'Diary Under Howitzer-Fire'
by Frederic Coleman
from his book ‘From Mons to Ypres with General French’ 1917


The Old Contemptibles on the Aisne

British artillery on the move in northern France
previous part - Fighting on the Aisne 1


The Sunday was an eventful one for me.

General de Lisle was up at three o'clock and away half an hour later. The Brigade was ordered to Paissy. A couple of squadrons of the 18th Hussars were to go into the trenches close to the firing line while the remainder of the command was to act in reserve.

I crossed the river on the pontoon bridge at Villers, the water almost covering the boards.

Paissy was built half in and half out of the rock of the hill proper. Some houses were so constructed that part of the rooms were mere caves in the cliff. The farms all boasted a cave in the wall side, convenient for storage of such rude property as implements of toil and carts or the stabling of live-stock.

We arrived at five o'clock. The General left the car and went on mounted. On the left the cliff ran sheer to a point above the highest building in the town. To the right of the roadway the ground dropped away into a miniature crater, the bottom of which was mapped with tiny squares of growing crops of green pasture, low hedges marking their boundaries. The cliff side ran round the valley in the form of a horseshoe. At the far end a steep wide path led to the summit.

The Germans were firing regularly, the shrapnel bursting a couple of hundred yards from us. A Sussex supply column was busy harnessing its horses in the farm yard I chose for shelter, so I backed the car under the outside wall. The shrapnel began singing over my head. I sat on the step of the car and watched a robust French farmer try to drive three huge white oxen into the gate. Swinging their heads low as if feeling their way with their great branching horns, their mild eyes opened wide in astonishment at the noise of the bursting shells.


artistic rendering of a heroic deed


A Sussex Tommy begged a drop of petrol to fill an automatic cigarette lighter. Around the corner came a line of wounded Algerians, some supported by comrades and one swarthy fellow carried by his companions. They seemed to have suffered a bad mauling. The dazed look of mute questioning, a failure to understand, was on their faces. From red fez to blue putties, their uniforms were a riot of colour. Blue capes over light blue jackets trimmed in yellow and red, once white trousers, unusually baggy, with here and there a head dress of odd hue, they presented a variegated but woe-begone appearance. They might have been part of a pageant which had started out gaily enough only to meet catastrophe. Some of them were almost white. Some were quite black. One was grinning. From another a sharp cry of pain caused his bearers to let him gently down for a moment in the roadway.

A loud explosion came so close at hand that it ripped the air apart. The shock struck me like a blow in the face. Bricks, stones, bits of debris, and shrapnel fell in every direction. A rush of fumes and smoke came through the gateway from a German shell which had burst inside. The farmer shot through the air, falling on his back in the roadway by me. After an effort to raise himself, he fell back with a shudder, and lay twitching convulsively. A couple of horses and two forms in khaki were piled together against the cliff side. One of the big white oxen lay a few feet away, his snowy side turning crimson. Debris of all sorts rained down, the heavier bits with a sharp staccato as they struck the pave roadway.

The impulse to leave the spot where a shell has fallen is overpowering. I gained the shelter of a further wall, when a shell burst behind me in the pathway that led from the crest. It lit among the fleeing Algerians. Numbers of them were hurled aside. Loud cries told of pain and terror. A great black fellow came down the hill screaming shrilly, dashed round the corner and sped away, lurching and straining as he ran. Down the road came a flash and a milky shrapnel cloud over the roadway. A shell had toppled the big Algerian over in full flight.

Under a wooden gate, torn from its hinges, I cuddled close under the wall of a house. Shell after shell burst over the roadway. Huddled groups of Algerians still came down the path. They had no idea of how to seek cover. The wounded lay thick on all sides.

A tiny man, his ebony face distorted into a ghastly grin, struggled under an enormous comrade limp as a sack of meal. Through that hell of shell-fire the little Algerian made his way slowly, stepping gingerly over the dead and skirting shell-holes with the greatest care. At last he reached one of the hillside caves, and deposited his load at the feet of one of our brigade doctors, who was busy dressing a most heterogeneous collection of wounded.

No sooner had the little man got clear of the roadway than a shell burst over it. Involuntarily ducking at the force of the explosion, I felt a sharp blow in the ribs. It literally "knocked the wind out of me." At the moment I was afraid to feel my side, apprehensive of a nasty wound. A glance showed me a large brick had struck me, hurled as though shied from a catapult. My ribs were sore for days afterwards.

I fled a few yards further, keeping close to the wall. I stopped by Captain Algy Court, of the 9th Lancers. Court was standing beside his horse in such shelter as the wall afforded, waiting orders to move his squadron up the hill. We tried to talk to each other, but bursting shells rendered conversation impossible. A piece of shell struck Court's charger in the chest. The blood spurted in a stream. The captain led him inside the gateway. I followed. As I came past, the poor animal fell backwards and all but pinned me against the cliff side.

An English soldier and an Algerian were brought into an adjacent cave. A couple of old peasants looked on sympathetically while our doctor dressed both wounds with equal care. The doctor asked me to accompany him to a larger cave, where several of our wounded were reported to be.


French colonial troops


There we found forty or fifty cases, mostly Algerians. Standing in the doorway of the cave, the shell-fire seemed louder, but I was in comparative safety. A passing officer advised me to get my car away if it was still runnable. It was covered with debris, but no beams or large pieces of wreckage had fallen on it. It was by that time but six o'clock, though it seemed as if hours had passed. I crept along the wall towards the car, when the noise of a passing shell sent me back to the cave mouth. A pale little French soldier, with spare black beard, was brought in wounded — a splendid, plucky little chap.

A high explosive terror burst in the road in front of the gate of our adopted dressing station. Then for twenty minutes the din of exploding shells was without a break. Most of them burst just above the roadway. Now one would light on the crest above the cave mouth, and shower mud, stones, and pieces of shell over us.

