An extract from R.Kipling’s “History Of The Irish Guards”.
On the 9th of April was a brigade rehearsal of “ceremonial” parade for inspection by their major-general next day. A philosopher of the barracks has observed: “When there’s ceremonial after rest and fatup, it means the General tells you all you are a set of heroes, and you’ve done miracles and ’twill break his old hard heart to lose you; and so ye’ll trot off at once, up the road and do it all again.” On the afternoon of that next day, when the Brigade had been duly complimented on its appearance and achievements by its major-general, a message came by motor-bicycle and it was “ordered to proceed to unknown destination forthwith.” Buses would meet it on the Arras–Tinques road. But the Battalion found no buses there, and with the rest of its brigade, spent the cool night on the roadside, unable to sleep or get proper breakfasts, as a prelude next morn to a twelve-hour excursion of sixty kilometres to Pradelles. Stripped of official language, the situation which the 4th Guards Brigade were invited to retrieve was a smallish but singularly complete debacle on Somme lines. Nine German divisions had been thrown at our front between Armentières and La Bassée on the 9th April. They had encountered, among others a Portuguese division, which had evaporated making a gap of unknown extent but infinite possibilities not far from Hazebrouck. If Hazebrouck went, it did not need to be told that the road would be clear for a straight drive at the Channel ports. The 15th Division had been driven back from the established line we had held so long in those parts, and was now on a front more or less between Merville and Vieux-Berquin south-east of Hazebrouck and the Forest of Nieppe. Merville, men hoped, still held out, but the enemy had taken Neuf Berquin and was moving towards Vierhoek. Troops were being rushed up, and it was hoped the 1st Australian Division would be on hand pretty soon. In the meantime, the 4th Guards Brigade would discover and fill the nearest or widest gap they dropped into. It might also be as well for them to get into touch with the divisions on their right and left, whose present whereabouts were rather doubtful.
These matters were realised fragmentarily, but with a national lightness of heart, by the time they had been debussed on the night of the 11th April into darkness somewhere near Paradis and its railway station, which lies on the line from the east into Hazebrouck. From Paradis, the long, level, almost straight road runs, lined with farmhouses, cottages, and gardens, through the villages of Vieux-Berquin, La Couronne, and Pont Rondin, which adjoin each other, to Neuf Berquin and Estaires, where, and in its suburb of La Gorgue, men used once to billet in peace. The whole country is dead flat, studded with small houses and cut up by ten-foot ditches and fences. When they halted they saw the horizon lit by distant villages and, nearer, single cottages ablaze. On the road itself fires of petrol sprang up where some vehicle had come to grief or a casual tin had ignited. As an interlude a private managed to set himself alight and was promptly rolled in some fresh plough. Delayed buses thumped in out of the night, and their men stumbled forth, stiff-legged, to join the shivering platoons. The night air to the east and southward felt singularly open and unwholesome. Of the other two battalions of the Brigade there was no sign. The C.O. went off to see if he could discover what had happened to them, while the Battalion posted sentries and were told to get what rest they could. “Keep a good look-out, in case we find ourselves in the front line.” It seemed very possible. They lay down to think it over till the C.O. returned, having met the Brigadier, who did not know whether the Guards Brigade was in the front line or not, but rather hoped there might be some troops in front of it. Battle order for the coming day would be the Battalion in reserve, 4th Grenadiers on their left, and 3rd Coldstream on the right. But as these had not yet come up, No. 2 Company (Captain Bambridge) would walk down the Paradis–Vieux-Berquin road southward till they walked up, or into, the enemy, and would also find a possible line for the Brigade to take on arrival. It was something of a situation to explain to men half of whom had never heard a shot fired off the range, but the personality behind the words conveyed it, they say, almost seductively. No. 2 Company then split in two, and navigated down the Vieux-Berquin road through the dark, taking special care to avoid the crown of it. The houses alongside had been abandoned, except that here and there an old woman still whimpered among her furniture or distracted hens. Thus they prowled for an hour or so, when they were fired at down the middle of the road, providently left clear for that purpose. Next they walked into the remnants of one or two North Country battalions lying in fresh-punched shell-holes, obviously trying to hold a line, who had no idea where they were but knew they were isolated and announced they were on the eve of departure. The enemy, a few hundred yards away, swept the road afresh with machine-gun fire, but made no move. No. 2 Company lay down in the shell-holes while Bambridge with a few men and an officer went on to find a position for the Brigade. He got it, and fell back with his company just as light was breaking. By this time the rest of the Battalion was moving down towards Vieux-Berquin and No. 2 Company picked them up half an hour later. The Grenadiers and Coldstream appeared about half-past three, were met and guided back by Bambridge more or less into the position originally chosen. There had been some notion originally of holding a line from Vieux-Moulin on the swerve of the Vieux-Berquin road where it straightens for Estaires, and the college a little north of Merville; but Merville had gone by now, and the enemy seemed in full possession of the ground up to Vierhoek and were spreading, as their machine-gun fire showed, all round the horizon. The two battalions adjusted themselves (they had hurried up in advance of their rations and most of their digging tools) on a line between the Le Cornet Perdu, a slight rise west of the main Vieux-Berquin road, and L’Epinette Farm. The 2nd Irish Guards lay behind them with Battalion Headquarters at Ferme Gombert—all, as has been said in dead flat open country, without the haziest notion of what troops, if any, lay within touch.
