Memoirs & Diaries - Opening of the German Offensive, March 1918
Turmoil and confusion are everywhere. Troops, baggage, and all the litter of war, lumbers up every available space. R.T. Officers are here, there, and everywhere. They sort us out, guide, and lead us to our trains. We file in.
Where are we going? No one knows. Where's the 8th? Where's the 7th? Where's the 6th? Where is any regiment?
We move. It is night, we travel all night, and are joining or rejoining, new troops or casualties returning to our units.
Sergeant S. is with me. He already has the D.C.M. This is his third lot. He does not relish it, none of us do. This will probably finish him; he realizes it. We all do. That is, the men. But what of the others? Boys, boys, boys - always boys. They have no right here. They are brave enough now, but, in a few hours, shells, gas, machine gun, and rifle will play hell with them.
Daylight comes. Nesle slips by, and Ham, and right on to rail-head we go. There the track ends, and we detrain.
Officers claim us, and the troops break up, going each to their corps reinforcements. Here we spend a day or two. There are parades, and instruction. We drill the boys; they hate it - so do we.
Then they give me a map, point out my direction, put me in charge of a party, and off we go. We belong to the 8th Londons.
Autreville is our headquarters, and I have to shepherd these lads safely to their destination, which, according to my map, is about seven miles away.
The going is heavy. Loaded like pack-mules, some of the lads soon crack up, so I rest them a bit, and take the opportunity to make adjustments to the equipment of one or two, in order that a better fit will make it easier for them. We go on; aircraft, flying high, are being shelled; it gives the boys their first experience of shell-fire. They do not mind, it is so far away.
We watch the puffs and listen for the "Krupp! Krupp!" A transport wagon overtakes us, it belongs to the 8th, our unit. I hail the driver. He says that we have three miles to go yet, and suggests relieving some of the boys of their equipment.
I agree. I know that it is wrong to do so, but I chance it. You have to chance everything in this war; and if you get caught, well, it does not matter much. He loads the equipment into his wagon, and goes on. The lads keep their rifles, and the going is easier for some.
We reach Autreville. Of course, we have our rations - at least, we did. A bag of tea, one of sugar, and milk in tins. No, they're gone? Dumped somewhere, no one knows. I don't mind very much. The quartermaster fumes and curses, but I know perfectly well that he will have to provide more.
The boys, however, are appalled. They think that they will have to go short. Why does the Army stick to this idiotic system of loading men, already overloaded, with rations that can, and often have to be, provided at the next depot?
We lounge here for a day, and then I take my party up the line. As I have only three miles to go this time, they give me a guide. He leads. I am instructed to take the rear, and keep an eye on stragglers. He sends me no word back.
We pass a guard "turned out"; we don't salute, because I do not see them until we have almost passed them. Further on we pass a general with his aide, both on foot. We do not salute; we take no notice. He looks surprised, but passes on without a word. Wise old man! Some of our old Blighty dug-outs would have doubled us up and down for ten minutes.
At last we reach the battalion. Captain P., the adjutant, takes the list. "Any old friends here?" he cries; then "Yes," and he reads aloud my name. I step forward. "I am new to you, sir. I belong to the other battalion. My cousin was here with you, but he is now home, wounded."
We are divided up, and go to various companies. I go to "B" Company. The first man I meet is Alf K., V.C. "Oh!" he cries. "Here's a bit of luck; we've got a sergeant." That means that he, and his N.C.O.'s, will be a little less overworked.
Our platoon commander is Lieutenant P., a Canadian, a real dare-devil, afraid of nothing. For the moment we are in caves at Barisis-au-Bois. Wonderful place, these caves, they afford a complete shelter for two battalions, one French and one English.
This is the extreme right of the British line; we join up here with the French. At night in the front-line trench we have a post which consists of one French and one English sentry. This post is in my care. I find it very difficult to keep the boys awake; as soon as I turn my back they are asleep.
My officer is away on leave; his place is taken by Lieutenant S., whom I do not like, and consider a bit of a fool. I see him in the dark just removing a rifle from beside a sleeping boy. He is handing it back to his runner, and has not seen me as he is half-turned away.
