This excerpt is by Fredrick Coleman written in 1917 from the book, "Mons to Ypres with General French'
He describes his first hand account of warfare in September 1914.
THE WINNING OF THE MARNE
Clean straw strewn on the stone flags of a farmyard made a bed fit for the gods, and at four o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, the 8th, I was as fresh as a daisy and ready and eager for a further push to the north.
Feranbry was a woe-begone sight on that lovely September morning. The Germans had dirtied the town inconceivably, smashing and looting the little shops and the dwelling houses. Many dead horses were scattered about the town.
We were treated to a wonderful sunrise. As we started for La Ferté Gaucher the sky along the eastern horizon showed salmon pink and palest blue. The fields by the roadside were full of cavalry units and batteries of guns. Regiments advancing over the meadows in line of squadrons, an imposing array; batteries, belated, galloping into position with an inspiring rattle and bang over any and all obstructions; motor-cycles dodging and panting past less swift users of the road; and even the push-bicyclists putting every ounce of energy into their pedalling - it was good to be alive that morning as the salmon in the east changed to pale gold and the blue to turquoise.
Over the brow of the steep hill leading down into La Ferté a splendid panorama was spread below. The white buildings, red-capped with roofs of tile, nestled in the valley and the rolling hills, well-wooded, rose beyond in myriad shades of green. Away to the right we could see French cavalry mounting the far rise. The morning air was heady as wine. The sun mounting upward, gathered all the rainbow hues of the sky into one great flaming ball, that gave promise of scorching heat when the delightfully cool morning breezes had left us.
La Ferté was cruelly smashed; the bridge over the Grand Morin blown up, but repaired for our passage. By the roadside at the top of the steep hill to the northward were slight trenches full of sleeping Tommies, lying rifle in hand.
Dense woods opened out into fields covered with signs of German bivouacs. Broken bottles were strewn everywhere. Dead Germans in ones and twos by the roadside, and dead horses in numbers, already fouled the pure air.
A German aeroplane soared above us. We were used enough to see enemy aircraft, but that morning the numerous troops were in the mood for action of some sort, and the appearance of the air scout was the signal for every man with a rifle to have a sh6t at the aerial target. The machine-guns began it, and when the infantry joined in a roll of sound swelled about us like the roar of a battle. On came the aeroplane, sailing high above in apparent safety. When it came over us our troopers took up the challenge. The bugles were ordered to sound 'Stop firing,' but were unheard in the din. Higher and higher soared the plane, and the rifles behind us popped intermittently, then settled into a rattle and roll as ours had done.
But all to no effect, as far as one could see.
On to the north we went through Rebais, more war-scarred than any of her sister towns to the south. Houses burnt and burning on either side of the street, dead Germans and dead horses so numerous they failed to attract more than a passing glance, the marks of shell-fire here and there - Rebais had seen a hard fight and bore the traces of it.
The Germans had been in Rebais two days, the townsfolk said.
I had orders to proceed to La Tretoire, but a kilometre from the town I found the 1st reserve line of the 4th Guards Brigade lying on the grass and waiting orders to move up and join the stiff fight the Coldstreams were having in the town in front of us.
Our field-guns on left and right were in action, and German shrapnel were bursting just ahead. The 2nd Division of Haig's Corps was spread along the road from Rebais, the tired men asleep by the roadway in all postures and positions. The wounded from the fight in La Tretoire trickled back in increasing numbers. Clouds had gathered and the day became suddenly cool. The reserve line moved up where the rattle of small arms told of the thick of the battle and our guns hammered away like mad.
One of General Haig's staff officers told me 100,000 Russians had come through England via Archangel, and were in Ostend. The story spread like wildfire, and I heard it from a score of others before the day was over.
The 2nd Cavalry Brigade had crossed the fields to the right. Putting the car at the stubble, I left the road and followed.
Watching batteries for a time, then moving on after the advancing squadrons, I reached the tiny village of Mont Vaudron, opposite the Petit Morin from the town of Sablonnieres. Leaving the car in the shelter of a stout stone house, I crept down the hill to a point of vantage from which I could see the bridge below and the town to the right across the little river.
The German shrapnel were bursting on my right and behind me. Our shells were singing overhead, and bursting on the hill across the stream.