The yard was full of harnessed teams. The effect of the shell-fire on the horses was interesting. Some were apathetic; others were nervous and jumpy; most of them took it quietly.

A woman came from a house, leading a four-year-old child. She was making for the safe retreat of the cave. The little girl was wonderingly interested, but not in the least afraid. She prattled incessant questions to her mother as they hurried to shelter.

Well up the steep path that led to the crest, I could see the wide, low mouth of a cave that faced the direction from which the enemy's shells were coming. A dozen Algerians with their horses were gathered there. I watched them as they stood near the opening. Then came a flash and a red smudge right over the cave mouth. Black smoke poured out in dense masses. A Black Maria had exploded inside the cave. Not a man nor a horse of the group escaped instant death.

An hour later a lull in the shelling induced me to walk forward and look at the car. It was intact, though covered with still more masonry and debris. A piece of shell hit the road in front of me, and threw the mud in a conical little spurt, whereupon I lost no time in regaining the mouth of the cave.

The General was in the firing line somewhere ahead.


British artillery in the field


A battery of 18-pounders on the crest had been "answering" at times during the morning, but had been unable to "find" the enemy's howitzers.

At last came a full five minutes' lull in the firing. Its effect on the artillery drivers and reserves standing near was electrical. The men walked across the yard and into the road quite as unconcernedly as though a truce had been declared. To judge from their demeanour the danger was over. A German aeroplane sailing high above slowly turned and circled over us. German aeroplanes spelt trouble. We had not long to wait for it to materialise.

Just as I had planned to remove the car the shell-fire began again, to last for another half hour. In the lull which followed I dug the car from under the debris which covered it and moved it to a point of greater safety. Pieces of shrapnel had left their mark on its sides and made a hole through one of the mud guards. One of the panels was spattered with blood.

In a house selected for our headquarters, I found a kitchen fire, which was most welcome, as a chill rain was falling. All forenoon the shelling continued at intervals, until my head rang with it.

The line in front of us was held by the newly arrived 18th Brigade of the 6th Division. This Brigade, under General Congreve, consisted of the 1st West Yorks, ist East Yorks, 2nd Notts and Derby and 2nd Durham Light Infantry. The extreme right of the line was in the hands of the West Yorks, a green regiment so far as German tricks were concerned.

The Algerians had been driven from their position on the far left of the French line. Three trenches in echelon, facing north-east, we hoped they would hold, for their retirement from those trenches uncovered our right flank. As a precaution de Lisle ordered Colonel Burnett, of the 18th Hussars, to prepare and occupy a couple of trenches between the right of the West Yorks and the left of the Algerians to protect any possible gap.

Still the fire rained on Paissy. One shell in the roadway killed a lieutenant and four men of the 18th. The roof of our headquarters house was continually peppered with hot splinters. The Sussex Battalion (1st Division), were in Paissy. I saw a message from General Lomax to the Sussex, saying that the 2nd Cavalry Brigade were to support the right of the West Yorks during the day, and rest in Paissy that night, to be on hand in case the French on the east of us were compelled to fall back. The Sussex were "resting." I had a good laugh with their Commanding Officer at the idea of "resting" anywhere near Paissy that day.

The Commanding Officer of the West Yorks called. He was very nervous about his right, but de Lisle reassured him. Personally I thought there was altogether too much talk of the precariousness of the situation. Such a thing exists as unnecessary apprehension.

The General suggested a visit to Divisional headquarters after the West Yorks Colonel had departed. As I lowered the hood a shell burst across the road twenty feet distant, and dirt and stones showered over me. I felt myself well over to be sure I was not hit. A piece of another shell hit a tree on the opposite side, and a shrapnel burst over the yard behind. How delighted I was to clear out of the place, if only for a short time! At General Allenby's headquarters, by a haystack above Tour de Paissy, a heavy shower gave me a thorough drenching. When the rain ceased we had a fine view of the country round. The French trenches and those of our troops could be seen with the naked eye.

Standing at a safe distance, watching the enemy shrapnel over our trenches or seeing clusters of four or eight burst over Paissy, with a Black Maria in frequent interlude, was a very different matter from being under the bursting shells.

On the way back to our own headquarters we had to wait outside Moulins until the enemy gunfire, covering the road ahead of us, had died down. One of the recently- arrived 60-pounder batteries, cleverly concealed, was thundering as we sped by its hiding-place.

At headquarters I felt drowsy and tried to sleep, but found it impossible. The German 8- inch howitzer shells were coming at regular intervals, their explosions rattling the panes and jarring the very foundations. The patter of debris on the roof, the sharp slap of a bit of shell or a shrapnel bullet in the yard, and the screams and moans of passing missiles, put my nerves on edge.

The General and Phipps-Hornby rode out to keep an eye on the trench positions. The hammering, hammering, hammering was growing painfully monotonous. The hopelessness of escape from it was galling.

Like a bolt from the blue came a West Yorks officer with news that the Germans had once again attacked the Zouaves on our right and pushed them back, getting in on the West Yorks' right flank. The Huns had taken some of the West Yorks' trenches, and driven back the line. Two companies of the Yorks Battalion had been captured. No sooner had he told his tale than Phipps-Hornby galloped up. General de Lisle, he said, was trying to get a company of the Yorks together, and wished all available troops sent up at once to reinforce him. All was bustle. The 4th Dragoon Guards were off instanter, the 9th Lancers hard on their heels, with the Sussex not far behind.

A real breach in the line and Paissy lost meant serious business. The muddy roads and the narrow pontoon bridges over the Aisne would not allow a thought of retirement. Nothing remained but to regain the ground that had been lost.

