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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The loss of a friend. April 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Cambrai during the war: pastel by A. Smith.

This is the twelfth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

Once the brigade had pushed through the Hindenburg Line, Reitz took advantage of being off duty to roam a short while about the vicinity, looking through his field glasses at the movements of troops.  He could see flames rising from Cambrai, four miles away, and he watched as Allied troops advanced toward Graincourt and captured it in a burst of heavy fighting.

When he returned to the 1st R.S.F., he found General Fisher waiting for him with the news that the 7th Shropshires had lost their colonel, and that he was to become their C.O.  He was sorry to leave Bissett and other friends in the Fusiliers, but he remained in the same brigade and only had to walk a short distance to take over his new responsibility.  The 7th Shrops. were ordered to march to a ridge several miles south of Cambrai, which the Germans were still vigorously defending.

“We were faced with the novelty of having to bivouac on a bare hillside without trench or shelter.  The men were new to this kind of thing… they were at a loss, and stood about helplessly.”* The scene must have been amusing for Reitz, who had spent the three years of the Boer War fighting on the open veld without so much as a tent most of the time.

“I started all hands to break out timber baulks from some old gun pits that we found, and soon had everyone cheerfully sitting around blazing log fires, cooking their suppers.  My attempt to teach the men how to make themselves comfortable was well rewarded, for in going the rounds after dark I heard a voice say: ‘Lads, I would like to go big-game hunting in Africa with our new C.O.'”

Reitz was certainly a skilled hunter, though he was not a collector of trophies, and his experience in big-game hunting was largely limited to teaching his two boys in the 1930s how to hunt lion.  He had grown up reading the books of the famous hunter Frederick Selous; strangely enough, he actually met Selous during his stint fighting in German East Africa. Selous was killed by a German sniper just a few months later, January 4, 1917, on the Rufiji River.

Frederick Courteney Selous

Here, near the villages of Marcoing and Masnieres—south of Cambrai—the men of the 7th Shropshires exchanged their parapets and firesteps for features of the open landscape that came to be imbued with intensity and, more often than not, mortal danger.  These were the harrowing places that were dealt out as in a deck of fortune-telling cards: the bridge at the Canal de l’Escaut, the cellar beneath the Masniere chapel, the Crevecoeur sunken road, an abandoned German trench named with seeming irony “Mon Plaisir.”  (The name was that of a nearby farm.)  The sunken road would turn out to contain the same sort of horror as another famous sunken road, the one at the Battle of Shiloh.

From September 28 to October 8, the 7th Shrops. were engaged in a series of actions preliminary to the main battle of Cambrai, fought October 8-10 (not to be confused with the Cambrai battle fought in 1917).  In this new, less structured form of combat, they and the 1st R.S.F. were joined by a battalion of New Zealanders, while the third part of their own brigade, the 2nd Royal Scots, seems to have been swept off in a different direction—Reitz doesn’t say.

For a time the Shrops. were based in several cellars in Masnieres, just now evacuated by the Germans.  The town’s narrow streets continued to come under shelling and the firing of phosgene gas, “so we had to grope our way through the dust-laden atmosphere in our box respirators, a difficult process, as everyone knows who has tried it.” The shapes of the buildings above their cellars kept changing as the walls were progressively demolished by shells.  At one point the battalion’s doctor came down to the cellar that had become “Battalion H.Q.,” and immediately collapsed.  “He had been gassed while attending to some men who had been wounded beside the canal, for he had removed his mask the better to see what he was doing.”

Poison gas attack

Just outside the village, men of two other regiments, the King’s Own and the Gordons, were suffering heavy losses as they hunkered down in the “Mon Plaisir” trench.  The Germans were firing on them from the nearby sunken road.  That night, the Shrops., the 1st R.S.F., and the New Zealanders routed the Germans from the sunken road.  Orders came for the C.O.s of the battalions to take some runners and explore the position just beyond in preparation for a possible attack on the next villages, Serinvillers and La Targette.