Down the wooded hill went the 4th Dragoon Guards and into the thick foliage. For a moment they flashed into sight as they dashed across the approach to the bridge. Straight on they rode, full into and over a mud parapet that the enemy had hastily thrown up across the further end of the bridge. After them ran the kilt-clad forms of a Battalion of Jocks, who charged the town in the face of a heavy fire from in and behind the buildings. Sooner than it takes to tell it, the Scots, who, I later learned, were the Black Watch, had put to rout those of the enemy that were not killed or captured. Unable to catch more than fleeting glimpses of the fighting, I could see we had won the bridge and the town. Gaining my car, I wound down the roadway past a number of our dead, along the steep descent, and over the bridge to a group of thirty German prisoners, who had been taken in the town.
Pushing on up the long, winding, wooded hill to Hondevillers, I reached the town with our advance patrols, the last German disappearing over a farmyard wall and into the cover of the woods as we hove in sight.
Searching for General de Lisle, I ran to Le Petit Villers. There a couple of batteries of 18-pounders, soon to be reinforced by a couple more, were sending shrapnel as fast as they could fire into the retreating enemy.
A cloud of dust on the roadway on a distant hillside would tell of a line of enemy transport chased by our shells; while in the nearer distance a dozen shrapnel, well- placed in a cluster of houses, sent the Germans scurrying up the hillside like so many rabbits.
General Monro, commanding the 2nd Division, stood by the batteries, and watched the fleeting enemy with intense interest. All were engrossed with the work of the gunners, the noise being incessant and deafening. Suddenly, from a wood 800 yards to the left of us, a volley of Mauser bullets came. The Germans had crept into the edge of the trees and let fly at short range. There was a quick scamper for cover. Backing the car down the road into the protection of a wall, I found myself in a lane that had been chosen as an avenue for the battery horses and limbers.
A detachment of the Highland Light Infantry was on the double for a point where they could stop the fire on the batteries, which were spattering away merrily. Rain started to fall. I raised my hood, getting a bullet through it a moment later. Told in strenuous language that I was in the way, I dashed down a lane that ended in a ploughed field. Fortunately it was dry, so I made my way back to Hondevillers, and from there to Basseville, our night quarters. Fairdough and I made a night journey to La Tretoire in search of our Brigade cyclists, but could not find them.
After a late and meagre dinner, I tried to sleep in the tonneau of the car, which proved cramped quarters for my somewhat ample proportions, and when called at 2.45 on the morning of Wednesday, the 9th, I woke stiff and cold. An egg, a cracker, and a cup of black coffee warmed me, and we were soon on the road in the dark, headed for the Marne.
The crossing of the River Marne promised, we thought, a hard and costly fight. The rapid retreat of the Germans, withal we were hard on their heels, was more orderly than might have been expected.
Little, indeed, did they leave behind except their dead. At La Tretoire we heard that the 1st Corps had captured men and guns, but that portion of the enemy's rearguard with which the cavalry had to deal succeeded in keeping his guns well out of our grasp.
Challenged every few minutes by sentries guarding sleeping detachments along the lesser lanes, twisting here and there in a vain endeavour to find anyone who knew the general route of any particular unit save his own, I lost the 2nd Cavalry Brigade before dawn that morning. Proceeding straight where I should have turned, I pushed past regiments of slowly moving cavalry until a peremptory order to put out the side-lights of my car, accompanied by the information that not even a cigarette was allowed thereabouts, led me to ask where I was.
"On the road to Nogent, and but a short way from it," was the reply, "and not far from the head of the 1st Cavalry Brigade."
Truly, thought I, a bit of luck. Briggs, I knew, had been assigned the attack on the bridge across the Marne at Nogent-Artraud, which lay midway between La Ferté St. Jouarre, which was to be taken by Pulteney's 3rd Corps, and Chateau-Thierry, where the 1st Corps was to force the passage of the river.
The line of the Marne, many of us thought, would be stubbornly held by the enemy.
Briggs, his Brigade confirmed, was to take the Nogent bridge at daybreak. We waited on the hill above, the tall trees looming taller still in the dim light of the earliest morning. Straining our ears, we heard no sound of firing. Daybreak came and passed, and still no guns. Not even a rifle-shot sounded from the valley below us.
It was an eerie vigil. We wondered what had gone wrong, when the show would commence, and whether the enemy would shell the main road on which we were waiting, in what was no doubt fair range of his guns across the river.
