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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The war’s final weeks. May 6, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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11:00 a.m., 11/11/18

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

Between October 10 and November 11, Reitz and his battalion shifted position eastward a mere 15 miles, from Cambrai to near Le Quesnoy.  But in this conflict that had sometimes measured progress by a few yards east or west, those 15 miles told of a foe collapsing into final defeat.  It was the last month of a war that had been grinding on for 53 months, and those last days were flashing past as quickly as grains of sand from an hourglass.

With Bissett gone, Reitz was transferred back to the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers as C.O.  At the same time, he was promoted to the rank of colonel.  He doesn’t bother to call attention to this event, but I see on p. 286 of my edition of Trekking On that he is “Major D. Reitz” in a battalion order, and then on p. 292 this passage appears: “…the three colonels of [the 8th] Brigade—Henderson of the Royal Scots, Burne of the Shrops., and I—were granted four days’ recuperative leave…”*

On October 10, the 2nd and 4th Armies advanced and, in heavy fighting, took over Cambrai.  Once the city was secured, Reitz’s brigade, which had already been fighting southwest of Cambrai with the 3rd Army, was withdrawn for a week’s rest, and the three colonels were granted leave, as mentioned above.  Reitz notes that he and Burne of the Shrops. had both been present at an event in the Boer War: “He was with the British convoy that we had sacked and burnt at Middleport [Middelpost] in 1902, so we had many things in common.” This seems a slightly humorous remark.  In that remote spot in the Karoo desert, Burne would have been one of a long dusty file of “khakis” accompanied by artillery and supply wagons, while Reitz was a desperate Boer riding a mule for lack of a better mount, darting through the rifle-fire into the ruins of the convoy to scavenge for clothing and equipment.  He ended up with quite a prize—a beautiful Arab mare that had belonged to an English officer.

On October 20 the brigade moved eight miles east to Cattenieres and for the first time found itself in country that was no longer devastated, in fact even  occupied by civilians.  Villages consisted of actual recognizable buildings rather than piles of rubble.  But plenty of fighting was still going on.  On the 23rd, the brigade attacked German positions at Vertain and Escarmain.  At this stage, the demoralization of the enemy became quite evident.  “As soon as [the enemy soldiers] saw the curtain of bursting shells move on beyond, they came running towards us, hands in air, and our role was practically confined to following in the wake of the barrage and receiving the prisoners in batches as they came to meet us.”

The next days were spent in small actions supporting a broad advance to the Valenciennes-Le Quesnoy rail line.  Although the Germans were generally retreating, they persisted in peppering the Allies with shellfire and gas canisters.  “As it was impossible to live in box respirators our losses from gassing rose at such an alarming rate that in the four days ending October 29th we had to send two hundred and seven men to hospital.” The 1st R.S.F. held a position in fields and orchards near Ruesnes, where, among the peaceful trees, poison gas settled densely in the hollows.

On one occasion, Reitz sent a night patrol out to determine enemy positions.  When the men did not return, he went out looking for them.  In a sunken lane, as in a strange tableaux, “I found the entire patrol lying in various stages of gas poisoning…. They had struggled along until the last man who could see gave out and they were brought to a standstill.”

Reitz himself went out on solitary patrol the next night, having decided that his eyes were in better shape than those of other possible scouts. He crawled among German rifle pits, unsure whether he would find them still occupied or whether he might find himself looking down the barrel of a Mauser rifle. After anxious moments, he found the position unoccupied and went on carefully until he spotted two machine-gun crews, thereby fixing the closest location of the enemy.  For this patrol he was awarded a bronze sprig, “the nearest approach to military honours I attained during the war.”

The brigade re-encountered old friends: the New Zealanders, beside whom they had fought in the preceding weeks (see last installment).  As it turned out, the New Zealand Division was to stage a daring capture of Le Quesnoy on November 4, using ladders to scale the high walls of the medieval village, held by the Germans since the very start of the war.  Several streets of this little French town were renamed after New Zealand soldiers.

Le Quesnoy as it is today

On the 28th, Reitz went with a runner to La Chappelle to interview a pair of civilians who had escaped Le Quesnoy.  On the return, things became a bit livelier than they’d anticipated.  The enemy suddenly put down a heavy trench-mortar bombardment along the rail line where they were walking, and German infantrymen charged forward with bayonets, yelling as they attacked a force of New Zealanders in the vicinity.  He and his companion bolted for cover, watching as a British bombardment came down and the New Zealanders rushed back in a counterattack.

“This little episode was the last fight I witnessed in the Great War,” he wrote.

The next day, the 1st R.S.F. were relieved by the Staffords.  “When we marched through Solesmes we were, I think, the first troops back from the firing line of those who had helped to drive the enemy out of range, and the civilian population warmly welcomed us.  Flags waved and people ran cheering beside us.  Our pipe band played, and I rode at the head of the column with my tin hat cocked, pretending I was used to ovations.”

Suffering from the effects of poison gas, Reitz was allowed to convalesce at a nearby field ambulance for the next days.  When he returned to active duty, the British line had advanced significantly.  On November 10, the 1st R.S.F. were instructed to reinforce a unit that was fighting in the direction of the Mormal Forest.  Now came word that the Germans were asking for peace terms—but the battalion were still to proceed with the attack.

“At daybreak on the morning of November 11th we marched out.  In front and behind us were thousands of other troops going forward, and one could feel the suppressed excitement in the air….  By 11 o’clock we were in the battle zone, British and German guns were firing, and there came the crackle of rifles and machine-guns ahead.  Suddenly, far off, we heard the faint sound of cheering borne upon the wind…”

The men of the 1st R.S.F. stayed relatively calm amidst the wild cheering of the other troops.  Reitz felt gripped by great ideas.  “I saw the beginnings of a new era for the world and for my country.  Splendid visions raced through my brain which I felt an urge to communicate.  I told Shaw to form the Battalion in a hollow square beside the road and, sitting my horse, I prepared to address the men.  When I faced them, however, I was overcome by stage fright; the inspired thoughts of a moment before had vanished completely and I could only stumble through a few halting phrases.”

* * *

In the next and final installment, I will return to the question raised in the Introduction:  Against such a massive event as the First World War, with all of its horror and all of its loss of life, how are we to measure the experience of a single individual?  And—a related question—how can the experience of that individual give us a way to understand the war?

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

Ruesnes cemetery