Just before setting off on this mission, Reitz and Bissett laughed over a few small jokes while downing a hasty cup of tea.  Shortly thereafter, they began working their way along the edge of the sunken road amidst the smoke and flying dirt of heavy shellfire.  Just then Bissett was struck in the side.  Reitz and Shaw, a junior officer of the R.S.F., helped get him down to a dugout.  “He made light of his wound, a jagged hole in his right side from which the blood poured in torrents, but his breathing became stertorous, and although we did not realise it, he was mortally injured.”

As it turned out, the enemy were present in such strength all the way between Masniere and Cambrai, that it was decided an attack on Serinviller would be suicidal for the brigade on its own.  They returned to the ill-fated sunken road, which was still being pelted relentlessly with shells.  Bissett was still there, surviving yet, and now Shaw was able to get a team of bearers to carry him out of danger.  Perhaps they would be able to catch up with him later.

Upon receiving their report, General Fisher saw that the sunken road had become a death trap, and he ordered the men to fall back that night to a position 80 yards behind, where they dug a new set of rifle pits.  “As the Germans never discovered the change they continued to shell the road for the next four days, thinking that we still held it.”

Now came a pause of more than a week while troops of the 2nd and 4th Armies were brought forward in preparation for dislodging the Germans from the vicinity of Cambrai.  “We had the usual narrow escapes while holding the line, and I was once ill for forty-eight hours from gas poisoning, followed by a headache that lasted for days.” Reitz and Shaw decided to see if they could find out what had happened to Bissett.  After considerable detective work, they learned that he had been taken to a casualty clearing station at Crevillers.  On October 6 the C.O. of the brigade lent them a car to go see him.

They were directed to a tent that contained two rows of wounded men in cots.  “We failed to recognise Bissett, and even when the sister led us to his side, we scarcely knew him, so gaunt and altered was he….  I could not speak for fear of breaking down.  Shaw felt the same, so we stood silently looking down on what was but the shadow of our friend.  His eyes were dimmed, and his face pale and shrunken and we could see that the end was very near.  He tried feebly to speak, and muttered something about the Scots Fusiliers and the Arras Road, then he became unconscious, and we went sadly off, knowing that we had lost a brave and good companion.”

“I could not speak for fear of breaking down”: nowhere else do you see those words in the writings of Reitz.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

Masnieres British Cemetery

Bent Arm manway April 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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We were all taking pictures of flowers on the manway

Bent Arm manway is an unmaintained path that connects the Miry Ridge trail at Dripping Springs Mountain with the Cucumber Gap trail near Elkmont.  On this outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, a dozen hikers waded through ankle-deep wildflowers along the manway.  Under a beaming sun, the forest floor was waking up and coming alive, sending up flowers here—there—everywhere!

We had all the necessary ingredients for a perfect spring day.  Sky of robin’s egg blue—check.  Plenty of warm, benevolent sunshine—check.   Temperatures that rose from an invigorating chill to something you could bask in—check.  Trees unfurling their delicate green leaves—check.  Flowers?  Yes, flowers: spring beauties, anemone, phlox, squirrel corn, trout lilies, foamflower, white, purple, yellow violets of every size, shade, and height, and trillium: two or three white kinds, a painted one, family groupings of yellow ones, one or two kinds of red.  Check.

Our leaders had decided to do the manway from the top down, so first we climbed up from 2300 feet at the Jake’s Creek trailhead to 4800 feet on the Miry Ridge trail.

Bridge on Jake's Creek trail

We passed banks of trillium.

These were "Trillum erectum albiflorum," I think

I noticed some squirrel corn, with its beautiful fringed dark green leaves.

Squirrel corn

Our group stopped for a snack at campsite 27.

At campsite 27

Just about all of the Smokies backcountry campsites have hardware for hanging packs and bear bags.

Too bad for hungry bears!

We turned onto the Miry Ridge trail and continued climbing until we reached a patch of heath where you get good views to the main stateline ridge.  Through the luminous sky, we could see Thunderhead off to the right.

There was a bit of serviceberry blooming in the foreground

Before long we reached the point at the east end of Dripping Springs Mountain where the manway bears off to the north.  It isn’t hard to see where the old trail was cut into the slope.  The manway in the upper section stays on the right side of the ridge or on the ridgecrest.  There are patches of greenbrier and some blowdowns, but the going is relatively easy.

