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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