Chapter 4 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 4: The Battle of the Drocourt-Queant Line. (Scroll down for pictures.)

On the 10th Brigade front for the Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant line, the 50th Battalion on the left and 47th on the right would be in the first wave, with the objective of traveling through the wire and capturing the three trenches of the Drocourt-Quéant line (the first objective). Following close behind was Kentner’s 46th Battalion which would pass through the 50th and 47th to capture the village of Dury and consolidate a position on the Eastern outskirts of the village. (The 2nd objective). The 44th Battalion was to pass through the 46th to capture Récourt. (The third objective, which wasn’t captured on September 2nd.)

The 46th Battalion skirted around the village of Haucourt[1] and established their jumping off line in a sunken road, behind the 47th and 50th Battalions. To the right there was a small wood and the ruins of St-Servins farm, the site of ferocious fighting in the days preceding Kentner’s arrival. He describes the scene at the jump-off position:

We arrived at our jumping-off position without mishap. Close by our Front Line we were given a bit of a shelling but though the shells came horribly close, no one was injured. The advance posts of the enemy were quite close to our own. It was necessary for us to proceed overland and so close were we to Fritz that when a star shell shot up, the ground about us was lit up as bright as day. We were perfectly certain that he would notice our movements but as we were not molested by machine gun or rifle fire he could not have done so.

The jumping-off position for D Company was a sunken road in front of our advanced posts. We reached this place between 2 and 5 AM and as the Zero Hour was not until 5 AM or thereabouts we had a good while to rest. So taking advantage of the hours of waiting we lay down to sleep. It was quite cool and most of us who were carrying our greatcoats unrolled them to keep us warm. The area in our immediate rear was being quite heavily shelled and we later learnt that some of our Battalion suffered casualties but D Company was allowed to slumber as best they could.

We were awake some time before Zero Hour and busy with our final preparations for the morning’s fray. Section commanders groped about in the dark getting their sections together. When this was done, everybody made sure of their bombs being in readiness, that rifles were in good working order with magazines loaded and bayonets fixed. As it was quite chilly, I decided to wear my coat and fitted my harness as comfortably as possible over the top. Nothing was overlooked. Final instructions were given everyone and a few hints dropped the green ones by those more experienced.
Standing, waiting for Zero Hour, peering through the dark in front, we could see on our right a small wood. It was being heavily shelled by Fritz. On our left front, we could see the dark outline of a ridge of ground. We knew that out there in front somewhere was the Hindenburg Line with its vast stretches of wire entanglements and its strongly-fortified positions garrisoned by men whose purpose it would be to resist, until death, our attempts at breaking through.

But out in front, all was silence save for an occasional burst of machine-gun fire or an exploding shell. None of our guns were firing. Through the night we had heard the tanks rumbling up into position and we knew they must be close by in a hidden ambush.

As the time approached for the opening of the barrage we stood watching intently about us, scarcely anyone saying a word. Some were snatching a last draw at a cigarette. I ate one of my chocolate bars. Everyone was cool and quiet, very quiet. I was standing on the parapet and as the time shortened to a very few minutes I turned my eyes to our rear, in the direction of the batteries.
It was still quite dark. Dawn was just beginning to break in the East. Save for those occasional savage bursts of exploding shells, the whole world seemed to slumber. And in a few moments, the world about us was to become a scene of cruel and terrible violence. A perfect Hell would be let loose to torture and maim us. In the space of a few moments many of these strong stalwart men who were then facing each other would become as incapable of action as the ground on which they stood.

As l looked to our rear, the sky in that direction was lightened suddenly by a series of innumerable and instantaneous flashes. A thrill penetrated me as l realized that the big moment had come.
In an instant the crash of the discharge of our artillery reached our ears and then came the swish of countless shells overhead and the bright, savage, enormous burst of the roaring barrage in front[2]. Although the 50th Battalion [Calgary] was attacking in front of us and we were later to leapfrog through them, we did not linger in our jumping-off position but commenced our advance immediately upon the opening of our guns. As No. 15 was one of the leading platoons I commenced at once to guide my section across the shell-torn ground in front. It was difficult going at first as it was still quite dark and the ground was entirely new and strange to us. ln front, a couple of hundred yards we could see the dark figures of the 50th moving forward. Of course, the barrage was to play upon the forward positions of the enemy for a few minutes before lifting and allowing our front wave to enter and seize his front line. And while the shells were crashing and smashing his defences, we were crossing No Man's Land to the attack.

Enemy guns were not long in replying and we were soon experiencing ourselves the horror of shellfire. The rattle of machine-gun bullets and their nasty swishing about us assured us that some, at least, of the opposing force were determined to resist. We did not notice the time passing and it appeared to come daylight all at once.

It was a beautiful barrage. Quite the thing to delight the eye of the most seasoned and critical of veterans. The concentration of artillery on our particular front was quite superior to anything we had before witnessed and at the opening of the barrage every gun appeared to have the range to the finest point of accuracy. In front was a perfect wall of blazing, bursting shells, and an intense terrific, crashing roar. To cover our advance a great many phosphorous shells were being used and a gentle wind was blowing this wall of smoke over the enemy's lines. Through this almost impenetrable cloud of smoke, we could see Fritz’s flares ascending and bursting into light above it, while the cloud itself was constantly illuminated by the continuously bursting shells. And out of this weird but beautiful picture, we could see occasional Huns coming forward with their hands - high over their heads, surrendering and seeking protection.