We followed along the ridge

There was a period of slight confusion at a point around 4400 feet where the manway drops down on the left side of the ridge.  We dropped down too far and missed the path where it sidehills, but after the usual consulting of maps and people hallooing through the woods at each other, we climbed back up and found the distinct bench where the path was contouring across the slope.  From there we reached a gap and followed an old CCC trail with rockwall construction.

An old map shows the Bent Arm trail crossing over the gap and staying on the right side of the ridge, but the grade we followed continued on the left side for quite a while.  Perhaps there were two different routes in the past.  This section had some fairly thick rhodo and dog hobble.

Dog hobble is taking over in this stretch

But lower down we got back into open hardwoods.  We reached the Cucumber Gap trail about 1.5 miles from where it leaves the Jake’s Creek trail, and completed the loop back to the cars.

Near the bottom of the manway: sunshine, flowers

Deneys Reitz in WWI/ “They went forward at a walk.” April 17, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Field dressing station, Canal du Nord, September 1918

This is the eleventh part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

The wound to his leg was more serious than the injuries that had kept him out of action November 1917 – February 1918, the recuperation more difficult.  Many of Britain’s wounded soldiers were being treated at improvised establishments in private homes; the first time around he had landed at an imposing country estate near Salisbury, where he played rounds of bridge in the evenings with the local gentry.  This time he spent three months at a small home in London owned by a patriotic Scottish lady.  The nurses sometimes wheeled him in a bath chair to Hyde Park so that he could see the American troops marching past in encouraging numbers.  Perhaps their addition to the equation would end the stalemate at last.

Reitz spent two more months on light duty at Fort Matilda, for his leg was not sufficiently healed for him to return to the trenches until September 12.  When he finally rejoined the 1st R.S.F., he found that very few officers or men had survived from his earlier stint.  During the five months he’d been away, the Allies had pushed back in a series of offensives and, with great difficulty, regained possession of the ground all along the front that had been taken by the Germans in March.  His battalion had suffered such heavy losses that Reitz found only George Bissett, his good friend, and two lieutenants remaining among the officers he’d known.  Bissett now led the battalion; Reitz was second in command.  The next goal: to break through the Hindenburg Line in a single major assault.

The massively fortified Hindenburg Line

The very first day after Reitz arrived, the Germans made a preemptive attack along a 12-mile front that included the position of the 1st R.S.F. beside the Canal du Nord, midway between Bapaume and Cambrai.  The pattern was by now all too familiar: first came a heavy bombardment that knocked out the telephone lines and raised a wall of flying dirt, and German airplanes darted about, machine-gunning the British front line.  Then the bombardment shifted to the rear and German infantry swarmed forward to meet British troops in hand-to-hand combat.  “The enemy had followed close behind their barrage.  They had overrun the forward rifle pits, and had broken into our front line, where we could make out hand bombing and much running and shouting.”* When Reitz reached the forward line, the German soldiers were running back across no-man’s-land.  Many dead and wounded of both sides lay slumped in the trench, and the men were guarding about 30 German prisoners.  It was all in a day’s work, and when Reitz got back to R.S.F. headquarters, he found Bissett “roaring with laughter at his two carrier pigeons.  At the start of the bombardment he had ordered the signallers to release the birds, each with a message to Brigade tied to its wing.  But the pigeons had thought better of it, and instead of flying through the barrage had calmly remained on the roof, where they were pecking about for food.”

London bus converted to pigeon loft on the Western Front

Bissett was just the sort who would aggressively seek out the small moment of humor that surely lurked somewhere amidst the general mayhem and chaos.  Unfortunately, the forces of mayhem were soon to make Bissett their target.

September 27 was the red-letter day.  Thirty hours before the designated moment of attack, the C.O.s of the brigade were given their instructions.  To Reitz, the most striking feature of the plan was the “strictly limited objective allotted to each attacking unit…. The 1st R.S.F. had to capture what was shown on the map as the Whitehall and Ryder sections of the Hindenburg Line, situated directly opposite us across no-man’s-land….  The 7th Shrops. were then to pass through us to attack the next trench, after which the 2nd Royal Scots in turn would pass through them to reach a trench behind that again, which would carry our 8th Brigade some eight hundred yards forward.  From there, other brigades held in readiness were to continue the thrust, until the Hindenburg Line was slashed in two.”

