A Memoir of the Final Advance 1918 by Sergeant W G Sweet, 2nd Monmouthshire edited by Barry Johnson
(This article first appeared in Stand To! pp13-16 No.30 Winter 1990)
Sergeant W G Sweet
The Monmouthshire Regiment of the Territorial Force, sent all three of its first line battalions to the 28th Division in France in 1914-15. The 1st Bn, raised in Newport, and the 3rd Bn, from the Abergavenny area, eventually joined the 49th Division, while the 2nd (Pontypool) Bn was assigned to the 4th and then the 29th Division, in which it served as pioneer battalion from May 1916 until the end of the war. It had been one of the first Territorial battalions in the front line, having entered the trenches on 21 November 1914 and subsequently played a part in almost every major action on the British sector of the Western Front. Sgt Sweet, from Usk, joined the battalion in 1912 and served in it throughout the war.
The 1st and 3rd Bns suffered particularly severe casualties in the Second Battle of Ypres, most of the losses being on 9 May 1915. As the 2nd Bn was also down to half its strength, the three battalions were amalgamated. On 23 July the 2nd Bn regained its own identity, and in April 1916, it was designated a pioneer battalion. With many ex-miners in its ranks, like the other Monmouth battalions, it was well suited to the task of carrying out support work at the front, and under fire, digging trenches, wiring, mining, keeping roads serviceable, and so on. While not involved in initial assaults, pioneers followed behind to consolidate newly-won positions, and, when their division was withdrawn for rest, they would often be kept hard at work just behind the front, and still under fire.
This memoir was written up in 1921 from notes Sergeant Sweet made at the time. It begins in August 1918. On the 10th, the 2nd Mons were in L'Floffand, on the north-eastern outskirts of Hazebrouck, where they spent a week sending parties to work on communication trenches in the Merris sector, 8km to the east. On 18 August, while Sgt Sweet was on leave, 87 Bde attacked Outtersteene Ridge, with Meteren on the left of their front. The battalion spent the next twelve days on work such as improving and wiring trenches to consolidate the ground gained, while its HQ was at Pradelles, on the Hazebrouck to Bailleul Road. It was during this period that Sgt Sweet rejoined the battalion.
My leave soon came to an end and we arrived back at Calais about midnight. There we were herded into a football field with lots of lookout stands on stilts. We were sorted out into regiments by men calling from the stands: '5th Division this way.' In the far corner I could hear our division being called for: '29th Division this way.' It was fairly dark and when we got to the stand we were asked what mob we belonged to. I told him 2nd Monmouths.
'All right,' he said, 'that is your truck', and he directed me to a lorry and said, 'Get in.' I did so and must have fallen asleep as it was well into the morning before I woke up. We did not know where we were but signs of war soon appeared so we knew we were getting near the line.
Eventually the driver stopped and asked me to get out at a crossroads over a reen, and said, 'Your unit is somewhere about here, not far away, so if I were you I would wait here and look out for some of your transport that is bound to pass that way.'
So I waited and sat on the bridge looking at all the passers-by and transport, and looking at some people making camp about 300 yards away in a nice green field. It was a warm day and I could have gone to sleep again. However, some of our GS wagons came along and I asked where the battalion was, and they pointed to the field where I had seen men making camp. I jumped on a wagon and they had to go some way before being able to cross the reen into the field. When we got in the field there was a nice smell of crushed clover which reminded me of the Flower Show at home.
At the first dump of boxes I came to was our Sergeant Quartermaster 'Old Fawkner', who grinned at me and asked, 'What have you come back for?' The answer was, 'I can assure you it is not from choice!'
He offered me a mug of tea as he had half a dixie full by him (as should be with a good QMS), so I sat down on a box and said to him, at the same time pointing with the mug at the bridge, 'Just fancy, I have . . .', then I stopped, as a huge black mushroom formed around the bridge and it shot up into the air with a roar. Next, we were all dodging bricks, lumps of stone and earth coming down. The wagons with the horses had been left standing; the latter panicked, raced around the field and bumped into each other. Two wagons were jammed together but the drivers soon caught the horses and calmed them down.
The bridge, crossroads and two cottages went up in that lot; I had only left a few minutes before. However, it was all forgotten in a short time, and I asked the inevitable question of anyone in charge of men who had returned from leave, 'How are the boys?' 'Oh, fairly cushy—got off lightly.' My platoon had only a few wounded, and hearing this I felt happy coming back.