Back in Écourt, this spectacular barrage admired by Kentner caused great concern for Clémence Leroy who was on the other side of it. She was still in Écourt, only five kms away. She records:

Monday 2nd (September)

Heavens! What a terrible night. Airplanes dropped fifty, sixty bombs maybe and a frightening cannonade started around 5 AM.  The shells whistle, crisscross each other then explode: We may as well be in the thick of battle. Where to flee?

In the meantime for Kentner the battle was evolving:

As we were preceded by the 50th Battalion we had little to do in the seizure of the first lines of resistance. We continued to follow those in front of us keeping a constant watch about us for any eventuality.

Many Huns were being sent to the rear, happy to have become unharmed prisoners. Quite a number of these showed an inclination to stand back after passing through our first wave, possibly with the intention of inflicting damage upon us treacherously from the rear. I remember one such officer, whose actions were very suspicious and who only took notice of my orders to stop when I levelled my rifle on him which brought his hands quickly to an upright position. When I approached him and shoved my bayonet uncomfortably close to his stomach his understanding increased wonderfully and he obeyed my instructions to go to the rear.

There was a German post, directly in front of the 50th Battalion. There was also a much larger German outpost on Kentner’s right, on the other side of St-Servins Farm. It was located on the high ground at Haucourt, near the modern water tower on the Arras-Cambrai road. This outpost had been holding out since the beginning of the Battle for Vis-en-Artois. Already surrounded by September 2nd, the outpost was finally captured by soldiers of the 85th Canadian Battalion (12th Brigade, 4th Canadian Division) on the morning of September 2nd. I don’t think anyone would doubt the bravery of the Germans holding this outpost.  Kentner describes what happened:

On our right was a small wood and the Arras-Cambrai Road. We had passed the wood as had also the 12th Brigade farther to our right. But apparently those attacking here were meeting with difficulties. Machine guns were firing upon us from the rear from the wood and causing us some damage. By flopping in shell holes, my section escaped casualties and presently the firing from this direction ceased.

Before we had reached the Hindenburg Line we were abreast of the 50th and had become practically one wave. Here the barrage was scheduled to play for some time before we should advance and so we took what shelter we could find for the intervening minutes.

So far our Company had not suffered many casualties. A few were caught by the machine gun which had fired upon us from the rear and some had  been the victims a few of our own shells falling short. l remember seeing one chap who had got a direct hit by a phosphorous shell. His body was horribly mangled and burnt. We were as close as we could possibly approach to the roaring barrage in front of us and enjoy any degree of safety.

The barrage was of the rolling type. i.e. The barrage advanced forward at a pre-set interval. The soldiers advanced close behind it. A very dangerous tactic but very effective.

Kentner seems grateful for the tanks that supported his attack:

Presently it lifted, and we began to move forward, preceded by a few tanks. But for the assistance of these tanks and the weakening resistance of the enemy we should have had a terrible time getting through these wide and intact stretches of barbed wire. It was next to impossible to crawl directly through the wire and we were forced to use the paths which the enemy had left for his own convenience. Many were shot by snipers and machine gunners as we passed through, but we retaliated in the same way.

The Drocourt-Quéant line (or Hindenburg Line as Kentner calls it) was composed of two well constructed main trenches with a support trench to the rear, concrete emplacement and deep dugouts, all protected by seemingly endless fields of rusty barbed wire. Kentner continues:

l remember quite a number of Huns trying to race back. They were, of course, compelled to use the paths through the wire and were huddled close together in their hurry to get away. One of the machine gunners of my platoon, who was killed later in the day, threw down his machine gun and opened fire upon them. They went down in a heap with the exception of one. He turned about quickly and ran towards us with his hands up and was allowed to go. We were continually busy flopping in shell holes and trenches and firing at those running away. Our bullets stopped many from making a safe retreat.

It was rather amusing to watch our huge tanks rounding up a bunch of Fritz in a trench. They had an honest and justifiable fear of these great awkward things.

While Kentner and his comrades are looking towards Dury, in Écourt, Clémence is anxious to get away from the approaching battle:

Monday 2nd (September Con’t)

Nothing is settled about our evacuation, no time, nor mode of transport. We are tormented by the idea. A soldier of the Kommandatur has come to tell us that we must leave with only what we can carry and that cars will be available only for those who can’t walk. ‘How do you expect us to leave’, I told him? To go die of cold and misery elsewhere; we may as well stay put, and risk death. Another soldier, an officer, comes to ask the ‘Monsieur le Burgomeister’ to get the civilians to leave. No one dares to be seen in the streets. A new terrible noise surrounds us. We are in quite a state, nevertheless we are adamant that we shant leave without our baggage. Finally, six little cars arrive and are loaded in a flash by people who were about the Kommandature. No orders follow. The Kommandatur has just been abandoned. Now what do we do? The soldier from before says to us ‘Hurry up, the English are close.’  Oh! If only it was the English who are hurrying to come get us to take us away, away from they who caused us so much suffering. Nevertheless, an Officer stops a car arriving from the front and loads it up with a few sick people. A few others escape to Oisy or towards Palluel. The artillery fire now seems to be less intense while many people fall upon us: ‘What do we do?’ What will come of us?’ ‘If you leave we will go. If you stay we will stay.’
The English prisoners[3] told us when they came through ‘Don’t leave, the rest of us are coming’.