I was ordered off post haste to 1st Division headquarters, and then to General Allenby to bear messages explaining what had transpired. Speeding over the greasy road I soon reached General Lomax, and a few moments later was at 1st Cavalry Division headquarters. The fight was in plain view. 'The Germans were coming over the brow of the hill. A couple of hundred dismounted 4th Dragoon Guards, the first line of the counter-attack, under Major Tom Bridges, could be seen climbing the stubble-covered hillside, dotted with still forms in khaki, and crowned by the lost trench.

Batteries — French, British, and German — sent round after round as fast as the men could serve the guns.

Still up the stubble crept the thin line, Bridges' tall form in the lead. The support, eager to have a hand in the game, pressed on in haste, but could not overtake the invincible Dragoon Guards, who swept away the Germans in their vastly superior numbers as if endowed with some superhuman power.

They gave the Huns no rest. Pouring a deadly and accurate fire into the blue-grey ranks as they came on, Bridges and his 200 reached the front trench at last under a very heavy canopy of whizzing bullets. With a wild cheer, they leaped at the Germans, and threw them back from the trenches. The fierceness of the onslaught could no more be withstood than one could stem a cyclone.

The lost position regained, the big major leaped ahead, and again his men poured on after him. The enemy was not only to lose what he had won, but more. Before the 4th Dragoon Guards stopped, they had taken the Chemin des Dames, three or four hundred yards ahead of our original position. There we stuck and held on against counter-attack on counter-attack — our line to be kept without losing an inch of it during assaults that for the next few weeks were to leave pile on pile of German dead as an earnest of their stubborn refusal to admit the ground for ever lost.

A splendid charge was that at Paissy. A triumph of individual leadership and splendid quality in a handful of men. To watch it made the blood run hot and fast. To have taken part in it was worth a lifetime of mere ordinary existence.

Running back through Pargnan, the roads and fields were full of the battered Algerians. Out of 6,000 of them only 2,000 were left after five days' hard fighting.

I was under shell-fire a number of times during the remainder of the day. At dusk the Staff was in the road under the brow of the Paissy hill when shells fell closer than usual. Captain Hamilton-Grace suggested I should back the car further round a turn, under shelter of the height of ground. I was too tired to bother, but at his second suggestion I backed for some fifty feet to please him. The moment I brought the car to rest in its new position, a shell lit on the spot from which I had moved it. I voted Grace's foresight little short of uncanny.

To cap the climax, the French won back their original positions on the right, and night closed with the line in better position than dawn had found it.


the British army in France


We seemed firmly installed in our billets in Longueval. The men were very comfortable in the picturesque stone-built village nestling low between the steep hill sides. The village folk were exceptionally friendly. A little bakery did the trade of its lifetime. A dry, warm billet at night makes a vast difference to the efficiency of a command, and for a fortnight the 2nd Cavalry Brigade waxed fat in Longueval, in spite of sundry days spent in the ever-shelled Paissy.

On Monday, following the Sunday fight in front of the Chemin des Dames, the Brigade was ordered to rest and refit. The line was comparatively quiet, save for the inevitable intermittent shell-fire. The weather was exasperating. A flash of real warm sunshine at times gave hope of a change, but the hope always vanished in cold, dispiriting rain. General de Lisle made a tour of divisional and corps headquarters that put us in accurate touch with the march of events. At Braisnes we found General Gough, in command of the newly formed 2nd Cavalry Division, consisting of the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigades. General Smith-Dorrien's headquarters were in a great medieval chateau at Muret, a picturesque spot.

The universal feeling was that the new form of warfare, the trench fighting, might prove a tedious business. In spite of the arrival from England of half a dozen batteries of 60- pounders, the Germans were able to fire thirty shells to our one. Their preponderance in machine-guns was also marked. But few days of the trench war had passed before the machine-gun had come into its own. Officers who had given but little thought to the intricate mechanism of the death-dealing quick-firers could be heard cursing administrations of all sorts because of the obvious shortage of rapid-fire guns in the British army.

A well-informed gunner gave the following twist to one such conversation: "I know of reports impressing the necessity of an increase of machine-guns and machine-gunners that for years went annually into the War Office. Why was nothing done ? Because no money was forthcoming, that's why. The taxpayer wouldn't stand it. No unlimited amount for army expenditure has ever been available, and rapid-fire guns are costly things. Reduction of army appropriation, not increase of its ordnance, is what a politician preached if he wanted to court popularity. Machine-guns, indeed! It's a wonder we have any guns !" Point of view differs, does it not?

Hard on the heels of Monday's peace came Tuesday's disquiet. It was Paissy again for the day. A jaunt to the reserve trenches and over the ground of Sunday's battle was interesting until the German gunners commenced shelling that part of the field. At the first quartette of shrapnel I decamped. Rifles, coats, kits, and all manner of personal property were thrown about the trench where the fiercest part of the action had taken place. Bibles, notebooks, match-boxes, bits of clothing, knives — the jumble of oddments contained everything a soldier ever carried and many things one would never associate with Tommy or his German prototype. In a little rain-washed gully a miniature case lay half-covered in the mud. Inside it was the work of an artist of ability, a lovely face painted deftly on ivory, the sort of face possessing a sweetness of expression that makes one wonder where one has seen the original.



A transcription from my diary pictures of life in Paissy.

