens that were running around and caught some rabbits.

Cigarettes were the thing which the men missed most. They had had none for some days. The following conversation gives some idea of the surfeit of cigars.

“Got a fag, mate?” I heard one man ask.

“No.”

“Ain’t ‘ad a smoke for free days.”

“Ave a cigar then. ‘Ere’s one.” “Gorblimey, no! Don’t want no more of them fings. I give old Nobby a whole box o’ them for two fags last week.” 

However, a few chaps liked them, so they scored. In our command-post dug-out the pungent aroma of cigars almost drowned the smell of earth, unwashed bodies, and musty battledress. Things were jumpy. Enemy air activity was great. Their trench mortars were active. At night SOS signals went up from the forward defended localities. Telephone wires kept getting cut.

At night, noise was preferable to silence. On the morning of 21 May things got very lively on the right. Our other battery was shelled out and had to move. We were kept busy shooting. When the noise had died down, we learned that the Hun had penetrated our lines at Antoing. In the afternoon orders came for another game of tip and run. My battery was to go last of all the guns in this sector, providing support for the remaining infantry until three o’clock next morning.

Gradually, as the evening wore on, we saw other troops move off along the main road. Dusk fell. Things became lively again in front. Up went an SOS. We blazed away. Other guns to the right, to the left, and behind us, joined in the din. Next time the SOS went up, few guns besides our own responded. Infantry marched past towards the rear. Behind us a 25-pounder battery fired at intervals, less frequent intervals, then intermittently, till at last it too petered out. Next time there was an outburst, ours were the only guns to fire.

Somebody touched me on the sleeve. “Hullo, sir,” said a cheery voice. “Have a spot out of my flask.” It was our M.O., Lacey, now prisoner of war, a grand little chap. “I’m stopping with you, sir, as long as there are men here,” he said, as I took a swig from his flask. “Things have been a bit hot round here to-day and there may be more casualties.”

Most Army doctors are the right stuff, and our Regiment has been lucky. Little Lacey was conscientious, likable, full of guts. Old Doc Browning, his successor, now commanding a hospital train in the Middle East, who used to keep muttering “My God! My God!” to himself, was a fine soldier as well as a great M.O.

I decided to send off A Troop at 1.30 a.m., B Troop at 2 a.m., two guns of C Troop at 2.30 a.m., and the last two guns at 3 a.m. Despite some rather nasty shelling, A Troop got away to time, and so did B Troop. They had fired eight hundred rounds that evening. It looked as though everything would go without a hitch, but I reckoned without Harry Baird.

Harry, New Zealander, champion swimmer, Rugger player, chartered accountant, famous for his exhibition Maori dances, suffers from a persecution complex at times. 

It was about 2.15 a.m. when Basil, his troop commander, came to me while his guns were still firing and a Boche ‘plane was laying eggs along the main Tournai Road. “Trouble with Harry, sir,” he announced.

“What is it-persecution again?” I asked. Basil nodded. “Won’t take his guns away. Says he is entitled to stay to the last.”

Harry had been detailed to take the first two guns of the troop away at two-thirty, the remaining two guns to be brought off by Basil at three o’clock. Harry claimed that as Gun Position Officer he should stay to take the last two guns away himself. Persecution ! We had awful trouble in getting him and his guns away. Now if we had been going towards the Boches, instead of away from them, Harry would have wanted to go first. He is now a Major in another regiment, having well earned promotion. Basil has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia.

At three o’clock I told Basil to cease fire. The last shell sang through the air towards the Hun lines. Away went Basil’s guns. I took a last look round. Everything seemed very quiet. I had a chat to the infantry commander close by; they were not leaving for another two hours.

Doc Lacey climbed into his truck. I waved him on, climbed into my own Humber Snipe, and we crawled away.

*********

XV

FARMHOUSE PARTY

EVERYTHING was quiet as we left St. Maur. [ERE] The infantry were not leaving until two hours later, covered by the mobile troops. We had a clear run through, except for slight bombing; consequently, I knew that the enemy must be miles away and was contemptuous when I found a terrific flap in progress on reaching Bouvines.

Two guns were unlimbered and facing up the road along which I had just come. Men with Lewis guns and rifles were posted in hiding-places overlooking the road.

“Thank heaven you’ve arrived, sir,” exclaimed Stephen. “They’ll be here any minute.”

“Who?” I asked. “The Boches !

Tanks!”

I replied with one word- unprintable. “Let the men get breakfast and some rest,” I added. “But there’s a terrific flap on, sir. Brass Hats and…”

I repeated the unprintable word with emphasis. “Tell my batman to get me some water for a shave, and make some tea,” I said. “Where’s Dennis?” “Up the road at a tank look-out,” replied Stephen. Seeing that

I was determined not to be concerned with flaps till I had had a clean-up and a hot drink, he went off to see about the men’s breakfast. Later on I went to find Dennis. He was sitting in a signal box at a railway crossing. All he could see from there was two hundred yards of road in front. Two of his guns were just beyond the road crest behind him. “What on earth is this?” I asked.

“My observation post,” he replied. “But the line we are going to hold is a mile and a half ahead.

You can’t see anything from here.” “I know. But there’s a flap on, and I’ve been posted here to watch for tanks coming down this road.”

“If you see any tanks coming, they’ll be our own,” I laughed.

“There aren’t any Boches within ten miles. You’ll find a good observation post up on the hill beyond Cysoing from which you’ll be able to see all the enemy country. Take my truck and go there. I’ll wait here till you send it back.” Dennis went off. I explored an abandoned estaminet by the crossing and found an aluminium bath which I decided to take along and have a good scrub down at the earliest opportunity. Just then a car drove up and out got a tall, burly Brigadier with a cheery grin. “Are those your guns behind there?” he asked. “Yes, sir. But I’m going to move them now. I’ve just got back from Tournai to find a flap on. Some silly twerp ordered this road to be watched for tanks. There can’t be a Boche tank within miles.” “I’m the twerp, then,” he chuckled gaily. “There have been reports of isolated tanks breaking through on the left, but they seem to have been unfounded.”

So, it was I who felt the twerp. Such was my introduction to ‘Mossy’ Marshall, under whose command we were to come. He was a great sport and a good soldier. I shipped the bath aboard my truck and drove to the gun positions. We straddled the three Troops round a farm, with battery headquarters in the farmhouse. [SAINGHIN EN MELANTOIS] There was a tragic atmosphere about the Ferme de la Cour, an atmosphere of hasty departure, of the abandonment of all that had made life sweet for its owners. Children’s toys were scattered about. Children’s picture-books. A battered doll lay on a cushion on the sofa. Drawers were pulled out, cupboards open, clothing and linen all over the floor and chairs. Photographs. More photographs. Water-colour paintings, obviously the work of a young girl. The farm’s owner must have been a veterinary surgeon, for books on animal anatomy and animal surgery crowded the shelves. On a chest of drawers upstairs was a locket, imprisoning strands of auburn hair.

Outside in the walled-in courtyard were carts and farm implements of all kinds which came in handy for tank barricades. Chickens scuttled squawking out of barns, there were pigs, any amount of vegetables, and a little enclosed flower-garden with masses of honeysuckle. While Stephen and I were walking round this garden we were sniped at. Two distinct shots, one bullet striking the wall behind us. Stephen then told me that his truck had been fired at as he drove into the village during the night, the bullet perforating the radiator. We sent armed parties to search the houses and cellars, but could find nothing, though the window of a house overlooking our gun positions bore traces of having been recently opened. We suspected the belfry of the church and determined to have a watch kept on this.

Digging went on apace in the gun positions. In the cellars we established our command-post and telephone exchange. Meanwhile a good hot meal had been got ready. Rations had now failed, and we realized we must expect to feed ‘on the country’ from now on. Actually, for the next few days we fed well, killing pigs, chickens, and rabbits, and finding plenty of vegetables. The things we missed most were bread, butter, tea, sugar and salt.

The last of our tea we had for that first meal in the farm. I sipped it and put down my mug. Boots looked at me. “Orange?” he suggested. Orange it was. Some oranges had been found in the house and the batmen had been making marmalade in the dixie which they used for making tea. We had frequently had ‘onion tea’ and ‘petrol tea’ at Visterie, and at Herissart we had ‘carbolic tea’ after the batmen had scoured all cooking utensils with disinfectant which the maire’s wife had given them. But ‘orange tea’ was an innovation. At this meal also I noticed large black specks in the soup made from parsnips out of the garden. “Look at that dirt in the soup.” I said to the batman. “Dirt?” he exclaimed indignantly, “That’s not dirt, sir. That’s COAL!”-as though it were a delicacy. Just after we had fed, I was sent for by the Colonel. He looked half-pleased, half-sad. “I’m afraid we’ve got to part company,” he announced. “I have got to go straight off-a long way-with my headquarters and Major Milton’s 367 battery. Yours will stay on this part of the front, and you will report to Colonel Griffith-Williams.” I sensed some Big Party in the wind. “Look here, sir,” I said. “Mine is the senior battery. I think that entitles it to be the one to come with you.” He smiled. “I’m afraid it can’t be done. I’ve got specific orders that I must take a battery with its full complement of guns and three of yours have been knocked out, you know.”

Little did I dream that the loss of those three guns was thus to mean the saving of my men’s lives and liberty. We shook hands and wished each other good luck. I have not seen Colonel Odling since. He was one of the seriously wounded officers for whose exchange and repatriation the Red Cross worked so hard but were foiled at the last minute by the Hun’s double-cross. I only hope that further efforts may be successful.

So Odling and his 367 Battery went off to join Macforce, a special task force under General Mason-Macfarlane; and I reported to Colonel Griffith-Williams (affectionately known as ‘G.W.’ and now a Brigadier), who allotted me a zone which meant that in order to cover it I must move our guns a little way round the farm-another bit of unforeseen luck, for no sooner had we got our guns moved than their old positions were heavily shelled.

This move took a considerable time in the dark. The infantry were jumpy that evening, partly owing to the threat of attack on the left sector, partly due to relief of our troops on the right by D.I.N.A. (French North African Colonial troops). Several SOS signals went up calling for our fire. I could therefore only move one gun per troop at a time.

In the early hours we were worried again by Fifth Column activities. Two drivers were sniped from a wood while filling up with petrol. During the night, A Troop’s picket lamp had been removed. Soon after dawn shots were fired at A Troop’s gunners from a large wood three hundred yards in rear. An armed party was sent to search the wood. As they approached, fire was opened on them from the trees and Gunner Thomas was shot through the chest. The wood was combed, but no one was found, though a civilian was seen in the distance riding away on a cycle from that direction. Some infantry helped to search but were equally unlucky.

We were also worried by the sudden return of French refugees from the rear who said they had been sent back by the French authorities. Some alleged that they had been captured by the Boches who had told them to go back home-a new way of aggravating the refugee problem. I found civilians walking near our gun positions and moving into the houses around us. This constituted a grave menace, particularly in view of the sniping that was already going on round here. These people professed to be French from the neighbourhood, but there was no way of checking their bona fides, for as usual there were no civilian authorities available; and the village was getting a goodly share of shelling and bombing. We could not tolerate starving, panic-stricken, homeless, and possibly treacherous people wandering round our defences. As we could get no orders what to do, I had them all rounded up, gave them a fill of soup and potatoes (all we could manage), loaded them on lorries, and had them dumped in a village many miles behind our lines.

Among this collection we detained a man in civilian clothes claiming to be a Belgian soldier who said he had escaped through the Boche lines and could give useful information as to the where abouts, strength, and armament of the enemy. He told a remarkable tale of the Boches being in Arras, Abbeville, and Boulogne. This in fact was true, but none of us believed it at the time; all these places were well behind us, and it sounded fantastic. The B.E.F. soldier had no idea how things were going except on his own immediate front; true, he kept on retreating, but so convinced was he from experience of his own superiority over the Hun that he firmly believed we ourselves would be attacking before long. We sent the Belgian off to Divisional Headquarters and heard later that they were much impressed with his story. Two deserters from the French Army were handed over by us to the French military authorities; and a man in British officer’s uniform, with no identity card and an unconvincing story, was handed over to the Field Security Police.

That was one side of a busy day. There was also a more cheerful side. The Boches had penetrated the eastern outskirts of Lille; news came through that an abandoned N.A.A.F.I. there was full of stores and that any unit could send transport to salve what they could. We sent three lorries. They returned with a haul of a quarter of a million cigarettes, tins of cocoa, apricots and pears, slabs of chocolate, soap and all kinds of toilet requisites. The drink was the disappointment. There was no beer, no whisky. The only alcohol left was Cointreau-three cases of it. We were determined that the men, who were cold and weary, should have a drink to buck them up, but you cannot dish out whole bottles of Cointreau to the troops-some of them would swig it down like beer. So, we decided to keep it under strict control and issue a small ration to each man who wanted it after they had fed. Every man was issued with several hundred cigarettes. Once they had got a ‘fag’ again, they had no use for cigars-they started throwing away whole boxes of cigars which the officers salved and smoked.

We killed a pig and that night the men had pork, vegetables and rice. Bread, butter, tea, and salt were the only things missing. That day and the following night we did a great deal of shooting Our main observation post was in a concrete pillbox on the lip of the anti-tank ditch three hundred yards in front of the main infantry defended localities. It formed part of the defences which the B.E.F. had been constructing for months before the blitz. You could not reach it by daylight, all reliefs being made at night. From here our officers, particularly Dennis, did some real good shooting.

Having been on duty all night I emerged from the command post at dawn to see a batman sitting on a box in the courtyard cleaning his officer’s boots. There was an enormous cigar in his mouth. He took a glance at a Boche ‘plane overhead, paused in his work, stooped to pick up a bottle, and raised it to his mouth. To my horror, I saw it was a bottle of Cointreau. At four o’clock in the morning!

The day was again a busy one, shells flying backwards and forwards. Ammunition still seemed to be plentiful, thanks to good work by our quartermaster-sergeant, and we were paying the Hun full measure. Real rabbit-shooting, it was.

In the afternoon I was sent for by Mossy. Divisional Headquarters were in an enormous subterranean model of engineering, sixty feet below the surface; rumour said it had originally been intended for Gamelin’s headquarters. I searched through the rooms below in vain. I should have appraised Mossy more accurately than to waste time doing that; although bombing was going on, he was in a house above, where he stood me a hefty whisky, told me my battery was now directly under his command, hinted at a coming counter-attack, and sent me back to the farm full of pep.

I sat down to write a farewell note to G.W., as we had ceased to be under his command. I remember ending up with: “No rations, but lots of ammunition, and our tails right UP.” Weeks afterwards in England, G.W. showed me that note, which he still had in his pocket.

That evening our boys had a concert in the courtyard. They dragged a piano out of the farm, and unearthed coloured shirts, top hats and things, which they put on over their uniform. It was great fun; spoilt for a moment when some shells dropped close by.

Our own guns, which were firing most of the time, served as drums for the music. Later, by accident, we got tuned-in to London on an Army wireless set. To our amazement we heard the King’s voice speaking. Till then, we had had no idea things were so serious. After the speech was finished, we joined in ‘God Save the King’. Then some more shells came over. Just another day.

*************

XVI

CIRCUS PARTY

LATE that evening there was a terrific flap. The Boches, it was said, had taken Carvin, twelve miles to our right rear. One infantry brigade of the 42nd Division was detailed to move back and face this menace to our rear, and our battery was ordered in support. Actually, what had happened was that there were British troops in reserve close to Carvin when the Hun reached there. These troops had a live Brigadier. The moment he heard the news, he took his men and smote the Hun out of Carvin without waiting for orders. Still, Boche forces were apparently coming up from the south-west, and that situation had to be faced.

The Brigade took up a defensive position astride the river about Seclin. Our guns (only nine of which were fit for action) had to cover a five-mile front. Our observation posts were by the quaint old fortifications, Fort Vendeville and Fort Seclin.

Except for a terrific amount of rushing about reconnoitring, getting guns into action, laying miles of telephone cable, dodging bombs, and liaising with the infantry, this day was noteworthy for only four things:

(1) Sergeant Bartley was shot in the back by a sniper (presumably Fifth Column) as he took his gun through Vendeville in the dark.

(2) We were quite unable to raise any food, but fortunately still had odd tins of stuff scrounged from the Lille N.A.A.F.I. We made soup from carrots found in a barn.

(3) The Boches bombed Seclin for hours, obviously in the belief that a French Army Headquarters was there. This made us chuckle, for we knew that it was in the next village, which did not get a single bomb.

(4) We came in contact here with French troops moving in as we moved out. They were very different from the rag-tag-and bobtail mob we had encountered previously in French uniform. Both infantry and artillery were smart, keen and well equipped. Unlike other French troops we had seen, they looked as if they really meant to fight.

That evening I was sent for by Brigadier Sutton, commanding the infantry brigade. The usual story-another retreat. brigade was to retire and take up a position facing in the opposite direction, along the canal south-west of the Citadel at Lille. Our battery was to go to Lomme and wait for further orders.

Lomme is some way out of Lille on the way to Armentières. Armentières is the night-nursery of the wealthy industrial magnates of Lille, whilst Lomme houses the lower strata of the well-to-do. It is modern, well laid-out, rather English in appearance, with attractive houses surrounded by moderate-sized gardens. There were no civilians left, and the place showed signs of bombing, but it seemed like a haven of peace to us when we arrived. We hid guns and transport under the trees which lined the streets and established ourselves in a girls’ school.

“Blimey!” I heard someone say. “Clapham all over again. Why do they always take the bits of skirt away first?”

It was obviously the type of school which Victorian novelists would have described as a High-class Academy for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. The flowers in the vases on the classroom desks were withered; the abandoned rooms were musty for lack of air; the piano needed tuning; but the place had clearly radiated a bright and cheerful atmosphere in normal times. We found food and wine in the larders.

In a house nearby we discovered what had obviously been an Ordnance store. Hundreds of suits of battledress, boots, respirators, tin hats, and shorts, lay there abandoned. Our men’s clothing was torn and mud-stained, some blood-stained; their boots were worn, shirts and socks were filthy. Our quartermaster-sergeant (now Lieutenant-Quartermaster) Harrison soon got to work and in half an hour every man in the battery was fully equipped with new clothes. That increased morale no end. So that we should leave nothing for the Boches, our men’s discarded clothing was ripped to pieces.

Then the bombing started. Houses came tumbling down in nearby streets, windows were smashed, splinters of glass flew all round. The whole place shook. Some of our vehicles were badly damaged. This damage to our transport was worrying me when I ran into an officer whose transport was parked in a road close by. He told an extraordinary story that his unit was being sent back to England, and that he would have to abandon some vehicles. I did not believe this yarn, especially as he hinted darkly that other units had already gone, but as he seemed quite definite about leaving some of his transport, I jumped at the chance of making up deficiencies. We got some good Austin cars, some motorbikes, and a lorry.

Then came orders from Mossy Marshall to report to him at Le Bizet. The battery got on the move at once.

Going through Houplines, at the crossroads before you come to the bridge over the Lys, I spotted an athletic figure under a brass hat, addressing a junior French officer emphatically. He looked up as my truck passed by and waved. It was David. I jumped out and ran back to him.

General Davidson is a good linguist. His French is really fluent. He was doing good work at this spot. A column of French troops was trying to cut across the British route. This was happening all over the place, by French and Belgians as well. All added on to the refugee problem. It was another instance of the tragic results of the lack of administrative liaison between the Allies. David was being adamant, the British must have priority; they were moving into battle.

“Where are you going?” he asked me. I explained that I had a date with Mossy at Le Bizet.

“Then get him to ask his Divisional Commander to send someone to take over traffic control here. I have been doing it for two hours, and I must get away to do my own job.”

At Le Bizet I found Mossy, cheerful as ever. While waiting for him, I was accosted by several civilians who pointed out a dirty, unshaven, unkempt man wandering aimlessly about the street. “Shoot him!” they said. “A spy! A Boche spy!” Asked what grounds they had for saying this, they could say nothing but that he would not talk to anyone, but always seemed to be listening to what other people said. We arrested him and tried to interrogate him. He had a wild look in his eye, and was quite obviously a deaf-mute, so we let him go, much to the chagrin of his compatriots.

Mossy’s orders were for us to support Brigadier Sutton’s brigade astride the Lys against attack from Armentières to Houplines. Under my command was placed a battery, commanded by Tom Hardy, from G.W.’s regiment, in addition to my own battery. We were busily engaged getting guns of both batteries into action in pursuance of these orders when Mossy reappeared, piece of paper is hand. Another terrific flap! The Boches had been seen in Messines behind us as we were facing then. I was to report at once to Vis Division Headquarters at Ploegsteert, up the road. I sent Dennis off to warn Tom Hardy, and raced off myself to Ploegsteert, which I had not seen for twenty-four years.

There, at the end of the village, beneath the shadow of the notorious Ploegsteert Wood, I met two heartening sights. One was batch of Hun prisoners being marched up and down outside Divisional Headquarters; the other was John Barry’s calm, slow smile. Brigadier Barry commanded the artillery of the Fifth Division and is another of the war’s good Brass Hats. This was the first time I had met him; subsequently we were to serve under him in England.

He was smoking a cigarette through the inevitable holder when I reported. His surprise may have been genuine; it may have been the calm indifference of the leader who never betrays anxiety; a any rate, he was sceptical about this story of Messines, but certainly was not going to reject the offer of an 18-pounder battery with a 25-pounder battery added. He told me to get the batteries up to the neighbourhood of Wytschaete, where Colonel Tyson would be able to give me the situation on the spot.

We had a tough job getting through Neuve Église. The village had just had a tidy strafing; broken glass, fallen masonry, and dead horses of some French artillery lay across the main street. The road was blocked with vehicles. I imagined that the way was impassable until I went ahead to see; it was only the excitable confusion of the French which prevented progress. We soon got things moving and drove out along the road to Wulverghem. From here we could see Messines and the famous ridge. Were the Boches really there or not? I studied the village carefully through my glasses. “Rot 1” I announced. “There are no Boches in Messines.”

An hour later my 18-pounders were coming into action near the Bois de l’Enfer, just behind the Messines Ridge to the right of Wytschaete, and Tom Hardy’s 25-pounders were pulling into position round Wulverghem; my own headquarters were established in a cottage off the Wytschaete road. Everybody started digging like hell. One of my difficulties was how to run what was in fact a regiment (two batteries) without a regimental headquarter staff. I made Peter Booth ‘adjutant’, and he did his stuff well.

For the next twenty-four hours we had a lively time. Whether or not the Boches had ever been in Messines, things were certainly jumpy round these parts. The situation was, as the official phrase goes, ‘fluid’; so fluid that it was impossible to keep track of where our infantry were along the front. Pluto was out in an armoured carrier with wireless on our left front; Dennis and Cliff on our right, with cable which kept getting cut by shellfire. Gunner Bruckland, sent out to repair cable, must have walked into a Boche patrol, for we never heard of him again until, weeks later, he was officially reported prisoner-of-war. Then three infantrymen came running out of Wytschaete with news that Boches were coming over the ridge. I got Pluto on the wireless, and he assured me that there was not a Boche within half a mile of the village; he could see them and was shooting at them. We had received no rations, but there was some livestock about, so the men got something to eat.

All through the night things were lively. We had several SOS calls. The Boches penetrated fifteen hundred yards into our lines on the left, and on the right the position was obscure. We did quite a lot of shooting, and there was hostile shelling of Wytschaete and in front of our guns, with some low bombing. The telephone cable kept getting cut all night. There was that feeling in the air that anything might happen at any moment.

Next morning there was a counterattack by the Inniskillings and the Guards, our troop commanders well forward shooting their guns. The Hun was driven back and things looked good. I was just ordering our battery to advance the other side of Wytschaete when John Barry walked into the cottage. He was smiling, but serious, and said he wanted to speak to me alone.

The story he unfolded was flabbergasting. The B.E.F. was to be withdrawn from France, as it was almost entirely surrounded. A strip of coast was being held from Nieuport to Dunkirk from which the troops would be embarked. The embarkation was to be covered by the Navy, and the R.A.F. had guaranteed to concentrate the whole of its resources on protecting this operation. No guns, no transport, no equipment of any kind could be embarked-only what the men stood up in. The Brigadier glanced at a small dispatch case he was carrying. “That’s all I’ll take,” he said.

Emphasizing how essential it was that our part of the line should be firmly held for the rest of the day, he gave the following orders. My own battery was to fire off all its ammunition, so far as possible on enemy movement that we could see, the remainder on targets to be selected by myself where shelling would be likely to interfere with the enemy’s communications, concentrations, or movement of reserves. I was to order Hardy’s battery to fire off all its ammunition likewise, except fifty rounds per gun. The whole of the above shooting by both batteries was to be spread out so that fire was kept up until nine-thirty that evening, the firing to ‘taper off’ for the last two hours in order not to arouse suspicion in the enemy lines by ending abruptly. At nine-thirty Hardy’s battery would cease to be under my command and would accompany Colonel Tyson’s regiment to take up a flank-guard position south of Dunkirk. Every piece of equipment belonging to our own battery was to be destroyed or rendered useless and abandoned; the guns were to be destroyed on ceasing fire; nothing, however, must be burnt, as fires might make the enemy suspect what was happening. It was most important to reduce congestion on the roads to the minimum; therefore, we were not to take more vehicles than were absolutely necessary to get our men to the coast.

I could hardly believe my ears. I went straight off to Tyson when the Brigadier had gone. “I’ve come to make sure that I’m not mad,” I said. “I’ve just had the most incredible orders from someone I believe to be Brigadier Barry; but as I’ve only seen the Brigadier once before, and then only for a few minutes, I want to make sure from you that it really was he and not some enemy agent dressed up in uniform.” Well, you know the answer I got.

I sent for all officers and senior N.C.O.s, told them the position, and ordered them to explain everything to their men. It was a bitter moment for us all. Like the rest of the B.E.F., we felt the Hun could be beaten if only we were allowed to go for him. On the Dyle, on the Escaut, at Cysoing, we had taken part in scraps where with our own eyes we had seen that our infantry were more than a match for the enemy infantry, despite their inferior equipment, and our own gunners as good as theirs, too. Had we not driven the Boches back here only an hour or two ago? Only in the air did it seem that he could do what he liked, and we could go on sticking that, as we had stuck it up till now. In any event, we would rather fight and be beaten than run away. To a gunner, the idea of destroying his guns is sacrilege. We were not disheartened, or even alarmed at the plight

of the army-we were embittered, enraged, and ashamed. The British soldier is as grand a fighter as ever his forebears were. He has the guts, the heart, and the will to stand and fight things out to the bitter end-to death, if necessary. But we seem to have lost the art of allowing him to do so.

Dunkirk, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tobruk-these are not proud pages in the history of our land. Economy in lives must ever be the aim of our leaders. But there is false economy. The sacrifice of thousands may in the end save millions. And the tragedy is that this is the policy in a war where the Hun is not the Hun of 1914-1918. True, he is better equipped, better led, more ruthlessly prepared, more highly trained; but the dogged will to stand and fight when things are going wrong is not in him as it was in the men who stood and died for every inch of mud in the long battles of the Somme two decades ago. He is made to fight-whereas our lads want to fight and are not allowed to do so.

I have never seen men so furious, never seen so much venom or determination put into obedience of orders, as on the Messines Ridge that gloomy evening in May. If things had to be destroyed then, by God, they should be destroyed whole-heartedly! I am quite certain that not one single piece of our equipment has since been of the slightest use to the Boches.

Those who could be spared from fighting duties must begin the work of destruction at once. We burnt all documents and maps, except the maps required to get us to the coast. All kit, blankets, and spare clothing were slashed, ripped to pieces with knives, torn to shreds and buried in the mud. We smashed to pieces all our artillery instruments except those small enough to be carried and buried them. Gun tractors, watercarts, and vehicles not required for the journey, were driven down to the bank of the Douvre at Wulverghem; there they were smashed up by shooting bullets through petrol tanks, removing carburettors, taking off all fittings, breaking windscreens, slashing tyres to shreds, bashing radiators with pick-axes, and then pushing the wreck into the water. We broke, bent, smashed, and completely wrecked all signalling and wireless equipment, and buried the remains, or threw them into the river.

I have never seen such display of hatred. The men would raise their picks in the air, and shout: “. the… Boche!” as they brought the pick down with all their might on to some expensive and useful bit of equipment. Tears were in the drivers’ eyes as they pushed a battered, ruined ‘Alice’ or ‘Rosie’ into the river-tears of rage. Nothing must be left for the accursed Hun. In the cottage where our headquarters where we smashed everything and gutted the place. Every cup, chair, table, window, we broke to pieces. The water-tank we fouled with petrol and filth. Anti-Nazi propaganda was written on the walls. There were a lot of animals about, and these, of course, must not be left for the Hun to eat. We shot all cows, calves, goats, pigs and chickens. We put aside some chickens for a meal for the men before they left; the carcases of the rest were soaked with petrol and acid from the accumulators, in order to leave nothing fit for human consumption.

While this was going on, we were fulfilling our primary task of killing as many Huns as possible. We had three thousand rounds of ammunition left, and every one of these must be made to do its maximum damage so far as lay in our power. Dennis Clarke and Cliff Hackett hid themselves in a haystack just behind our forward infantry, each with telephonic communication to his guns; Pluto spent hours in an armoured carrier right up in the front, shooting the third Troop’s guns by wireless. We shot at parties of enemy infantry, transport in the distance, tanks, and mortars which were worrying our infantry. Our chaps would kiss each shell as they shoved it in the breech, and it would go hurtling from the muzzle with oaths and cries of hatred from the gunners. Much of this shooting was observed to inflict casualties on the enemy.

There was other excitement, too. Enemy air activity, bombing, shelling, and several flaps that the enemy were coming over the ridge, when infantry came running out of the village to form defensive posts on the road and anti-tank guns were rushed into position close by us, but nothing materialized. At 7 p.m. I sent off all officers and personnel not needed for firing the guns. Many of them had rifles, and I sent some of the Lewis guns and anti-tank rifles with them.

At 8 p.m. I ordered A Troop to cease fire and destroy their guns. This they did, removing breech-blocks, smashing range-drums, buckling brakes, slashing rubber tyres, removing dial-sights and sight clinometers. The sergeant of each gun was ordered to drop the breech-block in the first river or canal he crossed, and to get the dial-sight and sight clinometer to England. Jack Leaman then took A Troop off.

At 8.45 p.m. I ordered C Troop to do the same, and Harry Baird, who had a broken wrist, took them away. I knew the three Troop Commanders would want to stay to the end, so kept them with me. At 9.30 p.m. B Troop had the honour of firing the last shell we had left. The battery had fired 3,107 rounds that day. At 9.50 p.m. B Troop had finished destroying their guns, and Boots led them off. We were the last guns to leave, but only a few minutes after Tom Hardy’s. It was now just dark.

After they had all gone, Dennis Clarke, Cliff Hackett, Basil Strahan and I took a last look at the fires burning in Wytschaete, climbed into our trucks, and turned towards Wulverghem.

********

XVII

BATHING PARTY

ORDERS were to go to Beveren, fifteen miles from the coast, where we should find a report centre. The route we were to follow brought back last-war memories: Locre -Westoutre- Wulverghem-Dranoutre- Reninghelst- Poperinghe -Rousbrugge. Actual distance was less than thirty miles. In fact, the journey took ten hours.

At Wulverghem we caught up with the tail of the heterogeneous mass crawling north-west; infantry in lorries and trucks of all descriptions, gunners in lorries, sappers in lorries, Staff in cars, guns, armoured carriers, all mixed up together, all without lights in the darkness.

Normally three cardinal rules govern Army columns on the road; vehicles must travel at intervals of approximately one hundred yards; no double-banking is allowed; no vehicles of one unit must ‘cut in’ to the column of another unit. Here, all vehicles were ‘nose to tail’ two distinct columns crawled along side by side; vehicles of different units were all sandwiched in and jumbled up. It was to be like this all the way-even worse, later on. It was not a question of bad discipline; everybody was calm, patient, the vehicles well-controlled. It was just inevitable.

Through Dranoutre we crept, on towards Locre. Fires lit up the sky all round. Flashes of bursting shell appeared on our right. At Locre we struck the road from Bailleul, and here real trouble began. Our columns were calm and well disciplined, the drivers making no attempt to scramble ahead, machine-gunners and anti-tank riflemen standing alert in their vehicles, weapons in hand. But here we ran into disorganization-panic; uncontrolled parties of French infantry, Belgian soldiers without arms on bicycles, French cavalry, Belgian cavalry, refugees, all careering and pushing in and out between our trucks, scrambling to get ahead, shouting, swearing.

The blockage became so great in Locre that we remained at a standstill for two and a half hours. One could see quite distinctly all the vehicles that hemmed us in, and the roofs of the houses beyond them, because of the light in the sky from the burning villages around. All through this long wait one had the clatter of horses’ hoofs ringing in one’s ears, as the Belgians spurred and jagged their weary animals forward.

We had been told there was a ‘corridor’ to the coast between the surrounding German hordes. I suppose the British always treat everything in a blasé way; at any rate, I’m sure none of us had really pictured a very narrow corridor. How narrow it was, was brought home vividly to us as we moved out of Locre along the open road to Westoutre. Verey lights were going up into the sky to the right of us, away to the left of us, behind us, and, it seemed, in front of us too. I remember wondering vaguely if we would get through. I could foresee trouble in collecting our chaps the other end-or earlier, if we bumped the Boche. Dennis Clarke and Basil Strahan were in the back of my truck, myself standing in the front beside Hearn; Cliff was in his truck just in front with two wireless signallers in the back; how far ahead in this vast column were the rest of our chaps, I had no idea and no means of finding out. Some of them must be many miles ahead, for they had left hours before us. Boots and his gang were probably a few hundred yards in front but how could one tell?

It was daylight as we crawled into Reninghelst.  Ruins on our left were still smouldering. A couple of anti-tank guns were pointing ominously up roads to right and left. Refugees were huddled in a ditch. Belgian soldiers on bicycles were pushing madly in and out of the column. Shells were bursting away to the right, the sound of bombs ahead. At Poperinghe the jam was at its worst. We were brought to a standstill in the main square. I stood up in my truck and looked around. There were seven distinct rows of traffic, each row wheel to wheel with the row to either flank, every vehicle nose to tail. Just at that moment a big Dornier, flying low, circled slowly over the town; in a second there would be a real shambles. Nothing could escape; neither man nor vehicle could move. But he flew off to the south. No bombs left, perhaps; but he would be sure to send back information, and then either the shells or the bombs would come. However, the mass quivered, then moved on, and we were well along the road before some big stuff crashed behind us.

At Rousbrugge the main road bore to the left. There was a signpost showing it led to Dunkirk. The minor road to Beveren went straight on. To my surprise the whole mass was veering left along the main road to Dunkirk; I had assumed they would all have been ordered to Beveren like us. It was an almost impossible task to get out of the column. Still, orders are orders, and we had got to get to Beveren. We managed it in the end.

Beveren is a tiny hamlet, consisting principally of the church. There was some sort of Belgian headquarters in a small house, but no sign of any British headquarters or report centre. Seeing a major of a Highland regiment walking about, I asked if he knew where the “I’ve been searching for it for hours myself,” he groused. “The blighters don’t appear to have turned up.” report centre was. “Or else they’ve vamoosed,” I said cynically.

What was worrying me far more was the fact that none of our battery was there. They had all had orders to come to this place and they had all left hours before we four had left. What had happened to them all? I posted Hearn by the church to look out for any of our chaps entering the village, and Cliff then went back to Rousbrugge to make inquiries while Dennis Clarke and I searched the village again.

After hanging about for some time, news arrived that some of the earlier masses of troops had lost their bearings in the dark and taken the wrong road; some of our chaps were among that lot, had found their way back to the main route, and were some miles back in the midst of the dense crawling columns.

There was no one to whom to report, no one from whom to obtain orders, and the situation was obscure. I therefore decided that, as we had destroyed our guns and were consequently no longer any use as a fighting unit, our duty was to save the lives of our men if possible. As soon as I could collect or contact them in the column behind, I would take them all to Dunkirk.

Just then Ambrose drove through the village. He pulled up and got out. Though pale and weary-eyed, he was his usual dynamic self, and had, like me, the inevitable coloured forage cap on his head. He confirmed my intention to get the men to Dunkirk but said that enemy tanks were in Warhem and advised me to wait a little to see if the situation clarified. He also told me that some fool had blown most of the bridges over the canal between us and Dunkirk forty-eight hours too soon. and the main road I went. So back to Rousbrugge There I walked for some two or three miles back along the columns and eventually found most of our lost vehicles interspersed here and there amongst those of other units. All kinds of regiments and arms of the Service were jumbled up together hopelessly. Obviously, it would be quite impossible to extricate our vehicles from this mass, which was maintaining a pace of about two miles an hour.

I therefore sent a dispatch rider down the column to tell each of our vehicles to proceed as best it could to Dunkirk, where I would leave a guide outside the town with further orders. I decided to go ahead myself to find out the position.

Walking back to Rousbrugge, I was going about three times the pace of the column. At the cross-roads was a tall Brigadier, controlling the traffic. Bombs were falling, but he was quite unconcerned. It was Mossy. “Hullo, you old warrior,” he smiled, as I went up to him to report what I was proposing to do. He told me there were rumours that the Boche was on the outskirts of Dunkirk, and that in any event he thought it unlikely that anybody could get into the town by the main road, but that it would be advisable to take one of the roads to the east. However, I decided to try. If there were any Boches in the neighbourhood of Dunkirk it was essential that I should get ahead of my men to find out in advance the actual position before they got near the place, so, with such vehicles as were with me, I set off. Dennis and Basil were in my truck-we were all armed; Cliff was in the truck behind; and Boots in another truck with a Lewis gun and an anti-tank rifle manned by the men in the back.

Progress was very slow; partly because large numbers of vehicles and guns had been destroyed and left in the roadway; partly because of hostile shelling; partly because every time a low-flying enemy ‘plane came over, which was pretty often, the French drivers leapt out of their vehicles to hide in the ditch.

Around Seclin we had seen good French troops; here it seemed we must be among the dregs of the French Army. One panic stricken French major, trying to scramble past the column, ditched his car. Rushing up to Boots’s (Robert Crichton-Brown) truck, he tried to pull the driver out of the seat, presumably in order to clamber in himself. When Boots shouted at him, the major pulled out his revolver, mad with terror. Bang went the Entente Cordiale, and Boots slogged him hard on the jaw. It was the only way to calm the man down. A little further on, the driver of a French lorry at the side of my truck kept honking his horn and screaming like a maniac at the driver in front to let him pass, which, of course, was quite impossible in this jam. The Frenchman then went mad. Jamming his foot on the accelerator, he jumped his lorry forward full tilt at the tailboard of the truck in front. I jumped out and dealt with him; his eyes were wild, he was dribbling at the mouth, and screaming oaths at everybody. However, the sight of my revolver had a calming influence and he behaved himself after that. We came across a column of French lorries, engines still running, abandoned by their drivers right in the centre of the road. It was a pathetic sight, too, to see some French cavalrymen slide off their horses and jump into passing lorries, leaving their terrified mounts to fend for themselves. he was

I must say I felt rather proud of my own countrymen that day. Not a sign of panic or bad discipline did I see among any British troops. They showed up well beside their allies. The boys of our battery were no exception; they were alert and cheerful, and the lads in the back of Boots Brown’s truck were singing ‘The Quarter master’s Stores’-our own version, which had a verse for each of our own officers: There was

Brown, Brown, With his trousers down, In the Stores, in the Stores’.

Boots Crichton-Brown grinned.

A sharp crack rang out. An anti-tank gun had opened fire. Away to our left we saw a Boche tank disappear behind a wood. Ahead we could see great columns of smoke, and flames stabbing the sky above the trees. We could feel the heat of the fires even at this distance. The small town of Bergues, through which the road to Dunkirk led, was burning; the road was barricaded, and a sergeant was directing the traffic down a side-road to the right. We turned down this narrow outlet; then came block after block, halt after halt, everything gradually jerking forward by degrees, until some miles further on we seemed to come to a permanent standstill. There was open country to the left of the road, so I pulled on to it and went ahead to investigate. The column had reached the canal. The two bridges within sight had been blown. Officers and men were smashing up the trucks before abandoning them to march the rest of the way.

We dismantled the wireless on my truck, smashed it with a pick, and then I emptied my revolver into the petrol tank. Hearn slashed the tyres to shreds. We took off the carburettor, dynamo, and distributor head, and threw them into the water. Finally, we pushed the truck into the canal. I watched her sink until only the tip of the wireless mast showed above the water. A perfectly good Humber Snipe, brand new the day before the blitz started!

Soon we had seven of our officers and some sixty of our men collected here. I learned that the majority of our fellows had gone another way and were ahead of us now. So, as soon as all the vehicles had been pushed into the canal, we began the ten-mile trek across country to Dunkirk, humping as much of the smaller equipment as we could salve.

It was a weary journey. In places the ground was boggy, the men were very tired and hungry, and the pieces of equipment heavy. Those who were armed marched on the flanks. We kept well together, and every now and then the chaps would sing until they got too much out of breath to continue. All over the countryside thousands of the B.E.F. were streaming in small parties, some unarmed, some armed, to Dunkirk. All medical organization seemed to have broken down completely. There were numerous wounded, but the doctors, anxious though they were to get attention for these poor fellows, were helpless; there were no aid posts or medical equipment anywhere.

Just outside Tetegen there was some fierce dive-bombing, which was quite nasty while it lasted, but as we crouched in the ditch we were rewarded with two glorious sights. One ‘plane shot down by a Bofors anti-aircraft gun. Another dive-bomber, screaming down, failed to pull himself out of his dive in time, crashed nose first into the ground, and burst into flames. A great cheer went up.

We marched on. An aged Brass Hat, a typical Base-wallah, pulled me up. “Are these your men?” he barked. I glanced at my boys, who had fought for nearly three weeks, had just marched miles after having had no food or sleep for a long time, humping heavy dial-sights and other salved equipment, dirty, unshaven, and tired, but still full of fight, smiling, and singing ‘Bless ’em all !’ “Yes,” I replied.

“Then make them march properly,” he barked. “That man’s out of step.” Perhaps he hadn’t meant to be funny. Anyhow, he went purple in the face when I laughed. However, a Boche ‘plane did me a good turn just then by dropping a bomb close by. The Brass Hat forgot all but himself, and we marched on in peace.

On the wide green stretch before we reached the outskirts of Dunkirk, we noticed some heavy anti-aircraft guns which had been destroyed. Surely these could have been saved till the last minute, we thought. There was any amount for them to do. Indeed, that was brought home to us very forcibly as we reached the town. About twenty Boche ‘planes sat over the place for nearly two hours, bombing and machine-gunning. We had to negotiate the streets by stages, diving into cover every hundred yards or so. At one spot, where houses came crashing to the ground in the next street and a huge crater yawned in the square outside the church, we were lucky in finding a large shelter which could house a large number of men. Some French soldiers who were in it welcomed us, and we sat there smoking while the bombs dropped, but the French officer in charge was very angry, saying it was not for the British. However, we gave him some cigarettes and he shut up.

Eventually we reached the beach, where we found that Stephen Muir, Jack Leaman, Pluto MacKay, Peter and the rest had already arrived. I ascertained that all our survivors had reached the beach safely. The sea looked cold and grey. Something by the mole was on fire, and smoke was rolling over the town. Two disabled transports lay half-submerged offshore. Some ships were standing out to sea, and destroyers were patrolling the coast.

There must have been well over twenty thousand troops on the beach, British, French and Belgian; and they still kept coming. There was some kind of embarkation staff on the mole and information filtered through that there would be at least seventeen ships and some small craft available late that evening, and that meanwhile everyone must remain on the beach.

But those ships were not to be. Hun airmen took command of the situation, and for hours relays of ‘planes circled over the area, screaming down to bomb, or machine-gunning the beach. It was thrilling to watch the destroyers as they manoeuvred to dodge the bombs, putting up smoke screens and firing their little pom-poms at the ‘planes. The Navy always put up a grand show.

Before long, fires were raging all over the place; a ship lying alongside the mole was on fire; oil tanks were ablaze; crash after crash announced the rain of bombs and shells on the town. Although they did not succeed in damaging the mole severely, the fires were so intense that it was impossible to use it for embarking troops. Over to the right, probably off La Panne, a French cruiser was on fire; we admired her gameness, as flash after flash from the burning vessel showed that her big guns were still hurling vengeance at the Boche.

At intervals a ‘plane would swoop to machine-gun the length of the beach. Near the mole some bombs killed a hundred troops. No medical aid was available and the wounded were dying for lack of it. Callously, Boots Crichton-Brown turned over the bodies to make sure that none of our men was among them, then came with tears in his eyes to see what could be done for the suffering wounded.

Such was the setting for the epic story of Gunner B. A skimpy lad of nineteen, he had gained a remarkable reputation as a ladies’ man. Ever since we had been in France, whenever we arrived in a new village, sure enough you would see young B in tow with the most voluptuous female in the place in an incredibly short time. His letters were amazingly frank about his amours. Towards dusk that evening, just as the bombing was at its height, I spotted young B jauntily making his way off the beach towards the burning town. “Come here, B,” I shouted. “Where are you going?”

“To find a bit o’ skirt, sir,” retorted this sanguine youth. “There are no civilians there now.”

“Aw, well, sir,” he replied. “I’m fed up with this ‘ere beach, anyway.” He seemed quite hurt when I ordered him back to the comparative safety of the beach.

The hours of darkness dragged by. Fires still raged. Over to the right the gallant French cruiser was still afloat and ablaze, one of her guns still firing. No orders came. Nobody could find any one to give us information. No ships were available, and no troops had been embarked since before we arrived. It was very cold on the beach, and the sand gave off a horrible stench.

Dennis Clarke and I had a chat. We had both come to the conclusion that nobody would get off that beach; it was obvious that there was no prospect of organized embarkation of troops that night. We decided to search the coast towards La Panne in the hope of finding fishing craft into which we could load our men and drift out to sea. We were just starting off on this expedition when Boots rushed up

in great excitement to say that he had found a destroyer’s jolly-boat beached a mile up the coast with a young naval officer ‘looking for the Army’. Boots wanted permission to send twenty of his men aboard the jolly-boat to the destroyer.

We hurried off with Boots to reconnoitre. What a sight met our eyes! Through the grey, misty half-light we could make out naval vessels standing off the coast about a mile out to sea and a mile and a half to the east of the mole.

I was loath to move our men until I could make sure they could be embarked, for they were exhausted, having had no food for two days and no proper sleep for several days. There were transports of sorts standing offshore, protected by destroyers, and on finding that the Navy would assist us to embark, we sent back along the beach for our boys. Soon, all the thousands of troops were hustling towards us.

Difficulties were not, however, over. There was no staff here to organize the embarkation. The swarming masses were a heterogeneous collection of survivors from countless different units; some had no officers with them; others had only one or two junior officers; there was great danger that the situation might get out of hand and develop into an ugly scramble.

The officers of our battery and some infantry officers who collaborated with us stood out in the sea facing the beach until the thousands could be organized into some kind of formation. After some time, with the help of some Marines, we got the situation well in hand. The crowds were organised in long columns, about twenty yards apart, stretching back to the dunes. The two young Naval officers were magnificent. There must have been nearly forty

The real trouble was that there were only five dinghies to row the thousand troops on the beach at this time. troops out to the ships. This worked out that one dinghy was available for every three columns, and as the ships were about a mile out, this meant that each column was only able to get twelve men away every forty minutes or so. It was terribly slow, but it did work. Some men swam out to the ships. As soon as a ship got loaded, she sailed at once and we would start loading another. Gradually ships of all kinds appeared off the coast as the day wore on, and more dinghies, some launches, and all kinds of craft became available, and made things easier by coming closer in shore.

Three Hurricanes chased some Boche ‘planes away. How we cheered! They were the first British fighters we had seen since the blitz began. From then on, the Boche could no longer do exactly as he liked. With a few exceptions, the masses on the beach were splendid.

Their behaviour was calm, their discipline good, and the officers of all units co-operated with a will. We were anxious to get some men who had waited three days already away as soon as possible, and to do so we gave them preference out of turn over our own men and men of other units. I waded out of the sea and spoke to our chaps about it. They were all quite happy, smiling at me when I explained. “That’s O.K., sir,” said one bombardier. “There ain’t no ‘urry for us. We know our officers will see we get away all right some time.” Grand chaps.

We stood out in the sea, regulating the allotment of craft. Each boat would come back for its fresh load to the place where an officer was standing up to his waist in water which was black with oil from one the destroyers, and we would have the men detailed for the next boat load out there in the sea with us, ready for it to arrive. detailed the next few men, one saw the look of hope on the faces of those who were waiting to know if they were included this time-for it might be the last time, one never knew; but the disappointed ones always smiled and just went on standing waiting, hoping for the best. When all the ships had sailed and no fresh ones were yet in sight they still smiled and joked among themselves, even when the Hun chose this interval to drop some shells and bombs around.

It was a cold job, hour after hour. All the officers played their part, but the palm went to Boots, who for a great many hours stood out in the sea, organizing the supply of boats, ensuring that each column had fair treatment. He was largely responsible for the smooth embarkation of large numbers without casualties during the early hours of that morning; several senior officers from other units asked me to see that his conduct was brought to notice. He was subsequently mentioned in despatches.

One fool, on reaching the ship, let the dinghy drift away. Our champion swimmers, Boots Crichton-Brown and Harry, stripped to swim out to retrieve it. Then a canoe floated by. Boots scrambled into it, chased the dinghy out to sea, and brought both back.

It had been about three o’clock in the morning when we started sail with Pluto, Cliff, Peter, and many of our chaps on board. I sent Harry and about thirty men off to the mole where they were starting to embark troops at a faster rate.

At about five in the afternoon Dennis Clarke, Basil Strahan, and I sent the last of our chaps off in a dinghy. Half an hour later Gunner Booth and Bombardier Matthews (who subsequently went to the Commandos) rowed the dinghy back to fetch us. Some sailors from the ship had offered to do this, but these two had insisted on fetching their own officers themselves.

Boots was waiting to help me aboard the little Dutch coastal tramp. As we weighed anchor a few bombs fell. I was soaked to the skin after about sixteen hours standing out in the sea, and my boots, breeches, tunic and face were covered with oil from the ships. The ship’s engineer offered me his cabin to get my wet things off. As I was hanging them up to dry in the engine-room, I heard the rattle of machine-guns above. I rushed up on deck.

A roar of laughter greeted me as I looked up at the Boche ‘plane which had been driven off. I suddenly realized I was standing there in nothing but my shirt, tin hat, and monocle.

Past us incessantly, towards the French shore, sped cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and all kinds of queer craft of all shapes and sizes. It was a wonderful sight. I shall never cease to marvel at the calm efficiency and courage of the seamen who in two wars have transported troops back and forth across the Channel day and night. It is always stimulating to talk to them on these trips, and this was no exception.

We were just coming into Dover when a launch came out to turn us away up the coast. Not long afterwards, a port hove in sight. “My God! What luck! It’s Ramsgate!” cried an officer standing next to me. “I live here. I’ll be with my missis in an hour.” But in an hour’s time the disappointed Ramsgate husband was being whirled away in a train to Gloucestershire. Such is Life.

We could see that the streets were crowded with civilians. “They must think us a lot of rats, running away like this,” said Basil Strahan. We all felt like that. We had clear consciences; we had wanted to stay and fight; we What must the people at home think? had done our best; but the fact remained, we had run away.

“We’ll get the bird,” I agreed. I pictured us marching through the streets with the crowd staring at us in contemptuous silence. It was a relief when we were ushered straight into motor coaches.

The ordeal would not last so long that way.

Then it happened. Cheers rang out all along the route. Handkerchiefs waved, hats were in the air. “Good God!” choked Dennis Clarke. “Somebody’s been putting over some hefty propaganda here at home.”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in our coach by the time we reached the station.

 

***************

 

XVIII

PHOENIX PARTY

WE expected anti-climax after all that had passed, but this was not to be. A recent letter from the Brigadier under whom we were now to serve recalled ‘that invasion season of 1940 with all its alarms and inspirations. A happy description.

Strange to say, we did not sleep during the long train journey down to Gloucestershire. All the kind hearts in England seemed to have conspired to overwhelm us. At every stop, tea, cakes, fruit, chocolate, cigarettes, writing-paper and stamps were lavished on us. One Good Samaritan offered to telephone my wife in London, and faithfully kept his promise.

Hours later at Kemble station we were whisked away as guests of two hospitable artillery regiments. Huge breakfast. Glorious hot bath. Shave. The stiffest whiskies you ever saw. One officer gave me a pair of shoes, another lent me a pair of trousers. They were great hosts. Sad to see the names of some of them in the casualty lists since that day.

Then off to meet the London train and my wife. Rita Clarke is with her. How these two laugh when they see their husbands. Dennis Clarke has no collar or tie, but a choker. I look a weird specimen too.

At the camp where men from fifty units are to be sorted out we have Dennis, Basil, Boots, Peter, myself, and about twenty of our N.C.O.s and men; we have no idea as to what part of the country he rest of our chaps have gone.

It is Sunday. Queen Mary inspects us. We look awful sights in the weirdest clothing imaginable. She is charming, obviously much moved, chats to all the officers. After she has gone, a church parade. To my horror, when it comes to prayers for the wounded, the padré fervently adds a prayer for the German wounded. I boil with rage. Here have we been doing our damnedest to rid the world of these pests, and the Church retaliates by ordering prayers that they may recover so as to become able again to kill our own men, women and children.

There is no single aspect of Army life which causes so much resentment and harm as compulsory church parades. Of course, the amplest facilities should be organized and afforded to all those who desire or who are willing to attend religious services. Every officer should encourage his men to do so. But by what teaching of Christ is it ordained that religion shall be forced on men? It seems to me a poor policy to do so; it puts a premium on hypocrisy; it breeds resentment and thus prejudices men who might otherwise eventually embrace it willingly themselves. The grip of the Church on the Army authorities is so great that any liberal minded commander who sets his face against compulsion is victimized.

Next day, Monday, on the way to Okehampton, we change at Exeter where we get the first tidings of the fate of Regimental Headquarters and our other battery. Colonel Durand, whose Horse Artillery regiment was near them at Cassel, comes up to me on the platform to give me the news that Colonel Odling and Major Christopherson are wounded, that our chaps put up a grand show against tanks at Cassel, but were surrounded and casualties have been heavy.

At Okehampton we find Frank Bower, Stephen, Jack, and fifty men. Then at Hatherleigh our battery gradually drifts in: Pluto, Cliff, Harry, Slim Somerwill, Rex Thornton, our N.C.O.s and men. Roddy Hawes of the other [367] battery, who tells us something of the tale; with Sergeant Harcombe, wounded at Cassel; a gunner [Martin] who was captured and escaped; an epic is the story of that gallant battery.

A week later, to Carburton in Notts where for the first night we are the guests of the Scottish Horse in their camp. Jack Leaman is called to the ‘phone, and we hear a terrific bellow: “What the hell is it? A girl? Oh, GRAND!” And off goes Jack to see his first-born.

We make our own camp; day by day more survivors dribble in. So does news. We know the regiment’s losses now. Twenty-one officers and three hundred men have failed to return-of these, sixteen officers and two hundred men are known to be prisoners, many of them wounded as well. My own lucky battery has had only three killed, seven wounded, and eight missing. And now I am to re-form the regiment that is to say, find a Regimental Headquarters and two batteries out of the remnants of the old regiment. It means promotion for nearly every officer. Stephen Muir becomes second-in-command, Peter adjutant, Dennis Clarke and Pluto battery commanders.

Then a flap. Talk of invasion. We are hurriedly dished out with a rifle each-but have to wait two days for any ammunition because there are no reserves in the country-and sent off on our anti-invasion role.

The division we had supported on the Dyle was to hold a section of coast, our regiment’s responsibility being the defence of several hundred square miles behind the infantry brigade areas. For this task we had our own regiment, some three thousand L.D.V.s (as the Home Guard were then called), various searchlight detachments which studded the area, and some odd detachments of Ordnance Corps and R.A.S.C., all of which came under my control for operational purposes.

For such an area our forces were minute. Our regiment as yet consisted only of fifteen officers and three hundred men; reinforcements were arriving, but before many of them came we were ordered to send away eight officers and nearly two hundred men to take over guns on the coast. After that, we received a large number of reinforcements, of whom half were men who had had a few months’ training, but the remainder were recruits straight off the streets without uniform or any training whatsoever.

As for the Home Guard, they had practically no equipment at all, and very few had uniforms. Some had sporting guns or revolvers, and out of three thousand I think there were no more than three hundred who had any kind of lethal weapon. My own men and the other troops in the area had just a rifle, bayonet, and a hundred rounds of ammunition apiece. We worked feverishly at making Molotov cocktails, digging defences, making roadblocks, laying anti-tank mines, and preparing elaborate defence schemes for our area.

What would have happened if the Huns had invaded in those dark days? The B.E.F. had not been re-equipped or re-armed; those other troops who had not been overseas were but poorly equipped and armed, with the exception of the Canadians; the Home Guard possessed nothing but guts and the fighting spirit. Yet I have always believed that despite all this apparent helplessness, nevertheless somehow, some time, somewhere and by someone every Hun invader would in the end have been killed. It is a pity that the country cannot now recapture and display the spirit of grim determination that was then abroad in this land, as shown by the following story told me by a brigadier at that time.

Walking in the lane outside his headquarters the brigadier saw two elderly farm-labourers with pitchforks, behaving in a manner which attracted his attention. They were creeping along the hedge, hiding behind trees; one climbed a tree and pointed out landmarks to the other; they searched for hiding places in the ditch, in wayside sheds, behind bushes.

“What are you men up to?” asked the brigadier, undecided whether to be suspicious or just amused. “Just gettin’ to know the lie o’ the land,” replied one of them in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Just in case any o’ they Jarmans was to get around these parts. There’s many a good spot for an ambush here I reckons.” “I see,” said the brigadier, interested. “And what are you chaps then? L.D.V.s?” “No, sir,” replied the spokesman. “We don’t belong to nuthin’! Just free lances. But I reckons we could do a tidy bit o’ harm with these ‘ere forks.”

The Brigadier-a V.C.-did not tell this story as a joke. He was deeply impressed with the spirit it implied. This is total war. The Hun makes war on every man, woman and child, not only on soldiers. It is a pity that the Government cannot arm everyone; however, every civilian can lay hands on some lethal weapon, be it carving knife, poker, or what not, to use against the Hun if he enters the home. Boiling water was much in favour in the Middle Ages!

This same spirit was shown by another real fighter-Air Commodore Probyn of Cranwell. When discussing the defence of the area, he said to me: -“I’ve got scores of training ‘planes here. They’re not fitted for carrying bombs, but if the Boche comes here, I’ll send every ‘plane in the air; we can throw bombs out by hand, and if we’ve nothing else we’ll drop Molotov cocktails and hand grenades on him. When the time comes, just let me know where you want this kind of help, and you shall have it.”

It was the spirit, too, of one of Probyn’s men, Squadron Leader ‘Crippen’ Black, fine airman, pilot, man, who used to tell us with his slow smile how he hated being an instructor in war time because he wanted to be doing a man’s job killing Boches. He wanted to be a Bomber Boy-to get that, he offered to go down in rank, and did. His first operational flight was to bomb Berlin. Black carried out PHE as anyone who knew him knew he would. his task superbly, Nearing home, he handed over to another pilot. There was a fog. A crash landing followed. The pilot was unhurt, but ‘Crippen’ Black was dead. But he had died a Bomber Boy.

One of the leading Home Guard commanders in our area was our ex-Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who had thrown himself with vigour and enthusiasm into the task of building up the force in his area. Over a glass of sherry in the Mess he would entertain us with stories of the Nazi leaders. He was emphatic in distinguishing Göring from the rest; Göring, he said, was a blackguard, but not quite the dirty blackguard that the others were.

Sir Nevile definitely forecast an invasion for 8 August, and I verily believe he thought it would come off then. Hitler, he said, is a mystic; he is convinced the full moon is lucky to him; he also regards the weekend as propitious for any adventure-particularly for any venture against this country, as he believes everything in Britain, Army, Navy and Government included, packs up for the week-end. Now a full tide is necessary for any sea-borne invasion. Therefore, argued Sir Nevile, at the first occasion when full moon and full tide both fell together at a week-end Hitler would send his troops across. The first date upon which this could happen was 8 August. I sometimes think that when that date came and passed without invasion, Sir Nevile must have been quite disappointed.

Though that date passed without incident, others did not. Numerous flaps, some genuine, others not, led up to the great day when we received the code word which meant that something really was on the way. At last, we were going to get our own back for Dunkirk! Every man was on his toes. Hours went by, all eyes on the sky, all ears agog for the sound of gunfire at sea. Hours later the order to ‘stand down’ came. The R.A.F. had smashed up everything at the invasion ports before it could put to sea.

Flaps about baled-out airmen at large, agents landed on the coast by submarines, parachutists! Most, of course, were false alarms; every time a barrage balloon broke loose and floated over Lincoln shire, it was a safe bet that we would get messages from all over the area reporting that parachutists had been seen. There was one comic incident when two Boche airmen, baled out of a burning plane, were three days at large before being discovered in a wood. One enterprising newspaper reporter, having conceived the idea that the airmen must have been provided with some concentrated food essence to keep them in the fit state in which they were found, managed to get hold of one of their respirators and there discovered a phial of white tablets, one of which he sampled himself. His paper then duly printed the story of this ‘concentrated food essence’, together with the reporter’s comment that, having tested it himself, he could say that he found it of no sustenance value-it only made him sick. Actually, the tablet he had found and eaten was the German equivalent of our anti-gas ointment.

With complete lack of equipment and only poor-quality civilian transport, it was like going back to the early days of the war and the old necessity for improvisation. As a first step towards rearmament, we received twenty-five-year-old 75-mm. guns from America which had been shipped to the United States in part-payment of the French war debt many years ago. These old-fashioned weapons, intended to be horse-drawn, had the old iron-shod wooden wheels with which it was not wise to travel more than six miles an hour-a fatal thing if the Boche landed and we had to get at him quick. We scrounged and bought old bits of metal and some rubber-tyred car wheels, and Sergeants Witt and Beale designed and constructed carriers upon which we could mount the gun in thirty seconds, and which could be towed behind a lorry quite safely at forty miles an hour over almost any kind of country in an emergency.

Few people realize how much the Army had to do in the way of improvisation in those days. Among those few were two Fleet Street celebrities, John Gordon and Tom Clarke, who, together with Stainless Stephen, came to spend a cheery weekend with us. At the concert we gave in their honour, Stainless had the Corn Exchange rocking with laughter. By this time, we had a first-class concert party, and the shows were well dressed.

The invasion season and the equipment shortage came to an end about the same time. The artillery was reorganized in a manner which increased the personnel of a regiment, and Roddy Hawes and Cliff Hackett became majors. Twenty-five-pounder guns followed. Intensive training began in earnest.

David and Ambrose, both promoted, had been succeeded by two other fine Brass Hats-John Barry, under whom we had last served in France and Maurice Johnston who in the last war had been taken prisoner at Kut, escaped, and swum the Bosphorus, and was to prove a real friend to us.

The type of reinforcement we were getting, though completely untrained, was good material, intelligent, fit and keen. They came straight off the streets’, being ordered by the Labour Exchange to report on a certain date. Just after the Battle of Britain we got pathetic letters from some of these fellows. One man wrote from London, enclosing a doctor’s certificate saying that he was still suffering from bomb wounds. The same bomb had killed his wife and destroyed his home. He needed a few days to settle up his is and recover from his wounds. Would it be possible for the date of his call-up to be postponed a little? I could picture the writer of this letter. All his world snatched away from him.  Now he himself was called up. Would it be just the last straw? Or would be regard it as a great opportunity for revenge upon the Hun?

I found myself wondering how these militiamen picture Amy life before they enter it. Do they imagine the Army be an inhuman machine with officers just heartless cogs in the he? It is our job to make them feel they are serving with comes under the command of friends. I gave him a month’s postponement. He is now a valuable and grimly determined soldier. Among the most useful aspects of training are the numerous courses of instruction in various technical and general matters which the Army organizes for officers of varying ranks. I have been on many myself. One of these, for Commanding Officers only, was held in Wales. After a three-hundred-mile journey over ice bound roads and through snowdrifts, we arrived in darkness and a snowstorm in the town. I had been given the name of a small hotel, men over by the authorities for officers attending this course,

We asked a passer-by the way to this hotel. Apparently, there were two hotels of the same name, for he asked whether we meant the one in the town or the one on the sea-front. I plumped for the one on the front and he gave the necessary directions.

We found the place locked. I rang the front doorbell, and a queer-looking Welsh maid answered the door. Still not sure whether this was the right hotel, I asked: “Are you expecting a lot of officers here to-night?” “Oh, no” replied the maid. “Only Colonels.”

During the next twelve months I was dealt three severe blows. First, we were sent away from our old Corps and all our friends in it. From that grand world of mutual help and solidarity we were thrown an atmosphere of narking and nagging which made one sometimes wonder if we really are all on the same side in this war. Then, months later, Cliff Hackett’s 366 battery was taken away complete from us and sent to Iceland and the business of building up a new by to replace it was begun. Lastly, I myself was medically boarded and declared permanently unfit for any further military service. The trouble had begun with a mild attack of pleurisy our soaking at Dunkirk and had steadily developed as the months rolled by. So, I must lose my regiment. I had been with it since birth.

When its remnants reeled back from the body-blows in France I had, for good or ill, re-formed it, built it up, trained it, and commanded it for a year and a half. It meant everything to me. I knew every one of my officers, every one of my N.C.O.s, every to me. one of my men, their trials, tribulations, hopes, and qualities. Parting from old friends is tragic. The memory of them will never fade.

As I write this, they have borne their share in the Tunisian victory and now await, splendidly equipped, further operations in which they will play their part. That they will play hard, play clean, and play well, I know. Of the officers who were with us in France, only one is now left with them-Jack Leaman. So, to them I say-Good Shooting, and Good Luck!

 

*****

XIX

CRITIC’S PARTY

IN a New York journal of August 1942, Lord Strabolgi has thought fit to hold up the British Army to contempt and ridicule.

Now, is there much wrong with the Army to-day? Most well-informed critics will agree that it is now well armed, well equipped, and mobile; that the greater part is at last highly trained by the most up-to-date methods; that the men of the Striking Force are intelligent, keen, fit, hardened, and itching to join battle with the Hun. Earlier in this book it was suggested that in the main its leadership is sound.

But that is not to say that all is well. The waste of material, time, and personnel-the duplication of effort-the muddle in administration of the Army at home are such as to impair its efficiency and handicap the country’s effort. This waste and muddle are far worse than in the last war. The reason is not hard to find. After 1914, casualties were so heavy in the last war that the amateur soldier played a decisive part in the administration of the Army, and an almost universal part in the lower commands. As yet that has not been so in this war. The present trouble can be attributed to the mentality of the Regular officer. The leadership of the Army is in the hands of those exceptions who have thwarted the soporific of peace-time soldiering, applied themselves seriously to studying the profession of arms, and maintained their individuality in defiance of the system. They, of course, cannot be replaced by non-professionals with no technical background. But in the key administrative posts and in command of units and sub-units what is needed is the enthusiasm and energy of the amateur, the drive and independence and initiative of the man who has had to earn his living in a competitive and exacting world-qualities seldom found in the Regular.

The average Regular officer-there are, of course, notable exceptions-lacks Urge; years of peace-time soldiering have inoculated him against appreciation of the different values which war conditions prescribe; he will do his job, but somehow does not pull out just that extra bit more; frequently he is a clock-watcher who thinks all work ceases at four-thirty, even in war time. He is spoilt by training and tradition which (unintentionally, I think) discourage individuality, independence, and initiative qualities so successfully developed by the methods of the R.A.F., the Navy, and in later years the German Army. Let us see how this results in waste of time, material, and personnel and incidentally, the taxpayer’s money. As instances

I take:

(a)  The Clothing Racket.

(b)  The Petrol Racket.

(c)  The Paint Racket.

(d) The Clothing Racket.

The importance of economy in clothing and material is emphasized by severe rationing of civilians. This is also appreciated by the Army Council which frequently issues instructions aimed at ensuring such economy in the forces. But the needs of the nation and the instructions of the Army Council are frustrated in practice by the mentality of the Regular officer.

His gods are Spit and Polish. Like all fanatics, he carries his worship to extremes. Within moderation, Spit and Polish are worthy gods; it is essential to instil personal pride into the soldier; it is vital that the soldier’s bearing and appearance should arouse the confidence rather than contempt of the civilian population; but these objects could be obtained without gross waste of clothing.

Sensible instructions have been issued by the higher military authorities, stressing that in war time, when economy is vital, men’s clothing cannot be maintained up to the meticulous standard rightly demanded in peace. These instructions urge officers, whilst

 

stopped their men from polishing brass, have been angrily rebuked, and have been told to get it done at once and keep it done. No order, whether directed towards economy or towards greater efficiency, has much chance of being carried out if it offends the two peace-time deities.

I know of one unit where time is taken up each day not only in polishing personal equipment but also in polishing the metal parts of guns and vehicles. Quite apart from the unnecessary use of large quantities of metal polish and the waste of training time, this prevents the cultivation of a battle atmosphere’ which should be a principal object of training. And should not all equipment be kept in battle condition; in case the Hun should suddenly invade? No guns or vehicles must go into battle shining in the sun.

It is time the twin-gods Spit and Polish were relegated to their proper perspective in the scheme of things. Would it not be better for those Regulars who run the Army to bow the knee rather to those rival gods Fighting Spirit and Will-to-Win-the will to win by economy, scrupulous preservation of all serviceable material, as well as by the use of weapons?

The Petrol Racket.

Few now fail to appreciate the importance of oil in this war. The urgency of oil to the Hun-whose strategy is based on a trinity of oil consuming monsters, the aeroplane, the tank, and the submarine is shown by the prodigal squandering of blood and material to gain the Russian oilfields. The oil problem is no less important to our selves. Shipping space requires us to economize in its use in every way; the taxpayer’s interests also demand economy if the fullest use of his money is to be directed towards winning the war.

The Higher Command, realizing this, have issued many orders directed towards petrol economy, but these are constantly defeated by the actions of their subordinates.

Next to the gods Spit and Polish in the Regular’s Valhalla is the goddess Conference. To you and me the word conference implies discussion. In the Army it frequently implies the hiring of a cinema at the public expense, the pilgrimage of hundreds of officers scores of miles at the cost of thousands of gallons of petrol to see the Big Brass Hat mount the stage and describe from his notes some exercise in which they may or may not have taken part. In nine cases out of ten the discourse is of no value whatsoever to the less senior officers present (about four-fifths of the audience)-except, if they’re lucky, as entertainment! The vast amount of petrol consumed is sheer waste so far as effective prosecution of the war is concerned. In one Corps a conference of all senior officers was called. Before going, each received a copy of a lengthy document. About two hundred were there; each had come in a car by himself because they came from a variety of places and directions in three different counties. The average petrol consumption of the cars was twelve miles to the gallon. The distance from their stations varied from ten miles to eighty miles and they had to get back. When they got there, all that happened was that a Brass Hat read aloud the document which they had all read themselves before attending, another Brass Hat then asked if anyone had any questions; nobody asked a question; Brass Hat No. 2 then thanked Brass Hat No. I for reading this interesting document, and a lot more petrol was used up getting everybody home again. The worship of the goddess Conference that day had taken two hundred senior officers away from their duties for more than half a day and had wasted about a thousand gallons of petrol.

Mind you, these Regulars are alive to the importance of petrol economy except for essential purposes. It is a question of what an essential purpose is. On this point it is apparent that the views of the citizen-officer do not coincide with those of his Regular counterpart. Another illustration. Long ago, the higher military authorities instituted a weekly Transport Rest Day. Each unit was ordered to fix a weekly day on which no vehicle was to be used except for urgent purposes. Excellent idea. Later, this was extended to two days per week. Excellent, too. But however conscientious commanding officers might be, the object of this order was largely defeated week after week by orders from above to do something on that day which involved substantial use of petrol. If you changed your day to make up for this, something would happen on that day, too. If you decided to recoup this by keeping your transport in for a week, you ran serious risk of being called over the coals for not having taken your unit out for field training. Millions of gallons are wasted by the muddling in Whitehall which moves units about the country on futile journeys. Here are four typical instances:

  • A battery, stationed in West Wales, was ordered to join a newly formed regiment in Cornwall. the battery arrived in Cornwall, the whole regiment was ordered to move to the very place in Wales from which the battery had just come. This unnecessary double journey by the battery wasted some three thousand gallons.

 

  • A regiment, ordered to move fifty miles from one hut camp to another in Southern England, protested that its proposed destination would not provide sufficient room for its personnel or transport. Nevertheless, the move was insisted upon. On arrival, it became apparent that the regiment’s contention was right, so it was sent back fifty miles to its former camp, and the War Office ordered to the second camp a unit from North Wales ‘because it had no transport’ and would therefore find plenty of room there. On arrival, this unit proved to have even more transport (apparently unbeknown to the War Office!) than the first regiment so it was sent all the way back to North Wales again.

