A British Whippet tank passing troops in 1918.
Early morning mist had been the curse of British machine-gunners in March but it was a blessing to the Tank Corps in late September. The tanks of 46 Division, sixteen Mk Vs and nine Whippets, got safely across south of Bellicourt before it thinned. With the disappearance of the mist tanks stood out like hedgehogs and the German anti-tank gunners knew their business. One company was, says Montgomery ‘quickly put out of action’. The Divisional historian tells how all five of those attached to 139 Brigade went the same way. Nevertheless some survived. As 138 Brigade came up to the strongly fortified village of Magny-la-Fosse, ‘the tanks played an important part, cutting broad swathes through the wire entanglements, which here and there had been very little damaged by our artillery fire. Wheeling after their passage through the wire, the tanks then proceeded northwards along the line of the trench, and sunken road enfilading them and giving the crews of the machine-guns such a bad time that they fell comparatively easy victims to the Infantry pouring through the gaps in the wire. The tanks, closely followed by the Infantry, then advanced towards the village, and after a little street fighting the resistance of the enemy garrison was overcome.’ This, as Sir Raymond Priestley says, ‘was indeed a breakthrough’. It was, however, the last contribution the tanks were able to make on that sector on Michaelmas Day. As the 32nd Division leapfrogged the 46th their quota of tanks was ‘unfortunately unable to reach their rendezvous in time to take part in the advance and concentrated at Magny ready for the next day’.
Away to the left the most troublesome area was still around the Knoll and Quennemont whose stout defence by the Germans had come near to throwing the whole operation out of gear. The 4th Tank Brigade (including the American 301st Battalion) had been given the special task of mopping-up around these strong-points and its success was very limited. Of thirty-nine machines that crossed the start line, twelve received direct hits, seven became ditched and only one crossed the Bellicourt tunnel. Seven drove to within a hundred yards of Quennemont Farm but all of them were knocked out as the mist rose. Fortunately the Australians were not far behind. At 9 am 5th Division crossed the original American start line led by the tanks of 5th Brigade whose crews were almost honorary Australians. Two of them, closely followed by two infantry battalions expert at working with tanks, approached Bellicourt as the last shreds of mist were dispersing and by skilful co-operation cleared the village. Then, in the clear air of early autumn, the German anti-tank gunners around Nauroy got to work. Ten out of the twelve went down almost at once. Some hours later all four of those working with the 8th Brigade went the same way; of four Mk Vs and eight Whippets attached to 15 Brigade all but three Whippets were put out of action. The air support does not seem to have been conspicuously successful, probably by reason of the smoke expelled The Tank Corps was dwindling as observers watched. New battalions existed in various states of training but none was yet fit for battle. The same old faces were to be seen, though every day more and more dropped out for ever. It was not shortage of machines that was the critical factor now; it was shortage of the men who knew how to use them. The Germans, in spite of wide-spread ‘tankschrecken’, were beginning to get the measure of the Mk V and the Whippet. With their low speed and thin armour – less than ¾ inch against about 6 inches in the later war – they were too vulnerable except in conditions of their own choosing and they relied for survival upon infantry skills that were themselves becoming rarer. Stern and his associates were working frantically and, though they now had every sort of official encouragement, the hour was very late. Neuvy-Pailloux was nowhere near finished. The International Mk VIII, was near to undergoing engine trials in America and the first Medium Bs were coming to the end of the production line in England. Everything henceforth was going to depend upon the speed with which these could be turned out, for otherwise the British Armies in France might waste away before the end came. Already Sir Douglas Haig’s rifle strength had dropped to a figure about equal to that he had taken over from Sir John French nearly three years ago. Far too large a proportion of his infantry consisted of boys whose gristle had not yet set into hard muscle and middle-aged men who had no business to be there. Some Divisions retained nothing but a number to remind people of what they had been. The 50th, for example, was no longer the old Northumberland Territorials. It consisted almost entirely of malarial units brought back from Salonika. There were plenty of others in much the same case. Unless the war could be quickly won the baton would have to pass, as it had passed from France, to America. And the American Army, however brave and willing, was still green. The Germans, though savagely mauled, were falling back upon their own country and their own supplies. Naturally there were weak elements in it but a hard core remained determined to fight it out to the last, as Lee’s men had done in the twilight of the Confederacy.