A French liaison officer chatted cheerily. He told us Maunoury had a strong line from Meaux north along the Ourcq, and would soon be across it and endangering the existence of Von Kluck's right and rear. He told us, too, of a savage battle for Montmirail the night before - he had just come from somewhere down that way-and how d'Esperey had taken the town at the point of the bayonet, and was ready to push forward on our right.
As five o'clock came without noise of battle, I drove on. Just above the town of Nogent, which is on the south bank of the river, a bicycle orderly stood panting from his exertions in coaxing his machine up the hill. He was the bearer of good news. The Germans had prepared the bridge for defence in a most careful manner, and guarded it till 4:30. Some said it was mined. At all events it was well nigh impassable. At 4:30, for some inexplicable reason, the enemy evacuated the position, and fled without firing a shot, just as our advance guard reached the approach to the bridge.
I thereupon lost no time in reaching the bridge. Our troops were still crossing it. Briggs was swinging a regiment up the hill preparatory to getting our guns on the higher ground without delay.
Colonel Tommy Pitman, of the 11th Hussars, who had started for Nogent at half-past one in the morning, showed me the evidences of the thorough manner in which the enemy had blocked the way. The railway-gates at the south end of the bridge had been wound about with wire. Carts and obstructions all the way across had been woven into barricades with lengths of wire.
Colonel Pitman said his men were hard at work for three-quarters of an hour cutting their way through. And that without molestation from the Germans, the last one of whom was seen departing by motor-car in the distance, as the 11th came through Nogent. Walking over the bridge I strolled down the steep bank to the river's edge, meditating on the ease with which we had crossed the Marne, and with difficulty realising that I then stood on its northern bank.
The ground was strewn with bedding and miscellaneous loot. A mess of potatoes, pared and washed to an inviting whiteness, sat in a pot of water placed on carefully prepared twigs waiting the match. Just before daybreak, said an aged riverman, the Bosches had moved all the barges and boats from the south bank and moored them on the opposite side. A novice could see the German departure from Nogent was a surprise to the enemy rearguard.
Regaining the bridge I watched long lines of our 2nd Corps infantry file past. Guns had begun long since, away to the west, and told of an argument over the crossing of the river at La Ferté St. Jouarre. There the 3rd Corps was to fight well through the day without winning the passage of the Marne until the German defenders of the town were compelled to retire by other 3rd Corps troops, who had crossed the stream further west at Changis.
At 7.30 our guns on the hill behind us dropped a couple of shrapnel on the ridge in front. A couple of minutes later the air was full of the sound of whistling shells as they sped high above the valley, bursting over the wooded crests to the north. White clouds in miniature lined the heights.
I was admiring the picture when a horseman came down the road and up to the bridge at a gallop. It was General Briggs.
"That your car?,' he questioned sharply.
"Go like the devil to that battery and stop its firing. It is shelling my men."
I went up the hill road, blocked with two descending lines of ammunition trains and regiment on regiment of foot soldiers, at a speed which would have caused a Surrey magistrate to search the statute-books for the extreme penalty of the law, had I been driving at such a rate on the Brighton road.
Luckily I found General Findlay, of the Royal Artillery, without delay and delivered my message, which I was told to repeat to a Brigade C.R.A. further to the rear. That mission accomplished I proceeded more leisurely down to Nogent again, and thence to Romeny, on the Chateau-Thierry road, searching for news of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade.
Dippers of delicious fresh milk, proffered by charming French lassies, were ample excuse for a momentary halt. Stories of the fleeing Germans were on every lip. For two days and nights the hated invader had been pouring north in two lines through Charly and Chezy. The Germans, but few of whom passed Romeny, laughed at the villagers, they said, some of them crying out as they passed that they were Anglais, et bon amis. Whereat the French girls chattered their disapproval. The German smiles fell on barren soil in Romeny, where the true French hearts beat hot with hate of the Bosche, be he ever so genial to the non-combatant by the way Rattle " Barrett, with an echelon of the 2nd Brigade transport, put in a welcome appearance, and suggested my looking for General de Lisle toward Chezy, to the westward. By half-past nine I had found him with General Allenby, at a farm south of Chezy. We pressed on the north, our objective being the village of Le Tholet, a few kilometres west of Chateau-Thierry, which had seen a stubborn fight.