 

  • ‘X’ Regiment, under embarkation orders, was stationed at ‘A’. On its embarkation ‘Y’ Regiment, quartered at ‘B’ would take over at ‘A’, and ‘Z’ Regiment, stationed at ‘C’, would take over ‘B’. Quite simple-to all but the official mind. Instead of waiting until ‘X’ moved off to embark, when all consequent changes could take place automatically, the authorities ordered ‘X’ to ‘C’ pending embarkation, and ‘Z’ to ‘A’, thus giving ‘Z’ two moves instead of one to effect the change-over.

 

  • One Corps on the East Coast had four similarly equipped units under direct command, the first three (‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’) having an operational role on the coast, the fourth (‘D’) being inland in reserve. War Office required one of these units to reinforce a distant part of the country. Instead of ordering Corps to detail one unit, leaving it the choice, War Office sent orders for ‘C’ to go. This meant two moves instead of one-as ‘D’ then had to move into ‘C’s’ role-in addition to the operational disadvantage of having ‘D’ (who did not know the area) take over the role of ‘C’ (who knew the area and their task thoroughly) during the height of the invasion scare.

 

These are instances, of course, of muddle at the War Office, where one department never seems to know what another department does. Believe it or not, a regiment which had been sent to France with 18-pounder guns received a letter from the War Office, sent to their last address in England, informing that their new 25-pounder guns were awaiting collection at the station there. This department had apparently no idea that this unit had been overseas with the B.E.F. for two months.

Indeed, one might think that the War Office was composed of compartments rather than departments. This extraordinary make-up in the Regular mentality is illustrated by a conversation I overheard at a senior officers’ course which I attended.

I arrived early to find two dug-out colonels in conversation in the Mess. They had recognized each other’s faces but couldn’t think where they had met before. They exchanged names, but that did not help. Had they been at the Shop (Woolwich) together? No, on had passed out two years before the other. Had it been in India? Comparing notes proved that could not be so. The last war? No; one had been in France, the other out East. It eventually transpired that only a very few years ago these two had worked on the same headquarter staff together for two whole years and it had taken them all this time to find that out.

The unholy wedding in Whitehall of the Regular mentality with the dead hand of the civil service is the cause of all this muddle. A gust of business methods is sorely needed to blow the cobwebs away.

The Paint Racket.

There are millions of vehicles in the Army to-day. All have to be painted with certain signs. I must not, of course, publish the meaning of these signs. I can, however, say that each vehicle in an artillery unit must display four kinds of signs. I will call them Signs A, B, C and D. About Sign A there is no trouble; you paint it on a certain part in the front of your vehicle at the outset, and there it stays for keeps-though I have never known it serve any useful purpose. About Signs B and C there is not much trouble, except from the point of view of the paint they consume. Each is painted on the front and back of each vehicle; these are changed only at rare intervals.

It is Sign D which has caused all the fun-and the waste. I will give its history during a period of only six months, during which at different times it involved the use within a unit of red, blue, yellow, black, green, brown, and white paint. At the beginning of this period all Signs B, C, and D on all vehicles of the unit had to be changed a long job, occupying much time and using much paint. The next stage was an order that in addition to its existing positions back and front, Sign D must now be painted on each side of each vehicle. That was done.

Then apparently an order was issued from ‘Very High’ that all these D signs were to be changed again according to a new pattern, and new colouring. But the High did not approve the order of the Very High, so did not pass it on. Weeks went by. Then apparently the ‘Very High’ became angry at seeing that this order had not been carried out in some formations. So, the High-on the principle that the driver kicks the horse-angrily ordered these signs to be altered within forty-eight hours. New Signs D had to be painted back and front, and all Signs D on the sides obliterated. Signs on back and front were ordered to be painted on specially sized metal plates, to be obtained from Ordnance.

Ordnance could not supply them within the prescribed forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, the High solemnly decreed that the fact that the necessary metal could not be obtained would not be accepted as an excuse for non-compliance with the order! That of course is an exceptionally bad (not typical) example of the Regular mentality, but it emanated from one of the few remaining relics of the old type of Brass Hat who, incidentally, has now passed out of the Service.

Eventually, all this was carried out. After all the signs had been carefully removed from the sides of the vehicles, orders were given to paint them on again. I seem to remember that in the last war, with a very much larger army than we now possess, we had only one sign back and front on each vehicle. And yet we won that war.

Another cause of waste of time and personnel, and of duplication of effort, is the great Bumph Racket.

Bumph, as you know, is the army term for correspondence, documents, indeed all paper with writing on it. Bumph is to the Regular officer what confetti is to the guest at the wedding. He must throw it around on all sides with gay abandon. Many good fighting soldiers of high rank have tried hard to stem the flood or dam it at its source, but it is too powerful a force.

At a time when newspapers and publishers are strictly rationed, the waste of paper in the army is incredible. The time wasted by the commander of a fighting unit in wrestling with this evil from above is unbelievable. He will frequently receive copies of the same document from several different sources, each demanding a reply. Reports (or ‘returns’, as the army calls them) nearly always have to be sent in duplicate or triplicate, often more. For many months, no less than twelve copies of each of certain routine orders had to be sent by a unit to the same place. Everything is made the subject of a return. In one formation, when all possible subjects had been exhausted, the climax came with an order that every unit must make a periodical return giving a list of all the returns which had to be sent in! Nobody benefits by this idiotic business. Everyone suffers. And what about the waste of manpower in maintaining swollen staffs to cope with all this unnecessary volume of work? It is the Regular mentality at work.

The voluminous orders from above are beyond description. Now the Germans are very practical. In the German Army, the issue of written operation orders is forbidden below Divisional Headquarters, and high formations are limited to one foolscap sheet. Not only is this a terrific saving of time and paper, but it trains subordinates to act on verbal orders, and encourages initiative by limiting the detail that can be passed down. I made a practice myself of giving operational orders verbally instead of in writing; it had effective and gratifying results.

Very well, you say; assume it is correct that muddle and waste are attributable to the Regular mentality. Is there not now a healthy leaven of amateurs who can infuse fresh life into Army methods? Unfortunately, the answer is that they cannot succeed, because so far as possible they are suppressed. A fatuous remark has recently been made by more than one public man that if Rommel had been in the British Army, he could not have risen above the rank of sergeant. The suggestion, of course, is that class prejudice prevents an able ranker from rising. Some colour is lent to that contention by a letter written to the Times some while ago by a certain Colonel Bingham who bemoaned that the non-public-school candidates for commissions were not of the stuff of which officers should be made. Both these statements are, of course, sheer rubbish. That no class prejudice succeeds in stifling talent is shown by the careers of Hector MacDonald and William Robertson (once Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and in this war of General Nye (Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and General Percival (captured at Singapore), all of whom rose from the ranks. Many of the best officers I have known never saw the inside of a public school-and were all the better for that. It is not class prejudice that operates against promotion. What does exist is the professional’s bitter jealousy of the amateur.

Since in the past the amateur has been principally represented by the Territorial, this has resulted in an anti-Territorial prejudice. Now Territorials have in fact proved their worth in two wars. During the last war a document was found on a captured Prussian officer which purported to give a list of those British divisions which the Germans feared most. These were, in order of merit :

  1. The 51st (Highland Territorial) Division.
  2. The 2nd Canadian Division. 3. The 4th Australian Division.
  3. The 47th (London Territorial) Division.
  4. The Guards Division.

In this war the Territorial has done his full share of battling too. In the B.E.F., of ten divisions in the line, five were Territorials -the 42nd, 44th, 48th, 50th and 51st. The 46th was on the lines of communication, no soft job this war. The epic of the gallant 51st, whose few survivors reached St. Valery, is well known. At Calais, Queen Victoria’s Rifles won imperishable laurels. In Norway, the brunt of the fighting was borne by Territorials. In Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria, Malaya, Burma, Territorials fought as units beside their Dominion comrades*

* Since the above was written, despatches from Cairo have cited three Territorial Divisions-the 44th, 50th and 51st-as playing a most prominent part in the Battle of Egypt, particularly at El Alamein. In Tunisia, these same Divisions and also the 46th have won further laurels

Any fair-minded man must admit that, save for notable exceptions during a long war, the Territorial officer cannot expect or be expected to compete for the highest commands, such as divisions, corps, and armies. These posts require training and experience in strategy and tactics, and knowledge of administrative limitations to strategy, which cannot be gained in a short while or by a part-time learner, and which the higher ranks of the Regular Army have made their lifework.

But, as a rule in war time, the Territorial makes a better regimental officer and a better junior commander than the Regular. He has not lived in a groove. He has wider experience of life in general, wider knowledge of human nature. He understands better the domestic and human problems of the citizen-soldier who forms the bulk of the Army. He is more used to making decisions on his own, to using his initiative. He has a better appreciation of economy. Having come forward to serve in the war to get it over, his natural instinct is to put in unlimited hours of work and not be ruled by the clock. He puts efficiency before comfort, the comfort of his men before the comfort of himself and other officers. Some Regulars, of course, possess all these qualities. Most Territorials have them in full measure.

Above all, the average Territorial has more intelligence than the average Regular, more drive. Naturally, the highest Regulars have a high degree of intelligence, or they would not have won highest rank; but many of the lower strata display a lamentable lack of it Though the old bullying methods have generally died out, I knew one senior Regular who employed those methods still, whose violent onslaughts broke the spirit of three promising young officers, and who seriously contended that you can only get efficient subordinates by making them fear you. Is that intelligent-or just crude? Then there was a Regular commanding officer who would only permit his officers to give one of three answers to any question: “Yes”-“No”-or “I’ll find out.” Comment is superfluous. I have digressed. I was dealing with the treatment of Territorials.

In the last war, the Territorial was appreciated and had a square deal. He was flattered during the intervening years of peace. During the early part of this war, during the fighting in France, and during the anxious weeks after Dunkirk, he was treated as an equal, as a comrade in arms-because he was needed.

Now things are different. Now that the Army has been for months on a peace-time basis, with all its idolatry of Spit, Polish, Conference and Bumph, the keen, practical-minded Territorial who will work all hours of the day and night is getting the rawest of deals. All over this country it has gone on.

The following anecdote aptly illustrates the atmosphere. I was dining one evening at a Divisional Headquarters and got into con versation with a young Regular lieutenant-colonel straight from the Staff College, who held an important Staff appointment. happened to mention the name of a brigadier commanding an infantry brigade in the division. He

“A real good chap,” I remarked.

“Yes, very. A Territorial, though,” replied the colonel. This was news to me. I said so.

“Oh, yes, he’s only a Territorial,” repeated my companion. Then added with emphasis: “One of the few Territorial brigadiers left. We’ll have ’em all out soon.”

I may add that the brigadier had a D.S.O., had served in the last war, in France this war, and was a keen, efficient and active fighting commander. The Staff colonel had never seen a shot fired in anger in his life and had never held a command.  Of course, it is really a Trade Union matter. Territorials were welcome; it was their job to give their time, their money, and their labour to build up and train the units which would be required to augment the Regular Army in war. During the hurly-burly of the first days of war of the blitz, of the Dunkirk aftermath, they could be left to do the work of building their units up anew. But that is over. The rebuilding has been done. Territorials may still be encouraged in the lower commissioned ranks, but the jobs worth having must go the members of the Trade Union. Territorial brigadiers, colonels and majors have been side-tracked, sacked, retired, or demoted to make way for promotion for the Regular. Questions on this have been asked in the House of Commons

long ago. It is time the matter was raised again-and pressed home. It may be that the Regular mind is so convinced of the superiority of its own species and the consequent inferiority of the Territorial that it genuinely believes that it makes for efficiency to replace Territorials by Regulars less experienced in warfare. But this may be Example One also be wish-thinking. Let us take actual examples.

Example One

Territorial regimental commander. Twenty-six years’ service. Served throughout last war in France, awarded Military Cross and mentioned in despatches. Actively engaged in organising Dunkirk defences in this war; mentioned in despatches again for this. Now relegated to local defence work. Reason given: he had already commanded a regiment for seven years. His successor, a young Regular from the Staff College, has had no experience of battle, no experience of command, no experience of Territorials. The regiment is bewildered and heart-broken.

Example Two

Territorial battery commander. Served throughout blitz in France with distinction. Formed and trained his battery after Dun kirk. At one artillery practice camp his battery put up the best show yet done by any battery there. Relieved of his command. Reason given: the (Regular) colonel would prefer a battery commander with more experience. Sequel: the ‘more experienced’ Regular who superseded him had spent the last two years at a desk, having never held a command, and rang up to ask for a fortnight’s leave to enable him to read up something about the job before joining as he knew nothing about it. The colonel and he were, of course, old acquaintances.

Example Three

Territorial major. Served throughout blitz in France. Mentioned in despatches. Beloved by all his men. Replaced. Reason given: more experienced officer required. ‘More experienced’ officer could not read a map, had to take a subaltern about with him to find the way. ‘More experienced’ officer was ignorant of the organization of the type of unit to which he had been posted-and was subsequently removed as a failure.

Example Four

Territorial regimental commander. Commanded batteries in the last war. Military Cross. In this war mentioned in despatches after Dunkirk. Replaced. Explanation given : quite fit to com mand a regiment in battle, but more experienced commander needed to run the regiment under these semi-peace-time conditions. Presumably in war time, it is not men who are fit to command in battle who are wanted! The more experienced’ (Regular) commander had not been in regimental life since he was a captain, had never had a command before, and did not see service with the B.E.F. He proved a failure and was removed. There are numerous such examples. I was talking the other day to an indignant M.P. whose son-in-law, a keen and efficient Territorial commander, had been similarly treated.

Is this right? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and results are the opposite to improvement in most cases. One must, of course, recognize that the Army, and advancement in it, are the career and livelihood of the Regular; not so of the Territorial, who has renounced his livelihood elsewhere. But though this may explain the policy adopted, it is no reason why the country should tolerate it. You may think that although the Territorial is prevented from infusing new life into Army methods, nevertheless that can now be done by the thousands of new officers commissioned since war broke out, who are themselves amateurs. Here, too, unfortunately, the answer is that there is little likelihood of this so long as the present system of granting commissions obtains, for the Regular Army has ensured that all candidates shall go for five months to an O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit), invariably commanded by a Regular of the old school, where they are turned out ‘according to pattern’.

How jealously guarded is this right to mould all new of this pattern by fastening the grip of the O.C.T.U. upon them is shown by the story of Alan Lavender. Lavender is a born leader of men. Joining up in the ranks in the old regiment at the outbreak of war he soon won promotion and became a Troop sergeant-major while we were in France. Throughout the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk he performed the duties of an officer in battle with great efficiency, initiative, and distinction, and for this was mentioned in despatches.

On our return from France the War Office invited recommendations for immediate commissions, to be made direct to them; so, I submitted Lavender’s name with details of his qualifications. Back came a reply that immediate commissions were only to be granted in the infantry, not the artillery.

Now here was the joke. Lavender, who knew nothing infantry work whatever, could be granted an immediate commission in the infantry. But he could not be granted one in the artillery until he had spent five months at an O.C.T.U., being ‘taught’ the job he had already proved in battle that he knew and could do.

Apart from the fact that I hold hostile views about the training of cadets at these O.C.T.U.s, I was not going to make Lavender waste his time for five months or allow the country to be virtually deprived of any value from his services for that period. I refused to recommend him for an O.C.T.U., but spoke to the brigadier, who interviewed him, agreed with me, and forwarded a strong recommendation for an immediate commission. (At that time, my regiment needed officers badly). Nothing happened. Weeks went by. Lavender, who presumably could not know enough to become an officer until he had been at an O.C.T.U., was being used by me during that period to instruct young officers who had been sent to me (presumably trained) from these O.C.T.U.s and who needed further training. Then we had an inspection by Sir Ronald Adam, then C.-in-C. Northern Command, to whom I introduced Lavender and explained the situation. General Adam heartily agreed and took the matter up himself. Still nothing happened. The War Office seemed stupefied the O.C.T.U. virus. But there are always outside methods getting things done-and Lavender got his commission.  It had taken six months. He is now a major. cadets are certainly turned out well-equipped with technical know I do not believe in O.C.T.U. training. At these institutions’ ledge, but almost invariably they acquire a wrong psychology

there. An officer’s first essential qualities are a sense of service, a sense of responsibility, and the art of man-management. He has got to realize that his day is never done, that his responsibility ceases day or night, that he must be both father and guide to his men. never A good officer has to work much harder, not less, than his N.C.O.s and men. In the ‘school’ atmosphere of the O.C.T.U., weekend is his own, it is inevitable that the cadet on his first introduction towards commissioned rank, should get an idea that when the whistle blows his responsibility and hours of work cease. And what occasion is there during those five months for him to practise the art of man-management? 

I have had splendid young officers from these places, but in most cases it has been difficult at first to impress upon them that their day is never really done and that even when off duty their responsibility still exists; and they have all seemed quite ignorant of the way to look after men.

In wartime I would send cadets, not to an O.C.T.U., but straight away as officers to a unit to get right at the outset the officer’s proper mentality and outlook, then send them on courses of technical instruction afterwards. In my view, no one should be given a commission, either in peace or in war, until he has served at least twelve months in the ranks, has personally experienced everything that men have to do, and has thus obtained knowledge and understanding of the men’s problems, needs, psychology and artfulness.

And once a man has been commissioned, he must be given a square deal. At present he is not. An N.C.O. or warrant officer, on being promoted, is made ‘war substantive’ (i.e., permanent for the war period) in that rank after holding it for a prescribed period. But officer’s promotions, step by step, can never be more than temporary. Thus, a major, promoted lieutenant-colonel and holding that rank efficiently for two or three years, must nevertheless revert to major if through wounds or illness he is away from his unit for more than twenty-one days. Another petty meanness is the attitude towards officers volunteering for active service in over sea theatres; instances occur where ‘captains’ are asked for it is made clear that if the volunteer holds the temporary rank of captain, he will be accepted for service overseas as a captain, but must revert to his substantive rank of lieutenant for the period from the time he leaves his unit to the time of arrival overseas-thus depriving him of the difference in pay for some weeks.

One great difficulty-for which the Regular mentality is not responsible with which the Army has to contend is the constant tug-of-war between civilian requirements and military require regarding manpower. Obviously, the mines, the factories, and the land must have their proper quota of skilled labour; clearly the Army must not be built up to the serious detriment of these vital services. But what is so upsetting and dangerous is the lack of co-ordinated planning which results in a game of battledore and shuttlecock with the skilled labour of the country.

The Army of to-day is not a force of brawn, but of brain; it is necessarily a body of experts who have taken months to be taught their technical military job. The modern soldier is not so much a warrior as a craftsman.

In the Army you find that after spending months in training men and turning them into military craftsmen, they are whisked back to civilian life again because their services are needed at their trade-and you have to start all over again. The result is that the Army is never in the position of being able to ‘settle down’ with fully trained personnel.

Surely this waste of time and labour can be avoided? The men really required in civil life should be kept there. The men sent to the Army to train as military craftsmen should be given to the Army for keeps. There should be real supervision over the ‘call-up’, so that civil labour retains its needs, and the Army gets for retention men of sufficient brain to learn the job and do it.

**********

Criticisms directed towards showing that there is much to be improved cannot alter the fact that the Army to-day is a fine army, in most respects well-led. Criticisms of the Regular mentality cannot alter the fact that in battle your Regular officer displays the highest courage and determination.

The right of criticism, so long as it is fair and made with good intent, is one of the boons of democracy for which we are fighting one of the rights for which all this blood must not be shed in vain.

ENVOI

So those are the impressions of the Army an ordinary citizen has acquired. What impressions does the citizen-soldier get when he returns to civilian life?

In many ways he gets a shock. In the Army, whatever might be its shortcomings, he got the impression of total effort, of cooperation and desire to win the war. Not so here. He gets the impression that the vast mass of the common people of the land have got their backs to the wheel, their hearts in the job, the will and the desire to win-that they can not only ‘take it’ but give it as well. But that is not the case with certain other sections of the community who think that payment of taxes is sufficient part for them to play in this war. Greed for gold, jockeying for power and position after the war, unwillingness to perform anything other than congenial tasks or to make any real personal sacrifice are manifest in certain quarters. This leads to mutual recrimination, mutual criticism, mutual hindrance. The citizen-soldier returned to civil life gets above all the impression that far too much time, energy, and thought is devoted to people fighting each other in this land instead of concentrating on the one supreme task of fighting Hitler.

The canker is not yet serious. It affects only a small percentage of the population. But it is there, and, unless stamped out by public opinion and public action, will grow.

The heroic sacrifices of the men and women of the R.A.F., the Navy, the Army, the Mercantile Marine, and of those vast masses of the people who have taken the bombing and the tragedies of war with almost superhuman fortitude, cry out for justice in demanding that no personal gain, no vested interest, no petty jealousy shall be allowed to hold up that total whole-hearted effort by all which alone can bring victory within sight.

To end up with a cliché: it is time that ALL were made to realize that there is a war on.

 

WHIMSICAL PARTIES OF GUNNER X.

I WAS talking to the Battery-Sergeant-Major, so did not see the punch -if indeed there were one. But the yell of derision swept my gaze back to the makeshift boxing-ring we had erected in camp.

He was writhing on the tarpaulin floor, gloves clutching his belly, groaning lustily. Neither blood nor sweat gleamed beneath the shock of brick-red hair; indeed, sweat could not have been expected, for the fight had barely lasted a minute. From beneath their lashes, his eyes were peeping to make sure we were watching.

Reassured, he rolled over with a moan and lay still. “Get up, Ginger! Have a go!” jeered the mob.

Ginger was taking no risks. Only when the referee awarded the fight to his opponent, did he stagger to his feet. With a sidelong grin at the group of officers, he limped away.

Five minutes later I passed the canteen. There he was, cynosure of an admiring eddy of youngsters, swilling pints at their expense. Had he not gone into the ring against the boxing terror of the Regiment? Maybe some of these rookies really believed that he had taken punishment.

Thus, did Gunner X first bring himself to notice. Born show man. Incorrigible exhibitionist. From then on, he was seldom out of mind. He had a flair for getting in your path and a salute which brought his thumb precariously near his nose. Were volunteers required, X was always first to volunteer-if officers were watching. He boasted he was an Old Soldier. Indeed he was-in many ways.

All this was just before the war. On mobilisation he took the stage at once.

“It’s my wife, sir. And the little kiddies, sir. They’re being evacuated this evening.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Mr. Mackay will lend me his car to take them into the country. Just a few hours, sir, to get them into safety. God knows I may never see them again.” X believed in the dramatic.

Next morning Second-Lieutenant Mackay complained that his car had disappeared. Three days later, a battle-scarred Hillman snorted into Headquarters with Gunner X. Under arrest in the guardroom, an indignant X produced a staggering mass of documents; one testimonial, from a Hampshire schoolmaster, extolled the grand work done by X in evacuating schoolchildren; another, from some provincial official, lauded the Samaritan activities of X in fetching provisions for stranded families when local arrangements had broken down; a third testified that the car had been damaged through no fault of the gunner. There were other documents. At face value, they almost convinced one that here was a man who, far from wishing to absent himself without leave, was actually forced to stay away, wearing himself out in the public service.

When, however, a week later, his grandmother was to be evacuated, I thought it time for someone else to attend to such matters. I cannot believe that my refusal was the cause of her sudden death. However, I did give him leave to attend the funeral.

It must have been a grand funeral. It lasted three days. That, and Gunner X’s ruse of avoiding P.T. by reporting sick first thing every morning without apparent justification, resulted in the loss of the stripe which he had gained through sheer bluff. He stood before me in the Orderly Room. Tears coursed down his cheeks. With one dramatic sweep, he wrenched the stripe from his left arm and flung it on the floor. “You had better remove the other one, too, X,” I said quietly.

He grinned. “I’ll have them back soon, sir,” he announced gaily.

“Prisoner and escort! Right turn!” bawled the Sergeant Major. Gunner X marched off, a smart-looking soldier. Only as he reached the door did he remember that he had reported sick that morning and lapsed into a pronounced limp. Undaunted, he approached his Troop Commander a week later with the usual tears in his eyes. “Them poor little birds, sir,” he choked. “It makes my heart bleed to think of ’em.”,

“What birds?” “Nineteen of ’em, sir.” X never did things meanly. “Nineteen lovely little canaries, sir. You should ‘ear ’em sing, sir-like nightingales. Forgotten all about ’em, sir, till a letter come from my missis this morning. All left behind in the cellar, sir, and the ‘ouse is locked up. If I could just run ‘ome for the evening, just to feed ’em and ‘and ’em over to someone to look after before the poor little mites die of starvation, sir. But we were beginning to get stony-hearted, even in those early days. The next onslaught was more subtle. fond of dogs. Anyone who knows her knows that a dog is the surest My wife is passionately way to her heart. In those early days she did the catering and shopping for our Mess. Each morning my car took her to the shops, the Sergeant-Major detailing a driver.

One morning she burst into my headquarters in a state of great excitement. “You must let that driver go home on leave for the day,” she ordered, unfolding a pitiful tale. Apparently, this poor driver had a lovely Alsatian. He loved this animal more than anything in the world. On mobilisation he had left the dog with neighbours. Now he had heard that these brutes were starving and ill-treating it. If only he could get home for a few hours to rescue the dog from this torment! “The poor man is heart-broken,” my wife declared.

“Who is this driver?” I asked. “I don’t know his name.”

I walked to the window. There was his red head turned towards me in the car. He saluted solemnly.

I was not surprised when his wife was taken very ill soon after wards. But he was amazed when I told him that the local police had replied to our enquiry that she was really in splendid health. I must say, he might have appeared more relieved at the good news. He informed me that he was going to consult his solicitors about this question of leave, giving the name of the firm. I was not impressed, principally because I knew that the firm he named were in reality the Estate Agents whose board appeared outside our headquarters.

The next round, however, went to Gunner X. Our battery was to give a concert in the Village Hall. On the day before the affair, it was discovered that the promised drums could not be obtained. “What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Everything’s O.K.” replied the subaltern in charge of the arrangements. “X has volunteered to borrow drums from the Palladium. He knows the people there and can get the drums without any difficulty. I’ve sent him up to London for the day to get them.”

There are people who still believe that the ornate drums which graced the stage really did come from the famous Music Hall. At any rate the instruments, which ultimately accompanied us to France, were always known as the “Palladium Drums.”

By this time X had become quite a legendary figure among the rank and file. It was whispered that he “had influence.” Certainly, he manoeuvred himself into sleeping in the Sergeants’ billet, probably because he owned an expensive wireless set-Heaven knows where it came from. Mysteriously enough, he always seemed to have money. He once walked up to an officer, fumbling in his pocket for money to pay a taxi and offered a pound from a fat wallet he produced. I am told he boasted that he was ‘well in’ with the ‘old man’ (me). It was our next concert which provided another minor triumph

for Gunner X. The lads who performed in these concerts worked very hard after parade hours for several days; rehearsals took hours in the evening, the stage had to be fitted up, lighting fixed, props made, countless other jobs done. I therefore excused from the following Saturday morning parades those who had taken part in the concert.

On the Saturday morning following our second concert I inspected the billets. There was X, cigar in mouth, book in hand, reclining on his blankets, listening to the wireless. “Why aren’t you on parade?” I demanded, as he sprang up to attention.

“Excused parade, sir.” “Who excused?” “You did, sir. Concert party, sir.” “You weren’t in the concert party.” “Yes, sir. Managed the curtain, sir.”

On enquiry, it proved true. By spinning the yarn that in a nebulous past he had been in charge of the curtain at some theatre in Canada, X had induced a gullible subaltern to give him this cushy job, thus enabling him to escape a whole morning’s parades. The number of things which X had been or done in his career was incredible.

Shortly afterwards our battery, having beaten the local police at football, challenged them at darts in the long cowshed we had converted into a canteen. Stoves, made from oil-drums, gave us warmth and periodically smoked us out. We had fixed up our own electric light. Feeding-troughs had been converted into seats. The bar was at the end. An old piano provided music of the tin-can variety.

I visited the canteen while the match was in progress, to find the police well in the lead. X was playing. The local Inspector and I were chatting together when X came blandly up with some pitiful tale, asking for a day’s leave on the morrow. I amused the Inspector by relating X’s previous exploits canaries, Alsatian, drums, and the rest. This seemed to cause X huge joy. When I had finished, he grinned and said: “Well, sir, if I win this match for the battery, will you let me go? There ain’t no bunkum about that anyway.” Whereupon he proceeded to pull the match out of the fire and win a handsome victory for the battery.

Somewhere about this time the Regiment was moved from its Hertfordshire station [TOTTERIDGE] down to Gloucestershire [DURSLEY]. As we had great quantities of stores but hardly any transport, such lorries as we did possess had to do the journey several times.

Gunner X was detailed to drive one of these lorries. Had he not been such an exhibitionist, he would have made a first-class driver; but his nature always impelled him to do the spectacular which is not conducive to good driving. Give X a field gun behind a lorry, and he would thunder them full tilt through a narrow gate at forty miles an hour as if it were the musical drive at Olympia. Unfortunately, he only knew two speeds-Flat Out, and Stop. Nevertheless, he was one of those chaps who could get any vehicle anywhere in any conditions; hence the fact that he was chosen to do this long journey again and again. It puzzled me how cheerful he was about it, and how willing he seemed to repeat the journey each time. It was some time before we learned the reason.

This was in November 1939. The B.E.F. had not yet seen fighting, but it was rumoured that British contingents had been sent down to Alsace for a spell with the French in front of the Maginot Line.

On the first trip to Gloucestershire, X stopped at a country pub. The publican was an old soldier whose heart warmed towards anyone who had seen active service. He drank in the tale of the artillery driver just returned from a spell in the trenches way out beyond the Maginot Line. Memories of his own battle-days surged back as he listened to tales of raids, box barrages, and hairbreadth escapes in the maze of woods where the Boche could slip in and out unseen. Day after day those tales meant free beer, food, and cigars for X. He was a hero. That was the breath of life to him. Then came the incident of the thumb.

Rumours were abroad. We were going overseas. France, Egypt, Palestine, were confidently predicted. Excitement waxed intense. Gunner X reported sick; he could not use his right hand-the thumb was useless. When did this happen to his thumb? asked everybody. Twelve years ago. But how? Stories varied.

For one whole morning X laboriously cleaned windows with his left hand, his right arm thrust into the bosom of his battle-dress. Maybe I felt sympathetic-maybe not; at any rate, having watched him clean the Mess windows in this fashion, I called him in and held out a glass of beer towards him. I made no remark as he grabbed it with his RIGHT hand. Gunner X duly went to France. We left him at the Base.

It was no surprise when, weeks later, a letter arrived from an officer saying that X had been posted to his unit and claimed to be a Bombardier and Motor Mechanic, but unfortunately his Pay Book contained no entries verifying these statements. Would I please elucidate the position? I did.

Then came the Blitz and, what with one thing and another, I forgot X. Way back in England again, with the smoke and dither of Dunkirk behind us, a subaltern came up to me with a local newspaper in his hand. “Good Lord, sir,” he cried. “Look at this.” It contained the story of an interview with a soldier. “If ever a man deserved the V.C., it is Gunner X.” I read. I could picture old X, surrounded by gaping topers in the local pub. My thoughts flew back to canaries, Alsatians, drums-so now it was the Boches.

Months later, I had a letter from him. He wanted us to know how, when on the road to Dunkirk he heard the ‘old battery’ was near, he fought his way through the intervening Boches to join us only to find we had gone. Wherever X is to-day, I can imagine the tales he is telling. I know him well enough to wager that if he ever reads this yarn he will chuckle till tears roll down his cheeks, and he’ll show it round for all to read, boasting: “You see, I was well in with the old man.”

***

Why have I started this book with the tale of Gunner X? Maybe it’s because I’ve often said: “One day I’ll put old X in a book.” Maybe it’s because it illustrates the human side of soldiering; for it’s the human side of the Army that binds it together, making it the fighting unity it is. This book is no war diary; just the human story of a London Territorial Field Artillery Regiment that sprang from a list of names on a scrap of paper in May 1939, went out to France and fought the Hun, and came back sadly fewer than it went.

I call it Grand Party. That word ‘party’ is a curious word. Expressive English is built up from slang, and slang is ever changing. To-day in the Army nothing is ‘arranged’-it is ‘laid on’; an Army car is not a ‘car,’ but a ‘truck’; a fool is not an ‘ass,’ but a ‘twerp’; nothing is ‘ready,’ but ‘teed-up.’ So with ‘party’; every experience, every happening, every bit of work or play, is a ‘party.” The fighting retreat of the B.E.F. from the River Dyle to Dunkirk Beach was the party in France.’ For me the birth, puberty, and manhood of my old Regiment have made a Grand Party.  So now for the tale.

**********

II

BUGLE PARTY

I JERKED myself up in bed, blinded by the torch which the Adjutant was poking through the tent-flap. “Sorry to wake you, sir. The C.O. wants you.” “It’s come then?” I asked, slipping into gum-boots. No need to mention the code telegram ordering first steps towards embodiment of the Territorial Army for war. We had been expecting it since being fetched back to camp off manoeuvres some hours before. The Adjutant nodded. “It’s just three o’clock. If you’ll join the C.O., sir, I’ll get my batman to make some tea.”

As I squelched past the guns and across the camp a sentry challenged me. Five minutes later the four senior officers of the Regiment were discussing preparatory orders for our move. We had ceased to be civilians.

Four months before, the bugles had lured us back to the Army. Now the bugles were sounding for war. Ribbons on the tunic we had slipped over our pyjamas showed this was no novel experience for any of us four.

On 1 May 1939 the Regiment had been formed as part of the doubling-up of the Territorials. On that day it consisted of C.O., Adjutant, and expectation of recruits enlisted by the ‘parent unit.’ Joining as senior battery commander, I was given a list of two hundred and fifty names and the assurance that officers would be found. Soon the names materialised into bodies and the grand fun of building Something out of Nothing began.

They were grand chaps. The threat of war was in the air, so the men we got were not the type who join for a uniform or just for the fun of camp; they were men who came forward with a purpose, believing they would have to fight. Useless indeed would it have been to join for the sake of a uniform, for we had none to give them.

First thing was to get to know the men individually-and their potentialities, for from amongst them we must discover and make our N.C.Os. So we evolved a questionnaire, some thirty questions, for each man to answer about himself, his family, trade, hobbies, interests, experience, hopes, worries and ambitions. We then interviewed each man, and systematically began to memorise names and faces, then memorise details of their questionnaires. It would go something like this:

MYSELF (looking out of Battery Office window across the parade ground): “Who’s that little dark chap in grey flannel bags, blue, high-necked sweater, and old brown jacket he has obviously tried to clean up for parade? (He has darned those holes very neatly.) Jones? Johnson? No, Jackson’s the name. George James Jackson. Married; two kiddies, girl aged three, baby boy just born. Works in a baker’s. Previously worked in garages (make a note of that.) Has driven cars and lorries and rides a motor-bike. (Useful.) Made his own radio set. (Remember that when we get Army sets.) Tried out for Fulham Reserves, but no football these days. (Must see he gets a game at camp.) No time for hobbies now, what with wife and kids, and being a handyman about the house, and wages and rents being what they are. Takes life seriously. Worried about wife’s health. Doesn’t mind what job he’s given with us, only wants to do his bit. Make a note of that lad. If we can fire ambition and more self-confidence into him, he’ll make an N.C.O. one day.”

Then we would tackle them with questions. But you must be certain of your facts first. Disraeli impressed his followers in the House with the belief that he took great interest in their personal affairs. The old cynic declared he achieved this reputation by stopping them in the street and asking: “How’s the old complaint?” It was, he said, a sure winner. But you can’t bluff Thomas Atkins like that-certainly not Territorial Thomas.

Training was a difficult problem. The men, in ‘civvy’ clothes, were marched and drilled in the back-streets of Kennington near the Oval with shrieking urchins chasing around and bowling hoops through the ranks, and ladies of the district shrilling comments which the men affected to ignore.

Fortunately, a London newspaper published a picture of our fellows drilling with 18-pounder guns in a back-street amid hordes of screaming kids. With amazing rapidity proper quarters were then found for us where we could have space to train. This was a girls’ school near Clapham Common. (There was great disappointment on learning that the girls were no longer in residence.) Regimental Headquarters and my battery shared the premises with a Territorial Tank unit, our share of buildings and grounds providing ample facilities for lecture rooms, stores, offices, Officers’ Mess, Sergeants Mess, Canteen, gun park and parade grounds. Our other battery was recruited and stationed at Woolwich.

The men’s thirst for instruction was amazing. asking them to come two nights a week, but soon found fellows begging to come every night if we could arrange drill or instruction. We started by asking them to come two nights a week. The problem was equipment. We borrowed as much as possible from our parent unit. Some nights we got 18-pounder guns which had to be towed through the streets to us in the afternoon and returned late that night after parade. Sometimes we borrowed Army vehicles and civilian lorries for instruction in driving and maintenance officers’ cars being roped in for this, too. We borrowed Army telephones and technical artillery instruments when possible. Rifles we got nearly every night.

But mostly we had to improvise. One keen recruit made some amateur signalling lamps; we made our own signalling flags; with these we could teach Morse. Rough imitations of intricate artillery instruments were constructed so as to explain the uses of the real thing against the day when we should have it to play with. Into this spirit of makeshift and make-believe the boys threw themselves with zest, vying with each other to produce novel gadgets which would serve some training purpose.

At this stage there was little of the soldier about them-though all the qualities of which fine citizen-soldiers are made. To say they had no sense of discipline would be untrue, but it was a discipline all their own. On parade, though in civilian clothes, some pitifully threadbare and soiled, they caught the Army spirit from the outset. Off parade they were their natural selves. One evening in the early days I asked on parade for a carpenter but got no response. Later I was wrestling with administrative problems in the office, when a man knocked timidly at the door. He came in, followed by another man in overalls, cap in hand. “You’re the bloke wot was asking for a carpenter, wasn’t you?” asked the first. I nodded. “Well,” he continued, jerking his thumb at his companion. “There’s a gentleman ‘ere wot does a bit o’ carpentering. Didn’t like ter speak up fer ‘isself in front of all them others, so I brought ‘im along.”

If you think that this helpful chap, lacking military experience, also lacked respect for his officers, you don’t know your Cockney. Now for the tale of George William (Gorblimey) Cox, the man with the smile.

I have already said we had to find our N.C.O.s. My eye, searching for likely material, fell on Cox. Night after night he turned up for drill. He had such a zest for work. He had such a smile. He was such a typical, glorious Cockney. We were doing foot drill, when I called him out of the ranks.

“Cox,” I said. “You take the squad.”

“Coo,” he stammered. “You can do it. Try.”

He hopped bashfully from one foot to the other. “Cor Crikey, sir !” he said at length. “I’ll ‘ave a go.” Like the immortal Mrs. Fezziwig, he was just ‘one vast substantial smile’. I won’t pretend his first effort was a howling success.

Next Sunday we had a whole day’s training. Cox was on parade at 8 a.m. After a hard day, he came to me about four-thirty in the afternoon. “Could I go off, sir, please? I’ll be back at six.”

I hope you are as curious as I was. Apparently, Cox had charge of forty cart-horses. He fed, watered, and groomed them at 5.30 a.m., then spent the day drilling with us. He went off to That was give them their evening feed, then hurried back smiling to be a soldier again for as many hours as we would let him. Cox’s ‘Day Off’. That was the type of man we were getting. I think Mrs. Cox deserved credit, too.

Cox has now been a sergeant since shortly after outbreak of war. In charge of his gun, he fought through the blitz in France, looking after his men just as he had tended those horses in South London. I remember his smile when a shell hit his gun near Tournai, wounding one of his men. I can still see that smile as, rifle in hand, he searched a wood for the Fifth Columnist who had shot one of his gunners in the back at Bouvines. I can picture his smile on Dunkirk Beach. And I shall never forget that smile as he said ‘goodbye’ when his 366 battery was sent away from us to Iceland in 1941. Those forty cart horses must miss George William Cox an awful lot.

Throughout June and July, we had these long day trainings every other Sunday. It required much ingenuity. For instance, we had to get into the men’s heads the composite picture of a battery on the march and in action but had no vehicles or equipment to do this with. So, we got out printed cards for the men to pin on their sleeves. These cards gave the name of the vehicle, the personnel in it, the equipment it carried. The men were then marshalled ‘by vehicles’ with cards on sleeves and practised manoeuvre that way. It is amazing how much was learnt. Many made their own sets of cards and studied them at home.

Those who have not been through it can hardly imagine the immense difficulties of training the modern soldier without proper equipment and of creating and organizing an efficient unit with no experienced personnel to assist. But those same difficulties serve a useful purpose; they evoke in all ranks energy, resource, a genius for improvisation, and grim determination-qualities of which the modern soldier is made. Then, too, the exhilaration of building something out of nothing. We had to go through it all over again after Dunkirk.

On these training Sundays a good dinner was provided in the canteen by contract with caterers, for we could not draw Army rations. But we could not keep the men off the guns long enough to enjoy their meal properly. Dinner was at one o’clock, afternoon parade not until 2.15, but those chaps would be back on the guns drilling on their own by 1.30.

The canteen was in what had been the girls’ gymnasium, where there was room to parade the whole battery on rainy days. Many a successful evening we had there-dances, boxing, gym, darts, sports talks; our good friend, George Allison of the Arsenal, talked about football in his inimitable way; Jack Lovelock, Olympic champion, told us how to keep fit. Esprit de corps developed in the regiment at a very early stage.

Uniforms at last! Two days before camp they arrived. On 13 August, in battle-dress and full kit, the battery marched off to Clapham Junction, detrained in the New Forest, swung proudly into camp at Beaulieu, headed by the band. Among the first faces we saw was that of Anthony Eden, in camp with the Rangers in the next lines. Many of us would not get out of uniform again for years.

A grand camp. But the mud! And later, the heat! We were lent guns, vehicles, all necessary equipment, so could train properly and the men seized the opportunity whole-heartedly.

Judged by the standard of guards and sentries, a fortnight worked wonders. Imagine the horror of the orderly officer doing his rounds the first dawn when greeted by a sentry with: “Hullo, sir, you’re up early !”-instead of the usual challenge; by the end of camp it was an achievement to convince the fierce sentries that you should pass.

Which reminds me of the gullibility of the average British sentry. You have only got to crack what he thinks is a joke, and he is convinced you must be all right. When, to a challenge, I have replied “C.O.” or “Commanding Officer”, I have always been subjected to scrutiny with a torch; but when, to see what would happen, I have responded with “Hitler” or “Mussolini” or “Marshal Goering”, I have invariably heard through the darkness, “Pass, friend.”

A true incident, illustrating this mentality, occurred in southern England during the Battle of Britain. A sentry (not of our regiment), hearing steps approaching in the dark, challenged with the usual “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Foe !” came the reply.

“Aw, stop kiddin’, mate,” said the sentry. “I ‘ope you’ve got a late pass, ‘cos the sarge is fair ‘ot on it to-night.” It took the intruder a long time to convince the sentry that he really was a baled-out Boche airman who was trying to give himself up. Actually, I have found in the past that the easiest places to get into unchallenged were Divisional and Corps Headquarters; but things have been tightened up now. We had fun, too, in camp in those last sunny days of peace. In the Mess, the day’s work done, the subalterns in their blues and spurs had to pass initiation in swarming up the marquee pole to climb through the ventilator in the roof, then back through the hole the other side, and down the pole again. Which brings me to the point where I should introduce some of our gang. But first I should mention the nickname racket.

Be it understood that in the Service it is taboo to call your brother officer by his proper name. This being a Christian country, he has got a Christian name. Worse still, he has probably been inflicted with a nickname. So, he must be ‘George’ or ‘Stinker’, or whatever it is, to you. No matter that you have never seen him before; no matter that you loathe each other; George or Stinker he has got to be.

This disease even obtains among Brass Hats, even among Big Brass Hats. It is carried to absurd lengths. There was the case of a colonel whose unit was sent hurriedly from one formation to another during the battle in France. Getting his guns into action, he was visited by a Brass Hat who was Very Affable but in a Great Hurry. The colonel was in dire need of certain equipment, so he tackled the Very Affable Brass Hat about it. The Brass Hat, as I have said, was in a Great Hurry, so, pushing into his car, he replied: “Of course you must have it at once. Get my headquarters on the ‘phone and tell Charles I said so.” He drove off.

The colonel still wonders who Charles was. He cannot believe that the Brass Hat meant the answering telephonist who, when asked if there was anyone called Charles at those headquarters, blandly retorted: “Yessir. Me.” The origin of most nicknames is past comprehension. If you ask why our Australian subaltern Bob Crichton-Brown is called ‘Boots’, or David Mackay ‘Pluto’, or Stephen Muir ‘Fanny’, I simply don’t know. Those names will often crop up in this story.

Cedric Odling, Wykehamist, champion skier, connoisseur of wines, was the first C.O.; Nevill Christopherson (Chris), of the cricketing dynasty, member of Lloyd’s, was second-in-command; schoolmaster Edward Milton commanded one battery, I the other. The first two are prisoners-of-war, recovering from wounds; the third died of wounds after being captured at Cassel; I have been invalided out as the result of a hangover from Dunkirk.

Other senior officers were mostly old soldiers like Tommy Westley (now a prisoner) who relinquished his rank of major to get back and serve as captain. Junior officers were largely recruited from that nursery of gunners, the Honourable Artillery Company. We were thus made up of undergraduates, a solicitor, barrister, stockbroker, journalist, architect, surveyor, civil servant, bank manager, research chemist, three members of Lloyd’s, and several businessmen; a fairly representative body of London Territorials.

In building up our battery I had imported two Fleet Street friends as subalterns. Dennis Clarke (son of Tom Clarke, distinguished editor and journalist), who had already been under fire, getting a Nazi bullet through his hat while representing the Daily Express in Vienna during the pre-Anschluss riots; and Tony Philpotts, assistant general manager of the Evening Standard.

Tony, now a six-foot-four colonel with an O.B.E., became military secretary to General Auchinleck, and later “military spokesman” in the Middle East. Dennis, also a major now, was mentioned in dispatches after Dunkirk and has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia. With his grasp of languages and intimate knowledge of enemy and occupied countries, he could have had a cushy intelligence appointment, but maintained that a man of his age should be doing a job of fighting-and has done it.

Clifford Hackett, first subaltern to join us, now major command ing my old battery, was called ‘Dormouse’ in those days; but he did not sleep in battle, so the nickname lapsed and he is just known as ‘Cliff’. He, with Basil Strachan and ‘Pluto’ Mackay, made up the Three Musketeers. Jack Leaman, boisterous and irrepressible, to whom his troop paid tribute by christening their pet mongrel dog ‘Noisy’. Roddy Hawes, Etonian, imperturbable, only surviving officer of the 367 Woolwich battery after Dunkirk, helped me to rebuild the regiment and is now a skilful conscientious battery commander elsewhere.

With nicknames in the Sergeants’ Mess we find Signal Sergeant ‘Piggy’ West, Sergeant-Major ‘Ape’ Harris, Sergeant (now Lieutenant) ‘Mac’ McKenna, famed for his rendering of ‘My brother Sylvester’; in the men’s canteen, goalkeeper ‘Blackie’ Hyatt, boxer ‘Len’ Hearn, and the rest.

The men had a nickname for me, too, but I could never discover what it was.

So, there is the cast. The curtain is up. As Stanley Holloway says: “Let battle commence.”

 

****

UP AND DOWN PARTIES OF GUNNER Y

ON 25 August we sped back to the girls’ school to prepare for the smooth carrying-out of mobilization when final orders should come. ‘Key Parties’ were already mobilized. All other officers and men were sent home till called for.

A rear party had been left at Beaulieu to strike camp. It was on their return that my attention was first drawn to Gunner Y, the officer in charge reporting that this man had been lazy, dirty, troublesome, the only one who failed to pull his weight. I sent for Gunner Y.

He was the grimiest specimen of humanity I had ever seen and seemed averse to work of any kind. I wondered why he had volunteered. But then I did not know that he was a man with an Ambition, a distinct personality.

In the Army there are many jobs of a less congenial nature known as fatigues. There is one even less congenial than the rest. It is known as Sanitary Orderly. It is called other things as well. In addition to certain unpleasantness, this job involves a deal of hard work, digging, building latrines, making incinerators, soakaways, all sorts of drainage systems. Not the job to attract volunteers as a rule. But to Y it was a Vocation. He had heard the Call.

Nobody remembers how Y first managed to slide into the job, but soon he became established as an Artist, and the usually despised fatigue an exalted post of the Highest Importance. I think Y regarded himself as combining the roles of Consulting Engineer, Landscape Artist, and Medical Officer of Health.

I have said that he was lazy and dirty. From the moment he secured this appointment, all laziness vanished; the other drawback to his advancement was cured for him by mates in the billet. I will not insult you by asking whether you have ever had a Dry Scrub. I am told it is not a pleasant experience. Certainly, the metamorphosis of Gunner Y was complete. When a dapper, clean-looking soldier gave me a smart salute next day, I had to inquire his name.

Thus started the first Up Party of Gunner Y. If he made enemies, ultra-politeness was the cause. Officers did not appreciate having to respond to his “Good-morning, sir” several times each day. If you annoyed him, he could contrive to meet you every few minutes during his rounds, accompanying his salute with a cordial “Good-morning, sir” on each occasion. I remember, after having dealt with him for some minor offence, passing an apparently unattended column of stationary lorries when a loud “Good morning, sir”, coming seemingly from nowhere, quite startled me. Eventually I located his solemn face peeping from beneath the lorry which he was cleaning, reclining on his back.

Rumour said he was a plumber in civilian life. If a drain was blocked, a cistern stopped up, an airlock occurred in a pipe, Gunner Y was on the spot. On the slightest excuse, a whole drain would be dug up for anything from five to fifty yards. Result was always the same. Floods, more floods, then a plumber fetched post haste from the town.

Once I arrived at the scene to find him waist-deep in a trench from which water was flooding the farmyard. Covered with mud from head to waist, he was striving to dam with sandbags the hole he had made with his pick in the pipe. He looked up from his work. “Good morning, sir,” he spluttered through the filth.

The move overseas put the spotlight on Gunner Y. We were short of drivers for the journey to the embarkation port, so Y was detailed to drive a lorry. The column started off at 7 a.m. Standing at the gateway, watching the vehicles move off, I saw Y among the spectators around me. “Good-morning, sir,” he said.

“Why the hell aren’t you in your lorry?” I demanded.

He was bundled into the driving seat, and off he went. Then it was discovered he had left his kit behind. This was rushed after him in a car which caught up the column twenty miles on, kit and equipment being hurled into the lorry bit by bit as it moved ahead.

Some days later Y accosted me in the cobbled street of a French village. “Beg pardon, sir,” he began. “You ain’t going to keep me drivin’ this ‘ere lorry, are you, sir? I reckon I can make a good thing of this ‘ere sanitary business, and it’d break my ‘eart to give it up after workin’ so ‘ard to learn the job. It’s somethin’ you can take a perfessional interest in, sir-not like drivin’ an old lorry.”

The next three months were definitely an Up Party for Y. Every time we moved into fresh billets, up popped Gunner Y with his much-thumbed, much-soiled ‘Bible’-the Manual of Military Hygiene. “Now, sir,” he would say, as we discussed methods of drainage from wash-benches to be erected in a farmyard. “It’ll have to be the ‘erring-bone pattern ‘ere.”

He had his own design for incinerators, very effective. He built grease-traps, dug drains, cleaned out farmyards, constructed latrines palatial ones for officers with straw-thatched roofs and flyproof gadgets, the only drawback being his habit of paying social calls to canvass approval of his handiwork. He became invaluable and developed into a smart soldier who could make others work, so earned a stripe.

Then came Dunkirk. Last impression of Y in France was driving a truck away from Messines Ridge, spade and bucket on the seat beside him. He re-joined us in Devonshire days after most of our survivors. The story spread that he had volunteered to return to France to bring wounded away and had done the journey several times. Certainly, has the guts to have done it-but also the cunning to be romantic.

Then began a terrible Down Party. Living in billets with normal conveniences for washing, drainage, and what-not, of course detracted from the importance of his job, depriving him of scope for his creative genius. Maybe professional pride was hurt. rate, within a month he had lost his stripe. This, I think, surprised him. After all, what was there in just hopping on to a lorry for an unofficial trip from Lincolnshire to the village where we had been stationed those first few weeks of war? Unfortunately, the search for old friends took him to the vicarage where the wife of one of our officers was staying. “Blimey, mum,” exclaimed Y candidly. “I didn’t never expect to see you ‘ere.”

The rot set in. More absence without leave, one petty crime after another, all brought punishments which involved continual loss of pay. He was up in the Orderly Room time and time again. “Good-morning, sir,” he invariably remarked when halted by his escort before my desk.

Strange to say, he seemed proud of these appearances. Once, when I let him off, he seemed hurt. On another occasion, when I asked what he wanted to say in his defence, he replied jovially, “Nothin’, sir. Fourteen days’ field punishment, I suppose, sir.” When this turned out to be the verdict, he seemed proud at having made so accurate a forecast.

One appearance was on a charge of negligently causing damage to property. He had backed a lorry straight into a greenhouse, smashing numerous panes of glass.

“What is the value of the damage?” I asked the witness. “Twelve pounds, I should think, sir.”

Y bristled with indignation. As if he, Y, would be guilty of such trivial damage. “It’s twenty pounds, if it’s a penny, sir,” he volunteered emphatically.

Another visit to the Orderly Room. “Would why you have disappeared for the night without leave?” I asked.

“Yessir. The chaps in the billet was makin’ such a noise, singin’ and dancin’, that I ‘ad to go away to get some rest.” Of course, these escapades became expensive.

The pay of a Gunner is little enough when free from stoppages; crimes reduce it almost to vanishing-point for weeks. I was therefore surprised at receiving a letter from some auctioneers stating that Y had attended an auction sale and bid a large sum of money for furniture which had been knocked down to him. What interested the auctioneers was that Y had not returned to fetch the goods or pay for them. What interested me was that the sale had apparently taken place during parade hours.

This Down Party went on until we went under canvas for the summer of 1941. Then Up went the Party with a bang. Back to professional life went Gunner Y.

A week after our arrival in camp, an amazing but impressive spectacle brought me to a halt. A squad of six men in overalls was being marched along. Three of them carried spades ‘at the slope. Three carried buckets. Left arms swung vigorously in unison. Smartly they stepped out to the voice of the man in charge. “Left! Right! Left! Right! Swing them arms now! Swing them arms! Left! Right! Hold that spade up, you in the rear file!” A resplendent figure in brand new service dress (not battledress), highly polished leather belt, red and blue forage cap stuck jauntily on his head, Gunner Y was marching his sanitary squad off to their labours.

I am sorry to say that Y is now serving a long prison sentence.

In the civil court it was revealed that this is by no means his first.

 

****

IV

MYSTERY

GLORIOUS PARTY OF GUNNER Z [Driver William John Martin]

THE correction of the title of this chapter is no mistake of mine or of the publishers-for this was to have been the thrilling story of the exploits of Gunner Z. In the last war we had the Mystery Ships; in this, we have the mystery D.C.M.s-for which you must blame (or praise) the censor.

Not that there is any mystery to Z’s comrades in the regiment or to anyone who can be told by word of mouth-but, until the victory trumpets blow, apparently no printed word must let the world at large know how Z earned the regiment’s only Dunkirk D.C.M. So, this becomes a problem chapter.

There is, of course, neither rhyme nor reason in putting this chapter out of chronological order, except to demonstrate at the outset the stuff of which the old regiment was made; but, having fabled the foibles of Gunners X and Y, I would have liked to have sung the saga of Z. I can at least say that Martin is his name.

Martin is a sallow, lanky youngster with an apologetic air and a smile that creeps wistfully around his lips. Hardly the type you would visualize as likely to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was in the 367 Woolwich battery. I cannot imagine that he ever brought himself to the notice of his superiors in the early days, beyond proving himself competent to drive Army vehicles. Personally, I had never heard of him until his name appeared on the roll of missing after Dunkirk. The first time I set eyes on him was when he reported back to the regiment after he had journeyed many hundreds of miles over land and sea.

It was at Cassel, twenty miles from Dunkirk, that he took part with scores of comrades in a hectic scrap in which every round of ammunition was used up against surrounding enemy tanks. Of those who took part in that scrap, only three have returned to tell the tale – one of these is Martin.

From them we learned of the seventeen Boche tanks knocked out, of the wounded who went on firing the guns until no shells were left; of jovial, burly Lieutenant Jack May, lying wounded on the ground, singing out his orders until hit again this time so badly that, although smuggled back to safety in England, he died of his wounds; how, after destroying their 18-pounders and fighting with rifles and Lewis guns until no bullets were left, those who could walk made a valiant but vain bid to pierce through the surrounding hordes. [BREAKOUT TO WATOU]

Wounded Sergeant Harcombe, like Jack May, was carried away in the early stages.* The remainder of those in this little ‘party’ were killed or taken prisoner, many of the prisoners (including the colonel and the second-in-command) also being wounded, but some of them managing to remain at large for days or weeks in hiding before being captured. [Capt Coll Lorne MacDOUGALL]

(*Poor Harcombe has recently been killed in Tunisia 1941).

They were marched back many miles, then packed into lorries. Roads behind the Hun lines were jammed with transport. Down swooped the R.A.F. The Boches made no pretence of coolness or discipline; drivers and guards all fled from vehicles to cover, leaving engines running and prisoners to do as they pleased.

Not until long after the ‘planes had disappeared did the Boches emerge from the ditches and shell-holes to move the That delay had been precious to three prisoners. Unnoticed, convoy on again they had crawled several hundred yards to a wood where they lay hidden, gleefully watching the havoc wrought by our airmen. Would the guards count the prisoners before moving on? Everything depended on that. A cursory glance into the crowded lorries seemed to satisfy them. The fugitives split up to make their separate ways to the coast. One disguised himself in civilian clothes but was arrested and identified as a British soldier by the interrogating Hun officer by reason of his Army boots which he was still wearing; then broke away from his captors and reached Dunkirk. Of the other two, no news has been heard.

Meanwhile, on with the convoy went Martin. The prisoners were all weary beyond sleep, weak for want of food, parched with thirst, but fortified with the belief that in delaying the Boches at Cassel they had played their part in enabling the B.E.F. to reach the beaches where the Navy would transport them to be re-armed and fight again.

The Huns had robbed them of cigarettes and blew the smoke arrogantly in their faces.

One dark evening days later the train stopped at a little town. The prisoners had marched, lorried, marched again, and trained thus far in stages. Here Martin slipped off the cattle truck and melted into the darkness.

And here begins the mystery of [William John] Martin’s D.C.M.

 

************

V

CHILDREN’S PARTY

WE were like a band of children in those first weeks of war, fumbling our way through this new world of black-out and adventure. Even the old warriors found it strange, for soldiering is vastly different to what it was twenty-five years ago.

The actual outbreak of war is imprinted on my mind by that first dawn peep at London’s impressive balloon barrage, and by three incidents.

First was the Man Who Reported Too Soon. Bombardier ‘Len’ Hearn is a tiger in the ring (he never even looked like getting beaten, and won the Northern Command middleweight in 1940), a sturdy N.C.O., a good mechanic, a daring motorcyclist who had ridden at Donnington Park, a first-class driver. aggressive qualities, he was very much ‘Mum’s Boy’. A devoted family are the Hearns. Yet, despite his

On 25 August our Key party was mobilized, the remainder (including Hearn) sent home until further orders. Those orders did not go out until 2 September. On 31 August, however, Hearn arrived with all his kit. Someone may have been pulling his leg; at any rate, he had heard that mobilization orders had gone out and, like a good soldier, had not waited for the telegram to arrive. When told it was a mistake and he must go back home, he resolutely refused. “I can’t, sir,” he protested. “I’ve said ‘goodbye’ to Mum. I can’t go back home now.” So, for two days he served with us without pay.

Second incident was the Man Who Wanted An Hour Off. On the first morning after mobilization, he came up and asked if he could possibly have permission to be absent from twelve until one. “I just want to get married, sir,” he explained. “I suppose you really mean you want forty-eight hours’ leave,” I said.

“No, sir, just an hour. I had arranged to meet her at the Register Office at twelve-thirty. I can be back soon after one.” “You can have twenty-four hours’ leave,” I said. “Report back to-morrow night at ten.”

But this chap was adamant. All he wanted was one hour off. He came back without delay, handed in his marriage certificate to the battery office, and went on with his soldiering.

Third incident was the First Air Raid Warning, five minutes after Neville Chamberlain had broadcast that we were actually at war. Some said it was a mistake. Some vowed there really had been hostile ‘planes over Kent. Various stories went the rounds. Personally, I have always believed it was a subtle and effective piece of propaganda.

Putting several hundred men through the process of mobilization in a few hours is exhausting work. Forms must be filled up for each man and sent off to the Regimental Paymaster to ensure that dependants get proper allowances; more forms to the Officer in charge of Records, the War Office, and the County Territorial Association; nominal rolls prepared; each man’s pay book completed, and his employer notified that he has been called up; every man issued with kit, medically examined, and his medical history sheet completed; every man fed-not easy when they are reporting at all hours throughout the day and night, and no rations are supplied. Actually, all went smoothly. The canteen echoed hilariously with ‘Down Mexico Way’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. The only worry seemed to be a general fear that the French might polish off the enemy before we could get out to join in the fun.

The men now had uniform and kit. We had a few rifles and a little ammunition; two 4.5-in. howitzers, fit for drill purposes only; two or three antiquated artillery instruments, some amateur instruments and equipment we had improvised ourselves, some binoculars which must last have been used in the Crimea. For transport we had nothing but officers’ private cars and a few push-bikes some men had brought along. With this formidable armament we set off for the pretty little Hertfordshire village [Totteridge] where we were to wait and train for the first ten weeks of war.

Battery headquarters, stores, gun park, and parade ground were in a vacant farm. Some of the men were in private billets, some in empty houses. Feeding was a knotty problem at first, for we were not issued with Army rations and had no cooking equipment, so had to arrange for all to be fed by civilians in return for the meagre official rates of payment. In the case of most of those billeted in private houses, this was not difficult, but in the case of those living in empty houses, it called for considerable organization and cajolery. Eventually one householder undertook to provide thirty men with three meals a day; the vicarage organized the feeding of more than thirty daily in the Parish Room; here and there, with the aid of kindly civilians, we arranged the feeding of the whole battery. Fortunately, after three weeks we were able to draw rations, build stoves with bricks, make ovens out of old cisterns and biscuit tins and feed the troops in the normal Army way. Officers were also billeted out, Dennis Clarke and I at the vicarage. The vicarage folk became really attached to our men and were very good to them.

The old vicar had been a Rugger player in his day. He had a passionate hero-worship of Frank Benson, a conviction that he himself had missed his vocation by not going on the stage, a remarkable liking for sherry, a bad heart, and the habit of reciting Henry V’s speech before Agincourt on every possible, and impossible, occasion. Every night he went round the house putting up the black-out with countless drawing-pins which he kept dropping.

At every window he would solemnly pause and shout “Damn Hitler!” before doing the job. At the end of it all he would pour out a glass of sherry, raise the glass, shout a final “Damn Hitler!” and swallow it at a gulp.

We filled his little church every Sunday at a special service for the troops. Every Sunday we had the same psalm; he explained it was the shortest one in the book. There was always a prayer for soldiers, sailors and airmen, where he used to get tied up over the order of the three Services-sometimes it became ‘sailors, soldiers and airmen’ sometimes the R.A.F. got precedence. Our subalterns used to make bets, placing the Services in the correct ‘order of the day,”

He was a handsome old boy with a mop of iron-grey hair. Sad that he could not live to see the day of victory he so confidently predicted.

My fat young batman was also billeted at the vicarage. He was asked to mind the house for the family one evening while they attended some village function. Kindly Mrs. Vicar gave him a massive apple pie and a large cake and told him to help himself to anything he wanted. Three hours later they returned to find him sunken into an armchair by the fire, having eaten apple pie, cake, a loaf of bread and some dripping, four eggs (presumably raw), a tin of sardines, and the remains of a shoulder of lamb. “Don’t ‘arf tire yer out, sittin’ abaht wiv nuffin’ to do,” was his only comment.

Training was a most difficult problem. We had received a few more guns-18-pounders and 4.5-in. howitzers-and some second-hand civilian lorries; otherwise, we were still having to improvise equipment. Everyone was keen, everyone worked with zest. From the outset we tried to bring home to all the vital importance of learning to do everything in the pitch dark in silence. We began this training with a simple scheme. Sentries were posted at intervals varying from a hundred yards to half a mile across country. Each sentry was able to describe the way to the next. The men were then sent one by one to find their way silently round the course by following the directions given by each sentry in turn. The total distance was little more than two miles. It was a pitch-black night.

We started them off at nine-thirty. The first to complete the course arrived back at ten-forty-five. By midnight only thirty-six out of two hundred and fifty were home. At three o’clock in the morning patrols were still out searching for lost sheep. Four men fell into a stream. One was found miles away with a sprained ankle, another walked into a tree and cut his nose. Which all demonstrates how difficult it is for untrained men to find their way in silence across unknown country in the dark. training in those early days. Its value was soon proved in France. We did a lot of this night

Another problem was Funds. There are numerous things you must do or get for the unit’s efficiency or the men’s comfort, for which no authority to expend the necessary money exists. If you ask for authority you are told that payment must be made ‘out of unit funds’. That is all right in the Regular Army or old Territorial units, where funds have accumulated for years. But how does a new unit, receiving no initial grant to start such a fund, raise the money? At first everything came out of officers’ private pockets, but we got tired of that. Eventually we found several answers to this problem. Here is one.

Boot repairs were supposed to be carried out by civilian contract at a price not exceeding five shillings a pair. We had authority to find some local boot-repairer, pay him five bob a pair for mending the men’s boots, and everyone would be happy except the men who had to wait weeks for their boots to be returned.

We had two amateur boot-repairers in the battery. I bought tools and leather and fixed up a ‘shop’ in a shed at our farm. They worked after parade hours and were paid twopence a pair. We charged the Government, by debiting our imprest account, three shillings a pair. After paying for tools and leather and the men for their labour, we made eighteen-pence a pair for ‘unit funds’. The boot-repairers were happy, because they were making several shillings a week extra; the soldiers were happy, because they could hand in boots one evening and get them back repaired next morning; we were happy, building up unit funds; and you might have thought that, as we were saving the Government two shillings a pair, the authorities would have been happy-but they were not. However, after much palaver, this ‘unprecedented procedure’ was sanctioned.

As always, one chief anxiety was amusement of the troops. Football, boxing, dances, and concerts formed the staple diet. Our first concert earned us quite a local reputation. Our boys were greatly encouraged by generous actions of friends; John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, impressed with our amateur talent, gave seats at the Palladium to our comedian so that he could hear and imitate ‘Run, rabbit, run’; Strube [famous Daily Express Cartoonist] did cartoons on the stage; good old Stainless Stephen, always a friend to our regiment, gave one of his inimitable turns.

To give more men the chance of a game, resourceful Tony Philpotts invented a weird brand of football called ‘Allee, Allee,’ presumably because all could play. There was no limit to the number of players-sometimes sixty or seventy a side. All you needed was a large field. The object was to get the ball over the hedge at your opponent’s end. There was only one rule-no biting. You could kick, throw, carry, or fall on the ball. You could collar your opponent, charge him roll on him. There were no scrums, touchline, goal-kicks, offside rules, or penalties. The ball was thrown in the air by the referee and the battle began. Real Commando stuff. About this time Tony got his first insight into the psychology of the British Tommy regarding Food. Your soldier will fight uncomplainingly without anything to eat for days; but when not fighting he has very definite views on the subject of food and the regularity with which it should be consumed. One evening Tony stopped a young N.C.O. and detailed him for some minor task which would take barely five minutes. The man looked at Tony in consternation. “Ain’t ‘d me tea yet, sir,” he mumbled. This quickly became a cliché in the Officers’ Mess.

One thing your soldier is very definite about-nothing but a hot meal counts as food at all. In times of movement, when the men get haversack rations of sandwiches or bread and cheese during the day, being given their dinner in the evening, they invariably have had ‘nothing at all’ to eat.

I remember one man telling me quite seriously: “Ain’t nothin’ to eat all day, sir.”

“No breakfast ?” I asked.

“Oh, yessir. I ‘ad breakfast.”

“What?”

“Only bacon.”

“No bread ?”

“Oh, yes, bread.”

“And jam-and some tea?”

“Yessir.”

“Weren’t you given haversack rations to take with you?” “Well, a bit of bread and cheese.”

“And cocoa was dished out to you on the march?”

“Yessir.”

“What’s that sticking out of your pocket?” “Only chocolate, sir, and a bit of cake.”

“If you were hungry, you could have eaten that.” “I ain’t ‘ad me dinner,” he persisted sullenly.

“Your dinner will be ready in about ten minutes,” I said. Whereupon he promptly proceeded to stuff himself with the chocolate and cake from his pocket.

The real trouble is that, unless rigid control is exercised over

them, the men will eat their haversack rations (meant to last the day)

immediately they are issued after breakfast. Those were happy days in that village. I had only one sad day there. The day my little dog died, our faithful pal for fourteen years. We buried her in the vicarage garden where she had loved to chase the cats. Then orders came for the regiment to move to a small industrial town in Gloucestershire, where we were to join the Third Corps. [DURLSEY]

Teething troubles were over. Here in Gloucestershire, we could get more advanced training; equipment was beginning to arrive; impressed civilian vehicles, though of wretched quality, were handed over to us; the surrounding country was suitable for artillery manoeuvre. Expert instructors were attached to us for short periods, our own officers sent away on courses of instruction, and we were enabled to take part in large-scale exercises. Only thing lacking was opportunity of combined training with infantry, the vital importance of which did not seem to be fully appreciated in those days.

No wives were allowed within twenty miles. Knowing both sides of this vexed question, I am convinced it is a bad thing for all concerned to have womenfolk following the drum.

In wartime an officer’s job is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. He must be father, nursemaid and friend to his men, as well as teacher and guide. Their welfare must always be his first thought. To lead them in battle, his technical knowledge of his job must be faultless, and this requires continuous application. His allegiance cannot be divided. If his wife is on the doorstep, he cannot give full allegiance either to her or to his men, and everybody suffers. I have seen excellent officers transformed into just clock watchers when their wives are in the neighbourhood. Moreover, if countless wives are milling around it is indeed a miracle if something does not happen to upset the general harmony. The real answer is Leave. Don’t let the womenfolk go to the men; send the menfolk to the women. That, of course, can only be at infrequent intervals. It may seem hard, but then war is hard, and must be accepted as hard if it is to be won.

The same applies to N.C.O.s and men, but there is one way in which help should be given to enable them to keep in regular touch with their families. The cost of postage inflicts real hardship on the soldier. Twopence-halfpenny is a big slice out of what remains of his day’s pay after he has made an allotment to his wife. If abroad, he can write home post free, and how greatly he avails himself of this privilege is known by all officers who have to censor the vast correspondence. If the same privilege were extended to the soldier at home, most husbands would write to their wives much more frequently. Much heartache-even broken marriages-would be prevented by this long-overdue concession. It is doubly important now that the soldiers’ hometowns are filled with foreign troops who have much more money to spend.

In Gloucestershire the whole regiment was concentrated in an empty factory (CHAMPIONS CARPET FACTORY- now Housing). What a target for the bombers! But there was no bombing in those days. We gave the troops a grand Christmas dinner in the warehouse with gay decorations, Christmas tree, crackers, turkeys, plum puddings, mince pies, fruit, cigarettes, and plenty of beer.

At the Boxing-Day concert I was presented with a mascot for the battery. Alice the goose was a cute old bird, very talkative, and would come waddling towards you if called by name. She lived in the Sergeants’ Mess, consuming quantities of beer and whisky- if offered water, she would turn away in disgust. No other animal was tolerated in the Mess by Alice; cats and dogs were chased out of the place with a tornado of flapping wings and angry squawks. She was a terror.

Alice accompanied us overseas, hidden in a gun tractor. She slept the whole way across the Channel, probably due to excess of beer. The last time I saw her was in the little French town of Bolbec. She waddled towards me with loud squawks of recognition. Next morning, she had disappeared. Our boys were mad with rage. Not one of them would have eaten Alice if he had been starving.

After Christmas severe weather made training difficult but toughened the men perceptibly. Hilly roads were blocks of ice. Snowdrifts everywhere. Telegraph wires straddled your path; poles and trees snapped like matchwood. A rending crack would resound above as you drove along and a huge tree, overcome by weight of ice and snow, would crash across the road where you had passed. In this weather we journeyed seventy miles to spend four days shooting with our guns, which had arrived at last. At the close of this test, we proudly heard the brigadier say he would report that we were ‘fit to fight’. In late January a most curious phenomenon of this war was first brought home to me. One evening a sergeant came up in great excitement. “The King is inspecting us next Wednesday, sir,” he said.

“Where did you get that yarn?” I asked. He had been told by civilians in a pub. this was true. Surprised himself, he ‘phoned the brigadier, who was equally sceptical. Just another yarn, we thought. But sure enough, I asked the colonel if three days later, came orders for a ceremonial inspection by a ‘High Personage’ the following Wednesday. Now this is an extraordinary thing, but again and again in this war we have found that the ordinary civilian in the street gets to know about coming military movements before the military concerned, even senior officers, know themselves. You will hear of another instance almost immediately. This ‘bush telegraph’ is a phenomenon that should be investigated, the cause discovered, and drastic action taken. It still exists and is a serious matter.

