An Extract from Fen's Book, "The Distant Drum"

Fen Gets Wounded Again. October 1918 before the taking of Cambrai.

At the appointed time we moved silently forward in the dusk of the dawn, to within a short distance of the road from Cambrai which led to Esnes, along which the barrage was to open. “Summer Time” had ended a few days before, so that dawn was an hour “earlier” than on the morning of the Canal du Nord attack and this time, though we “went over” at the same time by the clock we had daylight from the start. We took cover in some big craters about thirty yards short of the road – they were huge excavations almost big enough to “bury a house”, and I think they were probably made by large bombs, rather than shells – and waited for the “show” to begin.

Punctual to the minute, the artillery opened up at 5.20, but performance was not so awe-inspiring nor so accurate as on the 27th – perhaps inevitably so, for the former occasion had been prepared for and the guns ranged for weeks ahead, whereas now the artillery was extremely mobile and constantly moving into unfamiliar country. The fire, though heavy, was somewhat ragged, and from the first a number of shells fell short, causing casualties in our ranks as soon as we left the shelter of the craters.

Five minutes or so after the barrage stared, we scrambled out into the open, and formed line. There was no hostile reply, either from guns or bullets, this time, and we moved forward at walking pace without opposition. It was quite the most spectacular advance I had seen. Apart from the noise of the barrage, we might have been performing an exercise in field-training. The country was open, nearly level fields with a few trees here and there, and there were no trenches – it was a real “war of movement” at last. The wall of bursting shells in front, with the smoke of the explosions drifting away on a light breeze, and following the barrage an unbroken line of men at intervals of about the feet from each other, moving forward with fixed bayonets and rifles at the trail; then splitting into sections in single file regularly spaced, each platoon led by an officer a few feet in advance, who signalled us on with his revolver – it was the sort of picture one might see in a romantic Hollywood war-film!

We moved slowly forward for some time, keeping as close as was prudent to the barrage, without seeing any sign of the enemy, except for a short burst of machine-gun fire from a rear-guard post in the ruins of Forenville, some distance away to our right. We did not go unscathed, however, for shells continued to fall short at intervals and several of our men were hit. There seemed to be one particular gun on our sector whose elevation was insufficient, for at regular intervals a shell pitched some fifty yards short of the barrage, right on the line of advancing men, I saw one of our Corporals struck in the thigh by a splinter and stagger a few paces with the blood spouting like a fountain; someone ran to help, but a main artery had been severed and he died in less than a minute.

We continued to walk forward over the churned grass, and had gone perhaps a mile from the starting-point when we were signalled to halt for a few moments. We were getting too close to the barrage, and had dropped on one knee while waiting for it to go forward again, when another of those badly-ranged shells screamed close over my head (or seemed to) and burst with an immense impact a few yards directly in front of me.

I felt a sharp blow on my left leg as the concussion knocked me over, and on picking myself up I saw a piece of metal sticking in my puttee below the knee. I pulled it out and dropped it again quickly – it was hot! – and as I could feel no pain, apart from a general numbness in the leg which I attributed to the blow, I thought it had done no damage. When we had gone on from about another hundred yards, however, glancing down I noticed blood oozing through the hole in my puttee, and told my nearest neighbour that I had “stopped one”. He looked at the place and strongly advised me to go back, toute suite, and find the Aid Post, adding a heartfelt “You lucky devil!”.

But I was doubtful whether I was morally justified in “packing up” for a wound which, although certainly genuine, might be – probably was – little more than a scratch, so I continued to go forward. I didn’t want it to look as if I was deserting! I had not gone far, though, before the temptation to take advantage of a perfectly legitimate excuse to retire from the action overcame whatever scruples I had. I remembered, most opportunely, that we had recently received orders to the effect that any man who was wounded, however slightly, should have his injuries dressed and be injected against tetanus as soon as possible, and I soon persuaded myself that it as my duty to go back and get this done.

So I turned round and went in search of a stretcher bearer. I soon found one, who cut away my puttee and disclosed a hole about the size of a shilling in my calf. It seemed to be fairly deep, but to have missed any important veins and was not bleeding very much, so he bound it up with a field-dressing and told me to wait there until the MO arrived. I lay down on the ground and waited for a long time – an hour at least – but there was no sign of the Doctor, or of anyone else, so at last I determined to go myself in search of the Dressing Station, especially as my leg was beginning to throb quite a bit. Therefore, dumping my rifle and equipment, very glad that as a casualty I was entitled to get rid of their weight, I started off.

