March 24th 1918

Sous-Lieut. Noel Sergent (French Artillery) has been enjoying an interesting job as an ‘officier d’antenne’, receiving messages from aeroplanes and then transmitting them on to his Battery for action. He has written to tell of us of his first experience of flying:

13.3.18.  6th Groupe, Secteur 21. “While they were preparing, a young observer came up and offered me his warm things, which are a kind of combinagger which you put over your boots and bags and coat and everything, and button up down the front. It is fur-lined and is guaranteed to keep you warm at any temperature. Then he gave me his gloves and a fur-lined foot-bag, which I declined as it wasn’t cold, and a woolly cap, then an aviator’s helmet over the top and goggles. I felt like a diver with all that on, and climbing in was a bit of a job.

The young hero [the pilot] got in first in front between between two hefty great motors, and I climbed in behind and sat on a kind of piano stool which slides backwards and forwards…

Then he set the motor working and we manoeuvred into position with a mechanic hanging on to each wing, taking gigantic hops like a couple of fleas. Once in position, we stopped dead and the pilot told me to strap myself in and put on my goggles… He then set the two motors going full split and we got going fast (about 90 or 100 miles an hour) and before I knew where I was, I looked down and there was a map underneath.

I had told the fellow I wanted to fly over the 6th Groupe so he did and came right down over the groupe and they all came out and waved their hands at me, and I dropped a message of good will saying that I was tired of war on earth and was migrating to the moon!

Then we made for the lines and went up to about 600 metres and I observed our batteries until we got over the Yser, which is no man’s land – or rather water… We flew up and down the Yser for a bit and then my friend suddenly swooped down to 300 metres. The Germans didn’t like this, but we got away before their machine-guns got going properly… 

My word, you should have seen the houses of La Panne flying past. After that, as soon as we crossed the French frontier we went up again, then down to the Kennel. It was all great fun and the pilot was a very clever fellow…

But the end of the story is that his Squadron Commander was at La Panne and saw us playing monkey tricks, so my friend got 18 days ‘arrêt de riguer.'”

From what Noel says, it appears that he is stationed near the French/Belgian border  – La Penne being on the coast not far from Dunkirk. The letter was written before the Germans launched their offensive on March 21st, and things may be less relaxed now, even if the main area of fighting is further south.

The newspapers suggest that the German attacks are being resisted successfully. Sir Douglas Haig’s communiqué of Friday 22nd is reassuring of that:

May 18th 1917

Young Dickie Wallace (aged 8 and in Form 1a) has shown me a letter he has just received from his uncle, Sous-Lieut. Noel Sergent (French Artillery), describing how he survived a torpedo attack on his way back to France.

13/5/17 “I left Salonika on Easter Sunday at 5 in the evening on a rotten old barge of 8000 tons, which could only go about 12 miles an hour. We called at Athens and Milos and on April 16th, while we were all having a snooze after lunch, we were torpedoed; we all went up on deck to see what was happening and we were told to put the boats and rafts out as soon as possible, as the ship would go down rapidly. So I went to my raft, which was forward, and found there was no time to spare, so we got her into the water.

In the meanwhile, the ship was sinking rapidly by the bows and when the bows went under, our raft was chucked up on to the deck and we all let go for fear of being crushed against some part, as the raft was bowled over and over by the waves.

I was washed down into the hold of the sinking ship by a big wave and drank and drank and drank, and all became dark round me. I thought it was the end and I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ve wondered how my end would come and this is it.’

In the meantime I did what I could to get to the surface and, as I got a glimmer of light, I made an effort and reached the surface and clutched at some boards that were floating about, and managed to keep up with one of these under each arm till I got my breath…

…The raft, which had presumably been wandering about on the deck, came near me and I gave two or three good strokes between waves and hung on to one of the ropes. But the backside of the old ship seemed to be right over the top of us and we couldn’t get the raft off the deck, as the waves kept shoving us back again…

As luck would have it, the ship sank down gradually, the funnel just missed us and the wash of the ship swept everything off the deck and the ship glided down just in front of us. There was no suction to speak of, so I was helped on to the raft where I was sick twice, and 3½ hours later we were picked up by a French torpedo boat…

There were 45 men drowned, chiefly owing to rough seas, too much clothing and tummy aches – as you know you mustn’t bathe (if you can help it) directly after a meal.