The morning of the inspection was icy cold with an east wind blasting over the high ground where five artillery regiments were paraded along a wide main road. I felt jealous of my old friend George Ames, commanding the next regiment, because his men looked so smart in gaiters; ours still had puttees (rather frayed in spite of efforts to mend the offending parts). A famous Horse Artillery battery-subsequently to take part with our Woolwich battery in the scrap at Cassel- was on the right of the line. [Royal Horse Artillery famous for Hondegheim]

A policeman on a motorbike roars up. Orders echo down the line. Royal Salute from the band. The long tramp down the ranks begins.

The King still looks very young; the Queen vivacious, of course, in powder blue. She stops to ask Sergeant Johnson what the second ribbon on his breast is- the last war special medal for the Mercantile Marine. Johnson’s prestige soars high among his comrades. A shy, quiet man is Johnson. I’ll bet his wife and pretty kids read all about this in his letter home to-morrow. Last time I saw them was in the Sergeants’ Mess at the old girls’ school at Clapham.

Caps off! Three cheers! The ‘High Personages’ pass on to the next regiment. We march back-old Johnson a bit more erect than usual, I notice.

So, the civilians had been right. Were they right, we wondered eagerly, when they told the troops we were going overseas this week? That was on a Monday. Not even Corps Headquarters knew anything of this. But at two-thirty next afternoon secret orders reached us. All guns, transport and equipment were to move by road on Saturday with sufficient personnel to get them to the port and guard them on the voyage. The rest were to follow by rail a week later.

First care was to warn all ranks not to let anyone know the port from which we were sailing. [SOUTHAMPTON] Not that we officers knew which port ourselves; but we were afraid they might learn it from civilians. No telegrams, letters or telephone messages must be sent from the port when they got there. I think we made them realize how vital this was for the safety of themselves and other troops who might be sailing from that port. Pre-war selection of embarkation ports had been a jealously guarded secret at the War-house; when war broke out no more than the minimum of persons to make the necessary arrangements were let into the secret. Imagine therefore the horror when news arrived that at one port wives, mothers, and sweethearts turned up to see their menfolk sail. The men had stayed overnight at the port and had been allowed in town on pass. Telegrams and telephone messages had flown all over the land, bringing the women down for a last embrace. Fortunately, that cannot happen now.

For three days and four nights life was hectic indeed. Nearly two hundred vehicles-3-ton lorries, 30-cwt. lorries, 8-cwt. and 15-cwt. trucks, gun tractors, water-carts, and armoured carriers ammunition, machine-guns, anti-tank rifles, signalling and wireless equipment, technical instruments and equipment of all kinds, poured in from all parts of the country at all hours of the day and night. A.T.S. girls brought gun tractors scores of miles to us-grand drivers they were, too.

All these vehicles had to be camouflage-painted, painted with special signs applicable to our unit and formation, fitted with our own particular gadgets, packed and weighed. The last of the vehicles did not arrive until three o’clock on Saturday morning, yet all were painted, packed, weighed, and ready to move off at seven thirty.

We had had so few vehicles that we had been unable to train sufficient drivers. Moreover, the training vehicles had been civilian vehicles, and did not include anything comparable to gun tractors or armoured carriers. The result was that when we moved off that morning, quite seventy-five per cent were driving vehicles of a type they had never driven before, and we actually had men driving who had never driven before in their lives-we just picked intelligent chaps, gave half-an-hour’s instruction, put them in the driver’s seat, and off they went. Incredible, but true.

Amazing indeed, but the whole lot accomplished the long trip to the port without mishap and in France completed four hundred miles to the Belgian frontier without accident or loss. By the end of that journey, I’ll say those boys could drive.

My wife led the column past the starting point in my private car. Then we sped ahead and halted to watch the column go by an inspiring sight, six miles long. The boys were all elated. A week later the rest followed by train morning our womenfolk waved us off at the station. We felt proud in the misty grey of the smiling, cheery show they put up. Some may have had the foreboding they would not see their men again, as, alas, it proved.

At the port Frank Bower, our quartermaster, smuggled his huge Newfoundland dog on board while others diverted the embarkation officer’s attention. Poor Nan, like Alice, did not live long. She caught pneumonia just before the blitz, and Frank buried her with tears streaming down his cheeks.

We were the first second-line Territorial regiment to join the B.E.F. Before we left, the colonel addressed all ranks. Weeks afterwards I was censoring letters in our little French Mess. “Before we left England,” wrote one correspondent, “our colonel said this was going to be a Great Adventure. I call it a Bloody Nuisance!”

******

VI

BRASS-HAT PARTY

I MUST hark back to the last war. There is a reason for it. In those days it was fashionable to sneer at Brass Hats. They joined mothers-in-law, Wigan, and false teeth as the stock jokes of the music-halls. Not without justification.

Kissing went almost entirely by favour, except in the Dominion forces. If old Tom had been at Eton or Sandhurst with the People Who Matter, it was the very best reason for them to appoint old Tom’s son to a command. There seemed to be an idea that a man who could bring down grouse on the moors or outbid his opponents at Bridge had the obvious qualifications for driving the Boches out of France or outplaying Falkenhayn and Rupprecht at strategy. The Men Who Really Count actually believed that Waterloo had been won on the playing-fields of Eton. How nations without an Eton ever won battles was presumably a mystery.

In the pre-1914 Army it had been generally regarded as ‘bad form’ to treat the profession of arms as a serious career demanding concentrated study and continuous application. Happily, there were a few exceptions; not popular, prior to that war.

Good strategists were so rare that if a commander showed genius in one war, he was inevitably given command in the next war, no matter how infirm in mind or body he had meanwhile become. There used to be much sneering at Dug-outs; but the Dug-ins were far more dangerous. The Brass Hat Brigade consisted mainly of tired old war-horses whose star had set, and the Coming Young Men (in late middle age) who had never had opportunity of handling large formations. It is difficult to realize now that prior to 1914 Britain had not fought a first-class war for a hundred years. Zululand, Matabele land, Sudan, South Africa never reached the status of major operations; even the Crimea was a puny expedition. Formations higher than a division were unknown here. How could even the keen and able few master the complicated art of handling and administering large armies in the field?

When things eventually went awry, politicians blamed the generals, generals blamed the politicians. The man to blame was the taxpayer who would have thrown out any government which sought to make him pay for the defence of his country on the same scale as he demanded protection for private property or vested interests. There was, too, a mad idea that a small army sufficed because one English man was a match for at least ten Germans or twelve Frenchmen which was all very comforting, except for the wretched British soldier who had to take on the said Germans or Frenchmen. In the first months of war, it worked out at about one hundred and thirty Germans to Thomas Atkins!

The inevitable result was that we got the Brass Hat we deserved. Greatest of the failings of this Old Gang was their determination to keep each other in good jobs. “You can’t keep a bad man down!” was the slogan. There was the case of the General who went out with the B.E.F. as Brigade Commander. Something went wrong, and he was sent home, where he was promptly promoted to com mand one of Kitchener’s newly formed divisions. Nothing intrinsically wrong in that, perhaps, for a man who has become too old or weak to command a brigade in battle may yet be fit to train a division away from the scene of active operations-though it is doubtful whether he can appraise, apply, and inspire into that training lessons learned as latest battles evolve. It did come as a shock, however, when he was allowed to take the division to France the man who had been sacked thus returning with greater responsibilities. Before long, he was again sent home-but reappeared later at the front in the still higher role of Corps Commander.

These old warriors were terribly proud of their ribbons. Whilst on sick leave I was sitting in a seaside hotel chatting to one of them. He had two rows of ribbons, headed by the D.S.O. and tailing off with a brace of Piccadilly medals. He would puff out his chest like a pigeon to display them to the best advantage. Across the lounge a dear old dame sat knitting. She kept staring admiringly at the Brass Hat’s breast. After a while she finished her knitting and rose to go. As she passed our chairs, she asked the old boy sweetly: “Excuse me, General. How did you get all those wonderful medals?” I thought the old boy would burst. “Good God, ma’am!” he you think? Won ’em in a raffle” he spluttered. “How do bloody Another old chap I knew, whenever he took over a new com mand, would send for all officers on his staff. They would stand to attention while he glared at them through his monocle. Then he would announce in icy tones: “Now, gentlemen, my name’s Blimp.” (That was not his real name.) “There are two Blimps. One’s a nice kind-hearted feller. The other’s a swine. You can have which you like. Gentlemen, you may go.” They would march solemnly out of the room, older ones apprehensive, younger ones chuckling audibly.

The young officer’s contact with Brass Hats was mainly at inspections. Inspections meant Spit and Polish, Eyewash, and Answering Questions-unless you were ‘up the line’, when it meant just Answering Questions.

On one occasion, as a battery commander on the Somme, I received the general of a famous division who had come to inspect us. The men were all paraded, officers lined up in front. The general arrived, shook hands, then told me to introduce my officers. On my introducing a lad who had only joined from England the day before, the general asked some stupid question about how many bones there were for the men’s soup (we were living on bully beef), which the youngster was too nervous to answer promptly. Where upon the general fixed the rest of us with his eye and, in a loud voice which the assembled troops could hear, cried: “Gentlemen, repeat after me… . Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.”

He beat time with his cane and, like kindergarten kids, before our grinning men, we had to chant in unison: “Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.” After the war that Brass Hat became an M.P. I often wonder if he conducted similar demonstrations from his political platform.

On another occasion on the Somme we were inspected by a Really Big Brass Hat. He examined guns, ammunition, dug-outs, gas precautions, system of communications; made most minute inspection of cooking, feeding, and sleeping arrangements, smelling the meat, poking the bread, making sure we had rum in store; all without uttering a word. After two hours of this silent ordeal, he strode back to his car. Holding out his hand, he said: “Well, Tomkins, I hope you like this better than Gallipoli.” I pointed out respectfully that my name was not Tomkins and I had never been nearer Gallipoli than Vienna. Whereat he mumbled: “I must be thinking of someone else,” and drove away. Nobody ever heard what he thought of everything he had so minutely inspected. Then there is the classic tale of the Brass Hat who toured the Anzac trenches. One tough old Aussie, who had been out raiding the night before and had been rewarded too generously with rum, had just collapsed at the bottom of a communication trench when word flew down that the inspecting general was approaching. Comrades bundled him on to a stretcher and covered him with a groundsheet.

The Brass Hat arrived. Seeing the motionless form under the sheet, he drew himself stiffly to attention. His hand rose solemnly to the gold peak of his cap. “Men!” he boomed. “Your general salutes the glorious dead!” Whereat the covering was thrown aside, and a throaty voice croaked: “Who’s the old bastard calling dead?”

Which reminds me of the Very Important Brass Hat, walking up a sunken road in the reserve battalion area, who spotted a subaltern emerging from a dug-out without equipment. “Where, sir, is your gas-mask?” bellowed the general. “In the dug-out, sir,” faltered the sub.

“In the dug-out!” snorted the Brass Hat. “Don’t you know you must have it with you. Orders seem to mean nothing to you modern subalterns. I don’t suppose you even know how to put the thing on.”

“Yes, I do, sir.”

“Then show me,” retorted the General. “Take my gas-mask, as you haven’t got your own.” Suddenly realizing he had left his own gasmask in the car, he grabbed his A.D.C.’s respirator and thrust it at the subaltern.

The sub. promptly slung it round his neck, undid the fastener, put his hand inside to withdraw the face-piece. Out tumbled a dirty pair of socks and a pipe-and that was all.

Those were the Brass Hats of the old war. A few were good. Most of them definitely were not. Hardly any were really virile. Now why I have delved into all this past history is to emphasize how different is the Brass Hat of to-day.

Much wild criticism by uninformed persons has recently been directed against Army leadership. There is indeed much to condemn in Army administration; there is certainly something amiss with the mental outlook of the average Regular Army officer; and these aspects of the Army will be dealt with in the concluding pages of this book. But the standard of leadership is high. The great majority of those who have attained Brass Hat rank to-day are younger, more determined, far more virile, and infinitely more elastic and intelligent than their 1914-1918 counterparts and have studied their profession seriously. Despite partisan allegations to the contrary, the generals of this war are alert to sense the lessons of each new battle and to apply them without delay-and if those lessons have apparently not brought forth results, it is not the generals who are to blame, but Whitehall As you would expect, those with the personality to be unorthodox are the best; men such as Alexander, Montgomery, K. A. N. Anderson, and Beak (the V.C. now commanding in Malta).* We have recounted anecdotes of the old Brass Hats. Here are two of the new Brass Hat. They may illustrate the difference.

About this particular general there are many stories. first-class soldier, a whale for work, wiry, ruthless, unswerving in grim determination to annihilate the Boches, unstinting in his efforts to achieve that end. He is in one word-TOUGH Above all, he is a fanatic about physical fitness. Every officer and man in his corp had to run six miles, every week, winter, summa, rain or shine-and the general ran his six miles, too.

The story goes that he was taken to see a cabinet minister one day. “General,” said the Minister, proffering a cigar. “Have a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” replied the general.

The cabinet minister poured out a glass of champagne and handed it to his visitor. “Thanks, I don’t drink,” said the general. “Ever since war broke out I have neither drunk nor smoked, and I am one hundred per cent. physically fit.”

“Dear me!” smiled the Minister. “Why, ever since war broke out I’ve smoked twice as much as I did before, and drunk twice as much-and I’m two hundred per cent. physically fit.”

It was this man who first among British generals appreciated the value of parachute troops. It is said that when in the early days following Dunkirk he asked for parachutists to train with his troops, he received a diplomatic reply suggesting that in existing circumstances with fear of invasion in the area of his command there would be grave risk of some of these parachutists being shot down by

the Home Guard. “Of course,” retorted the general. “But you can’t let little things like that interfere with training.”

* This was written before the Battle of Egypt and the Allied landings in North Africa. Events have since proved the justice of the selection of these names.

He certainly is tough. Now let me introduce two of the best Brass Hats, finest soldiers and grandest men you could find in any army. It is the first week in March 1940. The scene is Ervillers, near Bapaume, in Picardy. Two alert and smiling soldiers have driven many miles to greet our regiment on joining the First Corps of the B.E.F. They are Brigadier Davidson, then commanding the artillery of the corps, now Major-General and Director of Military Intelligence; and Brigadier Pratt, commanding the Corps medium artillery; known affectionately as David and Ambrose.

****

VII

GROWN-UP PARTY

THE Brigadiers appeared as we were hiding guns and vehicles away in the farmyards and orchards of Ervillers, brisk, business-like, and smiling. Obviously, they had come to welcome and help, not to nark and nag, but those keen eyes were roving appraisingly; you felt you could not bluff these men-nor did you want to. They soon extracted details of our history-second-line Territorial regiment, only received equipment just before embarking, reached Ervillers with some drivers who had never driven before the start of that journey. I don’t think they believed these tales at first; when belief did dawn it was accompanied, I suspect, by trepidation at the in experienced material they were getting. Telling us that before going up to the so-called Front we should do some shooting “to see what we could do,” the Brigadiers left us to settle down.

It had not taken long to reach Ervillers. Staff organization of the journey from Gloucestershire had been excellent; no waiting anywhere. On landing at Le Havre we had entrained for Bolbec, twenty miles away, where we found guns, transport, and those who had gone ahead. I was billeted on a Lancashire man who had lived in France for forty years. We fed in a café where officers had their first taste of Pernod, insidious absinthe drink so treacherous to the novice.

Here we had our first experience of a French air-raid warning. In those days there was no black-out in French towns until the Alerte was sounded; there were lights in café windows, lights in the street,

the normal cheerful atmosphere of peace. Then the Alerte! Pandemonium breaks out everywhere, everyone pulling down blinds, sticking up shutters, banging doors, putting out lights, shouting, swearing; no one is allowed to leave or open a door until the Alerte is over; traffic must remain stationary without lights until the raid is over; terrific, terribly Latin excitement. However, as raids were then infrequent and of short duration, it was quite sensible.

Coming from England, whereas yet there were few restrictions and absence of men was not noticeable, we were struck with the more warlike atmosphere of France. There were spiritless days and beer less days. No whisky on Tuesdays and Thursdays, no beer on Mondays or Wednesdays. Basil Strachan and I went into Rouen to the Field Cashier; having done our business, we went into a tea shop. We were allowed tea and rusks, but were told that no bread, butter, cakes or biscuits could be sold on Tuesdays. Later we went to a café overlooking the Seine; the orchestra was composed of women, waitresses had supplanted waiters, there was not a man in the place out of uniform. Trams were driven by women. I went into a man’s outfitters and was served by a girl.

Mourning the loss of Alice the goose, we left Bolbec three days later without regret, particularly as meningitis had broken out among other troops there. We left Boots Crichton-Brown behind to pay for billets and settle claims. On re-joining us next day, he told us that the filthy old château which had been our headquarters was burned to the ground. As in civilian life Boots is at Lloyd’s, he came in for a good deal of leg-pulling over that.

Next night we stopped at Allery, a hundred miles further on, notable only for the facts that we parked our guns in the village churchyard with the approval of the curé, that one young subaltern fell head over ears in love with a voluptuous blonde, that we had delicious omelettes aux champignons and Volnay at an estaminet, and that the inhabitants seemed anxious to get rid of British troops.

For me the next day passed like a dream. A long trek through country so familiar twenty-five years before, yet now so strange. A haunted land. All through Amiens the gamins ran screaming out at us, thumbs in air. Past Querrieux, where Allenby once had his headquarters; Corbie, the railhead from which one went on leave. Kilometre after kilometre of the long straight road to Albert; one used to see the Verey lights and gun flashes at the front from fifteen miles away along that road, coming back from those rare trips into Amiens for dinner at the Godbert.

So, the old cathedral at Albert has been rebuilt. No Hanging Virgin now. Just through the town, along the Bapaume Road, we came to a halt. Dismounting, I point out to Pluto where our guns were in action early in the Somme battle and the spot where I spent months at an observation post in the bank of a sunken road. It’s a queer feeling looking down on the past with all the old faces missing.

We move on again. There, on the right, is rebuilt La Boisselle; the great mine-crater which engulfed the Boche front line on 1 July 1916 is still there. Ovillers, on our left; there were several thousand dead stinking in the pitiless sun across No Man’s Land here in those July days-the stench made one retch until one got used to it. saw a Tommy squatting among these corpses to eat his bully and biscuits after the Boches had been driven from Poziéres ridge; his callousness revolted me-yet next day I was doing the same myself quite naturally.

We pass through Poziéres with its vast cemeteries of Allied dead. Beyond, I point out to Hearn the site of the old Mill, now railed off; it had been in No Man’s Land when we crawled out to it on our bellies in front of the Anzac lines to find a forward observation post. Away to the left in the sunshine, towers the imposing monument at Thiepval. High Wood and Delville Wood are just distinguishable on our right. So, past the Butte de Warlencourt, we enter Bapaume and swing left along the Arras Road to Ervillers. Last time I had seen Ervillers was on 26 March 1918. Not much of it was left then. We had been ordered up to Mory to rein force the quivering line, but found the Boches had beaten us to it, so got our guns into action around the brick dust which had been Ervillers church. It was an eerie night. Chaos reigned everywhere. No one knew what the situation was. It was pitch dark and on our immediate front was mainly silence, with bursts of machine-gun at intervals. Our own guns boomed fitfully. Every now and then a party of infantry would retreat past us. Suddenly machine-gun fire spattered round us from a nest of stables three hundred yards ahead. We must save the guns. One we could not get away, so stripped it of breechblock and sights. It was getting grey along the road to Courcelles and one could just make out the road ahead; those Boches-a small patrol, I imagine-must have been even more surprised than we were, for they let us drive past without a shot. Next day, a counter-attack temporarily regaining Ervillers, we got our other gun away. We found one of our bombardiers asleep in a trench beside it, totally oblivious of the fact that the Boches had held the village round him for some hours. To this place of memories, I now returned twenty-two years later. Our chaps rather liked the place. We had trouble over drink the second night. There was a fight in an estaminet, and our police picket had difficulty in turning fellows out of the cafés. The miscreants were suitably dealt with, and my surprise at this incident vanished next evening when censoring letters in which some of the men described the drinks they had sampled. One man wrote that he had had Dubonnet, beer, cherry brandy, cognac, vin blanc, vin rouge and vermouth. It was the novelty of the drinks and their cheapness that caused the trouble. Selling of spirits to the troops was forbidden. Like all forbidden fruit

The promised day’s shooting took place at Monchy-le-Preux, of battle fame, off the Arras-Cambrai Road. Ambrose showed sadistic glee in bursting shrapnel close to the subalterns so they could get a real view of its effect. They came back with the case of a shell which had dropped not many yards from them, and vast respect for Am brose. Having seen what we could do, the Brigadier said he would ask for our Regiment to be allotted permanently to the Corps.

I was glad to leave Ervillers. It had an eerie atmosphere, like all these old villages resurrected over the rubble and bones of the Somme slaughter-yard, where you still find battered steel helmets and bits of the old barbed wire. Every night as I turned from the Mess into the straight leading to my billet, there was a bent old hag with a black cloak over her head tapping her way up the street with a stout oak stick. She would cross first to one side, then to the other just the tapping of her stick and the clap-clap of her clogs to break the silence in the dark. The first night I said ‘Bonsoir,” but the head remained motionless beneath the cloak. Tap-tap-tap went her stick on the cobbles. Each night after that I hurried past as fast as dignity would permit.

It was a cold bright morning as the long snake of our column wound its way through Arras and out along the Douai Road. Passing through Gavrelle we could see the slagheaps of Lens and the battlefield of Loos away on the left. All along these roads one passed cemeteries and memorials to the legions who had fallen on sur rounding soil.

Douai seemed a cheerful spot, good shops, broad boulevards, odd historic corners. Out along the Tournai Road, an interminable tree-lined stretch, we drove at the normal fifteen miles an hour towards the point where guides were to meet us-the water-tower at Orchies, six miles from the Belgian frontier.

Regimental Headquarters and Milton’s battery were to go to Auchy, close by; my battery was led past them to tiny Visterie, a mile nearer the frontier. We were relieving a Home Counties Yeomany Regiment who were sending a battery down to the Star.

Visterie was like a desert island. No café, no estaminet, no church. Just four small farms and about five little houses. sign of interest was when the old garde champetre cycled through the hamlet blowing his tin trumpet. Nearest place where the men could get anything was an estaminet at the railway crossing a mile and a half away. To provide some sort of amusement at once, we decided to have a concert.

We rigged up a stage with planks laid over trusses of straw in a barn. For lighting, headlamps of lorries were turned on the stage. The boys borrowed old hats and dresses from folk in the farms. We had the Palladium Drums’, a piano-accordion borrowed from a Guards battalion nearby, a piano scrounged from Auchy. concert was a success, particularly with the village gamins.

One of the farmers asked if he might come and we welcomed him gladly, wondering why he was so keen. It transpired that as a boy in the last war he had lived under the heel of the Hun in this same vil lage for over four years. Then, in November 1918, came the British advance. The first night the British occupied the village, they had a singsong in that very barn. The young French boy went to that concert. Twenty-odd years later, he came to ours. I would like to be at the next British concert he attends in that barn.

****

 

VIII

DIGGING PARTY

THREE memories of Visterie stand out in strong relief: Digging. Censoring letters. ‘Flaps.’ However, none of those was foremost in our minds in the first days there. Most urgent was the problem of getting the men comfortable. Each Troop was in a separate farm, with guns and transport hidden away in barns, yards and orchards, its stores, cook houses and office in sheds, with men sleeping in long low lofts over the barns.

Sixty men in a loft sounds uncomfortable. Actually, it can be made into quite a snug home. Electric light was laid on, our chaps connecting up with the farmhouse supply, the only trouble being that the resultant load was so great that fuses kept blowing. We got straw from the farms to stuff palliasses made from cement sacks, but many men would not have these, as it meant they could not smoke with straw about; most of them made bunks with wire netting or sandbags. Stoves, made from oil-drums or borrowed from civilians, were installed. Each Troop bought a wireless set, and we cadged supplies of books. The billet after dark, with stove burning, electric light on, wireless going, and a home-made table down the centre at which the chaps could write or play cards, was not so bad after all, even though you might crack your head against the loft rafters or someone might tread on you whilst picking his way to his blankets. Then came the question of baths. Once a week the men could visit the mobile bath, one of which is attached to each division, but that was not enough. There was competition between the Troops to improvise a shower-bath. C Troop’s was the best, made from four-gallon petrol tins. I have made a sketch of it. If you pulled the string slowly, you got a decent warm bath.

Which brings me to the subject of Eyewash. Eyewash, of course, covers all those extra bits of individualism or spit and polish which we imagine impress our superiors. Some think of it as bluff. Actually, this not so, for unless eyewash serves some definite purpose, either of promoting efficiency or of furthering the comfort or personal pride of the men, it does not impress any intelligent person at all, except unfavourably.

We had lots of eyewash at Visterie. Sentry-boxes of corrugated iron with thatched straw roofs and miniature Union Jacks and Tricolours sticking out of the straw; the box kept the sentry warm, the thatched roof kept the rain out, the flags pleased the French peasants and improved the local entente. Rope fire-escapes from the lofts and home-made fire-buckets filled with water and sand, all painted in the artillery colours. Painted signs all over the place, stating what each billet was and pointing the way to this and that. A home-made plant for distilling water for the batteries of our vehicles. This eyewash impressed the civilians who turned out daily to watch guard-mounting.

At night the village looked like a miniature Piccadilly Circus with illuminated signs, made from perforated petrol cans, outside Battery Headquarters, the Officers’ Mess, and each Troop billet. I was puzzled one night, on passing C Troop’s billet, to see the words CHOPPER’S CHEERFUL CHERUBS’ blazing at me in mid-air through the blackness. I guessed the cherubs were aloft but could not think who ‘Chopper’ might be. I remembered having seen Sergeant ‘Blackie’ Hyatt painting that name on his gun. It was some time before I discovered that ‘Chopper’ was the men’s nickname for Cliff Hackett, their Troop Commander.

So now I have got on to the subject of painting names on things. In the old days the artillery driver loved his horse. The problem in a mechanized unit is to get your modern driver to care for his mechanical charge. You might think it impossible that a human being could become fond of an unromantic, inanimate mass like a Fordson 3-ton lorry, a 15-cwt. Bedford truck, or a Guy Quad gun tractor. Yet these drivers do; and they seem to get into that state quicker if you let them give the vehicle a name and paint it on her for all to see. Usually, the vehicle gets christened after the driver’s girl. The number of Roses, Lilies, Joans and Marys jolting over the cobbles of France was startling. When you noticed Driver Snooks busily painting out ‘Agnes‘ and substituting ‘Yvonne‘, you knew what had happened. Probably ‘Agnes‘ would reappear some weeks later. The guns were given names, too. These were painted on the shield and were usually of the aggressive type like ‘Hun Hunter‘ or ‘Boche Buster’ or ‘Avenger’. You could rely on the chap who gave his gun a name to keep that gun clean.

The peasant farmers, with one exception, were decent fellows and kind to the troops. The only real difficulty with them was over the question of cleanliness. You know what the courtyard of a farm in North-Eastern France is like, with its piles of straw manure right under the bedroom windows, cows wandering in and out; dogs, cats, pigs, horses, and the farmer’s fat old wife all treating the yard as the natural and most convenient toilet, everything being capped by complete absence of drainage and a hot morning sun. Heaven knows why these people don’t die off like flies.

Naturally, we set about cleaning out the farmyards and organizing drainage. You’ve never heard such a hullabaloo. You would have thought we were stealing their most precious possessions. They really liked that filthy mess-I suppose home was not home without it.

To keep the men fit and cheerful during this waiting period we challenged neighbouring units at football, had P.T. daily, organized sports meetings, and took the battery out for long paper chases though well over forty, I managed the ten miles in breeches and field boots without finishing last.

The hours of darkness were the real difficulty. We did a lot of night training, but the men must have amusement. Except when there was a ‘flap’ on, a limited number were allowed into Lille on two days a week, but the train service was such that it only gave them three hours there. The cinema in Orchies was nothing like big enough to cater for the thousands of troops in the neighbourhood. occasions we were allotted seats for ENSA shows miles away, but on rare the men began to fight shy of these entertainments because more than once, after being told it was a show with some big star, they found no star but a really poor programme. Our French liaison officer, [Georges Kemir] a big smiling fellow with a keen sense of humour, gave French lessons to those who were interested.

Our canteen was in a barn, the walls of which were still covered with inscriptions and notices in German, painted during the last war occupation. It was not a cheerful spot, try as we did to brighten it with radio, dartboards, etc.; it was well-stocked, but the men would just rush in for a glass of beer or some chocolates or cigarettes and go back to their loft where they could get up a good fug and a sing-song and write their letters. This was a great disappointment to us, for we have always made a great point of canteens and they have been successful wherever else we have been. I have always successfully fought for permission to run our own canteens instead of having one of those abominable NAAFIS; the men have far more interest in a show of their own, and we could sell cheaper and still make more money for the men’s funds.

Cigarettes were plentiful; in addition to the free ration issue, they were obtainable in quantities at one and sevenpence for fifty. French beer was a penny a pint, but most men thought it undrink able, so, as the price of English bottled beer was prohibitive, your froth-blower began to cultivate a taste for cheap French wines. The parcel post was always heavy, and with luxuries from home added to the good quality rations, the men fed well; the only short age was in vegetables-for some mysterious reason there was a dearth of potatoes, and for weeks we had onions and leeks alternately until everyone was sick of them.

Our Officers’ Mess was in a small empty house we had snaffled for Battery Headquarters. The headquarter staff were billeted overhead and a boisterous singsong would bring the ceiling plaster down into our soup.

Every night, almost without exception, our dinner menu was:

Marmite Soup

Fish Cakes (Made from tinned salmon)

Bully Beef (Stewed, fried, or neat, with onions)

Tinned Apricots

Sardine (one) on Toast or leeks

On Thursday nights when we had guests and drank “The King’, Mess-Secretary Boots would make a valiant effort to change the menu-usually by ordering some of the tasty mushroom patties which little Marie Louise in Orchies would make for you at short notice, crooning ‘Parles-moi d’amour the while. Drink was plentiful and cheap. Whisky five-and-six a bottle, gin the same. (Which reminds me that at the beginning of the last war we used to get pre-1914 whisky at the front for a pound a case one-and-eightpence a bottle!) Through Georges Kemir, our French liaison officer, we got Moët-Chandon 1929 for the equivalent of two-and-fivepence a bottle. Good vin ordinaire could be obtained for eight francs (a shilling) a bottle, and for four-francs-fifty you could buy a litre of some vile Algerian wine called Imperial Kaspar we had another name for it.

Occasionally our officers went into Lille, the Three Musketeers most frequently. The Strasbourg, Miami and Metropole were the main attractions, and for food the Café André was certainly the place. The arrogant behaviour of some British officers-not Gunners, I am glad to say, was fast becoming a scandal, but this was taken firmly in hand by the authorities before real harm was done.

The Mess consisted of a tiny dining-room in which we could just cram ourselves round the table, and an even smaller room we called the Censor’s Department. Into this room all day poured hundreds of letters, all of which (except the few in green envelopes) must be censored. Those who have not had this drudgery to endure cannot imagine the incredible amount of officers’ time it takes up. On active service abroad all letters are rightly post-free. There is no limit to the number each man may write. Add to this the fact that in these parts there was little evening amusement and the fact that the more people a man wrote to, the more parcels he got and you can imagine the mass of correspondence. It was nothing unusual for one man to write a dozen letters in one day.

At Visterie one man wrote to three women every day. To two. he signed himself ‘Your loving husband’, to the third, ‘Your loving husband-to-be’. When, months after our return to England, he confessed he had committed bigamy, I naturally assumed it must have been with one of these ladies. But no. This Gay Lothario had ‘married’ some poor little thing he had only recently met. Yet he was a docile, simple, harmless creature, and a grand worker.

I have always felt how galling it must be for the men to know their letters will be read by their officers and the contents possibly bandied about in the Mess. If the men could but know how officers feel about this duty, they would be reassured. It is far from being welcomed as a means of satisfying curiosity, spying on the men, or broad casting confidential matters read in the letters. Actually, all letters have to be censored in the officers’ spare time, preventing them from writing their own letters or doing other private tasks, often long into the night; the result being that censorship becomes so mechanical that the reader seldom even notices whose letter he is censoring. The idea that there is any moral or political censorship is quite false; the sole test being whether the writer has said anything likely to help the enemy in one way or another.

Officers are invariably conscientious about personal matters disclosed in correspondence. Advantage adverse to the man is not taken over such things. It is true that these disclosures sometimes help officers to fathom what is going on in the minds of their men, but they only use this knowledge for the purpose of help. On reading a disgruntled letter, an officer may send for the man to talk about the grievances he was airing; not by way of reprimand, but to try and put things right, often with the result that the man changes

his attitude towards life to his own happiness and advantage. There was the instance of the chap who wrote to his girl com plaining bitterly that he was not allowed to name his lorry ‘Mabel‘ after her and paint it on the vehicle. Why this had been forbidden, I don’t know, but he was very upset about it. So the ugly old lorry became ‘Mabel’ next day.

There is a great difference in the attitude of the soldier in his letters as compared with the last war. In those days, one read cunning eulogies about oneself-then one knew one would be asked some favour next day; one would also read sly digs against oneself. That technique does not seem to be the vogue this war.

Occasionally one reads some funny letters. I remember in 1915 censoring a terrible tirade by a man to his wife. Apparently, she was supposed to send cigarettes at regular intervals, and the appropriate period had elapsed without the expected supply. After six pages of supremely foul abuse and threats, he concluded:

“P.S. Since Writing the Above them cigerets as Arrived but i send you these Few Words just the Same so as You can see wot You would av Coming to You if you doant send them cigerets in Future oping this Finds You in the Pink has it leaves Me at Present from yore loving Husband Bill XXXXXXXXXXX don’t forget them bloody cigerets or You git wot i wrote Above XXXXXXXXX.”

The kisses seemed a trifle superfluous. The code words ‘ITALY’ and ‘SWALK’ inscribed on the backs of envelope flaps puzzled young officers at first. They imagined it was some illicit means of getting forbidden information through, l was informed that these stood for ‘I Truly Always Love You,’ and ‘Sealed With A Loving Kiss’. With hundreds of letters to be got through, the censoring officer who actually did the sealing seldom felt like doing it with a loving kiss.

The other bugbear of officers was the question of baths. One had to go into Lille or Douai, long journeys which a busy officer could not manage as often as he wanted a bath. We heard of an enterprising civilian in nearby Orchies who had started a bath business, so Stephen Muir and I thought we would try it. Arriving at 5 p.m., we were ushered into the kitchen where four other officers were seated round the walls, waiting their turn. In the centre was a stove on which kettles, pails and jugs were steaming. Against one wall was a gas stove, also crowned with boiling kettles. Between these stoves sat a middle-aged female, rather like a Walt Disney elephant, with a baby on her lap. There was a stench of garlic, and every now and then the woman would let forth a violent belch. Every time the woman belched, the baby screamed.

A few minutes later an officer emerged from the next room. The woman belched loudly, dumped the screeching baby on the floor, waddled to the door, and yelled: “Henri!”

Immediately Bedlam broke out. A fierce-moustached man with a squint hurtled down the stairs into the kitchen and through the door from which the last bather had emerged. The woman waddled to the stove and lifted kettles, pails and jugs on to the floor. Meanwhile, puffing and panting, the man kept dashing out of the bathroom with pails of dirty water which he hurled through the window into the yard. After several journeys he staggered out with the grey metal bath itself. Shoving one end through the window, he wrenched a bung out of the hole to which normally a waste-pipe would be fitted, and drained the last drops of dirty water into the yard. Back went the bung into the hole. Back went the bath into the next room. Amid clattering, belching, and shouting, the man and woman carried kettles, pails and jugs after it. Clouds of steam poured through the doorway as their contents plunged into the bath.

“Voilà!” bellowed the man, beaming at the officer at the head of the queue. “Maintenant, c’est vous, monsieur le capitaine.” After watching this performance repeated four times, I got my bath about seven o’clock.

So, Dennis and I bought a bath for two hundred and seventy francs. We then found that we could hardly ever get the use of our own bath, because others were always borrowing it. So, after some bickering, it was agreed that the bath should become Mess property, everyone would pay their share, and a proper bath rota would be drawn up. Unfortunately, the blitz broke out and the bath got left behind. From the above you might think we did no work at Visterie.

Actually, we worked and trained extremely hard. Training consisted of large-scale Corps and Divisional exercises, of individual and technical training, and of rehearsing the action we were to take in the event of invasion of Belgium. Even though the B.E.F. had spent months constructing defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier and getting to know the country, we were to leave these and take up unprepared, unreconnoitred positions eighty miles away in Belgium on the River Dyle-the French General Staff’s Plan D. We were told exactly what part of that front was to be held by the First Division with whom we were to operate; we knew the route on the map to the area allotted to our regiment; we knew the spot where we were to cross the frontier in accordance with carefully worked-out timetables.

We were not allowed into Belgium to reconnoitre but did what we could to prepare ourselves; from the map we made a relief model of the area to which we were to go and of the proposed B.E.F. front; we practised again and again in the dark the journey along the route to the frontier crossing, keeping a careful check of times to ensure that we conformed to the timetable exactly. Frank Bower missed a turning one pitch-black night and drove right into neutral Belgium-but, of course, was allowed to return. The amazing feature of these night marches was the readiness of railway-crossing officials to hold up trains indefinitely to let a column go through. To my horror I discovered that on one occasion we had held up the Paris-Lille express for three-quarters of an hour-nobody had asked for this to be done.

The main part of our time was spent in digging. First of all, we dug drains, inspection-pits for vehicles, pits for A.A. machine-guns, air-raid trenches, command posts, and gun-pits. Next piece of digging was tragic-the grave for the first casualty, our boot-repairer. Then real digging started when we were ordered to construct gun pits at La Commune in front of Nomain.

These were to be our battle-positions for defence of the frontier presumably in case Plan D was abandoned. So, concealment was of vital importance. One gun-pit was realistically camouflaged as a haystack; another concealed by extending the tiled veranda of a house; a third built on the site of an existing rubbish-heap, the old scrap, tins, and rubbish of all kinds being tied on to wire-netting raised over the pit. We had other novel ideas. 

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps, we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

*************

IX

BOTTLE PARTY

WE were crawling through the night along the cobbled Route Nationale between Douai and Arras. Standing up on the seat beside Hearn, head and shoulders through the canvas roof, I could make out the dimmed sidelights of the next vehicle through the mist; behind for miles crept the long column guided by motor cyclists who roared up and down to ensure that no gun or lorry lost its way. It is a severe strain driving at the wearisome pace of ten miles an hour through the dark along an unfamiliar road, and I must soon relieve Hearn at the wheel.

It was then I heard the nightingales through the mist in the woods on our right. My thoughts flew back from France to Penshurst Place, the Derbyshire Dales, moonlight on the rippling Norfolk Broads, the wooded road that skirts Loch Lomond, the winding lanes that lead to Ross and the lovely valley of the Wye. Then Hearn nodded, and the truck lurched before he was master of himself again. Knowing Jack Leaman to be a romantic youngster, I sent back wireless instructions to listen for the nightingales as he approached those woods.

It was a drizzling grey morning as the muddy guns and trucks slid into Herissart. We had had two nasty motor-cycle accidents on the way.

Our Mess was established in the little farm of the maire, the best type of thrifty, hard-working, public-spirited peasant farmer. He and his wife, both nearly seventy, soon showed they would welcome British troops. The old couple, despite our protests, insisted on clearing out of their bedroom and parlour to make room for us, taking their own bed into the kitchen. He was a burly, grisly moustached veteran who had fought at Verdun; she, a kindly soul who looked on our men as comrades of her absent soldier-son and lavished coffee, fruit and vegetables upon them. Every evening after our meal they would bring us coffee and cognac for which they would accept no payment and would sit singing us French songs to which we retaliated with some of ours. Though she never said so, I am afraid Madame Maire did not approve the pictures from Lilliput and La Vie Parisienne which adorned the Mess walls. She was, however, intrigued with the huge cartoon of Hitler (with swastika pupils to his eyes) which Strube had drawn for us with a caption alluding to Adolf’s lost patience with our battery. We brought this souvenir safely as far as Dunkirk beach, but nobody has traced its ultimate fate.

Situated as we were within easy reach of all the famous battle grounds of the Somme, we could now make training more realistic, instructive, and interesting. Each day I would think out a scheme based on memories of the old battles. We would take, say 25 September 1916, the day we captured Thiepval. Before starting out, we provided each vehicle with a descriptive guide which explained the route through which we were to pass, naming the villages and their significance, telling anecdotes about the places, picturing the old gun positions, captive balloon sites, headquarters, trenches, shell-holes and ruins which used to be there on that date. By the time the column had rumbled through Acheux, Hedauville, Engelbelmer, Martinsart to Mesnil, the chaps had got a fair picture of the old scene in their heads.

We would then put the guns in positions that guns had occupied in those old days and describe to the men how the dug-outs were made, what camouflage we had had, how we brought up our ammunition, what had happened to us there, how we had been shelled, gassed, or machine-gunned. actually

We would then take them up to the high ground from which you could see the old enemy lines. We would describe how the network of trenches had run, pointing out Thiepval, Hamel, Beaumont Hamel, Beaucourt, Grandcourt and the rest, and then try to paint the picture of the noise and smoke through which you could just make out the dark forms moving forward to the attack, stum bling, lying still. I managed to locate the site of Jacob’s Ladder from which, as an artillery observer, I had watched all this. I was amazed to find how vivid one’s memory still is after twenty-five years, and how one could still identify the old places without having to consult a map.

Looking down on Hamel and the river Ancre, I recalled the first day the Jocks took over from the French here in 1915. The relief had been carried out at night. About 5 p.m. next day a couple of shots, followed by much shouting, came up from the trenches below. Five unarmed Boches with canvas buckets were surrounded by Jocks, all jabbering and gesticulating wildly, neither side understanding the other. It had come as a great surprise to the Boches to find the Jocks there. Apparently, there was a water shortage in the enemy lines opposite Hamel, but no shortage of chocolate, so there had been a local gentlemen’s agreement whereby the French had allowed the Boches to get water from the Ancre on certain days in exchange for chocolate. When the Boches found that the Jocks weren’t standing for this nonsense, they thought they were being very shabbily treated. I told our boys this tale as we looked down on the Ancre from Mesnil Ridge.

In this way we introduced them to Albert, Aveluy, Ovillers, La Boisselle (where the enemy trenches had been only twelve yards from our own near the cemetery), Mouquet Farm, Poziéres, Fri court, Mametz, Carnoy, Hebuterne, and other famous places. Behind Thiepval there are still traces of the old trench system, fallen in and overgrown but easily identifiable, with barbed wire straggling about and the remains of old tin hats. I could just identify parts of Regina Trench.

One day we went north to where our left flank had halted the German advance in the spring of 1918 round Boisleux, Ayette and Boyelles. At Hendecourt I was thrilled to find after twenty years of peace the actual remains of one of my old gun pits still under the three trees just off the road behind the village.

These schemes were not intended to be conducted tours of the battlefields, but definite tactical exercises, using the battlefield setting to create realism, interest and illustration. We did, however, take the men to two places which had no connection with our schemes. Newfoundland Park, near Auchonvillers, and Vimy Ridge. Here the old trench systems have been preserved, the land having been given by the French Republic to the Governments of New foundland and Canada, respectively. The former is perhaps more realistic, the latter more imposing; each has its epic, there for all to see. The men were noticeably quiet as they came away from these places.

On the way to Vimy Stephen and I stopped in Lens for lunch at a little Italian restaurant where we had the most delectable hors d’œuvre, ravioli and Chianti-our last meal of distinction on French soil.

‘Black Sunday’ I called our tenth day in Herissart. It subse quently transpired that this was the twenty-first birthday of one of the signallers. Whatever the excuse, three-quarters of the battery headquarter staff indulged in the wildest of drinking bouts. At least twenty were blind drunk, two were found lying unconscious under the trees-one, really ill-the rest were in various stages ranging from pugnacity to girlish giggling.

We discovered that the delinquents had been drinking vodka and cognac-drinks to which they were not accustomed and which civilians were forbidden to sell to the troops; so, we placed all cafès and estaminets in the village out of bounds. Next thing was for the guilty ones to have the alcohol driven out of them in a way which would leave an impression-so they were ordered to parade in full kit, steel helmets, packs and the rest at 2.30 a.m.

It was a chilly misty morning, still dark, as we led them off for a route march at a brisk pace, deliberately choosing a hilly course. Going uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, mile after mile, is not very enjoyable in full kit at the best of times; it is even more unpleasant in the dark; it is worse still if your head, stomach, and wind are suffering from a severe hangover-particularly when you have been awakened at I a.m. and made to shave and clean your kit before starting.

Two hours later, when we got back, they were a chastened lot.

Even though most of them must have been feeling like death, I have never seen troops hold themselves more erect or march more smartly. Their attitude was that they had let their officers down and those officers had turned out themselves at two in the morning to take the route march, so they would show the officers they could take their punishment like soldiers and sportsmen.

Army drinking has undergone a miraculous change in recent years. Your real hefty beer-swiller is so rare as to be almost a freak. The average soldier, though not teetotal, is abstemious, and the number of actual teetotallers is remarkable. Given the chance, Thomas Atkins drinks more tea than beer these days. Frequently in our canteens we have found beer goes slowly, whereas bottles of orangeade are emptied by the thousand. This may be all to the good, for the modern soldier is a technical expert whose brain should be unclouded by hangovers. Yet I have always found it is your heaviest drinkers who are the best fighters. Your heaviest drinker is not a drunkard; don’t confuse the two. Let me tell you the story of Sergeant M.

M already had the Belgian Croix de Guerre when I first met him. Whilst under my command he added a D.C.M. and Military Medal. He was a sturdy Scot with a sly grin, and attached himself to me like a faithful dog, always at my side if he thought there might be a chance of danger. This was during the final year of the last war.

Sent to take over a battery which had lost its commander, I found it short of equipment, particularly field telephones and cable. My first sight of M was when he reported the deficiencies in signalling equipment.

“Very well,” I said. “The battery must be up to strength in all signal stores by midnight, M. I don’t care where or how you get them. But you’ll get them. Understand?” “Verra guid, sir.” He saluted and disappeared.

Some hours later I was sitting in our Mess in concrete sub terranean stables which French artillery had dug, when M reported all equipment present and correct. smothered with mud, but happy. He was soaked to the skin, “You had better have a whisky to drive the cold out of you,” I

said, picking up the bottle and pushing a glass towards him.

“Verra guid, sir.” I was answering the telephone and did not notice how much I was pouring out, until I turned my head and saw that the tumbler was nearly filled with neat Johnny Walker. “Afraid there’s not room

for much water, M,” I said. “Never take water, sir.”

He lifted the glass, drained it almost at a gulp, put it down without even a cough, clicked his heels, saluted, and turned to go. amazement. “Could you manage a

“Wait a minute,” I cried in drop more?” I was curious.

Verra guid, sir.”

This time I deliberately filled the glass with neat whisky to the brim. He repeated the performance, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at me, hesitating hopefully before saluting good night. “Good God!” I ejaculated. “How much can you drink like that?”

“I’ve never really tried, sir.”

“A bottle?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” Disdainfully. “Well, I’m not going to waste a bottle on you to-night, M,” I said, and bade him good night.

Some weeks later we had a Minor Brass Hat to dinner. He was speaking disparagingly of the modern subaltern. “Why, they can’t even drink!” he snorted. “Either they don’t drink at all, or else they can’t hold their liquor. In my young days, a subaltern who couldn’t down a bottle of port on his own after dinner and hold it like a good’un-well, he just didn’t exist.”

“I’ve got a sergeant who’ll down a bottle of neat whisky and not turn a hair,” I said.

“What!” cried the Brass Hat. “Not at a sitting?”

“Without even a cough,” I affirmed. “But he’d be as drunk as an owl in five minutes.”

“No, sir.”

“Rot!”

“Will you bet?”

“Don’t be a fool,” said the Brass Hat. “I don’t want to take your

money.”

“A level hundred francs, sir?”

“Right.”

Old M came in, saluted, and grinned broadly when asked if he could manage a bottle of whisky. I handed him the bottle and a corkscrew. There was dead silence as he drew the cork, held the bottle up to the light, squinting suspiciously to make sure it was full, then raised it to his lips. Twice he withdrew it from his mouth to take breath, then replaced it on the table empty, saluted smartly, and marched out.

“He’ll be as blind as a coot,” said the Brass Hat. I shook my head. Just to prove it, I sent for M an hour later. He was absolutely normal.

A week later the Minor Brass Hat brought a Big Brass Hat along.

The Big Brass Hat had heard of M’s feat but would not believe it. So, a demonstration was arranged. When M put down the empty bottle without a cough, I thought the Big Brass Hat would have a fit. “Good God!” he gurgled. “Could you do that again?”

M’s eyes twinkled. “Verra guid, sir,” he replied. “I’ll pay for the bottle, of course,” added the Big Brass Hat

magnanimously, as the second one appeared. M tossed it off as calmly as he had swallowed the first. Now comes the real point of the story. Months later we were

out at rest well behind the lines. One night a terrible din, scuffling

and shouting, broke out in camp. “What’s that noise?” I asked, as the sergeant-major came running

in answer to my summons.

“We’re trying to get Sergeant M to bed, sir.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“Drunk, sir.”

Words failed me.

Next morning a crestfallen M stood before me in the Orderly Room. Just one glass of vin blanc, sir, that’s all I had,” he pleaded. “M,” I said. “You’re a good soldier. You’ve done grand

work. I might be prepared to overlook this first offence, as we are out at rest and you were off duty. But I won’t be taken for a fool. If you want me to take a lenient view, you must tell the truth. Remember, I’ve seen you drink two bottles of neat whisky and remain sober. What you must have had to get fighting drunk, I can’t imagine.”

He stuck to his story. One glass of vin blanc.  Moreover, the story was corroborated by the Quarterbloke and three other sergeants who had been with him and had returned unquestionably sober themselves.

The explanation? It transpired that M, his father, and his grandfather before them, had all worked at a whisky distillery. They had been brought up on whisky from childhood; to them, it was like water. But M had never tasted any other alcoholic drink in his life-and vin blanc is treacherous stuff.

Personally, I have always believed that whisky and rum played a great part in winning the last war. The rum issues were a fine thing both for health and morale of the troops. Unfortunately, in this war there is a Pussyfoot attitude regarding rum; no rum issue is permitted without authority of the highest medical officer on the staff of the Corps or Division to which you belong. In most cases these fellows hold strong views, and permission is refused; in other cases, by the time permission arrives the psychological moment has passed and it is too late for the rum to be of real value. Another grandmotherly regulation prescribes that when rum is issued it must not be neat, but diluted in cocoa or tea-a sickly drink.

Believe it or not, in two years of war which included the Battle of France, nights out in the rain, snow and ice, and weeks in cold and muddy camps, our unit never succeeded in getting sanction for a rum issue. Which does not mean that our men never got any rum. We had some on the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk-but that is nobody’s business.

How did all this chatter about drink begin? Ah, it was the drinking bout at Herissart. Our time there was drawing to a close. One evening the regiment went out on a night exercise. The night was spent in getting the guns into position in the dark some miles from Herissart. At dawn we were to get orders for an advance. We did. But not the orders for the advance which had formed part of the exercise. It was for a real advance that orders came, for the gangsters of Adolf Schickelgruber had crashed into Holland and Belgium.

Off went our advance party to the Dyle. Our main body was ordered to pack up at once and move to Faumont, ten miles behind Visterie, to wait for the hour at which we must fit into the timetable for crossing the frontier between Cysoing and Baisieux.

The old couple from the mairie waved us off with tears in their eyes. Our boys were standing up in their vehicles, cheering and laughing, mad with glee that the long period of waiting was over. I often wonder what those vile Boches have done with the old maire.

 

*********

 

X

ARMCHAIR PARTY

HISTORY alone can decide the real causes of the lightning defeat of the Allied armies which led to the disaster of Dunkirk. But history can only be objectively written by posterity when all contributory factors on both sides have been revealed. Meanwhile the inevitable armchair critics have been busy. To the ordinary fighting soldier of the B.E.F. it would appear that seven distinct factors contributed to the extinction of the British as a fighting force. It may be profitable to name them now; for then, as the story of the next three weeks unfolds, the importance of innumerable minor incidents will become apparent. The first four factors are universally appreciated and cannot recur.

They are:

  1. Political

For political reasons, the carefully prepared defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier were abandoned in favour of an advance into a neutral country which had persistently refused any opportunity for reconnaissance or co-operation. This meant:

(a) Lengthening the B.E.F.’s lines of communication, with

consequent added difficulties of supply.

(b) Taking up unprepared positions in strange country, instead of meeting the first shock of enemy onslaught in a familiar area which had been prepared for defence. (c) Operating in areas for which no accurate maps were available.

(d) Thinning out the troops available for defence of the lines of communication.

  1. French Defection

The right flank of the B.E.F. was left in the air. Long before the blitz broke out, many British officers had formed the view that a proportion of the French army never meant to fight.

  1. Too Many Old Soldiers

Before proceeding overseas, some thousands of officers were addressed by the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Ironside, who solemnly declared that the Allied armies had one great advantage in that the German military forces did not possess a single officer who had held rank higher than that of captain in the last war. Contrary to this contention, it is a fact that the B.E.F. was seriously handicapped by its surfeit of old soldiers. Every officer of general rank and most officers of field rank had served in the last war and the habits of trench warfare were ingrained in them. Although for months before the blitz the B.E.F. had been rightly trained on the lines of ‘defence in depth’, yet when battle broke in Belgium last-war ideas prevailed and all this sound training was thrown to the winds.

  1. Lack of Equipment

This is too well-known to merit comment. Yet even now some may be surprised to read of the position regarding ammunition for the infantry’s mortars. The next, and last, three factors are the three which the next few chapters will illustrate and emphasize.

They are:

  1. Fifth Column
  2. Bad Intelligence training and discipline
  3. Absence of Civilian Control

These three are bracketed together because a successful Fifth Column is impossible without the other two.

The principal aims of Fifth Columnists are, of course:

(a) Diversion of Troops and Supplies and Creation of Panic, Sabotage, Rumours by Bogus Orders

(c) Guerrilla activities in rear of the army. Strict civilian control of the movement of the population will prevent this to a large extent. The activities of the few who manage to circumvent this control will be frustrated by good intelligence discipline, by which is meant the alertness to sift fact from rumour and the self-restraint to act on nothing but fact.

It will be seen how greatly the B.E.F. was hampered by these last factors. Lack of intelligence discipline allowed the spread of all sorts of rumours and bogus orders which thickened the fog of war, diverted energy and manpower to needless tasks, added unduly to the nerve-strain of battle. Absence of civilian control led to obstruction of military movement by refugees, animals, lunatics, and in other ways; to difficulty in identifying bona fide citizens from enemy agents; to diversion of military personnel from purely military tasks.

Invasion of our own homeland may yet come one day. To prevent our armed forces from facing these same difficulties again, the Invasion Committees, Civil Defence, and police will then have an important part to play.

Now to pick up the threads of the tale.

**********

XI

ADVANCE PARTY

“BATTERY Routine Orders will cease to be issued from to-day. The Battery Commander therefore takes this opportunity of wishing all ranks good luck.”

I dictated this last routine order on 11 May, sitting on the grass by my truck in the orchard at Faumont. By a freak of memory, I can recall that it was Order No. 770 of 1940. In fact, it was to be the last Battery Routine Order I was ever to dictate, for when the time came for return to such things, I had ceased to be a battery commander and was commanding the regiment.

What a change in the general atmosphere those last twenty-four hours had wrought. Now guns and vehicles were really hidden away. Anti-aircraft machine-guns were alertly manned. There was a real attempt to avoid conspicuous movement in the open. There seemed to be a real purpose behind everything at last. Inscriptions like ‘Non-Stop to Berlin’ appeared in chalk on the lorries. Even the men’s salutes seemed to take on more meaning.

We were to move up through Tournai, Nederbrackel and Ninove to Brussels, on the outskirts of which our guides would be waiting to lead us through the maze of the city to the gun positions which by then our advance party would have reconnoitred, covering the river Dyle to the south of Louvain.

This sounds easy, but circumstances combined to make it formidable. The first, more difficult, half of this long journey was to be carried out in the dark. No headlights were permitted. Side lights were drastically masked to allow no more than a pinpoint of light – useful as a warning to oncoming traffic, but useless to the driver himself. Add to this the fact that the march-table of the division was naturally so worked out that it was essential for the leading vehicle of each unit to pass certain points at certain exact times and for the last vehicle of each unit to be clear of those points by specified times. It is not easy to keep strictly to a rigid timetable with the whole of your six-mile-long column in the dark with seriously inaccurate maps along strange roads for a hundred miles, particularly if there is hostile interference.

True, we were told we should find balissage-blue lights by the roadside-to guide us, and that there would be traffic-control posts to assist us, but I was not sanguine about this. As things turned out, my pessimism was justified about the balissage, for the only blue lights we saw were in Tournai; but there certainly were some traffic control posts at intervals of many miles.

Our immediate problem was so to time things as to pass the official starting point beyond Cysoing, ten miles away, at exactly the right moment. We were due there at nine minutes before midnight. Throughout the day our motto was ‘rest and good food for all ranks’. The men were made to lie down and rest, and we stuffed as much food into them as we could lay our hands on; containers of hot tea were prepared and distributed among vehicles so that every part of the column would find tea within easy access during halts. That afternoon the men produced the most enormous batch of letters for censoring that I have ever seen.

At 9.45 p.m. Dennis, Cliff, Basil, Peter, Jack, Boots, Harry and myself drank a final toast in the café where we had made our Mess. Stephen and Pluto had gone with the advance party. At 10.30 p.m. we moved off in silence and almost impenetrable darkness. Ahead the Boches were dropping bombs; obviously after Divisional Headquarters, which had been in the next village, but the birds had flown. There was considerable air activity all around.

Through Bersée-Pont à Marcq-Templeuve-we crawled; the long curving road-woods on either side-then Cysoing. Going through the main street, I was stopped by a blue light swinging to and fro. The control post for the starting point. I looked at the luminous hands of my watch. We were ten seconds before time.

“Serial number ten?” asked a voice. Two staff officers stepped up to my truck as I responded in the affirmative.

“You are the – Field Regiment?” Again, I assented. “Shan’t keep you waiting long,” continued the voice. “The unit ahead of you is clear.” He disappeared. His companion made conversation during his absence. “Bit of a bombing party been going on-not much though. You should have quite a cushy trip. O.K. for whisky? Have a nip out of my flask, sir?”

His senior returned at that moment. “Right oh, sir! Off you go! Good luck!”

“Cheerioh!” I re-joined, and the column moved on. Ten minutes later we were over the frontier into Belgium.

Everything was peaceful, silent, and lonely all the way to Tournai. The city seemed deserted as we wound our way through its gloom. We had just passed the last houses when a figure sprang out of the darkness, waving a blue light. “Traffic control, sir!” “Serial number ten,” I said.

He shone a torch on the signs on my vehicle to check this statement, then stepped up to me. “Keep a good look-out, sir,” he warned mysteriously. “They’ve been dropping them for the last

half-hour a mile or two up the road.” “Dropping what?” I asked. “Bombs?”

“Parachutists,” he replied, as though imparting a great secret. I confess I believed him at the time. I sent a despatch rider back along the column warning everybody, and for the next few miles stood up on my seat peering out of the roof with Hearn’s rifle in my hand, the boys in the back of the truck doing the same towards the rear. I am quite convinced now that no parachutist was ever dropped in those parts that night. This was the first instance of the wild statements and bad intelligence discipline which were to characterize this campaign.

Now comes the greyness that precedes the dawn; the first pink blush; the splash of orange. It is really cold as I stand up gazing back at the column creeping inexorably over the pavés towards whatever fate may lie ahead. Vehicles are travelling at intervals of one hundred yards, but I can count more than twenty in sight along this stretch.

The whistle and thud of bombs sounds away to our front as we near Nederbrackel. A traffic-control post is in sight; the man on duty steps out to ask the usual questions and to warn us that they are bombing the town ahead. But it is obvious that, despite his warning, nothing is really going on there now, so we ignore it.

As we enter the town, one house on the left is wrecked and smoking. We are held up in the main street, so I walk ahead to explore; we have landed on the tail of the unit which crossed the frontier before us; they are held up while British and Belgian soldiers clear the blockage caused by fallen debris and a traffic accident at the cross-roads. It is still early and there are no civilians about yet, but we are passed by hordes of Belgian reservists on cycles, pedalling their way to the depots to which mobilization -orders have recalled them.

The column moves on. Near Ninove we have a halt. In front everything is held up again. We have passed numerous lorries overturned in ditches; the strain of this long advance in the dark was bound to tell on some drivers. I thank our stars that we have given our men such intensive training in this sort of thing, for not a truck of ours is lost.

The civilians are coming to life. Out from the houses they trickle with jugs of coffee, cakes, buns and cigarettes. In these parts at any rate the Belgian folk seem glad to see us. I notice one of our toughest guys, dirty, unshaven, with Balaclava helmet over his ears, pluck a howling infant from its mother’s arms and wheedle it into a smile. Call it tact, cunning, propaganda, or just honest British nature, what you will; at any rate, out come more cakes, more coffee, and some wine. Girls crowd round the vehicles, point o ‘Mary’, ‘Maisie’, and other names on them, asking what they mean. There is much giggling, gesticulation and what not. The women are jabbering Flemish, our boys shouting a medley of Cockney, Lancashire, Scotch and pidgin French. Why do they think it is so much easier to make a foreigner understand if you shout? Nobody understands a word. Perhaps that’s why they are such good friends.

The column ahead of us is moving off. I give the signal. Men scamper across the road, there is a lot of waving, shrill cries, saucy remarks and whistles-and the miles of road slide by again. Four Hun ‘planes make towards us from the east, flying at a thousand feet. Machine-gunners get a thrill, but are doomed to disappointment, for the machines veer off without coming within range. An argument in the back of my truck about the make of ‘plane nearly leads to blows.

Ahead lie the suburbs of Brussels. A mile or so in front I can see traffic turning to the left. A truck is waiting at the road junction. I snap my field-glasses to my eyes. Yes, it is Stephen. I wave. The sun glints on his glasses now. He recognizes me in my red and blue forage cap. His truck pulls off the grass verge and shoots towards us. There was no time to swap stories. “I am leading you right through the city to a suburb on the far side called St. Antoine,” said Stephen. “There is plenty of cover there for guns and trucks while the men get a meal. I’ll tell you the rest of the programme when we get there.” I had not seen Brussels since being a student there twenty-eight years before. Would we go down the Avenue Louise, past the Rue Defacz, where my digs had been?

All along the narrow streets of the outer suburbs gamins ran shrieking beside the column. Men stood in doorways and lounged about the pavements. Many cheered and waved spontaneously, many more waved in response to our salutes and smiles, some stood scowling sullenly. Windows were flung open for women and girls to look down on the scene; there was no doubt where their sympathies lay.

Suburbs widened into boulevards. We were approaching the centre of the city. Suddenly the storm broke. Like the Battle of Flowers at Nice. Women dashed out with garlands which they slung across the bonnets of the trucks. Flowers were hurled into the vehicles, on to their roofs, and at the men. Posies were lobbed on to the laps of drivers. In a few moments, the whole column was one moving mass of colour; you could not see guns for flowers and evergreens. Here, in the city’s centre, the people were wild with enthusiasm. I learned later that, although isolated parties had gone this way, we were the first column to pass through the heart of Brussels. On we rolled into the wealthy suburbs of the east, to St. Antoine. A spacious boulevard wound its way down the hill overlooking a wide expanse of lake beyond which a monastery perched upon a knoll. On the other side of the highway, dividing it from walled-in mansions, was a double line of massive chestnuts completely roofing the ground between. Into this avenue, under its chestnut canopy, we drove the regiment’s horde of guns, lorries, watercarts, wireless trucks and armoured carriers. Strong guards were posted. The advance party had already got dinner under way in vacant Belgian barracks close at hand.

It was then for the first time that we sensed the uncanny Men kept atmosphere of the Fifth Column. Within seconds of our arrival, we were hemmed in by a seething mass of civilians. Some no doubt were patriotic citizens. Many most certainly were not. sidling up, or approaching boldly, asking questions which, of course, we did not answer. Others tried to peer into the vehicles or hung around the guns. Some kept watching the sky. Every now and then some man would whisper to you: “Monsieur, you see that fellow over there the one in the black hat and dark brown suit? Do not tell him anything, monsieur-he is agent allemande.” Almost invariably the man indicated would come up to you later and say: “Monsieur le commandant, that man who was speaking to you just now-take care-I warn you!” And so it went on. We roped off the avenue, but they keep milling around and idling about, and our work was cut out preventing them from getting near the vehicles. I was afraid of slashed tyres, punctured petrol tanks-and, of course, we made a glorious target for ‘planes which had been warned of our hiding-place. There was a sinister atmosphere of hovering.

“Stephen,” I said to Muir. “I don’t like these vultures. We’ll get everything away from here as soon as we can.” Colonel [Odling] was of the same mind, but we would not be allowed to move for about three hours.

I found the Stephen had arranged for me to get a bath at the place where he had snatched some sleep whilst awaiting our arrival. The owner of the flat, over his lingerie shop, was hospitable and not the least bit anti-British, but it was easy to see how far Fifth Column propaganda had succeeded. He was quite philosophical. “You cannot help it, monsieur. Nothing can be done against these Boches.” shoulders shrugged indifferently. “You British fight well, but the Boches will be here in five days. In five days, I tell you. I began to argue, but he would have none of it. Moreover, he was quite resigned. “They did not treat us so badly after all in the last war, once things settled down,” he said. “It would be a great pity to have fighting round this beautiful city.”

I asked him if he meant he wanted the Boches in Brussels. “No, no,” he whispered, peering around him nervously. “But you cannot stop them here in Belgium. They are too strong. Let the fighting be on French soil. That is better.”

I was shown the bathroom. There was a metal bath, under which was a gas burner. The bath was full; the water would be hot in five minutes, I was told. After this interval, I put my finger in the water. It was cold. Five minutes later, it was still cold. Ten minutes later, no better. Fed up, I jumped into the cold water, only to leap out again with a yell. The water was cold, but the bottom of the bath was red-hot. I turned off the gas, let the metal cool, had a cold bath and shave, then made my way back to the Avenue of the Vultures.

Towards evening we set off on the final stage. Of the move into our gun positions there is little of interest to record. It is, however, worth noting that my friend of the lingerie shop and the bath was uncannily correct; the Boches were in Brussels in exactly five days. Moreover, the Avenue of the Vultures was savagely bombed by low-flying aircraft within half-an-hour of our having cleared out.

******

XII

SHOOTING PARTY

UNTIL he has seen his troops in battle, there is always one thing in the mind of every commander of whatever grade; the question of how his officers and men will react, collectively and individually, under fire. He seldom has to worry about collective reaction. But in the case of individuals he may get surprises; he may find some he thought the best are not so outstanding in leadership as he expected, whereas some whom he regarded as lacking drive or personality find both in action. He watches them all closely during their baptism of fire.

Ours came early next morning, a lovely sunny morning, in the form of a swoop of ‘planes from the blue, dive-bombing, incendiaries, and machine-gunning.

I was shaving at the time, but got three distinct impressions. First was Jack Leaman’s laugh, followed by unprintable descriptions of the enemy. Second was fat old Peter Booth glaring angrily at an incendiary which had dropped between his legs, growling: “What bloody sauce!” Third was a Lewis-gunner blazing away at a dive bomber which seemed to be making straight for him.

Greenhouses in a neighbouring nursery-garden were destroyed, bushes set on fire, two bombs fell beside the command-post but failed to explode, one small house damaged, some tiles and windows on other houses shattered, a cow killed by machine-gun fire near our guns; military casualties-military damage-NIL.

The effect of the enemy’s effort had been of threefold benefit to us. It had reassured me as to the calibre of my boys; it had given the men confidence in their officers; it had aroused their fighting spirit by stirring up hatred of the Hun, for the sole human casualty had been a little girl of twelve or so who, with other refugees, was trudging wearily along the road clutching a doll. Our chaps were soon to have satisfaction; for that very day our guns were to be the first in the B.E.F. to open fire on the Boches in this war.

Our 366 battery was at Smeisberg, a tiny pocket of cottages. [Near Huldenberg] When we arrived, there were a few civilians, but these soon fled, taking with them nothing but bedding and mattresses piled on wheelbarrows, prams and bicycles. The morning’s bombing changed the minds of the three who had hitherto decided to remain. The sight of those panic-stricken human beings, abandoning everything they owned, everything they had worked for, their homes, their petty treasures, achieved more in a few seconds than all my efforts in nine months in making the boys hate the Hun and all his works. An old man on crutches; toothless old women, stumbling as they pushed creaking perambulators loaded with pillows and blankets; a child with staring eyes; all going, they knew not whither or to whom or to what. And then the ‘planes, the machine-guns, the bombs directed, not at the soldiers or the guns, but at these harmless

creatures. We had seen plenty of refugees on our way up through Belgium, but they had been different. First there had been the wealthy in Mercédès cars, loaded with suitcases and luxuries, plentifully supplied with money, womenfolk bedecked with jewels, speeding for safety and good living in France; secondly, families with carts and wagons laden with furniture and possessions, running away it is true, but more or less calmly, having taken time to choose what they would salve, journeying to the homes of friends or relatives. But these new sights were different. The former had been sad, some of it contemptible. This was sheer horror, savagery of the vilest kind.

It is the deliberate policy of the Hun to create this refugee problem. Fifth Column agents spread panic; Fifth Column agents, disguised as soldiers or civilian officials, advise the folk to get out quick; terrorism from the air adds its spur. Out on the roads scramble the wretched people. Roads are blocked, fields on either side are blocked, with men, women, children, horses, carts, cars, perambulators, bicycles, even cows and goats, all laden with bedding, and the sick, the dying, the infirm. You see some cripple carried on a stretcher improvised from a door, a woman with babe at breast. Some crying, some calm, some just stupefied. They block the roads for the army, but the army must get up to fight, so the army must harden its heart and push them off the road into the ditches and fields-and then they glare at you, you foreign cads, as if you were the hated enemy. It hurts. And it makes you hate the Hun still more.

The Hun works hard to keep this refugee problem acute, to keep the roads blocked against the army. Over and over again his ‘planes have flown just above our heads on the march, and every minute we have expected the bombs to come crashing down on us; but no, the ‘planes have left us alone, to unload death and panic on the mass of refugees in the villages and fields ahead.

If he ever invades this country, one of his first objects will be to create that same refugee problem here; and by that time, if it ever comes, he may decide to use gas as well. Adequate control by the civilian authorities could prevent a repetition of the trouble with which the army was faced in Belgium.

At Smeisberg, A and B Troops were in the open on the forward slope behind the road, C Troop a mile forward to the left in the front edge of a wood on high ground. Front edges of woods were then considered good gun positions; now we know the Boche sprays them with incendiaries and machine-gun bullets habitually. Our wagon lines were some miles in rear, hidden in woods near a cigar factory. You will hear about those cigars later.

Digging was the order of the day. First, slit trenches; then dug-outs; gun-pits; trenches for ammunition; command-posts; pits for machine-guns and posts for the men manning anti-tank rifles. But could we get those men to dig? They just would not dig. The moment you turned your back, they stopped. I raved and stormed, for I knew how vital this work was, how speed was vital, too. Then came bombing, shelling, machine-gunning. After that, you couldn’t stop the men digging. For the rest of our time overseas, we never had to tell the men to dig again.

Now let me take you where you can see the line. The position taken up by the B.E.F. is a strong one. You can see the divisional front from our observation posts on the high ground behind Rhode Saint Agathe. Below is the river Dyle. Normally it is not a wide river but has two forks and the Belgian authorities have flooded the area in between, so that it is a wide expanse of water that you look down upon. No tank could get across that, you think-but it is very shallow and the Boche has amphibian tanks. On the far side the ground rises steadily back, so that the forward areas of what will be enemy country are well exposed to view, though there are numerous woods providing cover. At the moment our outposts are still across the Dyle, but will be withdrawn soon, and the main line of our defences stretches about half a mile in front of us. There is a fine battalion here-the Duke’s; behind and around us the Guards, in reserve; a lot of digging is going on everywhere; deserted houses are being fortified or pulled to pieces so that doors, timber and masonry can be used for defence works elsewhere.

We were with the First Division. Until I read Lord Gort’s published dispatches, I had not realised that only two Divisions besides ours moved up beyond Brussels. The rest of the B.E.F. did not get so far. It is a curious feeling watching the country beyond the river, knowing that somewhere behind it are the Boches. How far away are they now? How long before you get a glimpse of them? How long before you will hear the crack of the guns behind you and watch for the shell to burst among the Boches? Every now and then your signallers beside you test the line and the wireless to satisfy themselves that when that moment comes you will be able to control the fire of your guns by telephone or over the air without hitch.

