- an eye-witness account
- 'Advance of the 2nd Division'
- by Lt.-Col. A. A. Hanbury-Sparrow
the British at the Marne
from a French publication - Germans on the run
7th Sept. How or where we spent the night has passed out of memory, but early next morning we have debouched from Haute Vesnes and are moving on a country lane down a small valley that is shut in by two spurs. These spurs, which jut out from the Haute Vesnes ridge, descend to a larger valley along which a road runs. Beyond this valley the ground again rises in a fold parallel to the
Haute Vesnes ridge. Thus the little re-entrant we are in runs, so to speak, across the grain of the countryside, and our view is shut in by the blinkers of the foothills on either side.
We are marching at some speed with the two leading platoons deployed, for a message has just come in from the neighbouring French Fifth Army to say that fifty- six heavy guns are ahead, jammed on the road by masses of retreating transport. We, in a state of mingled eagerness and trepidation, are going out for this prize, when almost simultaneously two things happen. The first is the sight of the scouting officer tumbling down the right-hand spur with the startling news that a column of German infantry is just over the far side, marching parallel to ourselves, and the second the sudden apparition of two German cyclists on the valley road only a hundred yards in front. Their approach has been masked by the spur, and they are as surprised to see us as we them. Even as our vanguard is flinging itself down to open fire, they bend over the handle-bars and pedal for lifeten yardstwenty yardsthe first bullet smacks past them, thirty yardsthe whole platoon is firing, forty yards------
Go on, brave hearts, you'll win through! Forty-five yardsthey're off, all in a heap. Alas! Alas! But it was bound to be. My God! They've not been touched! They're behind a milestone, and firing back, one on either side. By the Lord Harry, they're stout fellows, but did you ever see anything like the shooting of our men?
For half a minute the unequal fight continued. Then, to our amazed admiration, the one on the right-hand sideas we looked at itof the milestone jumped up and, standing sideways to us, semaphored to someone we couldn't see. Flick, flick, flick went his hands faster than we could read, his elbows never straight. Our men can't hit him, though there are forty, and they are professional soldiers, firing. It's absurd, ridiculous. Their officer, who is standing up, is cursing them. "Look at you! Good shots, aren't you?" he jeers in mocking indignation.
The German is down. Has he hurled himself or been hurled by a bullet to the ground? You can't tell from the way he fell. But there is a sudden silence.
Next minute the order comes to fall back to Haute Vesnes. You shake yourself out of the awe into which this short-lived drama has plunged you, turn your platoon about, and march back. As you enter the village, you look over your shoulder just in time to see a scurry of field-greys swarm up the opposing ridge and disappear half-way up into a sunken lane that climbs diagonally across its front.
Once more we deploy. Whatever the military reason of our withdrawal, there can be no doubt it was very sporting, for it has allowed the enemy to start fair. Both sides are now in position and commence an infantry fire fight at fifteen hundred yards. The bullets sigh their treacherous songs over our heads. The overture lasts a full hour; nobody advances, and if we are waiting for superiority of fire we shall stop here all day from the look of it. We're not hitting any more than they are, and after a while you order your platoon to cease fire, for to go on is merely to waste ammunition. You are sick of these dolorous whistles that terminate in such unexpectedly vicious smacks as the bullets hit the ground. But what, meanwhile, of the fifty-six guns?
At last, however, after what has seemed an interminable delay, one of our batteries opens and soon has its shrapnel bursting into the lane. You order your platoon to reopen fire.
A white flag appears. "Go on shooting, don't stop," for we hold that the German is as notoriously treacherous as the tiger, and whilst we feel no moral indignation about this characteristic, we are resolved not to be caught by his siren song of the white flag. A second white flag appears, then a third; in two or three minutes there are a dozen stuck up along his front. He stops firing; we continue; so, pulling down one or two, he resumes. "Cease fire," you order your men, for this long-range firing is useless, and they are still not shooting when the advance starts by rushes. The officer commanding the next platoon, which belongs to another battalion, curses you for not giving him covering fire. Very well, if he wants it, he can have it, though you feel certain it is quite useless.