A young man brings us gas-masks. Chests, bags and suit-cases cover the yard in front of the sidewalk[4]. When a shell explodes nearby and when airplanes appear we all head to the cellar. The airplanes sometimes fly over the roof-tops. For fear of seeing the parcels being damaged and seeing that it is raining a little, we hurriedly store them in rooms and corridors of the house. The house is therefore full of baggage and is also filled with frightened people, who switch between wanting to leave and wanting to go, depending on the intensity of the bombardment. What they really want is to see the English and then rejoin our beloved country. Those who were most traumatized who no longer could stand it, abandon their chests and bags and escape, some empty handed, the others with a small package or with a loaded cart. We hang on. Maybe in a few hours our rescuers will be here. Oh! If we could stay, to wait for them, avoid the evacuation! But the infernal storm picks up in intensity. Around 3 PM, the officer returns to tell us that in ten minutes the entire population has to clear the area. We point out that it is impossible to leave without cars, without luggage, that there are old people and the sick who absolutely cannot walk, that we certainly are not leaving under these conditions: ‘What is your name’ he says to Monsieur Révillon. ‘I am making you responsible of what happens to the population’. He replied ‘Sir, this responsibility is not ours, it is up to your superior who is leaving us in peril. We shouldn’t have waited for the bombardment to reach us, rather we should have left four days, even eight days ago.’ ‘Whatever’ he replied, ‘if you don’t leave here you will die; you must be ready in ten minutes’. ‘We were told you were barbarians’ says a lady whose husband is one of the sick, ‘yes it’s true, you are; because you wouldn’t leave the infirm in peril’. To this dressing-down the German says nothing.

The battle escalates for Kentner and the 46th Battalion. They pass through the breach created in the Drocourt-Quéant Line in front of Dury and prepare to assault the village:

Finally, we reached the point where the 50th Battalion was to stop and we were to continue the advance alone. This was on the farther side of the Hindenburg Line which now lay to our rear and was completely in our possession. In front, on a slight hill[5], was the town of Dury through which we were to advance and consolidate in the open ground on the farther side. There were still some less formidable systems of trenches to take and a huge chalk pit[6] where it was thought a large number of troops would be kept in reserve.

Our guns were still keeping up a harassing and continuous fire, though nothing like as intense as it had been in the earlier morning. We began our advance and were surprised at the very slight resistance offered. Evidently the bombardment had demoralized the enemy. Entering the town and the chalk pits we found large numbers of troops. The dugouts were filled with German troops who quickly obeyed our orders to come out. Never have l seen so many prisoners taken in quite the same manner as this. They swarmed out of the dugouts and hustled back to the rear as quickly and willingly as a crowd of youngsters going to a picnic. We were now on a slight eminence and looking back over the ground we had covered, it presented a most striking scene. There were large numbers of German prisoners making their way back in groups, unescorted and mingling with our own who were coming forward. I am quite convinced that on our position in front the number of German prisoners greatly exceeded the number of the attacking troops.

We continued our way through the village of Dury meeting with very little opposition. There were numbers of dead, the victims of our barrage lying about. I found three prisoners huddled in the dark corner of a funk hole who surrendered willingly and hustled away to the rear. Various prisoners, some of them officers of rank, were found in cellars and elsewhere in the village.

Our guns were still pounding the village when we entered it but we thought it wise to reach our final objective as soon as possible even at the risk of suffering a few casualties from our own barrage. This we did with the result that we did suffer quite a number of casualties from our own shells. I had at least one very narrow escape myself, a shell dropping but a few feet in front of me.
We halted on the edge of the bush on the far side of the village where we could watch the open ground in front. We took what shelter we could find from our own shells which continued to pound the village for some time. Some of our officers and many of our NCOs had become casualties. For some reason, I don’t know what it was, the others mostly disappeared for some time. I was left senior in my platoon.

We had not yet reached our objective, it was a few hundred yards in front. Besides this, it was perfectly evident that Fritz would soon begin to shell the village and the wood as he would expect we were sheltering there. As our barrage had now lifted, as in fact had almost entirely ceased, l thought the very best thing we could do was continue our advance and take shelter in some trenches which were out in front. ln the absence of seniors l decided to take my section out and told the boys so. They objected at first but when l pointed out that very likely our present position would soon be heavily shelled, they consented to go.

We had scarcely occupied the position we had chosen when my surmise proved correct and we were soon followed by the remainder of the Company.