Sad for me that when that moment came, I was not there myself to see, but was busy at the command-post. Luck fell to Dennis Clarke, and good use he made of it. The first hint Dennis had was movement of animals. Away on high ground beyond the river, two or three miles away, he noticed moving herds of cows. They were not panic-stricken, but were moving as though they had been disturbed, away from the road, obliquely in our direction. Animal movement is most helpful to the artillery observer. Sure enough, motorcyclists soon came into view, then an armoured car or two; these passed out of sight, down towards the river. Dennis now knew the spot on which to lay his guns. Down the phone went his orders.

The rattle of machine-guns from below told that the cyclists had come under fire from our infantry. This warning must have been heard by the Boche columns, too; if mechanized, they must have debussed on hearing machine-gun fire ahead; at any rate, the next to appear were marching infantry. Over the crest they came, a glorious target. Dennis waited until at least two hundred were in sight on the forward slope.

I was in the command-post when I heard C Troop’s guns open fire. “What are you shooting at?” I inquired by telephone, expecting the reply that they were just registering some feature we might want to shoot at in the future. “BOCHES!” came the proud response.

In some ways the Hun infantryman has not changed. Though our shells were dropping among them, men were falling and others running for safety, more infantry kept appearing over the crest, just as they used to come doggedly on in the last war without using any intelligence. This continued for some time before they changed their plan. In the meantime, we had done useful execution.

Those were the first shells fired in anger on the Dyle. Altogether we were there four days. I propose to give just a brief general impression of that phase.

One of our greatest difficulties was the question of animals. It was a heart-rending business. Civilians, in their panic, had left their animals behind, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, even birds in cages. Some of these animals were left shut up, others roaming about. No attempt had been made by the civilian authorities to meet this problem.

First trouble came with the cows. The poor brutes needed milking; as their udders became distended and sore, they raced about the place, bellowing pitifully. Our chaps did their best to milk them, but we were all busy digging and fighting, and the cows were legion, so it was an impossible task. It seemed cruel to shut them up; on the other hand, we could not let them run about, because they were fast becoming maddened with pain, and madness was hastened by fright from the bombs. They were becoming savage and really dangerous; and their movement attracted attention from the air. I therefore decided to shut up the few we could manage to milk and shoot the rest of the poor creatures. What finally decided me was the sight of a little calf dying in agony. We shot it at once.

Next came the dogs. It was pathetic, searching deserted houses, to find dogs chained up, locked up, going mad for want of food and water, terrified by bombing and the noise of our guns. One dog, quite mad, flew at us when we entered, and we had to shoot in self-defence.  Finally, we deputed Sergeant Watts, himself a dog-lover, to go round and put them out of their misery. You would see him, pipe in mouth, rifle in hand, stroll into a house. Then you would hear a crack. Out would come Watts, pipe still in mouth, jerk his thumb towards the house and say to a gunner: “Bury that poor dog, son!”

The chickens we ate. The goats we milked; we thought of taking them with us when we moved, but as things turned out that was impossible. The pigs were the least trouble, and the most phlegmatic of creatures. They wandered about as they pleased. Cliff Hackett, returning from a tour of duty at the observation post, went for a lie-down in an empty house. When I went to wake him, I found an old sow in the act of climbing on the bed where he was asleep. Eventually when orders came to retreat we shot the pigs as well and soaked the carcasses of all dead animals with petrol, for nothing must be left of use to the Boches.

Don’t imagine we spent most of our time shooting animals. Our 18-pounder guns were busy day and night. It was like those days on the Somme in ’16, especially at night, and our boys were having no mean introduction to artillery work in action. It was not all one-way stuff, either; we were getting some back at us. In fact, the Boche let us know quite definitely that he had spotted the positions of all three troops; if the boys had not dug so heartily, we should have had many casualties; even as things were it was decided to move some guns, so I went looking for new positions.

That morning we had received a document about Fifth Column activities which described an instance where a clover field had been cut to leave a sign in the form of an arrow visible from the air and pointing to a vital spot in our defences. When, therefore, in reconnoitring new gun positions, I looked down from a ridge at a clover field in which had been mown a large and distinct arrow pointing towards 25-pounder guns some three hundred yards away, I naturally thought this was the case referred to in that document. Horrified that it was allowed to remain there, we hurried to the officer on the guns. He was shaken to the core, obviously ignorant of the sign’s existence; clearly this was not the same case. Armed with spades, we soon had that clover field so knocked about that the sign was no longer visible, but the area was heavily shelled that afternoon.

There was Fifth Column activity in other ways. Our telephone cables were cut over and over again, not by shellfire or traffic, but the clean cut of shears. I was suspicious of a civilian who had stayed on for no apparent reason in a small house on the hill above us, but we could never catch him out. There was no control of evacuation by the civilian authorities; civilians went or stayed as they pleased; and why did some remain behind, we wondered?

One clever enemy agent, at least, managed to score. Dressed as a senior British staff officer, he went to a battery position, declared there was a general retirement, and ordered the guns to get out of action quick. He succeeded in getting the battery away-Here indeed was bad intelligence discipline! but fortunately this was rectified before harm resulted. Rumour said that the man was later caught red-handed, trying to get another battery to move, and was shot.

It may have been this same man who tackled Cliff Hackett. One night Cliff, having been relieved at his observation post, came back with the story that the French had retreated on our flank, that the Boches were across the Dyle, and that all observation posts were being called in. He had been told this by a British officer down the lane leading from our command-post. We rushed after the ‘British officer’, but could find no trace of him in the dark.

This happened in the middle of a night when things were very jumpy. We had had a false gas alarm, given by infantry who had seen the mist which creeps up the valley at night there. We had had several SOS calls for fire, some of which were undoubtedly a Boche ruse. We had had a party out searching for parachutists reported to have been dropped in the vicinity-another canard, I am sure. And then something else suspicious happened.

We had made our command-post in a sunken track between two high banks. The track itself was sandy. We had torn doors and walls from the sheds of neighbouring houses with which we completely roofed the track; then spread sand over this roof, so that from above it looked like the track itself, enabling us to work under neath well camouflaged.

During that night we smelt something burning. On searching, we found a tiny bonfire of twigs smouldering on the roof over our command-post. Nobody had heard or seen any one about, and a vigorous search failed to find anyone. That same night the Boches got troops over the Dyle in rubber

boats but they were eventually all killed, captured, or driven back. Soon after dawning next day Peter Booth and I stood on top of the sunken track, watching a hedge-hopping Lysander with Belgian markings. It was only about fifty feet up and we were just going to wave to the pilot when the ‘plane skimmed towards us and opened up with its machine-gun from about two hundred yards away. Peter and I dived headfirst into the sunken track like pearl-fishers into the ocean. Flying the other chap’s colours is, of course, a typical Boche trick. We were not caught napping again. In fact, orders were subsequently received to open fire on any ‘plane flying below a certain height, whatever its markings.

The Hun is clever at legitimate ruses, too. He is particularly good at inducing you to waste ammunition on places where there is nothing to hurt. It was on the Dyle that we saw a Boche officer ride out ostentatiously from the front of a wood, look about him, then ride back into the wood. Although repeated, this little trick failed, for in that particular light we could see into the wood through a telescope-there was nothing there; but in a wood some way to the right some guns were being brought into action-you could just make them out through the trees. Presumably, the officer had wanted to distract attention from the second wood by focusing it on the first.

On the evening of 16 May we received orders to retreat. Rumours that the French had not come up on our right must be true after all. Yet to leave this magnificent position on the Dyle-when the B.E.F. had its tail right up-it couldn’t be true!

We watched sappers preparing the bridge behind us for demolition. They were to blow it up at midnight. We must get our guns across it first, but at the last possible moment.

That night our little 18-pounders fired 1,200 rounds, a real farewell party. Now and then we got some back.

We spent some time smashing things up, to leave nothing of value to the Boches. We found a civilian motorbike and some push-bikes to augment our own transport. Bombardier (now Second-Lieutenant) Thomas discovered a French dress sword which he annexed; riding his motorbike, with the sword clattering against the back wheel, he looked a comic sight.

Indeed, many of the men began to look comic sights, for one advantage of battle is that you can dress for comfort instead of appearance. Battle dress is a loathsome invention; bitterly cold in the winter, because it gives no protection to the small of your back or your buttocks; gruelling hot in summer with its tight wrists and waistband; you miss the use of the big side pockets a tunic has. It cannot compare for utility or comfort with the old service dress. When not in battle you must bow to the whims of Brass Hats, so I have had to wear battle dress on occasion in this country myself, but once the battle started, I could say goodbye to all that, and went about in comfort in breeches, tunic, and red and blue forage cap. In the end I was glad of this for another reason, when all we could get away from Dunkirk was what we stood up in, it meant that I salved a good tunic, a good pair of breeches and a pair of field boots, instead of just a lousy suit of battle dress.

About midnight we pulled out and made the first step towards the long retreat. None of us could understand why. Everyone on the Dyle had got the impression that the B.E.F. was top dog over the Hun, who once again had shown his traditional dislike of the bayonet. Still,’ we thought, ‘we’ll be back here again very soon.’

As we moved off without lights in the pitch dark; the Hun gave a parting salute. Again, we were lucky-not one casualty. We had been the first guns to open fire; in that sector, we were the last guns to leave.

******

XIII

TIP AND RUN PARTY

“WHERE are we?” I asked. It was still dark, but through the back of the truck I could see the glow from burning buildings. “Brussels,” replied Peter. “Outside the palace.”

I had had no sleep for two days, so, as I knew I should need my wits about me in the morning, I had decided to sleep in the back of the truck while Peter Booth sat in front to navigate.

Next time I awoke it was daylight. “Where are we?” I shouted.

“Brussels,” repeated Peter’s muffled voice.” Outside the palace.” “Good God!” I grumbled. “Haven’t we moved on yet?”

“Yes. We’re back here again,” growled Peter. Things had been difficult in Brussels. Maps, of course, were

useless. Owing to bombing and fires, so many streets could not be used. Fifth Columnists were in action, directing people the wrong way, to cause congestion and confusion. Columns of troops had been going round and round in circles in the darkness, usually landing up outside the palace again. We had a queer medley there now, I could see, as I looked out; infantry in lorries, marching infantry, a car full of Brass Hats obviously lost, guns, armoured carriers, one French tank, some Belgian cavalry, hordes of refugees-and Brussels was not exactly a healthy spot just then. The only way to get out of the city was obviously by compass.

About eight o’clock we reached Steenbeek, hid guns and transport away in orchards, and set about getting the men some breakfast We were expecting orders to get into action in the neighbourhood sometime later that morning. A rear-guard of mobile troops had stayed behind to delay the enemy whilst a new line astride the Senne canals was being occupied. Men on a vehicle which had got lost in Brussels and re-joined us here recounted the magnificent stand of the 12th Lancers in the city with armoured cars surrounded by Boche motor cyclists and tanks, fighting it out to the end.

Having arranged for the men’s breakfast, we searched for somewhere for ourselves. In the little café the good woman, her crippled son, and her pretty daughter of fifteen had not yet made up their minds whether to fly or stay. They were arguing in Flemish as we arrived.

Madame went upstairs to pack while the daughter made coffee, brought us bread and jam, and told us she had some eggs. Amazed that she did not know how to make omelettes, Basil Strachan grabbed the eggs and made us some delicious omelettes himself. I do not remember ever enjoying a breakfast more. Conversation was diffi cult because the girl could not speak or understand French and even Dennis did not know Flemish. However, Stephen talked to her in Dutch, she answering in Flemish, and he assured us they understood each other.

The men had stripped themselves to the waist and were making the most of the first chance of a real wash they had had for days. I had a shave and sat down in the orchard to write a letter to my wife but could not get it posted.

It was then I noticed that every man seemed to be smoking a huge cigar-with its band still on it. I commented on this, whereupon four boxes were handed to me with the information that these were my share. It turned out that the proprietor of the cigar factory where our waggon lines had been on the Dyle had decided to quit before we did. He had told my quartermaster-sergeant to clear away as many boxes of cigars as possible, as he would rather our chaps had them than the Boches. Every officer, N.C.O. and man got two hundred.

While I was taking the cigars to my truck, there was a lot of shouting and the sound of running feet down the road. A nun came running towards us, a British infantryman on her heels. Seizing a bike by the roadside, the nun tried to get away, but we stopped her. The infantryman swore she had dropped by parachute, but everyone had got parachutists on the brain just then and I did not believe him. The nun had, however, been behaving in a most un-nunlike manner and certainly ought to be interrogated. this we did. Outside, we could use the map again-but our maps were hopelessly inaccurate.

She was an angular, muscular, masculine person, and I was prepared to learn that ‘she’ was really a man. She seemed cool and collected, rather defiant, and would answer no questions. We sent her to Divisional Headquarters under escort. What, if anything, they discovered from her, I don’t know; but it is a fact that two days later an order was circulated that all persons in nuns’ clothing should be detained and sent to Divisional H.Q. for interrogation.

It was supposed that information for Fifth Columnists, parachutists, and other enemy agents, in the nature of a code indicating where they could contact the local agent, was contained in large poster advertisements of a Belgian product displayed everywhere. The contract for these advertisements was said to have been given to a German firm who had made use of this opportunity on Nazi instructions. What truth there is in this yarn, I do not know.

We did not have long for rest. Off we were sent to reconnoitre gun positions some distance away; the guns moved off that evening. There was considerable air activity, and we were worried by the presence of two civilians, presumably labourers on a nearby farm, whose work ostensibly brought them round our woodland gun positions at nocturnal hours when normal farmers do not work. However, the night proved uneventful, except for some bombing. At dawn things livened up; then, to our amazement, came orders to retreat again. We were to remain to support a rear-guard infantry action until nine o’clock, but were to be over a bridge many miles away by a certain time, as the bridge was then to be blown up; this meant we must get off the mark smartly at nine o’clock when our job here ceased or we should not reach the bridge in time.

At nine, we ceased fire. I sent the headquarter staff away, then waited to see the guns off. C Troop got away without trouble, then B Troop. When it came to A Troop’s turn, the fun started. First one gun tractor got bogged in the mud, then another, then a third. Jack Leaman, cheerful as ever, got them winched out, then one got bogged again. Three-quarters of an hour dragged by, and I visualized that bridge going up. Then, as we got them away, there was a bit of bombing. I was thankful when we finally got all the guns well on the road.

Some way along, we ran into the usual congestion; the road was crammed with marching infantry, tired and filthy after battle, some wounded, but all with plenty of fight left in them; and then, all over the place, the inevitable refugees. At a bend in the road a car was waiting. In it sat a Brigadier watching his men tramp past. Catching sight of my truck, he beckoned me. “What Regiment are you?” he asked. I told him. Then came words that were as gratifying as they were surprising to one who remembered how the infantry invariably cursed the gunners in the last war. “You gunners did magnificent work on the Dyle,” he said. “Your shooting has given our chaps real confidence.” We reached the bridge two hours late, but the sappers were still there waiting to blow it up. Sometime afterwards, we heard it go. It was a long trek before we reached our destination, the name of which I cannot remember-it was somewhere near Ninove, the idea being to hold the line of the river Dendre. There was an awful flap on as we reached the village, all sorts of rumours that the Boches had broken through the French on our flank; you would have thought by the excitement that they were just round the corner. Everyone was looking forward to a nice little scrap. We got our guns into action, laid cable to our observation posts in record time. No sooner was all this done than orders came for another retreat.

This was really too thick. Twice we had come back already when everybody felt we could hold the enemy. Now we were to run away again, without even firing a shot this time. Just a game of tip and run. However, we did at least have the satisfaction of blazing off our machine-guns at low-flying ‘planes laying eggs all round us.

It was dark before we had gone many miles. We were to go back over the frontier into France, back to the area we had come from. Perhaps we should fight after all in our old gun-pits at La Commune.

Miles ahead the sky was lit with flames. Tournai must be on fire. There was one noticeably big fire and several smaller ones blazing as we crawled through the town later. It was like daylight. Boche planes circled overhead at intervals to keep the fires burning. Every yard of the wide cobbled route to France was packed with refugees and troops. Every now and then we would get blocked for anything from ten minutes to half an hour, then dawdle forward again. It made the Brighton Road on a Sunday, or the long crawl off Epsom Downs on Derby Day, seem like speedway racing. It was four o’clock in the morning when we tucked everything away in the woods at Wannaheim on the French side of the frontier.

Five hours later we were on the move again-back into Belgium. The B.E.F. was taking up a defensive position along the line of the Escaut, and we were to come into action covering Tournai and the canal south of it to Antoing. Our reconnaissance parties moved off to St. Maur forthwith.

We almost had to cut our way through the masses of wretched It was refugees stampeding out of Belgium into France. For miles this was the worst example of the refugee problem I had seen. heart-breaking; but we had to get through to fight, so we had to be ruthless. Among these refugees must have been many enemy agents. Everyone was allowed over the frontier without inspection of documents or identification papers, the French authorities taking no precautions whatever. Indeed, the civilian authorities had disappeared. Any enemy agent could walk over unchallenged with the crowd.

Going through one village, Chris had a narrow escape. A man in civilian clothes stepped from behind a wall, rifle in hand, and deliberately fired at Chris as his truck passed by. The man then had a shot at the next vehicle. A despatch rider drew his revolver and shot the man dead before he could do any damage. The corpse was on its back staring at the sky as I passed. Maybe he was just a poor devil who had gone mad. Or he may have been a released lunatic. That was one of the difficulties with which we had to contend. The authorities opened the gates of the lunatic asylums when the enemy drew near, and the lunatics were simply set at liberty without any provision, or any control being exercised over them by the civilian authorities. There were poor mad creatures wandering about dressed up as women, running off in nightdresses and making the weirdest grimaces and gibberings. All a Boche agent had to do was to pretend to be mad and you couldn’t ‘tell t’other from which’.

That afternoon we got into action in positions where we were at least to put up a fight-though only for three days.

 

XIV

BURIAL PARTY

I SHALL never forget the terror on that baby’s face, or the fierce hatred in its mother’s eyes.

I was reconnoitring on foot. A farm cart was jolting along the road laden with mattresses and bedding, on top of which squatted a youngish woman, suckling a baby in her arms. As the cart drew level with the ruins of a house a 25-pounder gun, camouflaged among the rubble, opened fire. The gun was no more than seven yards from the kiddie’s head-and the 25-pounder lets off a rather good crack. The sight of the baby was piteous. I suppose that to that woman I, as the nearest soldier, represented the war and all the misery it had brought to herself and her world. Understandable; but her glare of infinite hatred hurt.

It was not a health resort to which we had come. In the air, of course, the Hun was supreme. His ‘planes, flying incredibly low, were over our lines ceaselessly. During those days we never saw a British ‘plane. On returning to England, we learned of the valiant exploits of the R.A.F. over enemy territory and in support of the French; but at that time we knew nothing of this-all we knew was that the Boche sat over us day and night, doing exactly as he liked, and we got no respite, not even the encouragement of seeing a ‘plane with British markings.

Since then, of course, it has been the same story in Greece, Crete, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Those of us who experienced it in France and Belgium know what our troops in those other lands must have suffered. Rightly have the critics stormed at this repeated failure to provide adequate air support where it is needed most; but much of the criticism has been misdirected into a howl for dive-bombers.

The dive-bomber may be effective in naval operations-on that, a soldier is not qualified to speak; but for land operations against trained troops the dive-bomber is not the equal of the fighter bomber. The first experience is terrifying-after that comes realization of the great vulnerability of this type to small-arms fire, the very limited local effect of its attack, and the immunity that can be achieved by the soldier by merely lying still.

To return to the Escaut. It was not only from the air we were getting strafed. By now the Boche had got his mortars up, mortars that shot a biggish bomb two miles. His machine-guns swept all forward roads. His infantry guns were coming up, his field artillery would soon join in the fun. Altogether, things looked like getting lively.

St. Maur [Ere] seemed quiet enough when I saw it first on the way up to reconnoitre for observation posts. Anti-tank guns were sited at the cross-roads in the way then accepted, pointing up each road. Good guns thrown away. Next time I saw the village it was a wreck, the anti-tank guns knocked out. Many lessons were learned by the B.E.F. in May 1940. One was how not to site anti-tank artillery.

The bridges over the Escaut were being blown up while I was reconnoitring the area. Every now and then a boom would announce that another bridge had gone. We found good spots from which observation could be maintained, then hurried back to the guns.

I have always believed in finding gun positions near a sunken road if possible. It is easy to drive dugouts quickly into the bank, giving great protection against bombs, besides making camouflage easy. Here we were lucky. There was a narrow, winding, sunken road overhung by trees, a perfect site. The guns of A and C Troops were sited under cover of trees on top of the forward bank, the guns of B Troop concealed among houses to the left front. Command-post, telephone exchange, cookhouses, ammunition dumps, and dug-outs for the men were hewn into the forward bank. We dug like slaves, two ex-miners giving valuable instruction in strutting shafts.

A little house behind B Troop served for our Mess. There was furniture, plate, and crockery, and the batmen made one room comfortable for us to feed in. One window overlooked our guns; there was a cellar below. The first meal we had there was next day. Some of us, relieved from duty for some food, were tackling a hot stew when a whizz and a crash shook the house. Nobody took much notice of it, or of the next one. But when the third arrived and clods of earth hurtled through the window, I ordered everyone into the cellar. We had just got down the steps when another explosion rocked the house. Nothing further came, so we went up to look. The Mess windows had been blown in, there were holes in the walls, the chair where I had been sitting was smashed, the table was a wreck and our food had disappeared.

Things got busy both ways. We were doing a lot of shooting. Our liaison with the infantry was close and cordial and they kept indicating targets to us. One of our observation posts was in a house overlooking the Escaut, on the far side of which was a large warehouse. The infantry battalion commander was anxious for us to bring up an 18-pounder gun to the canal bank after dark to take on this warehouse point-blank, as there were machine-guns in it. This, of course, was not a job for field guns, but a task for the infantry’s own mortars. They could not, however, take it on themselves because the B.E.F. had no H.E. for its mortars in France at all-only smoke.

Which reminds me that soon after our return from Dunkirk I was talking to the Colonel of a Highland battalion when I noticed some brand-new Army trucks outside his headquarters. “You seem to be getting re-equipped with transport pretty quickly,” I said, enviously. “My dear chap,” he replied. “We are completely re-armed. We’re now exactly as we were in France-even to the extent of having no H.E. for our mortars!”

At this observation post we gained real confidence in the Boyes anti-tank rifle. The enemy were trying to use amphibian tanks across the canal. An infantry officer at the observation post picked up the Boyes rifle and took one shot. We had great respect for the weapon after that. It is heavy and unwieldy, but effective.

There was plenty to be seen from this post. The enemy were very aggressive, particularly at night, attempting to get across the Escaut, so we got lots of shooting. The difficulty was in maintaining communications for controlling the fire of the guns, as the whole area around St. Maur, including observation posts and gun positions, was constantly shelled and bombed, so that telephone cable kept being cut to ribbons, and conditions were bad for wireless. Our signallers were constantly repairing lines under heavy shellfire; no easy task, searching in the darkness for broken ends of cable with shells falling around you and machine-gun fire added for a change. Dennis Clarke did magnificent work keeping our guns shooting in support of the infantry for many hours from an observation post constantly under fire, and Sergeant Wartnaby kept mending cable hour after hour through the night in a shelled area. Both were subsequently mentioned in despatches for this and other good work.

During a lull in our shooting the Hun made effective retaliation. The men were busy clearing away empty cartridge cases and hump ing shells from road to guns when the enemy opened up. It only lasted a few minutes and, considering that most shells landed plumb in the gun positions, we were very lucky. One killed, five wounded, three guns knocked out.

Poor old Bombardier [Thomas]Bennett. He had been one of the first recruits in Clapham days, one of the first to get a stripe. We buried him that afternoon, a grand padré from the Durham Light Infantry officiating. Sergeant ‘Slogger’ Slines looked a gory sight with several wounds in both legs but re-joined us in England later. The others were not badly wounded and insisted on carrying on after their wounds had been dressed by the M.O. Sergeant-major (now Major) Lavender, himself wounded, did good work in getting injured away under fire and in getting his guns into action again before allowing himself to be attended to; this was typical of his conduct throughout the blitz and at Dunkirk, for all of which he got mentioned in despatches. Anxious that this episode should not have a depressing effect on the men, I walked to the guns and shouted: “Well, boys, what about having some back at ’em for old Bennett?” There was a roar of approval. We put a dose of shell over at moving targets which could be seen from our observation posts, and it acted like a tonic on the men. When two Boche ‘planes came over us very low, there was not a Lewis gun nor a rifle that didn’t blaze away. About this time one of our cooks brought down a low-flying Messerschmitt with a Lewis gun at our wagon lines.

I was very worried at the loss of these three guns. They were quite unusable. The recuperators were full of holes, sights damaged, tyres in shreds; one gun had a direct hit on the piece itself. As things turned out, the loss of these guns saved our battery from subsequent annihilation, but that story comes later.

The problem of resting the men was becoming acute. The gunners were weary; they had had little sleep for days and had been firing their guns or humping shells backwards and forwards for many hours. When they were not doing either of these, they were digging hard to make shelter for themselves and the ammunition. We were short of gunners, for, in addition to wounded, we had had casualties from accidents and sickness. Fortunately, we had acquired useful reinforcements in two Coldstream Guardsmen and three privates from the Duke’s who had lost their battalions in the retreat. They were splendid fellows and became enthusiastic gunners. Few infantrymen realize how hard is the work and how great the strain for the gunner in battle, unless they have shared it with him as did these men of the Coldstream and the Duke’s.

Feeding the men was becoming another problem. It had not yet reached the stage where no rations could be obtained, but railway communications had been cut and, though the R.A.S.C. got what they could to us, this did not amount to much and mostly took the form of tinned stuff from French sources. A few hundred yards from us was a cluster of abandoned houses, one of which had been a shop. We found coffee, biscuits, and some eatable oddments; we killed some old hens that were running around and caught some rabbits.

Cigarettes were the thing which the men missed most. They had had none for some days. The following conversation gives some idea of the surfeit of cigars.

“Got a fag, mate?” I heard one man ask.

“No.”

“Ain’t ‘ad a smoke for free days.”

“Ave a cigar then. ‘Ere’s one.” “Gorblimey, no! Don’t want no more of them fings. I give old Nobby a whole box o’ them for two fags last week.” 

However, a few chaps liked them, so they scored. In our command-post dug-out the pungent aroma of cigars almost drowned the smell of earth, unwashed bodies, and musty battledress. Things were jumpy. Enemy air activity was great. Their trench mortars were active. At night SOS signals went up from the forward defended localities. Telephone wires kept getting cut.

At night, noise was preferable to silence. On the morning of 21 May things got very lively on the right. Our other battery was shelled out and had to move. We were kept busy shooting. When the noise had died down, we learned that the Hun had penetrated our lines at Antoing. In the afternoon orders came for another game of tip and run. My battery was to go last of all the guns in this sector, providing support for the remaining infantry until three o’clock next morning.

Gradually, as the evening wore on, we saw other troops move off along the main road. Dusk fell. Things became lively again in front. Up went an SOS. We blazed away. Other guns to the right, to the left, and behind us, joined in the din. Next time the SOS went up, few guns besides our own responded. Infantry marched past towards the rear. Behind us a 25-pounder battery fired at intervals, less frequent intervals, then intermittently, till at last it too petered out. Next time there was an outburst, ours were the only guns to fire.

Somebody touched me on the sleeve. “Hullo, sir,” said a cheery voice. “Have a spot out of my flask.” It was our M.O., Lacey, now prisoner of war, a grand little chap. “I’m stopping with you, sir, as long as there are men here,” he said, as I took a swig from his flask. “Things have been a bit hot round here to-day and there may be more casualties.”

Most Army doctors are the right stuff, and our Regiment has been lucky. Little Lacey was conscientious, likable, full of guts. Old Doc Browning, his successor, now commanding a hospital train in the Middle East, who used to keep muttering “My God! My God!” to himself, was a fine soldier as well as a great M.O.

I decided to send off A Troop at 1.30 a.m., B Troop at 2 a.m., two guns of C Troop at 2.30 a.m., and the last two guns at 3 a.m. Despite some rather nasty shelling, A Troop got away to time, and so did B Troop. They had fired eight hundred rounds that evening. It looked as though everything would go without a hitch, but I reckoned without Harry Baird.

Harry, New Zealander, champion swimmer, Rugger player, chartered accountant, famous for his exhibition Maori dances, suffers from a persecution complex at times. 

It was about 2.15 a.m. when Basil, his troop commander, came to me while his guns were still firing and a Boche ‘plane was laying eggs along the main Tournai Road. “Trouble with Harry, sir,” he announced.

“What is it-persecution again?” I asked. Basil nodded. “Won’t take his guns away. Says he is entitled to stay to the last.”

Harry had been detailed to take the first two guns of the troop away at two-thirty, the remaining two guns to be brought off by Basil at three o’clock. Harry claimed that as Gun Position Officer he should stay to take the last two guns away himself. Persecution ! We had awful trouble in getting him and his guns away. Now if we had been going towards the Boches, instead of away from them, Harry would have wanted to go first. He is now a Major in another regiment, having well earned promotion. Basil has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia.

At three o’clock I told Basil to cease fire. The last shell sang through the air towards the Hun lines. Away went Basil’s guns. I took a last look round. Everything seemed very quiet. I had a chat to the infantry commander close by; they were not leaving for another two hours.

Doc Lacey climbed into his truck. I waved him on, climbed into my own Humber Snipe, and we crawled away.

*********

XV

FARMHOUSE PARTY

EVERYTHING was quiet as we left St. Maur. [ERE] The infantry were not leaving until two hours later, covered by the mobile troops. We had a clear run through, except for slight bombing; consequently, I knew that the enemy must be miles away and was contemptuous when I found a terrific flap in progress on reaching Bouvines.

Two guns were unlimbered and facing up the road along which I had just come. Men with Lewis guns and rifles were posted in hiding-places overlooking the road.

“Thank heaven you’ve arrived, sir,” exclaimed Stephen. “They’ll be here any minute.”

“Who?” I asked. “The Boches !

Tanks!”

I replied with one word- unprintable. “Let the men get breakfast and some rest,” I added. “But there’s a terrific flap on, sir. Brass Hats and…”

I repeated the unprintable word with emphasis. “Tell my batman to get me some water for a shave, and make some tea,” I said. “Where’s Dennis?” “Up the road at a tank look-out,” replied Stephen. Seeing that

I was determined not to be concerned with flaps till I had had a clean-up and a hot drink, he went off to see about the men’s breakfast. Later on I went to find Dennis. He was sitting in a signal box at a railway crossing. All he could see from there was two hundred yards of road in front. Two of his guns were just beyond the road crest behind him. “What on earth is this?” I asked.

“My observation post,” he replied. “But the line we are going to hold is a mile and a half ahead.

You can’t see anything from here.” “I know. But there’s a flap on, and I’ve been posted here to watch for tanks coming down this road.”

“If you see any tanks coming, they’ll be our own,” I laughed.

“There aren’t any Boches within ten miles. You’ll find a good observation post up on the hill beyond Cysoing from which you’ll be able to see all the enemy country. Take my truck and go there. I’ll wait here till you send it back.” Dennis went off. I explored an abandoned estaminet by the crossing and found an aluminium bath which I decided to take along and have a good scrub down at the earliest opportunity. Just then a car drove up and out got a tall, burly Brigadier with a cheery grin. “Are those your guns behind there?” he asked. “Yes, sir. But I’m going to move them now. I’ve just got back from Tournai to find a flap on. Some silly twerp ordered this road to be watched for tanks. There can’t be a Boche tank within miles.” “I’m the twerp, then,” he chuckled gaily. “There have been reports of isolated tanks breaking through on the left, but they seem to have been unfounded.”

So, it was I who felt the twerp. Such was my introduction to ‘Mossy’ Marshall, under whose command we were to come. He was a great sport and a good soldier. I shipped the bath aboard my truck and drove to the gun positions. We straddled the three Troops round a farm, with battery headquarters in the farmhouse. [SAINGHIN EN MELANTOIS] There was a tragic atmosphere about the Ferme de la Cour, an atmosphere of hasty departure, of the abandonment of all that had made life sweet for its owners. Children’s toys were scattered about. Children’s picture-books. A battered doll lay on a cushion on the sofa. Drawers were pulled out, cupboards open, clothing and linen all over the floor and chairs. Photographs. More photographs. Water-colour paintings, obviously the work of a young girl. The farm’s owner must have been a veterinary surgeon, for books on animal anatomy and animal surgery crowded the shelves. On a chest of drawers upstairs was a locket, imprisoning strands of auburn hair.

Outside in the walled-in courtyard were carts and farm implements of all kinds which came in handy for tank barricades. Chickens scuttled squawking out of barns, there were pigs, any amount of vegetables, and a little enclosed flower-garden with masses of honeysuckle. While Stephen and I were walking round this garden we were sniped at. Two distinct shots, one bullet striking the wall behind us. Stephen then told me that his truck had been fired at as he drove into the village during the night, the bullet perforating the radiator. We sent armed parties to search the houses and cellars, but could find nothing, though the window of a house overlooking our gun positions bore traces of having been recently opened. We suspected the belfry of the church and determined to have a watch kept on this.

Digging went on apace in the gun positions. In the cellars we established our command-post and telephone exchange. Meanwhile a good hot meal had been got ready. Rations had now failed, and we realized we must expect to feed ‘on the country’ from now on. Actually, for the next few days we fed well, killing pigs, chickens, and rabbits, and finding plenty of vegetables. The things we missed most were bread, butter, tea, sugar and salt.

The last of our tea we had for that first meal in the farm. I sipped it and put down my mug. Boots looked at me. “Orange?” he suggested. Orange it was. Some oranges had been found in the house and the batmen had been making marmalade in the dixie which they used for making tea. We had frequently had ‘onion tea’ and ‘petrol tea’ at Visterie, and at Herissart we had ‘carbolic tea’ after the batmen had scoured all cooking utensils with disinfectant which the maire’s wife had given them. But ‘orange tea’ was an innovation. At this meal also I noticed large black specks in the soup made from parsnips out of the garden. “Look at that dirt in the soup.” I said to the batman. “Dirt?” he exclaimed indignantly, “That’s not dirt, sir. That’s COAL!”-as though it were a delicacy. Just after we had fed, I was sent for by the Colonel. He looked half-pleased, half-sad. “I’m afraid we’ve got to part company,” he announced. “I have got to go straight off-a long way-with my headquarters and Major Milton’s 367 battery. Yours will stay on this part of the front, and you will report to Colonel Griffith-Williams.” I sensed some Big Party in the wind. “Look here, sir,” I said. “Mine is the senior battery. I think that entitles it to be the one to come with you.” He smiled. “I’m afraid it can’t be done. I’ve got specific orders that I must take a battery with its full complement of guns and three of yours have been knocked out, you know.”

Little did I dream that the loss of those three guns was thus to mean the saving of my men’s lives and liberty. We shook hands and wished each other good luck. I have not seen Colonel Odling since. He was one of the seriously wounded officers for whose exchange and repatriation the Red Cross worked so hard but were foiled at the last minute by the Hun’s double-cross. I only hope that further efforts may be successful.

So Odling and his 367 Battery went off to join Macforce, a special task force under General Mason-Macfarlane; and I reported to Colonel Griffith-Williams (affectionately known as ‘G.W.’ and now a Brigadier), who allotted me a zone which meant that in order to cover it I must move our guns a little way round the farm-another bit of unforeseen luck, for no sooner had we got our guns moved than their old positions were heavily shelled.

This move took a considerable time in the dark. The infantry were jumpy that evening, partly owing to the threat of attack on the left sector, partly due to relief of our troops on the right by D.I.N.A. (French North African Colonial troops). Several SOS signals went up calling for our fire. I could therefore only move one gun per troop at a time.

In the early hours we were worried again by Fifth Column activities. Two drivers were sniped from a wood while filling up with petrol. During the night, A Troop’s picket lamp had been removed. Soon after dawn shots were fired at A Troop’s gunners from a large wood three hundred yards in rear. An armed party was sent to search the wood. As they approached, fire was opened on them from the trees and Gunner Thomas was shot through the chest. The wood was combed, but no one was found, though a civilian was seen in the distance riding away on a cycle from that direction. Some infantry helped to search but were equally unlucky.

We were also worried by the sudden return of French refugees from the rear who said they had been sent back by the French authorities. Some alleged that they had been captured by the Boches who had told them to go back home-a new way of aggravating the refugee problem. I found civilians walking near our gun positions and moving into the houses around us. This constituted a grave menace, particularly in view of the sniping that was already going on round here. These people professed to be French from the neighbourhood, but there was no way of checking their bona fides, for as usual there were no civilian authorities available; and the village was getting a goodly share of shelling and bombing. We could not tolerate starving, panic-stricken, homeless, and possibly treacherous people wandering round our defences. As we could get no orders what to do, I had them all rounded up, gave them a fill of soup and potatoes (all we could manage), loaded them on lorries, and had them dumped in a village many miles behind our lines.

Among this collection we detained a man in civilian clothes claiming to be a Belgian soldier who said he had escaped through the Boche lines and could give useful information as to the where abouts, strength, and armament of the enemy. He told a remarkable tale of the Boches being in Arras, Abbeville, and Boulogne. This in fact was true, but none of us believed it at the time; all these places were well behind us, and it sounded fantastic. The B.E.F. soldier had no idea how things were going except on his own immediate front; true, he kept on retreating, but so convinced was he from experience of his own superiority over the Hun that he firmly believed we ourselves would be attacking before long. We sent the Belgian off to Divisional Headquarters and heard later that they were much impressed with his story. Two deserters from the French Army were handed over by us to the French military authorities; and a man in British officer’s uniform, with no identity card and an unconvincing story, was handed over to the Field Security Police.

That was one side of a busy day. There was also a more cheerful side. The Boches had penetrated the eastern outskirts of Lille; news came through that an abandoned N.A.A.F.I. there was full of stores and that any unit could send transport to salve what they could. We sent three lorries. They returned with a haul of a quarter of a million cigarettes, tins of cocoa, apricots and pears, slabs of chocolate, soap and all kinds of toilet requisites. The drink was the disappointment. There was no beer, no whisky. The only alcohol left was Cointreau-three cases of it. We were determined that the men, who were cold and weary, should have a drink to buck them up, but you cannot dish out whole bottles of Cointreau to the troops-some of them would swig it down like beer. So, we decided to keep it under strict control and issue a small ration to each man who wanted it after they had fed. Every man was issued with several hundred cigarettes. Once they had got a ‘fag’ again, they had no use for cigars-they started throwing away whole boxes of cigars which the officers salved and smoked.

We killed a pig and that night the men had pork, vegetables and rice. Bread, butter, tea, and salt were the only things missing. That day and the following night we did a great deal of shooting Our main observation post was in a concrete pillbox on the lip of the anti-tank ditch three hundred yards in front of the main infantry defended localities. It formed part of the defences which the B.E.F. had been constructing for months before the blitz. You could not reach it by daylight, all reliefs being made at night. From here our officers, particularly Dennis, did some real good shooting.

Having been on duty all night I emerged from the command post at dawn to see a batman sitting on a box in the courtyard cleaning his officer’s boots. There was an enormous cigar in his mouth. He took a glance at a Boche ‘plane overhead, paused in his work, stooped to pick up a bottle, and raised it to his mouth. To my horror, I saw it was a bottle of Cointreau. At four o’clock in the morning!

The day was again a busy one, shells flying backwards and forwards. Ammunition still seemed to be plentiful, thanks to good work by our quartermaster-sergeant, and we were paying the Hun full measure. Real rabbit-shooting, it was.

In the afternoon I was sent for by Mossy. Divisional Headquarters were in an enormous subterranean model of engineering, sixty feet below the surface; rumour said it had originally been intended for Gamelin’s headquarters. I searched through the rooms below in vain. I should have appraised Mossy more accurately than to waste time doing that; although bombing was going on, he was in a house above, where he stood me a hefty whisky, told me my battery was now directly under his command, hinted at a coming counter-attack, and sent me back to the farm full of pep.

I sat down to write a farewell note to G.W., as we had ceased to be under his command. I remember ending up with: “No rations, but lots of ammunition, and our tails right UP.” Weeks afterwards in England, G.W. showed me that note, which he still had in his pocket.

That evening our boys had a concert in the courtyard. They dragged a piano out of the farm, and unearthed coloured shirts, top hats and things, which they put on over their uniform. It was great fun; spoilt for a moment when some shells dropped close by.

Our own guns, which were firing most of the time, served as drums for the music. Later, by accident, we got tuned-in to London on an Army wireless set. To our amazement we heard the King’s voice speaking. Till then, we had had no idea things were so serious. After the speech was finished, we joined in ‘God Save the King’. Then some more shells came over. Just another day.

*************

XVI

CIRCUS PARTY

LATE that evening there was a terrific flap. The Boches, it was said, had taken Carvin, twelve miles to our right rear. One infantry brigade of the 42nd Division was detailed to move back and face this menace to our rear, and our battery was ordered in support. Actually, what had happened was that there were British troops in reserve close to Carvin when the Hun reached there. These troops had a live Brigadier. The moment he heard the news, he took his men and smote the Hun out of Carvin without waiting for orders. Still, Boche forces were apparently coming up from the south-west, and that situation had to be faced.

The Brigade took up a defensive position astride the river about Seclin. Our guns (only nine of which were fit for action) had to cover a five-mile front. Our observation posts were by the quaint old fortifications, Fort Vendeville and Fort Seclin.

Except for a terrific amount of rushing about reconnoitring, getting guns into action, laying miles of telephone cable, dodging bombs, and liaising with the infantry, this day was noteworthy for only four things:

(1) Sergeant Bartley was shot in the back by a sniper (presumably Fifth Column) as he took his gun through Vendeville in the dark.

(2) We were quite unable to raise any food, but fortunately still had odd tins of stuff scrounged from the Lille N.A.A.F.I. We made soup from carrots found in a barn.

(3) The Boches bombed Seclin for hours, obviously in the belief that a French Army Headquarters was there. This made us chuckle, for we knew that it was in the next village, which did not get a single bomb.

(4) We came in contact here with French troops moving in as we moved out. They were very different from the rag-tag-and bobtail mob we had encountered previously in French uniform. Both infantry and artillery were smart, keen and well equipped. Unlike other French troops we had seen, they looked as if they really meant to fight.

That evening I was sent for by Brigadier Sutton, commanding the infantry brigade. The usual story-another retreat. brigade was to retire and take up a position facing in the opposite direction, along the canal south-west of the Citadel at Lille. Our battery was to go to Lomme and wait for further orders.

Lomme is some way out of Lille on the way to Armentières. Armentières is the night-nursery of the wealthy industrial magnates of Lille, whilst Lomme houses the lower strata of the well-to-do. It is modern, well laid-out, rather English in appearance, with attractive houses surrounded by moderate-sized gardens. There were no civilians left, and the place showed signs of bombing, but it seemed like a haven of peace to us when we arrived. We hid guns and transport under the trees which lined the streets and established ourselves in a girls’ school.

“Blimey!” I heard someone say. “Clapham all over again. Why do they always take the bits of skirt away first?”

It was obviously the type of school which Victorian novelists would have described as a High-class Academy for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. The flowers in the vases on the classroom desks were withered; the abandoned rooms were musty for lack of air; the piano needed tuning; but the place had clearly radiated a bright and cheerful atmosphere in normal times. We found food and wine in the larders.

In a house nearby we discovered what had obviously been an Ordnance store. Hundreds of suits of battledress, boots, respirators, tin hats, and shorts, lay there abandoned. Our men’s clothing was torn and mud-stained, some blood-stained; their boots were worn, shirts and socks were filthy. Our quartermaster-sergeant (now Lieutenant-Quartermaster) Harrison soon got to work and in half an hour every man in the battery was fully equipped with new clothes. That increased morale no end. So that we should leave nothing for the Boches, our men’s discarded clothing was ripped to pieces.

Then the bombing started. Houses came tumbling down in nearby streets, windows were smashed, splinters of glass flew all round. The whole place shook. Some of our vehicles were badly damaged. This damage to our transport was worrying me when I ran into an officer whose transport was parked in a road close by. He told an extraordinary story that his unit was being sent back to England, and that he would have to abandon some vehicles. I did not believe this yarn, especially as he hinted darkly that other units had already gone, but as he seemed quite definite about leaving some of his transport, I jumped at the chance of making up deficiencies. We got some good Austin cars, some motorbikes, and a lorry.

Then came orders from Mossy Marshall to report to him at Le Bizet. The battery got on the move at once.

Going through Houplines, at the crossroads before you come to the bridge over the Lys, I spotted an athletic figure under a brass hat, addressing a junior French officer emphatically. He looked up as my truck passed by and waved. It was David. I jumped out and ran back to him.

General Davidson is a good linguist. His French is really fluent. He was doing good work at this spot. A column of French troops was trying to cut across the British route. This was happening all over the place, by French and Belgians as well. All added on to the refugee problem. It was another instance of the tragic results of the lack of administrative liaison between the Allies. David was being adamant, the British must have priority; they were moving into battle.

“Where are you going?” he asked me. I explained that I had a date with Mossy at Le Bizet.

“Then get him to ask his Divisional Commander to send someone to take over traffic control here. I have been doing it for two hours, and I must get away to do my own job.”

At Le Bizet I found Mossy, cheerful as ever. While waiting for him, I was accosted by several civilians who pointed out a dirty, unshaven, unkempt man wandering aimlessly about the street. “Shoot him!” they said. “A spy! A Boche spy!” Asked what grounds they had for saying this, they could say nothing but that he would not talk to anyone, but always seemed to be listening to what other people said. We arrested him and tried to interrogate him. He had a wild look in his eye, and was quite obviously a deaf-mute, so we let him go, much to the chagrin of his compatriots.

Mossy’s orders were for us to support Brigadier Sutton’s brigade astride the Lys against attack from Armentières to Houplines. Under my command was placed a battery, commanded by Tom Hardy, from G.W.’s regiment, in addition to my own battery. We were busily engaged getting guns of both batteries into action in pursuance of these orders when Mossy reappeared, piece of paper is hand. Another terrific flap! The Boches had been seen in Messines behind us as we were facing then. I was to report at once to Vis Division Headquarters at Ploegsteert, up the road. I sent Dennis off to warn Tom Hardy, and raced off myself to Ploegsteert, which I had not seen for twenty-four years.

There, at the end of the village, beneath the shadow of the notorious Ploegsteert Wood, I met two heartening sights. One was batch of Hun prisoners being marched up and down outside Divisional Headquarters; the other was John Barry’s calm, slow smile. Brigadier Barry commanded the artillery of the Fifth Division and is another of the war’s good Brass Hats. This was the first time I had met him; subsequently we were to serve under him in England.

He was smoking a cigarette through the inevitable holder when I reported. His surprise may have been genuine; it may have been the calm indifference of the leader who never betrays anxiety; a any rate, he was sceptical about this story of Messines, but certainly was not going to reject the offer of an 18-pounder battery with a 25-pounder battery added. He told me to get the batteries up to the neighbourhood of Wytschaete, where Colonel Tyson would be able to give me the situation on the spot.

We had a tough job getting through Neuve Église. The village had just had a tidy strafing; broken glass, fallen masonry, and dead horses of some French artillery lay across the main street. The road was blocked with vehicles. I imagined that the way was impassable until I went ahead to see; it was only the excitable confusion of the French which prevented progress. We soon got things moving and drove out along the road to Wulverghem. From here we could see Messines and the famous ridge. Were the Boches really there or not? I studied the village carefully through my glasses. “Rot 1” I announced. “There are no Boches in Messines.”

An hour later my 18-pounders were coming into action near the Bois de l’Enfer, just behind the Messines Ridge to the right of Wytschaete, and Tom Hardy’s 25-pounders were pulling into position round Wulverghem; my own headquarters were established in a cottage off the Wytschaete road. Everybody started digging like hell. One of my difficulties was how to run what was in fact a regiment (two batteries) without a regimental headquarter staff. I made Peter Booth ‘adjutant’, and he did his stuff well.

For the next twenty-four hours we had a lively time. Whether or not the Boches had ever been in Messines, things were certainly jumpy round these parts. The situation was, as the official phrase goes, ‘fluid’; so fluid that it was impossible to keep track of where our infantry were along the front. Pluto was out in an armoured carrier with wireless on our left front; Dennis and Cliff on our right, with cable which kept getting cut by shellfire. Gunner Bruckland, sent out to repair cable, must have walked into a Boche patrol, for we never heard of him again until, weeks later, he was officially reported prisoner-of-war. Then three infantrymen came running out of Wytschaete with news that Boches were coming over the ridge. I got Pluto on the wireless, and he assured me that there was not a Boche within half a mile of the village; he could see them and was shooting at them. We had received no rations, but there was some livestock about, so the men got something to eat.

All through the night things were lively. We had several SOS calls. The Boches penetrated fifteen hundred yards into our lines on the left, and on the right the position was obscure. We did quite a lot of shooting, and there was hostile shelling of Wytschaete and in front of our guns, with some low bombing. The telephone cable kept getting cut all night. There was that feeling in the air that anything might happen at any moment.

Next morning there was a counterattack by the Inniskillings and the Guards, our troop commanders well forward shooting their guns. The Hun was driven back and things looked good. I was just ordering our battery to advance the other side of Wytschaete when John Barry walked into the cottage. He was smiling, but serious, and said he wanted to speak to me alone.

The story he unfolded was flabbergasting. The B.E.F. was to be withdrawn from France, as it was almost entirely surrounded. A strip of coast was being held from Nieuport to Dunkirk from which the troops would be embarked. The embarkation was to be covered by the Navy, and the R.A.F. had guaranteed to concentrate the whole of its resources on protecting this operation. No guns, no transport, no equipment of any kind could be embarked-only what the men stood up in. The Brigadier glanced at a small dispatch case he was carrying. “That’s all I’ll take,” he said.

Emphasizing how essential it was that our part of the line should be firmly held for the rest of the day, he gave the following orders. My own battery was to fire off all its ammunition, so far as possible on enemy movement that we could see, the remainder on targets to be selected by myself where shelling would be likely to interfere with the enemy’s communications, concentrations, or movement of reserves. I was to order Hardy’s battery to fire off all its ammunition likewise, except fifty rounds per gun. The whole of the above shooting by both batteries was to be spread out so that fire was kept up until nine-thirty that evening, the firing to ‘taper off’ for the last two hours in order not to arouse suspicion in the enemy lines by ending abruptly. At nine-thirty Hardy’s battery would cease to be under my command and would accompany Colonel Tyson’s regiment to take up a flank-guard position south of Dunkirk. Every piece of equipment belonging to our own battery was to be destroyed or rendered useless and abandoned; the guns were to be destroyed on ceasing fire; nothing, however, must be burnt, as fires might make the enemy suspect what was happening. It was most important to reduce congestion on the roads to the minimum; therefore, we were not to take more vehicles than were absolutely necessary to get our men to the coast.

I could hardly believe my ears. I went straight off to Tyson when the Brigadier had gone. “I’ve come to make sure that I’m not mad,” I said. “I’ve just had the most incredible orders from someone I believe to be Brigadier Barry; but as I’ve only seen the Brigadier once before, and then only for a few minutes, I want to make sure from you that it really was he and not some enemy agent dressed up in uniform.” Well, you know the answer I got.

I sent for all officers and senior N.C.O.s, told them the position, and ordered them to explain everything to their men. It was a bitter moment for us all. Like the rest of the B.E.F., we felt the Hun could be beaten if only we were allowed to go for him. On the Dyle, on the Escaut, at Cysoing, we had taken part in scraps where with our own eyes we had seen that our infantry were more than a match for the enemy infantry, despite their inferior equipment, and our own gunners as good as theirs, too. Had we not driven the Boches back here only an hour or two ago? Only in the air did it seem that he could do what he liked, and we could go on sticking that, as we had stuck it up till now. In any event, we would rather fight and be beaten than run away. To a gunner, the idea of destroying his guns is sacrilege. We were not disheartened, or even alarmed at the plight

of the army-we were embittered, enraged, and ashamed. The British soldier is as grand a fighter as ever his forebears were. He has the guts, the heart, and the will to stand and fight things out to the bitter end-to death, if necessary. But we seem to have lost the art of allowing him to do so.

Dunkirk, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tobruk-these are not proud pages in the history of our land. Economy in lives must ever be the aim of our leaders. But there is false economy. The sacrifice of thousands may in the end save millions. And the tragedy is that this is the policy in a war where the Hun is not the Hun of 1914-1918. True, he is better equipped, better led, more ruthlessly prepared, more highly trained; but the dogged will to stand and fight when things are going wrong is not in him as it was in the men who stood and died for every inch of mud in the long battles of the Somme two decades ago. He is made to fight-whereas our lads want to fight and are not allowed to do so.

I have never seen men so furious, never seen so much venom or determination put into obedience of orders, as on the Messines Ridge that gloomy evening in May. If things had to be destroyed then, by God, they should be destroyed whole-heartedly! I am quite certain that not one single piece of our equipment has since been of the slightest use to the Boches.

Those who could be spared from fighting duties must begin the work of destruction at once. We burnt all documents and maps, except the maps required to get us to the coast. All kit, blankets, and spare clothing were slashed, ripped to pieces with knives, torn to shreds and buried in the mud. We smashed to pieces all our artillery instruments except those small enough to be carried and buried them. Gun tractors, watercarts, and vehicles not required for the journey, were driven down to the bank of the Douvre at Wulverghem; there they were smashed up by shooting bullets through petrol tanks, removing carburettors, taking off all fittings, breaking windscreens, slashing tyres to shreds, bashing radiators with pick-axes, and then pushing the wreck into the water. We broke, bent, smashed, and completely wrecked all signalling and wireless equipment, and buried the remains, or threw them into the river.

I have never seen such display of hatred. The men would raise their picks in the air, and shout: “. the… Boche!” as they brought the pick down with all their might on to some expensive and useful bit of equipment. Tears were in the drivers’ eyes as they pushed a battered, ruined ‘Alice’ or ‘Rosie’ into the river-tears of rage. Nothing must be left for the accursed Hun. In the cottage where our headquarters where we smashed everything and gutted the place. Every cup, chair, table, window, we broke to pieces. The water-tank we fouled with petrol and filth. Anti-Nazi propaganda was written on the walls. There were a lot of animals about, and these, of course, must not be left for the Hun to eat. We shot all cows, calves, goats, pigs and chickens. We put aside some chickens for a meal for the men before they left; the carcases of the rest were soaked with petrol and acid from the accumulators, in order to leave nothing fit for human consumption.

While this was going on, we were fulfilling our primary task of killing as many Huns as possible. We had three thousand rounds of ammunition left, and every one of these must be made to do its maximum damage so far as lay in our power. Dennis Clarke and Cliff Hackett hid themselves in a haystack just behind our forward infantry, each with telephonic communication to his guns; Pluto spent hours in an armoured carrier right up in the front, shooting the third Troop’s guns by wireless. We shot at parties of enemy infantry, transport in the distance, tanks, and mortars which were worrying our infantry. Our chaps would kiss each shell as they shoved it in the breech, and it would go hurtling from the muzzle with oaths and cries of hatred from the gunners. Much of this shooting was observed to inflict casualties on the enemy.

There was other excitement, too. Enemy air activity, bombing, shelling, and several flaps that the enemy were coming over the ridge, when infantry came running out of the village to form defensive posts on the road and anti-tank guns were rushed into position close by us, but nothing materialized. At 7 p.m. I sent off all officers and personnel not needed for firing the guns. Many of them had rifles, and I sent some of the Lewis guns and anti-tank rifles with them.

At 8 p.m. I ordered A Troop to cease fire and destroy their guns. This they did, removing breech-blocks, smashing range-drums, buckling brakes, slashing rubber tyres, removing dial-sights and sight clinometers. The sergeant of each gun was ordered to drop the breech-block in the first river or canal he crossed, and to get the dial-sight and sight clinometer to England. Jack Leaman then took A Troop off.

At 8.45 p.m. I ordered C Troop to do the same, and Harry Baird, who had a broken wrist, took them away. I knew the three Troop Commanders would want to stay to the end, so kept them with me. At 9.30 p.m. B Troop had the honour of firing the last shell we had left. The battery had fired 3,107 rounds that day. At 9.50 p.m. B Troop had finished destroying their guns, and Boots led them off. We were the last guns to leave, but only a few minutes after Tom Hardy’s. It was now just dark.

After they had all gone, Dennis Clarke, Cliff Hackett, Basil Strahan and I took a last look at the fires burning in Wytschaete, climbed into our trucks, and turned towards Wulverghem.

********

XVII

BATHING PARTY

ORDERS were to go to Beveren, fifteen miles from the coast, where we should find a report centre. The route we were to follow brought back last-war memories: Locre -Westoutre- Wulverghem-Dranoutre- Reninghelst- Poperinghe -Rousbrugge. Actual distance was less than thirty miles. In fact, the journey took ten hours.

At Wulverghem we caught up with the tail of the heterogeneous mass crawling north-west; infantry in lorries and trucks of all descriptions, gunners in lorries, sappers in lorries, Staff in cars, guns, armoured carriers, all mixed up together, all without lights in the darkness.

Normally three cardinal rules govern Army columns on the road; vehicles must travel at intervals of approximately one hundred yards; no double-banking is allowed; no vehicles of one unit must ‘cut in’ to the column of another unit. Here, all vehicles were ‘nose to tail’ two distinct columns crawled along side by side; vehicles of different units were all sandwiched in and jumbled up. It was to be like this all the way-even worse, later on. It was not a question of bad discipline; everybody was calm, patient, the vehicles well-controlled. It was just inevitable.

Through Dranoutre we crept, on towards Locre. Fires lit up the sky all round. Flashes of bursting shell appeared on our right. At Locre we struck the road from Bailleul, and here real trouble began. Our columns were calm and well disciplined, the drivers making no attempt to scramble ahead, machine-gunners and anti-tank riflemen standing alert in their vehicles, weapons in hand. But here we ran into disorganization-panic; uncontrolled parties of French infantry, Belgian soldiers without arms on bicycles, French cavalry, Belgian cavalry, refugees, all careering and pushing in and out between our trucks, scrambling to get ahead, shouting, swearing.

The blockage became so great in Locre that we remained at a standstill for two and a half hours. One could see quite distinctly all the vehicles that hemmed us in, and the roofs of the houses beyond them, because of the light in the sky from the burning villages around. All through this long wait one had the clatter of horses’ hoofs ringing in one’s ears, as the Belgians spurred and jagged their weary animals forward.

We had been told there was a ‘corridor’ to the coast between the surrounding German hordes. I suppose the British always treat everything in a blasé way; at any rate, I’m sure none of us had really pictured a very narrow corridor. How narrow it was, was brought home vividly to us as we moved out of Locre along the open road to Westoutre. Verey lights were going up into the sky to the right of us, away to the left of us, behind us, and, it seemed, in front of us too. I remember wondering vaguely if we would get through. I could foresee trouble in collecting our chaps the other end-or earlier, if we bumped the Boche. Dennis Clarke and Basil Strahan were in the back of my truck, myself standing in the front beside Hearn; Cliff was in his truck just in front with two wireless signallers in the back; how far ahead in this vast column were the rest of our chaps, I had no idea and no means of finding out. Some of them must be many miles ahead, for they had left hours before us. Boots and his gang were probably a few hundred yards in front but how could one tell?

It was daylight as we crawled into Reninghelst.  Ruins on our left were still smouldering. A couple of anti-tank guns were pointing ominously up roads to right and left. Refugees were huddled in a ditch. Belgian soldiers on bicycles were pushing madly in and out of the column. Shells were bursting away to the right, the sound of bombs ahead. At Poperinghe the jam was at its worst. We were brought to a standstill in the main square. I stood up in my truck and looked around. There were seven distinct rows of traffic, each row wheel to wheel with the row to either flank, every vehicle nose to tail. Just at that moment a big Dornier, flying low, circled slowly over the town; in a second there would be a real shambles. Nothing could escape; neither man nor vehicle could move. But he flew off to the south. No bombs left, perhaps; but he would be sure to send back information, and then either the shells or the bombs would come. However, the mass quivered, then moved on, and we were well along the road before some big stuff crashed behind us.

At Rousbrugge the main road bore to the left. There was a signpost showing it led to Dunkirk. The minor road to Beveren went straight on. To my surprise the whole mass was veering left along the main road to Dunkirk; I had assumed they would all have been ordered to Beveren like us. It was an almost impossible task to get out of the column. Still, orders are orders, and we had got to get to Beveren. We managed it in the end.

Beveren is a tiny hamlet, consisting principally of the church. There was some sort of Belgian headquarters in a small house, but no sign of any British headquarters or report centre. Seeing a major of a Highland regiment walking about, I asked if he knew where the “I’ve been searching for it for hours myself,” he groused. “The blighters don’t appear to have turned up.” report centre was. “Or else they’ve vamoosed,” I said cynically.

What was worrying me far more was the fact that none of our battery was there. They had all had orders to come to this place and they had all left hours before we four had left. What had happened to them all? I posted Hearn by the church to look out for any of our chaps entering the village, and Cliff then went back to Rousbrugge to make inquiries while Dennis Clarke and I searched the village again.

After hanging about for some time, news arrived that some of the earlier masses of troops had lost their bearings in the dark and taken the wrong road; some of our chaps were among that lot, had found their way back to the main route, and were some miles back in the midst of the dense crawling columns.

There was no one to whom to report, no one from whom to obtain orders, and the situation was obscure. I therefore decided that, as we had destroyed our guns and were consequently no longer any use as a fighting unit, our duty was to save the lives of our men if possible. As soon as I could collect or contact them in the column behind, I would take them all to Dunkirk.

Just then Ambrose drove through the village. He pulled up and got out. Though pale and weary-eyed, he was his usual dynamic self, and had, like me, the inevitable coloured forage cap on his head. He confirmed my intention to get the men to Dunkirk but said that enemy tanks were in Warhem and advised me to wait a little to see if the situation clarified. He also told me that some fool had blown most of the bridges over the canal between us and Dunkirk forty-eight hours too soon. and the main road I went. So back to Rousbrugge There I walked for some two or three miles back along the columns and eventually found most of our lost vehicles interspersed here and there amongst those of other units. All kinds of regiments and arms of the Service were jumbled up together hopelessly. Obviously, it would be quite impossible to extricate our vehicles from this mass, which was maintaining a pace of about two miles an hour.

I therefore sent a dispatch rider down the column to tell each of our vehicles to proceed as best it could to Dunkirk, where I would leave a guide outside the town with further orders. I decided to go ahead myself to find out the position.

Walking back to Rousbrugge, I was going about three times the pace of the column. At the cross-roads was a tall Brigadier, controlling the traffic. Bombs were falling, but he was quite unconcerned. It was Mossy. “Hullo, you old warrior,” he smiled, as I went up to him to report what I was proposing to do. He told me there were rumours that the Boche was on the outskirts of Dunkirk, and that in any event he thought it unlikely that anybody could get into the town by the main road, but that it would be advisable to take one of the roads to the east. However, I decided to try. If there were any Boches in the neighbourhood of Dunkirk it was essential that I should get ahead of my men to find out in advance the actual position before they got near the place, so, with such vehicles as were with me, I set off. Dennis and Basil were in my truck-we were all armed; Cliff was in the truck behind; and Boots in another truck with a Lewis gun and an anti-tank rifle manned by the men in the back.

Progress was very slow; partly because large numbers of vehicles and guns had been destroyed and left in the roadway; partly because of hostile shelling; partly because every time a low-flying enemy ‘plane came over, which was pretty often, the French drivers leapt out of their vehicles to hide in the ditch.

Around Seclin we had seen good French troops; here it seemed we must be among the dregs of the French Army. One panic stricken French major, trying to scramble past the column, ditched his car. Rushing up to Boots’s (Robert Crichton-Brown) truck, he tried to pull the driver out of the seat, presumably in order to clamber in himself. When Boots shouted at him, the major pulled out his revolver, mad with terror. Bang went the Entente Cordiale, and Boots slogged him hard on the jaw. It was the only way to calm the man down. A little further on, the driver of a French lorry at the side of my truck kept honking his horn and screaming like a maniac at the driver in front to let him pass, which, of course, was quite impossible in this jam. The Frenchman then went mad. Jamming his foot on the accelerator, he jumped his lorry forward full tilt at the tailboard of the truck in front. I jumped out and dealt with him; his eyes were wild, he was dribbling at the mouth, and screaming oaths at everybody. However, the sight of my revolver had a calming influence and he behaved himself after that. We came across a column of French lorries, engines still running, abandoned by their drivers right in the centre of the road. It was a pathetic sight, too, to see some French cavalrymen slide off their horses and jump into passing lorries, leaving their terrified mounts to fend for themselves. he was

I must say I felt rather proud of my own countrymen that day. Not a sign of panic or bad discipline did I see among any British troops. They showed up well beside their allies. The boys of our battery were no exception; they were alert and cheerful, and the lads in the back of Boots Brown’s truck were singing ‘The Quarter master’s Stores’-our own version, which had a verse for each of our own officers: There was

Brown, Brown, With his trousers down, In the Stores, in the Stores’.

Boots Crichton-Brown grinned.

A sharp crack rang out. An anti-tank gun had opened fire. Away to our left we saw a Boche tank disappear behind a wood. Ahead we could see great columns of smoke, and flames stabbing the sky above the trees. We could feel the heat of the fires even at this distance. The small town of Bergues, through which the road to Dunkirk led, was burning; the road was barricaded, and a sergeant was directing the traffic down a side-road to the right. We turned down this narrow outlet; then came block after block, halt after halt, everything gradually jerking forward by degrees, until some miles further on we seemed to come to a permanent standstill. There was open country to the left of the road, so I pulled on to it and went ahead to investigate. The column had reached the canal. The two bridges within sight had been blown. Officers and men were smashing up the trucks before abandoning them to march the rest of the way.

We dismantled the wireless on my truck, smashed it with a pick, and then I emptied my revolver into the petrol tank. Hearn slashed the tyres to shreds. We took off the carburettor, dynamo, and distributor head, and threw them into the water. Finally, we pushed the truck into the canal. I watched her sink until only the tip of the wireless mast showed above the water. A perfectly good Humber Snipe, brand new the day before the blitz started!

Soon we had seven of our officers and some sixty of our men collected here. I learned that the majority of our fellows had gone another way and were ahead of us now. So, as soon as all the vehicles had been pushed into the canal, we began the ten-mile trek across country to Dunkirk, humping as much of the smaller equipment as we could salve.

It was a weary journey. In places the ground was boggy, the men were very tired and hungry, and the pieces of equipment heavy. Those who were armed marched on the flanks. We kept well together, and every now and then the chaps would sing until they got too much out of breath to continue. All over the countryside thousands of the B.E.F. were streaming in small parties, some unarmed, some armed, to Dunkirk. All medical organization seemed to have broken down completely. There were numerous wounded, but the doctors, anxious though they were to get attention for these poor fellows, were helpless; there were no aid posts or medical equipment anywhere.

Just outside Tetegen there was some fierce dive-bombing, which was quite nasty while it lasted, but as we crouched in the ditch we were rewarded with two glorious sights. One ‘plane shot down by a Bofors anti-aircraft gun. Another dive-bomber, screaming down, failed to pull himself out of his dive in time, crashed nose first into the ground, and burst into flames. A great cheer went up.

We marched on. An aged Brass Hat, a typical Base-wallah, pulled me up. “Are these your men?” he barked. I glanced at my boys, who had fought for nearly three weeks, had just marched miles after having had no food or sleep for a long time, humping heavy dial-sights and other salved equipment, dirty, unshaven, and tired, but still full of fight, smiling, and singing ‘Bless ’em all !’ “Yes,” I replied.

“Then make them march properly,” he barked. “That man’s out of step.” Perhaps he hadn’t meant to be funny. Anyhow, he went purple in the face when I laughed. However, a Boche ‘plane did me a good turn just then by dropping a bomb close by. The Brass Hat forgot all but himself, and we marched on in peace.

On the wide green stretch before we reached the outskirts of Dunkirk, we noticed some heavy anti-aircraft guns which had been destroyed. Surely these could have been saved till the last minute, we thought. There was any amount for them to do. Indeed, that was brought home to us very forcibly as we reached the town. About twenty Boche ‘planes sat over the place for nearly two hours, bombing and machine-gunning. We had to negotiate the streets by stages, diving into cover every hundred yards or so. At one spot, where houses came crashing to the ground in the next street and a huge crater yawned in the square outside the church, we were lucky in finding a large shelter which could house a large number of men. Some French soldiers who were in it welcomed us, and we sat there smoking while the bombs dropped, but the French officer in charge was very angry, saying it was not for the British. However, we gave him some cigarettes and he shut up.

Eventually we reached the beach, where we found that Stephen Muir, Jack Leaman, Pluto MacKay, Peter and the rest had already arrived. I ascertained that all our survivors had reached the beach safely. The sea looked cold and grey. Something by the mole was on fire, and smoke was rolling over the town. Two disabled transports lay half-submerged offshore. Some ships were standing out to sea, and destroyers were patrolling the coast.

There must have been well over twenty thousand troops on the beach, British, French and Belgian; and they still kept coming. There was some kind of embarkation staff on the mole and information filtered through that there would be at least seventeen ships and some small craft available late that evening, and that meanwhile everyone must remain on the beach.

But those ships were not to be. Hun airmen took command of the situation, and for hours relays of ‘planes circled over the area, screaming down to bomb, or machine-gunning the beach. It was thrilling to watch the destroyers as they manoeuvred to dodge the bombs, putting up smoke screens and firing their little pom-poms at the ‘planes. The Navy always put up a grand show.

Before long, fires were raging all over the place; a ship lying alongside the mole was on fire; oil tanks were ablaze; crash after crash announced the rain of bombs and shells on the town. Although they did not succeed in damaging the mole severely, the fires were so intense that it was impossible to use it for embarking troops. Over to the right, probably off La Panne, a French cruiser was on fire; we admired her gameness, as flash after flash from the burning vessel showed that her big guns were still hurling vengeance at the Boche.

At intervals a ‘plane would swoop to machine-gun the length of the beach. Near the mole some bombs killed a hundred troops. No medical aid was available and the wounded were dying for lack of it. Callously, Boots Crichton-Brown turned over the bodies to make sure that none of our men was among them, then came with tears in his eyes to see what could be done for the suffering wounded.

Such was the setting for the epic story of Gunner B. A skimpy lad of nineteen, he had gained a remarkable reputation as a ladies’ man. Ever since we had been in France, whenever we arrived in a new village, sure enough you would see young B in tow with the most voluptuous female in the place in an incredibly short time. His letters were amazingly frank about his amours. Towards dusk that evening, just as the bombing was at its height, I spotted young B jauntily making his way off the beach towards the burning town. “Come here, B,” I shouted. “Where are you going?”

“To find a bit o’ skirt, sir,” retorted this sanguine youth. “There are no civilians there now.”

“Aw, well, sir,” he replied. “I’m fed up with this ‘ere beach, anyway.” He seemed quite hurt when I ordered him back to the comparative safety of the beach.

The hours of darkness dragged by. Fires still raged. Over to the right the gallant French cruiser was still afloat and ablaze, one of her guns still firing. No orders came. Nobody could find any one to give us information. No ships were available, and no troops had been embarked since before we arrived. It was very cold on the beach, and the sand gave off a horrible stench.

Dennis Clarke and I had a chat. We had both come to the conclusion that nobody would get off that beach; it was obvious that there was no prospect of organized embarkation of troops that night. We decided to search the coast towards La Panne in the hope of finding fishing craft into which we could load our men and drift out to sea. We were just starting off on this expedition when Boots rushed up

in great excitement to say that he had found a destroyer’s jolly-boat beached a mile up the coast with a young naval officer ‘looking for the Army’. Boots wanted permission to send twenty of his men aboard the jolly-boat to the destroyer.

We hurried off with Boots to reconnoitre. What a sight met our eyes! Through the grey, misty half-light we could make out naval vessels standing off the coast about a mile out to sea and a mile and a half to the east of the mole.

I was loath to move our men until I could make sure they could be embarked, for they were exhausted, having had no food for two days and no proper sleep for several days. There were transports of sorts standing offshore, protected by destroyers, and on finding that the Navy would assist us to embark, we sent back along the beach for our boys. Soon, all the thousands of troops were hustling towards us.

Difficulties were not, however, over. There was no staff here to organize the embarkation. The swarming masses were a heterogeneous collection of survivors from countless different units; some had no officers with them; others had only one or two junior officers; there was great danger that the situation might get out of hand and develop into an ugly scramble.

The officers of our battery and some infantry officers who collaborated with us stood out in the sea facing the beach until the thousands could be organized into some kind of formation. After some time, with the help of some Marines, we got the situation well in hand. The crowds were organised in long columns, about twenty yards apart, stretching back to the dunes. The two young Naval officers were magnificent. There must have been nearly forty

The real trouble was that there were only five dinghies to row the thousand troops on the beach at this time. troops out to the ships. This worked out that one dinghy was available for every three columns, and as the ships were about a mile out, this meant that each column was only able to get twelve men away every forty minutes or so. It was terribly slow, but it did work. Some men swam out to the ships. As soon as a ship got loaded, she sailed at once and we would start loading another. Gradually ships of all kinds appeared off the coast as the day wore on, and more dinghies, some launches, and all kinds of craft became available, and made things easier by coming closer in shore.