"11.30 a. m. Have been sitting on a rock under the lee wall of a house we are using as headquarters. The shelling of this town has gotten to be a German habit. As I sit I face a narrow path from the opposite edge of which the ground drops away to the valley below. Big shells and little shells are going over and around me. Now and again they explode behind my back with a concussion that is nerve racking. White clouds for shrapnel and big black clouds for Jack Johnsons follow the explosions in front after the shriek of the shells in passing. Those which strike near by frequently send a jagged piece of projectile hurtling through the air with a peculiar demoniacal wail of its own. The shells which land behind jar the whole hill. The house wall at my back trembles with the explosion. When the big black melinite ones land in front, if they are anything less than seventy-five to a hundred yards distant, I feel the concussion. If they are closer, there is a real physical shock when they explode. Down the road, tree branches fallen, great holes torn in the side of the roadway, and a pile of dead horses are evidences that yesterday's shell-fire was effective. In front, and a bit to the right, half-a-dozen troopers are sorting out a pile of rifles and ammunition which have been brought back from the scene of the battle.

"11.50 a.m. Four came close all at once. Could almost feel one of them. It seemed just overhead. Major Frazer has called, and with Captain Hamilton-Grace has climbed a winding path which leads to an old stone church on the top of the hill. The tower of this church is an artillery observation post, and the boys have gone up to have a look.

"12.50. Fairclough asked if I would like to go up into the church tower and have a look. Quaint old place. I climbed the narrow winding stairway, the stone steps worn down six to eight inches, and then a rickety ladder to the bell loft. We had a fine view of our trenches, and high in the sky, on the right, was a German war balloon — a 'sausage,' as the men call it. A lot of shells came near the tower while we were in it. They whirr past in a weird way when one is far up. When I came back down to this back-to-wall position, a Sussex officer and a sergeant were looking over my car. They told me they thought it must have been hit by a shell that came a moment ago, but they could find no new shell marks on it. It was well I put the car in the shelter of the wall. While I was in the church tower, I am told, a shell burst on the other side of the wall, wounded six troopers in the yard and one of the party who were sorting the ammunition under the big tree. His companions had left that job for the moment!

"12.10. An orderly holding a couple of chargers is sharing my wall. One of the horses is very restless under this cannonade, and jumps nervously when a shell bursts near us. The other horse seems to be watching the lower levels where the green fields are cut with dozens of big black holes, close together, in even circles, which show where the big melinite chaps have burst. I wonder if he is deprecating the spoiling of that fine pasture- land?

"12.15. A dozen shrapnel came over at the same time bursting in such close succession I could not count the separate explosions. All but one or two of them went off over and a little back of me. There is a nasty, singing, twanging sound to those that burst behind as the contents of the projectile and pieces of it whirr over. The nervous horse nearly walked on me. Shells cannot come any closer and not score a hit. The troopers have stopped running out and picking up hot pieces of shell. A while ago they thought that good fun. I can't understand it. For my part such keepsakes never interest me. I am far too likely to be taking away a piece of shell as an internal souvenir, without troubling to fill my pockets with similar keepsakes. Our guns across the valley are replying now, and their shells sing over our heads on their way to the enemy trenches. Major Frazer came up and asked if I was writing home and telling how much I am enjoying myself! The nervous horse belongs to him. He and his orderly mounted and rode away during a lull in the shelling. I wish him luck getting down that road.

"12.25. — Another bunch of shrapnel all in a heap. Six or eight bursting at once make a din. Now the great melinite fellows are coming again. A couple of enormous black clouds from the ravine tell where they struck. There go two just behind on the cliff. They left their cards in the form of scattered bits which fell on the pathway in front of me, not more than four or five feet distant. Close work. Too close for comfort. A piece of shell about four inches long and sharply pointed has stuck right into the gravel path about thirty inches from my foot.

"12.30. — Five or six more, all high explosives. The air in the valley is black with smoke. Two of the last lot went through the trees a few feet away. If one of them hit the tree trunk and exploded it would be nasty here. Immediately afterwards a dozen or more shrapnel, again in a group, went through the same trees. Leaves and branches fell in showers. An absolute rain of shells now for five minutes. I dislike most the ones that burst behind me. The noise of the whirring pieces is trying.

"1 p. m. — Still steady firing. Our batteries have taken a hand in the noise production at the rate of thirty to forty shots to the minute. There is nothing to do but sit here and hope I shall get a run out of it before long. It is better here than up on the crest, for I am, I suppose, quite safe under the cliff side behind the wall.

"2 p. m. — The General is going now to pay a visit to another part of the line. I am not sorry, for three hours of this sort of thing are quite enough for one day."


By general Allenby's haystack at Tour-de-Paissy was a big telescope mounted on a tripod. It was in disgrace. It served the Divisional Staff soberly and well until the very moment of the German attack on the West Yorks' trenches. Seeing men coming over the ridge, Colonel Home, General Allenby's G.S.O. i, declared his field-glasses made him think them Germans. To make sure, the big telescope was turned on the ridge. For the first time in its history a moist film formed over the inner lens. A line of grey smudges was all that could be made out through its formerly far-seeing eye. When later events proved that Home was right, and the men in sight were Germans, moments precious to the guns had been for ever lost. Had the telescope possessed a soul it would have shrivelled in the heat of some of the remarks caused by that unlucky atmospheric visitation.

Not far from the haystack beside a muddy lane rose a knoll. Under a small tree a couple of gunners were on observation post. By the tree stood a wayside shrine, on its pedestal the inscription, in French, "Jesus is the way, the truth and the life." Flanked by trenches, the guns of two Christian nations hurling death from so little a distance that the mound trembled with each discharge, the shell-fire of a third we once thought Christian searching every foot of ground about it in frenzy to kill, I was struck by the numbers of passers-by whose eyes were caught , by the familiar words, their faces softened as by a memory of other days.

Fitting it should be so. The Englishmen who were shedding their blood on those hillsides were battling for the Cross as surely as those of their forebears who followed Richard and the Crusades. It is modern to be cynical and hard, but the old faith has deep root in most of us, after all. We Anglo-Saxons should be proud of such a heritage.