One incident occurred just here that is well-worthy of remembering. Some of the enemy’s guns were in a valley to our left front in plain view of us not many hundred yards in front of the lmperial troops[7] on our left. To rescue these guns some of the crew galloped their horses over the rise of ground in front, hitched (the guns) to the carriage and galloped away in safety, though under heavy but inaccurate machine-gun fire.

Having now reached our final objective we began at once to consolidate. There was only one small piece of trench handy and this, of course, was occupied by Company Headquarters. The various platoons were distributed in posts occupying shell holes and enlarging and strengthening them for defense. No. 15 Platoon was on the right front and N0. 14 on the left, with Nos. 16 and 13 in supports a slight distance in rear. On our left, but quite to our rear, were the lmperial troops, on our right but also in rear, was our own C Company. This left us in an advanced position well in front of everyone else. Some distance behind us was our B Company, occupying a trench in the town of Dury. Out in front was a rolling plain with a noticeable valley to our left and a rise a short distance in front, and far away we could see on a hill a quite considerable and picturesque town, the name of which I cannot recollect.

The rise Kentner mentions was a hill at Récourt known as La Sablière, named for the sand pit that was on it. To the right, and not mentioned by Kentner, was Mont Robin. The picturesque village was Oisy-le-Verger, well beyond the front line. Like Monchy, as we have seen, it sits on a hill that dominates the area, and gave the Germans a clear view of the Battlefield of September 2-3, 1918.

Kentner continues:

There was quite a considerable shell hole some distance, perhaps 200 yards in front, which gave us quite an advantageous view of the ground about us. This was occupied by my rifle section and we immediately set to work to make it a desirable position to occupy. Our grenade section was in our rear close by the wood. One machine-gun section[8] occupied a post to our right rear slightly over the brow of a fold in the ground. To our left rear lay our No. 14 Platoon with our remaining machine-gun section. We were quite a distance in front of all the rest, but as it was daylight and we did not anticipate a counterattack, this fact did not worry us at all. Furthermore, we had been told that the 44th Battalion was to continue the attack through us. But for some unknown reason this part of the plan was never carried out.

The 44th Battalion was held-up by German machineguns still operating out of the 4th (British) Division’s sector of the Drocourt-Quéant line. Also, as Kentner’s narrative will show, the 4th Canadian Division was fought to a standstill on Mont Dury, so the exploitation to Récourt was not attempted.

Kentner continues:

For some time nothing of importance occurred. Our guns had practically ceased firing and the only noise that broke the silence was a few enemy shells, dropping in our rear in the wood and village, and the constant splutter of machine-gun fire on our right where the 12th Brigade was meeting with difficulties. For ourselves we had time to look about and take stock of our resources.
We had met with quite a number of casualties but, taking everything into account, they had not so far been more than could have been expected. We had taken all our objectives and judging from appearances had advanced too far and inflicted too heavy casualties upon the enemy to make possible any counterattack. We were quite fatigued ourselves as we had come a long way and had several hours of continual excitement and strain. Our Company was quite well reorganised and as well consolidated as could be possible in the open ground which we occupied.

We were perhaps two hours in our consolidated position before the unusual and unexpected began to occur. I have no certain knowledge of what time it was as we took no stock of time just then, but it must have been about noon when, from our post, we noticed some movement out in front. I have spoken of the rise of ground just in front which made it impossible to see farther than 100 yards or little more. Our close observation assured us that there was a number of Huns out there and their movements were very suspicious. Being in an advanced position we were the only post to notice what was happening. It was necessary to warn the others, I considered, so leaving Brown in charge, I ran back. l was greeted with a shower of machine-gun bullets but they evidently came from a distance as they were very ill-directed. I could not find Sergeant Malcolm who was then in charge of our platoon but told Sergeant ___ that l thought Fritz was going to attempt something and he assured me that he would let our company officers know. I found out later that they were never informed. Satisfied with this, l ran back to my post. For some time no further movement was noticed and we began to think we had been deceived but we could afford no neglect and kept a strong lookout. We had everything in readiness in case of any attack.

While Kentner has a breather on Mount Dury, the evacuation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin begins. We pick up Clémence’s story:

September 2nd (September con’t)

All of a sudden twenty cars appear. In a quarter hour they are overflowing with luggage. Weak women find superhuman strength to load chests when normally they couldn’t have, all the while shells falling right and left, forward and backwards.  English planes are there flying low, as low as the German ones normally are. We try to send two cars to get the old people and the sick at the Faubourg[9], but alas, they are requisitioned and loaded. The drivers can’t wait to load-up and escape as quickly as possible. We are going here and there without thinking that death is hanging over us.

Our chests and bags packed, we pick up what is left of the suit cases that are waiting to go, wicker baskets with provisions and our chickens and rabbits in hand drawn carts. Here we go pulling our vehicles hurrying to catch up to the column that already left the village. What time is it? We have no idea. We leave without a tear or without a look of good bye to the things we left behind in that dear house.