I decide to give him a fright; so as he turns again, he finds the point of my bayonet an inch from his throat. He hears my fierce whisper of "Who are you?" and replies hurriedly, "Rum!" the password for the night.
I tell him that he is lucky, as I thought of thrusting first and enquiring afterwards. I tell him that I view the disarming of one of my sentries very seriously.
For the sake of the boy we patch it up, and say nothing about it.
Things are very quiet, and Alf K. goes back home for a commission. I take over the platoon. We are continually changing officers, and the greater part of the time are without one, which is as well, for some of them are perfect fools.
Barisis is a quaint old place. Our front-line trench winds in and out of the main street, through back gardens, out into the fields, and right up to Grottoir Hill, where it curves round the base. But this is the French line, and we do not enter it.
Opposite my dug-out are the remains of a convent and chapel. There is a well in the convent and we can get fresh water from it. Attached to the convent is a little cemetery, where sleep the departed sisters of happier days. Wild cats and rats abound.
Far out in No Man's Land is the village cemetery "Where the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep". We think Jerry is there, and bombard it mercilessly. He thinks we are there, and returns the compliment. Stones, crosses, and other sacred emblems fly in all directions.
No one is hurt. We have only one casualty, poor Dan G. I stop a moment and speak with him, then go on, I hear a crash, run back, and find him dead. My life is spared by thirty seconds.
We know at what time the German sentries are relieved on the guns during the night. For they fire off all four guns in the battery, and reload. They are then quiet for another hour. The machine guns on all sides kick up an infernal din all night long.
Trench mortars come fussing over, but no one is hit; our nerves get rather frayed. The weather is dry, but horribly cold. It freezes all night, every night.
We have finished; to-night we are to be relieved, and everyone is pleased. My corporal is sick, but he remains on duty.
He takes his overcoat out of his pack, and dons it; his pack will be lighter, and easier to carry; but he gets hold of someone else's pack, and so moves off with two overcoats instead of one. Poor Joe, we very nearly carry him out.
We rest. That is - we drill, dig, and make up roads. An unpopular sergeant-major is leaving us for good. The boys line the road, and give him a send off that makes him come off the top of the bus, and hide himself inside.
The usual bombers come over at night, splash us with dirt and little else. Our Company Commander comes back from a course of something or other, and with him come rumours of big attacks by Jerry. We parade for pay, but it is cancelled and we don't get it, but instead, get into "full marching order," draw rations and ammunition.
Then we stand by. N.C.O.'s are called together. The news is: "The attack has opened; situation obscure." We know exactly what that means.
At six o'clock a fleet of motor lorries arrives, and all embark. Bugle-major K. wishes me "Good-bye and good luck." Off we go, further in to the west, St. Quentin way. Many of the boys realize the significance of events. They are silent. Twenty-four hours hence many will be silent for ever.
We pass through Chauny, which I recognize in the twilight, and later, at a cross roads, get out. Here is a concentration of troops, who are slowly moving off in various directions. Jerry has been successful. He has smashed the 153rd Brigade, and nearly got their brigadier.
Where he is or what he is doing no one knows. To my company is given the job of finding out. I am to take my platoon, search for a bridge, find out if it is held. If it is, I must take it, and hold it, preferably with bayonet. I arrange accordingly. We dump our packs, and with them my supply of tobacco, which is most unfortunate for me.
We move on, march, deploy, circle, get lost, dig in, get moved on, dig in again, are moved on yet again, and at dawn are still digging in, far from where we should be. We get into our correct position about seven in the morning. No question now about the bridge: there it is, not a soul on it. Some R.E.'s attempt to blow it up, but do not succeed.
More digging. The morning is misty; all is quiet; some sleep, some dig, some make tea, and some eat. Presently two Fusiliers come over the bridge; they have a Jerry prisoner. They tell us that the three of them slept in 153rd Brigade Headquarters. This is supposed to be in German hands, but actually he is 200 yards from it. These lads are lucky. They take their prisoner with them.
I have no officer in my platoon; the other platoons have one each, but two of them are no better off than we are, for early on their officers go off to the rear, and are not seen again. How they explain themselves at Headquarters I do not know. They get through all right, but their platoons are captured and wiped out.
