An Extract from Fen's Book, "The Distant Drum"
Over The Top. No. 6 platoon are about to take part in the attack on the Hindenburg line at the Canal du Nord on September 27th 1918.
At “zero-hour” – as usual – kept secret until the last moment No. 2 Company was to leave the assembly trenches in two waves of two platoons each, separated by about fifty yards, and, following the barrage, would rush the German front line trenches and push on to the Canal bank. Here, near the broken bridge, we were to descend into the Canal bed, cross it and climb the opposite bank, and then take “Steve Post” at the cross-roads. Re-assembling there, we were to advance without delay to the main Line, and after taking the double line of trenches of which it was composed were to consolidate and repel any counter-attacks which might be made. This was scheduled to take about three hours, and completed our share of the business. The second main wave would then go through our lines, to link up with the Canadians, who it was hopes would by this time be coming down from behind Bourlon Hill; in the words of our officer-instructor, we should “just sit down and watch the whole British Army go through the gap we had made.”
It sounded quite simple and easy, the way he told it, but we were not deceived. Obviously it could hardly be other than a desperate and hazardous venture for those taking part, and I don’t suppose there was one among us who did not feel that he would be lucky if he was still alive in two days’ time. Of course, no one gave voice to his feelings, but there was a noticeable air of gravity as we dispersed after the “lecture”. Nevertheless, the “sing-song” in the dug-out that night, though it may have been a case of “whistling to keep our hearts up”, lacked little of its usual boisterousness.
Next day was devoted to preparing our kit, drawing extra ammunition, rations, etc., and to writing letters in which we could say little of real significance. The mail came up during the afternoon and many of us received the satisfaction of a last message from home, For some it was, in the most literal and tragic sense, the “Last Post”.
At dusk we moved off along the sunken road, past the dead and stinking horse at the crossroads, through Boursies and Demicourt, and so to the trenches. About an hour’s tramp over the duckboards brought us to the dug-out which had been allotted to us for the remainder of the night; the entrance had been half blocked by a direct hit, and we were very much cramped for room inside, but made ourselves fairly comfortable. A tot of rum, weak but very welcome, helped in some measure to keep out the cold, and we made the most of what remained of the day’s rations before snatching an hour or two of uneasy sleep. During the night the guns kept up a normal amount of desultory firing, but there was nothing to indicate that anything unusual was afoot. The German lines were very quiet.
About half-past four we scrambled out, stiff and cramped, into the cold air and crept along the trench to our appointed “jumping-off “ place. This was only a short distance away, and lining the trench we stood under the parapet and awaited the coming of “zero-hour”. It was still dark, for the sun was not due to rise for two hours yet, though in the east there was a slight suspicion of greyness and the stars were beginning to fade there. The guns had ceased firing altogether, and only an isolated shot or spasmodic rattle of a machine-gun at rare intervals broke the stillness that hung over No-man’s-land like the breathless hush before a storm. A faint breeze now and again raised a chilly rustle in the grasses beyond the parapet, like a half-suppressed sigh.
We waited in silence, each man occupied with his own secret thoughts and no doubt wrestling with his own secret fears. I think that half-hour was probably the worst I have ever spent. Slowly and inexorably the minutes passed, second by second, and the time approached which might be the end of everything for me. The suppressed quivering in my limbs was not entirely due to the cold, and I had to clench my teeth to prevent them from chattering. All my efforts to screw up my courage, all my fatalistic self-assurances that “what is to be, will be”, became more and more useless, and hope seemed to ooze away with every second…
At last the order was passed along in a whisper to fix bayonets, and we knew the time had come. It was almost a relief to do something. A few minutes later – glancing at the luminous dial of my watch, I saw that it was exactly 5.20 – three big guns spoke out in regular sequence, from far in the rear: “One! – Two! – Three! – “ The scream of their shells had hardly ceased to vibrate in our ears when, with a tremendous simultaneous crash, as though the vault of heaven had burst and was falling upon us, the Barrage opened.
Shells in hundreds, in thousands, of every size and calibre, shrieked down close over our heads and burst in front of the trench, at first close to the parapet, then gradually creeping towards the German lines, a flail of death-dealing eruptions which must surely sweep everything living from its path. Mere words can convey no idea of this great culminating barrage, surely the greatest and most intense in the history of war. Devilish force unchained, the power of Hell let loose, trampling the earth beneath fire-spurting feet, the mighty crash and clangour of ten thousand guns – imagination fails, and memory itself can retain only a tithe of the stupendous reality. Great gouts and fountains of flame, scarlet and green and gold – thousands of flashes stabbing the night incessantly – an indescribable hell of noise that numbed the senses and stupefied the brain – that was the Barrage.