We have only one thing on our mind now: escape the hell we find ourselves in. Will we make it? We need to travel about six or seven kilometers to be out of danger. The streets are empty; we cross only soldiers on the main street. Before I reach the outskirts of the village I must let go of a child’s wagon I was pulling; impossible do continue. We load it onto a larger cart and I will help to push it. However, the road is bad and things tumble off the overloaded vehicle. We must stop to put things in order. The officer who is waiting for us to close the column is getting impatient, his large cutlass reflects in our eyes: ‘We must immediately leave the village’. ‘Yes, yes, we are leaving’ we reply without getting too emotional.

A hundred metres farther a wheel brakes on another little cart pulled by Suzanne[10]; We abandon it and put its contents in the only cart we have left. We are now all around this cart and pushing it along is very strenuous on a dirt road covered with a thick layer of dust. The columns of soldiers seem endless on this road we must take to avoid the gravel where the shells rain down at any moment. Happily, a worker, a friend of ours comes to give us a hand with his robust arms. Without him we would have abandoned a large part of our load, as by times, our combined efforts are barely adequate to pull our cart on the difficult trek ahead. Constantly we must move to the shoulder as we cross paths with many troops.

Not all the residents evacuate. Monsieur Ernest Léchevin led a group of forty-three souls who opted to stay put. He left us his view of the events in a rare 1919 anthology of true stories entitled: The North of France under the German Yoke:

Sunday September 1st the Boche came to tell us that we had to quit the country. But nobody could take any baggage. We were told to expect six cars only and they would be available to the old and sick. About 250 accepted the invitation and they quit the village during the night of September 1st-2nd.

A commander tells the forty-three staying behind: ‘You are crazy; you’ll find death if you don’t go!’ ‘Death be damned’ we replied and we all found refuge in the cellar of my farm which was once an abbey, which is solidly built.

With us were two Boche who were hiding to become prisoners. They made us laugh because they were impatient: ‘English not coming, English not coming!’ Tuesday morning, 3 September, frightened by all that was going on, they rejoined their regiment.

Although it’s doubtful the Abbey was ever really an Abbey, the building was impressive with solid vaulted cellar.  Not all were in the Abbey however. Two other Écourtois, a Monsieur Bury and his daughter, chose to remain in their home on the Rue du Préhaut.

Clémence Leroy continues:

Finally, we arrive in Palluel. All of a sudden a squadron of airplanes appear above us; instinctively we let go of the cart and take refuge in an abandoned dilapidated house, a few feet away. The planes have left without shooting; but we neverthesess resign ourselves to abandon some of our provisions. Three times the damned cart breaks and every time we must leave something behind. Finally, at the third time some soldiers, after fixing them, give us two carts that were abandoned on the sidewalk by other poor retches who preceded us on this calvary. The Germans we cross for the most part look upon us with pity; but we also see that our exodus amuses. At Arleux we see one with an elaborate headdress. Another silly one is about in the sun with an umbrella, worn out so that the wire is apparent. In our moment of suffering and pain, among pitiful scenes we find insensitive beings who are disrespectful.

On the side of the road there are horse carcasses. The villages of Palluel and Arleux exude sadness and abandon. There are new roads: The villages are barely recognizable. We ourselves are lamentable to see: A large pot of jam tipped over in our cart and dripped onto our clothes without us noticing and dust got stuck in the mess; our hands are as black as coal miner’s. We run to clean them at a spigot that soldiers have shown us and then we continue our strenuous trip. Some distance away, the column halts, always on the shoulder amidst an incomparable din: Troops, more troops, cavalrymen, infantry, cyclists, cars and trucks; Orders given by hoarse voices, yells, whines, all of which is deafening.

We are told we are waiting for three cars to load the baggage of those who so far carried them by hand. We think the difficult walk might be over. We see coming after us four people, old neighbours, hauling their fortune in all kinds of vehicles. Seeing them makes us forget our own fatigue. Dripping with sweat, covered in dust and lamentable they join us and with the courage of a lion they plop their packages on top of ours, onto the three German cars that have just arrived. An old man from Saudemont and his daughter arrived a few minutes before us, harassed, and toting all that was left of their belongings was a difficult sight to see.

Finally, with the baggage in place, the most exhausted climb on top of the loaded cars and the column moves on. All of a sudden, a whistling sound is heard and a shell explodes on the Arleux train station. We travel towards the shell. Happily, we arrive at the crossroads that takes us to the station but we pass it by and head directly to Aniche. Some distance away from the station we see some of our own, who walked here during the day, who are waiting for a train to Aniche. We exchange a few words as we pass. We don’t go more than one hundred metres when a second shell falls on the station, then a third, a fourth. A little later, we are rejoined by some of our frightened compatriots who had stayed behind. The night is black. We stop in an open field. The horses[11] forage and the drivers settle in a neighboring field. (In this country we come across cultivated fields.) We shiver of cold perched on our cars. We go through many villages where the locals are up. They engage us; ‘where are you from, where are you going?’ Oh its dismal to hear these anxious voices who interrogate us. They are like fleeting shadows.

