TANKS AT YPRES - 31/07/1917
By J. C. Allnatt
From The Tank July 1958, pages 276-7
A great deal has been written and said about the wisdom of sending tanks into action in the Ypres Salient.
It was unfortunate that the decision to send them in rested with Officers in high places. If these Officers had been to see the Salient, and if they had had the brains of a child, they surely would never have committed the tank crews to practically certain death.
Every member of the Tank Corps, even those of the lowest rank, knew that they should not be there. I will go further and say that every member of the British Army who was committed to attack in the Salient knew that the General who ordered him to attack was committing one of the greatest follies ever attributed to a British General.
This would have been bad enough if it stopped at that, but did it? It was believed, and still is, that the Tank Corps was sent into the Salient in order to discredit itself in the eyes of the Army command and the Government, so that those who disbelieved in the tank could have their way and disband the Corps.
Any kind of attack in that place was just plain foolish. Even the Commander of the British Army, from the comfort and security of G.H.Q., should have known that an attack should never be made where the terrain is bad. An attack should always be made where the terrain is good. Bad terrain is suitable for defence and defence alone. There had been two previous battles on the same ground and on each occasion the defence had won with great loss to the attackers. There were plenty of other places where tanks could have been, and were afterwards used, with great success.
The tanks went over in the first phase of the battle of July 31, 1917. We, with our tanks, were moved into the Salient to Oosthoek Wood, which was about eight miles behind the British front line – the Germans being around us in a half circle. It was a filthy place, the ground being flooded in spite of our efforts to drain it, the trees were shattered and the mud in places was nearly knee deep.
I had the female tank “Gravedigger,”1 which was armed with eight Lewis guns. We came off the railhead late at night, unloaded and camouflaged up before dawn in Oosthoek Wood. At first we lived about a further three miles away from the enemy, out of gun range, walking daily to the tanks in the Wood for maintenance work. Certain of us made excursions on foot towards the enemy lines to reconnoitre the route to the enemy positions. We, like all other troops, were bombed most nights and shelled in the day time. It was not long before our Company Commander2 decided that we should live with our tanks and this we did during the whole of the month of July.
The British were massing the greatest concentration of artillery ever crowded into so small a spot and the guns were literally wheel to wheel. Everybody seemed to know when the actual assault was to take place – it was July 31. It is quite certain that the Germans knew it too. On July 28 we moved from our wood by way of a sleeper track, called Rum Road, which led in the direction of the enemy, the actual movement being undertaken at night.
It seemed that every available inch was occupied by horses, troops or vehicles and we threaded our way through them under the most depressing and difficult conditions. The Germans, too, had considerable artillery strength and from time to time shells would come over and inflict some damage. So great was the concentration on our side, that wherever a shell burst, it was bound to do damage.
We passed a loaded lorry which had slipped off the sleeper track into the ditch and the driver asked us to give him a pull out. We got our steel wire hawser on to one of the hooks attached to the front end of the chassis and it broke off as did the other one. We then passed the hawser completely round the fore-carriage, which came away with “Gravedigger” leaving the body and rear wheels still embedded in the ditch.
A train used to leave the Salient every night, loaded with wounded – a kind of regular service.
We stopped towards dawn and concealed our tanks with camouflage nets, got into them and worked all day on maintenance, i.e. greasing up, which took one man the whole day, and oiling, replenishing of petrol, filling Lewis gun trays, and generally making everything as battle-worthy as possible.
At twilight, we uncovered and moved on again, reaching the village of Brelen [sic – this should be Brielen], where we camouflaged up for the day of July 29. We were now well within enemy shell fire range and there was considerable activity of this kind. More maintenance work and no sleep as before.
On the night of July 29/30 we moved up again to a placed called Frascatti [sic – this should be Frascati] which is on the site of a brick kiln. On our way we had to cross the Yser canal by means of a specially constructed causeway. Bridges were so uncertain on account of the nearness of the enemy and their liability to destruction that we crossed over on a previously prepared earth causeway. There was to be no halting on the causeway in case a tank should get stuck and cause an obstruction.
Having got over the canal we swung right handed and reached our final rallying point. Frascatti was a place which had long been used for gun pits and ammunition dumps but nevertheless was pitted with shell holes and battle debris of all kinds. Here we took great care of our camouflage because we were now within sight of the enemy who were only about 1¾ miles away.