Three Hurricanes chased some Boche ‘planes away. How we cheered! They were the first British fighters we had seen since the blitz began. From then on, the Boche could no longer do exactly as he liked. With a few exceptions, the masses on the beach were splendid.

Their behaviour was calm, their discipline good, and the officers of all units co-operated with a will. We were anxious to get some men who had waited three days already away as soon as possible, and to do so we gave them preference out of turn over our own men and men of other units. I waded out of the sea and spoke to our chaps about it. They were all quite happy, smiling at me when I explained. “That’s O.K., sir,” said one bombardier. “There ain’t no ‘urry for us. We know our officers will see we get away all right some time.” Grand chaps.

We stood out in the sea, regulating the allotment of craft. Each boat would come back for its fresh load to the place where an officer was standing up to his waist in water which was black with oil from one the destroyers, and we would have the men detailed for the next boat load out there in the sea with us, ready for it to arrive. detailed the next few men, one saw the look of hope on the faces of those who were waiting to know if they were included this time-for it might be the last time, one never knew; but the disappointed ones always smiled and just went on standing waiting, hoping for the best. When all the ships had sailed and no fresh ones were yet in sight they still smiled and joked among themselves, even when the Hun chose this interval to drop some shells and bombs around.

It was a cold job, hour after hour. All the officers played their part, but the palm went to Boots, who for a great many hours stood out in the sea, organizing the supply of boats, ensuring that each column had fair treatment. He was largely responsible for the smooth embarkation of large numbers without casualties during the early hours of that morning; several senior officers from other units asked me to see that his conduct was brought to notice. He was subsequently mentioned in despatches.

One fool, on reaching the ship, let the dinghy drift away. Our champion swimmers, Boots Crichton-Brown and Harry, stripped to swim out to retrieve it. Then a canoe floated by. Boots scrambled into it, chased the dinghy out to sea, and brought both back.

It had been about three o’clock in the morning when we started sail with Pluto, Cliff, Peter, and many of our chaps on board. I sent Harry and about thirty men off to the mole where they were starting to embark troops at a faster rate.

At about five in the afternoon Dennis Clarke, Basil Strahan, and I sent the last of our chaps off in a dinghy. Half an hour later Gunner Booth and Bombardier Matthews (who subsequently went to the Commandos) rowed the dinghy back to fetch us. Some sailors from the ship had offered to do this, but these two had insisted on fetching their own officers themselves.

Boots was waiting to help me aboard the little Dutch coastal tramp. As we weighed anchor a few bombs fell. I was soaked to the skin after about sixteen hours standing out in the sea, and my boots, breeches, tunic and face were covered with oil from the ships. The ship’s engineer offered me his cabin to get my wet things off. As I was hanging them up to dry in the engine-room, I heard the rattle of machine-guns above. I rushed up on deck.

A roar of laughter greeted me as I looked up at the Boche ‘plane which had been driven off. I suddenly realized I was standing there in nothing but my shirt, tin hat, and monocle.

Past us incessantly, towards the French shore, sped cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and all kinds of queer craft of all shapes and sizes. It was a wonderful sight. I shall never cease to marvel at the calm efficiency and courage of the seamen who in two wars have transported troops back and forth across the Channel day and night. It is always stimulating to talk to them on these trips, and this was no exception.

We were just coming into Dover when a launch came out to turn us away up the coast. Not long afterwards, a port hove in sight. “My God! What luck! It’s Ramsgate!” cried an officer standing next to me. “I live here. I’ll be with my missis in an hour.” But in an hour’s time the disappointed Ramsgate husband was being whirled away in a train to Gloucestershire. Such is Life.

We could see that the streets were crowded with civilians. “They must think us a lot of rats, running away like this,” said Basil Strahan. We all felt like that. We had clear consciences; we had wanted to stay and fight; we What must the people at home think? had done our best; but the fact remained, we had run away.

“We’ll get the bird,” I agreed. I pictured us marching through the streets with the crowd staring at us in contemptuous silence. It was a relief when we were ushered straight into motor coaches.

The ordeal would not last so long that way.

Then it happened. Cheers rang out all along the route. Handkerchiefs waved, hats were in the air. “Good God!” choked Dennis Clarke. “Somebody’s been putting over some hefty propaganda here at home.”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in our coach by the time we reached the station.

 

***************

 

XVIII

PHOENIX PARTY

WE expected anti-climax after all that had passed, but this was not to be. A recent letter from the Brigadier under whom we were now to serve recalled ‘that invasion season of 1940 with all its alarms and inspirations. A happy description.

Strange to say, we did not sleep during the long train journey down to Gloucestershire. All the kind hearts in England seemed to have conspired to overwhelm us. At every stop, tea, cakes, fruit, chocolate, cigarettes, writing-paper and stamps were lavished on us. One Good Samaritan offered to telephone my wife in London, and faithfully kept his promise.

Hours later at Kemble station we were whisked away as guests of two hospitable artillery regiments. Huge breakfast. Glorious hot bath. Shave. The stiffest whiskies you ever saw. One officer gave me a pair of shoes, another lent me a pair of trousers. They were great hosts. Sad to see the names of some of them in the casualty lists since that day.

Then off to meet the London train and my wife. Rita Clarke is with her. How these two laugh when they see their husbands. Dennis Clarke has no collar or tie, but a choker. I look a weird specimen too.

At the camp where men from fifty units are to be sorted out we have Dennis, Basil, Boots, Peter, myself, and about twenty of our N.C.O.s and men; we have no idea as to what part of the country he rest of our chaps have gone.

It is Sunday. Queen Mary inspects us. We look awful sights in the weirdest clothing imaginable. She is charming, obviously much moved, chats to all the officers. After she has gone, a church parade. To my horror, when it comes to prayers for the wounded, the padré fervently adds a prayer for the German wounded. I boil with rage. Here have we been doing our damnedest to rid the world of these pests, and the Church retaliates by ordering prayers that they may recover so as to become able again to kill our own men, women and children.

There is no single aspect of Army life which causes so much resentment and harm as compulsory church parades. Of course, the amplest facilities should be organized and afforded to all those who desire or who are willing to attend religious services. Every officer should encourage his men to do so. But by what teaching of Christ is it ordained that religion shall be forced on men? It seems to me a poor policy to do so; it puts a premium on hypocrisy; it breeds resentment and thus prejudices men who might otherwise eventually embrace it willingly themselves. The grip of the Church on the Army authorities is so great that any liberal minded commander who sets his face against compulsion is victimized.

Next day, Monday, on the way to Okehampton, we change at Exeter where we get the first tidings of the fate of Regimental Headquarters and our other battery. Colonel Durand, whose Horse Artillery regiment was near them at Cassel, comes up to me on the platform to give me the news that Colonel Odling and Major Christopherson are wounded, that our chaps put up a grand show against tanks at Cassel, but were surrounded and casualties have been heavy.

At Okehampton we find Frank Bower, Stephen, Jack, and fifty men. Then at Hatherleigh our battery gradually drifts in: Pluto, Cliff, Harry, Slim Somerwill, Rex Thornton, our N.C.O.s and men. Roddy Hawes of the other [367] battery, who tells us something of the tale; with Sergeant Harcombe, wounded at Cassel; a gunner [Martin] who was captured and escaped; an epic is the story of that gallant battery.

A week later, to Carburton in Notts where for the first night we are the guests of the Scottish Horse in their camp. Jack Leaman is called to the ‘phone, and we hear a terrific bellow: “What the hell is it? A girl? Oh, GRAND!” And off goes Jack to see his first-born.

We make our own camp; day by day more survivors dribble in. So does news. We know the regiment’s losses now. Twenty-one officers and three hundred men have failed to return-of these, sixteen officers and two hundred men are known to be prisoners, many of them wounded as well. My own lucky battery has had only three killed, seven wounded, and eight missing. And now I am to re-form the regiment that is to say, find a Regimental Headquarters and two batteries out of the remnants of the old regiment. It means promotion for nearly every officer. Stephen Muir becomes second-in-command, Peter adjutant, Dennis Clarke and Pluto battery commanders.

Then a flap. Talk of invasion. We are hurriedly dished out with a rifle each-but have to wait two days for any ammunition because there are no reserves in the country-and sent off on our anti-invasion role.

The division we had supported on the Dyle was to hold a section of coast, our regiment’s responsibility being the defence of several hundred square miles behind the infantry brigade areas. For this task we had our own regiment, some three thousand L.D.V.s (as the Home Guard were then called), various searchlight detachments which studded the area, and some odd detachments of Ordnance Corps and R.A.S.C., all of which came under my control for operational purposes.

For such an area our forces were minute. Our regiment as yet consisted only of fifteen officers and three hundred men; reinforcements were arriving, but before many of them came we were ordered to send away eight officers and nearly two hundred men to take over guns on the coast. After that, we received a large number of reinforcements, of whom half were men who had had a few months’ training, but the remainder were recruits straight off the streets without uniform or any training whatsoever.

As for the Home Guard, they had practically no equipment at all, and very few had uniforms. Some had sporting guns or revolvers, and out of three thousand I think there were no more than three hundred who had any kind of lethal weapon. My own men and the other troops in the area had just a rifle, bayonet, and a hundred rounds of ammunition apiece. We worked feverishly at making Molotov cocktails, digging defences, making roadblocks, laying anti-tank mines, and preparing elaborate defence schemes for our area.

What would have happened if the Huns had invaded in those dark days? The B.E.F. had not been re-equipped or re-armed; those other troops who had not been overseas were but poorly equipped and armed, with the exception of the Canadians; the Home Guard possessed nothing but guts and the fighting spirit. Yet I have always believed that despite all this apparent helplessness, nevertheless somehow, some time, somewhere and by someone every Hun invader would in the end have been killed. It is a pity that the country cannot now recapture and display the spirit of grim determination that was then abroad in this land, as shown by the following story told me by a brigadier at that time.

Walking in the lane outside his headquarters the brigadier saw two elderly farm-labourers with pitchforks, behaving in a manner which attracted his attention. They were creeping along the hedge, hiding behind trees; one climbed a tree and pointed out landmarks to the other; they searched for hiding places in the ditch, in wayside sheds, behind bushes.

“What are you men up to?” asked the brigadier, undecided whether to be suspicious or just amused. “Just gettin’ to know the lie o’ the land,” replied one of them in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Just in case any o’ they Jarmans was to get around these parts. There’s many a good spot for an ambush here I reckons.” “I see,” said the brigadier, interested. “And what are you chaps then? L.D.V.s?” “No, sir,” replied the spokesman. “We don’t belong to nuthin’! Just free lances. But I reckons we could do a tidy bit o’ harm with these ‘ere forks.”

The Brigadier-a V.C.-did not tell this story as a joke. He was deeply impressed with the spirit it implied. This is total war. The Hun makes war on every man, woman and child, not only on soldiers. It is a pity that the Government cannot arm everyone; however, every civilian can lay hands on some lethal weapon, be it carving knife, poker, or what not, to use against the Hun if he enters the home. Boiling water was much in favour in the Middle Ages!

This same spirit was shown by another real fighter-Air Commodore Probyn of Cranwell. When discussing the defence of the area, he said to me: -“I’ve got scores of training ‘planes here. They’re not fitted for carrying bombs, but if the Boche comes here, I’ll send every ‘plane in the air; we can throw bombs out by hand, and if we’ve nothing else we’ll drop Molotov cocktails and hand grenades on him. When the time comes, just let me know where you want this kind of help, and you shall have it.”

It was the spirit, too, of one of Probyn’s men, Squadron Leader ‘Crippen’ Black, fine airman, pilot, man, who used to tell us with his slow smile how he hated being an instructor in war time because he wanted to be doing a man’s job killing Boches. He wanted to be a Bomber Boy-to get that, he offered to go down in rank, and did. His first operational flight was to bomb Berlin. Black carried out PHE as anyone who knew him knew he would. his task superbly, Nearing home, he handed over to another pilot. There was a fog. A crash landing followed. The pilot was unhurt, but ‘Crippen’ Black was dead. But he had died a Bomber Boy.

One of the leading Home Guard commanders in our area was our ex-Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who had thrown himself with vigour and enthusiasm into the task of building up the force in his area. Over a glass of sherry in the Mess he would entertain us with stories of the Nazi leaders. He was emphatic in distinguishing Göring from the rest; Göring, he said, was a blackguard, but not quite the dirty blackguard that the others were.

Sir Nevile definitely forecast an invasion for 8 August, and I verily believe he thought it would come off then. Hitler, he said, is a mystic; he is convinced the full moon is lucky to him; he also regards the weekend as propitious for any adventure-particularly for any venture against this country, as he believes everything in Britain, Army, Navy and Government included, packs up for the week-end. Now a full tide is necessary for any sea-borne invasion. Therefore, argued Sir Nevile, at the first occasion when full moon and full tide both fell together at a week-end Hitler would send his troops across. The first date upon which this could happen was 8 August. I sometimes think that when that date came and passed without invasion, Sir Nevile must have been quite disappointed.

Though that date passed without incident, others did not. Numerous flaps, some genuine, others not, led up to the great day when we received the code word which meant that something really was on the way. At last, we were going to get our own back for Dunkirk! Every man was on his toes. Hours went by, all eyes on the sky, all ears agog for the sound of gunfire at sea. Hours later the order to ‘stand down’ came. The R.A.F. had smashed up everything at the invasion ports before it could put to sea.

Flaps about baled-out airmen at large, agents landed on the coast by submarines, parachutists! Most, of course, were false alarms; every time a barrage balloon broke loose and floated over Lincoln shire, it was a safe bet that we would get messages from all over the area reporting that parachutists had been seen. There was one comic incident when two Boche airmen, baled out of a burning plane, were three days at large before being discovered in a wood. One enterprising newspaper reporter, having conceived the idea that the airmen must have been provided with some concentrated food essence to keep them in the fit state in which they were found, managed to get hold of one of their respirators and there discovered a phial of white tablets, one of which he sampled himself. His paper then duly printed the story of this ‘concentrated food essence’, together with the reporter’s comment that, having tested it himself, he could say that he found it of no sustenance value-it only made him sick. Actually, the tablet he had found and eaten was the German equivalent of our anti-gas ointment.

With complete lack of equipment and only poor-quality civilian transport, it was like going back to the early days of the war and the old necessity for improvisation. As a first step towards rearmament, we received twenty-five-year-old 75-mm. guns from America which had been shipped to the United States in part-payment of the French war debt many years ago. These old-fashioned weapons, intended to be horse-drawn, had the old iron-shod wooden wheels with which it was not wise to travel more than six miles an hour-a fatal thing if the Boche landed and we had to get at him quick. We scrounged and bought old bits of metal and some rubber-tyred car wheels, and Sergeants Witt and Beale designed and constructed carriers upon which we could mount the gun in thirty seconds, and which could be towed behind a lorry quite safely at forty miles an hour over almost any kind of country in an emergency.

Few people realize how much the Army had to do in the way of improvisation in those days. Among those few were two Fleet Street celebrities, John Gordon and Tom Clarke, who, together with Stainless Stephen, came to spend a cheery weekend with us. At the concert we gave in their honour, Stainless had the Corn Exchange rocking with laughter. By this time, we had a first-class concert party, and the shows were well dressed.

The invasion season and the equipment shortage came to an end about the same time. The artillery was reorganized in a manner which increased the personnel of a regiment, and Roddy Hawes and Cliff Hackett became majors. Twenty-five-pounder guns followed. Intensive training began in earnest.

David and Ambrose, both promoted, had been succeeded by two other fine Brass Hats-John Barry, under whom we had last served in France and Maurice Johnston who in the last war had been taken prisoner at Kut, escaped, and swum the Bosphorus, and was to prove a real friend to us.

The type of reinforcement we were getting, though completely untrained, was good material, intelligent, fit and keen. They came straight off the streets’, being ordered by the Labour Exchange to report on a certain date. Just after the Battle of Britain we got pathetic letters from some of these fellows. One man wrote from London, enclosing a doctor’s certificate saying that he was still suffering from bomb wounds. The same bomb had killed his wife and destroyed his home. He needed a few days to settle up his is and recover from his wounds. Would it be possible for the date of his call-up to be postponed a little? I could picture the writer of this letter. All his world snatched away from him.  Now he himself was called up. Would it be just the last straw? Or would be regard it as a great opportunity for revenge upon the Hun?

I found myself wondering how these militiamen picture Amy life before they enter it. Do they imagine the Army be an inhuman machine with officers just heartless cogs in the he? It is our job to make them feel they are serving with comes under the command of friends. I gave him a month’s postponement. He is now a valuable and grimly determined soldier. Among the most useful aspects of training are the numerous courses of instruction in various technical and general matters which the Army organizes for officers of varying ranks. I have been on many myself. One of these, for Commanding Officers only, was held in Wales. After a three-hundred-mile journey over ice bound roads and through snowdrifts, we arrived in darkness and a snowstorm in the town. I had been given the name of a small hotel, men over by the authorities for officers attending this course,

We asked a passer-by the way to this hotel. Apparently, there were two hotels of the same name, for he asked whether we meant the one in the town or the one on the sea-front. I plumped for the one on the front and he gave the necessary directions.

We found the place locked. I rang the front doorbell, and a queer-looking Welsh maid answered the door. Still not sure whether this was the right hotel, I asked: “Are you expecting a lot of officers here to-night?” “Oh, no” replied the maid. “Only Colonels.”

During the next twelve months I was dealt three severe blows. First, we were sent away from our old Corps and all our friends in it. From that grand world of mutual help and solidarity we were thrown an atmosphere of narking and nagging which made one sometimes wonder if we really are all on the same side in this war. Then, months later, Cliff Hackett’s 366 battery was taken away complete from us and sent to Iceland and the business of building up a new by to replace it was begun. Lastly, I myself was medically boarded and declared permanently unfit for any further military service. The trouble had begun with a mild attack of pleurisy our soaking at Dunkirk and had steadily developed as the months rolled by. So, I must lose my regiment. I had been with it since birth.

When its remnants reeled back from the body-blows in France I had, for good or ill, re-formed it, built it up, trained it, and commanded it for a year and a half. It meant everything to me. I knew every one of my officers, every one of my N.C.O.s, every to me. one of my men, their trials, tribulations, hopes, and qualities. Parting from old friends is tragic. The memory of them will never fade.

As I write this, they have borne their share in the Tunisian victory and now await, splendidly equipped, further operations in which they will play their part. That they will play hard, play clean, and play well, I know. Of the officers who were with us in France, only one is now left with them-Jack Leaman. So, to them I say-Good Shooting, and Good Luck!

 

*****

XIX

CRITIC’S PARTY

IN a New York journal of August 1942, Lord Strabolgi has thought fit to hold up the British Army to contempt and ridicule.

Now, is there much wrong with the Army to-day? Most well-informed critics will agree that it is now well armed, well equipped, and mobile; that the greater part is at last highly trained by the most up-to-date methods; that the men of the Striking Force are intelligent, keen, fit, hardened, and itching to join battle with the Hun. Earlier in this book it was suggested that in the main its leadership is sound.

But that is not to say that all is well. The waste of material, time, and personnel-the duplication of effort-the muddle in administration of the Army at home are such as to impair its efficiency and handicap the country’s effort. This waste and muddle are far worse than in the last war. The reason is not hard to find. After 1914, casualties were so heavy in the last war that the amateur soldier played a decisive part in the administration of the Army, and an almost universal part in the lower commands. As yet that has not been so in this war. The present trouble can be attributed to the mentality of the Regular officer. The leadership of the Army is in the hands of those exceptions who have thwarted the soporific of peace-time soldiering, applied themselves seriously to studying the profession of arms, and maintained their individuality in defiance of the system. They, of course, cannot be replaced by non-professionals with no technical background. But in the key administrative posts and in command of units and sub-units what is needed is the enthusiasm and energy of the amateur, the drive and independence and initiative of the man who has had to earn his living in a competitive and exacting world-qualities seldom found in the Regular.

The average Regular officer-there are, of course, notable exceptions-lacks Urge; years of peace-time soldiering have inoculated him against appreciation of the different values which war conditions prescribe; he will do his job, but somehow does not pull out just that extra bit more; frequently he is a clock-watcher who thinks all work ceases at four-thirty, even in war time. He is spoilt by training and tradition which (unintentionally, I think) discourage individuality, independence, and initiative qualities so successfully developed by the methods of the R.A.F., the Navy, and in later years the German Army. Let us see how this results in waste of time, material, and personnel and incidentally, the taxpayer’s money. As instances

I take:

(a)  The Clothing Racket.

(b)  The Petrol Racket.

(c)  The Paint Racket.

(d) The Clothing Racket.

The importance of economy in clothing and material is emphasized by severe rationing of civilians. This is also appreciated by the Army Council which frequently issues instructions aimed at ensuring such economy in the forces. But the needs of the nation and the instructions of the Army Council are frustrated in practice by the mentality of the Regular officer.

His gods are Spit and Polish. Like all fanatics, he carries his worship to extremes. Within moderation, Spit and Polish are worthy gods; it is essential to instil personal pride into the soldier; it is vital that the soldier’s bearing and appearance should arouse the confidence rather than contempt of the civilian population; but these objects could be obtained without gross waste of clothing.

Sensible instructions have been issued by the higher military authorities, stressing that in war time, when economy is vital, men’s clothing cannot be maintained up to the meticulous standard rightly demanded in peace. These instructions urge officers, whilst

 

stopped their men from polishing brass, have been angrily rebuked, and have been told to get it done at once and keep it done. No order, whether directed towards economy or towards greater efficiency, has much chance of being carried out if it offends the two peace-time deities.

I know of one unit where time is taken up each day not only in polishing personal equipment but also in polishing the metal parts of guns and vehicles. Quite apart from the unnecessary use of large quantities of metal polish and the waste of training time, this prevents the cultivation of a battle atmosphere’ which should be a principal object of training. And should not all equipment be kept in battle condition; in case the Hun should suddenly invade? No guns or vehicles must go into battle shining in the sun.

It is time the twin-gods Spit and Polish were relegated to their proper perspective in the scheme of things. Would it not be better for those Regulars who run the Army to bow the knee rather to those rival gods Fighting Spirit and Will-to-Win-the will to win by economy, scrupulous preservation of all serviceable material, as well as by the use of weapons?

The Petrol Racket.

Few now fail to appreciate the importance of oil in this war. The urgency of oil to the Hun-whose strategy is based on a trinity of oil consuming monsters, the aeroplane, the tank, and the submarine is shown by the prodigal squandering of blood and material to gain the Russian oilfields. The oil problem is no less important to our selves. Shipping space requires us to economize in its use in every way; the taxpayer’s interests also demand economy if the fullest use of his money is to be directed towards winning the war.

The Higher Command, realizing this, have issued many orders directed towards petrol economy, but these are constantly defeated by the actions of their subordinates.

Next to the gods Spit and Polish in the Regular’s Valhalla is the goddess Conference. To you and me the word conference implies discussion. In the Army it frequently implies the hiring of a cinema at the public expense, the pilgrimage of hundreds of officers scores of miles at the cost of thousands of gallons of petrol to see the Big Brass Hat mount the stage and describe from his notes some exercise in which they may or may not have taken part. In nine cases out of ten the discourse is of no value whatsoever to the less senior officers present (about four-fifths of the audience)-except, if they’re lucky, as entertainment! The vast amount of petrol consumed is sheer waste so far as effective prosecution of the war is concerned. In one Corps a conference of all senior officers was called. Before going, each received a copy of a lengthy document. About two hundred were there; each had come in a car by himself because they came from a variety of places and directions in three different counties. The average petrol consumption of the cars was twelve miles to the gallon. The distance from their stations varied from ten miles to eighty miles and they had to get back. When they got there, all that happened was that a Brass Hat read aloud the document which they had all read themselves before attending, another Brass Hat then asked if anyone had any questions; nobody asked a question; Brass Hat No. 2 then thanked Brass Hat No. I for reading this interesting document, and a lot more petrol was used up getting everybody home again. The worship of the goddess Conference that day had taken two hundred senior officers away from their duties for more than half a day and had wasted about a thousand gallons of petrol.

Mind you, these Regulars are alive to the importance of petrol economy except for essential purposes. It is a question of what an essential purpose is. On this point it is apparent that the views of the citizen-officer do not coincide with those of his Regular counterpart. Another illustration. Long ago, the higher military authorities instituted a weekly Transport Rest Day. Each unit was ordered to fix a weekly day on which no vehicle was to be used except for urgent purposes. Excellent idea. Later, this was extended to two days per week. Excellent, too. But however conscientious commanding officers might be, the object of this order was largely defeated week after week by orders from above to do something on that day which involved substantial use of petrol. If you changed your day to make up for this, something would happen on that day, too. If you decided to recoup this by keeping your transport in for a week, you ran serious risk of being called over the coals for not having taken your unit out for field training. Millions of gallons are wasted by the muddling in Whitehall which moves units about the country on futile journeys. Here are four typical instances:

  • A battery, stationed in West Wales, was ordered to join a newly formed regiment in Cornwall. the battery arrived in Cornwall, the whole regiment was ordered to move to the very place in Wales from which the battery had just come. This unnecessary double journey by the battery wasted some three thousand gallons.

 

  • A regiment, ordered to move fifty miles from one hut camp to another in Southern England, protested that its proposed destination would not provide sufficient room for its personnel or transport. Nevertheless, the move was insisted upon. On arrival, it became apparent that the regiment’s contention was right, so it was sent back fifty miles to its former camp, and the War Office ordered to the second camp a unit from North Wales ‘because it had no transport’ and would therefore find plenty of room there. On arrival, this unit proved to have even more transport (apparently unbeknown to the War Office!) than the first regiment so it was sent all the way back to North Wales again.

 

  • ‘X’ Regiment, under embarkation orders, was stationed at ‘A’. On its embarkation ‘Y’ Regiment, quartered at ‘B’ would take over at ‘A’, and ‘Z’ Regiment, stationed at ‘C’, would take over ‘B’. Quite simple-to all but the official mind. Instead of waiting until ‘X’ moved off to embark, when all consequent changes could take place automatically, the authorities ordered ‘X’ to ‘C’ pending embarkation, and ‘Z’ to ‘A’, thus giving ‘Z’ two moves instead of one to effect the change-over.

 

  • One Corps on the East Coast had four similarly equipped units under direct command, the first three (‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’) having an operational role on the coast, the fourth (‘D’) being inland in reserve. War Office required one of these units to reinforce a distant part of the country. Instead of ordering Corps to detail one unit, leaving it the choice, War Office sent orders for ‘C’ to go. This meant two moves instead of one-as ‘D’ then had to move into ‘C’s’ role-in addition to the operational disadvantage of having ‘D’ (who did not know the area) take over the role of ‘C’ (who knew the area and their task thoroughly) during the height of the invasion scare.

 

These are instances, of course, of muddle at the War Office, where one department never seems to know what another department does. Believe it or not, a regiment which had been sent to France with 18-pounder guns received a letter from the War Office, sent to their last address in England, informing that their new 25-pounder guns were awaiting collection at the station there. This department had apparently no idea that this unit had been overseas with the B.E.F. for two months.

Indeed, one might think that the War Office was composed of compartments rather than departments. This extraordinary make-up in the Regular mentality is illustrated by a conversation I overheard at a senior officers’ course which I attended.

I arrived early to find two dug-out colonels in conversation in the Mess. They had recognized each other’s faces but couldn’t think where they had met before. They exchanged names, but that did not help. Had they been at the Shop (Woolwich) together? No, on had passed out two years before the other. Had it been in India? Comparing notes proved that could not be so. The last war? No; one had been in France, the other out East. It eventually transpired that only a very few years ago these two had worked on the same headquarter staff together for two whole years and it had taken them all this time to find that out.

The unholy wedding in Whitehall of the Regular mentality with the dead hand of the civil service is the cause of all this muddle. A gust of business methods is sorely needed to blow the cobwebs away.

The Paint Racket.

There are millions of vehicles in the Army to-day. All have to be painted with certain signs. I must not, of course, publish the meaning of these signs. I can, however, say that each vehicle in an artillery unit must display four kinds of signs. I will call them Signs A, B, C and D. About Sign A there is no trouble; you paint it on a certain part in the front of your vehicle at the outset, and there it stays for keeps-though I have never known it serve any useful purpose. About Signs B and C there is not much trouble, except from the point of view of the paint they consume. Each is painted on the front and back of each vehicle; these are changed only at rare intervals.

It is Sign D which has caused all the fun-and the waste. I will give its history during a period of only six months, during which at different times it involved the use within a unit of red, blue, yellow, black, green, brown, and white paint. At the beginning of this period all Signs B, C, and D on all vehicles of the unit had to be changed a long job, occupying much time and using much paint. The next stage was an order that in addition to its existing positions back and front, Sign D must now be painted on each side of each vehicle. That was done.

Then apparently an order was issued from ‘Very High’ that all these D signs were to be changed again according to a new pattern, and new colouring. But the High did not approve the order of the Very High, so did not pass it on. Weeks went by. Then apparently the ‘Very High’ became angry at seeing that this order had not been carried out in some formations. So, the High-on the principle that the driver kicks the horse-angrily ordered these signs to be altered within forty-eight hours. New Signs D had to be painted back and front, and all Signs D on the sides obliterated. Signs on back and front were ordered to be painted on specially sized metal plates, to be obtained from Ordnance.

Ordnance could not supply them within the prescribed forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, the High solemnly decreed that the fact that the necessary metal could not be obtained would not be accepted as an excuse for non-compliance with the order! That of course is an exceptionally bad (not typical) example of the Regular mentality, but it emanated from one of the few remaining relics of the old type of Brass Hat who, incidentally, has now passed out of the Service.

Eventually, all this was carried out. After all the signs had been carefully removed from the sides of the vehicles, orders were given to paint them on again. I seem to remember that in the last war, with a very much larger army than we now possess, we had only one sign back and front on each vehicle. And yet we won that war.

Another cause of waste of time and personnel, and of duplication of effort, is the great Bumph Racket.

Bumph, as you know, is the army term for correspondence, documents, indeed all paper with writing on it. Bumph is to the Regular officer what confetti is to the guest at the wedding. He must throw it around on all sides with gay abandon. Many good fighting soldiers of high rank have tried hard to stem the flood or dam it at its source, but it is too powerful a force.

At a time when newspapers and publishers are strictly rationed, the waste of paper in the army is incredible. The time wasted by the commander of a fighting unit in wrestling with this evil from above is unbelievable. He will frequently receive copies of the same document from several different sources, each demanding a reply. Reports (or ‘returns’, as the army calls them) nearly always have to be sent in duplicate or triplicate, often more. For many months, no less than twelve copies of each of certain routine orders had to be sent by a unit to the same place. Everything is made the subject of a return. In one formation, when all possible subjects had been exhausted, the climax came with an order that every unit must make a periodical return giving a list of all the returns which had to be sent in! Nobody benefits by this idiotic business. Everyone suffers. And what about the waste of manpower in maintaining swollen staffs to cope with all this unnecessary volume of work? It is the Regular mentality at work.

The voluminous orders from above are beyond description. Now the Germans are very practical. In the German Army, the issue of written operation orders is forbidden below Divisional Headquarters, and high formations are limited to one foolscap sheet. Not only is this a terrific saving of time and paper, but it trains subordinates to act on verbal orders, and encourages initiative by limiting the detail that can be passed down. I made a practice myself of giving operational orders verbally instead of in writing; it had effective and gratifying results.

Very well, you say; assume it is correct that muddle and waste are attributable to the Regular mentality. Is there not now a healthy leaven of amateurs who can infuse fresh life into Army methods? Unfortunately, the answer is that they cannot succeed, because so far as possible they are suppressed. A fatuous remark has recently been made by more than one public man that if Rommel had been in the British Army, he could not have risen above the rank of sergeant. The suggestion, of course, is that class prejudice prevents an able ranker from rising. Some colour is lent to that contention by a letter written to the Times some while ago by a certain Colonel Bingham who bemoaned that the non-public-school candidates for commissions were not of the stuff of which officers should be made. Both these statements are, of course, sheer rubbish. That no class prejudice succeeds in stifling talent is shown by the careers of Hector MacDonald and William Robertson (once Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and in this war of General Nye (Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and General Percival (captured at Singapore), all of whom rose from the ranks. Many of the best officers I have known never saw the inside of a public school-and were all the better for that. It is not class prejudice that operates against promotion. What does exist is the professional’s bitter jealousy of the amateur.

Since in the past the amateur has been principally represented by the Territorial, this has resulted in an anti-Territorial prejudice. Now Territorials have in fact proved their worth in two wars. During the last war a document was found on a captured Prussian officer which purported to give a list of those British divisions which the Germans feared most. These were, in order of merit :

  1. The 51st (Highland Territorial) Division.
  2. The 2nd Canadian Division. 3. The 4th Australian Division.
  3. The 47th (London Territorial) Division.
  4. The Guards Division.

In this war the Territorial has done his full share of battling too. In the B.E.F., of ten divisions in the line, five were Territorials -the 42nd, 44th, 48th, 50th and 51st. The 46th was on the lines of communication, no soft job this war. The epic of the gallant 51st, whose few survivors reached St. Valery, is well known. At Calais, Queen Victoria’s Rifles won imperishable laurels. In Norway, the brunt of the fighting was borne by Territorials. In Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria, Malaya, Burma, Territorials fought as units beside their Dominion comrades*

* Since the above was written, despatches from Cairo have cited three Territorial Divisions-the 44th, 50th and 51st-as playing a most prominent part in the Battle of Egypt, particularly at El Alamein. In Tunisia, these same Divisions and also the 46th have won further laurels

Any fair-minded man must admit that, save for notable exceptions during a long war, the Territorial officer cannot expect or be expected to compete for the highest commands, such as divisions, corps, and armies. These posts require training and experience in strategy and tactics, and knowledge of administrative limitations to strategy, which cannot be gained in a short while or by a part-time learner, and which the higher ranks of the Regular Army have made their lifework.

But, as a rule in war time, the Territorial makes a better regimental officer and a better junior commander than the Regular. He has not lived in a groove. He has wider experience of life in general, wider knowledge of human nature. He understands better the domestic and human problems of the citizen-soldier who forms the bulk of the Army. He is more used to making decisions on his own, to using his initiative. He has a better appreciation of economy. Having come forward to serve in the war to get it over, his natural instinct is to put in unlimited hours of work and not be ruled by the clock. He puts efficiency before comfort, the comfort of his men before the comfort of himself and other officers. Some Regulars, of course, possess all these qualities. Most Territorials have them in full measure.

Above all, the average Territorial has more intelligence than the average Regular, more drive. Naturally, the highest Regulars have a high degree of intelligence, or they would not have won highest rank; but many of the lower strata display a lamentable lack of it Though the old bullying methods have generally died out, I knew one senior Regular who employed those methods still, whose violent onslaughts broke the spirit of three promising young officers, and who seriously contended that you can only get efficient subordinates by making them fear you. Is that intelligent-or just crude? Then there was a Regular commanding officer who would only permit his officers to give one of three answers to any question: “Yes”-“No”-or “I’ll find out.” Comment is superfluous. I have digressed. I was dealing with the treatment of Territorials.

In the last war, the Territorial was appreciated and had a square deal. He was flattered during the intervening years of peace. During the early part of this war, during the fighting in France, and during the anxious weeks after Dunkirk, he was treated as an equal, as a comrade in arms-because he was needed.

Now things are different. Now that the Army has been for months on a peace-time basis, with all its idolatry of Spit, Polish, Conference and Bumph, the keen, practical-minded Territorial who will work all hours of the day and night is getting the rawest of deals. All over this country it has gone on.

The following anecdote aptly illustrates the atmosphere. I was dining one evening at a Divisional Headquarters and got into con versation with a young Regular lieutenant-colonel straight from the Staff College, who held an important Staff appointment. happened to mention the name of a brigadier commanding an infantry brigade in the division. He

“A real good chap,” I remarked.

“Yes, very. A Territorial, though,” replied the colonel. This was news to me. I said so.

“Oh, yes, he’s only a Territorial,” repeated my companion. Then added with emphasis: “One of the few Territorial brigadiers left. We’ll have ’em all out soon.”

I may add that the brigadier had a D.S.O., had served in the last war, in France this war, and was a keen, efficient and active fighting commander. The Staff colonel had never seen a shot fired in anger in his life and had never held a command.  Of course, it is really a Trade Union matter. Territorials were welcome; it was their job to give their time, their money, and their labour to build up and train the units which would be required to augment the Regular Army in war. During the hurly-burly of the first days of war of the blitz, of the Dunkirk aftermath, they could be left to do the work of building their units up anew. But that is over. The rebuilding has been done. Territorials may still be encouraged in the lower commissioned ranks, but the jobs worth having must go the members of the Trade Union. Territorial brigadiers, colonels and majors have been side-tracked, sacked, retired, or demoted to make way for promotion for the Regular. Questions on this have been asked in the House of Commons

long ago. It is time the matter was raised again-and pressed home. It may be that the Regular mind is so convinced of the superiority of its own species and the consequent inferiority of the Territorial that it genuinely believes that it makes for efficiency to replace Territorials by Regulars less experienced in warfare. But this may be Example One also be wish-thinking. Let us take actual examples.

Example One

Territorial regimental commander. Twenty-six years’ service. Served throughout last war in France, awarded Military Cross and mentioned in despatches. Actively engaged in organising Dunkirk defences in this war; mentioned in despatches again for this. Now relegated to local defence work. Reason given: he had already commanded a regiment for seven years. His successor, a young Regular from the Staff College, has had no experience of battle, no experience of command, no experience of Territorials. The regiment is bewildered and heart-broken.

Example Two

Territorial battery commander. Served throughout blitz in France with distinction. Formed and trained his battery after Dun kirk. At one artillery practice camp his battery put up the best show yet done by any battery there. Relieved of his command. Reason given: the (Regular) colonel would prefer a battery commander with more experience. Sequel: the ‘more experienced’ Regular who superseded him had spent the last two years at a desk, having never held a command, and rang up to ask for a fortnight’s leave to enable him to read up something about the job before joining as he knew nothing about it. The colonel and he were, of course, old acquaintances.

Example Three

Territorial major. Served throughout blitz in France. Mentioned in despatches. Beloved by all his men. Replaced. Reason given: more experienced officer required. ‘More experienced’ officer could not read a map, had to take a subaltern about with him to find the way. ‘More experienced’ officer was ignorant of the organization of the type of unit to which he had been posted-and was subsequently removed as a failure.

Example Four

Territorial regimental commander. Commanded batteries in the last war. Military Cross. In this war mentioned in despatches after Dunkirk. Replaced. Explanation given : quite fit to com mand a regiment in battle, but more experienced commander needed to run the regiment under these semi-peace-time conditions. Presumably in war time, it is not men who are fit to command in battle who are wanted! The more experienced’ (Regular) commander had not been in regimental life since he was a captain, had never had a command before, and did not see service with the B.E.F. He proved a failure and was removed. There are numerous such examples. I was talking the other day to an indignant M.P. whose son-in-law, a keen and efficient Territorial commander, had been similarly treated.

Is this right? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and results are the opposite to improvement in most cases. One must, of course, recognize that the Army, and advancement in it, are the career and livelihood of the Regular; not so of the Territorial, who has renounced his livelihood elsewhere. But though this may explain the policy adopted, it is no reason why the country should tolerate it. You may think that although the Territorial is prevented from infusing new life into Army methods, nevertheless that can now be done by the thousands of new officers commissioned since war broke out, who are themselves amateurs. Here, too, unfortunately, the answer is that there is little likelihood of this so long as the present system of granting commissions obtains, for the Regular Army has ensured that all candidates shall go for five months to an O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit), invariably commanded by a Regular of the old school, where they are turned out ‘according to pattern’.

How jealously guarded is this right to mould all new of this pattern by fastening the grip of the O.C.T.U. upon them is shown by the story of Alan Lavender. Lavender is a born leader of men. Joining up in the ranks in the old regiment at the outbreak of war he soon won promotion and became a Troop sergeant-major while we were in France. Throughout the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk he performed the duties of an officer in battle with great efficiency, initiative, and distinction, and for this was mentioned in despatches.

On our return from France the War Office invited recommendations for immediate commissions, to be made direct to them; so, I submitted Lavender’s name with details of his qualifications. Back came a reply that immediate commissions were only to be granted in the infantry, not the artillery.

Now here was the joke. Lavender, who knew nothing infantry work whatever, could be granted an immediate commission in the infantry. But he could not be granted one in the artillery until he had spent five months at an O.C.T.U., being ‘taught’ the job he had already proved in battle that he knew and could do.

Apart from the fact that I hold hostile views about the training of cadets at these O.C.T.U.s, I was not going to make Lavender waste his time for five months or allow the country to be virtually deprived of any value from his services for that period. I refused to recommend him for an O.C.T.U., but spoke to the brigadier, who interviewed him, agreed with me, and forwarded a strong recommendation for an immediate commission. (At that time, my regiment needed officers badly). Nothing happened. Weeks went by. Lavender, who presumably could not know enough to become an officer until he had been at an O.C.T.U., was being used by me during that period to instruct young officers who had been sent to me (presumably trained) from these O.C.T.U.s and who needed further training. Then we had an inspection by Sir Ronald Adam, then C.-in-C. Northern Command, to whom I introduced Lavender and explained the situation. General Adam heartily agreed and took the matter up himself. Still nothing happened. The War Office seemed stupefied the O.C.T.U. virus. But there are always outside methods getting things done-and Lavender got his commission.  It had taken six months. He is now a major. cadets are certainly turned out well-equipped with technical know I do not believe in O.C.T.U. training. At these institutions’ ledge, but almost invariably they acquire a wrong psychology

there. An officer’s first essential qualities are a sense of service, a sense of responsibility, and the art of man-management. He has got to realize that his day is never done, that his responsibility ceases day or night, that he must be both father and guide to his men. never A good officer has to work much harder, not less, than his N.C.O.s and men. In the ‘school’ atmosphere of the O.C.T.U., weekend is his own, it is inevitable that the cadet on his first introduction towards commissioned rank, should get an idea that when the whistle blows his responsibility and hours of work cease. And what occasion is there during those five months for him to practise the art of man-management? 

I have had splendid young officers from these places, but in most cases it has been difficult at first to impress upon them that their day is never really done and that even when off duty their responsibility still exists; and they have all seemed quite ignorant of the way to look after men.

In wartime I would send cadets, not to an O.C.T.U., but straight away as officers to a unit to get right at the outset the officer’s proper mentality and outlook, then send them on courses of technical instruction afterwards. In my view, no one should be given a commission, either in peace or in war, until he has served at least twelve months in the ranks, has personally experienced everything that men have to do, and has thus obtained knowledge and understanding of the men’s problems, needs, psychology and artfulness.

And once a man has been commissioned, he must be given a square deal. At present he is not. An N.C.O. or warrant officer, on being promoted, is made ‘war substantive’ (i.e., permanent for the war period) in that rank after holding it for a prescribed period. But officer’s promotions, step by step, can never be more than temporary. Thus, a major, promoted lieutenant-colonel and holding that rank efficiently for two or three years, must nevertheless revert to major if through wounds or illness he is away from his unit for more than twenty-one days. Another petty meanness is the attitude towards officers volunteering for active service in over sea theatres; instances occur where ‘captains’ are asked for it is made clear that if the volunteer holds the temporary rank of captain, he will be accepted for service overseas as a captain, but must revert to his substantive rank of lieutenant for the period from the time he leaves his unit to the time of arrival overseas-thus depriving him of the difference in pay for some weeks.

One great difficulty-for which the Regular mentality is not responsible with which the Army has to contend is the constant tug-of-war between civilian requirements and military require regarding manpower. Obviously, the mines, the factories, and the land must have their proper quota of skilled labour; clearly the Army must not be built up to the serious detriment of these vital services. But what is so upsetting and dangerous is the lack of co-ordinated planning which results in a game of battledore and shuttlecock with the skilled labour of the country.

The Army of to-day is not a force of brawn, but of brain; it is necessarily a body of experts who have taken months to be taught their technical military job. The modern soldier is not so much a warrior as a craftsman.

In the Army you find that after spending months in training men and turning them into military craftsmen, they are whisked back to civilian life again because their services are needed at their trade-and you have to start all over again. The result is that the Army is never in the position of being able to ‘settle down’ with fully trained personnel.

Surely this waste of time and labour can be avoided? The men really required in civil life should be kept there. The men sent to the Army to train as military craftsmen should be given to the Army for keeps. There should be real supervision over the ‘call-up’, so that civil labour retains its needs, and the Army gets for retention men of sufficient brain to learn the job and do it.

**********

Criticisms directed towards showing that there is much to be improved cannot alter the fact that the Army to-day is a fine army, in most respects well-led. Criticisms of the Regular mentality cannot alter the fact that in battle your Regular officer displays the highest courage and determination.

The right of criticism, so long as it is fair and made with good intent, is one of the boons of democracy for which we are fighting one of the rights for which all this blood must not be shed in vain.

ENVOI

So those are the impressions of the Army an ordinary citizen has acquired. What impressions does the citizen-soldier get when he returns to civilian life?

In many ways he gets a shock. In the Army, whatever might be its shortcomings, he got the impression of total effort, of cooperation and desire to win the war. Not so here. He gets the impression that the vast mass of the common people of the land have got their backs to the wheel, their hearts in the job, the will and the desire to win-that they can not only ‘take it’ but give it as well. But that is not the case with certain other sections of the community who think that payment of taxes is sufficient part for them to play in this war. Greed for gold, jockeying for power and position after the war, unwillingness to perform anything other than congenial tasks or to make any real personal sacrifice are manifest in certain quarters. This leads to mutual recrimination, mutual criticism, mutual hindrance. The citizen-soldier returned to civil life gets above all the impression that far too much time, energy, and thought is devoted to people fighting each other in this land instead of concentrating on the one supreme task of fighting Hitler.

The canker is not yet serious. It affects only a small percentage of the population. But it is there, and, unless stamped out by public opinion and public action, will grow.

The heroic sacrifices of the men and women of the R.A.F., the Navy, the Army, the Mercantile Marine, and of those vast masses of the people who have taken the bombing and the tragedies of war with almost superhuman fortitude, cry out for justice in demanding that no personal gain, no vested interest, no petty jealousy shall be allowed to hold up that total whole-hearted effort by all which alone can bring victory within sight.

To end up with a cliché: it is time that ALL were made to realize that there is a war on.

 

WHIMSICAL PARTIES OF GUNNER X.

I WAS talking to the Battery-Sergeant-Major, so did not see the punch -if indeed there were one. But the yell of derision swept my gaze back to the makeshift boxing-ring we had erected in camp.

He was writhing on the tarpaulin floor, gloves clutching his belly, groaning lustily. Neither blood nor sweat gleamed beneath the shock of brick-red hair; indeed, sweat could not have been expected, for the fight had barely lasted a minute. From beneath their lashes, his eyes were peeping to make sure we were watching.

Reassured, he rolled over with a moan and lay still. “Get up, Ginger! Have a go!” jeered the mob.

Ginger was taking no risks. Only when the referee awarded the fight to his opponent, did he stagger to his feet. With a sidelong grin at the group of officers, he limped away.

Five minutes later I passed the canteen. There he was, cynosure of an admiring eddy of youngsters, swilling pints at their expense. Had he not gone into the ring against the boxing terror of the Regiment? Maybe some of these rookies really believed that he had taken punishment.

Thus, did Gunner X first bring himself to notice. Born show man. Incorrigible exhibitionist. From then on, he was seldom out of mind. He had a flair for getting in your path and a salute which brought his thumb precariously near his nose. Were volunteers required, X was always first to volunteer-if officers were watching. He boasted he was an Old Soldier. Indeed he was-in many ways.

All this was just before the war. On mobilisation he took the stage at once.

“It’s my wife, sir. And the little kiddies, sir. They’re being evacuated this evening.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Mr. Mackay will lend me his car to take them into the country. Just a few hours, sir, to get them into safety. God knows I may never see them again.” X believed in the dramatic.

Next morning Second-Lieutenant Mackay complained that his car had disappeared. Three days later, a battle-scarred Hillman snorted into Headquarters with Gunner X. Under arrest in the guardroom, an indignant X produced a staggering mass of documents; one testimonial, from a Hampshire schoolmaster, extolled the grand work done by X in evacuating schoolchildren; another, from some provincial official, lauded the Samaritan activities of X in fetching provisions for stranded families when local arrangements had broken down; a third testified that the car had been damaged through no fault of the gunner. There were other documents. At face value, they almost convinced one that here was a man who, far from wishing to absent himself without leave, was actually forced to stay away, wearing himself out in the public service.

When, however, a week later, his grandmother was to be evacuated, I thought it time for someone else to attend to such matters. I cannot believe that my refusal was the cause of her sudden death. However, I did give him leave to attend the funeral.

It must have been a grand funeral. It lasted three days. That, and Gunner X’s ruse of avoiding P.T. by reporting sick first thing every morning without apparent justification, resulted in the loss of the stripe which he had gained through sheer bluff. He stood before me in the Orderly Room. Tears coursed down his cheeks. With one dramatic sweep, he wrenched the stripe from his left arm and flung it on the floor. “You had better remove the other one, too, X,” I said quietly.

He grinned. “I’ll have them back soon, sir,” he announced gaily.

“Prisoner and escort! Right turn!” bawled the Sergeant Major. Gunner X marched off, a smart-looking soldier. Only as he reached the door did he remember that he had reported sick that morning and lapsed into a pronounced limp. Undaunted, he approached his Troop Commander a week later with the usual tears in his eyes. “Them poor little birds, sir,” he choked. “It makes my heart bleed to think of ’em.”,

“What birds?” “Nineteen of ’em, sir.” X never did things meanly. “Nineteen lovely little canaries, sir. You should ‘ear ’em sing, sir-like nightingales. Forgotten all about ’em, sir, till a letter come from my missis this morning. All left behind in the cellar, sir, and the ‘ouse is locked up. If I could just run ‘ome for the evening, just to feed ’em and ‘and ’em over to someone to look after before the poor little mites die of starvation, sir. But we were beginning to get stony-hearted, even in those early days. The next onslaught was more subtle. fond of dogs. Anyone who knows her knows that a dog is the surest My wife is passionately way to her heart. In those early days she did the catering and shopping for our Mess. Each morning my car took her to the shops, the Sergeant-Major detailing a driver.

One morning she burst into my headquarters in a state of great excitement. “You must let that driver go home on leave for the day,” she ordered, unfolding a pitiful tale. Apparently, this poor driver had a lovely Alsatian. He loved this animal more than anything in the world. On mobilisation he had left the dog with neighbours. Now he had heard that these brutes were starving and ill-treating it. If only he could get home for a few hours to rescue the dog from this torment! “The poor man is heart-broken,” my wife declared.

“Who is this driver?” I asked. “I don’t know his name.”

I walked to the window. There was his red head turned towards me in the car. He saluted solemnly.

I was not surprised when his wife was taken very ill soon after wards. But he was amazed when I told him that the local police had replied to our enquiry that she was really in splendid health. I must say, he might have appeared more relieved at the good news. He informed me that he was going to consult his solicitors about this question of leave, giving the name of the firm. I was not impressed, principally because I knew that the firm he named were in reality the Estate Agents whose board appeared outside our headquarters.

The next round, however, went to Gunner X. Our battery was to give a concert in the Village Hall. On the day before the affair, it was discovered that the promised drums could not be obtained. “What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Everything’s O.K.” replied the subaltern in charge of the arrangements. “X has volunteered to borrow drums from the Palladium. He knows the people there and can get the drums without any difficulty. I’ve sent him up to London for the day to get them.”

There are people who still believe that the ornate drums which graced the stage really did come from the famous Music Hall. At any rate the instruments, which ultimately accompanied us to France, were always known as the “Palladium Drums.”

By this time X had become quite a legendary figure among the rank and file. It was whispered that he “had influence.” Certainly, he manoeuvred himself into sleeping in the Sergeants’ billet, probably because he owned an expensive wireless set-Heaven knows where it came from. Mysteriously enough, he always seemed to have money. He once walked up to an officer, fumbling in his pocket for money to pay a taxi and offered a pound from a fat wallet he produced. I am told he boasted that he was ‘well in’ with the ‘old man’ (me). It was our next concert which provided another minor triumph

for Gunner X. The lads who performed in these concerts worked very hard after parade hours for several days; rehearsals took hours in the evening, the stage had to be fitted up, lighting fixed, props made, countless other jobs done. I therefore excused from the following Saturday morning parades those who had taken part in the concert.

On the Saturday morning following our second concert I inspected the billets. There was X, cigar in mouth, book in hand, reclining on his blankets, listening to the wireless. “Why aren’t you on parade?” I demanded, as he sprang up to attention.

“Excused parade, sir.” “Who excused?” “You did, sir. Concert party, sir.” “You weren’t in the concert party.” “Yes, sir. Managed the curtain, sir.”

On enquiry, it proved true. By spinning the yarn that in a nebulous past he had been in charge of the curtain at some theatre in Canada, X had induced a gullible subaltern to give him this cushy job, thus enabling him to escape a whole morning’s parades. The number of things which X had been or done in his career was incredible.

Shortly afterwards our battery, having beaten the local police at football, challenged them at darts in the long cowshed we had converted into a canteen. Stoves, made from oil-drums, gave us warmth and periodically smoked us out. We had fixed up our own electric light. Feeding-troughs had been converted into seats. The bar was at the end. An old piano provided music of the tin-can variety.

I visited the canteen while the match was in progress, to find the police well in the lead. X was playing. The local Inspector and I were chatting together when X came blandly up with some pitiful tale, asking for a day’s leave on the morrow. I amused the Inspector by relating X’s previous exploits canaries, Alsatian, drums, and the rest. This seemed to cause X huge joy. When I had finished, he grinned and said: “Well, sir, if I win this match for the battery, will you let me go? There ain’t no bunkum about that anyway.” Whereupon he proceeded to pull the match out of the fire and win a handsome victory for the battery.

Somewhere about this time the Regiment was moved from its Hertfordshire station [TOTTERIDGE] down to Gloucestershire [DURSLEY]. As we had great quantities of stores but hardly any transport, such lorries as we did possess had to do the journey several times.

Gunner X was detailed to drive one of these lorries. Had he not been such an exhibitionist, he would have made a first-class driver; but his nature always impelled him to do the spectacular which is not conducive to good driving. Give X a field gun behind a lorry, and he would thunder them full tilt through a narrow gate at forty miles an hour as if it were the musical drive at Olympia. Unfortunately, he only knew two speeds-Flat Out, and Stop. Nevertheless, he was one of those chaps who could get any vehicle anywhere in any conditions; hence the fact that he was chosen to do this long journey again and again. It puzzled me how cheerful he was about it, and how willing he seemed to repeat the journey each time. It was some time before we learned the reason.

This was in November 1939. The B.E.F. had not yet seen fighting, but it was rumoured that British contingents had been sent down to Alsace for a spell with the French in front of the Maginot Line.

On the first trip to Gloucestershire, X stopped at a country pub. The publican was an old soldier whose heart warmed towards anyone who had seen active service. He drank in the tale of the artillery driver just returned from a spell in the trenches way out beyond the Maginot Line. Memories of his own battle-days surged back as he listened to tales of raids, box barrages, and hairbreadth escapes in the maze of woods where the Boche could slip in and out unseen. Day after day those tales meant free beer, food, and cigars for X. He was a hero. That was the breath of life to him. Then came the incident of the thumb.

Rumours were abroad. We were going overseas. France, Egypt, Palestine, were confidently predicted. Excitement waxed intense. Gunner X reported sick; he could not use his right hand-the thumb was useless. When did this happen to his thumb? asked everybody. Twelve years ago. But how? Stories varied.

For one whole morning X laboriously cleaned windows with his left hand, his right arm thrust into the bosom of his battle-dress. Maybe I felt sympathetic-maybe not; at any rate, having watched him clean the Mess windows in this fashion, I called him in and held out a glass of beer towards him. I made no remark as he grabbed it with his RIGHT hand. Gunner X duly went to France. We left him at the Base.

It was no surprise when, weeks later, a letter arrived from an officer saying that X had been posted to his unit and claimed to be a Bombardier and Motor Mechanic, but unfortunately his Pay Book contained no entries verifying these statements. Would I please elucidate the position? I did.

Then came the Blitz and, what with one thing and another, I forgot X. Way back in England again, with the smoke and dither of Dunkirk behind us, a subaltern came up to me with a local newspaper in his hand. “Good Lord, sir,” he cried. “Look at this.” It contained the story of an interview with a soldier. “If ever a man deserved the V.C., it is Gunner X.” I read. I could picture old X, surrounded by gaping topers in the local pub. My thoughts flew back to canaries, Alsatians, drums-so now it was the Boches.

Months later, I had a letter from him. He wanted us to know how, when on the road to Dunkirk he heard the ‘old battery’ was near, he fought his way through the intervening Boches to join us only to find we had gone. Wherever X is to-day, I can imagine the tales he is telling. I know him well enough to wager that if he ever reads this yarn he will chuckle till tears roll down his cheeks, and he’ll show it round for all to read, boasting: “You see, I was well in with the old man.”

***

Why have I started this book with the tale of Gunner X? Maybe it’s because I’ve often said: “One day I’ll put old X in a book.” Maybe it’s because it illustrates the human side of soldiering; for it’s the human side of the Army that binds it together, making it the fighting unity it is. This book is no war diary; just the human story of a London Territorial Field Artillery Regiment that sprang from a list of names on a scrap of paper in May 1939, went out to France and fought the Hun, and came back sadly fewer than it went.

I call it Grand Party. That word ‘party’ is a curious word. Expressive English is built up from slang, and slang is ever changing. To-day in the Army nothing is ‘arranged’-it is ‘laid on’; an Army car is not a ‘car,’ but a ‘truck’; a fool is not an ‘ass,’ but a ‘twerp’; nothing is ‘ready,’ but ‘teed-up.’ So with ‘party’; every experience, every happening, every bit of work or play, is a ‘party.” The fighting retreat of the B.E.F. from the River Dyle to Dunkirk Beach was the party in France.’ For me the birth, puberty, and manhood of my old Regiment have made a Grand Party.  So now for the tale.

**********

II

BUGLE PARTY

I JERKED myself up in bed, blinded by the torch which the Adjutant was poking through the tent-flap. “Sorry to wake you, sir. The C.O. wants you.” “It’s come then?” I asked, slipping into gum-boots. No need to mention the code telegram ordering first steps towards embodiment of the Territorial Army for war. We had been expecting it since being fetched back to camp off manoeuvres some hours before. The Adjutant nodded. “It’s just three o’clock. If you’ll join the C.O., sir, I’ll get my batman to make some tea.”

As I squelched past the guns and across the camp a sentry challenged me. Five minutes later the four senior officers of the Regiment were discussing preparatory orders for our move. We had ceased to be civilians.

Four months before, the bugles had lured us back to the Army. Now the bugles were sounding for war. Ribbons on the tunic we had slipped over our pyjamas showed this was no novel experience for any of us four.

On 1 May 1939 the Regiment had been formed as part of the doubling-up of the Territorials. On that day it consisted of C.O., Adjutant, and expectation of recruits enlisted by the ‘parent unit.’ Joining as senior battery commander, I was given a list of two hundred and fifty names and the assurance that officers would be found. Soon the names materialised into bodies and the grand fun of building Something out of Nothing began.

They were grand chaps. The threat of war was in the air, so the men we got were not the type who join for a uniform or just for the fun of camp; they were men who came forward with a purpose, believing they would have to fight. Useless indeed would it have been to join for the sake of a uniform, for we had none to give them.

First thing was to get to know the men individually-and their potentialities, for from amongst them we must discover and make our N.C.Os. So we evolved a questionnaire, some thirty questions, for each man to answer about himself, his family, trade, hobbies, interests, experience, hopes, worries and ambitions. We then interviewed each man, and systematically began to memorise names and faces, then memorise details of their questionnaires. It would go something like this:

MYSELF (looking out of Battery Office window across the parade ground): “Who’s that little dark chap in grey flannel bags, blue, high-necked sweater, and old brown jacket he has obviously tried to clean up for parade? (He has darned those holes very neatly.) Jones? Johnson? No, Jackson’s the name. George James Jackson. Married; two kiddies, girl aged three, baby boy just born. Works in a baker’s. Previously worked in garages (make a note of that.) Has driven cars and lorries and rides a motor-bike. (Useful.) Made his own radio set. (Remember that when we get Army sets.) Tried out for Fulham Reserves, but no football these days. (Must see he gets a game at camp.) No time for hobbies now, what with wife and kids, and being a handyman about the house, and wages and rents being what they are. Takes life seriously. Worried about wife’s health. Doesn’t mind what job he’s given with us, only wants to do his bit. Make a note of that lad. If we can fire ambition and more self-confidence into him, he’ll make an N.C.O. one day.”

Then we would tackle them with questions. But you must be certain of your facts first. Disraeli impressed his followers in the House with the belief that he took great interest in their personal affairs. The old cynic declared he achieved this reputation by stopping them in the street and asking: “How’s the old complaint?” It was, he said, a sure winner. But you can’t bluff Thomas Atkins like that-certainly not Territorial Thomas.

Training was a difficult problem. The men, in ‘civvy’ clothes, were marched and drilled in the back-streets of Kennington near the Oval with shrieking urchins chasing around and bowling hoops through the ranks, and ladies of the district shrilling comments which the men affected to ignore.

Fortunately, a London newspaper published a picture of our fellows drilling with 18-pounder guns in a back-street amid hordes of screaming kids. With amazing rapidity proper quarters were then found for us where we could have space to train. This was a girls’ school near Clapham Common. (There was great disappointment on learning that the girls were no longer in residence.) Regimental Headquarters and my battery shared the premises with a Territorial Tank unit, our share of buildings and grounds providing ample facilities for lecture rooms, stores, offices, Officers’ Mess, Sergeants Mess, Canteen, gun park and parade grounds. Our other battery was recruited and stationed at Woolwich.

The men’s thirst for instruction was amazing. asking them to come two nights a week, but soon found fellows begging to come every night if we could arrange drill or instruction. We started by asking them to come two nights a week. The problem was equipment. We borrowed as much as possible from our parent unit. Some nights we got 18-pounder guns which had to be towed through the streets to us in the afternoon and returned late that night after parade. Sometimes we borrowed Army vehicles and civilian lorries for instruction in driving and maintenance officers’ cars being roped in for this, too. We borrowed Army telephones and technical artillery instruments when possible. Rifles we got nearly every night.

But mostly we had to improvise. One keen recruit made some amateur signalling lamps; we made our own signalling flags; with these we could teach Morse. Rough imitations of intricate artillery instruments were constructed so as to explain the uses of the real thing against the day when we should have it to play with. Into this spirit of makeshift and make-believe the boys threw themselves with zest, vying with each other to produce novel gadgets which would serve some training purpose.

At this stage there was little of the soldier about them-though all the qualities of which fine citizen-soldiers are made. To say they had no sense of discipline would be untrue, but it was a discipline all their own. On parade, though in civilian clothes, some pitifully threadbare and soiled, they caught the Army spirit from the outset. Off parade they were their natural selves. One evening in the early days I asked on parade for a carpenter but got no response. Later I was wrestling with administrative problems in the office, when a man knocked timidly at the door. He came in, followed by another man in overalls, cap in hand. “You’re the bloke wot was asking for a carpenter, wasn’t you?” asked the first. I nodded. “Well,” he continued, jerking his thumb at his companion. “There’s a gentleman ‘ere wot does a bit o’ carpentering. Didn’t like ter speak up fer ‘isself in front of all them others, so I brought ‘im along.”

If you think that this helpful chap, lacking military experience, also lacked respect for his officers, you don’t know your Cockney. Now for the tale of George William (Gorblimey) Cox, the man with the smile.

I have already said we had to find our N.C.O.s. My eye, searching for likely material, fell on Cox. Night after night he turned up for drill. He had such a zest for work. He had such a smile. He was such a typical, glorious Cockney. We were doing foot drill, when I called him out of the ranks.

“Cox,” I said. “You take the squad.”

“Coo,” he stammered. “You can do it. Try.”

He hopped bashfully from one foot to the other. “Cor Crikey, sir !” he said at length. “I’ll ‘ave a go.” Like the immortal Mrs. Fezziwig, he was just ‘one vast substantial smile’. I won’t pretend his first effort was a howling success.

Next Sunday we had a whole day’s training. Cox was on parade at 8 a.m. After a hard day, he came to me about four-thirty in the afternoon. “Could I go off, sir, please? I’ll be back at six.”

I hope you are as curious as I was. Apparently, Cox had charge of forty cart-horses. He fed, watered, and groomed them at 5.30 a.m., then spent the day drilling with us. He went off to That was give them their evening feed, then hurried back smiling to be a soldier again for as many hours as we would let him. Cox’s ‘Day Off’. That was the type of man we were getting. I think Mrs. Cox deserved credit, too.

Cox has now been a sergeant since shortly after outbreak of war. In charge of his gun, he fought through the blitz in France, looking after his men just as he had tended those horses in South London. I remember his smile when a shell hit his gun near Tournai, wounding one of his men. I can still see that smile as, rifle in hand, he searched a wood for the Fifth Columnist who had shot one of his gunners in the back at Bouvines. I can picture his smile on Dunkirk Beach. And I shall never forget that smile as he said ‘goodbye’ when his 366 battery was sent away from us to Iceland in 1941. Those forty cart horses must miss George William Cox an awful lot.

Throughout June and July, we had these long day trainings every other Sunday. It required much ingenuity. For instance, we had to get into the men’s heads the composite picture of a battery on the march and in action but had no vehicles or equipment to do this with. So, we got out printed cards for the men to pin on their sleeves. These cards gave the name of the vehicle, the personnel in it, the equipment it carried. The men were then marshalled ‘by vehicles’ with cards on sleeves and practised manoeuvre that way. It is amazing how much was learnt. Many made their own sets of cards and studied them at home.

Those who have not been through it can hardly imagine the immense difficulties of training the modern soldier without proper equipment and of creating and organizing an efficient unit with no experienced personnel to assist. But those same difficulties serve a useful purpose; they evoke in all ranks energy, resource, a genius for improvisation, and grim determination-qualities of which the modern soldier is made. Then, too, the exhilaration of building something out of nothing. We had to go through it all over again after Dunkirk.

On these training Sundays a good dinner was provided in the canteen by contract with caterers, for we could not draw Army rations. But we could not keep the men off the guns long enough to enjoy their meal properly. Dinner was at one o’clock, afternoon parade not until 2.15, but those chaps would be back on the guns drilling on their own by 1.30.

The canteen was in what had been the girls’ gymnasium, where there was room to parade the whole battery on rainy days. Many a successful evening we had there-dances, boxing, gym, darts, sports talks; our good friend, George Allison of the Arsenal, talked about football in his inimitable way; Jack Lovelock, Olympic champion, told us how to keep fit. Esprit de corps developed in the regiment at a very early stage.

Uniforms at last! Two days before camp they arrived. On 13 August, in battle-dress and full kit, the battery marched off to Clapham Junction, detrained in the New Forest, swung proudly into camp at Beaulieu, headed by the band. Among the first faces we saw was that of Anthony Eden, in camp with the Rangers in the next lines. Many of us would not get out of uniform again for years.

A grand camp. But the mud! And later, the heat! We were lent guns, vehicles, all necessary equipment, so could train properly and the men seized the opportunity whole-heartedly.

Judged by the standard of guards and sentries, a fortnight worked wonders. Imagine the horror of the orderly officer doing his rounds the first dawn when greeted by a sentry with: “Hullo, sir, you’re up early !”-instead of the usual challenge; by the end of camp it was an achievement to convince the fierce sentries that you should pass.

Which reminds me of the gullibility of the average British sentry. You have only got to crack what he thinks is a joke, and he is convinced you must be all right. When, to a challenge, I have replied “C.O.” or “Commanding Officer”, I have always been subjected to scrutiny with a torch; but when, to see what would happen, I have responded with “Hitler” or “Mussolini” or “Marshal Goering”, I have invariably heard through the darkness, “Pass, friend.”

A true incident, illustrating this mentality, occurred in southern England during the Battle of Britain. A sentry (not of our regiment), hearing steps approaching in the dark, challenged with the usual “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Foe !” came the reply.

“Aw, stop kiddin’, mate,” said the sentry. “I ‘ope you’ve got a late pass, ‘cos the sarge is fair ‘ot on it to-night.” It took the intruder a long time to convince the sentry that he really was a baled-out Boche airman who was trying to give himself up. Actually, I have found in the past that the easiest places to get into unchallenged were Divisional and Corps Headquarters; but things have been tightened up now. We had fun, too, in camp in those last sunny days of peace. In the Mess, the day’s work done, the subalterns in their blues and spurs had to pass initiation in swarming up the marquee pole to climb through the ventilator in the roof, then back through the hole the other side, and down the pole again. Which brings me to the point where I should introduce some of our gang. But first I should mention the nickname racket.

Be it understood that in the Service it is taboo to call your brother officer by his proper name. This being a Christian country, he has got a Christian name. Worse still, he has probably been inflicted with a nickname. So, he must be ‘George’ or ‘Stinker’, or whatever it is, to you. No matter that you have never seen him before; no matter that you loathe each other; George or Stinker he has got to be.

This disease even obtains among Brass Hats, even among Big Brass Hats. It is carried to absurd lengths. There was the case of a colonel whose unit was sent hurriedly from one formation to another during the battle in France. Getting his guns into action, he was visited by a Brass Hat who was Very Affable but in a Great Hurry. The colonel was in dire need of certain equipment, so he tackled the Very Affable Brass Hat about it. The Brass Hat, as I have said, was in a Great Hurry, so, pushing into his car, he replied: “Of course you must have it at once. Get my headquarters on the ‘phone and tell Charles I said so.” He drove off.

The colonel still wonders who Charles was. He cannot believe that the Brass Hat meant the answering telephonist who, when asked if there was anyone called Charles at those headquarters, blandly retorted: “Yessir. Me.” The origin of most nicknames is past comprehension. If you ask why our Australian subaltern Bob Crichton-Brown is called ‘Boots’, or David Mackay ‘Pluto’, or Stephen Muir ‘Fanny’, I simply don’t know. Those names will often crop up in this story.

Cedric Odling, Wykehamist, champion skier, connoisseur of wines, was the first C.O.; Nevill Christopherson (Chris), of the cricketing dynasty, member of Lloyd’s, was second-in-command; schoolmaster Edward Milton commanded one battery, I the other. The first two are prisoners-of-war, recovering from wounds; the third died of wounds after being captured at Cassel; I have been invalided out as the result of a hangover from Dunkirk.

Other senior officers were mostly old soldiers like Tommy Westley (now a prisoner) who relinquished his rank of major to get back and serve as captain. Junior officers were largely recruited from that nursery of gunners, the Honourable Artillery Company. We were thus made up of undergraduates, a solicitor, barrister, stockbroker, journalist, architect, surveyor, civil servant, bank manager, research chemist, three members of Lloyd’s, and several businessmen; a fairly representative body of London Territorials.

In building up our battery I had imported two Fleet Street friends as subalterns. Dennis Clarke (son of Tom Clarke, distinguished editor and journalist), who had already been under fire, getting a Nazi bullet through his hat while representing the Daily Express in Vienna during the pre-Anschluss riots; and Tony Philpotts, assistant general manager of the Evening Standard.

Tony, now a six-foot-four colonel with an O.B.E., became military secretary to General Auchinleck, and later “military spokesman” in the Middle East. Dennis, also a major now, was mentioned in dispatches after Dunkirk and has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia. With his grasp of languages and intimate knowledge of enemy and occupied countries, he could have had a cushy intelligence appointment, but maintained that a man of his age should be doing a job of fighting-and has done it.

Clifford Hackett, first subaltern to join us, now major command ing my old battery, was called ‘Dormouse’ in those days; but he did not sleep in battle, so the nickname lapsed and he is just known as ‘Cliff’. He, with Basil Strachan and ‘Pluto’ Mackay, made up the Three Musketeers. Jack Leaman, boisterous and irrepressible, to whom his troop paid tribute by christening their pet mongrel dog ‘Noisy’. Roddy Hawes, Etonian, imperturbable, only surviving officer of the 367 Woolwich battery after Dunkirk, helped me to rebuild the regiment and is now a skilful conscientious battery commander elsewhere.

With nicknames in the Sergeants’ Mess we find Signal Sergeant ‘Piggy’ West, Sergeant-Major ‘Ape’ Harris, Sergeant (now Lieutenant) ‘Mac’ McKenna, famed for his rendering of ‘My brother Sylvester’; in the men’s canteen, goalkeeper ‘Blackie’ Hyatt, boxer ‘Len’ Hearn, and the rest.

The men had a nickname for me, too, but I could never discover what it was.

So, there is the cast. The curtain is up. As Stanley Holloway says: “Let battle commence.”

 

****

UP AND DOWN PARTIES OF GUNNER Y

ON 25 August we sped back to the girls’ school to prepare for the smooth carrying-out of mobilization when final orders should come. ‘Key Parties’ were already mobilized. All other officers and men were sent home till called for.

A rear party had been left at Beaulieu to strike camp. It was on their return that my attention was first drawn to Gunner Y, the officer in charge reporting that this man had been lazy, dirty, troublesome, the only one who failed to pull his weight. I sent for Gunner Y.

