May 17th 1918

Capt. Philip Frere (KRRC), who visited us last term, was caught up in the Spring Offensive launched by the Boche on March 21st. His record of events, which we have now received, makes the most gripping reading and shows how desperately hard pressed our troops were at that time:

28/3/18. “It all started on the 22nd, as far as we were concerned. We were in Corps Reserve, and had been standing by to move at an hour’s notice.

We were just drinking our port after an early dinner, when we were interrupted by a burst of M.G. fire from about 500 yards, sweeping the village. It was a patrol that had pushed right through. Of course, this was rather sudden when we thought we were six miles at least from the battle. We turned out at once, got the Companies into a trench outside the village and kept off the Boche. We managed to get in touch with the people on the right and left and to form some sort of line…

On the morning of the 23rd, we started scrapping; eventually we saw that the Boche had got right through on our right and were coming round, so we had to hook it, and jolly quick too. He shelled us very heavily with whizz-bangs at point blank range for a time. Our guns behaved as at a military tournament, coming into action at a gallop. We left a platoon to cover our retirement, and then got back as best we could to a line facing South instead of East.

We had a horrid time there; I have never been under such heavy fire in my life. The Boche was streaming over the ridge opposite and we fired as much as we could, husbanding our ammunition; his advance was covered with M.G. fire most awfully well directed, and eventually the people on the left went and we had to swing back N.W…

The first two days I had nothing but a cup of cocoa and a slice of biscuit and marmalade which we found; but then food doesn’t matter and I was hardly hungry. The awful part was thirst, and it was not until the eve of the 24th that we came upon a water point and managed to fill up just before the Boche arrived. I did not know what thirst was till then.

But even this was not so bad as the fatigue and awful depression. What was happening? When would it all end? How long were we to continue this unending fighting? We had not the least idea where the rest of our Brigade and Division were, we had no orders what to do, and were left to gloomy speculation how on earth we were going to subsist.

At Ytres on the 23rd, we managed to hold on till about 4 p.m. when we found that the Boche had crossed the canal, so we fixed up a line behind with the people on our right and retired to it.

Soon after we got into position the Boche started to shell us with a H.V. gun (11”). How on earth he got them up I do not know, there must have been about six of them. I then spent the most unpleasant two hours I have known. We cowered down in the bottom of a shallow trench with these huge shells falling all about the place and four German aeroplanes flying round and round fifty feet above us; not one of ours was to be seen, and we had no ammunition left to fire at them…

Next morning, the 24th, at dawn, we found that we were at the point of the salient about three miles deep and about a mile across at the base. I never thought that we should extricate ourselves, but we did.

All that day the same thing went on, the men were absolutely done, parched with thirst, and with no spirit left at all. That evening we reached Le Sars and dropped where we stood; however, we had fallen on our feet, for we found the Transport and got food and water. That night I got a little sleep, but the cold was ghastly.

Next morning, the 25th, we started with a very heavy action in front of Le Sars; my Assistant Adjutant was killed and the second in command saved me by stopping a bullet in front of me. That day we fought three actions and came to rest in the evening near Beaucourt.

The night was better, the Boche did not molest us and we managed to get hot food from the Transport; I found a tarpaulin which kept me moderately warm, though I was too tired to sleep.”

It is difficult to find a good map on which one can place such events, but this one from the newspapers is the best I can do. Philip’s line of retreat is just south of Bertincourt (Ytres) going due west to Le Sars.

Whilst we have read a lot about the German casualties being enormous, this account, along with the never ending lists of fallen officers in the newspapers, show that our losses have been very considerable as well:

“You could put what is left of the Battalion into a drawing room. I have had a great piece of luck coming through it and I don’t know how I managed it.”

Philip’s sang-froid is truly remarkable; he and his troops must have been driven right to the very limits of their powers of endurance. I fear that the horror of it all will live with them for quite some time.

So much for this. It is an episode about which one could easily write a book, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. I hope to be able to sleep tonight. Last night I had nothing but nightmares.”

 

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