The morning of April 12th broke hot and sunny, under a sky full of observation-balloons that seemed to hover directly above them. These passed word to the German guns, and the bombardment of heavies and shrapnel began—our own artillery not doing much to keep it down—with a careful searching of all houses and shelters, and specially for Battalion Headquarters. The Battalion, imperfectly dug in, or to the mere leeward of cottages and fences, suffered; for every movement was spotted by the balloons. The officers walking about between cottage and cottage went in even greater peril; and it was about this time that Lieutenant M. B. Levy was hit in the head by shrapnel and killed at once.
Meantime, the Coldstream on the right and the Grenadiers on the left, the former trying to work south towards Vierhoek and the latter towards Pont Rondin through the houses along the Vieux-Berquin road, were being hammered and machine-gunned to pieces. The Grenadiers in particular were enfiladed by a battery of field-guns firing with open sights at three hundred yards down the road. The Coldstream sent back word about ten o’clock that. the 50th Division, which should have been on their right, was nowhere in view and that their right, like the Grenadiers’ left, was in the air. Two companies were then told from the 2nd Irish Guards, No. 3 Company, under Captain Maurice FitzGerald, in support of the Grenadiers, and No. 2, Captain Bambridge, to the Coldstream. No. 3 Company at first lay a little in front of Ferme Gombert, one of the Battalion Headquarters. It was wiped out in the course of that day and the next, with the 4th Grenadiers, when, of that battalion’s nineteen officers, but two (wounded) survived and ninety per cent of the rank and file had gone.
No. 2 Company’s road to the Coldstream lay across a couple of thousand yards of ploughed fields studded with cottages. Their officer left his people behind in what cover offered and with a few men made a preliminary reconnaissance to see how the passage could be run. Returning to find his company intact, he lectured them shortly on the situation and the necessity of “adopting an aggressive attitude”; but explained that the odds were against their reaching any destination unless they did exactly as they were told. So they advanced in four diamonds, working to word and whistle (“like sporting-dog trials”) under and among and between shrapnel, whizz-bangs that trundled along the ground, bursts of machine-gun fire and stray sniping. Their only cover was a few willows by the bank of the Bourre River which made their right flank, an occasional hedge or furrow, and cottages from which they noticed one or two old women called out. They saw, in the intervals of their earnest death-dance (“It must have looked like children’s games—only the sweat was dripping off us all”), cows and poultry at large, some peasants taking pitiful cover behind a fence, and a pair of plough-horses dead in their harness. At last the front was reached after only four killed and as many wounded; and they packed themselves in, a little behind the Coldstream.
The enemy all this while were well content with their artillery work, as they had good right to be; and when morning, checked it with machine-gun fire. One account of this period observes “there seemed to be nobody on the right or left of the Brigade, but all the morning we saw men from other divisions streaming back.” These headed, with the instinct of animals, for Nieppe Forest just behind the line, which, though searched by shell and drenched by gas, gave a semblance of shelter. Curiously enough, the men did not run. They walked, and before one could question them, would ask earnestly for the whereabouts of some battalion or division in which they seemed strangely interested. Then they would hold on towards cover.
(“They told us the Huns were attacking. They weren’t. We were. We told ’em to stop and help us. Lots of ’em did. No, they didn’t panic a bit. They just seemed to have chucked it quietly.”)