The day of July 30/31 – the eve of the battle – was spent as before in more maintenance work and the receiving of additional equipment and supplies. Each tank was given a bag of assorted bombs – Mills, incendiary and smoke – two pigeons in a crate and a large case of 303 ammunition to give to the Infantry preferably at an advanced point.
Towards the evening my Section Commander, Capt. Powell, M.C.,3 brought me a map and opening it drew two lines with a brown pencil. He said, “Sergeant, you go somewhere between those two lines, you cross the River Steenbeek, and your final objective is there.” I looked at the map and I found he was pointing to a place called Springfield Cemetery. We looked at one another, and smiled, each knowing what was in the other’s mind. He then said, “We shall move off from here at 11 p.m.,” and watches were syncronised [sic].
During the day we had received some shell fire which resulted in one or two casualties but otherwise very little damage. An officer was struck down by a large fragment of shell casing and he went down with a groan, but when we examined him he was found to have a large rip in the back of his tunic and a bruise but nothing else.
At about 10.45 p.m. I got into the driver’s seat, ordered the crew to crank up and moved off.
About this time our rations for the next day arrived, it consisted of raw meat – stewing steak it was – raw potatoes, and army biscuits – enough for the crew of eight, and very likely enough for two more, the Section Commander and his runner, who were to go with us.
Now began the journey to the front line and the jumping off point which I knew I had to reach so as to be ready to go “over the top” by 3.50 a.m. This meant that I had got about 4½ hours to do a mile and a half. It must seem that it was ample time for such a short distance and so it would have been if conditions had not been so bad. It must be remembered that n was pitch dark and we had no lights. The route was supposed to have been taped but we found most of it had been destroyed either by other tanks or by shell fire. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping to the proper route and it would not have been surprising if I had lost my way completely. Up to that time I had had no sleep for 60 hours and drowsiness had to be fought off continuously.
The bright flashes of bursting shells and gun fire were a great help, and from time to time I was able to get a good picture of my surroundings. It was “bottom gear” going and therefore very slow.
Following about 20 yards behind another tank, I noticed one of the crew fall off its top and roll into the mud at the side of the track. I knew that it could mean one of two things – either he had been hit or he had swallowed some gas. From the way he went down I made up my mind it was gas, so I took a sniff outside and decided that the latter was the case. I immediately ordered “gas,” which meant that the whole crew put on their gas masks. We then got into real trouble.
It should be realised that the tanks [sic] secondary gears were worked by the two spare drivers at the back of the tank, one on each track, and it was the drivers’ [sic] job to signal to them when he wanted a gear changed.
This happened whenever he desired to change direction, which was very frequent. This signalling to the gearsmen was usually done visually but with the darkness, and the crew being handicapped by their gas masks, it was next to impossible to do so. I therefore changed gears as little as possible but when I had to do so arranged for the gearsman to come up behind me to receive a signal by touch from my left hand, and then walk back to do the necessary change. This was an intolerable situation and extremely fatiguing, so I decided that we should have to risk the chance of being gassed. I eased my gas mask from my mouth and took a sniff. It seemed to me to be all right, so I told the crew and we packed our masks away in their bags. We had lost a great deal of time but were now able to make better speed.
I could never understand why before an action our ordinary one-piece masks were withdrawn and we were given two-piece masks in their place to wear in action. It consisted of a mouth cover, nose clip and separate sponge eye-glasses. I can think of no reason for this except that one could remove the eye piece during certain forms of gas attacks and wear the metal eye protecting visor which was supposed to prevent shrapnel splinters from damaging the eyes. I think, the truth is that those people who ordered such things had no idea of the actual fighting conditions.
We eventually reached the spot where we were to jump off. It was astride our own front line and already the other tanks were starting to ease forward.
Dawn was beginning to break and I could see from my half closed shutter the dark forms of the other tanks. I quickly joined them and made for the German front line across Admirals Road which ran down the middle of No-man’s land. The artillery barrage was terrific. Many five-gallon drums of oil were hurled into the German front lines and set fire by an automatic device. The Germans responded first by sending up the artillery support alarm and then their own gun fire. The noise of the shrieking and bursting shells was quite fearful.
From The Tank August 1958, pages 312-4
It began to rain as we reached the first German trenches. They did not present any great difficulty, although slimy with mud and covered with considerable quantities of partly destroyed barbed wire. Tanks were facing in all directions and already some were in trouble.