The 2nd Notts and Derby came in for an awful hammering during the afternoon. Battery after battery of the enemy's guns were turned on the trenches above Paissy, but our men stuck to their line in spite of the inferno the howitzers made of it. The men reported seeing many Germans in front of them in British caps and tunics. The Hun trenches were 400 yards from ours, and the desire of the German soldiers to show themselves in their newly captured khaki outfits was overpowering until the Notts and Derby sharpshooters convinced them of the fool-hardiness of so doing.

A sight that attracted daily attention on the Aisne was the appearance of German aeroplanes, which dropped signals to their guns, and thereupon were shelled violently by our field batteries. Lines of tiny white shell clouds, in long arcs across the sky as the fire followed one of our airmen, told of enemy anti-aircraft guns, the criticism or praise of whose marksmanship aroused continual controversies among the Tommies.

At dusk General de Lisle suggested scouting a new route around the Paissy crater. An army map showed a road none of us had thus far found. To pass through Paissy was an unpleasant experience. At a corner, dead horses were piled high, and, in the vernacular, "stunk horrid." A hole, three feet deep and six wide, had been torn in the centre of the road since I had made an earlier run over the same route. In the dusk, I landed the car with a smash and a jar plump in the middle of it. With badly bent front axle we pushed on, wondering at being able to do so. Over piles of debris from shattered dwellings, and past felled trees we crawled, then circled another shell-hole in the road so wide that one side of the car dipped into it at a dangerous angle in passing. The road became a mere lane, then a grassy, slippery track along the edge of the precipice. A drop meant a fall of eighty feet. Struggling up sharp ascents with wheels skidding in the mud, at last we came to the end of the path. We kept on a few hundred yards over the long grass, negotiating one stretch with the car canted at an angle of forty-five degrees.

We mounted a short, stiff gradient, and before us lay a black abyss, trackless and sinister, obviously too steep to allow of safe descent.

Turning the car on the edge of that drop, the grass slippery from the early dew, no light permissible to aid us, was at last safely accomplished. We retraced our way, and took the usual route to Longueval, having thoroughly proved the unreliability of the map.

The bent axle necessitated a run to the G.H.Q. repair shops at Fere-en-Tardenois. " Rattle " Barrett and I borrowed a car there from Westminster, who had two, as we had an errand for de Lisle which took us to Sablonnieres, where one of the General's horses had been wounded and left to convalesce.

At Fere-en-Tardenois I received my first letter from London since my departure, thirty- three days before.

French Divisions were moving to the north-west and had been doing so for days. Joffre had started de Castelnau's 7th Army and Maud'huy's 10th Army toward Maunoury's left. The flanking movement to turn Von Kluck's right had begun. De Castelnau was to reach from Roye northward to Chaulnes, and Maud'huy from north of the Somme near Albert to Arras and beyond.


On September 24th we were up at three o'clock, and once more made our way from Longueval to Paissy, where the Brigade was to "stand by" in support. From Paissy I took the General to Troyon by way of Moulins and Vendresse.

German shrapnel were paying the customary attention to the road from Paissy. We waited by a farm for a moment watching the shells burst ahead. " Go slow," came the order. I crawled. De Lisle, who was seated beside me, turned and looked sharply at me. "Go! Go !" he cried. I had misunderstood him. "Now, go!" he had said; not "Go slow !" I pushed on as fast as the car could gather speed. But the momentary delay had upset the General's nicely turned calculations. Before we had crossed the open plain, Bang! came the first shell; and Bang, bang, bang! — three others, just above us.

The slivers rattled on the metal panels. A shrapnel bullet made a clean round bed in the top of the radiator, and a good-sized splinter cut a deep incision in a front wing. The door panel alongside de Lisle was scraped by a sharp bit that buried in the step. A piece the size of a pea struck the chief on the nose, and a similar one gave me a stinging blow on the shoulder. The floor of the car held half a dozen fragments as we pulled up and took stock beyond. Our luck had held, and we were none the worse.

A bright, pretty day for a change, made our visit to the "sugar mill trenches" above Troyon all the more enjoyable. The men of the 18th Brigade were burrowed in the high road bank. Tiny cave-like shelters, canopied with branches or straw, made snug quarters, safe, under the brow of the hill, from the everlasting shell-fire. A subaltern of the East Yorks said his lot had three killed and eighteen wounded by high explosives in the front line the day before. The same regiment, he said, lost eight officers and seventy- three men when the Germans attacked so strenuously on the previous Sunday. Two companies of the enemy had come straight on, that day, in close formation, and suffered such casualties from the East Yorks' fire that they had to retire in confusion.

A persistent rumour had spread that the Canadians were "out." "They won't be worth much until they have had some of this sitting under Black Marias. The best troops on earth would have to take a day or so to break into it," sagely remarked a beardless junior subaltern. His Division had arrived on the scene but few days before, but he looked with the eyes of a veteran on all newcomers.

Real quiet rarely visited the Troyon ridge. Our shells howled over, and the German shells screamed back. Rifle-fire rose and fell in spasmodic waves of sound. The evenly- punctuated barking of the machine-guns echoed across the gorge.

On our way back to Paissy two new shell-holes showed where eight-inch projectiles had dropped since we had passed over the road. Once a howitzer shell burst so near we ran through its smoke-cloud — an ill-smelling mess.

All wished to take advantage of the rare opportunity of a warm sun-bath. We lined the wall, all the staff lying sleeping or reading as the afternoon wore on. I slept soundly. An overwhelming crash awakened me. A wicked high-explosive chap had burst above the headquarters yard. My eyes and mouth were full of dust and evil-tasting smoke. I could not see a foot in front. As the smoke-cloud cleared I saw Barrett swaying, and thought him wounded. He had merely stumbled in rising. Not one of us had been hit, though pieces of shell had rained down. We scampered through the gate and into the cave in the cliff. For an hour or more Paissy underwent a bombardment that eclipsed anything in that line with which it had been visited formerly. Venturing to sit on an overturned bucket at the cave's mouth, I was toppled back by a brick, which took me fair in the middle. Thereafter I was content to keep well inside the cave until the Hun-hate had been somewhat appeased, and t he shelling died down.