The valley of the Marne afforded a beautiful view. White, fleecy cloudlets sailed lazily in a perfect blue sky. Chezy took the romance out of the panorama round about, however. Its churchyard was littered and its buildings smashed. The Germans left what had been a quaint, clean little town, dirty and foul with their passing. We climbed slowly up Mont de Bonneil after crossing the Marne. At noontide the heat was intense.
I followed Generals Allenby and de Lisle and the Divisional and Brigade Staffs across country. The dry stubble and hard meadows, free of fence or hedge, all6wed ample scope for scouting a point of vantage whereby to cross the few ditches, and my progress was watched with interest by the mounted officers. A halt was made when the main Paris-Chateau-Thierry road was reached.
News came that Baker-Carr, one of the R.A.C., leading half-a-dozen other cars, had declined the cross-country run and pushed on to Coupru. Approaching the village at a smart pace, a rifle volley stopped them short at a thousand yards. Such a competition in rapid backing and quick turning ensued as is rarely seen at the most lively gymkhana. Good luck for the little cavalcade of cars that the Germans opened fire at a distance, instead of waiting till their quarry had reached a sure range. Fortunately, none of the occupants of the cars were hit, though more than one of the vehicles bore marks of Mauser bullets.
A squadron of the 18th Hussars was sent to round up the enemy, and soon returned with a couple of dozen prisoners in tow, having killed the officer in command of the detachment and four or five of his men.
A strong, fine4ooking lot, the prisoners. From Schleswig-Holstein, they said. Looked more like Danes than Germans. They were frankly glad to be out of the further fighting. I spent the afternoon watching our gunners smash away at retreating columns of enemy transport, tearing northwards from Chateau-Thierry, where the 1st Corps had captured a number of prisoners, we were told, and a gun or two after a stiff fight.
Our night quarters were a near-by farm. I awoke on the morning of Thursday, September 10th, with a dawning realisation of the fact that the passage of the Marne was gained, and a great strategical victory had been won by the Allies.
We were well across the river as far east as Chateau-Thierry, where our right had been reached by d'Esperey's left. The news from further east was vague, but rumours of a great victory on the far right were afloat.
The Germans were on the run in earnest, and all was going well. Exactly what Maunoury on our extreme left and Foch in front of Chalons had accomplished was as yet unknown to us, but rumour was persistently cheerful.
So good was my bed of straw in the great yard of the farm that the rain at half-past two in the morning well soaked my clothing before I wakened sufficiently to realise the advisability of changing my billet for the drier, if less comfortable, shelter of the tonneau of the car.
There I slept so soundly that at four o'clock, when a member of the Staff called me, breakfast was over, and I was told I had best be ready to depart instantly. A good- hearted woman of the household gave me a quart or so of milk in lieu of the breakfast I had missed.
An attempt to move my car was utterly abortive. At that most inconvenient of seasons I learned much of the theory of construction of a French farmyard. Built as it was in the form of a square or quadrangle, the centre devoted to an accumulation of manure and general refuse, one was wise to keep to the stone-paved roadway round the sides.
Barrett and I had arrived "home" tired out at 11.30 p.m., and I had run the car well off the firm, stone-paved portion of the farm courtyard. The morning found it a couple of feet below the surface of the surrounding fringe of roadway. I enlisted the sympathy and assistance of the farmer, and the car was brought to firm ground by a team of fine French draught horses. This badly bent the car's back axle. Later, a cyclist informed me that this was a blessing in disguise, for if ordered to follow my car, he could always depend on marking its passage by its peculiarly unorthodox wheel tracks.
Some 1st Division troops filed through the farm while the rescue work was in progress. Proceeding to the Paris-Chateau-Thierry road, I was ordered by General de Lisle to take charge of our two-seated brigade car, the motor-cyclists and the common or garden cyclists, and keep on to the right of the Brigade, which was to proceed across country to the northward. I obeyed these orders until I was informed I was leading my mixed, if small, command over somewhat new territory in the sense that no patrols had preceded us, when I changed my plans, and returned whence I had come with all my following.
Starting again, I followed the advance of the 1st Division to the left of the cavalry. Passing the long lines of infantry and many batteries was trying work. It was seven o'clock before I reached the head of the Division. Past Lucy and Torcy we went discussing at times with passing officers the wonder we felt that the retreating enemy took no advantage of such splendid positions. Just north of Torcy I reached the head of the Sussex Regiment, which was in the lead. In front was Captain Nicholson with a squadron of i5th Hussars, Divisional Cavalry to the 1st Division.