I suddenly became aware of someone standing in front of my tank and beckoning me with his walking stick. It was Capt. Powell, my Section Commander.3 He was trying to help me to find a passage between the shell holes which were filled with water and mud. He was almost up to his knees in mud and he was probably finding it more difficult to get about than I was. After helping us for some 20 minutes he signalled me to stop and got into the tank by the side door and came and sat next to me at the end of the engine. “That’s too bloody hot out there for me, Sergeant,” he said.
We continued our journey and each time we went into or passed through a shell hole the muddy water came sluicing into the floor of the tank, making everything into a filthy mess.
I then saw the crew of one of the tanks of my Section4 collecting water from a shell hole with petrol cans. Their tank had a leaking radiator, and I understand that during the day they used 120 cans of water – not a very pleasant thing to have to do under fire.
The going was terrible. I thought I could drive a tank but I had never bargained for such conditions. Shell holes were impossible to avoid and I got ditched three times that day. This meant that we had to use the unditching gear which consisted of an eight-cwt. beam clamped to the track and drawn under the belly so that the tank could heave itself forward. This always proved very effective but it was a dirty and dangerous job for the two spare drivers who had to carry it out. Fortunately, someone had had the good sense to issue six spanners of the right size to carry out the fixing and unfixing. Previously we had had only one spanner and this often meant handing it from one side to the other, often under rifle and gun fire. However, the chaps wasted no time you may be sure, and each time we got out without much trouble.
It was about this time that I detected a horrible smell. I thought it could only be one thing but I was wrong – it was in fact the raw meat with which we had been issued and had stored in the coolest place in the tank which had gone bad. We had to throw it away – our rations for the day.
Taking an occasional glance at the map and at the very blurred landmarks, I pressed on to the River Steinbeek [sic – this should be Steenbeek]. According to my map, which I still have, it said that the River Steinbeek was 10 feet wide with banks five feet high, a formidable enough obstacle for any tank. But when I eventually got there, I found that the banks were non-existent and that the stream had spread itself out to about 40 feet wide. I had grave doubts as to whether I should be able to get over.
I had a try, in fact I had three tries, at the spot where I thought I could get over but with no success. I was however fortunate in being able to back out and decided to look for a crossing a little up-stream in the village of St. Julien.
We had not gone far when I suddenly saw, behind some bushes on my left, a German field gun pointing straight at us. Capt. Powell, who was still with us, also spotted it. He said, “My God! Sergeant, do you see that?” I said, “Yes. But there isn’t anybody manning it.” It shook him pretty considerably. I do not think it was anything to do with this incident but soon after he asked me to stop the tank and he got out. That was the last I ever saw of him. I heard later that he had carried a wounded man back and in doing so had strained his heart which had resulted in his death. I have never met his equal as a soldier and a good friend too.
We reached the village of St. Julien for the first time that day saw a small group of Infantry. We stopped and asked them how they were getting on. They did not seem very enthusiastic about it and who could blame them. They were plastered in mud and if they were like us had had no food. What is more, they were in considerable danger.
I had another try at the Steinbeek and got over just to the right of what had been the road bridge. I retraced my way on the far side of the Steinbeek and took up the route from which I had made a diversion. I had still another half-mile to go to get to my final objective – the cemetery.
There was nothing and nobody in sight. The going was still terrible but I got to the cemetery and went alongside its battered wall. I knew that by this time I must be getting dangerously short of petrol and still had to make my way back to the rallying point at Kitchener’s Wood. I therefore turned about and made for the Steinbeek once more and patrolled on the enemy side of the river for some time. I then decided that I must re-cross the stream. Here I was helped by the fall of the land, for the land on the enemy side was higher than on our side so we got over without much trouble.
I had not gone more than 50 yards towards home when I saw a tank which had come up on my left and was firing in the direction of the enemy. I swung round and saw that an enemy counter-attack was in full blast and the Germans were only about 100 yards away. Although in a very sleepy condition, the gunners opened fire. I patrolled up and down, giving each pair of gunners turns at the enemy.
Unfortunately, at this time the other tank – “Glamorgan”5 I think its name was – standing still firing at the enemy, with all its guns. It was bound to happen, although they were unaware of it, enemy shells were falling all about it. I thought for a moment that I could send some-one to tell them what was happening, but I knew it would probably mean the death of one of my crew. I turned away momentarily, and when I looked back, “Glamorgan” had disappeared. The names of the crew are inscribed on the Menin Gate as “Killed,” but no known grave.”6
The German counter-attack seemed to dissolve and we made our way towards our own lines. On the way I came into touch with another tank that was in trouble in a deep trench. They asked us to give them a tow, which we did with our 60-ton hawser, and got them out without much effort except for the fixing of the hawser in the deep mud. That was the last I saw of that tank.