He was the grimiest specimen of humanity I had ever seen and seemed averse to work of any kind. I wondered why he had volunteered. But then I did not know that he was a man with an Ambition, a distinct personality.

In the Army there are many jobs of a less congenial nature known as fatigues. There is one even less congenial than the rest. It is known as Sanitary Orderly. It is called other things as well. In addition to certain unpleasantness, this job involves a deal of hard work, digging, building latrines, making incinerators, soakaways, all sorts of drainage systems. Not the job to attract volunteers as a rule. But to Y it was a Vocation. He had heard the Call.

Nobody remembers how Y first managed to slide into the job, but soon he became established as an Artist, and the usually despised fatigue an exalted post of the Highest Importance. I think Y regarded himself as combining the roles of Consulting Engineer, Landscape Artist, and Medical Officer of Health.

I have said that he was lazy and dirty. From the moment he secured this appointment, all laziness vanished; the other drawback to his advancement was cured for him by mates in the billet. I will not insult you by asking whether you have ever had a Dry Scrub. I am told it is not a pleasant experience. Certainly, the metamorphosis of Gunner Y was complete. When a dapper, clean-looking soldier gave me a smart salute next day, I had to inquire his name.

Thus started the first Up Party of Gunner Y. If he made enemies, ultra-politeness was the cause. Officers did not appreciate having to respond to his “Good-morning, sir” several times each day. If you annoyed him, he could contrive to meet you every few minutes during his rounds, accompanying his salute with a cordial “Good-morning, sir” on each occasion. I remember, after having dealt with him for some minor offence, passing an apparently unattended column of stationary lorries when a loud “Good morning, sir”, coming seemingly from nowhere, quite startled me. Eventually I located his solemn face peeping from beneath the lorry which he was cleaning, reclining on his back.

Rumour said he was a plumber in civilian life. If a drain was blocked, a cistern stopped up, an airlock occurred in a pipe, Gunner Y was on the spot. On the slightest excuse, a whole drain would be dug up for anything from five to fifty yards. Result was always the same. Floods, more floods, then a plumber fetched post haste from the town.

Once I arrived at the scene to find him waist-deep in a trench from which water was flooding the farmyard. Covered with mud from head to waist, he was striving to dam with sandbags the hole he had made with his pick in the pipe. He looked up from his work. “Good morning, sir,” he spluttered through the filth.

The move overseas put the spotlight on Gunner Y. We were short of drivers for the journey to the embarkation port, so Y was detailed to drive a lorry. The column started off at 7 a.m. Standing at the gateway, watching the vehicles move off, I saw Y among the spectators around me. “Good-morning, sir,” he said.

“Why the hell aren’t you in your lorry?” I demanded.

He was bundled into the driving seat, and off he went. Then it was discovered he had left his kit behind. This was rushed after him in a car which caught up the column twenty miles on, kit and equipment being hurled into the lorry bit by bit as it moved ahead.

Some days later Y accosted me in the cobbled street of a French village. “Beg pardon, sir,” he began. “You ain’t going to keep me drivin’ this ‘ere lorry, are you, sir? I reckon I can make a good thing of this ‘ere sanitary business, and it’d break my ‘eart to give it up after workin’ so ‘ard to learn the job. It’s somethin’ you can take a perfessional interest in, sir-not like drivin’ an old lorry.”

The next three months were definitely an Up Party for Y. Every time we moved into fresh billets, up popped Gunner Y with his much-thumbed, much-soiled ‘Bible’-the Manual of Military Hygiene. “Now, sir,” he would say, as we discussed methods of drainage from wash-benches to be erected in a farmyard. “It’ll have to be the ‘erring-bone pattern ‘ere.”

He had his own design for incinerators, very effective. He built grease-traps, dug drains, cleaned out farmyards, constructed latrines palatial ones for officers with straw-thatched roofs and flyproof gadgets, the only drawback being his habit of paying social calls to canvass approval of his handiwork. He became invaluable and developed into a smart soldier who could make others work, so earned a stripe.

Then came Dunkirk. Last impression of Y in France was driving a truck away from Messines Ridge, spade and bucket on the seat beside him. He re-joined us in Devonshire days after most of our survivors. The story spread that he had volunteered to return to France to bring wounded away and had done the journey several times. Certainly, has the guts to have done it-but also the cunning to be romantic.

Then began a terrible Down Party. Living in billets with normal conveniences for washing, drainage, and what-not, of course detracted from the importance of his job, depriving him of scope for his creative genius. Maybe professional pride was hurt. rate, within a month he had lost his stripe. This, I think, surprised him. After all, what was there in just hopping on to a lorry for an unofficial trip from Lincolnshire to the village where we had been stationed those first few weeks of war? Unfortunately, the search for old friends took him to the vicarage where the wife of one of our officers was staying. “Blimey, mum,” exclaimed Y candidly. “I didn’t never expect to see you ‘ere.”

The rot set in. More absence without leave, one petty crime after another, all brought punishments which involved continual loss of pay. He was up in the Orderly Room time and time again. “Good-morning, sir,” he invariably remarked when halted by his escort before my desk.

Strange to say, he seemed proud of these appearances. Once, when I let him off, he seemed hurt. On another occasion, when I asked what he wanted to say in his defence, he replied jovially, “Nothin’, sir. Fourteen days’ field punishment, I suppose, sir.” When this turned out to be the verdict, he seemed proud at having made so accurate a forecast.

One appearance was on a charge of negligently causing damage to property. He had backed a lorry straight into a greenhouse, smashing numerous panes of glass.

“What is the value of the damage?” I asked the witness. “Twelve pounds, I should think, sir.”

Y bristled with indignation. As if he, Y, would be guilty of such trivial damage. “It’s twenty pounds, if it’s a penny, sir,” he volunteered emphatically.

Another visit to the Orderly Room. “Would why you have disappeared for the night without leave?” I asked.

“Yessir. The chaps in the billet was makin’ such a noise, singin’ and dancin’, that I ‘ad to go away to get some rest.” Of course, these escapades became expensive.

The pay of a Gunner is little enough when free from stoppages; crimes reduce it almost to vanishing-point for weeks. I was therefore surprised at receiving a letter from some auctioneers stating that Y had attended an auction sale and bid a large sum of money for furniture which had been knocked down to him. What interested the auctioneers was that Y had not returned to fetch the goods or pay for them. What interested me was that the sale had apparently taken place during parade hours.

This Down Party went on until we went under canvas for the summer of 1941. Then Up went the Party with a bang. Back to professional life went Gunner Y.

A week after our arrival in camp, an amazing but impressive spectacle brought me to a halt. A squad of six men in overalls was being marched along. Three of them carried spades ‘at the slope. Three carried buckets. Left arms swung vigorously in unison. Smartly they stepped out to the voice of the man in charge. “Left! Right! Left! Right! Swing them arms now! Swing them arms! Left! Right! Hold that spade up, you in the rear file!” A resplendent figure in brand new service dress (not battledress), highly polished leather belt, red and blue forage cap stuck jauntily on his head, Gunner Y was marching his sanitary squad off to their labours.

I am sorry to say that Y is now serving a long prison sentence.

In the civil court it was revealed that this is by no means his first.

 

****

IV

MYSTERY

GLORIOUS PARTY OF GUNNER Z [Driver William John Martin]

THE correction of the title of this chapter is no mistake of mine or of the publishers-for this was to have been the thrilling story of the exploits of Gunner Z. In the last war we had the Mystery Ships; in this, we have the mystery D.C.M.s-for which you must blame (or praise) the censor.

Not that there is any mystery to Z’s comrades in the regiment or to anyone who can be told by word of mouth-but, until the victory trumpets blow, apparently no printed word must let the world at large know how Z earned the regiment’s only Dunkirk D.C.M. So, this becomes a problem chapter.

There is, of course, neither rhyme nor reason in putting this chapter out of chronological order, except to demonstrate at the outset the stuff of which the old regiment was made; but, having fabled the foibles of Gunners X and Y, I would have liked to have sung the saga of Z. I can at least say that Martin is his name.

Martin is a sallow, lanky youngster with an apologetic air and a smile that creeps wistfully around his lips. Hardly the type you would visualize as likely to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was in the 367 Woolwich battery. I cannot imagine that he ever brought himself to the notice of his superiors in the early days, beyond proving himself competent to drive Army vehicles. Personally, I had never heard of him until his name appeared on the roll of missing after Dunkirk. The first time I set eyes on him was when he reported back to the regiment after he had journeyed many hundreds of miles over land and sea.

It was at Cassel, twenty miles from Dunkirk, that he took part with scores of comrades in a hectic scrap in which every round of ammunition was used up against surrounding enemy tanks. Of those who took part in that scrap, only three have returned to tell the tale – one of these is Martin.

From them we learned of the seventeen Boche tanks knocked out, of the wounded who went on firing the guns until no shells were left; of jovial, burly Lieutenant Jack May, lying wounded on the ground, singing out his orders until hit again this time so badly that, although smuggled back to safety in England, he died of his wounds; how, after destroying their 18-pounders and fighting with rifles and Lewis guns until no bullets were left, those who could walk made a valiant but vain bid to pierce through the surrounding hordes. [BREAKOUT TO WATOU]

Wounded Sergeant Harcombe, like Jack May, was carried away in the early stages.* The remainder of those in this little ‘party’ were killed or taken prisoner, many of the prisoners (including the colonel and the second-in-command) also being wounded, but some of them managing to remain at large for days or weeks in hiding before being captured. [Capt Coll Lorne MacDOUGALL]

(*Poor Harcombe has recently been killed in Tunisia 1941).

They were marched back many miles, then packed into lorries. Roads behind the Hun lines were jammed with transport. Down swooped the R.A.F. The Boches made no pretence of coolness or discipline; drivers and guards all fled from vehicles to cover, leaving engines running and prisoners to do as they pleased.

Not until long after the ‘planes had disappeared did the Boches emerge from the ditches and shell-holes to move the That delay had been precious to three prisoners. Unnoticed, convoy on again they had crawled several hundred yards to a wood where they lay hidden, gleefully watching the havoc wrought by our airmen. Would the guards count the prisoners before moving on? Everything depended on that. A cursory glance into the crowded lorries seemed to satisfy them. The fugitives split up to make their separate ways to the coast. One disguised himself in civilian clothes but was arrested and identified as a British soldier by the interrogating Hun officer by reason of his Army boots which he was still wearing; then broke away from his captors and reached Dunkirk. Of the other two, no news has been heard.

Meanwhile, on with the convoy went Martin. The prisoners were all weary beyond sleep, weak for want of food, parched with thirst, but fortified with the belief that in delaying the Boches at Cassel they had played their part in enabling the B.E.F. to reach the beaches where the Navy would transport them to be re-armed and fight again.

The Huns had robbed them of cigarettes and blew the smoke arrogantly in their faces.

One dark evening days later the train stopped at a little town. The prisoners had marched, lorried, marched again, and trained thus far in stages. Here Martin slipped off the cattle truck and melted into the darkness.

And here begins the mystery of [William John] Martin’s D.C.M.

 

************

V

CHILDREN’S PARTY

WE were like a band of children in those first weeks of war, fumbling our way through this new world of black-out and adventure. Even the old warriors found it strange, for soldiering is vastly different to what it was twenty-five years ago.

The actual outbreak of war is imprinted on my mind by that first dawn peep at London’s impressive balloon barrage, and by three incidents.

First was the Man Who Reported Too Soon. Bombardier ‘Len’ Hearn is a tiger in the ring (he never even looked like getting beaten, and won the Northern Command middleweight in 1940), a sturdy N.C.O., a good mechanic, a daring motorcyclist who had ridden at Donnington Park, a first-class driver. aggressive qualities, he was very much ‘Mum’s Boy’. A devoted family are the Hearns. Yet, despite his

On 25 August our Key party was mobilized, the remainder (including Hearn) sent home until further orders. Those orders did not go out until 2 September. On 31 August, however, Hearn arrived with all his kit. Someone may have been pulling his leg; at any rate, he had heard that mobilization orders had gone out and, like a good soldier, had not waited for the telegram to arrive. When told it was a mistake and he must go back home, he resolutely refused. “I can’t, sir,” he protested. “I’ve said ‘goodbye’ to Mum. I can’t go back home now.” So, for two days he served with us without pay.

Second incident was the Man Who Wanted An Hour Off. On the first morning after mobilization, he came up and asked if he could possibly have permission to be absent from twelve until one. “I just want to get married, sir,” he explained. “I suppose you really mean you want forty-eight hours’ leave,” I said.

“No, sir, just an hour. I had arranged to meet her at the Register Office at twelve-thirty. I can be back soon after one.” “You can have twenty-four hours’ leave,” I said. “Report back to-morrow night at ten.”

But this chap was adamant. All he wanted was one hour off. He came back without delay, handed in his marriage certificate to the battery office, and went on with his soldiering.

Third incident was the First Air Raid Warning, five minutes after Neville Chamberlain had broadcast that we were actually at war. Some said it was a mistake. Some vowed there really had been hostile ‘planes over Kent. Various stories went the rounds. Personally, I have always believed it was a subtle and effective piece of propaganda.

Putting several hundred men through the process of mobilization in a few hours is exhausting work. Forms must be filled up for each man and sent off to the Regimental Paymaster to ensure that dependants get proper allowances; more forms to the Officer in charge of Records, the War Office, and the County Territorial Association; nominal rolls prepared; each man’s pay book completed, and his employer notified that he has been called up; every man issued with kit, medically examined, and his medical history sheet completed; every man fed-not easy when they are reporting at all hours throughout the day and night, and no rations are supplied. Actually, all went smoothly. The canteen echoed hilariously with ‘Down Mexico Way’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. The only worry seemed to be a general fear that the French might polish off the enemy before we could get out to join in the fun.

The men now had uniform and kit. We had a few rifles and a little ammunition; two 4.5-in. howitzers, fit for drill purposes only; two or three antiquated artillery instruments, some amateur instruments and equipment we had improvised ourselves, some binoculars which must last have been used in the Crimea. For transport we had nothing but officers’ private cars and a few push-bikes some men had brought along. With this formidable armament we set off for the pretty little Hertfordshire village [Totteridge] where we were to wait and train for the first ten weeks of war.

Battery headquarters, stores, gun park, and parade ground were in a vacant farm. Some of the men were in private billets, some in empty houses. Feeding was a knotty problem at first, for we were not issued with Army rations and had no cooking equipment, so had to arrange for all to be fed by civilians in return for the meagre official rates of payment. In the case of most of those billeted in private houses, this was not difficult, but in the case of those living in empty houses, it called for considerable organization and cajolery. Eventually one householder undertook to provide thirty men with three meals a day; the vicarage organized the feeding of more than thirty daily in the Parish Room; here and there, with the aid of kindly civilians, we arranged the feeding of the whole battery. Fortunately, after three weeks we were able to draw rations, build stoves with bricks, make ovens out of old cisterns and biscuit tins and feed the troops in the normal Army way. Officers were also billeted out, Dennis Clarke and I at the vicarage. The vicarage folk became really attached to our men and were very good to them.

The old vicar had been a Rugger player in his day. He had a passionate hero-worship of Frank Benson, a conviction that he himself had missed his vocation by not going on the stage, a remarkable liking for sherry, a bad heart, and the habit of reciting Henry V’s speech before Agincourt on every possible, and impossible, occasion. Every night he went round the house putting up the black-out with countless drawing-pins which he kept dropping.

At every window he would solemnly pause and shout “Damn Hitler!” before doing the job. At the end of it all he would pour out a glass of sherry, raise the glass, shout a final “Damn Hitler!” and swallow it at a gulp.

We filled his little church every Sunday at a special service for the troops. Every Sunday we had the same psalm; he explained it was the shortest one in the book. There was always a prayer for soldiers, sailors and airmen, where he used to get tied up over the order of the three Services-sometimes it became ‘sailors, soldiers and airmen’ sometimes the R.A.F. got precedence. Our subalterns used to make bets, placing the Services in the correct ‘order of the day,”

He was a handsome old boy with a mop of iron-grey hair. Sad that he could not live to see the day of victory he so confidently predicted.

My fat young batman was also billeted at the vicarage. He was asked to mind the house for the family one evening while they attended some village function. Kindly Mrs. Vicar gave him a massive apple pie and a large cake and told him to help himself to anything he wanted. Three hours later they returned to find him sunken into an armchair by the fire, having eaten apple pie, cake, a loaf of bread and some dripping, four eggs (presumably raw), a tin of sardines, and the remains of a shoulder of lamb. “Don’t ‘arf tire yer out, sittin’ abaht wiv nuffin’ to do,” was his only comment.

Training was a most difficult problem. We had received a few more guns-18-pounders and 4.5-in. howitzers-and some second-hand civilian lorries; otherwise, we were still having to improvise equipment. Everyone was keen, everyone worked with zest. From the outset we tried to bring home to all the vital importance of learning to do everything in the pitch dark in silence. We began this training with a simple scheme. Sentries were posted at intervals varying from a hundred yards to half a mile across country. Each sentry was able to describe the way to the next. The men were then sent one by one to find their way silently round the course by following the directions given by each sentry in turn. The total distance was little more than two miles. It was a pitch-black night.

We started them off at nine-thirty. The first to complete the course arrived back at ten-forty-five. By midnight only thirty-six out of two hundred and fifty were home. At three o’clock in the morning patrols were still out searching for lost sheep. Four men fell into a stream. One was found miles away with a sprained ankle, another walked into a tree and cut his nose. Which all demonstrates how difficult it is for untrained men to find their way in silence across unknown country in the dark. training in those early days. Its value was soon proved in France. We did a lot of this night

Another problem was Funds. There are numerous things you must do or get for the unit’s efficiency or the men’s comfort, for which no authority to expend the necessary money exists. If you ask for authority you are told that payment must be made ‘out of unit funds’. That is all right in the Regular Army or old Territorial units, where funds have accumulated for years. But how does a new unit, receiving no initial grant to start such a fund, raise the money? At first everything came out of officers’ private pockets, but we got tired of that. Eventually we found several answers to this problem. Here is one.

Boot repairs were supposed to be carried out by civilian contract at a price not exceeding five shillings a pair. We had authority to find some local boot-repairer, pay him five bob a pair for mending the men’s boots, and everyone would be happy except the men who had to wait weeks for their boots to be returned.

We had two amateur boot-repairers in the battery. I bought tools and leather and fixed up a ‘shop’ in a shed at our farm. They worked after parade hours and were paid twopence a pair. We charged the Government, by debiting our imprest account, three shillings a pair. After paying for tools and leather and the men for their labour, we made eighteen-pence a pair for ‘unit funds’. The boot-repairers were happy, because they were making several shillings a week extra; the soldiers were happy, because they could hand in boots one evening and get them back repaired next morning; we were happy, building up unit funds; and you might have thought that, as we were saving the Government two shillings a pair, the authorities would have been happy-but they were not. However, after much palaver, this ‘unprecedented procedure’ was sanctioned.

As always, one chief anxiety was amusement of the troops. Football, boxing, dances, and concerts formed the staple diet. Our first concert earned us quite a local reputation. Our boys were greatly encouraged by generous actions of friends; John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, impressed with our amateur talent, gave seats at the Palladium to our comedian so that he could hear and imitate ‘Run, rabbit, run’; Strube [famous Daily Express Cartoonist] did cartoons on the stage; good old Stainless Stephen, always a friend to our regiment, gave one of his inimitable turns.

To give more men the chance of a game, resourceful Tony Philpotts invented a weird brand of football called ‘Allee, Allee,’ presumably because all could play. There was no limit to the number of players-sometimes sixty or seventy a side. All you needed was a large field. The object was to get the ball over the hedge at your opponent’s end. There was only one rule-no biting. You could kick, throw, carry, or fall on the ball. You could collar your opponent, charge him roll on him. There were no scrums, touchline, goal-kicks, offside rules, or penalties. The ball was thrown in the air by the referee and the battle began. Real Commando stuff. About this time Tony got his first insight into the psychology of the British Tommy regarding Food. Your soldier will fight uncomplainingly without anything to eat for days; but when not fighting he has very definite views on the subject of food and the regularity with which it should be consumed. One evening Tony stopped a young N.C.O. and detailed him for some minor task which would take barely five minutes. The man looked at Tony in consternation. “Ain’t ‘d me tea yet, sir,” he mumbled. This quickly became a cliché in the Officers’ Mess.

One thing your soldier is very definite about-nothing but a hot meal counts as food at all. In times of movement, when the men get haversack rations of sandwiches or bread and cheese during the day, being given their dinner in the evening, they invariably have had ‘nothing at all’ to eat.

I remember one man telling me quite seriously: “Ain’t nothin’ to eat all day, sir.”

“No breakfast ?” I asked.

“Oh, yessir. I ‘ad breakfast.”

“What?”

“Only bacon.”

“No bread ?”

“Oh, yes, bread.”

“And jam-and some tea?”

“Yessir.”

“Weren’t you given haversack rations to take with you?” “Well, a bit of bread and cheese.”

“And cocoa was dished out to you on the march?”

“Yessir.”

“What’s that sticking out of your pocket?” “Only chocolate, sir, and a bit of cake.”

“If you were hungry, you could have eaten that.” “I ain’t ‘ad me dinner,” he persisted sullenly.

“Your dinner will be ready in about ten minutes,” I said. Whereupon he promptly proceeded to stuff himself with the chocolate and cake from his pocket.

The real trouble is that, unless rigid control is exercised over

them, the men will eat their haversack rations (meant to last the day)

immediately they are issued after breakfast. Those were happy days in that village. I had only one sad day there. The day my little dog died, our faithful pal for fourteen years. We buried her in the vicarage garden where she had loved to chase the cats. Then orders came for the regiment to move to a small industrial town in Gloucestershire, where we were to join the Third Corps. [DURLSEY]

Teething troubles were over. Here in Gloucestershire, we could get more advanced training; equipment was beginning to arrive; impressed civilian vehicles, though of wretched quality, were handed over to us; the surrounding country was suitable for artillery manoeuvre. Expert instructors were attached to us for short periods, our own officers sent away on courses of instruction, and we were enabled to take part in large-scale exercises. Only thing lacking was opportunity of combined training with infantry, the vital importance of which did not seem to be fully appreciated in those days.

No wives were allowed within twenty miles. Knowing both sides of this vexed question, I am convinced it is a bad thing for all concerned to have womenfolk following the drum.

In wartime an officer’s job is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. He must be father, nursemaid and friend to his men, as well as teacher and guide. Their welfare must always be his first thought. To lead them in battle, his technical knowledge of his job must be faultless, and this requires continuous application. His allegiance cannot be divided. If his wife is on the doorstep, he cannot give full allegiance either to her or to his men, and everybody suffers. I have seen excellent officers transformed into just clock watchers when their wives are in the neighbourhood. Moreover, if countless wives are milling around it is indeed a miracle if something does not happen to upset the general harmony. The real answer is Leave. Don’t let the womenfolk go to the men; send the menfolk to the women. That, of course, can only be at infrequent intervals. It may seem hard, but then war is hard, and must be accepted as hard if it is to be won.

The same applies to N.C.O.s and men, but there is one way in which help should be given to enable them to keep in regular touch with their families. The cost of postage inflicts real hardship on the soldier. Twopence-halfpenny is a big slice out of what remains of his day’s pay after he has made an allotment to his wife. If abroad, he can write home post free, and how greatly he avails himself of this privilege is known by all officers who have to censor the vast correspondence. If the same privilege were extended to the soldier at home, most husbands would write to their wives much more frequently. Much heartache-even broken marriages-would be prevented by this long-overdue concession. It is doubly important now that the soldiers’ hometowns are filled with foreign troops who have much more money to spend.

In Gloucestershire the whole regiment was concentrated in an empty factory (CHAMPIONS CARPET FACTORY- now Housing). What a target for the bombers! But there was no bombing in those days. We gave the troops a grand Christmas dinner in the warehouse with gay decorations, Christmas tree, crackers, turkeys, plum puddings, mince pies, fruit, cigarettes, and plenty of beer.

At the Boxing-Day concert I was presented with a mascot for the battery. Alice the goose was a cute old bird, very talkative, and would come waddling towards you if called by name. She lived in the Sergeants’ Mess, consuming quantities of beer and whisky- if offered water, she would turn away in disgust. No other animal was tolerated in the Mess by Alice; cats and dogs were chased out of the place with a tornado of flapping wings and angry squawks. She was a terror.

Alice accompanied us overseas, hidden in a gun tractor. She slept the whole way across the Channel, probably due to excess of beer. The last time I saw her was in the little French town of Bolbec. She waddled towards me with loud squawks of recognition. Next morning, she had disappeared. Our boys were mad with rage. Not one of them would have eaten Alice if he had been starving.

After Christmas severe weather made training difficult but toughened the men perceptibly. Hilly roads were blocks of ice. Snowdrifts everywhere. Telegraph wires straddled your path; poles and trees snapped like matchwood. A rending crack would resound above as you drove along and a huge tree, overcome by weight of ice and snow, would crash across the road where you had passed. In this weather we journeyed seventy miles to spend four days shooting with our guns, which had arrived at last. At the close of this test, we proudly heard the brigadier say he would report that we were ‘fit to fight’. In late January a most curious phenomenon of this war was first brought home to me. One evening a sergeant came up in great excitement. “The King is inspecting us next Wednesday, sir,” he said.

“Where did you get that yarn?” I asked. He had been told by civilians in a pub. this was true. Surprised himself, he ‘phoned the brigadier, who was equally sceptical. Just another yarn, we thought. But sure enough, I asked the colonel if three days later, came orders for a ceremonial inspection by a ‘High Personage’ the following Wednesday. Now this is an extraordinary thing, but again and again in this war we have found that the ordinary civilian in the street gets to know about coming military movements before the military concerned, even senior officers, know themselves. You will hear of another instance almost immediately. This ‘bush telegraph’ is a phenomenon that should be investigated, the cause discovered, and drastic action taken. It still exists and is a serious matter.

The morning of the inspection was icy cold with an east wind blasting over the high ground where five artillery regiments were paraded along a wide main road. I felt jealous of my old friend George Ames, commanding the next regiment, because his men looked so smart in gaiters; ours still had puttees (rather frayed in spite of efforts to mend the offending parts). A famous Horse Artillery battery-subsequently to take part with our Woolwich battery in the scrap at Cassel- was on the right of the line. [Royal Horse Artillery famous for Hondegheim]

A policeman on a motorbike roars up. Orders echo down the line. Royal Salute from the band. The long tramp down the ranks begins.

The King still looks very young; the Queen vivacious, of course, in powder blue. She stops to ask Sergeant Johnson what the second ribbon on his breast is- the last war special medal for the Mercantile Marine. Johnson’s prestige soars high among his comrades. A shy, quiet man is Johnson. I’ll bet his wife and pretty kids read all about this in his letter home to-morrow. Last time I saw them was in the Sergeants’ Mess at the old girls’ school at Clapham.

Caps off! Three cheers! The ‘High Personages’ pass on to the next regiment. We march back-old Johnson a bit more erect than usual, I notice.

So, the civilians had been right. Were they right, we wondered eagerly, when they told the troops we were going overseas this week? That was on a Monday. Not even Corps Headquarters knew anything of this. But at two-thirty next afternoon secret orders reached us. All guns, transport and equipment were to move by road on Saturday with sufficient personnel to get them to the port and guard them on the voyage. The rest were to follow by rail a week later.

First care was to warn all ranks not to let anyone know the port from which we were sailing. [SOUTHAMPTON] Not that we officers knew which port ourselves; but we were afraid they might learn it from civilians. No telegrams, letters or telephone messages must be sent from the port when they got there. I think we made them realize how vital this was for the safety of themselves and other troops who might be sailing from that port. Pre-war selection of embarkation ports had been a jealously guarded secret at the War-house; when war broke out no more than the minimum of persons to make the necessary arrangements were let into the secret. Imagine therefore the horror when news arrived that at one port wives, mothers, and sweethearts turned up to see their menfolk sail. The men had stayed overnight at the port and had been allowed in town on pass. Telegrams and telephone messages had flown all over the land, bringing the women down for a last embrace. Fortunately, that cannot happen now.

For three days and four nights life was hectic indeed. Nearly two hundred vehicles-3-ton lorries, 30-cwt. lorries, 8-cwt. and 15-cwt. trucks, gun tractors, water-carts, and armoured carriers ammunition, machine-guns, anti-tank rifles, signalling and wireless equipment, technical instruments and equipment of all kinds, poured in from all parts of the country at all hours of the day and night. A.T.S. girls brought gun tractors scores of miles to us-grand drivers they were, too.

All these vehicles had to be camouflage-painted, painted with special signs applicable to our unit and formation, fitted with our own particular gadgets, packed and weighed. The last of the vehicles did not arrive until three o’clock on Saturday morning, yet all were painted, packed, weighed, and ready to move off at seven thirty.

We had had so few vehicles that we had been unable to train sufficient drivers. Moreover, the training vehicles had been civilian vehicles, and did not include anything comparable to gun tractors or armoured carriers. The result was that when we moved off that morning, quite seventy-five per cent were driving vehicles of a type they had never driven before, and we actually had men driving who had never driven before in their lives-we just picked intelligent chaps, gave half-an-hour’s instruction, put them in the driver’s seat, and off they went. Incredible, but true.

Amazing indeed, but the whole lot accomplished the long trip to the port without mishap and in France completed four hundred miles to the Belgian frontier without accident or loss. By the end of that journey, I’ll say those boys could drive.

My wife led the column past the starting point in my private car. Then we sped ahead and halted to watch the column go by an inspiring sight, six miles long. The boys were all elated. A week later the rest followed by train morning our womenfolk waved us off at the station. We felt proud in the misty grey of the smiling, cheery show they put up. Some may have had the foreboding they would not see their men again, as, alas, it proved.

At the port Frank Bower, our quartermaster, smuggled his huge Newfoundland dog on board while others diverted the embarkation officer’s attention. Poor Nan, like Alice, did not live long. She caught pneumonia just before the blitz, and Frank buried her with tears streaming down his cheeks.

We were the first second-line Territorial regiment to join the B.E.F. Before we left, the colonel addressed all ranks. Weeks afterwards I was censoring letters in our little French Mess. “Before we left England,” wrote one correspondent, “our colonel said this was going to be a Great Adventure. I call it a Bloody Nuisance!”

******

VI

BRASS-HAT PARTY

I MUST hark back to the last war. There is a reason for it. In those days it was fashionable to sneer at Brass Hats. They joined mothers-in-law, Wigan, and false teeth as the stock jokes of the music-halls. Not without justification.

Kissing went almost entirely by favour, except in the Dominion forces. If old Tom had been at Eton or Sandhurst with the People Who Matter, it was the very best reason for them to appoint old Tom’s son to a command. There seemed to be an idea that a man who could bring down grouse on the moors or outbid his opponents at Bridge had the obvious qualifications for driving the Boches out of France or outplaying Falkenhayn and Rupprecht at strategy. The Men Who Really Count actually believed that Waterloo had been won on the playing-fields of Eton. How nations without an Eton ever won battles was presumably a mystery.

In the pre-1914 Army it had been generally regarded as ‘bad form’ to treat the profession of arms as a serious career demanding concentrated study and continuous application. Happily, there were a few exceptions; not popular, prior to that war.

Good strategists were so rare that if a commander showed genius in one war, he was inevitably given command in the next war, no matter how infirm in mind or body he had meanwhile become. There used to be much sneering at Dug-outs; but the Dug-ins were far more dangerous. The Brass Hat Brigade consisted mainly of tired old war-horses whose star had set, and the Coming Young Men (in late middle age) who had never had opportunity of handling large formations. It is difficult to realize now that prior to 1914 Britain had not fought a first-class war for a hundred years. Zululand, Matabele land, Sudan, South Africa never reached the status of major operations; even the Crimea was a puny expedition. Formations higher than a division were unknown here. How could even the keen and able few master the complicated art of handling and administering large armies in the field?

When things eventually went awry, politicians blamed the generals, generals blamed the politicians. The man to blame was the taxpayer who would have thrown out any government which sought to make him pay for the defence of his country on the same scale as he demanded protection for private property or vested interests. There was, too, a mad idea that a small army sufficed because one English man was a match for at least ten Germans or twelve Frenchmen which was all very comforting, except for the wretched British soldier who had to take on the said Germans or Frenchmen. In the first months of war, it worked out at about one hundred and thirty Germans to Thomas Atkins!

The inevitable result was that we got the Brass Hat we deserved. Greatest of the failings of this Old Gang was their determination to keep each other in good jobs. “You can’t keep a bad man down!” was the slogan. There was the case of the General who went out with the B.E.F. as Brigade Commander. Something went wrong, and he was sent home, where he was promptly promoted to com mand one of Kitchener’s newly formed divisions. Nothing intrinsically wrong in that, perhaps, for a man who has become too old or weak to command a brigade in battle may yet be fit to train a division away from the scene of active operations-though it is doubtful whether he can appraise, apply, and inspire into that training lessons learned as latest battles evolve. It did come as a shock, however, when he was allowed to take the division to France the man who had been sacked thus returning with greater responsibilities. Before long, he was again sent home-but reappeared later at the front in the still higher role of Corps Commander.

These old warriors were terribly proud of their ribbons. Whilst on sick leave I was sitting in a seaside hotel chatting to one of them. He had two rows of ribbons, headed by the D.S.O. and tailing off with a brace of Piccadilly medals. He would puff out his chest like a pigeon to display them to the best advantage. Across the lounge a dear old dame sat knitting. She kept staring admiringly at the Brass Hat’s breast. After a while she finished her knitting and rose to go. As she passed our chairs, she asked the old boy sweetly: “Excuse me, General. How did you get all those wonderful medals?” I thought the old boy would burst. “Good God, ma’am!” he you think? Won ’em in a raffle” he spluttered. “How do bloody Another old chap I knew, whenever he took over a new com mand, would send for all officers on his staff. They would stand to attention while he glared at them through his monocle. Then he would announce in icy tones: “Now, gentlemen, my name’s Blimp.” (That was not his real name.) “There are two Blimps. One’s a nice kind-hearted feller. The other’s a swine. You can have which you like. Gentlemen, you may go.” They would march solemnly out of the room, older ones apprehensive, younger ones chuckling audibly.

The young officer’s contact with Brass Hats was mainly at inspections. Inspections meant Spit and Polish, Eyewash, and Answering Questions-unless you were ‘up the line’, when it meant just Answering Questions.

On one occasion, as a battery commander on the Somme, I received the general of a famous division who had come to inspect us. The men were all paraded, officers lined up in front. The general arrived, shook hands, then told me to introduce my officers. On my introducing a lad who had only joined from England the day before, the general asked some stupid question about how many bones there were for the men’s soup (we were living on bully beef), which the youngster was too nervous to answer promptly. Where upon the general fixed the rest of us with his eye and, in a loud voice which the assembled troops could hear, cried: “Gentlemen, repeat after me… . Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.”

He beat time with his cane and, like kindergarten kids, before our grinning men, we had to chant in unison: “Teach the teachers to teach before they teach the Tommies.” After the war that Brass Hat became an M.P. I often wonder if he conducted similar demonstrations from his political platform.

On another occasion on the Somme we were inspected by a Really Big Brass Hat. He examined guns, ammunition, dug-outs, gas precautions, system of communications; made most minute inspection of cooking, feeding, and sleeping arrangements, smelling the meat, poking the bread, making sure we had rum in store; all without uttering a word. After two hours of this silent ordeal, he strode back to his car. Holding out his hand, he said: “Well, Tomkins, I hope you like this better than Gallipoli.” I pointed out respectfully that my name was not Tomkins and I had never been nearer Gallipoli than Vienna. Whereat he mumbled: “I must be thinking of someone else,” and drove away. Nobody ever heard what he thought of everything he had so minutely inspected. Then there is the classic tale of the Brass Hat who toured the Anzac trenches. One tough old Aussie, who had been out raiding the night before and had been rewarded too generously with rum, had just collapsed at the bottom of a communication trench when word flew down that the inspecting general was approaching. Comrades bundled him on to a stretcher and covered him with a groundsheet.

The Brass Hat arrived. Seeing the motionless form under the sheet, he drew himself stiffly to attention. His hand rose solemnly to the gold peak of his cap. “Men!” he boomed. “Your general salutes the glorious dead!” Whereat the covering was thrown aside, and a throaty voice croaked: “Who’s the old bastard calling dead?”

Which reminds me of the Very Important Brass Hat, walking up a sunken road in the reserve battalion area, who spotted a subaltern emerging from a dug-out without equipment. “Where, sir, is your gas-mask?” bellowed the general. “In the dug-out, sir,” faltered the sub.

“In the dug-out!” snorted the Brass Hat. “Don’t you know you must have it with you. Orders seem to mean nothing to you modern subalterns. I don’t suppose you even know how to put the thing on.”

“Yes, I do, sir.”

“Then show me,” retorted the General. “Take my gas-mask, as you haven’t got your own.” Suddenly realizing he had left his own gasmask in the car, he grabbed his A.D.C.’s respirator and thrust it at the subaltern.

The sub. promptly slung it round his neck, undid the fastener, put his hand inside to withdraw the face-piece. Out tumbled a dirty pair of socks and a pipe-and that was all.

Those were the Brass Hats of the old war. A few were good. Most of them definitely were not. Hardly any were really virile. Now why I have delved into all this past history is to emphasize how different is the Brass Hat of to-day.

Much wild criticism by uninformed persons has recently been directed against Army leadership. There is indeed much to condemn in Army administration; there is certainly something amiss with the mental outlook of the average Regular Army officer; and these aspects of the Army will be dealt with in the concluding pages of this book. But the standard of leadership is high. The great majority of those who have attained Brass Hat rank to-day are younger, more determined, far more virile, and infinitely more elastic and intelligent than their 1914-1918 counterparts and have studied their profession seriously. Despite partisan allegations to the contrary, the generals of this war are alert to sense the lessons of each new battle and to apply them without delay-and if those lessons have apparently not brought forth results, it is not the generals who are to blame, but Whitehall As you would expect, those with the personality to be unorthodox are the best; men such as Alexander, Montgomery, K. A. N. Anderson, and Beak (the V.C. now commanding in Malta).* We have recounted anecdotes of the old Brass Hats. Here are two of the new Brass Hat. They may illustrate the difference.

About this particular general there are many stories. first-class soldier, a whale for work, wiry, ruthless, unswerving in grim determination to annihilate the Boches, unstinting in his efforts to achieve that end. He is in one word-TOUGH Above all, he is a fanatic about physical fitness. Every officer and man in his corp had to run six miles, every week, winter, summa, rain or shine-and the general ran his six miles, too.

The story goes that he was taken to see a cabinet minister one day. “General,” said the Minister, proffering a cigar. “Have a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” replied the general.

The cabinet minister poured out a glass of champagne and handed it to his visitor. “Thanks, I don’t drink,” said the general. “Ever since war broke out I have neither drunk nor smoked, and I am one hundred per cent. physically fit.”

“Dear me!” smiled the Minister. “Why, ever since war broke out I’ve smoked twice as much as I did before, and drunk twice as much-and I’m two hundred per cent. physically fit.”

It was this man who first among British generals appreciated the value of parachute troops. It is said that when in the early days following Dunkirk he asked for parachutists to train with his troops, he received a diplomatic reply suggesting that in existing circumstances with fear of invasion in the area of his command there would be grave risk of some of these parachutists being shot down by

the Home Guard. “Of course,” retorted the general. “But you can’t let little things like that interfere with training.”

* This was written before the Battle of Egypt and the Allied landings in North Africa. Events have since proved the justice of the selection of these names.

He certainly is tough. Now let me introduce two of the best Brass Hats, finest soldiers and grandest men you could find in any army. It is the first week in March 1940. The scene is Ervillers, near Bapaume, in Picardy. Two alert and smiling soldiers have driven many miles to greet our regiment on joining the First Corps of the B.E.F. They are Brigadier Davidson, then commanding the artillery of the corps, now Major-General and Director of Military Intelligence; and Brigadier Pratt, commanding the Corps medium artillery; known affectionately as David and Ambrose.

****

VII

GROWN-UP PARTY

THE Brigadiers appeared as we were hiding guns and vehicles away in the farmyards and orchards of Ervillers, brisk, business-like, and smiling. Obviously, they had come to welcome and help, not to nark and nag, but those keen eyes were roving appraisingly; you felt you could not bluff these men-nor did you want to. They soon extracted details of our history-second-line Territorial regiment, only received equipment just before embarking, reached Ervillers with some drivers who had never driven before the start of that journey. I don’t think they believed these tales at first; when belief did dawn it was accompanied, I suspect, by trepidation at the in experienced material they were getting. Telling us that before going up to the so-called Front we should do some shooting “to see what we could do,” the Brigadiers left us to settle down.

It had not taken long to reach Ervillers. Staff organization of the journey from Gloucestershire had been excellent; no waiting anywhere. On landing at Le Havre we had entrained for Bolbec, twenty miles away, where we found guns, transport, and those who had gone ahead. I was billeted on a Lancashire man who had lived in France for forty years. We fed in a café where officers had their first taste of Pernod, insidious absinthe drink so treacherous to the novice.

Here we had our first experience of a French air-raid warning. In those days there was no black-out in French towns until the Alerte was sounded; there were lights in café windows, lights in the street,

the normal cheerful atmosphere of peace. Then the Alerte! Pandemonium breaks out everywhere, everyone pulling down blinds, sticking up shutters, banging doors, putting out lights, shouting, swearing; no one is allowed to leave or open a door until the Alerte is over; traffic must remain stationary without lights until the raid is over; terrific, terribly Latin excitement. However, as raids were then infrequent and of short duration, it was quite sensible.

Coming from England, whereas yet there were few restrictions and absence of men was not noticeable, we were struck with the more warlike atmosphere of France. There were spiritless days and beer less days. No whisky on Tuesdays and Thursdays, no beer on Mondays or Wednesdays. Basil Strachan and I went into Rouen to the Field Cashier; having done our business, we went into a tea shop. We were allowed tea and rusks, but were told that no bread, butter, cakes or biscuits could be sold on Tuesdays. Later we went to a café overlooking the Seine; the orchestra was composed of women, waitresses had supplanted waiters, there was not a man in the place out of uniform. Trams were driven by women. I went into a man’s outfitters and was served by a girl.

Mourning the loss of Alice the goose, we left Bolbec three days later without regret, particularly as meningitis had broken out among other troops there. We left Boots Crichton-Brown behind to pay for billets and settle claims. On re-joining us next day, he told us that the filthy old château which had been our headquarters was burned to the ground. As in civilian life Boots is at Lloyd’s, he came in for a good deal of leg-pulling over that.

Next night we stopped at Allery, a hundred miles further on, notable only for the facts that we parked our guns in the village churchyard with the approval of the curé, that one young subaltern fell head over ears in love with a voluptuous blonde, that we had delicious omelettes aux champignons and Volnay at an estaminet, and that the inhabitants seemed anxious to get rid of British troops.

For me the next day passed like a dream. A long trek through country so familiar twenty-five years before, yet now so strange. A haunted land. All through Amiens the gamins ran screaming out at us, thumbs in air. Past Querrieux, where Allenby once had his headquarters; Corbie, the railhead from which one went on leave. Kilometre after kilometre of the long straight road to Albert; one used to see the Verey lights and gun flashes at the front from fifteen miles away along that road, coming back from those rare trips into Amiens for dinner at the Godbert.

So, the old cathedral at Albert has been rebuilt. No Hanging Virgin now. Just through the town, along the Bapaume Road, we came to a halt. Dismounting, I point out to Pluto where our guns were in action early in the Somme battle and the spot where I spent months at an observation post in the bank of a sunken road. It’s a queer feeling looking down on the past with all the old faces missing.

We move on again. There, on the right, is rebuilt La Boisselle; the great mine-crater which engulfed the Boche front line on 1 July 1916 is still there. Ovillers, on our left; there were several thousand dead stinking in the pitiless sun across No Man’s Land here in those July days-the stench made one retch until one got used to it. saw a Tommy squatting among these corpses to eat his bully and biscuits after the Boches had been driven from Poziéres ridge; his callousness revolted me-yet next day I was doing the same myself quite naturally.

We pass through Poziéres with its vast cemeteries of Allied dead. Beyond, I point out to Hearn the site of the old Mill, now railed off; it had been in No Man’s Land when we crawled out to it on our bellies in front of the Anzac lines to find a forward observation post. Away to the left in the sunshine, towers the imposing monument at Thiepval. High Wood and Delville Wood are just distinguishable on our right. So, past the Butte de Warlencourt, we enter Bapaume and swing left along the Arras Road to Ervillers. Last time I had seen Ervillers was on 26 March 1918. Not much of it was left then. We had been ordered up to Mory to rein force the quivering line, but found the Boches had beaten us to it, so got our guns into action around the brick dust which had been Ervillers church. It was an eerie night. Chaos reigned everywhere. No one knew what the situation was. It was pitch dark and on our immediate front was mainly silence, with bursts of machine-gun at intervals. Our own guns boomed fitfully. Every now and then a party of infantry would retreat past us. Suddenly machine-gun fire spattered round us from a nest of stables three hundred yards ahead. We must save the guns. One we could not get away, so stripped it of breechblock and sights. It was getting grey along the road to Courcelles and one could just make out the road ahead; those Boches-a small patrol, I imagine-must have been even more surprised than we were, for they let us drive past without a shot. Next day, a counter-attack temporarily regaining Ervillers, we got our other gun away. We found one of our bombardiers asleep in a trench beside it, totally oblivious of the fact that the Boches had held the village round him for some hours. To this place of memories, I now returned twenty-two years later. Our chaps rather liked the place. We had trouble over drink the second night. There was a fight in an estaminet, and our police picket had difficulty in turning fellows out of the cafés. The miscreants were suitably dealt with, and my surprise at this incident vanished next evening when censoring letters in which some of the men described the drinks they had sampled. One man wrote that he had had Dubonnet, beer, cherry brandy, cognac, vin blanc, vin rouge and vermouth. It was the novelty of the drinks and their cheapness that caused the trouble. Selling of spirits to the troops was forbidden. Like all forbidden fruit

The promised day’s shooting took place at Monchy-le-Preux, of battle fame, off the Arras-Cambrai Road. Ambrose showed sadistic glee in bursting shrapnel close to the subalterns so they could get a real view of its effect. They came back with the case of a shell which had dropped not many yards from them, and vast respect for Am brose. Having seen what we could do, the Brigadier said he would ask for our Regiment to be allotted permanently to the Corps.

I was glad to leave Ervillers. It had an eerie atmosphere, like all these old villages resurrected over the rubble and bones of the Somme slaughter-yard, where you still find battered steel helmets and bits of the old barbed wire. Every night as I turned from the Mess into the straight leading to my billet, there was a bent old hag with a black cloak over her head tapping her way up the street with a stout oak stick. She would cross first to one side, then to the other just the tapping of her stick and the clap-clap of her clogs to break the silence in the dark. The first night I said ‘Bonsoir,” but the head remained motionless beneath the cloak. Tap-tap-tap went her stick on the cobbles. Each night after that I hurried past as fast as dignity would permit.

It was a cold bright morning as the long snake of our column wound its way through Arras and out along the Douai Road. Passing through Gavrelle we could see the slagheaps of Lens and the battlefield of Loos away on the left. All along these roads one passed cemeteries and memorials to the legions who had fallen on sur rounding soil.

Douai seemed a cheerful spot, good shops, broad boulevards, odd historic corners. Out along the Tournai Road, an interminable tree-lined stretch, we drove at the normal fifteen miles an hour towards the point where guides were to meet us-the water-tower at Orchies, six miles from the Belgian frontier.

Regimental Headquarters and Milton’s battery were to go to Auchy, close by; my battery was led past them to tiny Visterie, a mile nearer the frontier. We were relieving a Home Counties Yeomany Regiment who were sending a battery down to the Star.

Visterie was like a desert island. No café, no estaminet, no church. Just four small farms and about five little houses. sign of interest was when the old garde champetre cycled through the hamlet blowing his tin trumpet. Nearest place where the men could get anything was an estaminet at the railway crossing a mile and a half away. To provide some sort of amusement at once, we decided to have a concert.

We rigged up a stage with planks laid over trusses of straw in a barn. For lighting, headlamps of lorries were turned on the stage. The boys borrowed old hats and dresses from folk in the farms. We had the Palladium Drums’, a piano-accordion borrowed from a Guards battalion nearby, a piano scrounged from Auchy. concert was a success, particularly with the village gamins.

One of the farmers asked if he might come and we welcomed him gladly, wondering why he was so keen. It transpired that as a boy in the last war he had lived under the heel of the Hun in this same vil lage for over four years. Then, in November 1918, came the British advance. The first night the British occupied the village, they had a singsong in that very barn. The young French boy went to that concert. Twenty-odd years later, he came to ours. I would like to be at the next British concert he attends in that barn.

****

 

VIII

DIGGING PARTY

THREE memories of Visterie stand out in strong relief: Digging. Censoring letters. ‘Flaps.’ However, none of those was foremost in our minds in the first days there. Most urgent was the problem of getting the men comfortable. Each Troop was in a separate farm, with guns and transport hidden away in barns, yards and orchards, its stores, cook houses and office in sheds, with men sleeping in long low lofts over the barns.

Sixty men in a loft sounds uncomfortable. Actually, it can be made into quite a snug home. Electric light was laid on, our chaps connecting up with the farmhouse supply, the only trouble being that the resultant load was so great that fuses kept blowing. We got straw from the farms to stuff palliasses made from cement sacks, but many men would not have these, as it meant they could not smoke with straw about; most of them made bunks with wire netting or sandbags. Stoves, made from oil-drums or borrowed from civilians, were installed. Each Troop bought a wireless set, and we cadged supplies of books. The billet after dark, with stove burning, electric light on, wireless going, and a home-made table down the centre at which the chaps could write or play cards, was not so bad after all, even though you might crack your head against the loft rafters or someone might tread on you whilst picking his way to his blankets. Then came the question of baths. Once a week the men could visit the mobile bath, one of which is attached to each division, but that was not enough. There was competition between the Troops to improvise a shower-bath. C Troop’s was the best, made from four-gallon petrol tins. I have made a sketch of it. If you pulled the string slowly, you got a decent warm bath.

Which brings me to the subject of Eyewash. Eyewash, of course, covers all those extra bits of individualism or spit and polish which we imagine impress our superiors. Some think of it as bluff. Actually, this not so, for unless eyewash serves some definite purpose, either of promoting efficiency or of furthering the comfort or personal pride of the men, it does not impress any intelligent person at all, except unfavourably.

We had lots of eyewash at Visterie. Sentry-boxes of corrugated iron with thatched straw roofs and miniature Union Jacks and Tricolours sticking out of the straw; the box kept the sentry warm, the thatched roof kept the rain out, the flags pleased the French peasants and improved the local entente. Rope fire-escapes from the lofts and home-made fire-buckets filled with water and sand, all painted in the artillery colours. Painted signs all over the place, stating what each billet was and pointing the way to this and that. A home-made plant for distilling water for the batteries of our vehicles. This eyewash impressed the civilians who turned out daily to watch guard-mounting.

At night the village looked like a miniature Piccadilly Circus with illuminated signs, made from perforated petrol cans, outside Battery Headquarters, the Officers’ Mess, and each Troop billet. I was puzzled one night, on passing C Troop’s billet, to see the words CHOPPER’S CHEERFUL CHERUBS’ blazing at me in mid-air through the blackness. I guessed the cherubs were aloft but could not think who ‘Chopper’ might be. I remembered having seen Sergeant ‘Blackie’ Hyatt painting that name on his gun. It was some time before I discovered that ‘Chopper’ was the men’s nickname for Cliff Hackett, their Troop Commander.

So now I have got on to the subject of painting names on things. In the old days the artillery driver loved his horse. The problem in a mechanized unit is to get your modern driver to care for his mechanical charge. You might think it impossible that a human being could become fond of an unromantic, inanimate mass like a Fordson 3-ton lorry, a 15-cwt. Bedford truck, or a Guy Quad gun tractor. Yet these drivers do; and they seem to get into that state quicker if you let them give the vehicle a name and paint it on her for all to see. Usually, the vehicle gets christened after the driver’s girl. The number of Roses, Lilies, Joans and Marys jolting over the cobbles of France was startling. When you noticed Driver Snooks busily painting out ‘Agnes‘ and substituting ‘Yvonne‘, you knew what had happened. Probably ‘Agnes‘ would reappear some weeks later. The guns were given names, too. These were painted on the shield and were usually of the aggressive type like ‘Hun Hunter‘ or ‘Boche Buster’ or ‘Avenger’. You could rely on the chap who gave his gun a name to keep that gun clean.

The peasant farmers, with one exception, were decent fellows and kind to the troops. The only real difficulty with them was over the question of cleanliness. You know what the courtyard of a farm in North-Eastern France is like, with its piles of straw manure right under the bedroom windows, cows wandering in and out; dogs, cats, pigs, horses, and the farmer’s fat old wife all treating the yard as the natural and most convenient toilet, everything being capped by complete absence of drainage and a hot morning sun. Heaven knows why these people don’t die off like flies.

Naturally, we set about cleaning out the farmyards and organizing drainage. You’ve never heard such a hullabaloo. You would have thought we were stealing their most precious possessions. They really liked that filthy mess-I suppose home was not home without it.

To keep the men fit and cheerful during this waiting period we challenged neighbouring units at football, had P.T. daily, organized sports meetings, and took the battery out for long paper chases though well over forty, I managed the ten miles in breeches and field boots without finishing last.

The hours of darkness were the real difficulty. We did a lot of night training, but the men must have amusement. Except when there was a ‘flap’ on, a limited number were allowed into Lille on two days a week, but the train service was such that it only gave them three hours there. The cinema in Orchies was nothing like big enough to cater for the thousands of troops in the neighbourhood. occasions we were allotted seats for ENSA shows miles away, but on rare the men began to fight shy of these entertainments because more than once, after being told it was a show with some big star, they found no star but a really poor programme. Our French liaison officer, [Georges Kemir] a big smiling fellow with a keen sense of humour, gave French lessons to those who were interested.

Our canteen was in a barn, the walls of which were still covered with inscriptions and notices in German, painted during the last war occupation. It was not a cheerful spot, try as we did to brighten it with radio, dartboards, etc.; it was well-stocked, but the men would just rush in for a glass of beer or some chocolates or cigarettes and go back to their loft where they could get up a good fug and a sing-song and write their letters. This was a great disappointment to us, for we have always made a great point of canteens and they have been successful wherever else we have been. I have always successfully fought for permission to run our own canteens instead of having one of those abominable NAAFIS; the men have far more interest in a show of their own, and we could sell cheaper and still make more money for the men’s funds.

Cigarettes were plentiful; in addition to the free ration issue, they were obtainable in quantities at one and sevenpence for fifty. French beer was a penny a pint, but most men thought it undrink able, so, as the price of English bottled beer was prohibitive, your froth-blower began to cultivate a taste for cheap French wines. The parcel post was always heavy, and with luxuries from home added to the good quality rations, the men fed well; the only short age was in vegetables-for some mysterious reason there was a dearth of potatoes, and for weeks we had onions and leeks alternately until everyone was sick of them.

Our Officers’ Mess was in a small empty house we had snaffled for Battery Headquarters. The headquarter staff were billeted overhead and a boisterous singsong would bring the ceiling plaster down into our soup.

Every night, almost without exception, our dinner menu was:

Marmite Soup

Fish Cakes (Made from tinned salmon)

Bully Beef (Stewed, fried, or neat, with onions)

Tinned Apricots

Sardine (one) on Toast or leeks

On Thursday nights when we had guests and drank “The King’, Mess-Secretary Boots would make a valiant effort to change the menu-usually by ordering some of the tasty mushroom patties which little Marie Louise in Orchies would make for you at short notice, crooning ‘Parles-moi d’amour the while. Drink was plentiful and cheap. Whisky five-and-six a bottle, gin the same. (Which reminds me that at the beginning of the last war we used to get pre-1914 whisky at the front for a pound a case one-and-eightpence a bottle!) Through Georges Kemir, our French liaison officer, we got Moët-Chandon 1929 for the equivalent of two-and-fivepence a bottle. Good vin ordinaire could be obtained for eight francs (a shilling) a bottle, and for four-francs-fifty you could buy a litre of some vile Algerian wine called Imperial Kaspar we had another name for it.

Occasionally our officers went into Lille, the Three Musketeers most frequently. The Strasbourg, Miami and Metropole were the main attractions, and for food the Café André was certainly the place. The arrogant behaviour of some British officers-not Gunners, I am glad to say, was fast becoming a scandal, but this was taken firmly in hand by the authorities before real harm was done.

The Mess consisted of a tiny dining-room in which we could just cram ourselves round the table, and an even smaller room we called the Censor’s Department. Into this room all day poured hundreds of letters, all of which (except the few in green envelopes) must be censored. Those who have not had this drudgery to endure cannot imagine the incredible amount of officers’ time it takes up. On active service abroad all letters are rightly post-free. There is no limit to the number each man may write. Add to this the fact that in these parts there was little evening amusement and the fact that the more people a man wrote to, the more parcels he got and you can imagine the mass of correspondence. It was nothing unusual for one man to write a dozen letters in one day.

At Visterie one man wrote to three women every day. To two. he signed himself ‘Your loving husband’, to the third, ‘Your loving husband-to-be’. When, months after our return to England, he confessed he had committed bigamy, I naturally assumed it must have been with one of these ladies. But no. This Gay Lothario had ‘married’ some poor little thing he had only recently met. Yet he was a docile, simple, harmless creature, and a grand worker.

I have always felt how galling it must be for the men to know their letters will be read by their officers and the contents possibly bandied about in the Mess. If the men could but know how officers feel about this duty, they would be reassured. It is far from being welcomed as a means of satisfying curiosity, spying on the men, or broad casting confidential matters read in the letters. Actually, all letters have to be censored in the officers’ spare time, preventing them from writing their own letters or doing other private tasks, often long into the night; the result being that censorship becomes so mechanical that the reader seldom even notices whose letter he is censoring. The idea that there is any moral or political censorship is quite false; the sole test being whether the writer has said anything likely to help the enemy in one way or another.

Officers are invariably conscientious about personal matters disclosed in correspondence. Advantage adverse to the man is not taken over such things. It is true that these disclosures sometimes help officers to fathom what is going on in the minds of their men, but they only use this knowledge for the purpose of help. On reading a disgruntled letter, an officer may send for the man to talk about the grievances he was airing; not by way of reprimand, but to try and put things right, often with the result that the man changes

his attitude towards life to his own happiness and advantage. There was the instance of the chap who wrote to his girl com plaining bitterly that he was not allowed to name his lorry ‘Mabel‘ after her and paint it on the vehicle. Why this had been forbidden, I don’t know, but he was very upset about it. So the ugly old lorry became ‘Mabel’ next day.

There is a great difference in the attitude of the soldier in his letters as compared with the last war. In those days, one read cunning eulogies about oneself-then one knew one would be asked some favour next day; one would also read sly digs against oneself. That technique does not seem to be the vogue this war.

Occasionally one reads some funny letters. I remember in 1915 censoring a terrible tirade by a man to his wife. Apparently, she was supposed to send cigarettes at regular intervals, and the appropriate period had elapsed without the expected supply. After six pages of supremely foul abuse and threats, he concluded:

“P.S. Since Writing the Above them cigerets as Arrived but i send you these Few Words just the Same so as You can see wot You would av Coming to You if you doant send them cigerets in Future oping this Finds You in the Pink has it leaves Me at Present from yore loving Husband Bill XXXXXXXXXXX don’t forget them bloody cigerets or You git wot i wrote Above XXXXXXXXX.”

The kisses seemed a trifle superfluous. The code words ‘ITALY’ and ‘SWALK’ inscribed on the backs of envelope flaps puzzled young officers at first. They imagined it was some illicit means of getting forbidden information through, l was informed that these stood for ‘I Truly Always Love You,’ and ‘Sealed With A Loving Kiss’. With hundreds of letters to be got through, the censoring officer who actually did the sealing seldom felt like doing it with a loving kiss.

The other bugbear of officers was the question of baths. One had to go into Lille or Douai, long journeys which a busy officer could not manage as often as he wanted a bath. We heard of an enterprising civilian in nearby Orchies who had started a bath business, so Stephen Muir and I thought we would try it. Arriving at 5 p.m., we were ushered into the kitchen where four other officers were seated round the walls, waiting their turn. In the centre was a stove on which kettles, pails and jugs were steaming. Against one wall was a gas stove, also crowned with boiling kettles. Between these stoves sat a middle-aged female, rather like a Walt Disney elephant, with a baby on her lap. There was a stench of garlic, and every now and then the woman would let forth a violent belch. Every time the woman belched, the baby screamed.

A few minutes later an officer emerged from the next room. The woman belched loudly, dumped the screeching baby on the floor, waddled to the door, and yelled: “Henri!”

Immediately Bedlam broke out. A fierce-moustached man with a squint hurtled down the stairs into the kitchen and through the door from which the last bather had emerged. The woman waddled to the stove and lifted kettles, pails and jugs on to the floor. Meanwhile, puffing and panting, the man kept dashing out of the bathroom with pails of dirty water which he hurled through the window into the yard. After several journeys he staggered out with the grey metal bath itself. Shoving one end through the window, he wrenched a bung out of the hole to which normally a waste-pipe would be fitted, and drained the last drops of dirty water into the yard. Back went the bung into the hole. Back went the bath into the next room. Amid clattering, belching, and shouting, the man and woman carried kettles, pails and jugs after it. Clouds of steam poured through the doorway as their contents plunged into the bath.

“Voilà!” bellowed the man, beaming at the officer at the head of the queue. “Maintenant, c’est vous, monsieur le capitaine.” After watching this performance repeated four times, I got my bath about seven o’clock.

So, Dennis and I bought a bath for two hundred and seventy francs. We then found that we could hardly ever get the use of our own bath, because others were always borrowing it. So, after some bickering, it was agreed that the bath should become Mess property, everyone would pay their share, and a proper bath rota would be drawn up. Unfortunately, the blitz broke out and the bath got left behind. From the above you might think we did no work at Visterie.

Actually, we worked and trained extremely hard. Training consisted of large-scale Corps and Divisional exercises, of individual and technical training, and of rehearsing the action we were to take in the event of invasion of Belgium. Even though the B.E.F. had spent months constructing defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier and getting to know the country, we were to leave these and take up unprepared, unreconnoitred positions eighty miles away in Belgium on the River Dyle-the French General Staff’s Plan D. We were told exactly what part of that front was to be held by the First Division with whom we were to operate; we knew the route on the map to the area allotted to our regiment; we knew the spot where we were to cross the frontier in accordance with carefully worked-out timetables.

We were not allowed into Belgium to reconnoitre but did what we could to prepare ourselves; from the map we made a relief model of the area to which we were to go and of the proposed B.E.F. front; we practised again and again in the dark the journey along the route to the frontier crossing, keeping a careful check of times to ensure that we conformed to the timetable exactly. Frank Bower missed a turning one pitch-black night and drove right into neutral Belgium-but, of course, was allowed to return. The amazing feature of these night marches was the readiness of railway-crossing officials to hold up trains indefinitely to let a column go through. To my horror I discovered that on one occasion we had held up the Paris-Lille express for three-quarters of an hour-nobody had asked for this to be done.

The main part of our time was spent in digging. First of all, we dug drains, inspection-pits for vehicles, pits for A.A. machine-guns, air-raid trenches, command posts, and gun-pits. Next piece of digging was tragic-the grave for the first casualty, our boot-repairer. Then real digging started when we were ordered to construct gun pits at La Commune in front of Nomain.

These were to be our battle-positions for defence of the frontier presumably in case Plan D was abandoned. So, concealment was of vital importance. One gun-pit was realistically camouflaged as a haystack; another concealed by extending the tiled veranda of a house; a third built on the site of an existing rubbish-heap, the old scrap, tins, and rubbish of all kinds being tied on to wire-netting raised over the pit. We had other novel ideas. 

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

A feature of this period was the Flap, another of this war’s bits of slang. Every now and then there was a terrific flap when the Allied Command got wind of circumstances threatening impending invasion of Belgium. Leave and passes were stopped and hopes ran high. Then the flap would subside and normal life be resumed-until the next flap.

After one of these flaps, we were inspected by Sir John Dill, then our Corps Commander, a business-like man who knew what he wanted and wasted few words getting it. We steered him towards the shower-baths and distilling-plant and other bits of eyewash. He Early inspected everything minutely and was particularly thorough over everything to do with the men’s welfare, health and food. in the proceedings he asked if rations were satisfactory. I said that they were excellent except that the bacon had been uneatable that morning; I knew that, not only from my own experience, but also because I had personally investigated the complaints.

Sometime later as we were passing one of the cookhouses the General turned and called the cook. “Got any bacon there?” he asked. “Yessir,” replied the cook, producing the most tempting piece of

bacon I have ever seen. That, of course, was the next day’s ration

which had just arrived-but the harm was done.

A day or two afterwards an Infantry Brigadier rode past our gun pits at La Commune on a glorious chestnut mare. “Heard the news?” he asked. “The balloon’s gone up in Denmark and Norway.”

That was followed by a Super-Flap, after which things died down so much that we were ordered back into the ‘Training Area’ for a fortnight. I was delighted to learn that this meant the old battlefields of the Somme.

*************

IX

BOTTLE PARTY

WE were crawling through the night along the cobbled Route Nationale between Douai and Arras. Standing up on the seat beside Hearn, head and shoulders through the canvas roof, I could make out the dimmed sidelights of the next vehicle through the mist; behind for miles crept the long column guided by motor cyclists who roared up and down to ensure that no gun or lorry lost its way. It is a severe strain driving at the wearisome pace of ten miles an hour through the dark along an unfamiliar road, and I must soon relieve Hearn at the wheel.

It was then I heard the nightingales through the mist in the woods on our right. My thoughts flew back from France to Penshurst Place, the Derbyshire Dales, moonlight on the rippling Norfolk Broads, the wooded road that skirts Loch Lomond, the winding lanes that lead to Ross and the lovely valley of the Wye. Then Hearn nodded, and the truck lurched before he was master of himself again. Knowing Jack Leaman to be a romantic youngster, I sent back wireless instructions to listen for the nightingales as he approached those woods.

It was a drizzling grey morning as the muddy guns and trucks slid into Herissart. We had had two nasty motor-cycle accidents on the way.

Our Mess was established in the little farm of the maire, the best type of thrifty, hard-working, public-spirited peasant farmer. He and his wife, both nearly seventy, soon showed they would welcome British troops. The old couple, despite our protests, insisted on clearing out of their bedroom and parlour to make room for us, taking their own bed into the kitchen. He was a burly, grisly moustached veteran who had fought at Verdun; she, a kindly soul who looked on our men as comrades of her absent soldier-son and lavished coffee, fruit and vegetables upon them. Every evening after our meal they would bring us coffee and cognac for which they would accept no payment and would sit singing us French songs to which we retaliated with some of ours. Though she never said so, I am afraid Madame Maire did not approve the pictures from Lilliput and La Vie Parisienne which adorned the Mess walls. She was, however, intrigued with the huge cartoon of Hitler (with swastika pupils to his eyes) which Strube had drawn for us with a caption alluding to Adolf’s lost patience with our battery. We brought this souvenir safely as far as Dunkirk beach, but nobody has traced its ultimate fate.

Situated as we were within easy reach of all the famous battle grounds of the Somme, we could now make training more realistic, instructive, and interesting. Each day I would think out a scheme based on memories of the old battles. We would take, say 25 September 1916, the day we captured Thiepval. Before starting out, we provided each vehicle with a descriptive guide which explained the route through which we were to pass, naming the villages and their significance, telling anecdotes about the places, picturing the old gun positions, captive balloon sites, headquarters, trenches, shell-holes and ruins which used to be there on that date. By the time the column had rumbled through Acheux, Hedauville, Engelbelmer, Martinsart to Mesnil, the chaps had got a fair picture of the old scene in their heads.

We would then put the guns in positions that guns had occupied in those old days and describe to the men how the dug-outs were made, what camouflage we had had, how we brought up our ammunition, what had happened to us there, how we had been shelled, gassed, or machine-gunned. actually

We would then take them up to the high ground from which you could see the old enemy lines. We would describe how the network of trenches had run, pointing out Thiepval, Hamel, Beaumont Hamel, Beaucourt, Grandcourt and the rest, and then try to paint the picture of the noise and smoke through which you could just make out the dark forms moving forward to the attack, stum bling, lying still. I managed to locate the site of Jacob’s Ladder from which, as an artillery observer, I had watched all this. I was amazed to find how vivid one’s memory still is after twenty-five years, and how one could still identify the old places without having to consult a map.

Looking down on Hamel and the river Ancre, I recalled the first day the Jocks took over from the French here in 1915. The relief had been carried out at night. About 5 p.m. next day a couple of shots, followed by much shouting, came up from the trenches below. Five unarmed Boches with canvas buckets were surrounded by Jocks, all jabbering and gesticulating wildly, neither side understanding the other. It had come as a great surprise to the Boches to find the Jocks there. Apparently, there was a water shortage in the enemy lines opposite Hamel, but no shortage of chocolate, so there had been a local gentlemen’s agreement whereby the French had allowed the Boches to get water from the Ancre on certain days in exchange for chocolate. When the Boches found that the Jocks weren’t standing for this nonsense, they thought they were being very shabbily treated. I told our boys this tale as we looked down on the Ancre from Mesnil Ridge.

In this way we introduced them to Albert, Aveluy, Ovillers, La Boisselle (where the enemy trenches had been only twelve yards from our own near the cemetery), Mouquet Farm, Poziéres, Fri court, Mametz, Carnoy, Hebuterne, and other famous places. Behind Thiepval there are still traces of the old trench system, fallen in and overgrown but easily identifiable, with barbed wire straggling about and the remains of old tin hats. I could just identify parts of Regina Trench.

One day we went north to where our left flank had halted the German advance in the spring of 1918 round Boisleux, Ayette and Boyelles. At Hendecourt I was thrilled to find after twenty years of peace the actual remains of one of my old gun pits still under the three trees just off the road behind the village.

These schemes were not intended to be conducted tours of the battlefields, but definite tactical exercises, using the battlefield setting to create realism, interest and illustration. We did, however, take the men to two places which had no connection with our schemes. Newfoundland Park, near Auchonvillers, and Vimy Ridge. Here the old trench systems have been preserved, the land having been given by the French Republic to the Governments of New foundland and Canada, respectively. The former is perhaps more realistic, the latter more imposing; each has its epic, there for all to see. The men were noticeably quiet as they came away from these places.

On the way to Vimy Stephen and I stopped in Lens for lunch at a little Italian restaurant where we had the most delectable hors d’œuvre, ravioli and Chianti-our last meal of distinction on French soil.

‘Black Sunday’ I called our tenth day in Herissart. It subse quently transpired that this was the twenty-first birthday of one of the signallers. Whatever the excuse, three-quarters of the battery headquarter staff indulged in the wildest of drinking bouts. At least twenty were blind drunk, two were found lying unconscious under the trees-one, really ill-the rest were in various stages ranging from pugnacity to girlish giggling.

We discovered that the delinquents had been drinking vodka and cognac-drinks to which they were not accustomed and which civilians were forbidden to sell to the troops; so, we placed all cafès and estaminets in the village out of bounds. Next thing was for the guilty ones to have the alcohol driven out of them in a way which would leave an impression-so they were ordered to parade in full kit, steel helmets, packs and the rest at 2.30 a.m.

It was a chilly misty morning, still dark, as we led them off for a route march at a brisk pace, deliberately choosing a hilly course. Going uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, mile after mile, is not very enjoyable in full kit at the best of times; it is even more unpleasant in the dark; it is worse still if your head, stomach, and wind are suffering from a severe hangover-particularly when you have been awakened at I a.m. and made to shave and clean your kit before starting.

Two hours later, when we got back, they were a chastened lot.

Even though most of them must have been feeling like death, I have never seen troops hold themselves more erect or march more smartly. Their attitude was that they had let their officers down and those officers had turned out themselves at two in the morning to take the route march, so they would show the officers they could take their punishment like soldiers and sportsmen.

Army drinking has undergone a miraculous change in recent years. Your real hefty beer-swiller is so rare as to be almost a freak. The average soldier, though not teetotal, is abstemious, and the number of actual teetotallers is remarkable. Given the chance, Thomas Atkins drinks more tea than beer these days. Frequently in our canteens we have found beer goes slowly, whereas bottles of orangeade are emptied by the thousand. This may be all to the good, for the modern soldier is a technical expert whose brain should be unclouded by hangovers. Yet I have always found it is your heaviest drinkers who are the best fighters. Your heaviest drinker is not a drunkard; don’t confuse the two. Let me tell you the story of Sergeant M.

M already had the Belgian Croix de Guerre when I first met him. Whilst under my command he added a D.C.M. and Military Medal. He was a sturdy Scot with a sly grin, and attached himself to me like a faithful dog, always at my side if he thought there might be a chance of danger. This was during the final year of the last war.

Sent to take over a battery which had lost its commander, I found it short of equipment, particularly field telephones and cable. My first sight of M was when he reported the deficiencies in signalling equipment.

“Very well,” I said. “The battery must be up to strength in all signal stores by midnight, M. I don’t care where or how you get them. But you’ll get them. Understand?” “Verra guid, sir.” He saluted and disappeared.