‘Tankschrecken’ was an important factor. There were occasions when, for want of real tanks, wooden dummies were employed, sometimes on the backs of mules. They brought in a gratifying number of prisoners. On the last day of September twenty tanks fought once more, back again in the old ‘penny-packet’ way that the Corps had hoped had gone for good. No notable success was achieved, largely because the infantry with whom they worked had no experience of the right kind and the tanks were left to fight little private battles on their own. Next day a few were engaged in the assault of Joncourt where, for the first time they put down their own smoke screens. It worked very well. 32nd Division took the village with ease. Incidentally 1 October, 1918, has a place in the history of the Army at large. It was the day on which it adopted the 24-hour clock, advocated by Haig since 1911. It took a little while getting used to saying things like ‘twelve hundred hours’ but it was better than having to learn about metres and litres.
There were no tanks engaged on 2 October but their presence was still felt. Major Freiherr von der Bussche, Ludendorff ’s emissary, made a statement to the party leaders of the Reichstag in Berlin. It was a long statement, treating of all the battle fronts in addition to the west, but only one part of it concerns us. Having announced that the High Command had decided that there was no longer any probability of the Allies suing for peace, he went on to explain why: ‘The enemy has made use of tanks in unexpectedly large numbers. In cases where they have suddenly emerged in huge masses from smoke clouds, our men were completely unnerved. Tanks broke through our foremost lines, making a way for their infantry, reaching our rear and causing local panics, which entirely upset our battle-control. When we were able to locate them our anti-tank guns and our artillery speedily put an end to them. But the mischief had already been done, and solely owing to the success of the tanks we have suffered enormous losses in prisoners, and this has unexpectedly reduced our strength and caused a more speedy wastage of our reserves than we had anticipated. We are not in a position to make use of similar masses of German tanks. Our manufacturers, under the existing pressure, were absolutely unable to supply them in large numbers, without causing other more important things to be neglected. … We can continue this kind of warfare (withdrawal from extensive sectors of the front) for a measurable space of time, we can cause the enemy heavy losses, devastating the country in our retreat, but we cannot win the war.’ Perhaps Sir Douglas’ ‘minor factor’ had not been so minor after all.
The Tank Corps, though worn to a rag, had not yet finished with the German army. On 8 October, when both Third and Fourth Armies attacked again on an eighteen-mile front between Cambrai and St Quentin eighty-two machines could still be found to act as spearhead. This battle saw the second fight of tank against tank, when four captured Mk IVs suddenly put in an appearance. Though they had the advantage of surprise they were soon out-classed. The only German male was killed almost at once by a 6-pdr shell; a female was also sunk by a captured German field gun operated by a tank section commander; the remaining two ran for home as soon as two British females hove into sight. On the following day the general chase began on a thirty-mile front. Cambrai was occupied by the French First Army and, with that, the Hindenburg system had collapsed. 50,000 prisoners were herded into the cages and 600 guns went for salvage.
The German Army was now doing what Major von der Bussche had foreseen, walking slowly home and destroying everything in its path. Once upon a time this would have been the moment to turn loose the horsemen, but it was 1918 and not 1318. They were quite useful carrying messages. A few more light squadrons, Hornets for preference but Whippets at a pinch, could have made retreat into rout; there were none, for the penny had dropped too late. Only painstaking plodding at the speed of a heavily-burdened man on foot was possible. By mid-October the British Army was nearing Le Cateau with its memories of Smith-Dorrien and an August day in 1914. On the 8th another of those milestones had been passed. Major Sasse of the 301st (US) Battalion led his unit from a wireless tank. On reaching Brancourt and seeing nothing of interest he left it and climbed a rickety ladder to the top of the church tower. From that advantageous position he could see, as nobody else could, that a German counter-attack was developing. In proper Tank Corps tradition he dismounted his light machine-gun, took the retreating infantry in hand and stopped the rot. Less traditional was his use of tank-mounted wireless to send out an SOS to the rest of his battalion. Sasse held the village with great bravery until American tanks came to relieve him. His DSO was well earned.