The rest abruptly over, Kentner and his comrades picked up their rifles once again. They were in for a hot time as the Germans counter attacked the 46th exposed position. There was much fighting to do before the end of the day. Kentner was in front of a bush. Kentner recounts the episode:

Most of us were sitting down munching some of our rations when Brown, who was on lookout, in an excited voice said he saw a number of Fritz running forward. We grabbed our rifles on an instant and looked in the direction he intimated. Most assuredly, there was quite a number of them trying to work around the slight valley on our right. We began firing upon them with our rifles but as they ran only a short distance at a time and in a stooped position we were not able to inflict much damage. They opened fire with their machine guns and swept the ground about us and to our right with a terrific fire. We wondered what had occurred to our machine-gun post on our right as evidently the Huns must have been quite close to us. Presently we saw a couple of our men run madly for the bush. One was struck in the leg and disappeared in a shell hole reappearing in a moment, less his equipment, and reaching the bush without further damage. The wood itself was by no means a safe place as it was now the object of heavy fire. It was quite evident that our machine-gun post had been rushed and was now in enemy hands. To our rear our grenade section was well on the alert but incapable of assistance as yet, as they could not see the enemy. Looking to our right we were dismayed to find that our right machine-gun post as well as the posts occupied by No. 14 Platoon, which a short time before had been in plain view, had disappeared. An attack was also in progress on our left and they had withdrawn to a better position to resist without advising us. We were apparently entirely alone with only one grenade section in view and no way of escaping save over the few hundred yards of open ground to our rear, already swept by a storm of machine-gun bullets. l decided at once to find out, if possible, where the rest of the Company had gone and sent Reid back to inquire. He reached the wood in safety but minutes passed without him returning. Our position was becoming more precarious. Our rifle fire was taking effect and compelling the enemy to keep low but he was steadily working around on our right, taking advantage of the low ground. It appeared desperate to stay longer where we were so I decided to get my section, which comprised only five or six men, back to the edge of the wood where we would at least have some chance of escaping. Reid had not returned and it appeared as though we had been left entirely to look after ourselves as we could not yet see the remainder of our Company.  

There was a large shell hole close by the grenade section and this we decided to occupy. I sent my men back two at a time keeping Brown to accompany myself at the last. Brown and I had been through a good bit together but this was the hottest corner yet. As each of our party dashed across the open ground to our rear, the Hun machine guns, which were ever approaching, spurted a perfect rain of bullets which cut the grass and ploughed up the ground but somehow missed the boys. When it came to our turn, the machine gunners were very active and on the lookout for us. Two or three times we crouched on the side of our shell hole and rise for the dash but each time the nasty swish of the bullets put us back again. There was no thought of anything now but the one great desire to reach that wood in safety where we might have a chance of escaping death. We looked at each other and I suppose both our faces betrayed our fear but to stay here was certain death or the hapless alternative of a prisoner's fate and we were compelled to take the risk.

We crouched low and Brown said, "We’ll have to go" and showed himself above the shell hole. Another burst of fire brought him back. I told him we could wait no longer but to wait for just a moment and go when I gave the word. We bent low, very low, and when the machine gun had ceased for just a moment and we were ready for the spring I muttered "NOW." And we were up and over the side of the shell hole in an instant and dashing across the open ground to safety. Machine-gun bullets swished about us but failed to find a mark and in a few moments we breathed free once more and even laughed as we stumbled into the shell hole beside our comrades. Here, we were alongside our grenade section and, combined, we kept up a constant fire on the attacking troops. Reid had not yet returned so I sent Sawtell (?) around to find some information regarding the rest of the Company. Moments passed and he did not return and we began to think the Company was busily engaged with the attack on the left. In our present position, we had yet some distance to cover to reach the wood. Fritz was working around us and would soon reach the wood and attack us from the rear. It became certain that our machine-gun post had been completely destroyed.

Alone, cut off from communication with the remainder of our men and with only eight or nine of ourselves to resist a great many more of the enemy who had many machine guns and we had only our rifles, and with no knowledge of what was happening on our left, we finally decided to retire to the wood where we could fall back, if necessary, upon our supports. I sent my section back first, waiting myself until the grenade section had all reached the shelter of the wood, two of these were wounded (just nice blighties in legs and arms) on their way back. In my dash back I had one bullet cut my puttee. Fritz reached the wood about the same time as ourselves, farther to our right. In front, a terrific machine-gun fire was sweeping the bush and we took what shelter we could find behind the trees. Just after reaching the wood, Brown was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in the hand and dropping his equipment went to the rear. Here we found Lance Corporal Saunders who had been in charge of the machine gun on our right. He had lost his gun and only one man besides himself had got safely away.

We could not remain long where we were and so by intervals retired. A terrific machine-gun fire was sweeping the whole area and more of our men were hit on the way back. We finally reached our support position occupied by B Company just about the same time as the remainder of our Company who had also been driven in on the left. Here, with the assistance of B Company, we made preparations to resist any attempt of the enemy to advance further but his object was evidently to secure the high ground which we had occupied in front.