Some hours later I was sitting in our Mess in concrete sub terranean stables which French artillery had dug, when M reported all equipment present and correct. smothered with mud, but happy. He was soaked to the skin, “You had better have a whisky to drive the cold out of you,” I

said, picking up the bottle and pushing a glass towards him.

“Verra guid, sir.” I was answering the telephone and did not notice how much I was pouring out, until I turned my head and saw that the tumbler was nearly filled with neat Johnny Walker. “Afraid there’s not room

for much water, M,” I said. “Never take water, sir.”

He lifted the glass, drained it almost at a gulp, put it down without even a cough, clicked his heels, saluted, and turned to go. amazement. “Could you manage a

“Wait a minute,” I cried in drop more?” I was curious.

Verra guid, sir.”

This time I deliberately filled the glass with neat whisky to the brim. He repeated the performance, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at me, hesitating hopefully before saluting good night. “Good God!” I ejaculated. “How much can you drink like that?”

“I’ve never really tried, sir.”

“A bottle?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” Disdainfully. “Well, I’m not going to waste a bottle on you to-night, M,” I said, and bade him good night.

Some weeks later we had a Minor Brass Hat to dinner. He was speaking disparagingly of the modern subaltern. “Why, they can’t even drink!” he snorted. “Either they don’t drink at all, or else they can’t hold their liquor. In my young days, a subaltern who couldn’t down a bottle of port on his own after dinner and hold it like a good’un-well, he just didn’t exist.”

“I’ve got a sergeant who’ll down a bottle of neat whisky and not turn a hair,” I said.

“What!” cried the Brass Hat. “Not at a sitting?”

“Without even a cough,” I affirmed. “But he’d be as drunk as an owl in five minutes.”

“No, sir.”

“Rot!”

“Will you bet?”

“Don’t be a fool,” said the Brass Hat. “I don’t want to take your

money.”

“A level hundred francs, sir?”

“Right.”

Old M came in, saluted, and grinned broadly when asked if he could manage a bottle of whisky. I handed him the bottle and a corkscrew. There was dead silence as he drew the cork, held the bottle up to the light, squinting suspiciously to make sure it was full, then raised it to his lips. Twice he withdrew it from his mouth to take breath, then replaced it on the table empty, saluted smartly, and marched out.

“He’ll be as blind as a coot,” said the Brass Hat. I shook my head. Just to prove it, I sent for M an hour later. He was absolutely normal.

A week later the Minor Brass Hat brought a Big Brass Hat along.

The Big Brass Hat had heard of M’s feat but would not believe it. So, a demonstration was arranged. When M put down the empty bottle without a cough, I thought the Big Brass Hat would have a fit. “Good God!” he gurgled. “Could you do that again?”

M’s eyes twinkled. “Verra guid, sir,” he replied. “I’ll pay for the bottle, of course,” added the Big Brass Hat

magnanimously, as the second one appeared. M tossed it off as calmly as he had swallowed the first. Now comes the real point of the story. Months later we were

out at rest well behind the lines. One night a terrible din, scuffling

and shouting, broke out in camp. “What’s that noise?” I asked, as the sergeant-major came running

in answer to my summons.

“We’re trying to get Sergeant M to bed, sir.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“Drunk, sir.”

Words failed me.

Next morning a crestfallen M stood before me in the Orderly Room. Just one glass of vin blanc, sir, that’s all I had,” he pleaded. “M,” I said. “You’re a good soldier. You’ve done grand

work. I might be prepared to overlook this first offence, as we are out at rest and you were off duty. But I won’t be taken for a fool. If you want me to take a lenient view, you must tell the truth. Remember, I’ve seen you drink two bottles of neat whisky and remain sober. What you must have had to get fighting drunk, I can’t imagine.”

He stuck to his story. One glass of vin blanc.  Moreover, the story was corroborated by the Quarterbloke and three other sergeants who had been with him and had returned unquestionably sober themselves.

The explanation? It transpired that M, his father, and his grandfather before them, had all worked at a whisky distillery. They had been brought up on whisky from childhood; to them, it was like water. But M had never tasted any other alcoholic drink in his life-and vin blanc is treacherous stuff.

Personally, I have always believed that whisky and rum played a great part in winning the last war. The rum issues were a fine thing both for health and morale of the troops. Unfortunately, in this war there is a Pussyfoot attitude regarding rum; no rum issue is permitted without authority of the highest medical officer on the staff of the Corps or Division to which you belong. In most cases these fellows hold strong views, and permission is refused; in other cases, by the time permission arrives the psychological moment has passed and it is too late for the rum to be of real value. Another grandmotherly regulation prescribes that when rum is issued it must not be neat, but diluted in cocoa or tea-a sickly drink.

Believe it or not, in two years of war which included the Battle of France, nights out in the rain, snow and ice, and weeks in cold and muddy camps, our unit never succeeded in getting sanction for a rum issue. Which does not mean that our men never got any rum. We had some on the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk-but that is nobody’s business.

How did all this chatter about drink begin? Ah, it was the drinking bout at Herissart. Our time there was drawing to a close. One evening the regiment went out on a night exercise. The night was spent in getting the guns into position in the dark some miles from Herissart. At dawn we were to get orders for an advance. We did. But not the orders for the advance which had formed part of the exercise. It was for a real advance that orders came, for the gangsters of Adolf Schickelgruber had crashed into Holland and Belgium.

Off went our advance party to the Dyle. Our main body was ordered to pack up at once and move to Faumont, ten miles behind Visterie, to wait for the hour at which we must fit into the timetable for crossing the frontier between Cysoing and Baisieux.

The old couple from the mairie waved us off with tears in their eyes. Our boys were standing up in their vehicles, cheering and laughing, mad with glee that the long period of waiting was over. I often wonder what those vile Boches have done with the old maire.

 

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X

ARMCHAIR PARTY

HISTORY alone can decide the real causes of the lightning defeat of the Allied armies which led to the disaster of Dunkirk. But history can only be objectively written by posterity when all contributory factors on both sides have been revealed. Meanwhile the inevitable armchair critics have been busy. To the ordinary fighting soldier of the B.E.F. it would appear that seven distinct factors contributed to the extinction of the British as a fighting force. It may be profitable to name them now; for then, as the story of the next three weeks unfolds, the importance of innumerable minor incidents will become apparent. The first four factors are universally appreciated and cannot recur.

They are:

  1. Political

For political reasons, the carefully prepared defences along the Franco-Belgian frontier were abandoned in favour of an advance into a neutral country which had persistently refused any opportunity for reconnaissance or co-operation. This meant:

(a) Lengthening the B.E.F.’s lines of communication, with

consequent added difficulties of supply.

(b) Taking up unprepared positions in strange country, instead of meeting the first shock of enemy onslaught in a familiar area which had been prepared for defence. (c) Operating in areas for which no accurate maps were available.

(d) Thinning out the troops available for defence of the lines of communication.

  1. French Defection

The right flank of the B.E.F. was left in the air. Long before the blitz broke out, many British officers had formed the view that a proportion of the French army never meant to fight.

  1. Too Many Old Soldiers

Before proceeding overseas, some thousands of officers were addressed by the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Ironside, who solemnly declared that the Allied armies had one great advantage in that the German military forces did not possess a single officer who had held rank higher than that of captain in the last war. Contrary to this contention, it is a fact that the B.E.F. was seriously handicapped by its surfeit of old soldiers. Every officer of general rank and most officers of field rank had served in the last war and the habits of trench warfare were ingrained in them. Although for months before the blitz the B.E.F. had been rightly trained on the lines of ‘defence in depth’, yet when battle broke in Belgium last-war ideas prevailed and all this sound training was thrown to the winds.

  1. Lack of Equipment

This is too well-known to merit comment. Yet even now some may be surprised to read of the position regarding ammunition for the infantry’s mortars. The next, and last, three factors are the three which the next few chapters will illustrate and emphasize.

They are:

  1. Fifth Column
  2. Bad Intelligence training and discipline
  3. Absence of Civilian Control

These three are bracketed together because a successful Fifth Column is impossible without the other two.

The principal aims of Fifth Columnists are, of course:

(a) Diversion of Troops and Supplies and Creation of Panic, Sabotage, Rumours by Bogus Orders

(c) Guerrilla activities in rear of the army. Strict civilian control of the movement of the population will prevent this to a large extent. The activities of the few who manage to circumvent this control will be frustrated by good intelligence discipline, by which is meant the alertness to sift fact from rumour and the self-restraint to act on nothing but fact.

It will be seen how greatly the B.E.F. was hampered by these last factors. Lack of intelligence discipline allowed the spread of all sorts of rumours and bogus orders which thickened the fog of war, diverted energy and manpower to needless tasks, added unduly to the nerve-strain of battle. Absence of civilian control led to obstruction of military movement by refugees, animals, lunatics, and in other ways; to difficulty in identifying bona fide citizens from enemy agents; to diversion of military personnel from purely military tasks.

Invasion of our own homeland may yet come one day. To prevent our armed forces from facing these same difficulties again, the Invasion Committees, Civil Defence, and police will then have an important part to play.

Now to pick up the threads of the tale.

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XI

ADVANCE PARTY

“BATTERY Routine Orders will cease to be issued from to-day. The Battery Commander therefore takes this opportunity of wishing all ranks good luck.”

I dictated this last routine order on 11 May, sitting on the grass by my truck in the orchard at Faumont. By a freak of memory, I can recall that it was Order No. 770 of 1940. In fact, it was to be the last Battery Routine Order I was ever to dictate, for when the time came for return to such things, I had ceased to be a battery commander and was commanding the regiment.

What a change in the general atmosphere those last twenty-four hours had wrought. Now guns and vehicles were really hidden away. Anti-aircraft machine-guns were alertly manned. There was a real attempt to avoid conspicuous movement in the open. There seemed to be a real purpose behind everything at last. Inscriptions like ‘Non-Stop to Berlin’ appeared in chalk on the lorries. Even the men’s salutes seemed to take on more meaning.

We were to move up through Tournai, Nederbrackel and Ninove to Brussels, on the outskirts of which our guides would be waiting to lead us through the maze of the city to the gun positions which by then our advance party would have reconnoitred, covering the river Dyle to the south of Louvain.

This sounds easy, but circumstances combined to make it formidable. The first, more difficult, half of this long journey was to be carried out in the dark. No headlights were permitted. Side lights were drastically masked to allow no more than a pinpoint of light – useful as a warning to oncoming traffic, but useless to the driver himself. Add to this the fact that the march-table of the division was naturally so worked out that it was essential for the leading vehicle of each unit to pass certain points at certain exact times and for the last vehicle of each unit to be clear of those points by specified times. It is not easy to keep strictly to a rigid timetable with the whole of your six-mile-long column in the dark with seriously inaccurate maps along strange roads for a hundred miles, particularly if there is hostile interference.

True, we were told we should find balissage-blue lights by the roadside-to guide us, and that there would be traffic-control posts to assist us, but I was not sanguine about this. As things turned out, my pessimism was justified about the balissage, for the only blue lights we saw were in Tournai; but there certainly were some traffic control posts at intervals of many miles.

Our immediate problem was so to time things as to pass the official starting point beyond Cysoing, ten miles away, at exactly the right moment. We were due there at nine minutes before midnight. Throughout the day our motto was ‘rest and good food for all ranks’. The men were made to lie down and rest, and we stuffed as much food into them as we could lay our hands on; containers of hot tea were prepared and distributed among vehicles so that every part of the column would find tea within easy access during halts. That afternoon the men produced the most enormous batch of letters for censoring that I have ever seen.

At 9.45 p.m. Dennis, Cliff, Basil, Peter, Jack, Boots, Harry and myself drank a final toast in the café where we had made our Mess. Stephen and Pluto had gone with the advance party. At 10.30 p.m. we moved off in silence and almost impenetrable darkness. Ahead the Boches were dropping bombs; obviously after Divisional Headquarters, which had been in the next village, but the birds had flown. There was considerable air activity all around.

Through Bersée-Pont à Marcq-Templeuve-we crawled; the long curving road-woods on either side-then Cysoing. Going through the main street, I was stopped by a blue light swinging to and fro. The control post for the starting point. I looked at the luminous hands of my watch. We were ten seconds before time.

“Serial number ten?” asked a voice. Two staff officers stepped up to my truck as I responded in the affirmative.

“You are the – Field Regiment?” Again, I assented. “Shan’t keep you waiting long,” continued the voice. “The unit ahead of you is clear.” He disappeared. His companion made conversation during his absence. “Bit of a bombing party been going on-not much though. You should have quite a cushy trip. O.K. for whisky? Have a nip out of my flask, sir?”

His senior returned at that moment. “Right oh, sir! Off you go! Good luck!”

“Cheerioh!” I re-joined, and the column moved on. Ten minutes later we were over the frontier into Belgium.

Everything was peaceful, silent, and lonely all the way to Tournai. The city seemed deserted as we wound our way through its gloom. We had just passed the last houses when a figure sprang out of the darkness, waving a blue light. “Traffic control, sir!” “Serial number ten,” I said.

He shone a torch on the signs on my vehicle to check this statement, then stepped up to me. “Keep a good look-out, sir,” he warned mysteriously. “They’ve been dropping them for the last

half-hour a mile or two up the road.” “Dropping what?” I asked. “Bombs?”

“Parachutists,” he replied, as though imparting a great secret. I confess I believed him at the time. I sent a despatch rider back along the column warning everybody, and for the next few miles stood up on my seat peering out of the roof with Hearn’s rifle in my hand, the boys in the back of the truck doing the same towards the rear. I am quite convinced now that no parachutist was ever dropped in those parts that night. This was the first instance of the wild statements and bad intelligence discipline which were to characterize this campaign.

Now comes the greyness that precedes the dawn; the first pink blush; the splash of orange. It is really cold as I stand up gazing back at the column creeping inexorably over the pavés towards whatever fate may lie ahead. Vehicles are travelling at intervals of one hundred yards, but I can count more than twenty in sight along this stretch.

The whistle and thud of bombs sounds away to our front as we near Nederbrackel. A traffic-control post is in sight; the man on duty steps out to ask the usual questions and to warn us that they are bombing the town ahead. But it is obvious that, despite his warning, nothing is really going on there now, so we ignore it.

As we enter the town, one house on the left is wrecked and smoking. We are held up in the main street, so I walk ahead to explore; we have landed on the tail of the unit which crossed the frontier before us; they are held up while British and Belgian soldiers clear the blockage caused by fallen debris and a traffic accident at the cross-roads. It is still early and there are no civilians about yet, but we are passed by hordes of Belgian reservists on cycles, pedalling their way to the depots to which mobilization -orders have recalled them.

The column moves on. Near Ninove we have a halt. In front everything is held up again. We have passed numerous lorries overturned in ditches; the strain of this long advance in the dark was bound to tell on some drivers. I thank our stars that we have given our men such intensive training in this sort of thing, for not a truck of ours is lost.

The civilians are coming to life. Out from the houses they trickle with jugs of coffee, cakes, buns and cigarettes. In these parts at any rate the Belgian folk seem glad to see us. I notice one of our toughest guys, dirty, unshaven, with Balaclava helmet over his ears, pluck a howling infant from its mother’s arms and wheedle it into a smile. Call it tact, cunning, propaganda, or just honest British nature, what you will; at any rate, out come more cakes, more coffee, and some wine. Girls crowd round the vehicles, point o ‘Mary’, ‘Maisie’, and other names on them, asking what they mean. There is much giggling, gesticulation and what not. The women are jabbering Flemish, our boys shouting a medley of Cockney, Lancashire, Scotch and pidgin French. Why do they think it is so much easier to make a foreigner understand if you shout? Nobody understands a word. Perhaps that’s why they are such good friends.

The column ahead of us is moving off. I give the signal. Men scamper across the road, there is a lot of waving, shrill cries, saucy remarks and whistles-and the miles of road slide by again. Four Hun ‘planes make towards us from the east, flying at a thousand feet. Machine-gunners get a thrill, but are doomed to disappointment, for the machines veer off without coming within range. An argument in the back of my truck about the make of ‘plane nearly leads to blows.

Ahead lie the suburbs of Brussels. A mile or so in front I can see traffic turning to the left. A truck is waiting at the road junction. I snap my field-glasses to my eyes. Yes, it is Stephen. I wave. The sun glints on his glasses now. He recognizes me in my red and blue forage cap. His truck pulls off the grass verge and shoots towards us. There was no time to swap stories. “I am leading you right through the city to a suburb on the far side called St. Antoine,” said Stephen. “There is plenty of cover there for guns and trucks while the men get a meal. I’ll tell you the rest of the programme when we get there.” I had not seen Brussels since being a student there twenty-eight years before. Would we go down the Avenue Louise, past the Rue Defacz, where my digs had been?

All along the narrow streets of the outer suburbs gamins ran shrieking beside the column. Men stood in doorways and lounged about the pavements. Many cheered and waved spontaneously, many more waved in response to our salutes and smiles, some stood scowling sullenly. Windows were flung open for women and girls to look down on the scene; there was no doubt where their sympathies lay.

Suburbs widened into boulevards. We were approaching the centre of the city. Suddenly the storm broke. Like the Battle of Flowers at Nice. Women dashed out with garlands which they slung across the bonnets of the trucks. Flowers were hurled into the vehicles, on to their roofs, and at the men. Posies were lobbed on to the laps of drivers. In a few moments, the whole column was one moving mass of colour; you could not see guns for flowers and evergreens. Here, in the city’s centre, the people were wild with enthusiasm. I learned later that, although isolated parties had gone this way, we were the first column to pass through the heart of Brussels. On we rolled into the wealthy suburbs of the east, to St. Antoine. A spacious boulevard wound its way down the hill overlooking a wide expanse of lake beyond which a monastery perched upon a knoll. On the other side of the highway, dividing it from walled-in mansions, was a double line of massive chestnuts completely roofing the ground between. Into this avenue, under its chestnut canopy, we drove the regiment’s horde of guns, lorries, watercarts, wireless trucks and armoured carriers. Strong guards were posted. The advance party had already got dinner under way in vacant Belgian barracks close at hand.

It was then for the first time that we sensed the uncanny Men kept atmosphere of the Fifth Column. Within seconds of our arrival, we were hemmed in by a seething mass of civilians. Some no doubt were patriotic citizens. Many most certainly were not. sidling up, or approaching boldly, asking questions which, of course, we did not answer. Others tried to peer into the vehicles or hung around the guns. Some kept watching the sky. Every now and then some man would whisper to you: “Monsieur, you see that fellow over there the one in the black hat and dark brown suit? Do not tell him anything, monsieur-he is agent allemande.” Almost invariably the man indicated would come up to you later and say: “Monsieur le commandant, that man who was speaking to you just now-take care-I warn you!” And so it went on. We roped off the avenue, but they keep milling around and idling about, and our work was cut out preventing them from getting near the vehicles. I was afraid of slashed tyres, punctured petrol tanks-and, of course, we made a glorious target for ‘planes which had been warned of our hiding-place. There was a sinister atmosphere of hovering.

“Stephen,” I said to Muir. “I don’t like these vultures. We’ll get everything away from here as soon as we can.” Colonel [Odling] was of the same mind, but we would not be allowed to move for about three hours.

I found the Stephen had arranged for me to get a bath at the place where he had snatched some sleep whilst awaiting our arrival. The owner of the flat, over his lingerie shop, was hospitable and not the least bit anti-British, but it was easy to see how far Fifth Column propaganda had succeeded. He was quite philosophical. “You cannot help it, monsieur. Nothing can be done against these Boches.” shoulders shrugged indifferently. “You British fight well, but the Boches will be here in five days. In five days, I tell you. I began to argue, but he would have none of it. Moreover, he was quite resigned. “They did not treat us so badly after all in the last war, once things settled down,” he said. “It would be a great pity to have fighting round this beautiful city.”

I asked him if he meant he wanted the Boches in Brussels. “No, no,” he whispered, peering around him nervously. “But you cannot stop them here in Belgium. They are too strong. Let the fighting be on French soil. That is better.”

I was shown the bathroom. There was a metal bath, under which was a gas burner. The bath was full; the water would be hot in five minutes, I was told. After this interval, I put my finger in the water. It was cold. Five minutes later, it was still cold. Ten minutes later, no better. Fed up, I jumped into the cold water, only to leap out again with a yell. The water was cold, but the bottom of the bath was red-hot. I turned off the gas, let the metal cool, had a cold bath and shave, then made my way back to the Avenue of the Vultures.

Towards evening we set off on the final stage. Of the move into our gun positions there is little of interest to record. It is, however, worth noting that my friend of the lingerie shop and the bath was uncannily correct; the Boches were in Brussels in exactly five days. Moreover, the Avenue of the Vultures was savagely bombed by low-flying aircraft within half-an-hour of our having cleared out.

******

XII

SHOOTING PARTY

UNTIL he has seen his troops in battle, there is always one thing in the mind of every commander of whatever grade; the question of how his officers and men will react, collectively and individually, under fire. He seldom has to worry about collective reaction. But in the case of individuals he may get surprises; he may find some he thought the best are not so outstanding in leadership as he expected, whereas some whom he regarded as lacking drive or personality find both in action. He watches them all closely during their baptism of fire.

Ours came early next morning, a lovely sunny morning, in the form of a swoop of ‘planes from the blue, dive-bombing, incendiaries, and machine-gunning.

I was shaving at the time, but got three distinct impressions. First was Jack Leaman’s laugh, followed by unprintable descriptions of the enemy. Second was fat old Peter Booth glaring angrily at an incendiary which had dropped between his legs, growling: “What bloody sauce!” Third was a Lewis-gunner blazing away at a dive bomber which seemed to be making straight for him.

Greenhouses in a neighbouring nursery-garden were destroyed, bushes set on fire, two bombs fell beside the command-post but failed to explode, one small house damaged, some tiles and windows on other houses shattered, a cow killed by machine-gun fire near our guns; military casualties-military damage-NIL.

The effect of the enemy’s effort had been of threefold benefit to us. It had reassured me as to the calibre of my boys; it had given the men confidence in their officers; it had aroused their fighting spirit by stirring up hatred of the Hun, for the sole human casualty had been a little girl of twelve or so who, with other refugees, was trudging wearily along the road clutching a doll. Our chaps were soon to have satisfaction; for that very day our guns were to be the first in the B.E.F. to open fire on the Boches in this war.

Our 366 battery was at Smeisberg, a tiny pocket of cottages. [Near Huldenberg] When we arrived, there were a few civilians, but these soon fled, taking with them nothing but bedding and mattresses piled on wheelbarrows, prams and bicycles. The morning’s bombing changed the minds of the three who had hitherto decided to remain. The sight of those panic-stricken human beings, abandoning everything they owned, everything they had worked for, their homes, their petty treasures, achieved more in a few seconds than all my efforts in nine months in making the boys hate the Hun and all his works. An old man on crutches; toothless old women, stumbling as they pushed creaking perambulators loaded with pillows and blankets; a child with staring eyes; all going, they knew not whither or to whom or to what. And then the ‘planes, the machine-guns, the bombs directed, not at the soldiers or the guns, but at these harmless

creatures. We had seen plenty of refugees on our way up through Belgium, but they had been different. First there had been the wealthy in Mercédès cars, loaded with suitcases and luxuries, plentifully supplied with money, womenfolk bedecked with jewels, speeding for safety and good living in France; secondly, families with carts and wagons laden with furniture and possessions, running away it is true, but more or less calmly, having taken time to choose what they would salve, journeying to the homes of friends or relatives. But these new sights were different. The former had been sad, some of it contemptible. This was sheer horror, savagery of the vilest kind.

It is the deliberate policy of the Hun to create this refugee problem. Fifth Column agents spread panic; Fifth Column agents, disguised as soldiers or civilian officials, advise the folk to get out quick; terrorism from the air adds its spur. Out on the roads scramble the wretched people. Roads are blocked, fields on either side are blocked, with men, women, children, horses, carts, cars, perambulators, bicycles, even cows and goats, all laden with bedding, and the sick, the dying, the infirm. You see some cripple carried on a stretcher improvised from a door, a woman with babe at breast. Some crying, some calm, some just stupefied. They block the roads for the army, but the army must get up to fight, so the army must harden its heart and push them off the road into the ditches and fields-and then they glare at you, you foreign cads, as if you were the hated enemy. It hurts. And it makes you hate the Hun still more.

The Hun works hard to keep this refugee problem acute, to keep the roads blocked against the army. Over and over again his ‘planes have flown just above our heads on the march, and every minute we have expected the bombs to come crashing down on us; but no, the ‘planes have left us alone, to unload death and panic on the mass of refugees in the villages and fields ahead.

If he ever invades this country, one of his first objects will be to create that same refugee problem here; and by that time, if it ever comes, he may decide to use gas as well. Adequate control by the civilian authorities could prevent a repetition of the trouble with which the army was faced in Belgium.

At Smeisberg, A and B Troops were in the open on the forward slope behind the road, C Troop a mile forward to the left in the front edge of a wood on high ground. Front edges of woods were then considered good gun positions; now we know the Boche sprays them with incendiaries and machine-gun bullets habitually. Our wagon lines were some miles in rear, hidden in woods near a cigar factory. You will hear about those cigars later.

Digging was the order of the day. First, slit trenches; then dug-outs; gun-pits; trenches for ammunition; command-posts; pits for machine-guns and posts for the men manning anti-tank rifles. But could we get those men to dig? They just would not dig. The moment you turned your back, they stopped. I raved and stormed, for I knew how vital this work was, how speed was vital, too. Then came bombing, shelling, machine-gunning. After that, you couldn’t stop the men digging. For the rest of our time overseas, we never had to tell the men to dig again.

Now let me take you where you can see the line. The position taken up by the B.E.F. is a strong one. You can see the divisional front from our observation posts on the high ground behind Rhode Saint Agathe. Below is the river Dyle. Normally it is not a wide river but has two forks and the Belgian authorities have flooded the area in between, so that it is a wide expanse of water that you look down upon. No tank could get across that, you think-but it is very shallow and the Boche has amphibian tanks. On the far side the ground rises steadily back, so that the forward areas of what will be enemy country are well exposed to view, though there are numerous woods providing cover. At the moment our outposts are still across the Dyle, but will be withdrawn soon, and the main line of our defences stretches about half a mile in front of us. There is a fine battalion here-the Duke’s; behind and around us the Guards, in reserve; a lot of digging is going on everywhere; deserted houses are being fortified or pulled to pieces so that doors, timber and masonry can be used for defence works elsewhere.

We were with the First Division. Until I read Lord Gort’s published dispatches, I had not realised that only two Divisions besides ours moved up beyond Brussels. The rest of the B.E.F. did not get so far. It is a curious feeling watching the country beyond the river, knowing that somewhere behind it are the Boches. How far away are they now? How long before you get a glimpse of them? How long before you will hear the crack of the guns behind you and watch for the shell to burst among the Boches? Every now and then your signallers beside you test the line and the wireless to satisfy themselves that when that moment comes you will be able to control the fire of your guns by telephone or over the air without hitch.

Sad for me that when that moment came, I was not there myself to see, but was busy at the command-post. Luck fell to Dennis Clarke, and good use he made of it. The first hint Dennis had was movement of animals. Away on high ground beyond the river, two or three miles away, he noticed moving herds of cows. They were not panic-stricken, but were moving as though they had been disturbed, away from the road, obliquely in our direction. Animal movement is most helpful to the artillery observer. Sure enough, motorcyclists soon came into view, then an armoured car or two; these passed out of sight, down towards the river. Dennis now knew the spot on which to lay his guns. Down the phone went his orders.

The rattle of machine-guns from below told that the cyclists had come under fire from our infantry. This warning must have been heard by the Boche columns, too; if mechanized, they must have debussed on hearing machine-gun fire ahead; at any rate, the next to appear were marching infantry. Over the crest they came, a glorious target. Dennis waited until at least two hundred were in sight on the forward slope.

I was in the command-post when I heard C Troop’s guns open fire. “What are you shooting at?” I inquired by telephone, expecting the reply that they were just registering some feature we might want to shoot at in the future. “BOCHES!” came the proud response.

In some ways the Hun infantryman has not changed. Though our shells were dropping among them, men were falling and others running for safety, more infantry kept appearing over the crest, just as they used to come doggedly on in the last war without using any intelligence. This continued for some time before they changed their plan. In the meantime, we had done useful execution.

Those were the first shells fired in anger on the Dyle. Altogether we were there four days. I propose to give just a brief general impression of that phase.

One of our greatest difficulties was the question of animals. It was a heart-rending business. Civilians, in their panic, had left their animals behind, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, even birds in cages. Some of these animals were left shut up, others roaming about. No attempt had been made by the civilian authorities to meet this problem.

First trouble came with the cows. The poor brutes needed milking; as their udders became distended and sore, they raced about the place, bellowing pitifully. Our chaps did their best to milk them, but we were all busy digging and fighting, and the cows were legion, so it was an impossible task. It seemed cruel to shut them up; on the other hand, we could not let them run about, because they were fast becoming maddened with pain, and madness was hastened by fright from the bombs. They were becoming savage and really dangerous; and their movement attracted attention from the air. I therefore decided to shut up the few we could manage to milk and shoot the rest of the poor creatures. What finally decided me was the sight of a little calf dying in agony. We shot it at once.

Next came the dogs. It was pathetic, searching deserted houses, to find dogs chained up, locked up, going mad for want of food and water, terrified by bombing and the noise of our guns. One dog, quite mad, flew at us when we entered, and we had to shoot in self-defence.  Finally, we deputed Sergeant Watts, himself a dog-lover, to go round and put them out of their misery. You would see him, pipe in mouth, rifle in hand, stroll into a house. Then you would hear a crack. Out would come Watts, pipe still in mouth, jerk his thumb towards the house and say to a gunner: “Bury that poor dog, son!”

The chickens we ate. The goats we milked; we thought of taking them with us when we moved, but as things turned out that was impossible. The pigs were the least trouble, and the most phlegmatic of creatures. They wandered about as they pleased. Cliff Hackett, returning from a tour of duty at the observation post, went for a lie-down in an empty house. When I went to wake him, I found an old sow in the act of climbing on the bed where he was asleep. Eventually when orders came to retreat we shot the pigs as well and soaked the carcasses of all dead animals with petrol, for nothing must be left of use to the Boches.

Don’t imagine we spent most of our time shooting animals. Our 18-pounder guns were busy day and night. It was like those days on the Somme in ’16, especially at night, and our boys were having no mean introduction to artillery work in action. It was not all one-way stuff, either; we were getting some back at us. In fact, the Boche let us know quite definitely that he had spotted the positions of all three troops; if the boys had not dug so heartily, we should have had many casualties; even as things were it was decided to move some guns, so I went looking for new positions.

That morning we had received a document about Fifth Column activities which described an instance where a clover field had been cut to leave a sign in the form of an arrow visible from the air and pointing to a vital spot in our defences. When, therefore, in reconnoitring new gun positions, I looked down from a ridge at a clover field in which had been mown a large and distinct arrow pointing towards 25-pounder guns some three hundred yards away, I naturally thought this was the case referred to in that document. Horrified that it was allowed to remain there, we hurried to the officer on the guns. He was shaken to the core, obviously ignorant of the sign’s existence; clearly this was not the same case. Armed with spades, we soon had that clover field so knocked about that the sign was no longer visible, but the area was heavily shelled that afternoon.

There was Fifth Column activity in other ways. Our telephone cables were cut over and over again, not by shellfire or traffic, but the clean cut of shears. I was suspicious of a civilian who had stayed on for no apparent reason in a small house on the hill above us, but we could never catch him out. There was no control of evacuation by the civilian authorities; civilians went or stayed as they pleased; and why did some remain behind, we wondered?

One clever enemy agent, at least, managed to score. Dressed as a senior British staff officer, he went to a battery position, declared there was a general retirement, and ordered the guns to get out of action quick. He succeeded in getting the battery away-Here indeed was bad intelligence discipline! but fortunately this was rectified before harm resulted. Rumour said that the man was later caught red-handed, trying to get another battery to move, and was shot.

It may have been this same man who tackled Cliff Hackett. One night Cliff, having been relieved at his observation post, came back with the story that the French had retreated on our flank, that the Boches were across the Dyle, and that all observation posts were being called in. He had been told this by a British officer down the lane leading from our command-post. We rushed after the ‘British officer’, but could find no trace of him in the dark.

This happened in the middle of a night when things were very jumpy. We had had a false gas alarm, given by infantry who had seen the mist which creeps up the valley at night there. We had had several SOS calls for fire, some of which were undoubtedly a Boche ruse. We had had a party out searching for parachutists reported to have been dropped in the vicinity-another canard, I am sure. And then something else suspicious happened.

We had made our command-post in a sunken track between two high banks. The track itself was sandy. We had torn doors and walls from the sheds of neighbouring houses with which we completely roofed the track; then spread sand over this roof, so that from above it looked like the track itself, enabling us to work under neath well camouflaged.

During that night we smelt something burning. On searching, we found a tiny bonfire of twigs smouldering on the roof over our command-post. Nobody had heard or seen any one about, and a vigorous search failed to find anyone. That same night the Boches got troops over the Dyle in rubber

boats but they were eventually all killed, captured, or driven back. Soon after dawning next day Peter Booth and I stood on top of the sunken track, watching a hedge-hopping Lysander with Belgian markings. It was only about fifty feet up and we were just going to wave to the pilot when the ‘plane skimmed towards us and opened up with its machine-gun from about two hundred yards away. Peter and I dived headfirst into the sunken track like pearl-fishers into the ocean. Flying the other chap’s colours is, of course, a typical Boche trick. We were not caught napping again. In fact, orders were subsequently received to open fire on any ‘plane flying below a certain height, whatever its markings.

The Hun is clever at legitimate ruses, too. He is particularly good at inducing you to waste ammunition on places where there is nothing to hurt. It was on the Dyle that we saw a Boche officer ride out ostentatiously from the front of a wood, look about him, then ride back into the wood. Although repeated, this little trick failed, for in that particular light we could see into the wood through a telescope-there was nothing there; but in a wood some way to the right some guns were being brought into action-you could just make them out through the trees. Presumably, the officer had wanted to distract attention from the second wood by focusing it on the first.

On the evening of 16 May we received orders to retreat. Rumours that the French had not come up on our right must be true after all. Yet to leave this magnificent position on the Dyle-when the B.E.F. had its tail right up-it couldn’t be true!

We watched sappers preparing the bridge behind us for demolition. They were to blow it up at midnight. We must get our guns across it first, but at the last possible moment.

That night our little 18-pounders fired 1,200 rounds, a real farewell party. Now and then we got some back.

We spent some time smashing things up, to leave nothing of value to the Boches. We found a civilian motorbike and some push-bikes to augment our own transport. Bombardier (now Second-Lieutenant) Thomas discovered a French dress sword which he annexed; riding his motorbike, with the sword clattering against the back wheel, he looked a comic sight.

Indeed, many of the men began to look comic sights, for one advantage of battle is that you can dress for comfort instead of appearance. Battle dress is a loathsome invention; bitterly cold in the winter, because it gives no protection to the small of your back or your buttocks; gruelling hot in summer with its tight wrists and waistband; you miss the use of the big side pockets a tunic has. It cannot compare for utility or comfort with the old service dress. When not in battle you must bow to the whims of Brass Hats, so I have had to wear battle dress on occasion in this country myself, but once the battle started, I could say goodbye to all that, and went about in comfort in breeches, tunic, and red and blue forage cap. In the end I was glad of this for another reason, when all we could get away from Dunkirk was what we stood up in, it meant that I salved a good tunic, a good pair of breeches and a pair of field boots, instead of just a lousy suit of battle dress.

About midnight we pulled out and made the first step towards the long retreat. None of us could understand why. Everyone on the Dyle had got the impression that the B.E.F. was top dog over the Hun, who once again had shown his traditional dislike of the bayonet. Still,’ we thought, ‘we’ll be back here again very soon.’

As we moved off without lights in the pitch dark; the Hun gave a parting salute. Again, we were lucky-not one casualty. We had been the first guns to open fire; in that sector, we were the last guns to leave.

******

XIII

TIP AND RUN PARTY

“WHERE are we?” I asked. It was still dark, but through the back of the truck I could see the glow from burning buildings. “Brussels,” replied Peter. “Outside the palace.”

I had had no sleep for two days, so, as I knew I should need my wits about me in the morning, I had decided to sleep in the back of the truck while Peter Booth sat in front to navigate.

Next time I awoke it was daylight. “Where are we?” I shouted.

“Brussels,” repeated Peter’s muffled voice.” Outside the palace.” “Good God!” I grumbled. “Haven’t we moved on yet?”

“Yes. We’re back here again,” growled Peter. Things had been difficult in Brussels. Maps, of course, were

useless. Owing to bombing and fires, so many streets could not be used. Fifth Columnists were in action, directing people the wrong way, to cause congestion and confusion. Columns of troops had been going round and round in circles in the darkness, usually landing up outside the palace again. We had a queer medley there now, I could see, as I looked out; infantry in lorries, marching infantry, a car full of Brass Hats obviously lost, guns, armoured carriers, one French tank, some Belgian cavalry, hordes of refugees-and Brussels was not exactly a healthy spot just then. The only way to get out of the city was obviously by compass.

About eight o’clock we reached Steenbeek, hid guns and transport away in orchards, and set about getting the men some breakfast We were expecting orders to get into action in the neighbourhood sometime later that morning. A rear-guard of mobile troops had stayed behind to delay the enemy whilst a new line astride the Senne canals was being occupied. Men on a vehicle which had got lost in Brussels and re-joined us here recounted the magnificent stand of the 12th Lancers in the city with armoured cars surrounded by Boche motor cyclists and tanks, fighting it out to the end.

Having arranged for the men’s breakfast, we searched for somewhere for ourselves. In the little café the good woman, her crippled son, and her pretty daughter of fifteen had not yet made up their minds whether to fly or stay. They were arguing in Flemish as we arrived.

Madame went upstairs to pack while the daughter made coffee, brought us bread and jam, and told us she had some eggs. Amazed that she did not know how to make omelettes, Basil Strachan grabbed the eggs and made us some delicious omelettes himself. I do not remember ever enjoying a breakfast more. Conversation was diffi cult because the girl could not speak or understand French and even Dennis did not know Flemish. However, Stephen talked to her in Dutch, she answering in Flemish, and he assured us they understood each other.

The men had stripped themselves to the waist and were making the most of the first chance of a real wash they had had for days. I had a shave and sat down in the orchard to write a letter to my wife but could not get it posted.

It was then I noticed that every man seemed to be smoking a huge cigar-with its band still on it. I commented on this, whereupon four boxes were handed to me with the information that these were my share. It turned out that the proprietor of the cigar factory where our waggon lines had been on the Dyle had decided to quit before we did. He had told my quartermaster-sergeant to clear away as many boxes of cigars as possible, as he would rather our chaps had them than the Boches. Every officer, N.C.O. and man got two hundred.

While I was taking the cigars to my truck, there was a lot of shouting and the sound of running feet down the road. A nun came running towards us, a British infantryman on her heels. Seizing a bike by the roadside, the nun tried to get away, but we stopped her. The infantryman swore she had dropped by parachute, but everyone had got parachutists on the brain just then and I did not believe him. The nun had, however, been behaving in a most un-nunlike manner and certainly ought to be interrogated. this we did. Outside, we could use the map again-but our maps were hopelessly inaccurate.

She was an angular, muscular, masculine person, and I was prepared to learn that ‘she’ was really a man. She seemed cool and collected, rather defiant, and would answer no questions. We sent her to Divisional Headquarters under escort. What, if anything, they discovered from her, I don’t know; but it is a fact that two days later an order was circulated that all persons in nuns’ clothing should be detained and sent to Divisional H.Q. for interrogation.

It was supposed that information for Fifth Columnists, parachutists, and other enemy agents, in the nature of a code indicating where they could contact the local agent, was contained in large poster advertisements of a Belgian product displayed everywhere. The contract for these advertisements was said to have been given to a German firm who had made use of this opportunity on Nazi instructions. What truth there is in this yarn, I do not know.

We did not have long for rest. Off we were sent to reconnoitre gun positions some distance away; the guns moved off that evening. There was considerable air activity, and we were worried by the presence of two civilians, presumably labourers on a nearby farm, whose work ostensibly brought them round our woodland gun positions at nocturnal hours when normal farmers do not work. However, the night proved uneventful, except for some bombing. At dawn things livened up; then, to our amazement, came orders to retreat again. We were to remain to support a rear-guard infantry action until nine o’clock, but were to be over a bridge many miles away by a certain time, as the bridge was then to be blown up; this meant we must get off the mark smartly at nine o’clock when our job here ceased or we should not reach the bridge in time.

At nine, we ceased fire. I sent the headquarter staff away, then waited to see the guns off. C Troop got away without trouble, then B Troop. When it came to A Troop’s turn, the fun started. First one gun tractor got bogged in the mud, then another, then a third. Jack Leaman, cheerful as ever, got them winched out, then one got bogged again. Three-quarters of an hour dragged by, and I visualized that bridge going up. Then, as we got them away, there was a bit of bombing. I was thankful when we finally got all the guns well on the road.

Some way along, we ran into the usual congestion; the road was crammed with marching infantry, tired and filthy after battle, some wounded, but all with plenty of fight left in them; and then, all over the place, the inevitable refugees. At a bend in the road a car was waiting. In it sat a Brigadier watching his men tramp past. Catching sight of my truck, he beckoned me. “What Regiment are you?” he asked. I told him. Then came words that were as gratifying as they were surprising to one who remembered how the infantry invariably cursed the gunners in the last war. “You gunners did magnificent work on the Dyle,” he said. “Your shooting has given our chaps real confidence.” We reached the bridge two hours late, but the sappers were still there waiting to blow it up. Sometime afterwards, we heard it go. It was a long trek before we reached our destination, the name of which I cannot remember-it was somewhere near Ninove, the idea being to hold the line of the river Dendre. There was an awful flap on as we reached the village, all sorts of rumours that the Boches had broken through the French on our flank; you would have thought by the excitement that they were just round the corner. Everyone was looking forward to a nice little scrap. We got our guns into action, laid cable to our observation posts in record time. No sooner was all this done than orders came for another retreat.

This was really too thick. Twice we had come back already when everybody felt we could hold the enemy. Now we were to run away again, without even firing a shot this time. Just a game of tip and run. However, we did at least have the satisfaction of blazing off our machine-guns at low-flying ‘planes laying eggs all round us.

It was dark before we had gone many miles. We were to go back over the frontier into France, back to the area we had come from. Perhaps we should fight after all in our old gun-pits at La Commune.

Miles ahead the sky was lit with flames. Tournai must be on fire. There was one noticeably big fire and several smaller ones blazing as we crawled through the town later. It was like daylight. Boche planes circled overhead at intervals to keep the fires burning. Every yard of the wide cobbled route to France was packed with refugees and troops. Every now and then we would get blocked for anything from ten minutes to half an hour, then dawdle forward again. It made the Brighton Road on a Sunday, or the long crawl off Epsom Downs on Derby Day, seem like speedway racing. It was four o’clock in the morning when we tucked everything away in the woods at Wannaheim on the French side of the frontier.

Five hours later we were on the move again-back into Belgium. The B.E.F. was taking up a defensive position along the line of the Escaut, and we were to come into action covering Tournai and the canal south of it to Antoing. Our reconnaissance parties moved off to St. Maur forthwith.

We almost had to cut our way through the masses of wretched It was refugees stampeding out of Belgium into France. For miles this was the worst example of the refugee problem I had seen. heart-breaking; but we had to get through to fight, so we had to be ruthless. Among these refugees must have been many enemy agents. Everyone was allowed over the frontier without inspection of documents or identification papers, the French authorities taking no precautions whatever. Indeed, the civilian authorities had disappeared. Any enemy agent could walk over unchallenged with the crowd.

Going through one village, Chris had a narrow escape. A man in civilian clothes stepped from behind a wall, rifle in hand, and deliberately fired at Chris as his truck passed by. The man then had a shot at the next vehicle. A despatch rider drew his revolver and shot the man dead before he could do any damage. The corpse was on its back staring at the sky as I passed. Maybe he was just a poor devil who had gone mad. Or he may have been a released lunatic. That was one of the difficulties with which we had to contend. The authorities opened the gates of the lunatic asylums when the enemy drew near, and the lunatics were simply set at liberty without any provision, or any control being exercised over them by the civilian authorities. There were poor mad creatures wandering about dressed up as women, running off in nightdresses and making the weirdest grimaces and gibberings. All a Boche agent had to do was to pretend to be mad and you couldn’t ‘tell t’other from which’.

That afternoon we got into action in positions where we were at least to put up a fight-though only for three days.

 

XIV

BURIAL PARTY

I SHALL never forget the terror on that baby’s face, or the fierce hatred in its mother’s eyes.

I was reconnoitring on foot. A farm cart was jolting along the road laden with mattresses and bedding, on top of which squatted a youngish woman, suckling a baby in her arms. As the cart drew level with the ruins of a house a 25-pounder gun, camouflaged among the rubble, opened fire. The gun was no more than seven yards from the kiddie’s head-and the 25-pounder lets off a rather good crack. The sight of the baby was piteous. I suppose that to that woman I, as the nearest soldier, represented the war and all the misery it had brought to herself and her world. Understandable; but her glare of infinite hatred hurt.

It was not a health resort to which we had come. In the air, of course, the Hun was supreme. His ‘planes, flying incredibly low, were over our lines ceaselessly. During those days we never saw a British ‘plane. On returning to England, we learned of the valiant exploits of the R.A.F. over enemy territory and in support of the French; but at that time we knew nothing of this-all we knew was that the Boche sat over us day and night, doing exactly as he liked, and we got no respite, not even the encouragement of seeing a ‘plane with British markings.

Since then, of course, it has been the same story in Greece, Crete, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Those of us who experienced it in France and Belgium know what our troops in those other lands must have suffered. Rightly have the critics stormed at this repeated failure to provide adequate air support where it is needed most; but much of the criticism has been misdirected into a howl for dive-bombers.

The dive-bomber may be effective in naval operations-on that, a soldier is not qualified to speak; but for land operations against trained troops the dive-bomber is not the equal of the fighter bomber. The first experience is terrifying-after that comes realization of the great vulnerability of this type to small-arms fire, the very limited local effect of its attack, and the immunity that can be achieved by the soldier by merely lying still.

To return to the Escaut. It was not only from the air we were getting strafed. By now the Boche had got his mortars up, mortars that shot a biggish bomb two miles. His machine-guns swept all forward roads. His infantry guns were coming up, his field artillery would soon join in the fun. Altogether, things looked like getting lively.

St. Maur [Ere] seemed quiet enough when I saw it first on the way up to reconnoitre for observation posts. Anti-tank guns were sited at the cross-roads in the way then accepted, pointing up each road. Good guns thrown away. Next time I saw the village it was a wreck, the anti-tank guns knocked out. Many lessons were learned by the B.E.F. in May 1940. One was how not to site anti-tank artillery.

The bridges over the Escaut were being blown up while I was reconnoitring the area. Every now and then a boom would announce that another bridge had gone. We found good spots from which observation could be maintained, then hurried back to the guns.

I have always believed in finding gun positions near a sunken road if possible. It is easy to drive dugouts quickly into the bank, giving great protection against bombs, besides making camouflage easy. Here we were lucky. There was a narrow, winding, sunken road overhung by trees, a perfect site. The guns of A and C Troops were sited under cover of trees on top of the forward bank, the guns of B Troop concealed among houses to the left front. Command-post, telephone exchange, cookhouses, ammunition dumps, and dug-outs for the men were hewn into the forward bank. We dug like slaves, two ex-miners giving valuable instruction in strutting shafts.

A little house behind B Troop served for our Mess. There was furniture, plate, and crockery, and the batmen made one room comfortable for us to feed in. One window overlooked our guns; there was a cellar below. The first meal we had there was next day. Some of us, relieved from duty for some food, were tackling a hot stew when a whizz and a crash shook the house. Nobody took much notice of it, or of the next one. But when the third arrived and clods of earth hurtled through the window, I ordered everyone into the cellar. We had just got down the steps when another explosion rocked the house. Nothing further came, so we went up to look. The Mess windows had been blown in, there were holes in the walls, the chair where I had been sitting was smashed, the table was a wreck and our food had disappeared.

Things got busy both ways. We were doing a lot of shooting. Our liaison with the infantry was close and cordial and they kept indicating targets to us. One of our observation posts was in a house overlooking the Escaut, on the far side of which was a large warehouse. The infantry battalion commander was anxious for us to bring up an 18-pounder gun to the canal bank after dark to take on this warehouse point-blank, as there were machine-guns in it. This, of course, was not a job for field guns, but a task for the infantry’s own mortars. They could not, however, take it on themselves because the B.E.F. had no H.E. for its mortars in France at all-only smoke.

Which reminds me that soon after our return from Dunkirk I was talking to the Colonel of a Highland battalion when I noticed some brand-new Army trucks outside his headquarters. “You seem to be getting re-equipped with transport pretty quickly,” I said, enviously. “My dear chap,” he replied. “We are completely re-armed. We’re now exactly as we were in France-even to the extent of having no H.E. for our mortars!”

At this observation post we gained real confidence in the Boyes anti-tank rifle. The enemy were trying to use amphibian tanks across the canal. An infantry officer at the observation post picked up the Boyes rifle and took one shot. We had great respect for the weapon after that. It is heavy and unwieldy, but effective.

There was plenty to be seen from this post. The enemy were very aggressive, particularly at night, attempting to get across the Escaut, so we got lots of shooting. The difficulty was in maintaining communications for controlling the fire of the guns, as the whole area around St. Maur, including observation posts and gun positions, was constantly shelled and bombed, so that telephone cable kept being cut to ribbons, and conditions were bad for wireless. Our signallers were constantly repairing lines under heavy shellfire; no easy task, searching in the darkness for broken ends of cable with shells falling around you and machine-gun fire added for a change. Dennis Clarke did magnificent work keeping our guns shooting in support of the infantry for many hours from an observation post constantly under fire, and Sergeant Wartnaby kept mending cable hour after hour through the night in a shelled area. Both were subsequently mentioned in despatches for this and other good work.

During a lull in our shooting the Hun made effective retaliation. The men were busy clearing away empty cartridge cases and hump ing shells from road to guns when the enemy opened up. It only lasted a few minutes and, considering that most shells landed plumb in the gun positions, we were very lucky. One killed, five wounded, three guns knocked out.

Poor old Bombardier [Thomas]Bennett. He had been one of the first recruits in Clapham days, one of the first to get a stripe. We buried him that afternoon, a grand padré from the Durham Light Infantry officiating. Sergeant ‘Slogger’ Slines looked a gory sight with several wounds in both legs but re-joined us in England later. The others were not badly wounded and insisted on carrying on after their wounds had been dressed by the M.O. Sergeant-major (now Major) Lavender, himself wounded, did good work in getting injured away under fire and in getting his guns into action again before allowing himself to be attended to; this was typical of his conduct throughout the blitz and at Dunkirk, for all of which he got mentioned in despatches. Anxious that this episode should not have a depressing effect on the men, I walked to the guns and shouted: “Well, boys, what about having some back at ’em for old Bennett?” There was a roar of approval. We put a dose of shell over at moving targets which could be seen from our observation posts, and it acted like a tonic on the men. When two Boche ‘planes came over us very low, there was not a Lewis gun nor a rifle that didn’t blaze away. About this time one of our cooks brought down a low-flying Messerschmitt with a Lewis gun at our wagon lines.

I was very worried at the loss of these three guns. They were quite unusable. The recuperators were full of holes, sights damaged, tyres in shreds; one gun had a direct hit on the piece itself. As things turned out, the loss of these guns saved our battery from subsequent annihilation, but that story comes later.

The problem of resting the men was becoming acute. The gunners were weary; they had had little sleep for days and had been firing their guns or humping shells backwards and forwards for many hours. When they were not doing either of these, they were digging hard to make shelter for themselves and the ammunition. We were short of gunners, for, in addition to wounded, we had had casualties from accidents and sickness. Fortunately, we had acquired useful reinforcements in two Coldstream Guardsmen and three privates from the Duke’s who had lost their battalions in the retreat. They were splendid fellows and became enthusiastic gunners. Few infantrymen realize how hard is the work and how great the strain for the gunner in battle, unless they have shared it with him as did these men of the Coldstream and the Duke’s.

Feeding the men was becoming another problem. It had not yet reached the stage where no rations could be obtained, but railway communications had been cut and, though the R.A.S.C. got what they could to us, this did not amount to much and mostly took the form of tinned stuff from French sources. A few hundred yards from us was a cluster of abandoned houses, one of which had been a shop. We found coffee, biscuits, and some eatable oddments; we killed some old hens that were running around and caught some rabbits.

Cigarettes were the thing which the men missed most. They had had none for some days. The following conversation gives some idea of the surfeit of cigars.

“Got a fag, mate?” I heard one man ask.

“No.”

“Ain’t ‘ad a smoke for free days.”

“Ave a cigar then. ‘Ere’s one.” “Gorblimey, no! Don’t want no more of them fings. I give old Nobby a whole box o’ them for two fags last week.” 

However, a few chaps liked them, so they scored. In our command-post dug-out the pungent aroma of cigars almost drowned the smell of earth, unwashed bodies, and musty battledress. Things were jumpy. Enemy air activity was great. Their trench mortars were active. At night SOS signals went up from the forward defended localities. Telephone wires kept getting cut.

At night, noise was preferable to silence. On the morning of 21 May things got very lively on the right. Our other battery was shelled out and had to move. We were kept busy shooting. When the noise had died down, we learned that the Hun had penetrated our lines at Antoing. In the afternoon orders came for another game of tip and run. My battery was to go last of all the guns in this sector, providing support for the remaining infantry until three o’clock next morning.

Gradually, as the evening wore on, we saw other troops move off along the main road. Dusk fell. Things became lively again in front. Up went an SOS. We blazed away. Other guns to the right, to the left, and behind us, joined in the din. Next time the SOS went up, few guns besides our own responded. Infantry marched past towards the rear. Behind us a 25-pounder battery fired at intervals, less frequent intervals, then intermittently, till at last it too petered out. Next time there was an outburst, ours were the only guns to fire.

Somebody touched me on the sleeve. “Hullo, sir,” said a cheery voice. “Have a spot out of my flask.” It was our M.O., Lacey, now prisoner of war, a grand little chap. “I’m stopping with you, sir, as long as there are men here,” he said, as I took a swig from his flask. “Things have been a bit hot round here to-day and there may be more casualties.”

Most Army doctors are the right stuff, and our Regiment has been lucky. Little Lacey was conscientious, likable, full of guts. Old Doc Browning, his successor, now commanding a hospital train in the Middle East, who used to keep muttering “My God! My God!” to himself, was a fine soldier as well as a great M.O.

I decided to send off A Troop at 1.30 a.m., B Troop at 2 a.m., two guns of C Troop at 2.30 a.m., and the last two guns at 3 a.m. Despite some rather nasty shelling, A Troop got away to time, and so did B Troop. They had fired eight hundred rounds that evening. It looked as though everything would go without a hitch, but I reckoned without Harry Baird.

Harry, New Zealander, champion swimmer, Rugger player, chartered accountant, famous for his exhibition Maori dances, suffers from a persecution complex at times. 

It was about 2.15 a.m. when Basil, his troop commander, came to me while his guns were still firing and a Boche ‘plane was laying eggs along the main Tournai Road. “Trouble with Harry, sir,” he announced.

“What is it-persecution again?” I asked. Basil nodded. “Won’t take his guns away. Says he is entitled to stay to the last.”

Harry had been detailed to take the first two guns of the troop away at two-thirty, the remaining two guns to be brought off by Basil at three o’clock. Harry claimed that as Gun Position Officer he should stay to take the last two guns away himself. Persecution ! We had awful trouble in getting him and his guns away. Now if we had been going towards the Boches, instead of away from them, Harry would have wanted to go first. He is now a Major in another regiment, having well earned promotion. Basil has recently been badly wounded in Tunisia.

At three o’clock I told Basil to cease fire. The last shell sang through the air towards the Hun lines. Away went Basil’s guns. I took a last look round. Everything seemed very quiet. I had a chat to the infantry commander close by; they were not leaving for another two hours.

Doc Lacey climbed into his truck. I waved him on, climbed into my own Humber Snipe, and we crawled away.

*********

XV

FARMHOUSE PARTY

EVERYTHING was quiet as we left St. Maur. [ERE] The infantry were not leaving until two hours later, covered by the mobile troops. We had a clear run through, except for slight bombing; consequently, I knew that the enemy must be miles away and was contemptuous when I found a terrific flap in progress on reaching Bouvines.

Two guns were unlimbered and facing up the road along which I had just come. Men with Lewis guns and rifles were posted in hiding-places overlooking the road.

“Thank heaven you’ve arrived, sir,” exclaimed Stephen. “They’ll be here any minute.”

“Who?” I asked. “The Boches !

Tanks!”

I replied with one word- unprintable. “Let the men get breakfast and some rest,” I added. “But there’s a terrific flap on, sir. Brass Hats and…”

I repeated the unprintable word with emphasis. “Tell my batman to get me some water for a shave, and make some tea,” I said. “Where’s Dennis?” “Up the road at a tank look-out,” replied Stephen. Seeing that

I was determined not to be concerned with flaps till I had had a clean-up and a hot drink, he went off to see about the men’s breakfast. Later on I went to find Dennis. He was sitting in a signal box at a railway crossing. All he could see from there was two hundred yards of road in front. Two of his guns were just beyond the road crest behind him. “What on earth is this?” I asked.

“My observation post,” he replied. “But the line we are going to hold is a mile and a half ahead.

You can’t see anything from here.” “I know. But there’s a flap on, and I’ve been posted here to watch for tanks coming down this road.”

“If you see any tanks coming, they’ll be our own,” I laughed.

“There aren’t any Boches within ten miles. You’ll find a good observation post up on the hill beyond Cysoing from which you’ll be able to see all the enemy country. Take my truck and go there. I’ll wait here till you send it back.” Dennis went off. I explored an abandoned estaminet by the crossing and found an aluminium bath which I decided to take along and have a good scrub down at the earliest opportunity. Just then a car drove up and out got a tall, burly Brigadier with a cheery grin. “Are those your guns behind there?” he asked. “Yes, sir. But I’m going to move them now. I’ve just got back from Tournai to find a flap on. Some silly twerp ordered this road to be watched for tanks. There can’t be a Boche tank within miles.” “I’m the twerp, then,” he chuckled gaily. “There have been reports of isolated tanks breaking through on the left, but they seem to have been unfounded.”

So, it was I who felt the twerp. Such was my introduction to ‘Mossy’ Marshall, under whose command we were to come. He was a great sport and a good soldier. I shipped the bath aboard my truck and drove to the gun positions. We straddled the three Troops round a farm, with battery headquarters in the farmhouse. [SAINGHIN EN MELANTOIS] There was a tragic atmosphere about the Ferme de la Cour, an atmosphere of hasty departure, of the abandonment of all that had made life sweet for its owners. Children’s toys were scattered about. Children’s picture-books. A battered doll lay on a cushion on the sofa. Drawers were pulled out, cupboards open, clothing and linen all over the floor and chairs. Photographs. More photographs. Water-colour paintings, obviously the work of a young girl. The farm’s owner must have been a veterinary surgeon, for books on animal anatomy and animal surgery crowded the shelves. On a chest of drawers upstairs was a locket, imprisoning strands of auburn hair.

Outside in the walled-in courtyard were carts and farm implements of all kinds which came in handy for tank barricades. Chickens scuttled squawking out of barns, there were pigs, any amount of vegetables, and a little enclosed flower-garden with masses of honeysuckle. While Stephen and I were walking round this garden we were sniped at. Two distinct shots, one bullet striking the wall behind us. Stephen then told me that his truck had been fired at as he drove into the village during the night, the bullet perforating the radiator. We sent armed parties to search the houses and cellars, but could find nothing, though the window of a house overlooking our gun positions bore traces of having been recently opened. We suspected the belfry of the church and determined to have a watch kept on this.

Digging went on apace in the gun positions. In the cellars we established our command-post and telephone exchange. Meanwhile a good hot meal had been got ready. Rations had now failed, and we realized we must expect to feed ‘on the country’ from now on. Actually, for the next few days we fed well, killing pigs, chickens, and rabbits, and finding plenty of vegetables. The things we missed most were bread, butter, tea, sugar and salt.

The last of our tea we had for that first meal in the farm. I sipped it and put down my mug. Boots looked at me. “Orange?” he suggested. Orange it was. Some oranges had been found in the house and the batmen had been making marmalade in the dixie which they used for making tea. We had frequently had ‘onion tea’ and ‘petrol tea’ at Visterie, and at Herissart we had ‘carbolic tea’ after the batmen had scoured all cooking utensils with disinfectant which the maire’s wife had given them. But ‘orange tea’ was an innovation. At this meal also I noticed large black specks in the soup made from parsnips out of the garden. “Look at that dirt in the soup.” I said to the batman. “Dirt?” he exclaimed indignantly, “That’s not dirt, sir. That’s COAL!”-as though it were a delicacy. Just after we had fed, I was sent for by the Colonel. He looked half-pleased, half-sad. “I’m afraid we’ve got to part company,” he announced. “I have got to go straight off-a long way-with my headquarters and Major Milton’s 367 battery. Yours will stay on this part of the front, and you will report to Colonel Griffith-Williams.” I sensed some Big Party in the wind. “Look here, sir,” I said. “Mine is the senior battery. I think that entitles it to be the one to come with you.” He smiled. “I’m afraid it can’t be done. I’ve got specific orders that I must take a battery with its full complement of guns and three of yours have been knocked out, you know.”

Little did I dream that the loss of those three guns was thus to mean the saving of my men’s lives and liberty. We shook hands and wished each other good luck. I have not seen Colonel Odling since. He was one of the seriously wounded officers for whose exchange and repatriation the Red Cross worked so hard but were foiled at the last minute by the Hun’s double-cross. I only hope that further efforts may be successful.

So Odling and his 367 Battery went off to join Macforce, a special task force under General Mason-Macfarlane; and I reported to Colonel Griffith-Williams (affectionately known as ‘G.W.’ and now a Brigadier), who allotted me a zone which meant that in order to cover it I must move our guns a little way round the farm-another bit of unforeseen luck, for no sooner had we got our guns moved than their old positions were heavily shelled.

This move took a considerable time in the dark. The infantry were jumpy that evening, partly owing to the threat of attack on the left sector, partly due to relief of our troops on the right by D.I.N.A. (French North African Colonial troops). Several SOS signals went up calling for our fire. I could therefore only move one gun per troop at a time.

In the early hours we were worried again by Fifth Column activities. Two drivers were sniped from a wood while filling up with petrol. During the night, A Troop’s picket lamp had been removed. Soon after dawn shots were fired at A Troop’s gunners from a large wood three hundred yards in rear. An armed party was sent to search the wood. As they approached, fire was opened on them from the trees and Gunner Thomas was shot through the chest. The wood was combed, but no one was found, though a civilian was seen in the distance riding away on a cycle from that direction. Some infantry helped to search but were equally unlucky.

We were also worried by the sudden return of French refugees from the rear who said they had been sent back by the French authorities. Some alleged that they had been captured by the Boches who had told them to go back home-a new way of aggravating the refugee problem. I found civilians walking near our gun positions and moving into the houses around us. This constituted a grave menace, particularly in view of the sniping that was already going on round here. These people professed to be French from the neighbourhood, but there was no way of checking their bona fides, for as usual there were no civilian authorities available; and the village was getting a goodly share of shelling and bombing. We could not tolerate starving, panic-stricken, homeless, and possibly treacherous people wandering round our defences. As we could get no orders what to do, I had them all rounded up, gave them a fill of soup and potatoes (all we could manage), loaded them on lorries, and had them dumped in a village many miles behind our lines.

Among this collection we detained a man in civilian clothes claiming to be a Belgian soldier who said he had escaped through the Boche lines and could give useful information as to the where abouts, strength, and armament of the enemy. He told a remarkable tale of the Boches being in Arras, Abbeville, and Boulogne. This in fact was true, but none of us believed it at the time; all these places were well behind us, and it sounded fantastic. The B.E.F. soldier had no idea how things were going except on his own immediate front; true, he kept on retreating, but so convinced was he from experience of his own superiority over the Hun that he firmly believed we ourselves would be attacking before long. We sent the Belgian off to Divisional Headquarters and heard later that they were much impressed with his story. Two deserters from the French Army were handed over by us to the French military authorities; and a man in British officer’s uniform, with no identity card and an unconvincing story, was handed over to the Field Security Police.

That was one side of a busy day. There was also a more cheerful side. The Boches had penetrated the eastern outskirts of Lille; news came through that an abandoned N.A.A.F.I. there was full of stores and that any unit could send transport to salve what they could. We sent three lorries. They returned with a haul of a quarter of a million cigarettes, tins of cocoa, apricots and pears, slabs of chocolate, soap and all kinds of toilet requisites. The drink was the disappointment. There was no beer, no whisky. The only alcohol left was Cointreau-three cases of it. We were determined that the men, who were cold and weary, should have a drink to buck them up, but you cannot dish out whole bottles of Cointreau to the troops-some of them would swig it down like beer. So, we decided to keep it under strict control and issue a small ration to each man who wanted it after they had fed. Every man was issued with several hundred cigarettes. Once they had got a ‘fag’ again, they had no use for cigars-they started throwing away whole boxes of cigars which the officers salved and smoked.

We killed a pig and that night the men had pork, vegetables and rice. Bread, butter, tea, and salt were the only things missing. That day and the following night we did a great deal of shooting Our main observation post was in a concrete pillbox on the lip of the anti-tank ditch three hundred yards in front of the main infantry defended localities. It formed part of the defences which the B.E.F. had been constructing for months before the blitz. You could not reach it by daylight, all reliefs being made at night. From here our officers, particularly Dennis, did some real good shooting.

Having been on duty all night I emerged from the command post at dawn to see a batman sitting on a box in the courtyard cleaning his officer’s boots. There was an enormous cigar in his mouth. He took a glance at a Boche ‘plane overhead, paused in his work, stooped to pick up a bottle, and raised it to his mouth. To my horror, I saw it was a bottle of Cointreau. At four o’clock in the morning!

The day was again a busy one, shells flying backwards and forwards. Ammunition still seemed to be plentiful, thanks to good work by our quartermaster-sergeant, and we were paying the Hun full measure. Real rabbit-shooting, it was.

In the afternoon I was sent for by Mossy. Divisional Headquarters were in an enormous subterranean model of engineering, sixty feet below the surface; rumour said it had originally been intended for Gamelin’s headquarters. I searched through the rooms below in vain. I should have appraised Mossy more accurately than to waste time doing that; although bombing was going on, he was in a house above, where he stood me a hefty whisky, told me my battery was now directly under his command, hinted at a coming counter-attack, and sent me back to the farm full of pep.

I sat down to write a farewell note to G.W., as we had ceased to be under his command. I remember ending up with: “No rations, but lots of ammunition, and our tails right UP.” Weeks afterwards in England, G.W. showed me that note, which he still had in his pocket.

That evening our boys had a concert in the courtyard. They dragged a piano out of the farm, and unearthed coloured shirts, top hats and things, which they put on over their uniform. It was great fun; spoilt for a moment when some shells dropped close by.

Our own guns, which were firing most of the time, served as drums for the music. Later, by accident, we got tuned-in to London on an Army wireless set. To our amazement we heard the King’s voice speaking. Till then, we had had no idea things were so serious. After the speech was finished, we joined in ‘God Save the King’. Then some more shells came over. Just another day.

*************

XVI

CIRCUS PARTY

LATE that evening there was a terrific flap. The Boches, it was said, had taken Carvin, twelve miles to our right rear. One infantry brigade of the 42nd Division was detailed to move back and face this menace to our rear, and our battery was ordered in support. Actually, what had happened was that there were British troops in reserve close to Carvin when the Hun reached there. These troops had a live Brigadier. The moment he heard the news, he took his men and smote the Hun out of Carvin without waiting for orders. Still, Boche forces were apparently coming up from the south-west, and that situation had to be faced.

The Brigade took up a defensive position astride the river about Seclin. Our guns (only nine of which were fit for action) had to cover a five-mile front. Our observation posts were by the quaint old fortifications, Fort Vendeville and Fort Seclin.

Except for a terrific amount of rushing about reconnoitring, getting guns into action, laying miles of telephone cable, dodging bombs, and liaising with the infantry, this day was noteworthy for only four things:

(1) Sergeant Bartley was shot in the back by a sniper (presumably Fifth Column) as he took his gun through Vendeville in the dark.

(2) We were quite unable to raise any food, but fortunately still had odd tins of stuff scrounged from the Lille N.A.A.F.I. We made soup from carrots found in a barn.

(3) The Boches bombed Seclin for hours, obviously in the belief that a French Army Headquarters was there. This made us chuckle, for we knew that it was in the next village, which did not get a single bomb.

(4) We came in contact here with French troops moving in as we moved out. They were very different from the rag-tag-and bobtail mob we had encountered previously in French uniform. Both infantry and artillery were smart, keen and well equipped. Unlike other French troops we had seen, they looked as if they really meant to fight.

That evening I was sent for by Brigadier Sutton, commanding the infantry brigade. The usual story-another retreat. brigade was to retire and take up a position facing in the opposite direction, along the canal south-west of the Citadel at Lille. Our battery was to go to Lomme and wait for further orders.

Lomme is some way out of Lille on the way to Armentières. Armentières is the night-nursery of the wealthy industrial magnates of Lille, whilst Lomme houses the lower strata of the well-to-do. It is modern, well laid-out, rather English in appearance, with attractive houses surrounded by moderate-sized gardens. There were no civilians left, and the place showed signs of bombing, but it seemed like a haven of peace to us when we arrived. We hid guns and transport under the trees which lined the streets and established ourselves in a girls’ school.

“Blimey!” I heard someone say. “Clapham all over again. Why do they always take the bits of skirt away first?”

It was obviously the type of school which Victorian novelists would have described as a High-class Academy for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. The flowers in the vases on the classroom desks were withered; the abandoned rooms were musty for lack of air; the piano needed tuning; but the place had clearly radiated a bright and cheerful atmosphere in normal times. We found food and wine in the larders.

In a house nearby we discovered what had obviously been an Ordnance store. Hundreds of suits of battledress, boots, respirators, tin hats, and shorts, lay there abandoned. Our men’s clothing was torn and mud-stained, some blood-stained; their boots were worn, shirts and socks were filthy. Our quartermaster-sergeant (now Lieutenant-Quartermaster) Harrison soon got to work and in half an hour every man in the battery was fully equipped with new clothes. That increased morale no end. So that we should leave nothing for the Boches, our men’s discarded clothing was ripped to pieces.

Then the bombing started. Houses came tumbling down in nearby streets, windows were smashed, splinters of glass flew all round. The whole place shook. Some of our vehicles were badly damaged. This damage to our transport was worrying me when I ran into an officer whose transport was parked in a road close by. He told an extraordinary story that his unit was being sent back to England, and that he would have to abandon some vehicles. I did not believe this yarn, especially as he hinted darkly that other units had already gone, but as he seemed quite definite about leaving some of his transport, I jumped at the chance of making up deficiencies. We got some good Austin cars, some motorbikes, and a lorry.

Then came orders from Mossy Marshall to report to him at Le Bizet. The battery got on the move at once.

Going through Houplines, at the crossroads before you come to the bridge over the Lys, I spotted an athletic figure under a brass hat, addressing a junior French officer emphatically. He looked up as my truck passed by and waved. It was David. I jumped out and ran back to him.

General Davidson is a good linguist. His French is really fluent. He was doing good work at this spot. A column of French troops was trying to cut across the British route. This was happening all over the place, by French and Belgians as well. All added on to the refugee problem. It was another instance of the tragic results of the lack of administrative liaison between the Allies. David was being adamant, the British must have priority; they were moving into battle.

“Where are you going?” he asked me. I explained that I had a date with Mossy at Le Bizet.

“Then get him to ask his Divisional Commander to send someone to take over traffic control here. I have been doing it for two hours, and I must get away to do my own job.”

At Le Bizet I found Mossy, cheerful as ever. While waiting for him, I was accosted by several civilians who pointed out a dirty, unshaven, unkempt man wandering aimlessly about the street. “Shoot him!” they said. “A spy! A Boche spy!” Asked what grounds they had for saying this, they could say nothing but that he would not talk to anyone, but always seemed to be listening to what other people said. We arrested him and tried to interrogate him. He had a wild look in his eye, and was quite obviously a deaf-mute, so we let him go, much to the chagrin of his compatriots.

Mossy’s orders were for us to support Brigadier Sutton’s brigade astride the Lys against attack from Armentières to Houplines. Under my command was placed a battery, commanded by Tom Hardy, from G.W.’s regiment, in addition to my own battery. We were busily engaged getting guns of both batteries into action in pursuance of these orders when Mossy reappeared, piece of paper is hand. Another terrific flap! The Boches had been seen in Messines behind us as we were facing then. I was to report at once to Vis Division Headquarters at Ploegsteert, up the road. I sent Dennis off to warn Tom Hardy, and raced off myself to Ploegsteert, which I had not seen for twenty-four years.

