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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Two kinds of courage. April 8, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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British troops retreat, March 1918

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

By February 1918 Reitz was well enough recovered from his wounds to return to France.  This time he was assigned to be second in command of the 1st battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the same regiment to which he’d been transferred in the fall.  The 1st R.S.F., on the front southeast of Arras, were busily improving their entrenchments in preparation for a major German offensive expected sometime in March.

Wood lark

The 20th of March was particularly quiet.  Reitz wrote, “George Bissett [adjutant in the battalion] and I spent most of the day lying out in a grass-grown shell crater, reading and talking, and revelling in the sunshine, and the singing of the larks, which is such a feature of this part of France.”*

At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, the storm broke.  It started with the “thunder of gas projectors being fired in enormous quantities,” quickly followed by “the instantaneous crash, the like of which was never heard before on sea or land, from thousands upon thousands of guns roaring on a front of thirty miles.” The Germans used three different kinds of gas, together with smoke canisters and trench mortars, on the forward trenches while bombarding the zones further back with heavy artillery.  It is said to have been the biggest barrage of the entire war.

Telephone lines were immediately destroyed and communication entirely cut off.  “Our view of [the battle] was limited to a few hundred yards of tossing earth, obscured by columns of dust and smoke shooting heavenward…. People in England knew more of its progress from day to day than we did.”

The poor visibility was compounded by the underwater appearance given to objects by the goggles of the gas masks and by a thick fog that draped itself over the front.  “When at nine o’clock the German troops advanced, we caught but dim glimpses of their oncoming waves.  We were nevertheless able to bring a heavy rifle and Lewis-gun fire to bear on them to swell that of the [2nd] Royal Scots [in the forward trench], and the Shrops [7th Shropshires in the rear trench] in turn were able to fire on the enemy from the rear and in no single instance did a German soldier get nearer than bombing-distance from our front line, in spite of all their courage.  All through March 21st and 22nd repeated attacks were made and every one of them broke down.  We were drenched with gas for 30 hours on end, and they pounded and battered our trenches until we hardly recognised them, but the men who were left clung doggedly to their shattered ramparts and fought on.”

Troops blinded by gas, April 1918

But at midday on the 22nd they received terrible news: the 5th Army on their right had given way, putting Reitz’s division, the 3rd of the 3rd Army, in jeopardy, for it was already outflanked.  The whole division was ordered to retreat to the vicinity of Henin, three miles to the rear.  This was hard to bear after they had made such a courageous stand.

5th Army commander Hubert Gough was soon to be replaced.  Some argue that Gough was unfairly blamed for an impossible situation, having recently taken over a 42-mile front vacated by a portion of the French army, his troops spread thin and unable to prepare the trenches adequately.  Reitz made no judgment about the 5th Army, merely describing the difficult journey to the rear that night by the light of a full moon: “The valley lay under a haze of gas, through which we made our way past broken guns, wrecked gunpits, and dead gunners, all looking weird and ghostly through the goggles of our masks.” They rested briefly before setting to work digging at a trench left over from earlier in the war to make it defensible.  No one had slept for the past 48 hours.  Within hours the trench was put to the test by waves of German infantry, but the men were able to stop the advance, thanks to old wire entanglements they had thrown in front of it.  From that afternoon until the evening of the 24th, the 3rd Division held firm despite very heavy casualties from high-angle trench mortars.  But the Germans broke through on several other divisional fronts, and Reitz’s brigade was ordered to move back once again, this time to Boiry-Bequerelle.

By 3:00 in the morning the men had found and deepened another left-over trench.  Reitz looked forward to getting some sleep, but much to his surprise he was ordered to report to brigade headquarters, and from there was driven to divisional headquarters further back.  A junior officer, the young Lieutenant White, was ordered to accompany him.

It turned out that Reitz had been chosen to inspect a new area to which the 3rd Army was to withdraw in order to keep it in line with the still-retreating 5th Army.  He makes nothing of being given this important responsibility, but it is interesting that he was selected from among the many officers of the 3rd Division.  My familiarity with his experiences in the Boer War, a conflict in which careful observation of the terrain was essential for survival, leads me to theorize that Reitz had certain skills not widely shared by men whose wartime experience was limited to taking positions in predefined trenches and moving along clearly delineated roads.

Over the next days Reitz was to perform this sort of duty several times, always functioning on very little sleep.  Under orders from the commanding officer of the battalion, Lieutenant White continued to accompany him as they made continuous journeys through a devastated landscape.  But there was a new problem.

“To add to our troubles, young White’s nerves had given way.  He was a brave boy, and had been awarded the Military Cross two or three months before, but now he was on the verge of collapse.  Every time a shell howled over us, he flung himself to the ground, and covered his head with his trench cloak.  Then he would rise shamefaced and trembling.  I knew that in a war like this, any man may become unstrung, and I pretended at first not to notice.  But after a time he came to me and said miserably that he was obliged to confess his nerves had gone.  I advised him to report sick.  For a moment he stood silent, and I could see that he was fighting temptation; then he said he would see it through…. I comforted him as best I could, for I was feeling the strain myself and understood his condition.”

After completing several assignments from General Deverell, the divisional commander, Reitz and White were ordered to return to duty on the firing line.  White had harbored the delusory hope that he might be taken out of combat to help train newly arrived American recruits, but this was not to be.  The morning after their return to the 1st R.S.F. in the trenches, the Germans made a widely anticipated dawn attack.  Shortly before it started,  Reitz saw White crouched down in the trench.

“By the light of a candle shaded under his steel helmet he was trying to read a letter,and his hand shook and trembled as he held it.  For the last time I advised him to go back, and told him there was time to leave before dawn.  As before, I could see him fighting the temptation to quit and, as before, he said he would stay.  When it grew light the German bombardment came down… by 7 o’clock we had only three company officers left. White was one of them, and, as the shell-fire lifted, we saw the waves of German infantry swarm toward us.  Close to him stood a Lewis gun whose crew were all dead.  He picked up the gun, and carrying it forward of the parapet for better vision, started to fire, sitting behind it out in the open, and there a bullet found him.  He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.”

That same morning Reitz was struck with great force by a shell fragment that embedded itself in his right thighbone.  Accompanied by his servant McColl (who had asked Reitz to take him to South Africa after the war, but who survived only a few weeks longer), and by Bissett, he made his way with great difficulty toward the rear.  At times literally crawling beside the road, losing blood all along the way, he finally made his way to a field hospital, and from there he reached the same hospital in Rouen he’d been taken to the previous fall.  From Rouen he went to Havre and over to London, where he recuperated in a small hospital until July.

In an “Order of the Day” dated March 30, the 3rd Division was commended by the British command for its courage in standing fast against the offensive.  Reitz copied the text of the order and added a simple, yet eloquent, comment: “I was glad to have witnessed so mighty a conflict in the company of such brave men.”

His fighting was not yet over.

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

Regimental colors of the Royal Scots Fusiliers

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