At noon the attack opens up on us. Casualties are heavy. In going for a German bomber, I myself am hit and put out for a time. I come to, but cannot keep quiet. I go along, and examine my platoon; it is nearly non est.
Lieutenant W. calls for volunteers to go to Headquarters for help. I set off, and take a boy with me who is badly hit in the head.
The area we cross is swept by rifle and machine-gun fire; we crawl and escape it. The boy is in pain and crying. Presently he jumps up. "Here they come!" he cries. I pull him down. "Who?" I ask. "Jerry," he says. I look cautiously up. There he is right enough, the first wave almost on top of us.
"Leave it to me, boy; we're done; we're prisoners now. Do whatever I tell you."
I wait a second, then "Up!" I say, "and take your helmet off." We do so. The German in front of me says, "Ach!" raises his rifle and takes aim.
I mutter to myself. "I hope to God he won't pull that trigger." For ten seconds we remain so, then he lowers his rifle, and says what I take to be "Wounded?" I nod, and say. "Yes, yes." He beckons, and we approach. We still have our equipment on, and the Germans utter shouts, pointing to it.
"Slip it off!" I cry to the boy, doing so myself. The German has spared us. Would we have spared him under the circumstances? God knows! Perhaps not. We go back, through our own barrage, to the rear of the German line, passing through successive waves of troops going forward.
Only one thought now: to get out of this hell, and as far back as possible. But the Germans in charge of us do not know the country. More prisoners join us, little groups of dead are here and there where they have fallen. English and German together. It is very hard, many are only boys.
One of our officers from "A" company is lying on a stretcher badly wounded in the stomach. He is delirious with pain. It hurts to see him writhe, and hear him call his N.C.O.'s one by one. I know each one he mentions, and wonder whether they are living or dead.
We carry this officer about for some hours, until we reach a German casualty clearing station, where we leave him. He has grown much quieter, and I think his end is near. But oh, for a sleep; my head is fit to burst. Relentlessly onward we go. Back, back, right clear of the battlefield, moving all night.
Morning comes, we reach a camp where the remnants of my company are already assembled, having travelled by a quicker route. I greet them, and am glad to meet the survivors. But I go off to sleep, and am oblivious to everything. I get just an hour. We are off again, no stopping here.
What a crowd: hundreds, perhaps thousands, French and English - a long column stretches down the road before and behind us. We are escorted by Uhlans, not bad fellows. They rest us frequently, and after each rest I am shaken vigorously before I come round.
They send a horseman in advance, we go through a village, the inhabitants line the road with pails of water, we drink as we pass.
The women wring their hands at the sight of us, and when they can pass us a piece of bread quickly, so that our guards cannot see the action. We go to Guise; the castle on the hill is visible some way off.
We enter the town, which, though in German occupation, is still full of French inhabitants. They rush into the ranks, push tobacco, bread, and food into our hands. One woman braves the guards, and rushes to me with a can of hot coffee, then she is gone. The men throw their caps to those who are without. Tears are in all eyes.
We stay here the night. We who are wounded are taken to a dressing station, they give us bread and jam to eat, with weak coffee to drink. The place is full of German wounded. Some are terrible; a man is near me with half his jaw blown off; they are trying to feed him with a little teapot.
The sight is ghastly. Poor fellow. He is only one. The whole place is overflowing. They come in one long stream all night and all day. The push is costing them dear. We must go away next day; there is no room for us, others are on the way.
Down to the railway we go. A huge train is waiting. From many trucks come cries of men in mortal agony. What a load; whither are we going? Sixty of us, all wounded, all packed in one truck. We pass Le Cateau. At Diedenhofen, a German says, "Here you get hot eat." We do, and it is good.
The Jerries scrounge an issue of cigars and cigarettes for us. We are at Trier West, and change from trucks to carriages. On we go into Germany. Adventure is at an end; henceforth we are prisoners.
Private Alfred Grosch joined Post Office Rifles (8th London) October 13th, 1915. Wounded (acting Sergeant) and captured at La Fere, March 22nd, 1918. Nine months in various camps in Germany. Reached home on New Year's Day, 1919. Discharged, February 28th, 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
"Plugstreet" was British slang to describe the Belgian village of Ploegsteert.
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