Re-crossing the road from which we had started the advance, I pushed off as nearly as possible in the direction from which we had come during the night – that is to say, more or less due west. As the numbness wore off, my leg got very sore, and I made slow progress in consequence. My way lay across fields of dry stubble from which the grain had been harvested fairly recently, which made rather rough ground over which to limp, and I was obliged to stop and rest several times. There seemed to be no sign of life anywhere in sight, and the gunfire gradually died down. The morning sun shone brilliantly, with a touch of freshness in the air, and despite the pain in my leg I felt exhilarated at the prospect of a respite from soldiering. I suppose that, rightly, I ought to have been disappointed at not being able to stay with the Regiment in their triumphant march to victory; but, bad soldier and worse Guardsman that I was, I felt no such regrets at the time – only relief and self-congratulation at the chance to “get away from it all”, even if it was only for a short while!

After rather more than an hour, I saw troops in the distance, near the summit of a slight rise, and on reaching them found they were the 2nd Scots Guards, in Brigade support, waiting to go forward. Enquiring the way to the Dressing Station, I was told that it was about two kilos farther on, in Masnieres; but before being allowed to proceed, A sergeant told me that all walking casualties were to report to the Brigadier-General. He was close at hand and asked me a number of questions about the progress of the advance. I told him what little I knew, and then spoke of the trouble our fellows were having from badly-ranged gun-fire. The General expressed great concern that we should be losing men by our own shells, and gave orders immediately that the offending gun should be located.

After being dismissed, I started for Masnieres, but had not got far along the road when I came upon a wounded man, lying unconscious by the roadside. When I had satisfied myself that he was not dead, I was wondering whether I had better go back for assistance, when an ambulance-car appeared from the direction in which I was heading. It pulled up beside me, and the officer-in-charge, on making enquiries, told me to wait there until he returned. In a short while the car came back, and the unconscious man and myself were taken on board. A quick run brought us to Masnieres and the Guards’ Main Dressing Station, where my wound was properly dressed and I received an AT injection, after which I was given a very welcome drink of tea, a meat sandwich, some chocolate and a packet of cigarettes. There were a large number of wounded men at the Dressing Station, both from our own and neighbouring Divisions, and while I was there some German casualties were brought in, who I noticed were treated in exactly the same way as our own men. My stay there was brief, and about an hour later I was en route for the CCS, sitting on the floor of a Red Cross car between four stretcher cases. Almost the last thing I heard before leaving Masnieres was that Cambrai had fallen to our troops that morning.

The two-hours’ run in the little ambulance must have been a gruelling ordeal for the stretcher-cases, who were all badly hurt. One of them was, I think, unconscious or doped, but the others were groaning or crying out every now and again. The road was very bad, and although the driver went as carefully as possible, there were continual jolts and shakings which were very painful to the helpless men. I was busy all the time doing what I could (without much success) to steady them against the worst bumpings and lurchings of the car.

At last, thankfully. We reached Grevillers, near Baupaume, and disembarked at the 49th CCS. After my leg had been examined again and re-dressed, I was given dinner, for which I was very ready, and then rested fro an hour or so in one of the marquees. My luck still held, for about three o’clock in the afternoon I was detailed for the first hospital-train to leave Grevillers after my arrival there, and very soon afterwards was on my way to the Base.

The journey was uneventful and comparatively rapid, though it was somewhat uncomfortable, for the carriage in which I travelled was an ordinary third-class compartment rather the worse for wear, and we – the “walking cases” – were rather crowded; there was nowhere to stretch out my “bad leg” except under the opposite seat. But minor discomforts like that were as nothing compared with the fact that we were going down the line, some of us to Blighty, and might even have seen the last of the war. No one in my carriage was in low spirits!

Etaples was reached about ten o’clock, and after a snack of cocoa, buns and cigarettes, provided free by the YMCA at the station, a convoy of ambulances conveyed us to the 4th General Hospital at Camiers. The usual formalities of reception were soon completed and we were conducted to our respective wards. It was with a feeling of most profound relief that I took my clothes off and fell asleep almost immediately, between white sheets in a real bed. I had not been able to undress properly or sleep other than on the floor for several weeks. I could hardly believe my luck, or realise that only that morning I had “gone over the top” behind the barrage.


See also A Night in the Trenches

............ False Armistice

............ Fen Gets Wounded

............ On Smoking, Drinking and Fear

............ Over The Top