Now it is your turn to rush. On your way you pass two men of the next regiment who are on their hands and knees in a small hollow. You curse them and tell them to go on. They reply indignantly they've been hit. Have they? It seems incredible, for the soft wail of the bullets is lost in the jangle of equipment of running men. But you suddenly realize your own men feel you a brute for going for these fellows and your mind is sharply illuminated by the knowledge that to them a wound, no matter how slight, terminates all moral obligation to go on. In a flash you grasp the truth that discipline cannot go. farther than public opinion allows, and full of chagrin, uncertain whether the two men have made a fool of you, or you of yourself, you hurry your men forward.
Line after line is rushing down the hill and collecting in the dead ground at the bottom. There have been no more casualties and, indeed, the Germans seem to have stopped firing. Reforming your platoon on the road, you are on the point of advancing straight forward up the bank when you become aware that the whole line is moving off to the right, evidently with the intention of taking the enemy in the flank. You follow, angry with yourself for not having thought of such a manoeuvre. You wonder who did. You appreciate the unknown is a better tactician and feel vaguely jealous.
Presently the line forms half left with yourself somewhere in the centre, and the advance is resumed. Your heart is beating hard, for there will be a charge, and the thought fills you with dread. You'll have to lead and you neither want to be killed nor to kill anybody. Officers, you feel, shouldn't engage in the rough-and-tumblethat's for the men; theirs is the thinking part. But the men won't charge unless you charge tooyou've seen enough already to realize that and if you lead, will the men follow? In craven mistrust you fear the worst, and your heart goes thump, thump, thump with apprehension, but at the same time you are frightfully inquisitive to find out what a charge is really like.
But before the critical moment can come, there's a small plantation to be gone through; a few of them may be in that. Revolver in hand, you start to force your way through the thick undergrowth and brushwood, then, prig and poseur that you are, put it back in your holster and draw your sword instead. You do this because you want to show everybody what a well-schooled and careful shot you areto carry a loaded revolver through such dense scrub really isn't safe, and you want everyone to see you appreciate the fact. However, if everybody is in the same plight as yourself, totally unable to keep open their eyes through these slashing and lashing twigs, for, try as you will, you haven't the will-power, your model action has probably passed unobserved. Head down, you burst your way through the far edge, look up in agonized apprehension and------
Glory! Glory! Alleluia! They're surrendering. They're crossing the odd hundred yards between ourselves and the lane, walking wisely. That is to say, their gait and gestures command us to control our excitement and withhold from massacre. Numerically far the weaker, yet at this moment their will is the stronger.
The sudden reaction from inner tension has left your mind in a state of limpid clarity. You rally your scattered platoonas far as you can see you are about the only officer that doesand fall them into fours. Higher up the hill a large bunch of prisonersperhaps a hundredare being plundered by a disorderly mob of men, the Germans actually assisting their captors in their spoliation. With your formed platoon you drive off the looters and recover some of the public and private property, including a pair of exquisite little field-glassesthere were a lot of them about which you annex for yourself. (Easy come is easy gothe R.A.M.C. stole them from you six weeks later.) Then, looking round for an officer of theirs, you perceive a tall sergeant-major of the Jaegers, and succeed in making him realize you want the prisoners fallen into fours. He gets them into line and gives the order. It is slackly obeyed, and then he lets fly. You and your men have the interesting experience of hearing a Prussian sergeant-major really telling off his men. It is impressive, and although you know your own men don't know German any more than you, yet you are glad they are hearing this torrent of savage abuse. You hope somehow they'll apply it to themselves, for after all this Jaeger is saying no more than you would often like to say, and they must realize that. Is he calling them Bastards? "You can call your men anything except that," you had once been told "for that goes home too often."
The reprimand's finished. An order: "Guttural-Gut!" Click, click of their heels, like guardsmen. "Quick march!" Yes, but where?
For, having got them on the move, you don't know what to do with them. In your exhilaration you'd forgotten all about those fifty-six guns. Of course the advance will be resumed instantly and your company will be where it was when the day started, in the van. And where will you be? In the rear, if you don't look out, guarding prisoners. You could kick yourself for your beastly officiousness, which as a just retribution will deprive you of the chance of honour.
But there was no need for apprehension. The advance is stopped for the day. We are all, victors and prisoners alike, to fall back to Haute Vesnesthe third time we shall have seen that blasted village this day.
Lt.-Col. A. A. Hanbury-Sparrow (14. Berkshire Regt.).
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