A German Attack

The Germans pounded our troops well during those first weeks on the Aisne. Their shell fire scored until our positions were strengthened and the shelter from bombardment improved. Day by day this work went on, the continual shelling taking less toll of men as time passed.

We had our "days." A fresh Division of the enemy, brought by train from St. Quentin to a point fifteen miles from our lines, were seen at daybreak one Saturday in front of Troyon. Our first sight of them was when they marched in column of fours over the brow of a hill not 400 yards from our advance trenches. At their head strode a tall Hun bearing a white flag tied to a long stick. The first rows of men behind him were dressed in khaki. An interesting procession. Over the crest of the hill they came, every second bringing more of them to their certain fate. To those who were watching it seemed the enemy could not know the position of our lines. The strain was too great for a sergeant behind one of our machine-guns, and he "let go." His officers nearly wept with rage. The forepart of the German column shrivelled under the stream of bullets from the quick-firers and rifles. Our whole line was ablaze in a moment. Many huddled forms lay in plain sight of our trenches as the light grew, but most of the Germans had safely reached the cover of their front trench, from which they kept up an incessant and perfectly harmless fire for more than an hour.

"If that blessed sergeant had been a bit patient," said his company officer to me that morning, " we would have jolly well bagged the lot."

The same officer was gazing idly toward the front during the late afternoon. His glance rested on the still bundles of grey lying between the lines. Storms of bullets from both sides had swept over the dead all day long. A thought came to his mind. What a crowning horror it would be to find that some of the fallen were merely wounded. As he watched, little bits of earth were kicked up here and there by bullets that fell short and cut the soil of no-man's land. Shell fire had ploughed furrows in it at frequent intervals. Shrapnel bullets were sown broadcast over it.

Suddenly, as if in answer to his soliloquy, one of the inanimate bundles seemed to come to life. It rolled over. The man inside the grey coat leaped to his feet. Hands held high in air, he ran like mad for our trench line. Over the parapet he tumbled, crashing on his head in the soft earth. Gaining his knees, hands still held above him, a beatific grin spread over his decidedly Teutonic features.

He spoke English quite well. "I shall to England be sent, no ?" he queried. "It was too long, the time I lay out there. At first, I would to stay till dark come. But my nervous, it was finished. I could no longer quiet keep, no? " And the cheerful Hun, happy as a clam, was marched off under guard, to be turned over to the London Scottish, who were guarding lines of communication, and entrained for the South.

General Allenby and his headquarters staff lived at Villers, south of the Aisne. A trooper was pulling bundles of grain from a stack near Villers when he found a man covered in the straw. Jerked from his hiding-place, a tall young German Guardsman in uniform stood before his captor. Examination led to the alarming discovery that the German had been lying at one end of a wire that tapped a telegraph line from divisional headquarters. For thirteen days, possibly, the messages over that wire had been heard by ears for which they were by no means intended.

General admiration for the German's pluck was heard on all sides. To have stayed so long hidden so far within his enemy's lines required coolness and bravery.

Many were the conjectures as to how the information which he gained was transmitted to his own army. No other wire leading from the stack could be found. Careful search of the vicinity resulted in no enlightenment. At points the Aisne was dragged with long rakes by energetic signalers, but all in vain. The news of the capture was made a secret, and night after night a vigil kept to intercept possible callers laden with food for the German or in search of messages from him. No result was forthcoming, save that the watchers caught one another one night, and the next night caught cold, and the solution of the puzzle remained a mystery.

Periodical visits to the trenches made me sure that one day a fat howitzer shell would land in the wrong place for me. The enemy made some roads impassable, but we always found another way round.

Colonel Steele of the Coldstreams showed us a souvenir one day in the form of a ruined poncho. His shelter above Vendresse was a short way back of the trenches on the crest. Lying on his back, his legs spread out, and his poncho so arranged that it served for bed and coverlet, he dropped off to sleep. He was awakened by one of our own 18- pounder shrapnel, fired from somewhere in the valley below, which fell short. The misguided shell went directly between Steele's knees, ripping two gaping holes in his poncho and burying itself, unexploded, in the bank on which he was lying.

Tom Bridges was promoted Colonel of the 4th Hussars, but four days after he had assumed command of the regiment a motor-car from G.H.Q. called for him and hurried him off to Antwerp, for service with King Albert and his Belgians.

Major Budworth and H Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery came from England and joined the 2nd Cavalry Brigade while we were in Longueval. At dinner on the night of Budworth's arrival General de Lisle said that he, the Major, Captain Skinner of H Battery, and I would next morning take " a run around," visit our gun positions past and present, and "show the Major what German shell fire was like." From experience I knew that meant we would more than likely go " looking for trouble."

Heavy cannonading continued throughout the night. "Promiscous" one of the troopers called it. Seemed wasteful, but at the end of two weeks of it the British Army had suffered over 3,000 casualties from the shell fire alone.

Our men were learning to keep to cover, and our batteries had learned to disguise themselves well. Miniature groves would spring up over the guns in a night. The "heavies," what few we had of them, were made to look like sheds or haystacks when concealment of the battery was impossible. These tricks our gunners learnt from the enemy, who was a past master at such contrivances.

After doing the rounds of the guns our party visited,the trenches above Troyon. Serrocold's Battalion of the 6oth Rifles and Steele's Coldstreams were in front that day.

The Sugar-Mill Position, so called from the huge mill above Troyon, since destroyed, that had been taken and retaken a dozen times and had afforded the Lancashires a chance to gain fine laurels, was our nearest point of vantage in one sector of the line.