We had suffered a great many casualties, among them quite a number of killed. The bodies of some of our men lay out in front. We picked up what wounded ones we had any chance of reaching. Alexander and myself were going to attempt to rescue Sergeant Cutchby (Crutchby'?) who lay just in front of an enemy post, severely wounded. lt was our object to discard our rifles and equipment and venture out with a white flag. Our officers refused to let us go. No doubt it was a lucky thing they did as Fritz very likely would have ignored the white flag. Sergeant Malcolm was also seriously wounded but had been carried out.

The trench we now occupied was very shallow and Fritz was keeping a continuous shelling which harassed us greatly and caused an increase in our casualties. We had to be very careful of exposing ourselves as his machine guns were ever on the watch for us and he had brought up a large number of these to man the position which we had been driven from.

We reorganized our depleted company as well as possible and found our losses for the whole day had been very severe. My own platoon had suffered the heaviest. ln addition to the few casualties we had suffered in the early morning, we had had one machine-gun section eliminated with the exception of two men, and as we had been in the most exposed position during our retirement had suffered the heaviest. l was the senior remaining NCO in the platoon and in completing a muster of my men found less than half the number we had begun the day’s operations with. Our whole company had been decreased by nearly fifty percent.

We had already been through quite enough to fatigue and dishearten the bravest of men. Imagine our feelings, then, when we received word from Battalion Heaquarters that our position must be retaken at any cost and retaken at once. The only cheering bit of news attached to this was information to the effect that the 44th Battalion would relieve us almost immediately, carrying the attack farther on.

Our whole Company perhaps mustered 50 men. We had to attack a position held by many more than our own numbers and defended by several machine guns firing from cover. Our attack must be a frontal one and we had to cover a few hundred yards of open ground. Either of our flanks was exposed and would be subject to enfilade fire. Not one of our guns was firing. They were out of range and were probably at that time busy moving forward. The enemy guns were keeping up a constant and very accurate fire. The situation appeared hopeless. It seemed like certain death to cross that piece of open ground in the face of such terrific odds. But our orders were explicit and must be obeyed. To assist us we were given 15 or 20 men from B Company. We made our plans. One party was to work up as close as possible through the bush. When they were ready Mr. Goulding was to give the signal, three blasts of a whistle, and we were to go. I was in command of a section on the left.

Everyone made sure that rifles and machine guns were in perfect working order and ready for use. Bayonets were securely fixed. l determined to go as lightly as possible so left my greatcoat behind. Even as we waited for the great moment to arrive and looked anxiously toward the positions we were to seize, we observed the Hun bringing forward yet another machine gun. Everyone realized that the situation was a desperate one and that we were about to face the fiercest moment of our lives. I was personally convinced that we would never succeed in reaching and capturing the position but that we would go as far as desperate men dared to go, until all, or almost all, had been hit. But l said to myself that a few, no doubt, would escape somehow and reminding myself that I had always been lucky, thought my extremely good fortune would see me safe once more. With rifles grasped firmly in our hands and with faces set with determination and eyes only gazing on one thing, what was happening in front, we awaited the signal. Finally it came, one, two, three blasts of the whistle. There was a short pause after the third blast and then Corporal McVeety, who was close by me, was the first to shout, 'Come on boys' and leap over the top. In an instant we were all over, not one man lingering behind, and racing forward, yelling and screeching and cursing as wildly as men ever did. I recall turning about once and yelling to the men behind me to spread out. But there was no giving orders or obeying them here. Every man was bent on reaching the enemy and getting at death grips with him. One element we had in our favour, that was surprise. The sight of us, chasing across that open ground at top speed, with bayonets fixed and our weird, wild, almost insane cries, disheartened Fritz. On our first appearance his front posts ran back to their machine guns. But here they stayed.

We had gone but a few paces when the whole ground was swept with a perfect hail of bullets and men began to drop. Corporal McVeety[12]was amongst the first killed. But nothing but steel could stop us now and the fact that others dropped beside us only increased our speed and made us more terrible. Never have I faced such a terrific storm of machine-gun fire. They ploughed up the dust about us and made weird singing sounds through the air. They were brave men, some of these machine gunners. I think l shall ever carry with me a picture of one of them lying behind his machine gun, with his steel helmet down over his face and his finger on the trigger, dealing death amongst our boys. He stayed with his gun until we were on top of him and Lance Corporal Stirling (?) put his bayonet through his throat. We piled into his first line of posts and those who had not ran back remained there forever. One of our machine guns did beautiful work, cutting down a whole squad of them as they tried to run away. That is an incident I shall ever carry about with me, a mental picture I shall never lose. We rested but a few short moments in the first line of shell holes and were up again and racing forward. Our determined attack had now completely broken the enemy’s nerves. They began to run but our merciless bullets cut them down. We were bent only on their destruction and had no thought of mercy. Some of them threw down their rifles and rushed towards us, trembling with fear, with their hands held over their heads and fairly weeping for mercy. In all, we took perhaps a dozen prisoners. They were ordered to go to the rear which they at once rushed to do keeping their hands over their heads all the way. Only a very few escaped to their own lines. The ground about the posts was fairly strewn with their dead bodies with numbers of seriously wounded lying about them.

