6:15p.m. All quiet now, like any other evening. It was quiet, too, at 6:15a.m. this morning, five minutes before the barrage began. Previously the exchange had been busy as hell; but then, everything being arranged, everyone at their posts, waiting, a strange small interval of peace descended. Then, at zero hour came the crash of the barrage – the mediums started, crack-thud! then B Troop, wham! wham, wham! Wham! and then the more even A troop, wh-wh-wh-wham!
For an hour we fired steadily. Scott brewed a mug of tea for each of us. Reports of early successes began to filter through. The switchboard became bloody busy... “Calling 104 Priority...” Butch fell at Z+8, Tiger an hour later (these were enemy strong points)
“Priority! A Troop! Stop all firing on Jack immediately!”
“A Troop answering” “Stop!”
“Stop firing!” I heard Darkie Hunter shouting to the “A” guns...
“...Our troops have taken Jack...”
“Colonel for you,” “Major Howell here, sir.” “Where is Yates, in Toc?” “He's come back sir – wireless set nor working. He's changing it...” “What the devil -?” “Toc is going out again almost at once, sir. It's pretty hot out there... Major Gosling wants to go instead of Peter -” “Bill is to do no such thing! Tell Yates to get back into Toc and get out there.” “Yes sir, I -” “At once! You understand?” “Right sir.”
Suddenly the air around the exchange was filled with whistlings and bangs, subtly different from the thud of our own gunfire. It kept on. Shrapnel whistled. Yes, the enemy guns were replying at last. I began to test lines regularly. The duel went on. Someone bought up my breakfast – bacon, beans and fried bread with another mug of tea.
“M1 answering” “Flash spotters line has gone, George.” “OK Steve, I'll get out on it” He and Naden climbed past the exchange, tin-hatted, and disappeared.
“M1 answering.” “Basil? B OP line's gone.” “OK Steve, we'll fix the bastard.”
I smoked steadily. Heard a roar of planes, grabbed my tin hat, looked out. A dozen of them, weaving and dipping. Ye gods! I prepared myself for bombs... looked again... RAF! “They've got me!” I thought sadly, “And I'm in heaven, with lots of friendly planes roaring around,” A light flicked up on the switchboard. Not dead! They really were the RAF!
“Line Ok to Flash Spotters?” asked George, appearing by the dug out a few minutes later. “Yes, George. And Basil has just mended the OP line.” “Good. They killed a fellow and wounded three, at RHQ” “Who was it?” “Don't know.”
The reports of steadily gained objectives kept coming. Fifty German prisoners were seen, being marched to the rear. Bob Andrews relieved me at the exchange. It was mid morning, there was a good deal of shelling still going on. I got some “Waverley” out of my pack, filled my pouch and lit my pipe. Tubby Cartwright said, “B OP lines gone again Steve.” “Coming out Tub?” “Yeah.”
We walked forward, nearer and nearer towards the shell bursts. At intervals we tested the line but could not get the OP, only the exchange. I took a few snaps of the shells landing. About a mile forward, near Battalion HQ, we saw Iti prisoners being driven rearwards in lorries, under fire from their own artillery. Half a mile onward we found the break and mended it. Returning we saw a pretty picture – about 200 prisoners marching on the skyline, with bursting shells in the background.
A shell burst right ahead, quite near. We tapped nto a line. “Who's that? Lineman here.” “Musso here, Steve.” “Can you still get the exchange?” “Hold on...yes!”
“Exchange here, Steve!” “OK Bob. Got a brew on?” “Yes, it's on.” “Good oh!”
We went on. “Let's try there,” said Tubby, “There are some lines where those shells landed.” “Good idea. Don't want to come out again.” “Not bloody likely!”
In an area of blackened earth we found a mangled line and tapped in. “These Iti are wastes, boy,” said Tubby as he linked up our phone. I knocked the earth pin in.
“Yes, they are -” CRASH! Down we went, deafened and dazed. Shit and black smoke all around us. A shell had dropped twenty yards away. “My God! Let's get this bugger fixed and get out of here!” “Strewth, yes! Can't believe I'm OK”
We repaired the line. It was B OP again! “Good!” said the exchange. “That's only just been broken!” “Red hot maintenance service, boy!” bellowed Cartwright. We lost no time in taping up and getting away from there. “We didn't hear it whistle Tubby.” “No! That proves it! You don't hear the one that hits you.” “No.” “Lucky escape, Steve. We weren't even lying down...”
At last we clambered down into the wadi. It seemed a peaceful haven after the nuredam”s tumult. George had got two mugs of tea saved for us. Warm and wet. We smoked cigarettes. “Any news?” “We're attacking Tougan now. You heard about Mr Yates?” “No, George?” “He's dead. They told him to go further forward again, so he walked on. Left Toc. A sniper got him.”
We had some toast and cheese – it was about 2 o'clock. And lit cigars. Black Iti cigars. Geoff Pyman came and took a snap, with my camera, of the three of us sitting outside the untidy shelters. We weren't at ease for long. “Battalion line's gone. You and Tubby go?” “OK”
Once more we walked forward. There was no shelling. My black cigar was going nicely. Suddenly the mediums and 339 began to fire rapid. They kept on. Yes, another barrage.
“Sod it. This will draw their fire.” “Yes, we'll be in the shit soon.” We found two breaks, beside two ominously fresh shell holes, not far from B Troop. The enemy shells whistled over. CRUMP! Fifty yards away. Wham, wham, wham, wham! said B Troop.
We mended the breaks hastily.
CRASH! Dazed and deafened again. Just across the track from us. “Line Ok now, exchange?” “Can't get Battalion yet, Tubby. Wait there a bit, will you” (“Tell him we'll wait somewhere else, Tubby.”) “Not too healthy here, Vic. We'll tap in presently, somewhere a bit further back.” “OK” I paced the distance to the new blacked, metal-strewn hole. After 15 paces I was nearly there and was filled with an unaccountable dread, and came back. “It's twenty yards, Tub.” We hastily retreated to a small wadi, found a snug place in some rocks and tapped in to a line. “Who's that?” “B Troop.” “Can you get exchange from here?” “You can. Give a buzz.”
Exchange told us to wait a bit. We lounged at ease. The crash of shells nearby came every now and then. Shrapnel clattered on the rocks but we felt quite safe there, for some obscure reason. I relit my cigar, which had gone out, and felt fine.
Our barrage ceased. The enemy fire slackened, died away. Exchange said the battalion line was still out of order so I threw away my cigar stub and we climbed out of our wadi.
We found the other break fairly soon and got back to M1 without any further incident and helped George prepare dinner. It was tasty too, despite the heavy shell fire around the position. We had bully rissoles, hot meat and vegetables, and baked beans and fried bread plus sweet pickles and mustard. The second course was rice and apricots. Not bad for battle rations!
Towards dusk, the shelling on both sides, ceased altogether. Quietness reigned. Tougan had been taken. General operations for the day were satisfactory, both here and with the relieving forces. Maurice Nicholls was slightly wounded and there were several wounded, one seriously, in 414.
There are four signallers available for line duty tonight. Three will do exchange shifts and the other will stand-by for night maintenance (mish qwise!) with George Hignall. They're drawing lots with the cards down below, now. I hope I get an exchange shift, frankly!
Well, I have. Tubby Cartwright is the maintenance man. He may get a good night's sleep or a lot of work and no sleep. I've got the lucky first shift, Naden is middle shift and Grant last shift.
Well, there's a lengthy chronicle! First time I've described a battle in such detail. One seldom has a spare hour to devote to diary writing. This battle has, so far, been cushy, as we've fought it from established positions. RA stuff, this; not RHA!