Up a long steep hill into the village of Courchamps, the Scouts informing us of Germans just ahead, and then a halt for a moment and a chat with the villagers. " For five days and nights," said a woman, who was busy filling bowls of fine, fresh milk for the soldiers without a thought of remuneration, "the Germans have hurried northwards." The bulk of the retreating invaders had passed two days before, but some infantry went by later. The German cavalry were in the village an hour and a half before us. The villagers said many guns were with the German columns.
A drizzling day. Shortly after eight o'clock we halted in front of the town of Priez. On our left a transport column of the enemy raced northward, and shortly afterwards we could see a line of motor lorries away on our right tearing along at high speed, as though belated to a point of great danger and in full realisation of it.
A fierce cannonade on our left told us of the 3rd Corps at La Ferté Jouarre.
General Bulfin, commanding the 1st Brigade, asked me to what I was attached. On learning I was with the cavalry he bemoaned the fact that the cavalry were not on his left, as the fast-disappearing transport of the enemy would have fallen an easy prey to one of our Cavalry Brigades on that flank.
Major Frazer, of General Allenby's staff, drove by at nine 0 clock, and asked why I was making no progress toward joining the Cavalry Division. I explained that the only available road to the east had but recently been reached by the infantry advance, and was even then being fired over by the machine-guns dinning away a few hundred yards in front of us.
Priez lay in a valley. The top of the slope beyond was plainly visible from where we stood. Bulfin's brigade was advancing up the far hillside as we chatted, and nearing the crest. An ideal spot, I thought, for a stiff German rearguard action.
Frazer suggested our proceeding as far as the village. I accompanied him, leaving my convoy of cycles behind. We dismounted from our cars in the hollow, after passing the village proper. The deployed lines-consisting of Sussex and South Hants Regiments- had reached the crown of the hill in front. Their arrival was the signal for the commencement of a very pretty little fight.
The rifle fire grew in volume until singing bullets were so frequent at the point we had chosen that I took cover in a roadside ditch. My attention was arrested by the frantic efforts of a scared woman to close the shutters of an adjacent house, the side of which was being well peppered.
Turning from my momentary aberration, I discovered that Frazer's car had returned from whence it had come. A lonesome feeling coming over me, I left the ditch and the car, and ran across the road to the shelter of a bank, behind which a number of the Sussex Regiment were taking cover. I found the detachment was A Company, Captain Bond commanding.
After a quarter of an hour of enjoyment of good shelter from the increasing Mauser pellets, an order came to A Company to advance up the hill to the firing line. They started off to the right, taking such cover as the low bank afforded. A disinclination to be left alone in such a warm corner led me to accompany them.
The enemy had succeeded in driving back the left of the British line, which enabled them to cover our advance up the hill from our left flank. A number of our party were hit, particularly at an open space fifty feet in extent, where the bank at the roadside was quite unnecessarily low. The two men immediately in front of me and the man just behind me were hit, all three being wounded in the head.
The German guns opened on the village behind us and the slope away to the rear. Our guns replied, but their range was short, some of the shells bursting over us.
To me the situation seemed somewhat bizarre. Our enjoyment of our surroundings was by no means augmented by one of the Sussex men from the line in front, who came running back with the news of a general retirement. Rifle fire in front, rifle fire from our left, and shrapnel from both front and rear, made us wonder whether retirement was not less wise than staying where we were. But orders are orders, so we headed down the slope for the village.
Reaching the fifty-foot gap, a couple of bold ones rushed at it, only to fall before they had got across. That part of our journey must, it seemed, be taken in full sight of the enemy. While pausing and contemplating this fact, a herd of a score or more cows galloped, bellowing, down the hedge-side in the field by us. Suddenly blessed with an inspiration, we sprinted down the road in the lee of the barrier thus providentially imposed between us and our friends the enemy. "We're all right so long as the beef holds out," panted a Tommy, as the bullets went "puck-puck" into the cattle.
In a matter of seconds I had reached the car, and was mentally consigning it and its contents to the Bosches, when a major of the Sussex Battlion asked me if I would take it back with as many of the wounded as we could pack on it. I was of the belief that any occupant of a car that tried to pass through the village and up the slope in plain sight of the enemy, and in the direct path of his shrapnel, would stand little chance of escape, but the wounded were tossed into the tonneau, into the front seats, on the folded hood at the rear, and all about, wherever space could be found. I jumped into the driving seat, and backed the car to the cross-roads in the town, suffering a collision with a wall en route.