Turning round to proceed on my way to Kitchener’s Wood, my crew officer, a South African of not very robust physique,1 said, “No. Not this way, Sergeant. We are going towards the enemy.” I tried to explain to him by means of the compass that we were indeed going in the correct direction. He was still not satisfied, but quite willing to leave it to me.
It was about this time that a runner from the Machine Gun Corps came to my driving aperture and asked if his officer could borrow a man with a revolver. Needless to say, Graves7 was chosen – he was always chosen for anything like that. Away he went, and when he came back to us, some half-an-hour later, he told us that he had been into a dug-out with the officer Commanding [sic] a Machine Gun Company, 120 strong, who had lost all his men but one.
They each took one of the two entrances to this dug-out, because the officer thought there were some Germans in it. Graves gave a dramatic description of how his revolver wobbled about in his hand, as he went down the steps.
By this time, I began to suspect that we were being made the target by enemy artillery, for now and again great clods of mud began to spring up from the ground around us. We reached Kitchener’s Wood, and only found it with difficulty, because it was no longer a wood – just a stretch of ground with fallen and half buried timber. This is where we were supposed to rally and get out and eat our rations. But we had no rations, and there was no wood, and there was nobody else to rally – so we sheared off once more in the direction of Hill Top Farm, which I knew was to be the forward H.Q. of our Company.
We then began to get it in earnest. Our rate of travel was very slow so we were almost a sitting target. Again and again enemy shells missed us by feet, and at least one lobbed underneath us heaving us up, without doing any damage at all. All the while I steered a zig-zag course, and I realised how fortunate we had been when I saw a salvo burst where we would have been if we hadn’t turned. This was remarked upon to members of my crew by some supporting infantry, who had watched the performance.
Ever since leaving the Steinbeek and the German counter-attack the crew had given up all thought of further action and were all sound asleep on the muddy floor, with Lewis guns, spare parts and empty cases strewn around them.
At last we reached the somewhat higher ground upon which Hill Top Farm was situated and were met by the Company Commander – a veritable fire eater2 – for others. He came to the drivers’ shutter and asked if we had had a good time which did not meet with much response from us). He then told the crew officer to get filled up again ready to go into action, and as he put it, “To keep the Germans on the run.” He then left us.
My crew officer turned to me and said, “What are we going to do now?” I said, “Push in behind that broken tree, and camouflage up.” He said, “What about the order to go into action again?” I replied, “Nothing on earth would induce me to do that.” For up to that time I had been driving for 19¾ hours without food, and without getting out of the driver’s seat. “What will you do?” he said. “If necessary, I shall go sick,” I replied, “besides, look at the crew, do you think they are fit to go into action again? And do you feel fit to go into action again?” None of us had had sleep for three days and nights. I could see that he was feeling terribly ill. His eyes were sunken, he had three days’ growth of beard, filthy hands and face, and was in no condition to do anything further, physically or mentally. At any rate, I took matters into my own hands, and pushed into the hedge, and getting the crew out, put on the camouflage net.
The Germans had seen us go in, and although they could not actually range on us, they knew where we were. Every few seconds over would come a shell, and having survived it, we wondered whether the next one would hit us.
I felt dreadful, but I remembered that in the first-aid kit – which was very comprehensive – there was a bottle of sal volatile. It said on the bottle, “Take one teaspoonful,” so I took one teaspoonful, but it didn’t have any effect, so I took another and that didn’t have any effect either. Then I took two teaspoonsful, and finished up by drinking the bottle!
Meantime, a strange thing to do, I had persuaded my crew officer to leave the tank, and go back to get permission for us to abandon. I could see that he didn’t think it was right, but how glad he was to go! He didn’t come back, so I sent a Corporal, he didn’t come back either. I sent a gunner – with no result. I was just about to send another one – (all this had taken perhaps an hour and a half) – when I heard the voice of the Adjutant.8 He poked his head in and shouted, “Who’s there.” I told him. He said “What on earth are you doing here?” I said, “Our orders are to stand by.” He said, “Well, I order you to abandon tank, and get out as quickly as you can.”
Dusk was now falling and we had to cover a distance of about 1½ miles. The Company Sergeant Major came out to meet me.9 I do not know whether he knew we had had no food for so long, but after he had asked how was I, he said, “Would you like something to eat? We have got some good bully beef stew.”