I was seriously handicapped by having on at the time a pair of heavy English football boots, which I had specially had out from England, and also a large artilleryman’s ‘Capote’ (a heavy coat with large cape attached to it).

Thank God I had learnt to swim under water, or you would never have had this letter…

Your loving uncle,

Noles.”

February 5th 1916

We heard last month from Sub-Lieut. Dick Sergent (RNVR) on his escape from Gallipoli. We are now equally delighted to receive this letter from his brother Sous-Lieut. Noel Sergent (French Artillery) on the island of Mudros. He was amongst the final troops to leave, on January 8th.

Noel Sergent

Sous-Lieut. Noel Sergent

23/1/16. “Our battery was the last French battery to go off. They fired up to 5 in the evening, then at 7 the Captain, Lieutenant, another, myself and seven men remained at the guns. We rammed earth sacks down the mouths of the guns, then put 26 dynamite cartridges in each and a Cordon Bickford and more sacks. Then we got our packs and banged about with a sledge-hammer, put the breeches of the guns on the trucks and started off.

At the crossroads we met the 52nd division coming down quite noiselessly, in fours. This was the last division and that meant that if the Turks chose to attack they could simply come straight through, as our trenches were empty.

When we got to Sedd-ul-Behr we left our packs behind the Chateau d’Europe and went on to the water’s edge. Just then, as I was emptying the breech into the water, the horn announcing a flash from Asia sounded. That meant 40 seconds before the shell came along. We all got behind anything and the shot went just over our heads on to the quay by the ‘River Clyde’ and the bottom of the old shell went off into the sea. .

We have been badly bombed and shelled lately and the batteries up against us were getting really too numerous, so in one way it was time we went, but at the same time it is sickening to think that we have been under fire for six months and that the total result of our fighting is that we have got to go and leave our material and everything, especially some 100,000 dead, in the hands of the Turks.

It is a good thing anyway that England has at last realised her mistake and has been brave enough to own up to it.”

September 12th 1915

There are a number of our Old Boys serving in the French Army, including Sous Lieut. Noel Sergent (French Artillery), who was also involved in the fighting in Gallipoli last month.

August. “Do you want to know my exact address? Well, I am in the ****** battery of the ****** regiment d’artillerie in the ****** French Army somewhere in Turkey. So like that you are ‘fixed,’ as the Americans say. So am I. In a devilish tight fix between the Devil (surnamed Achi Baba) and the deep sea, alias the Hellespont – most appropriately named.

We have two 9½ inch coast guns, and we had a job hauling them up in three parts each, the piece itself causing the greatest difficulty owing to its weight (16 tons). We put 100 men on either side and hauled away; then, when we got them up, 25 of us had to put them in place. We were at work for four nights from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., with just a cup of caffeine at eleven.

Our guns were ready for firing yesterday, so we started today. We topped our drive, put our second shot over the green, on the green in 3…

On August 6th we assisted at an attack. It was a tremendous business and the best way I can describe it is by comparing it to a terrific thunderstorm when the thunder and lightning came before the rain, and directly the rain comes the thunder and lightning stop. The thunder and lightning are the flash and bang of multitudinous guns, and the patter of the rain is the rifle and machine gun fire. What a fearful noise they make once they are started! I believe we took two trenches – hardly seemed worth the ammunition.”

N Sergent + gun

Noel Sergent with his gun crew.

Noel is the youngest of the three Sergent brothers, all of whom attended the OPS. They have an English mother and a French father who did not like the Napoleonic nature of the French education system.

In 1911, the Sergent brothers, then all living in France, made considerable names for themselves as Association Football players. Victor (full-back and captain), Dick (inside-left) and Noel (right-half) were joined by their Old Dragon friend and brother-in-law ‘Pug’ Wallace (centre-half) playing for Stad Raphaelois, and they won the French Championship.

Whilst his older brothers have joined the British Army, Noel elected to join the French Army.