About two-thirty the enemy attacked, in fairly large numbers, the Coldstream and the division on its right which latter gave—or had already given. No. 2 Company of the Irish Guards had made a defensive flank in view of this danger, and as the enemy pressed past punished them with Lewis-gun fire. (The German infantry nowhere seemed enthusiastic, but the audacity and bravery of their machine-gunners was very fine.) None the less they got into a little collection of houses called Arrewage, till a counter-attack, organised by Bambridge of the 2nd Irish Guards, and Foster of the Coldstream, cleared them out again. In this attack, Bambridge was wounded and Captain E. D. Dent was killed.
By dusk it would have puzzled any one in it to say where our line stood; but, such as it was, it had to be contracted, for there were not men enough for the fronts. Of No. 2 Company not more than fifty were on their feet. No. 3 Company with No. 4 were still in support of the 4th Grenadiers somewhere in front of Ferme Gombert (which had been Battalion H.Q. till shelled out) and the Vieux-Berquin road; and No. 1 Company, besides doing its own fighting, had to be feeding the others. Battalion Headquarters had been shifted to a farm in Verte Rue a few hundred yards back; but was soon made untenable and a third resting-place had to be found—no easy matter with the enemy “all round everybody.” There was a hope that the Fifth Division would that evening relieve the 2nd Irish Guards in the line, but the relief did not come; and Captain Moore, Second in Command of the Battalion, went out from Verte Rue to Arrewage to find that division. Eventually, he seems to have commandeered an orderly from a near-by battalion and got its C.O. to put in a company next to the remnants of No. 2. All the records of that fight are beyond any hope of straightening, and no two statements of time or place agree. We know that Battalion Headquarters were shifted, for the third time, to a farm just outside the village of Caudescure, whose intact church-spire luckily drew most of the enemy fire. No. 4 Company, under Heard, was ordered to line along the orchards of Caudescure facing east, and No. 1 Company lay on the extreme right of the line which, on the night of the 12th April, was supposed to run northward from Arrewage and easterly through Le Cornet Perdu, where the 4th Grenadiers were, to the Vieux-Berquin road. Whether, indeed, it so ran or whether any portion of it was held, no one knew. What is moderately certain is that on the morning of the 13th April, a message came to Battalion H.Q. that the enemy had broken through between the remnants of the Coldstream and the Grenadiers, somewhere in the direction of Le Cornet Perdu. Our No. 3 Company (Captain M. FitzGerald) was despatched at once with orders to counter-attack and fill the gap. No more was heard of them. They went into the morning fog and were either surrounded and wiped out before they reached the Grenadiers or, with them, utterly destroyed, as the enemy’s line lapped round our left from La Couronne to Verte Rue. The fighting of the previous day had given time, as was hoped, for the 1st Australian Division to come up, detrain, and get into the Forest of Nieppe where they were holding the edge of the Bois d’Aval; but the position of the 4th Guards Brigade outside the Forest had been that of a crumbling sandbank thrust out into a sea whose every wave wore it away.
The enemy, after several minor attacks, came on in strength in the afternoon of the 13th, and our line broke for awhile at Arrewage, but was mended, while the Brigade Headquarters sent up a trench mortar battery under a Coldstream officer, for the front line had only rifles. They were set between No. 4 and No. 2 Company in the Irish Guards’ line. Later the C.O. arrived with a company of D.C.L.I. and put them next the T.M.B. (It was a question of scraping together anything that one could lay hands on and pushing it into the. nearest breach.) The shelling was not heavy, but machine-gun fire came from every quarter, and lack of bombs prevented our men from dealing with snipers in the cottages, just as lack of Very lights prevented them from calling for artillery in the night. The Australians were reported to be well provided with offensive accessories, and when Battalion Headquarters, seeing there was a very respectable chance of their being surrounded once more, inquired of Brigade Headquarters how things were going, they were told that they were in strength on the left. Later, the Australians lent the Battalion some smoke-bomb confections to clean out an annoying corner of the front. That night, Saturday 13th April, the men, dead tired, dug in as they could where they lay and the enemy—their rush to Hazebrouck and the sea barred by the dead of the Guards Brigade—left them alone.