In the German lines, complete chaos seemed to reign for the first few minutes. Verey lights of every colour shot into the air as if fired in panic; but very soon the enemy appeared to recover from their surprise, and their machine-guns swept the ground with a hail of bullets. The parapet just above our heads spurted with jets of earth as they traversed from side to side, and the high whine of ricochets was added to the din. The front line was evidently held in strength – indeed, it was afterwards reported, on the evidence of prisoners, that they themselves had planned an attack for about three hours later.
Then, all together, we were scrambling up the short ladders which had been placed against the side of the trench. Our chief though was to get on our feet as quickly as possible, for the bullets were sweeping low and one stood in greater danger of a fatal wound while crawling over the parapet than when standing upright. Several men in the Platoon were hit during those first few seconds, and the Company Sergeant-Major, one of the most popular of our NCOs, was killed outright; but I was untouched. We had, of course, strict orders not to stop to help casualties, but to leave them to the following stretcher-bearers. Once on top, we turned half-left, the trench being at an angle to the direction in which we had to advance, and moved in single-file at a sort of half-trot, picking our way by the flickering light of the explosions through the broken wire and shell-holes.
By this time the German guns were at work, laying down a counter-barrage, and shells were bursting all around and among us. Great fans and fountains of flame sprang up as if by magic from the ground, for the uproar was so great that one could no longer distinguish the sound of separate shell-bursts, even when close at hand; they were all welded into a homogeneal solid-steel universe of thunder that seemed as material and all-pervading as the atmosphere, stabbed through by the zipp and whine of bullets. The acrid smell of lyddite fumes was everywhere. It seemed impossible that anyone could come alive through that cyclone of destruction.
The sensation of standing up and crossing open ground under heavy fire is one which I find difficult, almost impossible, to describe in any ordinary terms. On first scrambling to my feet, I had a feeling of being stark naked, without a vestige of protection; and this was coupled with an extraordinary sensation – curiously like relief – that I was no longer personally responsible for my own safety. The issue was entirely out of my hands, I had nothing to do with it, and it mattered not at all whether I kept my head down or walked erect. As soon as we had started, my previous nervous qualms seemed to disappear, and my whole being became keyed up to a point where personal danger was meaningless; it was as if I was in the grip of a power outside myself, whose bidding I had no choice but to obey. The terrific uproar around made conscious thought and feeling impossible, and I stumbled forward with the others over the churned-up ground, picking my way carefully and almost methodically through the unseen obstacles, heedless of the bullets which constantly cracked past, and watching, as if they did not concern me, the showers of sparks which shot up from the ground on all sides a shells exploded; in the general din, they seemed to be almost noiseless. It was like walking in a nightmare of Hell, a whirlwind of thunder and flame.
But then comes a gap in my memory. For a space of what must have been about half-an-hour my memory is a complete blank; many times since I have tried to remember what happened during that time, but always without result – it is an impenetrable fog. We must have reached and passed the German front line, which ran between our starting point and the Canal, but whether it had been evacuated before we got there, or whether there was fighting, I do not know. My first distinct impression is of dropping inot cover behind a low bank not far from the edge of the Canal with a number of men from my platoon, and remaining there for some time, while the advance seemed to be temporarily held up. It was still dark, though there was a greyness which enabled us to see nearby objects vaguely, and we were still being shelled heavily, but our own barrage had gone on over the Canal. Something had evidently gone wrong.
It was not until some time afterwards that I learned the reason for the delay, and how it was ended. It appears that on reaching the Canal bank the leading platoons found themselves under very heavy fire from “Mouse Post”, a machine-gun emplacement at the far end of the broken bridge, which had been thought to have been destroyed earlier. It was sweeping the place where we should have to climb down into the Canal bed, and our fellows found it impossible to go forward. As this was the key point of the whole scheme, Captain Frisby realised the seriousness of failing to capture the canal crossing, and, calling for volunteers, he, Corporal Jackson, and four other men rushed forward, clambered down into the Canal and, in the face of intense point-blank fire, succeeded in rushing and bombing the post, which was strongly fortified with steel girders and concrete blocks. For this gallant deed of almost super-human bravery, both the Captain and Cpl Jackson were afterwards awarded the Victoria Cross, though in Jackson’s case it was a posthumous decoration, for he was killed a few hours later. Captain Frisby received a bayonet wound in the leg, but carried on throughout the day.
Presently we had the signal to advance, and moved forward to the verge of the
Canal, which was like a gigantic trench across our path. The steeply-sloping
sides, originally faced with brickwork, were badly broken by shell-fire inn
many places, so that descent was comparatively easy; we climbed and slithered
to the bottom, crossed piles of rubble and pools of mud and water, and scrambled
up the farther bank. Here, Captain Frisby was waiting, just below the summit,
and despite the hail of bullets which was still sweeping the ground, he gave
a helping hand to each of us who need it and had a cheerful word for everyone
as we passed him.
See also A Night in the Trenches
............ False Armistice
............ Fen Gets Wounded
........... Fen Gets Wounded Again
............ On Smoking, Drinking and Fear