The company was only about two miles away, and we went up on the truck with the rations. Our company were fairly comfortable in a captured gun site where their canvas huts and other useful things had been left. The sergeants' mess was in a shed with a corrugated iron roof, and after we had had tea (at which I produced a cucumber from home, to the delight of the others), the talk was, 'How long will we be here?' About a week or ten days was predicted, so old Sergeant Whits thought we ought to have a cooking stove. Someone had seen a good one in a cottage half a mile away. It was decided to get it, and six of us carried it over reens, barbed wire, etc, and eventually got it home. Old Whits took on the job of erecting it, and making a stove pipe of some corrugated iron. We others turned in and slept on the floor.
Next morning the stove was all in place and a fire lit in it. Breakfast time, and old Sergeant Whits was sat in front frying some bacon and bread, looking very pleased with himself, having spent most of the night working on it. He had had a good wash, and had a silk handkerchief tied around his neck with a bow at the side—all pussy like.
Someone came and leaned against the door post blocking the light. Old Sergeant Whits turned and saw the Orderly Sergeant grinning at him like a Cheshire cat.
'What! Are we moving on?' said Whits.
'Yes,' said the Orderly Sergeant, 'we have to be ready to move off in one hour's time.'
At this old Whits flew into a rage and said, 'Gor strike me ruddy well pink!' With that he bashed at the stove with the frying pan until the handle came off, then he picked up the hammer and finished it off completely smashed up. We all laughed but sympathised with him a bit after all his hard work. We moved off and marched to place near Pont [de] Nieppe on the main road, and settled in some farm buildings on the right of the road.
In September, A Coy bridged Stil Beque stream at Steenwercke, about 4km from Pont de Nieppe, which was on the NW outskirts of Armentieres.
The sergeants made themselves comfortable in a sunken dairy which had been occupied by German signallers who had just cut the wires and had taken their phones away leaving the wires hanging. We had made ourselves comfortable when Captain Comley came to see how we were fixed up, but when he saw the hanging wires all around the cellar he nearly had a fit!
'Out you go, all of you at once, and bed down with your men. I can't afford to risk losing all my sergeants in one big bang. Pull the right wire and up you all go!' He was afraid of a booby trap and would not take any risk.
Battle of Ypres. Engineers of 2nd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment, Pioneers of the 29th Division, and trench mortar battery personnel of the 29th Division repairing a plank road to the left of Hooge, building inside of mine crater to make wheeled traffic possible, 1 October 1918. © IWM (Q 11774)
Richard Basil Comley, from Bourton on the Water, Glos, had been commissioned as a 2/Lt on 29 August 1914. In April 1915 he had been awarded the MC while in the Le Bizet sector, and badly wounded by a rifle grenade. He later won the bar to his MC in June 1917, in the Ypres salient.
We were as usual pushed right up forward and had to fill the shell craters in the road with rubble. We filled the wagons by drawing them up close to a tottering wall and pushing them over. I'm afraid some of the large stones went right through the bottom, and the wagons went back to the transport lines in ribbons. What a row there was, but we told them that as we had to fill them under shell fire they had better come and help. The wheelwright who had to work all night to repair the wagons is still alive and I sometimes see him, but even now he has not forgiven me for smashing up his wagons. We did ease things by covering the wagon bed with old rafters; it did at least stop the stone from going right through.
On 5 September, the 2nd Mons were at La Creche, 4km SE of Bailleul, the scene of the most severe fighting of the war for the battalion, on 12 April 1918, during the Battle of the Lys. On the 11th, 29 Div was relieved, and the 2nd Mons returned to Hazebrouck for training and refitting, before going north to a road camp at St Jan ter Biezen, 4km W of Poperinghe, on 16 September. B Coy moved into Ypres on 20 September, and the rest of the Division went into the line the next day, in the sector between Zillebeke Lake and the Menin Road, while the rest of the 2nd Mons camped at Brandhoek, between Poperinghe and Ypres. On 28 September, the attack began, with the division advancing five miles and capturing Gheluvelt, in spite of rain which made the going very difficult. The 2nd Mons were engaged in repairing roads.
After a few days we were marched off, collected in lorries and taken to Ypres where we made ourselves comfortable in cellars near the old Asylum. We were sent there to help clear the salient.
The evening before the attack, a light railway brought up some Labour Corps (oldish men). They came too early and the Germans saw them and sent over some shells. One man came tottering over to us but was sent back. He turned and could hardly walk, until a shell landed just behind him—he cleared a 12 ft shell hole and was gone like a shot.
Half our company cleared the barricades and the posts set up. The Captain had a chart: Pull out this one and this one—don't touch that one' (that one was connected to a mine). This generally cleared the way for the transport and guns.
