- from The War Illustrated, 23rd March, 1918
- 'a Battery Move by Night'
- Out with the Heavies
- by O. Pip
Getting the Guns Into Action by Time-Table
cover illustrations from The War Illustrated
The telephone on the mess table by the major's elbow buzzed sharply. "Officer wanted to speak to group, sir."
"Hallo ! Yes, major speaking. Good-evening ! Yes, we're all ready to go. What's that ? Oh, caterpillars coming at ten o'clock. Right-ho ! So long !"
"Caterpillars coming for you at ten, Smith," said the major "I suppose you'll be ready for them ?"
"I've only got my kit to pack now, sir," I replied, "and my servant can do that in half an hour."
That morning the battery had received orders to move from its present position to another five or six miles up the line.
And I had been detailed to superintend the transfer, a job that is never easy. In the conditions in which this move was to be carried out the difficulties might well have appalled a new hand. First of all, the weather was vile, streaming with rain, and the ground consequently churned tip into a morass. Secondly, I had to find the new position in pitch darkness by the aid of a map-point. Thirdly, I had to see that the dozen odd lorries that would come along with the guns arrived safely at their destination, were unloaded and got back out of the front area again before the dawn, lest some prowling German airman up with the lark, should spot them. Fourthly, I had to have the guns in action again in the new position by ten a.m. It looked as if I were to pass a pleasant night.
Removal by Caterpillar
Meanwhile, out in the gun-pits, all had been prepared. The howitzers stood there ready limbered up, the gun-stores securely lashed to the trail. Beside each were the extra stores that would be carried on the lorries. The delicate and costly sights had been safely packed away in their cottonwool-lined leather cases, the equally precious clinometers each reposed in its little wooden box, the crews had all been warned, and their kits stood stacked together under a tarpaulin.
"Caterpillars coming, sir !" sounded the voice of the trusty sergeant-major as the mess clock showed 10.30.
I hastily gulped down my whisky-and-soda, picked up my tin hat and gas helmet, and stumbled out into the pitch darkness. The rain was coming down in torrents.
"Good night for a move, sergeant-major," I said, attempting a feeble jest.
"Well, it do rain a bit, don't it, sir," came back the answer in the imperturbably cheerful tone that a really good sergeant-major never loses. "Still, it'll keep the Hun gunners quiet, sir, that's one thing to be thankful for."
It was indeed. If, to add to all our other miseries, the enemy began a sudden "strafe," well------
By this time we had reached the guns, looming indistinct under their great wrappings. And, looking back down the slope, I could see two little pin-points of light struggling slowly towards me; a faint roar of the engines of the great machines also reached my ears:
"Better get the men busy with those stores, now, sergeant-major," I said, pointing to the miscellaneous collection of articles lying about, ranging from a cooking "dixie" to the artificer's pump. All this stuff had to be man-handled down the light railway from the battery position to the road, half a mile down the hill.
Already the caterpillars were beginning to take shape, as they heaved themselves ponderously into sight, their engines roaring and rattling with the fearful strain, the great steel-studded "drives" one on each side, bit into the muddy soil, tearing out great pieces of turf as they gripped for a hold. Walking beside them came the A.S.C. officer, who had brought them from the corps' caterpillar park.
Hitch the First
With a final grunt the first caterpillar waddled up and planted itself in front of No. r gun. The trail of the limber was dropped on to the massive hook protruding from its rear, the security bolt shot home, and then away they went, slipping and sliding down the hill. No. 2 followed suit, and then came an hour's wait for their return. The rain was still coming down in sheets, and the men huddled together under the lee of the hedge, seeking the little shelter provided.
Now and again a Verey light soared up from the front line and hung a minute, burning in the sky, then again the darkness and a strange silence.
Ah ! There they come at last, panting up the hill. All hands stand round, and in a trice No. 3 and No. 4 are limbered up and off they go, followed by myself and the remaining men. It is a dreary walk through mud, and when we reach the road everyone is mired to the knees.
Next comes the loading up of the lorries. The job is soon completed, and now the column stands in a long line down the road, the four guns in front, the lorries tailing away behind. I hoist myself up beside the driver of the leading caterpillar, give one final glance back------
"All in, sir ! " says the sergeant-major.
All goes well for the first couple of miles, then comes the first check. The water in the radiator of No. 3's caterpillar has boiled, and we must wait for it to cool. We wait.
I look at my watch. Nearly one o'clock already. No time to lose.
We start off afresh and roll peacefully to a small village, where I have to take a turning to the right. But two roads are shown, running parallel till they fork half a mile from my destination. Which to take ?
One I have been told is impassable alter a mile for heavy traffic ; if I take the wrong one, turning will be impossible, and there we shall be stuck to await the dawn and the coming of the Boche aeroplanes.
Of Two TurningsWhich?
At last I came to a decision.
"Corporal Paton, take your lorry down the first turning. We will wait for you for half an hour. If in that time you have not returned, I shall understand that you have got bogged, and we will take the second road. Off you go ! "
We waited there, in the main street of the little hamlet with its shattered cottages and roofless church. Twenty minutes passed, twenty-five, thirty, not a sound to be heard down the road.
"We'll go on now, driver," I ordered, and with a grinding of gears the column started again. A couple of hundred yards brought us to the second turning, a sharp turn to the right and we were rolling and rattling down a rutted lane.
Two more miles and the motor-cyclist attached to the battery, whom I had sent forward; came dashing back.
"Road all clear, sir !" he reported, and with a muttered "Thank God !" I sank back in my seat.
We were there. Two guns I placed in a ruined garden, hidden from view by the brick walls of surrounding houses, and the other section sat behind a hedge, their snouts buried in the withered foliage.
It was now half-past three. In an hour the dawn would be upon us and much remained to be done. The men were tired and soaked to the skin, but still they turned to with vigour.
One by one the lorries were emptied and trundled off ; already the eastern sky showed grey. I was so tired I could hardly stand, my sodden clothes hung round my shivering limbs, shedding water with every step I took, still, we Had to get those lorries away before the dawn.
"All done, sir !" came the ever-cheerful voice of the sergeant-major as the last lorry backed, turned, and rocked away.
The dawn was just breaking and the rain had ceased. The guns sat, just as they had Ix- en left, surrounded by piles of miscellaneous stores ; the street in which we stood, with its ruined cottages and plaster-littered pavement, presented a dreary picture in the grey light ; the men stood about in dejected-looking groups.
Plainly they must have a little rest before the real work of building the gun-pits was begun. And we had to be in action by ten o'clock that morning.
"In Action by Ten"
I took a swift decision.
"Sergeant-major, knock the men o)f till half-past seven ; they can get a little sleep in these ruined houses. The cooks will have to stay up and prepare some food, they can get a rest afterwards. I am going to lie down for a bit. Where's my servant ?
"Here, sorr !" said a voice at my elbow.
I mentally blessed my curly-haired Irish boy, and went to inspect his preparations. There was my camp bed, with sleeping bag and blankets stretched on it ; on a wooden box were arranged my shaving kit and a clean towel ; dry uniform and shirt were laid out on a battered chair, minus back and one leg, while a tin mug of steaming cocoa completed the joyful picture.
My feelings were too much for words. I threw off my soaking clothes, swallowed the wonderful drink, and, creeping into bed, soon felt a grateful warmth stealing over my numb limbs, yet all the while, one sentence was repeated again and again in my tired brain ?" Get the guns in action by ten o'clock get the guns "
"Well, you seem to have done pretty well, Captain Smith," said the colonel next morning, when he came round to inspect the finished position. "You must have had a pretty rough time of it."
I groaned inwardly, and said nothing.
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