After I had finished, I looked for somewhere to lie down, and I found a pit which had formally [sic] been a shell bunker. I flopped down, and hearing our guns open up again, I felt quite satisfied to go to sleep. I did not know till long after that it was not our guns at all, but an enemy straffing [sic] of the position.
It seemed I had not been asleep more than two or three minutes, when somebody roused me with the news that we were to retire to a place called Rezenburg [sic – this should be Reigersburg] Chateau, and thence we would be conveyed back to camp. To get there we would have to re-cross the canal, which we did at great speed, and having reached the Chateau, found lorries waiting for us. It was dark by now. Away we went, and we thought we should be taken to Oostoek [sic – this should be Oosthoek] Wood, with its mud, and its water, and its stinks, but found ourselves, to our great joy, back at La Lovie, a place where we had originally camped. Clean and out of shell range.
Tents had been freshly erected – I do not think anybody told us what to do, we simply occupied these places, and went to sleep, just as we were. I do not know how long we slept, but I do know that one chap slept for three days and three nights without waking. At intervals men from the crews who had not been engaged brought food to us. It was always rolled oats with sultanas, but how good it was. When the chaps asked why they were not getting the ordinary food, they were told that so many German prisoners had been taken that rations were short in consequence.
It must have been the second or third day after the battle, that someone came to me and said I was to get up at once and get ready to go to Merlimont on a Gunnery Course. A shave, and a clean up, and quick pack, and I was ready, with about a dozen others, to go on this journey. Merlimont is on the sea coast between Paris Plage and Berk Plage [sic – this should be Berck-Plage], and I knew there was a Gunnery School there. I did not know why I was to be sent on a Gunnery Course, because that wasn’t my job. It seemed too, that there were two or three officers going as well, and when I got out at Merlimont, Capt. Chadwick10 called me on one side and said, “Although officially we are here on a Gunnery Course, nobody will be going on parade. The chaps can do exactly as they like.” The weather was lovely, the sea was warm and it was the first week in August. What more can I say.
[The above account was written by me in February, 1958, that is, 41 years after the event. So great was the impression of the Battle, and so vivid my memory concerning it, that I am quite sure that the details are correct. – J.C.A.]
1. The Battlegraph listing actions by each tank on July 31, 1917, is in the War Diary of 7th Tank Battalion, in the National Archives (ref. WO 95/100). This shows G10 Gravedigger, with the manufacturer’s number 2565, was commanded by Second Lieutenant Jordan. He was Archibald Lionel Pilkington Jordan, who came from South Africa.
2. The Battlegraph shows Gravedigger was in No. 19 Company. The History of 7th Tank Battalion (in the War Diary in the National Archives, ref. WO 95/100) shows this company was commanded by Major Francis Hood Fernie, who later became battalion commander and fits Allnatt’s description of a “fire eater”.
3. The Battlegraph shows Gravedigger was in No. 3 Section commanded by Captain Powell. There were several officers with this surname in the Tank Corps, but Allnatt says the one in question had won the Military Cross, and later died. Therefore the one in question was probably Captain Thomas William Powell MC, who died in a Scarborough Hospital on November 24, 1918, and is buried in Brize Norton (St. Britius) Churchyard Extension, Oxfordshire. His gravestone bears the words “Gassed at Loos” (see medal index card, CWGC and probate records).
4. The Battlegraph suggests this was G9 Gondolier commanded by Second Lieutenant Maelor-Jones, as it says “Ditched on return at Boshcastel Radiator leaking badly”.
5. The Battlegraph shows G11 Glamorgan commanded by Second Lieutenant Lynch was “Burnt out E. of Steenbeek”. A report in the War Diary of Tank Corps HQ (WO 95/92) says “Seen engaging enemy. Whole crew killed.”
6. In fact, CWGC records show that Second Lieutenant James Walker Lynch of G Battalion, Tank Corps, who died on July 31, 1917 aged 20, is commemorated in St Julien Dressing Station Cemetery, where Special Memorial 1 states “Buried in this cemetery, actual grave unknown”.
7. Medal index cards show there were at least nine soldiers called Graves in the Tank Corps, and sadly without more evidence it has not been possible to identify him. In view of this and later entries, he seems to have deserved a gallantry medal, but there is no record of him receiving one.
8. The History of 7th Tank Battalion shows the adjutant was Captain Cyril Rossi-Ashton.
9. The company sergeant-major has not so far been identified.
10. The History of 7th Tank Battalion shows this was Captain Frank Dale Chadwick.