Deneys Reitz in WWI/ “They went forward at a walk.” April 17, 2010Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
Tags: Battle of the Canal du Nord, Boer War, Deneys Reitz, First World War, L. March Phillipps, World War I
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 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.”
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.
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.
* 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.