The half company (with my platoon) had to go out that night and when we were ready to move off about dusk, Captain Comley came up to me and said, 'Don't forget you are the only experienced NCO out tonight. The two officers only came up last night, and the sergeant of the other platoon is new, so I rely on you to see that everything is all right.
That left me with a free hand if anything happened. We sergeants did not altogether like the extra responsibility that was put on us, and one night previously when going up the line the same thing happened to a fellow sergeant, who said to the Captain, 'Look sir! If Mister So and So has the rank and gets the pay, he should take the responsibility— not me.'
Captain Comley replied, 'I know, I would alter it if I could, but I can't; the whole crux of the matter is that men's lives are at stake and it is only you who has the necessary experience to see that I am not badly let down.'
The road out of the Menin Gate was being heavily shelled as we moved off, but this ceased as we approached. They were tipping broken wagons off the road and picking up the dead and wounded. The Germans had shelled Hell Fire Corner all day, making a hold-up of traffic through Ypres, which, when it was lit up by the evening sun, became a good target for the gunners.
We got through all right, and went on to near Zonnebeke and up the Menin Road, and then off left to near Glencourse Wood, where we had to repair a road to enable our people to get guns up in the morning. We must have finished up well in front, as on the other side of the Menin Road (some way behind us) we could see our people with flame throwers burning some Jerries out of pill boxes.
Later in the night we could hear traffic coming down the Menin Road to nearly opposite us, stop and then scuffle in'the road as they turned around, slight pause and then off up again, which told us that the Germans were pulling out. And last of all, we heard coming down the road the tap, tap, of a very smart trotting horse, probably an officers' mess gig with rubbered wheels. Something happened, they turned around opposite us and were quickly gone. I would have liked to pat that little horse that night. Two good corporals were posted in front to keep a good lookout and prowl about, but no one was looking for trouble, so we had a quiet night —just a few shells, nothing to worry about.
Just before daybreak we had the order to pack up and return. The other sergeant was told to lead them on and not to stop for anything, and that I would take up the rear. It was bright moonlight, and we could see shells and bombs falling on Ypres. Nearing the Menin Gate we came to Hell Fire Corner, and I was amazed to see a crowd of men. Coming closer I found that they were our lads with the new officers collecting them up. Of all the places to stop! I'm afraid I exploded and had the men moved quickly: 'Lead on in front and step on it!' I then took the lead guiding them through Ypres, which I knew well, and steered them away from the areas being shelled and bombed, and got them back to the cellars where the Captain was waiting.
He came up to me and asked, 'How did you get on, Sergeant?'
'They are all in, sir', was my reply.
'What! Do you mean NO casualties?'
With a deep sigh of relief he said, 'Thank God', and walked away. He did not know that the boys had been gathered up at Hell Fire Corner or he would have had a fit. The Germans must have been moving their guns back.
Next day we moved up to some German pill boxes and had to repair roads and other jobs. Then up to Sanctuary Wood in other pill boxes. In the evening, a corporal and a man from A Company came looking for me. They had dug up a very strange rifle, and wanted me to identify it as no one seemed to be able to tell what it was. I had no difficulty in naming it as soon as it was in my hands—it was a Canadian Ross rifle, and I proved it by scraping the mud off the top of the breech where was engraved 'Ross Rifle Co. Ontario, Canada'. It was reputed to be the most accurate rifle made for general service but the Canadian lads found the Short Lee Enfield rifle lighter and more handy, so they discarded theirs and used ours. Our men had evidently been digging in the old 1915 battlefield, where the Canadians caught the first lot of gas near Zonnebeke.
On 2 October, the division had reached the outskirts of Gheluwe, and on the 4th had gone out of the line to rest, while the 2nd Mon continued their work along the Menin Road. On 14 October, the division attacked at Ledeghem, in the Battle of Courtrai. A and B Coys of the 2nd Mon each supplied a platoon to lay footbridges over Heulebeck stream.
We soon moved again to Ledeghem, which was flattened, and looked for billets in cellars. The game was to follow up the street and look for what looked like a top step which gave the clue for a cellar which, when found, we soon cleared out. Here our lad who looked after the sergeants was washing our mugs and asked for mine, but as I had already cleaned it he carried on with the others and put them on the top step to dry. He had only turned his back for about a minute and on his return found all six mugs gone! He shouted and we all ran up and around in circles. No one was in sight, and they did not find their mugs—they just vanished into thin air. Old Sergeant Whits said, 'If only I could get my hooks on the bloke who had them, he wouldn't take another lot.'