Rations and ammunition came up into the line, and from time to time a few odds and ends of reinforcements. By the morning of April 14th the Australians were in touch with our left which had straightened itself against the flanks of the Forest of Nieppe, leaving most of the Brigade casualties outside it. Those who could (they were not many) worked their way back to the Australian line in driblets. The Lewis-guns of the Battalion—and this was pre-eminently a battle of Lewis-guns—blazed all that morning from behind what cover they had, at the general movement of the enemy between La Couronne and Verte Rue which they had occupied. (“They was running about like ants, some one way, some the other—the way Jerry does when he’s manœuvrin’ in the open. Ye can’t mistake it; an’ it means trouble.”) It looked like a relief or a massing for an attack, and needed correction as it was too close to our thin flank. Telephones had broken down, so a runner was despatched to Brigade Headquarters to ask that the place should be thoroughly shelled. An hour, however, elapsed ere our guns came in, when the Germans were seen bolting out of the place in every direction. A little before noon they bombarded heavily all along our front and towards the Forest; then attacked the Guards’ salient once more, were once more beaten off by our Lewis-guns; slacked fire for an hour, then re-bombarded and demonstrated, rather than attacked, till they were checked for the afternoon. They drew off and shelled till dusk when the shelling died down and the Australians and a Gloucester regiment relieved what was left of the 2nd Irish Guards and the Coldstream, after three days and three nights of fighting and digging during most of which time they were practically surrounded. The Battalion’s casualties were twenty-seven killed, a hundred missing and a hundred and twenty-three wounded; four officers killed (Captain E. D. Dent, Acting Captain M. B. Levy, Lieutenants J. C. Maher and M. R. FitzGerald); three wounded in the fighting (Captain Bambridge, 2nd Lieutenants F. S. L. Smith and A. A. Tindall) as well as Captain C. Moore on the 16th, and Lieutenant Lord Settrington and 2nd Lieutenant M. B. Cassidy among the missing.
Vieux-Berquin had been a battle, in the open, of utter fatigue and deep bewilderment, but with very little loss of morale or keenness, and interspersed with amazing interludes of quiet in which men found and played upon pianos in deserted houses, killed and prepared to eat stray chickens, and were driven forth from their music or their meal by shells or the sputter of indefatigable machine-guns. Our people did not attach much importance to the enemy infantry, but spoke with unqualified admiration of their machine-gunners. The method of attack was uniformly simple. Machine-guns working to a flank enfiladed our dug-in line, while field-guns hammered it flat frontally, sometimes even going up with the assaulting infantry. Meanwhile, individual machine-guns crept forward, using all shelters and covers, and turned up savagely in rear of our defence. Allowing for the fact that trench-trained men cannot at a moment’s notice develop the instinct of open fighting and an eye for the lie of land; allowing also for our lack of preparation and sufficient material, liberties such as the enemy took would never have been possible in the face of organised and uniform opposition. Physically, those three days were a repetition, and, morally, a repercussion of the Somme crash. The divisions concerned in it were tired, and “fed-up.” Several of them had been bucketed up from the Somme to this front after punishing fights where they had seen nothing but failure, and heard nothing but talk of further withdrawals for three weeks past. The only marvel is that they retired in any effective shape at all, for they felt hopeless. The atmosphere of spent effort deepened and darkened through all the clearing-stations and anxious hospitals, till one reached the sea, where people talked of evacuating the whole British force and concentrating on the Channel ports. It does not help a wounded man, half-sunk in the coma of his first injection, to hear nurses, doctors, and staff round him murmur: “Well, I suppose we shall have to clear out pretty soon.” As one man said: “’Twasn’t bad at the front because we knew we were doing something, but the hospitals were enough to depress a tank. We kept on telling ’em that the line was holding all right, but, by jove, instead of them comforting us with wounds all over us, we had to hold their hands an’ comfort ’em!”
As far as the Guards Division was concerned, no reports of the fight—company, battalion or brigade—tally. This is inevitable, since no company knew what the next was doing, and in a three days’ endurance-contest, hours and dates run into one. The essential fact remains. The 4th Guards Brigade stopped the German rush to the sea through a gap that other divisions had left; and in doing so lost two thirds at least of its effectives. Doubtless, had there been due forethought from the beginning, this battle need never have been waged at all. Doubtless it could have been waged on infinitely less expensive lines; but with a nation of amateurs abruptly committed to gigantic warfare and governed by persons long unused even to the contemplation of war, accidents must arise at every step of the game.
Sir Douglas Haig, in his despatches, wrote: “The performance of all the troops engaged in the most gallant stand,” which was only an outlying detail of the Battle of the Lys, “and especially that of the 4th Guards Brigade on whose front of some 4000 yards the heaviest attacks fell, is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number.” He goes on to say—and the indictment is sufficiently damning—that practically the whole of the divisions there had “been brought straight out of the Somme battlefield where they had suffered severely, and been subjected to great strain. All these divisions, without adequate rest and filled with young reinforcements which they had had no time to assimilate, were again hurriedly thrown into the fight, and in spite of the great disadvantage under which they laboured, succeeded in holding up the advance of greatly superior forces of fresh troops. Such an accomplishment reflects the greatest credit on the youth of Great Britain as well as upon those responsible for the training of the young soldiers sent from home at the time.” The young soldiers of the Battalion certainly came up to standard; they were keen throughout and-best of all—the A.P.M. and his subordinates who have, sometimes, unpleasant work to do at the rear, reported that throughout the fight “there were no stragglers.” Unofficial history asserts that, afterwards, the Battalion was rather rude to men of other divisions when discussing what had happened in the Forest.