There our barricade was one hundred yards south of the summit of the ridge, and the German trenches but eighty yards to the north of it. The Sugar-Mill barricade had seen heavy fighting, but was comparatively quiet at the time of our visit, though sniper bullets occasionally sang overhead and shrapnel came past at intervals.

Tucked under the brow of the hill, not far from the front line, were Colonel Serrocold's headquarters. A mutual friend had a few days before sent by me a case of most welcome provender to Serrocold's mess, and in consequence I called to sample the goods.

"We will get out of this to-day, sure," said the Colonel.

"I think not, sir," I replied. " I have heard nothing of a change so far this morning. Why do you think you are to move?"

"Because we have just finished the construction of the first good dry shelter we have had for some days," was the answer. " I'm sure this is so perfect a spot now that we are doomed to be sent elsewhere, and others will spend a comfortable night in our snug quarters."

I laughed at his mock pessimism, and had another laugh the next day when I learned that sure enough the 60th had been shifted late in the afternoon. Serrocold's prophecy had come true most unexpectedly, and his palatial quarters had to be turned over to his successors.

We visited General FitzClarence and his staff in a typical cave Brigade headquarters under the brow of the Aisne Heights. Well inside the cave the Brigade staff work could be done without fear of interruption.


see also : Back to the Stone Age


These cave headquarters were quite "comfy." But any spot in those days might be a headquarters. I remember one that consisted of the body of a defunct W. and G. taxicab.

In Vendresse half an hour later we were treated to some fairly close shelling, the first projectile landing on the other side of a high stone wall as we passed. A run to Paissy and a view from the church tower concluded our tour of sightseeing. We returned to Longueval for luncheon. We had taken Budworth under rifle and shell fire and shown him heaps of German dead a few yards distant from our trenches. As we pulled up, one of the party made a comment on the quiet and security of quaint Longueval, far from scenes of violence which had become the daily round in such towns as we had visited that morning.

But Longueval had proved less safe, in spite of its distance from the firing line, than the trenches and the hill towns close behind. Half an hour before our return five great howitzer shells from long-range guns had crashed into the village. One struck the centre of the stone-paved yard of a farm where a squadron of 9th Lancers was billeted. Lieutenant Whitehead was directing the cleaning of an open space between the barns. He and eleven of his men were killed and thirteen wounded. Among the killed was the sergeant-major of the 9th and two sergeants. Five horses were killed, and others wounded so badly it was necessary to destroy them.

The General was of opinion that the few shells had come that way as a chance bit of itinerant bombardment, to which most of the Aisne towns within range of the German guns would be subjected at one time or another. At two o'clock five more Black Marias fell near Longueval, but did no more damage than to rip up the field in which they fell.

After luncheon I ran to Rheims with the General to see the ravaged cathedral. The stately Gothic pile was reported to be a heap of ruins. It was hardly that, but nevertheless had been cruelly knocked about. Streets near by were choked lanes between rows of desolate monuments to the German love of wanton destruction.

Back in Longueval late in the afternoon we found the Brigade saddled and ready to move from the village. Less than an hour from the time of the General's departure a dozen high explosive shells had been hurled into the little town. One lit in a narrow street outside the door of our headquarters, killing a man who was standing in the doorway and four other troopers who were grouped near by, and wounding twelve who were passing. My bedroom had been used as an emergency dressing station, and my bed as an operating table. The place was soaked in blood. As in the morning, the 9th Lancers had been the regiment to suffer. Of the two dozen killed and nearly as many wounded that day in Longueval all but one or two were 9th Lancers.

An explanation of the shelling was at last forthcoming. A supply train had been halted by an injudicious Army Service Corps subaltern on the brow of the hill above the village and in plain sight of the enemy's observation posts on the heights across the Aisne. The lorries on the skyline had caught the attention of our gunners on slopes far in front. Word was sent at once that such advertisement of our billeting centres would bear sinister result, but the message came too late.

I spent the night on a bundle of straw in the open. My only warm blanket had disappeared in the melee attending the hurried dressing of the wounded and their prompt dispatch to the hospital at Villers. In consequence I woke on the morning of Wednesday, September 30th, with a decided chill. The Brigade moved at daybreak to St. Thibaut, a village on the Vesle between Braisnes and Fismes. I had planned a joy ride to Rheims. With Major Solly Flood of the 4th Dragoon Guards, Osborn, the 4th Dragoon Guards' sawbones, and Fairclough, I paid a second visit to the cathedral.

The fields and roadways near Rheims were full of townsfolk driven from their homes by the German shells.

A high fever induced me to take a couple of hours' rest between clean sheets at the Lion d'Or, across from the great church. Not even the novelty of a cool white bed lowered my temperature, which had so mounted by afternoon that Osborn bade me spend the night in Rheims, while he and the others went back without me. From three to five o'clock, and again at seven in the evening, German shells were poured into the town, one striking the hotel. It was by no means the first that had done so. The sole remaining chambermaid apprised me at night that at one time during the afternoon I had been the only occupant of the hotel who had not taken refuge in the cellar. This was due largely to the fact that I was sound asleep during the hottest part of the show. Twice, she said, she had run upstairs to see if I was still whole and sound, to find me pouring forth scornful snores to the accompaniment of the frequent crashes of the howitzer shells.


The next day I sallied forth, very shaky on my pins, but .comparatively free from fever. My old friend Frank Hedges Butler was in Rheims, braving the bombardment to procure the pick of the vintages. With him I visited the Pommery and Greno caves and those of G. H. Mumm. Crowds hung about the entrances waiting to rush inside the moment further shelling began. The Pommery chateau was demolished- by the scores of Black Marias that had sought it out. The champagne had been but little disturbed, and most of it lay safe and snug in the miles of subterranean passages that honeycomb underground Rheims. Mumm, a German, was a prisoner in French hands. Robinet, his French partner, was delightfully cordial.

