Thursday, May 05, 2011

A True Story of the Tanks

This comes from 'the War Illustrated', 28th October, 1916 'A True Story of the Tanks'
by Lance-Corporal Harry Rayner

Told by the Rank and File

I shall never forget the roar of laughter that went up from all the boys when we first saw the armoured-motors which have eventually come to be called "tanks." We were distinctly scornful of what they would do, and expected to see them crunched up in no time by the German artillery. The names that were attached to them in the first place would fill a book, and most of them have appeared in various papers. But there are one or two more that aren't quite common property yet. For instance, the Canadians call the machines "The Land Navy" ; while the north-country regiments refer to them as "The New Infantry." "The Caterpillars," and ,"Kelly's Eye" are others, the last coming from a game called "House," where number one is always called out in this way.

My Leave Stopped

I have been out in France for twenty-two months, and through the whole of the Somme offensive. This latter started just as it was about my turn to return to "Blighty" for a few days' leave, and I can tell you that when we first started the "big push" I strafed more than a bit at my bad luck in missing my run home. But I'm glad I didn't go then—I should have missed two glorious sights if I had: the "tanks" and the charge of the Guards.' These were worth stopping out here another year for.

I never saw the lads in the trenches so eager to go over the top as they were on that day when the "tanks" first appeared. We all wanted to see Fritz in a real fright, and I think we all got what we were wanting.

Fun in a Crater

One of the "tanks" came and stationed itself in front of my platoon, and we were told to advance astern of it, and to take advantage of all possible cover as we went. We could hardly advance for laughing at its antics. The ground was soft and slushy, and in one place the "tank" went walking down the side of an enormous crater made by three or four "Jack Johnsons" which exploded pretty well together. As it went down it was squirming all over the shop, and the wheels would slip round and round in the soft ground, throwing big chunks of it out astern on top of us lads. Then it tried to back pedal, and slithered still farther down, and at the bottom it side-slipped three yards, and nearly collared me. I had to jump quick or the wheels would have grabbed me and rubbed my nose in the mud.

But it was when it started to climb the other side that the fun started in real earnest. It was like the old tale of the snail who climbed up the side of a wall three feet and then slipped back two feet. That was exactly what was happening, and every time "Black Bertha" made a big dash and climbed partly up the crater side, only to slip back as soon as her stroke was exhausted, we nearly convulsed with laughter. We lay in that shell- hole holding our sides; we actually couldn't stand for laughing.

At last, with a supreme effort, "Bertha" reached the rim of the crater, and with a final cough dragged herself out on to comparatively level ground. Then the German machine- guns started taking aim at her, but the bullets only slithered harmlessly off her thick hide with little blue flames.


Getting Behind "Bertha"
Where "Bertha" was there the fire was hottest; she seemed to draw machine-gun bullets like a magnet. Most of the troops gave the "tanks" as wide a berth as possible, but my platoon satisfied themselves with getting behind Bertha as she trudged on, and thus we dodged all the bullets that came our way.

Every time we saw a German we would yell out, in unison, "Kelly's Eye!" and the "tank" would turn her machine-guns on and strafe him. "Bertha" accounted for a great many Germans that day. And at last we got into the village of Flers, and what we had laughed at before was child's play to what happened there. "Bertha" swung into her stride, and made down the main street, with us close under her lee out of the way, and her guns. walloping into the Germans at the rate of several hundred bullets per minute.

At last we cleared the street, and .got to the far end again, where fallen masonry blocked our way. The Germans sniped at us from the upper windows as we went on, and we thought we should have had to turn back and run the gauntlet again, on our way out of the town. But we hadn't reckoned on "Bertha."

We made for the German trenches next, and the shells started falling all round "Bertha." Evidently somebody was keeping a watch on her movements, for we found it unhealthy to stick too close to her. So we dropped back about two hundred yards, ready to take a hand in the fighting if we were wanted.

Futile Bavarian Charge

She got to the trench, where about four companies of Saxons and Bavarians were massed ready for a counterattack. They charged at her, but they couldn't stop her. She turned on all her guns and strafed them as they came. But they were evidently annoyed, for in spite of the carnage she was doing, they raced up to her, while all the time their machine-guns were firing over their heads. And the bullets glanced off and went among their own troops, while the others went down before "Bertha's" advance like ripe corn.

And then, suddenly, there came a big shell over the town, and dropped clean in front of "Bertha," hiding her from sight with smoke and dirt and stones. We thought the dear old lady had been done in, but when the rough stuff cleared away she was perched across the German trench, talking to them quite loudly and trying to get her own back for the insult they had put on her.
She wasn't moving, and the Germans thought she was a capture, and with loud yells of "Hoch!" they started to scramble all over her put-side. This was where we came in, for we lay in a friendly shell-hole, and did a good bit of sniping on our own.

And then the machine-guns inside "Bertha" stopped firing, and we thought the old lady was done for.

"Come on, lads!" I yelled. "We can't let them take her prisoner like that! Charge!"

We started out across that two hundred yards of ground, but before we had gone fifty "Bertha" started to move, and, though she was running all over the place and steering very wildly, she was certainly moving towards the other German lines.

Shaking Off the Hun

The Germans on her back went slipping and sprawling all over the show, and fell off as she went on. Then her guns spoke again, and they raced for cover like rabbits. We followed her up again, and when we reached the fifth German line we thought we should have had a scrap of our own, but the Germans had received enough. They surrendered to us, and we sent them over the top under charge of two wounded lads.

"Bertha" was still going ahead, and large batches of Germans with their hands in the air doing the "Kamerad" trick were coming down. Suddenly she stopped again, and a man got out of her. He approached a wounded British soldier on the ground, and we thought that, after all, the Germans had captured her. We thought that he was going to kill the wounded chap off.

Mistaken for Fritz

"Hi, there!" I yelled. "Come out of that! Put your hands up!"

I had him covered with my rifle, and walked up to him, making him keep his arms up all the time.

"What's up with you?" he asked. "Gone loopy, or what?”

He spoke broad Lancashire, and I stared hard at him. "Well, I'm damned!" I said. "I thought you were a Fritz, and that they had captured the old waggon there."

And there were a couple of lads in my platoon who even then wouldn't believe that he was one of our own Tommies, until at last he fished his pay-book out of his breast pocket and showed us his name, fully convincing us by comparing it with his identity disc.

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