On their relief (the night of the 14th-15th April) they moved away in the direction of Hazebrouck to embus for their billets. There was a certain amount of shelling from which the Coldstream suffered, but the Battalion escaped with no further damage than losing a few of the buses. Consequently, one wretched party, sleeping as it walked, had to trail on afoot in the direction of Borré, and those who were of it say that the trip exceeded anything that had gone before. “We were all dead to the world—officers and men. I don’t know who kicked us along. Some one did—and I don’t know who I kicked, but it kept me awake. And when we thought we’d got to our billets we were sent on another three miles. That was the final agony!”
What was left of the Brigade was next sorted out and reorganised. The 12th (Pioneer) Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I., who had borne a good share of the burden that fell upon our right, including being blown out of their trenches at least once, were taken into it; the 4th Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream, of two weak companies apiece, were, for a few days, made into one attenuated battalion. The 2nd Irish Guards, whose companies were almost forty strong, preserved its identity; and the enemy generously shelled the whole of them and the back-areas behind the Forest on the 16th April till they were forced to move out into the fields and dig in where they could in little bunches. Captain C. Moore, while riding round the companies with Colonel Alexander, was the only casualty here. He was wounded by shrapnel while he was getting off his horse.
On the 17th and 18th April they took the place, in reserve, of the 3rd Australian Brigade and worked at improving a reserve line close up to Hazebrouck. The enemy pressure was still severe, no one knew at what point our line might go next, while at the bases, where there was no digging to soothe and distract, the gloom had not lightened. The Australians preserved a cheerful irreverence and disregard for sorrow that was worth much. The Battalion relieved two companies of them on the 19th in support-line on the east edge of the Forest of Nieppe (Bois d’Aval) which was thick enough to require guides through its woodland rides. Here they lay very quiet, looking out on the old ground of the Vieux-Berquin fight, and lighting no fires for fear of betraying their position. The enemy at Ferme Beaulieu, a collection of buildings at the west end of the Verte Rue–La Couronne road and on the way to Caudescure, did precisely the same. But, on the 21st April, they gassed them most of the night and made the wood nearly uninhabitable. Nothing, be it noted once more, will make men put on their masks without direct pressure, and new hands cannot see that the innocent projectile that lands like a “dud” and lies softly hissing to itself, carries death or slow disablement. Gassing was repeated on the 22nd when they were trying to build up a post in the swampy woodlands where the water lay a foot or two from the surface. They sent out Sergeant Bellew and two men to see if samples could be gathered from Ferme Beaulieu. He returned with one deaf man who, by reason of his deafness, had been sent to the Ersatz. The Sergeant had caught him in a listening-post!
Next night they raided Ferme Beaulieu with the full strength of Nos. 2 and 4 Companies (eighty men) under 2nd Lieutenants Mathew and Close. It seems to have been an impromptu affair, and their sole rehearsal was in the afternoon over a course laid down in the wood. But it was an unqualified success. Barrages, big and machine-gun, timings and precautions all worked without a hitch and the men were keen as terriers. They came, they saw, and they got away with twenty-five unspoiled and identifiable captives, one of whom had been a North-German Lloyd steward and spoke good English. He told them tales of masses of reserves in training and of the determination of the enemy to finish the War that very summer. The other captives were profoundly tired of battle, but extremely polite and well disciplined. Among our own raiders (this came out at the distribution of honours later) was a young private, Neall, of the D.C.L.I. who had happened to lose his Battalion during the Vieux-Berquin fighting and had “attached himself” to the Battalion—an irregular method of transfer which won him no small good-will and, incidentally, the Military Medal for his share in the game.