During this time we were mainly working on roads and as everyone was on the move, we had to rely on ourselves, so we collected our drinking water from a large shell hole, boiled it and made good tea. One evening we were on a scrounging trip and passed our water supply. It was a fine calm evening and we could see the bottom of the pond, and in it the body of a Scotch soldier. 'Look!' said someone, 'that is where we have been getting our water.' The reply was, 'Well, well, I thought it was a good cup of tea.' Our dixie was a two gallon petrol tin with half of the lid cut off, so I expect the taste of petrol helped a little.
From Ledeghem we moved up to the outskirts of Lille at La Madeleine, and were billeted in an asylum where we had mattresses and cots, and at the top of the place were three padded cells for which our police tried to find occupants, but no one had the chance to run wild. The main road bridge at La Madeleine was blown up at both ends and dropped neatly across the lines, so we had to help the Royal Engineers to cut it up, clear the sections and rubble, then relay the lines getting at least one part working. The steel rails were beautifully made and weighed 60lbs per foot, so we had some heavy handling to do. It took as many many hands to lift it as could crowd on.
Whilst there, three of us had quite a sharp lesson. The evening we arrived, after settling in the men, Sergeant Whits, Smith and myself went out to have a look at Lille. Along the railway, and then on the canal footpath we got into the industrial area. Rows and rows of houses, just like a town in Lancashire. We saw only an occasional person, and some distance ahead we saw troops pass across the top of a road in formation, which, as they had soft caps, we took to be Portuguese, knowing that they were somewhere in the area. A little farther on, a woman spoke to us in English. She was Irish, married to a Frenchman, and asked us where we were going.
'Only into the town, to have a look around,' we said.
Her reply was, 'Go back, the Germans are not yet gone—didn't you see them march across the top of the road a few minutes ago?'
'Good gracious! Were they Germans?'
'Yes,' she said, and we took her advice and quickly made our way back. If we had been a couple of minutes earlier we would have walked into them, and probably have been shot on the spot.
The last Germans left Lille at 5 am on 17 October. Three days later, the crossing of the River Lys took place, with the battalion laying pontoon bridges and clearing the approaches to them.
From La Madeleine we were moving up again, and found ourselves near Courtrai. We were billeted in a brickworks where we had a few bombs most nights. One day we had to go up in the town to help the RES build a pontoon bridge with the enemy on the other side of the canal. Captain Comley told me that it was likely to be a sticky job, and he was with us that morning, leading the company. Not far from the site, we were going along a street taking as much cover as possible against the walls, when the Captain said to me, 'Halt the men here, Sergeant, and we will go along and see what all the firing is about.'
Going up the street, we both looked around the corner and saw the RE wagons with the pontoons all smashed up and smouldering. The Germans had seen them coming and smashed them up at near point blank range.
'Oh,' said the Captain, 'It looks as if our job this morning is off.' So we returned to camp, and the job was done two nights later.
The Germans were shelling the town and Hallin, the tile-making part. As the civilians were all there, they started streaming out. We were on patrol and saw the people coming over an open space, when an enemy plane swooped down and started machine gunning. A tall woman with two little boys about eight years old, gathered the boys to her and bent over them, sheltering them with her body. I am glad to say none of them were hit. We all shouted out to her, 'Bravo, Madame!' It was a mix'up, with the civilians in cellars, the enemy had one half of the town and we the other. Right up in front we were handed bottles of wine out of the cellars. This lasted for about a week, and the enemy were again on the retreat and we followed up.
After this, the Battle of Courtrai, 29 Div were withdrawn for rest on 24 October. Tourcoing had been liberated on 18 October, and by the 24th was some 15km behind the front, which was along the River Scheldt.
On 5 November we marched into Tourcoing and we billeted in the Rue de Roubaix. It was the fourth anniversary of the battalion coming to France (5 Nov 1914). Sailing from Southampton we had landed at Le Havre four long years ago.
The sergeants set themselves up in a cafe, 'Le Cheval Blanc', just below the railway bridge where the main line crosses the road—our people were just in time to stop it being blown up. We were entertained by the daughter of the landlord, and had a nice evening and good beds. She told us that the people were crying and saying the Germans will never go. Out in the streets the people were rounding up the women who had been friendly with the Germans, sitting them on chairs in the middle of hostile groups and cutting off their hair. One man was swinging a woman around by her hair, but our boys stopped that. Marching out next day, the people were giving us loaves of bread, like round paving stones—these were soon cut up and put in our haversacks. We were ordered not to accept them, but as they insisted we thought it a pity to disappoint them.
The enemy stuck on a part of the Scheldt and we moved up for a big attack to be on 14 November. Our job was to get into the water and fix footbridges of planks on floats made of four feet cube boxes covered with canvas and pitched.