The car's steps were lined with soldiers, and one was mounted on a front wing.
"Now boys," I said, as I headed the car round for the dash up the hill, "the rise is steep, and this is no 'general' omnibus. All that are not wounded hop off, and I'll see if I can get the rest out of it."
With a cheery word they jumped off, except one, who stood on the step at my side
"Are you hit?" I queried.
"No, but I'm all right. I won't fall off, guv'nor," he replied with a grin.
"If you are bound to come with us," said I," vault up behind me and stick on."
He did so, and as I felt his hand on my shoulder I looked up at him and remarked, "I've got you between me and the Germans whatever happens."
But we found that ride no joke.
Up the hill we crawled. My load was eleven, some badly hit. Two cyclists in front gave promise of blocking the way as we gathered speed, but a shell burst over us that knocked one of the pair off his wheel. He careered into his fellow; the pair rolled into the ditch together. Bang! went another shell, seemingly a few feet over us. Four men from a group ahead of us were hit, so falling that they almost blocked the roadway. Bullets sang all about. Someone hanging on one of the steps was hit, and cried out as he dropped off. As the slope became less steep I overtook an ammunition limber, the team - minus driver-in full flight toward the rear. Off the road and into the dry stubble field I guided the groaning car, past the tired horses, galloping their poor best, and into the road again, urged by a quartette of shrapnel that seemed to burst - oh !-so close to us!
A mile or so in the rear, we found a hastily improvised hospital, in a field by the road, where I delivered my load. An orderly came to me as I drove up, saying laconically, "Wounded?"
"Yes," I answered, "All but one." Turning, I sought the persistent one whom I had mounted at my back.
“I stopped one, coming up the hill," said the object of my remark, with a grin - " I stopped one proper, I did !" And as he disentangled his feet from those of a sadly wounded comrade on whom he had been supporting himself, he opened his tunic and showed me a blood-soaked side. "Through," he explained. "Might have got you if I hadn't been there," he added, "So maybe it was just as well. I couldn't have brought the others back in this thing." And he grinned again as I put him down where the orderlies could get him.
"Good luck, son," I said, with a lump in my throat. His teeth were set as he was borne by two hospital men to where the doctors could attend to him.
As they took him down the bank the corners of his mouth twitched in another half-smile, and he said, "Thanks. Don't you worry about me; I'm all right. It's nothing!”
I have often thought of him, and hoped he came through in good shape. His spirit was so very, very fine.
Wiping some of the red off the cushions of the car, I turned it again towards Priez, and ran as far as a haystack, to the right of the road. The rain had ceased. I sat with some of the King's Royal Rifles in the lee of the stack for a time. Shrapnel was bursting near by. Two big high-explosive shells went over us, and lit not far behind. Some of General Lomax's staff and a number of 1st Division officers were in front of the stack. I joined them and distributed some chocolate I had in the car, which was very cheerily greeted. Shells came closer. As an excuse to get back for a breathing space, I picked up three or four passing wounded, to take them to the dressing station. No sooner had I started than a blinding flash in front, and a black smoke cloud in our eyes and nostrils, told of the arrival of another high-explosive shell. It had lit in the road, striking two mounted orderlies. The horses and men were literally blown to pieces, and the r6ad scarred with a huge hole.
One poor chap in the car was so near gone when we arrived at the hospital that his chances were declared by the doctor to be one in a thousand.
Through the middle of the day and into the early afternoon our guns hammered at the enemy. Another infantry Brigade was sent up and forced the Germans to retire. The action was only a rearguard fight, but the considerable number of wounded in the dressing station, and all along the road, told of the efficiency of it. A constant procession of stretchers went past. General Findlay, seated beside the road, not far from the haystack that gave me shelter for a time, was hit by shrapnel and killed.
The Sussex Regiment lost heavily. Not only were their casualties considerable, but among the list were some of their best officers. Altogether, Priez cost us between three and four hundred killed and wounded.
Shortly after mid-day one of General Lomax's staff asked me to take a message to General Allenby.