Baker-Carr, in the last month of the war, saw a prophecy fulfilled. His First Brigade being utterly worn out, mechanically and physically, he obtained from Sir Julian Byng a release from all duties until further orders. The same afternoon he was summoned peremptorily to Canadian Corps HQ by General Currie, familiarly known as ‘Guts and Gaiters’. Sir Arthur Currie ‘was a huge man with a vast expanse of pallid, clean-shaven countenance.’ He was in a vile temper and pitched straight into his visitor. He was, ‘to tell the truth, extremely rude to me’. The trouble was this. A Canadian Division, having been ordered to carry out an attack three days thence, had flatly refused to do so unless furnished with tanks. The Divisional General had said, fairly enough, ‘Why should I lose three thousand men when, with tanks, I should only lose three hundred?’ Baker-Carr explained that it was on the Army Commander’s personal order that his tanks were unavailable. Telephone wires grew very hot; eventually Byng told Baker-Carr that he did not want to tell GHQ that a Division refused to fight and asked whether, as a personal favour to himself, the Tank Brigadier could not do something. Such an appeal could not be resisted. A dozen worn-out tanks manned by a dozen worn-out but volunteering crews did what was needed. The Division captured all its objectives at slight cost and published a special order of thanks. But it was just what Sir Beauvoir de L’Isle had prophecied; the day would come when infantry would not play unless the tanks played too.
It is fitting that the last battle of Baker-Carr’s First Brigade should have a part for ‘Uncle’ Harper. Immediately in front ran the River Seile; in some places it was crossed by the help of ‘cribs’, but First Brigade, on its last legs, had none of these. The stream in their path was nothing much but on either bank was an impassable – for tanks – swamp and a furlong beyond was a railway embankment teeming with machine-guns. ‘Uncle’ demanded an immediate tank attack. Baker-Carr agreed to do it, but only on condition that a causeway was first built. ‘But you can’t build a causeway. The Germans are only a couple of hundred yards away.’ Baker-Carr knew how to handle ‘Uncle’ after all these years. ‘No causeway, no tanks, sir. Not one would get across.’ The Corps Engineer was consulted; so was the Army Commander, who sent his Chief Engineer. The upshot of their deliberations was that a causeway could be built but a lot of men would be killed in the building of it. ‘Uncle’ rounded on Baker-Carr. ‘What is it to be, Baker? If we build the causeway, will you guarantee that it is worth the loss of the builders?’ This was reprehensible of ‘Uncle’. When Baker-Carr answered that he could guarantee nothing, but that, with a causeway, he could certainly clean up the railway embankment ‘Uncle’ demanded a straight yes or no. It was not like him to duck out of a decision that had to be his own but by then everybody was dog-tired. The causeway was built, under continuous machine-gun fire. All the Sapper officers were killed or wounded ‘and of the two hundred men who had started but few remained. … Another company of RE was summoned and the causeway finished, but not before the fresh workers also had paid a heavy toll.’ The tanks crossed at dawn, climbed the embankment, turned right and left and wiped out the garrison. ‘Masses of machine-guns were found, in one place seventy guns in the space of half a mile. The infantry, following the tanks at a short interval, suffered almost no loss whatever, and the gallant Sappers, splendidly upholding the traditions of their Corps, had saved hundreds upon hundreds of the lives of their comrades.’ When the First Brigade was finally withdrawn a couple of days later it had exactly two tanks left.
By now the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness was well established. On 19 October thirty-seven tanks helped in an attack north of Le Cateau that began by moonlight and ended in thick mist and poisonous gas clouds. In this unmarked country the tanks proved as useful at smashing down hedges as they had done in flattening wire. The same number ‘chipped in’ on 4 November when an Anglo-French offensive began between Valenciennes and the River Oise. Two supply tanks, unarmed and loaded with bridging materials clanked menacingly towards a German machine-gun emplacement at Landrecies; even these hard men surrendered at the sight of something on caterpillar tracks. The last fight was of five Whippets supporting the 3rd Guards Brigade to the north of the Forest of Mormal. They were about the only ones left.
Figures are seldom animating but some are inescapable. Since 8 August the Tank Corps had fought on thirty-nine days out of the ninety-six. 1993 tanks and armoured cars had been engaged; 887 had been handed over for salvage; only fifteen were quite beyond repair while 214 had been returned to their units. Casualties in men had been grievous. Out of 1500 officers 592 were killed, wounded or prisoner; from an ‘other rank’ strength of 8,000, 2562 had gone the same way. The number of infantry lives they had saved is beyond computation. To put the figures into the hideous perspective of First War losses, the Tank Corps had in ninety-six days suffered less than many an infantry division in a single day on the Somme. To continue such analogies would be futile. Better to leave it there.