"The day the Germans came into Rheims a colonel stamped his way into my house," said Robinet, " and told me abruptly I was to prepare immediately fifty beds for German wounded. I replied in his own tongue that fifty beds I could not possibly arrange, but would be glad to provide ten if he would give me sufficient time to do so. The colonel was very brutal. He left the house swearing he would return in an hour's time. If I failed to produce the fifty beds demanded I would, he said, be shot forthwith.

" An hour later a thin young German officer came in, a couple of bottles of champagne in one hand. Depositing the wine tenderly in a corner, he asked to see what accommodation I had provided for the wounded. I showed him the ten beds, which were being got ready as rapidly as possible. 'This one,' said the young German, 'I wish to have reserved for a member of my staff who has been severely wounded. See that it is kept for him, please.'

"Something in his tone and manner made me look closer at this officer, and suddenly it flashed over me that it must be the Crown Prince. As he left the house, after carefully turning over the two bottles of champagne to one of his staff officers who had appeared on the scene, I asked if he was the Prince, and found my conjecture was correct. He called several times thereafter, evincing the greatest interest in the welfare of the wounded member of his staff until the latter was sent back to Germany.

"The colonel who had threatened me with death as a punishment for not acceding to his demand for fifty beds called the same night and very elaborately apologised. He told me he had been wounded, and for four days his wound had been undressed. For three days he had hardly tasted food. 'To go so long with no time for eating or sleeping,' he said,' and with the irritation of constant pain, made me inexcusably uncivil. I wish to be pardoned.' He was so punctilious about it that the following day he asked me to step down to his headquarters, where he called in several officers, some of whom had witnessed his abusive conduct of the day before, and again apologised in their presence. He was decidedly thorough about it, once he took it into his head to make amends.

"One of the Crown Prince's staff said to me, 'Why do your Parisian papers lie so? They say the British force is here or there, as if they do not know that French's army is either killed or captured to a man. I can assure you,' he continued most vehemently, 'on my word as a gentleman, the British Army no longer exists. It is finished absolutely.' He was equally dogmatic in his assertion that the German Army would enter Paris in three days' time."

Eight hundred wounded Germans were cared for in Rheims. Some were there still at the time of my visit.

An early start after a second night's rest at the Lion d'Or landed me at St. Thibaut for breakfast.

The day before, an officer from G.H.Q. whom I had met in Rheims had told me of the prospective change of area of operations of the British Force. Antwerp was like to fall, he said, and the Huns to press on towards the Channel with their eyes on Calais, Boulogne, and even Havre. Joffre's movement on the left to outflank Von Kluck's right was being met by a German offensive in the same area that had not proved altogether unsuccessful. To move the British force west and north would put it in direct touch with the seacoast and the British Fleet, and free it from the inconvenience of having its line of supply crossed by those of the French 6th, 7th, and 10th Armies to the westward. Besides, he argued, the trench warfare on our front had degenerated into a stalemate. To hold the line along the Aisne much less seasoned troops could with advantage be employed, and French's men, already veterans, released for more important and exacting work in the northern theatre. West Flanders, he opined, would see some stiff fighting. All this was secret and much of it left to implication, to be pieced together as the next days passed. That but few had an inkling of the prospect of such change I am sure. It was not anticipated in our own command, or if it was, not a soul breathed a word of it.

On the morning of Friday, October 2nd, the 2nd Calvary Brigade left its billets at St. Thibaut and moved up to Chassemy, in front of the enemy's stubborn position at Conde. The next day Gough's 2nd Cavalry Division moved west en route for the Allied left flank. Allenby's 1st Cavalry Division, of which our Brigade was a part, followed on the night of Sunday the 4th.

The Condé salient had proved a strong one. We flanked it on right and left, but the German batteries on the heights dominated the level ground to the south of the Aisne in and about Chassemy. Taking General de Lisle and our three regimental commanders, Colonel Mullins, Colonel Burnett, and Major Beale-Browne, to Chassemy from Braisnes, our route lay over a road where a crawl at intervals was enjoined, as the smallest dust cloud meant a rain of German shrapnel. Chassemy was battered and the road from that town to Conde a mass of shell holes. Leaving the car in the shelter of a house, a walk along the edge of the forest in front, the Bois Morin, gave a good view of the German position. One hundred yards beyond the Conde bridge a German outpost was securely dug in on the hill side, ready to sweep the causeway with machine-gun fire. By the bridge lay the bodies of Captain Henderson of G.H.Q. and his chauffeur, alongside their riddled car. Henderson was thought to have lost his way about September 20th, and run into the Conde outpost by mistake.

Dodging in and out of the forest edge, keeping well out of sight of the enemy to avoid attracting his ever-ready shells, blazed trees told us the safe path. Now we passed a battery of guns, now a reserve of machine-guns protected from the searching shrapnel fire. Splintered trees and fallen branches showed that the German artillery had played frequently on the wood.

In Braisnes I chatted with a guard of London Scottish at the railway crossing. They had been "out" for a fortnight, they said, but, as a fine-looking sergeant disgustedly informed me, "had seen nothing as yet." The day was to come when he would have no complaint on that score, and, little as I imagined it then, I was to be with him.

Our forty-eight hours in that part of the line was uneventful, and on Sunday night, when the darkness had closed in sufficiently to veil our movements, the Brigade started off to the westward.

The Aisne we had reached with such sanguine hopes twenty-one days before was still the high-water mark of our advance. The three weeks' fighting had cost the British Army in France nearly 600 officers and 13,000 men. We had learned much of warfare, and were off to green fields and pastures new to further our education.

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