This required my going south, and then turning east and north again. The left of d'Esperey's 6th Army was in touch with our right. Passing Grisolles and Rocourt, and proceeding north toward Oulchy-Ie-Chateau I saw many French troops, but could get no word of Allenby. I watched a couple of batteries of 75's shell Oulchy. The French officers were very friendly. As the white shell clouds burst against the dark green foliage in front we chatted of prospective victory. They were pleased when I told them that one of our Divisions, checked for a moment at Priez, had taken it and pushed on to shell Neuilly-St. Front. Soissons and Braisnes were their objectives, the French officers said.
I pushed on to a high point, and at last met General Allenby, whom I had almost despaired of finding. I delivered my message, and mounting a hay-stack watched the French infantry attack north of Oulchy, supported by French and English batteries.
In the evening, with General de Lisle, I visited Grisolles, Latilly, Nanteuil and Rozet- Ablin. These little towns in the valley of the Ourcq were charming in their simple beauty. The Germans had not stopped long nor done much damage thereabouts. The coming of the Allies had restored confidence in the twinkling of an eye. Already the peasant folk were at work digging their hidden stores of flour from out their straw stacks.
Captain Barrett and I spent most of the night searching for our Brigade transport, which had gone astray. Discovering it at last, and providing the officer in charge with a map, we ran back to our night quarters at Rozet. There we slept 6n couches in the partially dismantled drawing-room of a house which a villager described as the property of a French Field-Marshal. Dinner having been consumed in our absence, Barrett and I made a hearty meal off cold soup, bread and jam, and slept soundly until four o'clock the next morning.
The first hours of the next day we spent in careering about the country for news of horse transport, which had gone stubbornly astray in spite of maps and instructions. Through village after village we searched for a time to no avail. Three small detachments had spent the night in the same little village without any one of them being in the least aware of its proximity to the others. At daybreak the three had left, still unconscious that their fellows were hard by, each to go in a different direction. We found them all at last, after unravelling Gilbertian blunders on the part of thoroughly muddled "non-coms." It is easy to laugh at such "mix-ups" when they become disentangled, but truly difficult to do so until the trouble is over. Horse transport trains breed short tempers more often than not.
Our course bore eastward, and then north for Braisnes. Close to us on the right Conneau's French cavalrymen were advancing. They bore signs of campaign wear. Our appearance was far from prepossessing. A wash was a luxury and a shave unknown. Dirty as we were I think the French were dirtier. Their rusty cuirasses helped to give one such an impression, as did the once white bits of trimming on their uniforms. The Chasseurs d'Inde looked a wiry lot. Their baggy blue trousers, red jackets, and red fez on yellow turban looked still gay, though well-begrimed. Their dapper little Arabs stepped gingerly, aware all eyes were on them.
We passed several groups of German prisoners. General de Lisle told me our 1st and 2nd Divisions captured over 1,000 of the enemy the day before, and with them seven guns. Later reports swelled this to double the number of prisoners and guns, and rumour told that machine-guns and transport had also been taken.
Breakfast in an open field found us munching bully and dry bread with true ardour. For luncheon we brought similar appetites to an identical menu. Blinding downpours of rain fell for most of the afternoon. Our forward movement was curtailed by orders from above. The 9th Lancers had pressed well on toward Soissons. De Lisle sent me to Maast to recall them. Major Beale-Browne, commanding the 9th, said Lucas Tooth's squadron was beyond Nanteuil, and well up the Soissons road. Would I run on and pass the order to reassemble? Certainly. Reaching them in the rain Lucas Tooth told me they had chased the Uhlans just over a ridge beyond. One of his troopers saw three or four of the enemy and rode at them with a yell. They dashed back and soon overtook seventy of their comrades. Catching sight of the larger body the 9th trooper turned and galloped for assistance. The Uhlans came on slowly behind him. Gathering together the troop of which he was a member, the handful started full tilt for the enemy. The moment the troop came over the brow of a rolling hill, and in sight of the Germans, the latter, disregarding their greatly superior numbers, turned and fled. Our cavalry was gaining a sinister reputation.
We spent the night of Saturday, the uth, in Arcy, where a good dinner cheered us all. A hot bath in a wash-tub, and a blanket-bed on the clean tiles, made for solid comfort.
On the morning of Sunday, the 12th, a French officer told us how well the Allied Forces were succeeding. Foch had pressed on and might soon be at Rheims, he said.