Having completed our reoccupation of the entire position we at once consolidated. I had to oversee the machine-gun posts which were established on our left flank and overlooking the valley in front of us. Our next task was to hurry to the rear our wounded who were too serious to walk. These were but few. Our casualties had been tremendous in proportion to the men engaged but the rifle and machine-gun fire of the enemy had been terribly accurate and most of our casualties were killed. It was an awesome sight to look about the bit of ground where we had attacked. It was strewn with khaki and grey-clad bodies.

In my own posts, where Fritz had had his machine guns, the dead Germans lay in a heap with three or four wounded close by.

For his part in the German counter-attack George Kentner was awarded the Military Medal. His citation reads as follows:

At Dury – September 2nd 1918. For conspicuous gallantry and initiative during an enemy counter-attack: When his platoon officer and all senior N.C.O.s of his platoon had become casualties he showed great initiative in assuming command and with the greatest dash and fearlessness he led his platoon forward in a counter charge against the attacking hun. He personally killed two of the enemy and directed the Platoon in consolidation. His brilliant leadership and dash were an inspiration to all and undoubtedly was accountable for the immediate withdrawal of the enemy.

Kentner spent the rest of the day and evening in his advanced position. He recalled:

Enemy artillery continued to bother us all afternoon and to cause us an occasional casualty. Late in the afternoon, from our post, we noticed a long line of German infantry advancing in extended order in front of the lmperials on our left. We were convinced that this was the beginning of another counterattack hut it did not develop. Movement in front of our own posts in the late evening caused us to be particularly watchful but nothing further developed.

In the evening our sadly depleted forces were augmented by those of our Company who had been left out of the Line.

The evening wore away and darkness found us still in our positions with no apparent signs of relief. All round us lay the cold, quiet bodies of our dead comrades mingled with the fallen Huns. The wounded Fritz lay still where they had fallen. There were too few of us and our tasks were already too large for us to care for them. Their pleading groans when we approached them had little effect upon hearts that had been filled with bitter hatred by the happenings of a tragic day. Night fell upon a quiet battlefield. The stillness was broken only occasionally by the burst of a shell, the rattle of machine-gun fire or the pop of a flare rising from posts which Fritz had stationed close up under the cover of night. We were utterly fatigued, had little to eat or drink. I remember sharing my last two chocolate bars with Lowry. That was the best chocolate, we agreed, that we had ever tasted. It was hard to keep awake and we dozed off occasionally when not on duty. Of course, some were continually on the lookout, peering out into the darkness in front.

While Kentner was looking out front into the darkness, in Aniche Clémence Leroy was looking back towards Dury. She could still hear the sound of battle:

Tuesday 3rd (September)

Its 12:30 AM (September 3) when Aniche seems to sleep, in the darkness. Our eyes are heavy. In the distance a large artillery piece is still dropping large shells and the sound of battle resonates on the horizon. We wanted to go farther, to be away, away from the war, but for us the time has not come.

Our baggage is unloaded and pilled one on top of the other in two large cafés, where they almost reach the ceiling. A glass of beer, a cup of coffee, it’s all we can find in this establishment and again there isn’t enough for everybody. We sit on what there are of seats, we lean over the tables, we climb on the baggage and we try to sleep.


[1] Haucourt is a village on te Arras-Cambrai Road immediately East of the large village of Vis-en-Artois.
[2] Kentner had reason to be impressed by the barrage: Between August 26th and 2nd September, 1918, the Canadian Corps fired 847,990 shells of all calibre, with a daily average of 100,000. This statistic equals that of the battle of Verdun. However, the number of shells at Verdun were spread over a wider front. Farmers from the Vis-en-Artois area harvest hundreds of unexploded shells every year, to this day. The Great War was very much an industrial war.
[3]Very few allied prisoners were taken by the Germans during both The Battle of the Scarpe and Drocourt-Quéant Line. I extracted a total of twenty-six from Ted Wigney’s reference book Guests of the Kaiser. There might have been a few British prisoners, mostly from the 4th (British) Division as well. Many would have been wounded. Of these, the two that I think most likely passed through Écourt-Saint-Quentin on September 2nd, were Frank Gustine Ciofane, likely captured during the fighting in the vicinity of Vis-en-Artois on September 1st, and Harry Whyte who was likely captured at Dury on September 2nd. Both men were of the 47th Battalion, 4th Canadian Division.
[4] It seems the Révillon house was the centre of activity.
[5] The hill was known as Mont Dury.
[6] Dr. Fred Banting, the future Nobel-Lauriat, would set up and aid station in the chalk pit on September 2nd.
[7] Soldiers of the 4th (British) Divison operating on the left.
[8] Records show that eight Vickers machineguns of the 4th Battalion Canadian Machinegun Corps was at the front with the 46h Battalion.
[9] The Faubourg (i.e. the Suburb) was a hamlet consisting of a few houses on the edge of Écourt-Saint-Quentin where weavers and bleachers operated.
[10] Suzanne Révillion, daugther of Monsieur Révillion and niece of Clémence Leroy.
[11] The cars Clémence refers to were likely horse-drawn wagons.
[12] I found no McVeety (or MacVeety for that matter) amongst the lists of the dead. Maybe he was wounded badly and survived?
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