The problem for Reitz, though, was that divisional headquarters had ordered the second in command of each battalion to be held in reserve in the attack, “as a nucleus for reconstituting the Battalion in case of heavy losses.” He does not spell out his reaction, only mentions—just in passing—that he made a special trip over to divisional H.Q. the next day to see General Fisher.  “He insisted on my obeying orders, but agreed to my request that I be allowed to take up some coign of vantage from which to witness the attack….  I considered that the best spot for making use of the General’s permission was from our parapet.” The parapet of the trench, that is.

By 3:00 in the morning on the appointed day, the troops were waiting quietly along the firestep of the trench, some catching a few moments of sleep where they could.  It was not to be a good occasion for slumber, as at 4:00 the Germans indulged in a bout of heavy trenchmortaring.  A few men were wounded; then silence once again cloaked the front lines.  “A million men were facing each other on this battlefront but there was scarcely a sound, save for a rare shot loosed by some nervous sentry, and the tension became almost unendurable.”

At 5:20 on the dot, the British bombardment came down on the German line, and once again the world split open, orange and black, in flames and dust and wave upon wave of indescribable noise.  Ten minutes later, the barrage moved forward and the men rushed over the top.  “I saw the German soldiers rise from behind their breastworks to meet the attackers and then the Scots Fusiliers were clubbing and bayoneting among them…. Seeing that our men were on their objective, I rushed quickly across no-man’s-land and dropped down into the great Hindenburg Trench.”

Things were going exactly according to plan.  The troops on the German front line had been put out of action, the enemy’s defensive barrage had shifted back to the next line of trenches, and now the 7th Shropshires—the second wave of the brigade—were coming forward.  “There was no excitement or hurry.  They went forward at a walk behind the barrage, their rifles aslant, and we watched them reach and enter the area of the German counter-barrage.  Many fell, but the rest went steadily on….  The German S.O.S. [barrage] drew still further back, and, when the air cleared, we saw the Shrops. soldiers in possession of the next trench, and our men rose and cheered them.”

When I first read this passage, it sounded oddly familiar.  It took me a while to place the association.  We have to go back to Doornkop, southwest of Johannesburg, on May 29, 1900.  The British army under Lord Roberts has been advancing steadily toward Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal Republic.  Earlier in the war, the British suffered disastrous losses when their troops advanced in a tightly packed herd toward positions held by well-hidden Boers.  Now they are going to do it differently, in open formation.  As an 18-year-old Boer boy named Deneys watches from a perch behind a rock, Mauser rifle in hands, the infantry under Ian Hamilton makes its advance.  A British soldier named L. March Phillipps described it.

“At the word ‘Advance,’ the front line got up and walked quietly down the slope, and away towards the opposite hill, walking in very open order, with gaps of about fifteen yards between the men.  A moment or two would pass.  Then when the front line had gone about fifty yards, the ‘Advance’ would again be repeated, and another line of kilted men [it was the Gordon Highlanders] would lift themselves leisurely up and walk off….  Before they had reached half way across, the vicious report, a sort of double ‘crick-crack,’ of the Mausers began.  Our guns were raining shrapnel along the enemy’s position, shooting steady and fast to cover the Gordons’ advance…”#

In the larger view, of course, it was the superior numbers of the British that won them this battle and allowed them to continue on to Pretoria.  Yet nothing can diminish that simple remarkable walk, that calm and steady walk, toward the enemy position.

Roberts' army marching on Pretoria

This time, Reitz is the beneficiary of the disciplined and courageous infantry advance—not the antagonist.  Within a day, the British had broken through the massive defenses of the Hindenburg Line, and a new phase of warfare was about to begin.  It would take place in open country beyond the bloodwashed trenches where the conflict had been deadlocked for the past four years.

Battle of Canal du Nord: Infantry moves into open country

* All quotes except the final one are from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

# L. March Phillipps, With Rimington, Edward Arnold, London, 1902.