I was with the extreme advance during the forenoon. Rifle shots close at hand; pools of fresh blood in the roadway; dead horses, not yet cold, and scared peasants, all told of cavalry patrols in collision at daybreak. We stopped on a line of hills. Down the slopes in front lay Braisnes and the crossing of the Vesle. We were afforded a splendid view of the field-gun battle for the river. The horizon in front and away to the right, as far as the eye could reach, was one long line of black or white shell-clouds. Dozens, scores, hundreds of cloudlets, ever changing, new ones born with every second, yet no two alike in form. Before eleven we lunched. A big round loaf of bread, to obtain which a kindly native walked two miles, a tin of sardines, two tins of bully beef, a tin of marmalade and a tot all round of wonderful Army rum, provided a hearty meal, not only for our own staff but for General Allenby and many of the Divisional Staff as well. Rain fell in sheets while we were lunching, our dining-room being the shelter, more imaginary than real, of a small haystack. The fight for Braisnes was within earshot. The Germans had barricaded the bridge and the main street of the town, and were putting up a strong rearguard action.
Some of the 3rd Division Infantry Battalions trudged by at a good pace unmindful of the downpour or the mud underfoot. Many of the Tommies had ponchos, some had overcoats, and here and there a blanket or brown gun-cover, kept off the wet. Only a few of them were without protection of a sort. By noon-time the bridge was taken, and a couple of hours after we moved up. The Queen's Bays had been in the limelight, and greatly distinguished themselves. From the winding wooded road down into the valley the hills across the river loomed grey-green in a rain-mist. On the bank by the way lay the dead body of Bertram Stewart of the Intelligence, who had taken a rifle and gone down to lend a hand. Beyond him a wounded trooper sat propped against a milestone gasping with pain.
Across the bridge we came upon a broken bit of loop-holed wall, then a barricade of sand-bags in the street, a score or more of German prisoners, a crowded ambulance, and behind it an old rickety one-horse landau, creeping slowly so as not to jar the wounded soldier stretched on a door laid crosswise over the carriage superstructure. The main thoroughfare was full of infantry. The 1st Cavalry Brigade that had taken Braisnes was on ahead, winning the German positions on the slopes beyond the town.
Shops were emptied in short order of what little the Germans had left untouched. A dear old Sister of Mercy, not five feet tall, found me endeavouring to make a purchase of viands of some sort and took me under her wing. Calls on storekeepers proving futile she guided me to a pretentious dwelling. 'Here we found an old lady who gave me a half a loaf of bread, a small pat of butter, and a bottle of wine for our mess. She could not be induced to take any remuneration. A shell hole had ruined the grass plot in the centre of her dainty garden, having first passed through her bedroom. The Germans had demanded her keys at the point of a pistol and had well ransacked her house, he said. She was a sweet old lady. How a human being could maltreat her I could not imagine.
The fight for the hill north of Braisnes was not over, but after half-an-hour's wait behind a haystack outside the town I was allowed to proceed. At the base of the hill our shrapnel had played on the roadway with deadly accuracy. The ditches were full of dead and wounded Germans. The steep slopes were lined with well-made trenches one above another. On up the winding road that mounted the slope we toiled, three lines abreast, squadrons of cavalry, lines of ammunition wagons, motor-cars and horse- guns all together. The rifle and rapid gun-fire from the crown of the hill was still telling of the stubborn fight while we were crawling round the lower curves of the ascent. As I gained the crest I saw a group of over 100 German prisoners and piles of broken German rifles by the road. Still more lines of trenches disfigured the fields on either side.
Our billet for the night was the quaint village of Longueval, less than two miles from the Aisne. I was alone in the car with General de Lisle when we entered the village. We were well ahead of our troops. Personally, I felt some qualms at such a reconnaissance, but we found no Germans thereabouts. The people were most cordial in their welcome, and told us the enemy's troops had been billeted on them for the past ten days. A big stone farm with an ample yard housed the headquarters' contingent. After dinner, I took Raymond Hamilton-Grace to General Allenby's headquarters for orders. That run in the dark, rain, wind and mud, was a veritable nightmare.
Several times carefully followed instructions as to the localisation of Divisional Headquarters were proved to have been utterly wrong. Once we went past our last outpost and into the light of the still burning ruins of farms beyond it. When we at last located the head of the Division, we found it planted in an awful hole, approachable only through a sea of mud. Our quest for orders was in vain, as no orders had yet been issued. I had hoped for a letter from home, as not one line from London had reached me since my departure nearly a month before. But no letter awaited me. It was late when we returned to Longueval, and a bundle of straw on a stone floor made a tempting bed.