There, at the end of the village, beneath the shadow of the notorious Ploegsteert Wood, I met two heartening sights. One was batch of Hun prisoners being marched up and down outside Divisional Headquarters; the other was John Barry’s calm, slow smile. Brigadier Barry commanded the artillery of the Fifth Division and is another of the war’s good Brass Hats. This was the first time I had met him; subsequently we were to serve under him in England.

He was smoking a cigarette through the inevitable holder when I reported. His surprise may have been genuine; it may have been the calm indifference of the leader who never betrays anxiety; a any rate, he was sceptical about this story of Messines, but certainly was not going to reject the offer of an 18-pounder battery with a 25-pounder battery added. He told me to get the batteries up to the neighbourhood of Wytschaete, where Colonel Tyson would be able to give me the situation on the spot.

We had a tough job getting through Neuve Église. The village had just had a tidy strafing; broken glass, fallen masonry, and dead horses of some French artillery lay across the main street. The road was blocked with vehicles. I imagined that the way was impassable until I went ahead to see; it was only the excitable confusion of the French which prevented progress. We soon got things moving and drove out along the road to Wulverghem. From here we could see Messines and the famous ridge. Were the Boches really there or not? I studied the village carefully through my glasses. “Rot 1” I announced. “There are no Boches in Messines.”

An hour later my 18-pounders were coming into action near the Bois de l’Enfer, just behind the Messines Ridge to the right of Wytschaete, and Tom Hardy’s 25-pounders were pulling into position round Wulverghem; my own headquarters were established in a cottage off the Wytschaete road. Everybody started digging like hell. One of my difficulties was how to run what was in fact a regiment (two batteries) without a regimental headquarter staff. I made Peter Booth ‘adjutant’, and he did his stuff well.

For the next twenty-four hours we had a lively time. Whether or not the Boches had ever been in Messines, things were certainly jumpy round these parts. The situation was, as the official phrase goes, ‘fluid’; so fluid that it was impossible to keep track of where our infantry were along the front. Pluto was out in an armoured carrier with wireless on our left front; Dennis and Cliff on our right, with cable which kept getting cut by shellfire. Gunner Bruckland, sent out to repair cable, must have walked into a Boche patrol, for we never heard of him again until, weeks later, he was officially reported prisoner-of-war. Then three infantrymen came running out of Wytschaete with news that Boches were coming over the ridge. I got Pluto on the wireless, and he assured me that there was not a Boche within half a mile of the village; he could see them and was shooting at them. We had received no rations, but there was some livestock about, so the men got something to eat.

All through the night things were lively. We had several SOS calls. The Boches penetrated fifteen hundred yards into our lines on the left, and on the right the position was obscure. We did quite a lot of shooting, and there was hostile shelling of Wytschaete and in front of our guns, with some low bombing. The telephone cable kept getting cut all night. There was that feeling in the air that anything might happen at any moment.

Next morning there was a counterattack by the Inniskillings and the Guards, our troop commanders well forward shooting their guns. The Hun was driven back and things looked good. I was just ordering our battery to advance the other side of Wytschaete when John Barry walked into the cottage. He was smiling, but serious, and said he wanted to speak to me alone.

The story he unfolded was flabbergasting. The B.E.F. was to be withdrawn from France, as it was almost entirely surrounded. A strip of coast was being held from Nieuport to Dunkirk from which the troops would be embarked. The embarkation was to be covered by the Navy, and the R.A.F. had guaranteed to concentrate the whole of its resources on protecting this operation. No guns, no transport, no equipment of any kind could be embarked-only what the men stood up in. The Brigadier glanced at a small dispatch case he was carrying. “That’s all I’ll take,” he said.

Emphasizing how essential it was that our part of the line should be firmly held for the rest of the day, he gave the following orders. My own battery was to fire off all its ammunition, so far as possible on enemy movement that we could see, the remainder on targets to be selected by myself where shelling would be likely to interfere with the enemy’s communications, concentrations, or movement of reserves. I was to order Hardy’s battery to fire off all its ammunition likewise, except fifty rounds per gun. The whole of the above shooting by both batteries was to be spread out so that fire was kept up until nine-thirty that evening, the firing to ‘taper off’ for the last two hours in order not to arouse suspicion in the enemy lines by ending abruptly. At nine-thirty Hardy’s battery would cease to be under my command and would accompany Colonel Tyson’s regiment to take up a flank-guard position south of Dunkirk. Every piece of equipment belonging to our own battery was to be destroyed or rendered useless and abandoned; the guns were to be destroyed on ceasing fire; nothing, however, must be burnt, as fires might make the enemy suspect what was happening. It was most important to reduce congestion on the roads to the minimum; therefore, we were not to take more vehicles than were absolutely necessary to get our men to the coast.

I could hardly believe my ears. I went straight off to Tyson when the Brigadier had gone. “I’ve come to make sure that I’m not mad,” I said. “I’ve just had the most incredible orders from someone I believe to be Brigadier Barry; but as I’ve only seen the Brigadier once before, and then only for a few minutes, I want to make sure from you that it really was he and not some enemy agent dressed up in uniform.” Well, you know the answer I got.

I sent for all officers and senior N.C.O.s, told them the position, and ordered them to explain everything to their men. It was a bitter moment for us all. Like the rest of the B.E.F., we felt the Hun could be beaten if only we were allowed to go for him. On the Dyle, on the Escaut, at Cysoing, we had taken part in scraps where with our own eyes we had seen that our infantry were more than a match for the enemy infantry, despite their inferior equipment, and our own gunners as good as theirs, too. Had we not driven the Boches back here only an hour or two ago? Only in the air did it seem that he could do what he liked, and we could go on sticking that, as we had stuck it up till now. In any event, we would rather fight and be beaten than run away. To a gunner, the idea of destroying his guns is sacrilege. We were not disheartened, or even alarmed at the plight

of the army-we were embittered, enraged, and ashamed. The British soldier is as grand a fighter as ever his forebears were. He has the guts, the heart, and the will to stand and fight things out to the bitter end-to death, if necessary. But we seem to have lost the art of allowing him to do so.

Dunkirk, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tobruk-these are not proud pages in the history of our land. Economy in lives must ever be the aim of our leaders. But there is false economy. The sacrifice of thousands may in the end save millions. And the tragedy is that this is the policy in a war where the Hun is not the Hun of 1914-1918. True, he is better equipped, better led, more ruthlessly prepared, more highly trained; but the dogged will to stand and fight when things are going wrong is not in him as it was in the men who stood and died for every inch of mud in the long battles of the Somme two decades ago. He is made to fight-whereas our lads want to fight and are not allowed to do so.

I have never seen men so furious, never seen so much venom or determination put into obedience of orders, as on the Messines Ridge that gloomy evening in May. If things had to be destroyed then, by God, they should be destroyed whole-heartedly! I am quite certain that not one single piece of our equipment has since been of the slightest use to the Boches.

Those who could be spared from fighting duties must begin the work of destruction at once. We burnt all documents and maps, except the maps required to get us to the coast. All kit, blankets, and spare clothing were slashed, ripped to pieces with knives, torn to shreds and buried in the mud. We smashed to pieces all our artillery instruments except those small enough to be carried and buried them. Gun tractors, watercarts, and vehicles not required for the journey, were driven down to the bank of the Douvre at Wulverghem; there they were smashed up by shooting bullets through petrol tanks, removing carburettors, taking off all fittings, breaking windscreens, slashing tyres to shreds, bashing radiators with pick-axes, and then pushing the wreck into the water. We broke, bent, smashed, and completely wrecked all signalling and wireless equipment, and buried the remains, or threw them into the river.

I have never seen such display of hatred. The men would raise their picks in the air, and shout: “. the… Boche!” as they brought the pick down with all their might on to some expensive and useful bit of equipment. Tears were in the drivers’ eyes as they pushed a battered, ruined ‘Alice’ or ‘Rosie’ into the river-tears of rage. Nothing must be left for the accursed Hun. In the cottage where our headquarters where we smashed everything and gutted the place. Every cup, chair, table, window, we broke to pieces. The water-tank we fouled with petrol and filth. Anti-Nazi propaganda was written on the walls. There were a lot of animals about, and these, of course, must not be left for the Hun to eat. We shot all cows, calves, goats, pigs and chickens. We put aside some chickens for a meal for the men before they left; the carcases of the rest were soaked with petrol and acid from the accumulators, in order to leave nothing fit for human consumption.

While this was going on, we were fulfilling our primary task of killing as many Huns as possible. We had three thousand rounds of ammunition left, and every one of these must be made to do its maximum damage so far as lay in our power. Dennis Clarke and Cliff Hackett hid themselves in a haystack just behind our forward infantry, each with telephonic communication to his guns; Pluto spent hours in an armoured carrier right up in the front, shooting the third Troop’s guns by wireless. We shot at parties of enemy infantry, transport in the distance, tanks, and mortars which were worrying our infantry. Our chaps would kiss each shell as they shoved it in the breech, and it would go hurtling from the muzzle with oaths and cries of hatred from the gunners. Much of this shooting was observed to inflict casualties on the enemy.

There was other excitement, too. Enemy air activity, bombing, shelling, and several flaps that the enemy were coming over the ridge, when infantry came running out of the village to form defensive posts on the road and anti-tank guns were rushed into position close by us, but nothing materialized. At 7 p.m. I sent off all officers and personnel not needed for firing the guns. Many of them had rifles, and I sent some of the Lewis guns and anti-tank rifles with them.

At 8 p.m. I ordered A Troop to cease fire and destroy their guns. This they did, removing breech-blocks, smashing range-drums, buckling brakes, slashing rubber tyres, removing dial-sights and sight clinometers. The sergeant of each gun was ordered to drop the breech-block in the first river or canal he crossed, and to get the dial-sight and sight clinometer to England. Jack Leaman then took A Troop off.

At 8.45 p.m. I ordered C Troop to do the same, and Harry Baird, who had a broken wrist, took them away. I knew the three Troop Commanders would want to stay to the end, so kept them with me. At 9.30 p.m. B Troop had the honour of firing the last shell we had left. The battery had fired 3,107 rounds that day. At 9.50 p.m. B Troop had finished destroying their guns, and Boots led them off. We were the last guns to leave, but only a few minutes after Tom Hardy’s. It was now just dark.

After they had all gone, Dennis Clarke, Cliff Hackett, Basil Strahan and I took a last look at the fires burning in Wytschaete, climbed into our trucks, and turned towards Wulverghem.

********

XVII

BATHING PARTY

ORDERS were to go to Beveren, fifteen miles from the coast, where we should find a report centre. The route we were to follow brought back last-war memories: Locre -Westoutre- Wulverghem-Dranoutre- Reninghelst- Poperinghe -Rousbrugge. Actual distance was less than thirty miles. In fact, the journey took ten hours.

At Wulverghem we caught up with the tail of the heterogeneous mass crawling north-west; infantry in lorries and trucks of all descriptions, gunners in lorries, sappers in lorries, Staff in cars, guns, armoured carriers, all mixed up together, all without lights in the darkness.

Normally three cardinal rules govern Army columns on the road; vehicles must travel at intervals of approximately one hundred yards; no double-banking is allowed; no vehicles of one unit must ‘cut in’ to the column of another unit. Here, all vehicles were ‘nose to tail’ two distinct columns crawled along side by side; vehicles of different units were all sandwiched in and jumbled up. It was to be like this all the way-even worse, later on. It was not a question of bad discipline; everybody was calm, patient, the vehicles well-controlled. It was just inevitable.

Through Dranoutre we crept, on towards Locre. Fires lit up the sky all round. Flashes of bursting shell appeared on our right. At Locre we struck the road from Bailleul, and here real trouble began. Our columns were calm and well disciplined, the drivers making no attempt to scramble ahead, machine-gunners and anti-tank riflemen standing alert in their vehicles, weapons in hand. But here we ran into disorganization-panic; uncontrolled parties of French infantry, Belgian soldiers without arms on bicycles, French cavalry, Belgian cavalry, refugees, all careering and pushing in and out between our trucks, scrambling to get ahead, shouting, swearing.

The blockage became so great in Locre that we remained at a standstill for two and a half hours. One could see quite distinctly all the vehicles that hemmed us in, and the roofs of the houses beyond them, because of the light in the sky from the burning villages around. All through this long wait one had the clatter of horses’ hoofs ringing in one’s ears, as the Belgians spurred and jagged their weary animals forward.

We had been told there was a ‘corridor’ to the coast between the surrounding German hordes. I suppose the British always treat everything in a blasé way; at any rate, I’m sure none of us had really pictured a very narrow corridor. How narrow it was, was brought home vividly to us as we moved out of Locre along the open road to Westoutre. Verey lights were going up into the sky to the right of us, away to the left of us, behind us, and, it seemed, in front of us too. I remember wondering vaguely if we would get through. I could foresee trouble in collecting our chaps the other end-or earlier, if we bumped the Boche. Dennis Clarke and Basil Strahan were in the back of my truck, myself standing in the front beside Hearn; Cliff was in his truck just in front with two wireless signallers in the back; how far ahead in this vast column were the rest of our chaps, I had no idea and no means of finding out. Some of them must be many miles ahead, for they had left hours before us. Boots and his gang were probably a few hundred yards in front but how could one tell?

It was daylight as we crawled into Reninghelst.  Ruins on our left were still smouldering. A couple of anti-tank guns were pointing ominously up roads to right and left. Refugees were huddled in a ditch. Belgian soldiers on bicycles were pushing madly in and out of the column. Shells were bursting away to the right, the sound of bombs ahead. At Poperinghe the jam was at its worst. We were brought to a standstill in the main square. I stood up in my truck and looked around. There were seven distinct rows of traffic, each row wheel to wheel with the row to either flank, every vehicle nose to tail. Just at that moment a big Dornier, flying low, circled slowly over the town; in a second there would be a real shambles. Nothing could escape; neither man nor vehicle could move. But he flew off to the south. No bombs left, perhaps; but he would be sure to send back information, and then either the shells or the bombs would come. However, the mass quivered, then moved on, and we were well along the road before some big stuff crashed behind us.

At Rousbrugge the main road bore to the left. There was a signpost showing it led to Dunkirk. The minor road to Beveren went straight on. To my surprise the whole mass was veering left along the main road to Dunkirk; I had assumed they would all have been ordered to Beveren like us. It was an almost impossible task to get out of the column. Still, orders are orders, and we had got to get to Beveren. We managed it in the end.

Beveren is a tiny hamlet, consisting principally of the church. There was some sort of Belgian headquarters in a small house, but no sign of any British headquarters or report centre. Seeing a major of a Highland regiment walking about, I asked if he knew where the “I’ve been searching for it for hours myself,” he groused. “The blighters don’t appear to have turned up.” report centre was. “Or else they’ve vamoosed,” I said cynically.

What was worrying me far more was the fact that none of our battery was there. They had all had orders to come to this place and they had all left hours before we four had left. What had happened to them all? I posted Hearn by the church to look out for any of our chaps entering the village, and Cliff then went back to Rousbrugge to make inquiries while Dennis Clarke and I searched the village again.

After hanging about for some time, news arrived that some of the earlier masses of troops had lost their bearings in the dark and taken the wrong road; some of our chaps were among that lot, had found their way back to the main route, and were some miles back in the midst of the dense crawling columns.

There was no one to whom to report, no one from whom to obtain orders, and the situation was obscure. I therefore decided that, as we had destroyed our guns and were consequently no longer any use as a fighting unit, our duty was to save the lives of our men if possible. As soon as I could collect or contact them in the column behind, I would take them all to Dunkirk.

Just then Ambrose drove through the village. He pulled up and got out. Though pale and weary-eyed, he was his usual dynamic self, and had, like me, the inevitable coloured forage cap on his head. He confirmed my intention to get the men to Dunkirk but said that enemy tanks were in Warhem and advised me to wait a little to see if the situation clarified. He also told me that some fool had blown most of the bridges over the canal between us and Dunkirk forty-eight hours too soon. and the main road I went. So back to Rousbrugge There I walked for some two or three miles back along the columns and eventually found most of our lost vehicles interspersed here and there amongst those of other units. All kinds of regiments and arms of the Service were jumbled up together hopelessly. Obviously, it would be quite impossible to extricate our vehicles from this mass, which was maintaining a pace of about two miles an hour.

I therefore sent a dispatch rider down the column to tell each of our vehicles to proceed as best it could to Dunkirk, where I would leave a guide outside the town with further orders. I decided to go ahead myself to find out the position.

Walking back to Rousbrugge, I was going about three times the pace of the column. At the cross-roads was a tall Brigadier, controlling the traffic. Bombs were falling, but he was quite unconcerned. It was Mossy. “Hullo, you old warrior,” he smiled, as I went up to him to report what I was proposing to do. He told me there were rumours that the Boche was on the outskirts of Dunkirk, and that in any event he thought it unlikely that anybody could get into the town by the main road, but that it would be advisable to take one of the roads to the east. However, I decided to try. If there were any Boches in the neighbourhood of Dunkirk it was essential that I should get ahead of my men to find out in advance the actual position before they got near the place, so, with such vehicles as were with me, I set off. Dennis and Basil were in my truck-we were all armed; Cliff was in the truck behind; and Boots in another truck with a Lewis gun and an anti-tank rifle manned by the men in the back.

Progress was very slow; partly because large numbers of vehicles and guns had been destroyed and left in the roadway; partly because of hostile shelling; partly because every time a low-flying enemy ‘plane came over, which was pretty often, the French drivers leapt out of their vehicles to hide in the ditch.

Around Seclin we had seen good French troops; here it seemed we must be among the dregs of the French Army. One panic stricken French major, trying to scramble past the column, ditched his car. Rushing up to Boots’s (Robert Crichton-Brown) truck, he tried to pull the driver out of the seat, presumably in order to clamber in himself. When Boots shouted at him, the major pulled out his revolver, mad with terror. Bang went the Entente Cordiale, and Boots slogged him hard on the jaw. It was the only way to calm the man down. A little further on, the driver of a French lorry at the side of my truck kept honking his horn and screaming like a maniac at the driver in front to let him pass, which, of course, was quite impossible in this jam. The Frenchman then went mad. Jamming his foot on the accelerator, he jumped his lorry forward full tilt at the tailboard of the truck in front. I jumped out and dealt with him; his eyes were wild, he was dribbling at the mouth, and screaming oaths at everybody. However, the sight of my revolver had a calming influence and he behaved himself after that. We came across a column of French lorries, engines still running, abandoned by their drivers right in the centre of the road. It was a pathetic sight, too, to see some French cavalrymen slide off their horses and jump into passing lorries, leaving their terrified mounts to fend for themselves. he was

I must say I felt rather proud of my own countrymen that day. Not a sign of panic or bad discipline did I see among any British troops. They showed up well beside their allies. The boys of our battery were no exception; they were alert and cheerful, and the lads in the back of Boots Brown’s truck were singing ‘The Quarter master’s Stores’-our own version, which had a verse for each of our own officers: There was

Brown, Brown, With his trousers down, In the Stores, in the Stores’.

Boots Crichton-Brown grinned.

A sharp crack rang out. An anti-tank gun had opened fire. Away to our left we saw a Boche tank disappear behind a wood. Ahead we could see great columns of smoke, and flames stabbing the sky above the trees. We could feel the heat of the fires even at this distance. The small town of Bergues, through which the road to Dunkirk led, was burning; the road was barricaded, and a sergeant was directing the traffic down a side-road to the right. We turned down this narrow outlet; then came block after block, halt after halt, everything gradually jerking forward by degrees, until some miles further on we seemed to come to a permanent standstill. There was open country to the left of the road, so I pulled on to it and went ahead to investigate. The column had reached the canal. The two bridges within sight had been blown. Officers and men were smashing up the trucks before abandoning them to march the rest of the way.

We dismantled the wireless on my truck, smashed it with a pick, and then I emptied my revolver into the petrol tank. Hearn slashed the tyres to shreds. We took off the carburettor, dynamo, and distributor head, and threw them into the water. Finally, we pushed the truck into the canal. I watched her sink until only the tip of the wireless mast showed above the water. A perfectly good Humber Snipe, brand new the day before the blitz started!

Soon we had seven of our officers and some sixty of our men collected here. I learned that the majority of our fellows had gone another way and were ahead of us now. So, as soon as all the vehicles had been pushed into the canal, we began the ten-mile trek across country to Dunkirk, humping as much of the smaller equipment as we could salve.

It was a weary journey. In places the ground was boggy, the men were very tired and hungry, and the pieces of equipment heavy. Those who were armed marched on the flanks. We kept well together, and every now and then the chaps would sing until they got too much out of breath to continue. All over the countryside thousands of the B.E.F. were streaming in small parties, some unarmed, some armed, to Dunkirk. All medical organization seemed to have broken down completely. There were numerous wounded, but the doctors, anxious though they were to get attention for these poor fellows, were helpless; there were no aid posts or medical equipment anywhere.

Just outside Tetegen there was some fierce dive-bombing, which was quite nasty while it lasted, but as we crouched in the ditch we were rewarded with two glorious sights. One ‘plane shot down by a Bofors anti-aircraft gun. Another dive-bomber, screaming down, failed to pull himself out of his dive in time, crashed nose first into the ground, and burst into flames. A great cheer went up.

We marched on. An aged Brass Hat, a typical Base-wallah, pulled me up. “Are these your men?” he barked. I glanced at my boys, who had fought for nearly three weeks, had just marched miles after having had no food or sleep for a long time, humping heavy dial-sights and other salved equipment, dirty, unshaven, and tired, but still full of fight, smiling, and singing ‘Bless ’em all !’ “Yes,” I replied.

“Then make them march properly,” he barked. “That man’s out of step.” Perhaps he hadn’t meant to be funny. Anyhow, he went purple in the face when I laughed. However, a Boche ‘plane did me a good turn just then by dropping a bomb close by. The Brass Hat forgot all but himself, and we marched on in peace.

On the wide green stretch before we reached the outskirts of Dunkirk, we noticed some heavy anti-aircraft guns which had been destroyed. Surely these could have been saved till the last minute, we thought. There was any amount for them to do. Indeed, that was brought home to us very forcibly as we reached the town. About twenty Boche ‘planes sat over the place for nearly two hours, bombing and machine-gunning. We had to negotiate the streets by stages, diving into cover every hundred yards or so. At one spot, where houses came crashing to the ground in the next street and a huge crater yawned in the square outside the church, we were lucky in finding a large shelter which could house a large number of men. Some French soldiers who were in it welcomed us, and we sat there smoking while the bombs dropped, but the French officer in charge was very angry, saying it was not for the British. However, we gave him some cigarettes and he shut up.

Eventually we reached the beach, where we found that Stephen Muir, Jack Leaman, Pluto MacKay, Peter and the rest had already arrived. I ascertained that all our survivors had reached the beach safely. The sea looked cold and grey. Something by the mole was on fire, and smoke was rolling over the town. Two disabled transports lay half-submerged offshore. Some ships were standing out to sea, and destroyers were patrolling the coast.

There must have been well over twenty thousand troops on the beach, British, French and Belgian; and they still kept coming. There was some kind of embarkation staff on the mole and information filtered through that there would be at least seventeen ships and some small craft available late that evening, and that meanwhile everyone must remain on the beach.

But those ships were not to be. Hun airmen took command of the situation, and for hours relays of ‘planes circled over the area, screaming down to bomb, or machine-gunning the beach. It was thrilling to watch the destroyers as they manoeuvred to dodge the bombs, putting up smoke screens and firing their little pom-poms at the ‘planes. The Navy always put up a grand show.

Before long, fires were raging all over the place; a ship lying alongside the mole was on fire; oil tanks were ablaze; crash after crash announced the rain of bombs and shells on the town. Although they did not succeed in damaging the mole severely, the fires were so intense that it was impossible to use it for embarking troops. Over to the right, probably off La Panne, a French cruiser was on fire; we admired her gameness, as flash after flash from the burning vessel showed that her big guns were still hurling vengeance at the Boche.

At intervals a ‘plane would swoop to machine-gun the length of the beach. Near the mole some bombs killed a hundred troops. No medical aid was available and the wounded were dying for lack of it. Callously, Boots Crichton-Brown turned over the bodies to make sure that none of our men was among them, then came with tears in his eyes to see what could be done for the suffering wounded.

Such was the setting for the epic story of Gunner B. A skimpy lad of nineteen, he had gained a remarkable reputation as a ladies’ man. Ever since we had been in France, whenever we arrived in a new village, sure enough you would see young B in tow with the most voluptuous female in the place in an incredibly short time. His letters were amazingly frank about his amours. Towards dusk that evening, just as the bombing was at its height, I spotted young B jauntily making his way off the beach towards the burning town. “Come here, B,” I shouted. “Where are you going?”

“To find a bit o’ skirt, sir,” retorted this sanguine youth. “There are no civilians there now.”

“Aw, well, sir,” he replied. “I’m fed up with this ‘ere beach, anyway.” He seemed quite hurt when I ordered him back to the comparative safety of the beach.

The hours of darkness dragged by. Fires still raged. Over to the right the gallant French cruiser was still afloat and ablaze, one of her guns still firing. No orders came. Nobody could find any one to give us information. No ships were available, and no troops had been embarked since before we arrived. It was very cold on the beach, and the sand gave off a horrible stench.

Dennis Clarke and I had a chat. We had both come to the conclusion that nobody would get off that beach; it was obvious that there was no prospect of organized embarkation of troops that night. We decided to search the coast towards La Panne in the hope of finding fishing craft into which we could load our men and drift out to sea. We were just starting off on this expedition when Boots rushed up

in great excitement to say that he had found a destroyer’s jolly-boat beached a mile up the coast with a young naval officer ‘looking for the Army’. Boots wanted permission to send twenty of his men aboard the jolly-boat to the destroyer.

We hurried off with Boots to reconnoitre. What a sight met our eyes! Through the grey, misty half-light we could make out naval vessels standing off the coast about a mile out to sea and a mile and a half to the east of the mole.

I was loath to move our men until I could make sure they could be embarked, for they were exhausted, having had no food for two days and no proper sleep for several days. There were transports of sorts standing offshore, protected by destroyers, and on finding that the Navy would assist us to embark, we sent back along the beach for our boys. Soon, all the thousands of troops were hustling towards us.

Difficulties were not, however, over. There was no staff here to organize the embarkation. The swarming masses were a heterogeneous collection of survivors from countless different units; some had no officers with them; others had only one or two junior officers; there was great danger that the situation might get out of hand and develop into an ugly scramble.

The officers of our battery and some infantry officers who collaborated with us stood out in the sea facing the beach until the thousands could be organized into some kind of formation. After some time, with the help of some Marines, we got the situation well in hand. The crowds were organised in long columns, about twenty yards apart, stretching back to the dunes. The two young Naval officers were magnificent. There must have been nearly forty

The real trouble was that there were only five dinghies to row the thousand troops on the beach at this time. troops out to the ships. This worked out that one dinghy was available for every three columns, and as the ships were about a mile out, this meant that each column was only able to get twelve men away every forty minutes or so. It was terribly slow, but it did work. Some men swam out to the ships. As soon as a ship got loaded, she sailed at once and we would start loading another. Gradually ships of all kinds appeared off the coast as the day wore on, and more dinghies, some launches, and all kinds of craft became available, and made things easier by coming closer in shore.

Three Hurricanes chased some Boche ‘planes away. How we cheered! They were the first British fighters we had seen since the blitz began. From then on, the Boche could no longer do exactly as he liked. With a few exceptions, the masses on the beach were splendid.

Their behaviour was calm, their discipline good, and the officers of all units co-operated with a will. We were anxious to get some men who had waited three days already away as soon as possible, and to do so we gave them preference out of turn over our own men and men of other units. I waded out of the sea and spoke to our chaps about it. They were all quite happy, smiling at me when I explained. “That’s O.K., sir,” said one bombardier. “There ain’t no ‘urry for us. We know our officers will see we get away all right some time.” Grand chaps.

We stood out in the sea, regulating the allotment of craft. Each boat would come back for its fresh load to the place where an officer was standing up to his waist in water which was black with oil from one the destroyers, and we would have the men detailed for the next boat load out there in the sea with us, ready for it to arrive. detailed the next few men, one saw the look of hope on the faces of those who were waiting to know if they were included this time-for it might be the last time, one never knew; but the disappointed ones always smiled and just went on standing waiting, hoping for the best. When all the ships had sailed and no fresh ones were yet in sight they still smiled and joked among themselves, even when the Hun chose this interval to drop some shells and bombs around.

It was a cold job, hour after hour. All the officers played their part, but the palm went to Boots, who for a great many hours stood out in the sea, organizing the supply of boats, ensuring that each column had fair treatment. He was largely responsible for the smooth embarkation of large numbers without casualties during the early hours of that morning; several senior officers from other units asked me to see that his conduct was brought to notice. He was subsequently mentioned in despatches.

One fool, on reaching the ship, let the dinghy drift away. Our champion swimmers, Boots Crichton-Brown and Harry, stripped to swim out to retrieve it. Then a canoe floated by. Boots scrambled into it, chased the dinghy out to sea, and brought both back.

It had been about three o’clock in the morning when we started sail with Pluto, Cliff, Peter, and many of our chaps on board. I sent Harry and about thirty men off to the mole where they were starting to embark troops at a faster rate.

At about five in the afternoon Dennis Clarke, Basil Strahan, and I sent the last of our chaps off in a dinghy. Half an hour later Gunner Booth and Bombardier Matthews (who subsequently went to the Commandos) rowed the dinghy back to fetch us. Some sailors from the ship had offered to do this, but these two had insisted on fetching their own officers themselves.

Boots was waiting to help me aboard the little Dutch coastal tramp. As we weighed anchor a few bombs fell. I was soaked to the skin after about sixteen hours standing out in the sea, and my boots, breeches, tunic and face were covered with oil from the ships. The ship’s engineer offered me his cabin to get my wet things off. As I was hanging them up to dry in the engine-room, I heard the rattle of machine-guns above. I rushed up on deck.

A roar of laughter greeted me as I looked up at the Boche ‘plane which had been driven off. I suddenly realized I was standing there in nothing but my shirt, tin hat, and monocle.

Past us incessantly, towards the French shore, sped cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and all kinds of queer craft of all shapes and sizes. It was a wonderful sight. I shall never cease to marvel at the calm efficiency and courage of the seamen who in two wars have transported troops back and forth across the Channel day and night. It is always stimulating to talk to them on these trips, and this was no exception.

We were just coming into Dover when a launch came out to turn us away up the coast. Not long afterwards, a port hove in sight. “My God! What luck! It’s Ramsgate!” cried an officer standing next to me. “I live here. I’ll be with my missis in an hour.” But in an hour’s time the disappointed Ramsgate husband was being whirled away in a train to Gloucestershire. Such is Life.

We could see that the streets were crowded with civilians. “They must think us a lot of rats, running away like this,” said Basil Strahan. We all felt like that. We had clear consciences; we had wanted to stay and fight; we What must the people at home think? had done our best; but the fact remained, we had run away.

“We’ll get the bird,” I agreed. I pictured us marching through the streets with the crowd staring at us in contemptuous silence. It was a relief when we were ushered straight into motor coaches.

The ordeal would not last so long that way.

Then it happened. Cheers rang out all along the route. Handkerchiefs waved, hats were in the air. “Good God!” choked Dennis Clarke. “Somebody’s been putting over some hefty propaganda here at home.”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in our coach by the time we reached the station.

 

***************

 

XVIII

PHOENIX PARTY

WE expected anti-climax after all that had passed, but this was not to be. A recent letter from the Brigadier under whom we were now to serve recalled ‘that invasion season of 1940 with all its alarms and inspirations. A happy description.

Strange to say, we did not sleep during the long train journey down to Gloucestershire. All the kind hearts in England seemed to have conspired to overwhelm us. At every stop, tea, cakes, fruit, chocolate, cigarettes, writing-paper and stamps were lavished on us. One Good Samaritan offered to telephone my wife in London, and faithfully kept his promise.

Hours later at Kemble station we were whisked away as guests of two hospitable artillery regiments. Huge breakfast. Glorious hot bath. Shave. The stiffest whiskies you ever saw. One officer gave me a pair of shoes, another lent me a pair of trousers. They were great hosts. Sad to see the names of some of them in the casualty lists since that day.

Then off to meet the London train and my wife. Rita Clarke is with her. How these two laugh when they see their husbands. Dennis Clarke has no collar or tie, but a choker. I look a weird specimen too.

At the camp where men from fifty units are to be sorted out we have Dennis, Basil, Boots, Peter, myself, and about twenty of our N.C.O.s and men; we have no idea as to what part of the country he rest of our chaps have gone.

It is Sunday. Queen Mary inspects us. We look awful sights in the weirdest clothing imaginable. She is charming, obviously much moved, chats to all the officers. After she has gone, a church parade. To my horror, when it comes to prayers for the wounded, the padré fervently adds a prayer for the German wounded. I boil with rage. Here have we been doing our damnedest to rid the world of these pests, and the Church retaliates by ordering prayers that they may recover so as to become able again to kill our own men, women and children.

There is no single aspect of Army life which causes so much resentment and harm as compulsory church parades. Of course, the amplest facilities should be organized and afforded to all those who desire or who are willing to attend religious services. Every officer should encourage his men to do so. But by what teaching of Christ is it ordained that religion shall be forced on men? It seems to me a poor policy to do so; it puts a premium on hypocrisy; it breeds resentment and thus prejudices men who might otherwise eventually embrace it willingly themselves. The grip of the Church on the Army authorities is so great that any liberal minded commander who sets his face against compulsion is victimized.

Next day, Monday, on the way to Okehampton, we change at Exeter where we get the first tidings of the fate of Regimental Headquarters and our other battery. Colonel Durand, whose Horse Artillery regiment was near them at Cassel, comes up to me on the platform to give me the news that Colonel Odling and Major Christopherson are wounded, that our chaps put up a grand show against tanks at Cassel, but were surrounded and casualties have been heavy.

At Okehampton we find Frank Bower, Stephen, Jack, and fifty men. Then at Hatherleigh our battery gradually drifts in: Pluto, Cliff, Harry, Slim Somerwill, Rex Thornton, our N.C.O.s and men. Roddy Hawes of the other [367] battery, who tells us something of the tale; with Sergeant Harcombe, wounded at Cassel; a gunner [Martin] who was captured and escaped; an epic is the story of that gallant battery.

A week later, to Carburton in Notts where for the first night we are the guests of the Scottish Horse in their camp. Jack Leaman is called to the ‘phone, and we hear a terrific bellow: “What the hell is it? A girl? Oh, GRAND!” And off goes Jack to see his first-born.

We make our own camp; day by day more survivors dribble in. So does news. We know the regiment’s losses now. Twenty-one officers and three hundred men have failed to return-of these, sixteen officers and two hundred men are known to be prisoners, many of them wounded as well. My own lucky battery has had only three killed, seven wounded, and eight missing. And now I am to re-form the regiment that is to say, find a Regimental Headquarters and two batteries out of the remnants of the old regiment. It means promotion for nearly every officer. Stephen Muir becomes second-in-command, Peter adjutant, Dennis Clarke and Pluto battery commanders.

Then a flap. Talk of invasion. We are hurriedly dished out with a rifle each-but have to wait two days for any ammunition because there are no reserves in the country-and sent off on our anti-invasion role.

The division we had supported on the Dyle was to hold a section of coast, our regiment’s responsibility being the defence of several hundred square miles behind the infantry brigade areas. For this task we had our own regiment, some three thousand L.D.V.s (as the Home Guard were then called), various searchlight detachments which studded the area, and some odd detachments of Ordnance Corps and R.A.S.C., all of which came under my control for operational purposes.

For such an area our forces were minute. Our regiment as yet consisted only of fifteen officers and three hundred men; reinforcements were arriving, but before many of them came we were ordered to send away eight officers and nearly two hundred men to take over guns on the coast. After that, we received a large number of reinforcements, of whom half were men who had had a few months’ training, but the remainder were recruits straight off the streets without uniform or any training whatsoever.

As for the Home Guard, they had practically no equipment at all, and very few had uniforms. Some had sporting guns or revolvers, and out of three thousand I think there were no more than three hundred who had any kind of lethal weapon. My own men and the other troops in the area had just a rifle, bayonet, and a hundred rounds of ammunition apiece. We worked feverishly at making Molotov cocktails, digging defences, making roadblocks, laying anti-tank mines, and preparing elaborate defence schemes for our area.

What would have happened if the Huns had invaded in those dark days? The B.E.F. had not been re-equipped or re-armed; those other troops who had not been overseas were but poorly equipped and armed, with the exception of the Canadians; the Home Guard possessed nothing but guts and the fighting spirit. Yet I have always believed that despite all this apparent helplessness, nevertheless somehow, some time, somewhere and by someone every Hun invader would in the end have been killed. It is a pity that the country cannot now recapture and display the spirit of grim determination that was then abroad in this land, as shown by the following story told me by a brigadier at that time.

Walking in the lane outside his headquarters the brigadier saw two elderly farm-labourers with pitchforks, behaving in a manner which attracted his attention. They were creeping along the hedge, hiding behind trees; one climbed a tree and pointed out landmarks to the other; they searched for hiding places in the ditch, in wayside sheds, behind bushes.

“What are you men up to?” asked the brigadier, undecided whether to be suspicious or just amused. “Just gettin’ to know the lie o’ the land,” replied one of them in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Just in case any o’ they Jarmans was to get around these parts. There’s many a good spot for an ambush here I reckons.” “I see,” said the brigadier, interested. “And what are you chaps then? L.D.V.s?” “No, sir,” replied the spokesman. “We don’t belong to nuthin’! Just free lances. But I reckons we could do a tidy bit o’ harm with these ‘ere forks.”

The Brigadier-a V.C.-did not tell this story as a joke. He was deeply impressed with the spirit it implied. This is total war. The Hun makes war on every man, woman and child, not only on soldiers. It is a pity that the Government cannot arm everyone; however, every civilian can lay hands on some lethal weapon, be it carving knife, poker, or what not, to use against the Hun if he enters the home. Boiling water was much in favour in the Middle Ages!

This same spirit was shown by another real fighter-Air Commodore Probyn of Cranwell. When discussing the defence of the area, he said to me: -“I’ve got scores of training ‘planes here. They’re not fitted for carrying bombs, but if the Boche comes here, I’ll send every ‘plane in the air; we can throw bombs out by hand, and if we’ve nothing else we’ll drop Molotov cocktails and hand grenades on him. When the time comes, just let me know where you want this kind of help, and you shall have it.”

It was the spirit, too, of one of Probyn’s men, Squadron Leader ‘Crippen’ Black, fine airman, pilot, man, who used to tell us with his slow smile how he hated being an instructor in war time because he wanted to be doing a man’s job killing Boches. He wanted to be a Bomber Boy-to get that, he offered to go down in rank, and did. His first operational flight was to bomb Berlin. Black carried out PHE as anyone who knew him knew he would. his task superbly, Nearing home, he handed over to another pilot. There was a fog. A crash landing followed. The pilot was unhurt, but ‘Crippen’ Black was dead. But he had died a Bomber Boy.

One of the leading Home Guard commanders in our area was our ex-Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who had thrown himself with vigour and enthusiasm into the task of building up the force in his area. Over a glass of sherry in the Mess he would entertain us with stories of the Nazi leaders. He was emphatic in distinguishing Göring from the rest; Göring, he said, was a blackguard, but not quite the dirty blackguard that the others were.

Sir Nevile definitely forecast an invasion for 8 August, and I verily believe he thought it would come off then. Hitler, he said, is a mystic; he is convinced the full moon is lucky to him; he also regards the weekend as propitious for any adventure-particularly for any venture against this country, as he believes everything in Britain, Army, Navy and Government included, packs up for the week-end. Now a full tide is necessary for any sea-borne invasion. Therefore, argued Sir Nevile, at the first occasion when full moon and full tide both fell together at a week-end Hitler would send his troops across. The first date upon which this could happen was 8 August. I sometimes think that when that date came and passed without invasion, Sir Nevile must have been quite disappointed.

Though that date passed without incident, others did not. Numerous flaps, some genuine, others not, led up to the great day when we received the code word which meant that something really was on the way. At last, we were going to get our own back for Dunkirk! Every man was on his toes. Hours went by, all eyes on the sky, all ears agog for the sound of gunfire at sea. Hours later the order to ‘stand down’ came. The R.A.F. had smashed up everything at the invasion ports before it could put to sea.

Flaps about baled-out airmen at large, agents landed on the coast by submarines, parachutists! Most, of course, were false alarms; every time a barrage balloon broke loose and floated over Lincoln shire, it was a safe bet that we would get messages from all over the area reporting that parachutists had been seen. There was one comic incident when two Boche airmen, baled out of a burning plane, were three days at large before being discovered in a wood. One enterprising newspaper reporter, having conceived the idea that the airmen must have been provided with some concentrated food essence to keep them in the fit state in which they were found, managed to get hold of one of their respirators and there discovered a phial of white tablets, one of which he sampled himself. His paper then duly printed the story of this ‘concentrated food essence’, together with the reporter’s comment that, having tested it himself, he could say that he found it of no sustenance value-it only made him sick. Actually, the tablet he had found and eaten was the German equivalent of our anti-gas ointment.

With complete lack of equipment and only poor-quality civilian transport, it was like going back to the early days of the war and the old necessity for improvisation. As a first step towards rearmament, we received twenty-five-year-old 75-mm. guns from America which had been shipped to the United States in part-payment of the French war debt many years ago. These old-fashioned weapons, intended to be horse-drawn, had the old iron-shod wooden wheels with which it was not wise to travel more than six miles an hour-a fatal thing if the Boche landed and we had to get at him quick. We scrounged and bought old bits of metal and some rubber-tyred car wheels, and Sergeants Witt and Beale designed and constructed carriers upon which we could mount the gun in thirty seconds, and which could be towed behind a lorry quite safely at forty miles an hour over almost any kind of country in an emergency.

Few people realize how much the Army had to do in the way of improvisation in those days. Among those few were two Fleet Street celebrities, John Gordon and Tom Clarke, who, together with Stainless Stephen, came to spend a cheery weekend with us. At the concert we gave in their honour, Stainless had the Corn Exchange rocking with laughter. By this time, we had a first-class concert party, and the shows were well dressed.

The invasion season and the equipment shortage came to an end about the same time. The artillery was reorganized in a manner which increased the personnel of a regiment, and Roddy Hawes and Cliff Hackett became majors. Twenty-five-pounder guns followed. Intensive training began in earnest.

David and Ambrose, both promoted, had been succeeded by two other fine Brass Hats-John Barry, under whom we had last served in France and Maurice Johnston who in the last war had been taken prisoner at Kut, escaped, and swum the Bosphorus, and was to prove a real friend to us.

The type of reinforcement we were getting, though completely untrained, was good material, intelligent, fit and keen. They came straight off the streets’, being ordered by the Labour Exchange to report on a certain date. Just after the Battle of Britain we got pathetic letters from some of these fellows. One man wrote from London, enclosing a doctor’s certificate saying that he was still suffering from bomb wounds. The same bomb had killed his wife and destroyed his home. He needed a few days to settle up his is and recover from his wounds. Would it be possible for the date of his call-up to be postponed a little? I could picture the writer of this letter. All his world snatched away from him.  Now he himself was called up. Would it be just the last straw? Or would be regard it as a great opportunity for revenge upon the Hun?

I found myself wondering how these militiamen picture Amy life before they enter it. Do they imagine the Army be an inhuman machine with officers just heartless cogs in the he? It is our job to make them feel they are serving with comes under the command of friends. I gave him a month’s postponement. He is now a valuable and grimly determined soldier. Among the most useful aspects of training are the numerous courses of instruction in various technical and general matters which the Army organizes for officers of varying ranks. I have been on many myself. One of these, for Commanding Officers only, was held in Wales. After a three-hundred-mile journey over ice bound roads and through snowdrifts, we arrived in darkness and a snowstorm in the town. I had been given the name of a small hotel, men over by the authorities for officers attending this course,

We asked a passer-by the way to this hotel. Apparently, there were two hotels of the same name, for he asked whether we meant the one in the town or the one on the sea-front. I plumped for the one on the front and he gave the necessary directions.

We found the place locked. I rang the front doorbell, and a queer-looking Welsh maid answered the door. Still not sure whether this was the right hotel, I asked: “Are you expecting a lot of officers here to-night?” “Oh, no” replied the maid. “Only Colonels.”

During the next twelve months I was dealt three severe blows. First, we were sent away from our old Corps and all our friends in it. From that grand world of mutual help and solidarity we were thrown an atmosphere of narking and nagging which made one sometimes wonder if we really are all on the same side in this war. Then, months later, Cliff Hackett’s 366 battery was taken away complete from us and sent to Iceland and the business of building up a new by to replace it was begun. Lastly, I myself was medically boarded and declared permanently unfit for any further military service. The trouble had begun with a mild attack of pleurisy our soaking at Dunkirk and had steadily developed as the months rolled by. So, I must lose my regiment. I had been with it since birth.

When its remnants reeled back from the body-blows in France I had, for good or ill, re-formed it, built it up, trained it, and commanded it for a year and a half. It meant everything to me. I knew every one of my officers, every one of my N.C.O.s, every to me. one of my men, their trials, tribulations, hopes, and qualities. Parting from old friends is tragic. The memory of them will never fade.

As I write this, they have borne their share in the Tunisian victory and now await, splendidly equipped, further operations in which they will play their part. That they will play hard, play clean, and play well, I know. Of the officers who were with us in France, only one is now left with them-Jack Leaman. So, to them I say-Good Shooting, and Good Luck!

 

*****

XIX

CRITIC’S PARTY

IN a New York journal of August 1942, Lord Strabolgi has thought fit to hold up the British Army to contempt and ridicule.

Now, is there much wrong with the Army to-day? Most well-informed critics will agree that it is now well armed, well equipped, and mobile; that the greater part is at last highly trained by the most up-to-date methods; that the men of the Striking Force are intelligent, keen, fit, hardened, and itching to join battle with the Hun. Earlier in this book it was suggested that in the main its leadership is sound.

But that is not to say that all is well. The waste of material, time, and personnel-the duplication of effort-the muddle in administration of the Army at home are such as to impair its efficiency and handicap the country’s effort. This waste and muddle are far worse than in the last war. The reason is not hard to find. After 1914, casualties were so heavy in the last war that the amateur soldier played a decisive part in the administration of the Army, and an almost universal part in the lower commands. As yet that has not been so in this war. The present trouble can be attributed to the mentality of the Regular officer. The leadership of the Army is in the hands of those exceptions who have thwarted the soporific of peace-time soldiering, applied themselves seriously to studying the profession of arms, and maintained their individuality in defiance of the system. They, of course, cannot be replaced by non-professionals with no technical background. But in the key administrative posts and in command of units and sub-units what is needed is the enthusiasm and energy of the amateur, the drive and independence and initiative of the man who has had to earn his living in a competitive and exacting world-qualities seldom found in the Regular.

The average Regular officer-there are, of course, notable exceptions-lacks Urge; years of peace-time soldiering have inoculated him against appreciation of the different values which war conditions prescribe; he will do his job, but somehow does not pull out just that extra bit more; frequently he is a clock-watcher who thinks all work ceases at four-thirty, even in war time. He is spoilt by training and tradition which (unintentionally, I think) discourage individuality, independence, and initiative qualities so successfully developed by the methods of the R.A.F., the Navy, and in later years the German Army. Let us see how this results in waste of time, material, and personnel and incidentally, the taxpayer’s money. As instances

I take:

(a)  The Clothing Racket.

(b)  The Petrol Racket.

(c)  The Paint Racket.

(d) The Clothing Racket.

The importance of economy in clothing and material is emphasized by severe rationing of civilians. This is also appreciated by the Army Council which frequently issues instructions aimed at ensuring such economy in the forces. But the needs of the nation and the instructions of the Army Council are frustrated in practice by the mentality of the Regular officer.

His gods are Spit and Polish. Like all fanatics, he carries his worship to extremes. Within moderation, Spit and Polish are worthy gods; it is essential to instil personal pride into the soldier; it is vital that the soldier’s bearing and appearance should arouse the confidence rather than contempt of the civilian population; but these objects could be obtained without gross waste of clothing.

Sensible instructions have been issued by the higher military authorities, stressing that in war time, when economy is vital, men’s clothing cannot be maintained up to the meticulous standard rightly demanded in peace. These instructions urge officers, whilst

 

stopped their men from polishing brass, have been angrily rebuked, and have been told to get it done at once and keep it done. No order, whether directed towards economy or towards greater efficiency, has much chance of being carried out if it offends the two peace-time deities.

I know of one unit where time is taken up each day not only in polishing personal equipment but also in polishing the metal parts of guns and vehicles. Quite apart from the unnecessary use of large quantities of metal polish and the waste of training time, this prevents the cultivation of a battle atmosphere’ which should be a principal object of training. And should not all equipment be kept in battle condition; in case the Hun should suddenly invade? No guns or vehicles must go into battle shining in the sun.

It is time the twin-gods Spit and Polish were relegated to their proper perspective in the scheme of things. Would it not be better for those Regulars who run the Army to bow the knee rather to those rival gods Fighting Spirit and Will-to-Win-the will to win by economy, scrupulous preservation of all serviceable material, as well as by the use of weapons?

The Petrol Racket.

Few now fail to appreciate the importance of oil in this war. The urgency of oil to the Hun-whose strategy is based on a trinity of oil consuming monsters, the aeroplane, the tank, and the submarine is shown by the prodigal squandering of blood and material to gain the Russian oilfields. The oil problem is no less important to our selves. Shipping space requires us to economize in its use in every way; the taxpayer’s interests also demand economy if the fullest use of his money is to be directed towards winning the war.

The Higher Command, realizing this, have issued many orders directed towards petrol economy, but these are constantly defeated by the actions of their subordinates.

Next to the gods Spit and Polish in the Regular’s Valhalla is the goddess Conference. To you and me the word conference implies discussion. In the Army it frequently implies the hiring of a cinema at the public expense, the pilgrimage of hundreds of officers scores of miles at the cost of thousands of gallons of petrol to see the Big Brass Hat mount the stage and describe from his notes some exercise in which they may or may not have taken part. In nine cases out of ten the discourse is of no value whatsoever to the less senior officers present (about four-fifths of the audience)-except, if they’re lucky, as entertainment! The vast amount of petrol consumed is sheer waste so far as effective prosecution of the war is concerned. In one Corps a conference of all senior officers was called. Before going, each received a copy of a lengthy document. About two hundred were there; each had come in a car by himself because they came from a variety of places and directions in three different counties. The average petrol consumption of the cars was twelve miles to the gallon. The distance from their stations varied from ten miles to eighty miles and they had to get back. When they got there, all that happened was that a Brass Hat read aloud the document which they had all read themselves before attending, another Brass Hat then asked if anyone had any questions; nobody asked a question; Brass Hat No. 2 then thanked Brass Hat No. I for reading this interesting document, and a lot more petrol was used up getting everybody home again. The worship of the goddess Conference that day had taken two hundred senior officers away from their duties for more than half a day and had wasted about a thousand gallons of petrol.

Mind you, these Regulars are alive to the importance of petrol economy except for essential purposes. It is a question of what an essential purpose is. On this point it is apparent that the views of the citizen-officer do not coincide with those of his Regular counterpart. Another illustration. Long ago, the higher military authorities instituted a weekly Transport Rest Day. Each unit was ordered to fix a weekly day on which no vehicle was to be used except for urgent purposes. Excellent idea. Later, this was extended to two days per week. Excellent, too. But however conscientious commanding officers might be, the object of this order was largely defeated week after week by orders from above to do something on that day which involved substantial use of petrol. If you changed your day to make up for this, something would happen on that day, too. If you decided to recoup this by keeping your transport in for a week, you ran serious risk of being called over the coals for not having taken your unit out for field training. Millions of gallons are wasted by the muddling in Whitehall which moves units about the country on futile journeys. Here are four typical instances:

  • A battery, stationed in West Wales, was ordered to join a newly formed regiment in Cornwall. the battery arrived in Cornwall, the whole regiment was ordered to move to the very place in Wales from which the battery had just come. This unnecessary double journey by the battery wasted some three thousand gallons.

 

  • A regiment, ordered to move fifty miles from one hut camp to another in Southern England, protested that its proposed destination would not provide sufficient room for its personnel or transport. Nevertheless, the move was insisted upon. On arrival, it became apparent that the regiment’s contention was right, so it was sent back fifty miles to its former camp, and the War Office ordered to the second camp a unit from North Wales ‘because it had no transport’ and would therefore find plenty of room there. On arrival, this unit proved to have even more transport (apparently unbeknown to the War Office!) than the first regiment so it was sent all the way back to North Wales again.

 

  • ‘X’ Regiment, under embarkation orders, was stationed at ‘A’. On its embarkation ‘Y’ Regiment, quartered at ‘B’ would take over at ‘A’, and ‘Z’ Regiment, stationed at ‘C’, would take over ‘B’. Quite simple-to all but the official mind. Instead of waiting until ‘X’ moved off to embark, when all consequent changes could take place automatically, the authorities ordered ‘X’ to ‘C’ pending embarkation, and ‘Z’ to ‘A’, thus giving ‘Z’ two moves instead of one to effect the change-over.

 

  • One Corps on the East Coast had four similarly equipped units under direct command, the first three (‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’) having an operational role on the coast, the fourth (‘D’) being inland in reserve. War Office required one of these units to reinforce a distant part of the country. Instead of ordering Corps to detail one unit, leaving it the choice, War Office sent orders for ‘C’ to go. This meant two moves instead of one-as ‘D’ then had to move into ‘C’s’ role-in addition to the operational disadvantage of having ‘D’ (who did not know the area) take over the role of ‘C’ (who knew the area and their task thoroughly) during the height of the invasion scare.

 

These are instances, of course, of muddle at the War Office, where one department never seems to know what another department does. Believe it or not, a regiment which had been sent to France with 18-pounder guns received a letter from the War Office, sent to their last address in England, informing that their new 25-pounder guns were awaiting collection at the station there. This department had apparently no idea that this unit had been overseas with the B.E.F. for two months.

Indeed, one might think that the War Office was composed of compartments rather than departments. This extraordinary make-up in the Regular mentality is illustrated by a conversation I overheard at a senior officers’ course which I attended.

I arrived early to find two dug-out colonels in conversation in the Mess. They had recognized each other’s faces but couldn’t think where they had met before. They exchanged names, but that did not help. Had they been at the Shop (Woolwich) together? No, on had passed out two years before the other. Had it been in India? Comparing notes proved that could not be so. The last war? No; one had been in France, the other out East. It eventually transpired that only a very few years ago these two had worked on the same headquarter staff together for two whole years and it had taken them all this time to find that out.

The unholy wedding in Whitehall of the Regular mentality with the dead hand of the civil service is the cause of all this muddle. A gust of business methods is sorely needed to blow the cobwebs away.

The Paint Racket.

There are millions of vehicles in the Army to-day. All have to be painted with certain signs. I must not, of course, publish the meaning of these signs. I can, however, say that each vehicle in an artillery unit must display four kinds of signs. I will call them Signs A, B, C and D. About Sign A there is no trouble; you paint it on a certain part in the front of your vehicle at the outset, and there it stays for keeps-though I have never known it serve any useful purpose. About Signs B and C there is not much trouble, except from the point of view of the paint they consume. Each is painted on the front and back of each vehicle; these are changed only at rare intervals.

It is Sign D which has caused all the fun-and the waste. I will give its history during a period of only six months, during which at different times it involved the use within a unit of red, blue, yellow, black, green, brown, and white paint. At the beginning of this period all Signs B, C, and D on all vehicles of the unit had to be changed a long job, occupying much time and using much paint. The next stage was an order that in addition to its existing positions back and front, Sign D must now be painted on each side of each vehicle. That was done.

Then apparently an order was issued from ‘Very High’ that all these D signs were to be changed again according to a new pattern, and new colouring. But the High did not approve the order of the Very High, so did not pass it on. Weeks went by. Then apparently the ‘Very High’ became angry at seeing that this order had not been carried out in some formations. So, the High-on the principle that the driver kicks the horse-angrily ordered these signs to be altered within forty-eight hours. New Signs D had to be painted back and front, and all Signs D on the sides obliterated. Signs on back and front were ordered to be painted on specially sized metal plates, to be obtained from Ordnance.

Ordnance could not supply them within the prescribed forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, the High solemnly decreed that the fact that the necessary metal could not be obtained would not be accepted as an excuse for non-compliance with the order! That of course is an exceptionally bad (not typical) example of the Regular mentality, but it emanated from one of the few remaining relics of the old type of Brass Hat who, incidentally, has now passed out of the Service.

Eventually, all this was carried out. After all the signs had been carefully removed from the sides of the vehicles, orders were given to paint them on again. I seem to remember that in the last war, with a very much larger army than we now possess, we had only one sign back and front on each vehicle. And yet we won that war.

Another cause of waste of time and personnel, and of duplication of effort, is the great Bumph Racket.

Bumph, as you know, is the army term for correspondence, documents, indeed all paper with writing on it. Bumph is to the Regular officer what confetti is to the guest at the wedding. He must throw it around on all sides with gay abandon. Many good fighting soldiers of high rank have tried hard to stem the flood or dam it at its source, but it is too powerful a force.

At a time when newspapers and publishers are strictly rationed, the waste of paper in the army is incredible. The time wasted by the commander of a fighting unit in wrestling with this evil from above is unbelievable. He will frequently receive copies of the same document from several different sources, each demanding a reply. Reports (or ‘returns’, as the army calls them) nearly always have to be sent in duplicate or triplicate, often more. For many months, no less than twelve copies of each of certain routine orders had to be sent by a unit to the same place. Everything is made the subject of a return. In one formation, when all possible subjects had been exhausted, the climax came with an order that every unit must make a periodical return giving a list of all the returns which had to be sent in! Nobody benefits by this idiotic business. Everyone suffers. And what about the waste of manpower in maintaining swollen staffs to cope with all this unnecessary volume of work? It is the Regular mentality at work.

The voluminous orders from above are beyond description. Now the Germans are very practical. In the German Army, the issue of written operation orders is forbidden below Divisional Headquarters, and high formations are limited to one foolscap sheet. Not only is this a terrific saving of time and paper, but it trains subordinates to act on verbal orders, and encourages initiative by limiting the detail that can be passed down. I made a practice myself of giving operational orders verbally instead of in writing; it had effective and gratifying results.

Very well, you say; assume it is correct that muddle and waste are attributable to the Regular mentality. Is there not now a healthy leaven of amateurs who can infuse fresh life into Army methods? Unfortunately, the answer is that they cannot succeed, because so far as possible they are suppressed. A fatuous remark has recently been made by more than one public man that if Rommel had been in the British Army, he could not have risen above the rank of sergeant. The suggestion, of course, is that class prejudice prevents an able ranker from rising. Some colour is lent to that contention by a letter written to the Times some while ago by a certain Colonel Bingham who bemoaned that the non-public-school candidates for commissions were not of the stuff of which officers should be made. Both these statements are, of course, sheer rubbish. That no class prejudice succeeds in stifling talent is shown by the careers of Hector MacDonald and William Robertson (once Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and in this war of General Nye (Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff) and General Percival (captured at Singapore), all of whom rose from the ranks. Many of the best officers I have known never saw the inside of a public school-and were all the better for that. It is not class prejudice that operates against promotion. What does exist is the professional’s bitter jealousy of the amateur.

Since in the past the amateur has been principally represented by the Territorial, this has resulted in an anti-Territorial prejudice. Now Territorials have in fact proved their worth in two wars. During the last war a document was found on a captured Prussian officer which purported to give a list of those British divisions which the Germans feared most. These were, in order of merit :

  1. The 51st (Highland Territorial) Division.
  2. The 2nd Canadian Division. 3. The 4th Australian Division.
  3. The 47th (London Territorial) Division.
  4. The Guards Division.

In this war the Territorial has done his full share of battling too. In the B.E.F., of ten divisions in the line, five were Territorials -the 42nd, 44th, 48th, 50th and 51st. The 46th was on the lines of communication, no soft job this war. The epic of the gallant 51st, whose few survivors reached St. Valery, is well known. At Calais, Queen Victoria’s Rifles won imperishable laurels. In Norway, the brunt of the fighting was borne by Territorials. In Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria, Malaya, Burma, Territorials fought as units beside their Dominion comrades*

* Since the above was written, despatches from Cairo have cited three Territorial Divisions-the 44th, 50th and 51st-as playing a most prominent part in the Battle of Egypt, particularly at El Alamein. In Tunisia, these same Divisions and also the 46th have won further laurels

Any fair-minded man must admit that, save for notable exceptions during a long war, the Territorial officer cannot expect or be expected to compete for the highest commands, such as divisions, corps, and armies. These posts require training and experience in strategy and tactics, and knowledge of administrative limitations to strategy, which cannot be gained in a short while or by a part-time learner, and which the higher ranks of the Regular Army have made their lifework.

But, as a rule in war time, the Territorial makes a better regimental officer and a better junior commander than the Regular. He has not lived in a groove. He has wider experience of life in general, wider knowledge of human nature. He understands better the domestic and human problems of the citizen-soldier who forms the bulk of the Army. He is more used to making decisions on his own, to using his initiative. He has a better appreciation of economy. Having come forward to serve in the war to get it over, his natural instinct is to put in unlimited hours of work and not be ruled by the clock. He puts efficiency before comfort, the comfort of his men before the comfort of himself and other officers. Some Regulars, of course, possess all these qualities. Most Territorials have them in full measure.

Above all, the average Territorial has more intelligence than the average Regular, more drive. Naturally, the highest Regulars have a high degree of intelligence, or they would not have won highest rank; but many of the lower strata display a lamentable lack of it Though the old bullying methods have generally died out, I knew one senior Regular who employed those methods still, whose violent onslaughts broke the spirit of three promising young officers, and who seriously contended that you can only get efficient subordinates by making them fear you. Is that intelligent-or just crude? Then there was a Regular commanding officer who would only permit his officers to give one of three answers to any question: “Yes”-“No”-or “I’ll find out.” Comment is superfluous. I have digressed. I was dealing with the treatment of Territorials.

In the last war, the Territorial was appreciated and had a square deal. He was flattered during the intervening years of peace. During the early part of this war, during the fighting in France, and during the anxious weeks after Dunkirk, he was treated as an equal, as a comrade in arms-because he was needed.

Now things are different. Now that the Army has been for months on a peace-time basis, with all its idolatry of Spit, Polish, Conference and Bumph, the keen, practical-minded Territorial who will work all hours of the day and night is getting the rawest of deals. All over this country it has gone on.

The following anecdote aptly illustrates the atmosphere. I was dining one evening at a Divisional Headquarters and got into con versation with a young Regular lieutenant-colonel straight from the Staff College, who held an important Staff appointment. happened to mention the name of a brigadier commanding an infantry brigade in the division. He

“A real good chap,” I remarked.

“Yes, very. A Territorial, though,” replied the colonel. This was news to me. I said so.

“Oh, yes, he’s only a Territorial,” repeated my companion. Then added with emphasis: “One of the few Territorial brigadiers left. We’ll have ’em all out soon.”

I may add that the brigadier had a D.S.O., had served in the last war, in France this war, and was a keen, efficient and active fighting commander. The Staff colonel had never seen a shot fired in anger in his life and had never held a command.  Of course, it is really a Trade Union matter. Territorials were welcome; it was their job to give their time, their money, and their labour to build up and train the units which would be required to augment the Regular Army in war. During the hurly-burly of the first days of war of the blitz, of the Dunkirk aftermath, they could be left to do the work of building their units up anew. But that is over. The rebuilding has been done. Territorials may still be encouraged in the lower commissioned ranks, but the jobs worth having must go the members of the Trade Union. Territorial brigadiers, colonels and majors have been side-tracked, sacked, retired, or demoted to make way for promotion for the Regular. Questions on this have been asked in the House of Commons

long ago. It is time the matter was raised again-and pressed home. It may be that the Regular mind is so convinced of the superiority of its own species and the consequent inferiority of the Territorial that it genuinely believes that it makes for efficiency to replace Territorials by Regulars less experienced in warfare. But this may be Example One also be wish-thinking. Let us take actual examples.

Example One

Territorial regimental commander. Twenty-six years’ service. Served throughout last war in France, awarded Military Cross and mentioned in despatches. Actively engaged in organising Dunkirk defences in this war; mentioned in despatches again for this. Now relegated to local defence work. Reason given: he had already commanded a regiment for seven years. His successor, a young Regular from the Staff College, has had no experience of battle, no experience of command, no experience of Territorials. The regiment is bewildered and heart-broken.

Example Two

Territorial battery commander. Served throughout blitz in France with distinction. Formed and trained his battery after Dun kirk. At one artillery practice camp his battery put up the best show yet done by any battery there. Relieved of his command. Reason given: the (Regular) colonel would prefer a battery commander with more experience. Sequel: the ‘more experienced’ Regular who superseded him had spent the last two years at a desk, having never held a command, and rang up to ask for a fortnight’s leave to enable him to read up something about the job before joining as he knew nothing about it. The colonel and he were, of course, old acquaintances.

Example Three

Territorial major. Served throughout blitz in France. Mentioned in despatches. Beloved by all his men. Replaced. Reason given: more experienced officer required. ‘More experienced’ officer could not read a map, had to take a subaltern about with him to find the way. ‘More experienced’ officer was ignorant of the organization of the type of unit to which he had been posted-and was subsequently removed as a failure.

Example Four

Territorial regimental commander. Commanded batteries in the last war. Military Cross. In this war mentioned in despatches after Dunkirk. Replaced. Explanation given : quite fit to com mand a regiment in battle, but more experienced commander needed to run the regiment under these semi-peace-time conditions. Presumably in war time, it is not men who are fit to command in battle who are wanted! The more experienced’ (Regular) commander had not been in regimental life since he was a captain, had never had a command before, and did not see service with the B.E.F. He proved a failure and was removed. There are numerous such examples. I was talking the other day to an indignant M.P. whose son-in-law, a keen and efficient Territorial commander, had been similarly treated.

Is this right? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and results are the opposite to improvement in most cases. One must, of course, recognize that the Army, and advancement in it, are the career and livelihood of the Regular; not so of the Territorial, who has renounced his livelihood elsewhere. But though this may explain the policy adopted, it is no reason why the country should tolerate it. You may think that although the Territorial is prevented from infusing new life into Army methods, nevertheless that can now be done by the thousands of new officers commissioned since war broke out, who are themselves amateurs. Here, too, unfortunately, the answer is that there is little likelihood of this so long as the present system of granting commissions obtains, for the Regular Army has ensured that all candidates shall go for five months to an O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit), invariably commanded by a Regular of the old school, where they are turned out ‘according to pattern’.

How jealously guarded is this right to mould all new of this pattern by fastening the grip of the O.C.T.U. upon them is shown by the story of Alan Lavender. Lavender is a born leader of men. Joining up in the ranks in the old regiment at the outbreak of war he soon won promotion and became a Troop sergeant-major while we were in France. Throughout the retreat from the Dyle to Dunkirk he performed the duties of an officer in battle with great efficiency, initiative, and distinction, and for this was mentioned in despatches.

On our return from France the War Office invited recommendations for immediate commissions, to be made direct to them; so, I submitted Lavender’s name with details of his qualifications. Back came a reply that immediate commissions were only to be granted in the infantry, not the artillery.

Now here was the joke. Lavender, who knew nothing infantry work whatever, could be granted an immediate commission in the infantry. But he could not be granted one in the artillery until he had spent five months at an O.C.T.U., being ‘taught’ the job he had already proved in battle that he knew and could do.

Apart from the fact that I hold hostile views about the training of cadets at these O.C.T.U.s, I was not going to make Lavender waste his time for five months or allow the country to be virtually deprived of any value from his services for that period. I refused to recommend him for an O.C.T.U., but spoke to the brigadier, who interviewed him, agreed with me, and forwarded a strong recommendation for an immediate commission. (At that time, my regiment needed officers badly). Nothing happened. Weeks went by. Lavender, who presumably could not know enough to become an officer until he had been at an O.C.T.U., was being used by me during that period to instruct young officers who had been sent to me (presumably trained) from these O.C.T.U.s and who needed further training. Then we had an inspection by Sir Ronald Adam, then C.-in-C. Northern Command, to whom I introduced Lavender and explained the situation. General Adam heartily agreed and took the matter up himself. Still nothing happened. The War Office seemed stupefied the O.C.T.U. virus. But there are always outside methods getting things done-and Lavender got his commission.  It had taken six months. He is now a major. cadets are certainly turned out well-equipped with technical know I do not believe in O.C.T.U. training. At these institutions’ ledge, but almost invariably they acquire a wrong psychology

there. An officer’s first essential qualities are a sense of service, a sense of responsibility, and the art of man-management. He has got to realize that his day is never done, that his responsibility ceases day or night, that he must be both father and guide to his men. never A good officer has to work much harder, not less, than his N.C.O.s and men. In the ‘school’ atmosphere of the O.C.T.U., weekend is his own, it is inevitable that the cadet on his first introduction towards commissioned rank, should get an idea that when the whistle blows his responsibility and hours of work cease. And what occasion is there during those five months for him to practise the art of man-management? 

I have had splendid young officers from these places, but in most cases it has been difficult at first to impress upon them that their day is never really done and that even when off duty their responsibility still exists; and they have all seemed quite ignorant of the way to look after men.

In wartime I would send cadets, not to an O.C.T.U., but straight away as officers to a unit to get right at the outset the officer’s proper mentality and outlook, then send them on courses of technical instruction afterwards. In my view, no one should be given a commission, either in peace or in war, until he has served at least twelve months in the ranks, has personally experienced everything that men have to do, and has thus obtained knowledge and understanding of the men’s problems, needs, psychology and artfulness.

And once a man has been commissioned, he must be given a square deal. At present he is not. An N.C.O. or warrant officer, on being promoted, is made ‘war substantive’ (i.e., permanent for the war period) in that rank after holding it for a prescribed period. But officer’s promotions, step by step, can never be more than temporary. Thus, a major, promoted lieutenant-colonel and holding that rank efficiently for two or three years, must nevertheless revert to major if through wounds or illness he is away from his unit for more than twenty-one days. Another petty meanness is the attitude towards officers volunteering for active service in over sea theatres; instances occur where ‘captains’ are asked for it is made clear that if the volunteer holds the temporary rank of captain, he will be accepted for service overseas as a captain, but must revert to his substantive rank of lieutenant for the period from the time he leaves his unit to the time of arrival overseas-thus depriving him of the difference in pay for some weeks.

One great difficulty-for which the Regular mentality is not responsible with which the Army has to contend is the constant tug-of-war between civilian requirements and military require regarding manpower. Obviously, the mines, the factories, and the land must have their proper quota of skilled labour; clearly the Army must not be built up to the serious detriment of these vital services. But what is so upsetting and dangerous is the lack of co-ordinated planning which results in a game of battledore and shuttlecock with the skilled labour of the country.

The Army of to-day is not a force of brawn, but of brain; it is necessarily a body of experts who have taken months to be taught their technical military job. The modern soldier is not so much a warrior as a craftsman.

In the Army you find that after spending months in training men and turning them into military craftsmen, they are whisked back to civilian life again because their services are needed at their trade-and you have to start all over again. The result is that the Army is never in the position of being able to ‘settle down’ with fully trained personnel.

Surely this waste of time and labour can be avoided? The men really required in civil life should be kept there. The men sent to the Army to train as military craftsmen should be given to the Army for keeps. There should be real supervision over the ‘call-up’, so that civil labour retains its needs, and the Army gets for retention men of sufficient brain to learn the job and do it.

**********

Criticisms directed towards showing that there is much to be improved cannot alter the fact that the Army to-day is a fine army, in most respects well-led. Criticisms of the Regular mentality cannot alter the fact that in battle your Regular officer displays the highest courage and determination.

The right of criticism, so long as it is fair and made with good intent, is one of the boons of democracy for which we are fighting one of the rights for which all this blood must not be shed in vain.

ENVOI

So those are the impressions of the Army an ordinary citizen has acquired. What impressions does the citizen-soldier get when he returns to civilian life?

In many ways he gets a shock. In the Army, whatever might be its shortcomings, he got the impression of total effort, of cooperation and desire to win the war. Not so here. He gets the impression that the vast mass of the common people of the land have got their backs to the wheel, their hearts in the job, the will and the desire to win-that they can not only ‘take it’ but give it as well. But that is not the case with certain other sections of the community who think that payment of taxes is sufficient part for them to play in this war. Greed for gold, jockeying for power and position after the war, unwillingness to perform anything other than congenial tasks or to make any real personal sacrifice are manifest in certain quarters. This leads to mutual recrimination, mutual criticism, mutual hindrance. The citizen-soldier returned to civil life gets above all the impression that far too much time, energy, and thought is devoted to people fighting each other in this land instead of concentrating on the one supreme task of fighting Hitler.

The canker is not yet serious. It affects only a small percentage of the population. But it is there, and, unless stamped out by public opinion and public action, will grow.

The heroic sacrifices of the men and women of the R.A.F., the Navy, the Army, the Mercantile Marine, and of those vast masses of the people who have taken the bombing and the tragedies of war with almost superhuman fortitude, cry out for justice in demanding that no personal gain, no vested interest, no petty jealousy shall be allowed to hold up that total whole-hearted effort by all which alone can bring victory within sight.

To end up with a cliché: it is time that ALL were made to realize that there is a war on.