Life began to return to the normal. The C.O. left, for a day or two, to command the Brigade, as the Brigadier was down with gas-poisoning, and on April the 25th a draft of fifty-nine men came in from home. Captain A. F. L. Gordon arrived as Second in Command, and Captain Law with him, from England on the 28th. On the 27th they were all taken out of D’Aval Wood and billeted in farms round Hondeghem, north of Hazebrouck on the Cassel road, to strengthen that side of the Hazebrouck defence systems. Continuous lines of parapet had to be raised across country, for all the soil here was water-logged. Of evenings, they would return to Hondeghem and amuse the inhabitants with their pipers and the massed bands of the Brigade. Except for the last few days of their stay, they were under an hour’s notice in Corps Reserve, while the final tremendous adjustments of masses and boundaries, losses and recoveries, ere our last surge forward began, troubled and kept awake all the fronts. They were inspected by General Plumer on the 15th for a distribution of medal-ribbons, and, having put in a thoroughly bad rehearsal the day before, achieved on parade a faultless full-dress ceremonial-drill, turn-out and appearance all excellent. (“The truth is, the way we were put through it at Warley, we knew that business blind, drunk, or asleep when it come to the day. But them dam’ rehearsals, with the whole world an’ all the young officers panickin’, they’re no refreshment to drilled men.”)
On the 20th May, when the line of the Lys battle had come to a stand-still, and the enemy troops in the salient that they had won and crowded into were enjoying the full effect of our long-range artillery, there was a possibility that their restored armies in the south might put further pressure on the Arras–Amiens front, and a certain shifting of troops was undertaken on our side which brought the 4th Guards Brigade down from Hondeghem by train to Mondicourt on the Doullens–Arras line, where the drums of the 1st Grenadiers played them out of the station, and, after a long, hot march, to Barly between Bavincourt and Avesnes. Their orders were, if the enemy broke through along that front, they would man the G.H.Q. line of defence which ran to the east of Barly Wood, and, for a wonder, was already dug. There is an impenetrability about the Island temperament in the face of the worst which defies criticism. Whether the enemy broke through or not was in the hands of Providence and the valour of their brethren; but the Battalion’s duty was plain. On the 22nd, therefore, they were lectured “on the various forms of salutes” and that afternoon selected, and ere evening had improved, “a suitable site in the camp for a cricket-pitch.” Cricket, be it noted, is not a national game of the Irish; but the Battalion was now largely English. Next day company officers “reconnoitred” the G.H.Q. line. After which they opened a new school of instruction, on the most solid lines, for N.C.O.’s and men. Their numbers being so small, none could later boast that he had escaped attention. At the end of the month their 1st Battalion borrowed four lieutenants (Close, Kent, Burke, and Dagger) for duty, which showed them, if they had not guessed it before, that they were to be used as a feeding battalion, and that the 4th Guards Brigade was, for further active use, extinct.
On the 9th June, after a week’s work on the G.H.Q. line and their camp, Captain Nugent was transferred as Second in Command to the 1st Battalion, and 2nd Lieutenant W. D. Faulkner took over the duties of Acting Adjutant.
On the 11th they transferred to camp in the grounds of Bavincourt Château, a known and well-bombed area, where they hid their tents among the trees, and made little dug-outs and shelters inside them, when they were not working on the back defences. But for the spread of the “Spanish influenza” June was a delightful month, pleasantly balanced between digging and divisional and brigade sports, for they were all among their own people again, played cricket matches in combination with their sister battalion, and wrote their names high on the list of prize-winners. Their serious business was the manufacture of new young N.C.O.’s for export to the 1st Battalion, and even to Caterham, “where they tame lions.” Batches of these were made and drilled under the cold eye of the Sergeant-Major, and were, perhaps, the only men who did not thoroughly appreciate life on the edge of the Somme in that inconceivable early summer of ’18.
The men, as men must be if they hope to live, were utterly unconcerned with events beyond their view. They comprehended generally that the German advance was stayed for the while, and that it was a race between the enemy and ourselves to prepare fresh armies and supplies; but they themselves had done what they were required to do. If asked, they would do it again, but not being afflicted with false heroisms, they were perfectly content that other battalions should now pass through the fire. (“We knew there was fighting all about an’ about. We knew the French had borrowed four or five of our divisions and they was being hammered on the Aisne all through May—that time we was learning to play cricket at Barly, an’ that’ll show you how many of us was English in those days! We heard about the old Fifth and Thirty-first Divisions retaking all our Vieux-Berquin ground at the end o’ June (when we was having those sports at Bavincourt) an’ we was dam’ glad of it—those of us who had come through that fight. But no man can hold more than one thing at a time, an’ a battalion’s own affairs are enough for one doings. . . . Now there was a man in those days, called Timoney—a runner—an’ begad, at the one mile and the half mile there was no one could see him when he ran, etc. etc.”)