With other NCOs we went to see the site where the river like a canal passed through a large village. Peeping around the comer we could get occasional glimpses of the enemy who did not seem to take much notice of us. On the way up we passed through a town with very tall houses and had our halt there right opposite an Army Group HQ, and a staff officer came out and told us the news! The Germans had crossed the lines at Valenciennes and asked for an armistice! That was good news and the next few days were all rumours. If a shell pitched some distance away, we ran for cover and avoided the area being shelled. At ordinary times we would have taken little notice if not too close, but now the end was near we were taking no chances of being pipped at the last lap.
On 7 November, the division crossed the Scheldt, encountering no opposition. The village of St Denis is 3km west of the river, so Sgt Sweet did not go across until the 11th, when he marched to Celles, a village 5km east of the Scheldt.
A couple of days before the 11th we moved into St Denis, a small town with the street sloping down to the river and the main railway line. The sergeants fixed themselves up in a gendarme's abandoned house! Nice little place with tiled floors and a small new cooking range. The front part was intact but the back had caught a shell and was smashed in.
The town generally was badly knocked about, but there were plenty of billets for the troops. The place had only been evacuated a few days earlier, and bedding etc, was still in place. We got a couple of mattresses from upstairs and put them on the floor of the living room, and were very comfortable with the stove. Someone scrounging found a nice clean pan of fresh lard, another a dump of potatoes. I volunteered to cook some chips if someone peeled the spuds, so that took about three hours, and we all had a good feed and settled down for the night.
All day rumours were going about that the war would finish at 11 o'clock, and at 11 o'clock that night we could hear our lads going up and down the street beating tins and cheering.
'Come on,' said my pal. 'Let's go out, the war is over—can't you hear the cheering?'
It was very cold and I was comfortable so I told him, "Don't be a fool. Haven't you been told the first seven years will be the worst? We have only had just over four up to now.'
He went out, and no sooner had he gone than the enemy who no doubt could hear the cheering sent over a couple of salvoes of shells which burst behind the houses. The cheering and tin bashing stopped at once, and my pal came back in saying, 'Something wrong—did you hear those shells?' We all laughed at him for being so optimistic and got down to a night's sleep.
Early in the morning the old gendarme and his wife returned and made themselves comfortable on a bed upstairs, and we found them a couple of blankets. As we had to be ready to move off at 8.30 am, we were about early, and took the old couple a mug of hot tea.
The morning of 11 November was very cold with a sharp white frost. Moving off, we marched down the village to the bridge which the REs had just completed. They had had a rough time, and we saw several of their lads dead on the roadside. I could not help thinking what bad luck to get it now that the end is so near. We moved on and came to a village called Celles, where we waited for a time, and thought that we would be billeted there. I was in a barn getting my platoon settled in when Colonel John Evans came in, wished us good day, looked at his watch and said, 'Men, I am pleased to tell you that in one hour's time the War will be over and you will be able to return to your homes again. The Armistice comes into force at 11 am today.’
Well, after all the rumours, here it was from the horse's mouth, as one of the boys remarked—our CO has told us himself. This time it was true. We did not cheer, just stood, stunned and bewildered. All we had to do was to stay alive for the next hour and then we were going home.
Col John Evans, DSO (1919), TD, JP, was born in 1868, and became High Sheriff of Monmouthshire 1931-32. He lived in Stow Park Circle, Newport, and died on 27 September, 1942.
Soon after, we had to move again, and about 10.50 am were halted and told to fall out for a rest. Then just before 11 am we had to fall in again. My platoon was leading and just in front was the Colonel. With the HQ detachment of wagons, he had joined up with our C Company for the march. He was looking at his watch, and on the stroke of 11 am he raised his hand, and told us that, at long last, THE WAR WAS OVER. We cheered, and with our tin hats on our rifles held aloft, cheered again. After four long years the day had come at last, with our reprieve, and now we should have a chance to live our lives, instead of living with the knowledge that we only had less than a 50/50 chance of getting through. Just a matter of time with the odds against us!
Next came the shock. We had to continue the march. We thought we had to stay put wherever we happened to be, but as it was drizzling rain and there was nothing in sight but muddy fields, we were more pleased than sorry. The old hands plodded on, their thoughts miles away, hardly realising that the long awaited day had come at last! The noisy section of the new reinforcements who had joined us only a few months ago, started shouting that everyone should throw away their picks and shovels that we were carrying to repair the blown up parts of the road, and called the officers everything they could think of. A corporal and I went back along the platoon, and threatened to bash with the butts of our rifles anyone who threw any kit away. We soon had order restored.
Some little time later we were stopped and had to get on the side of the road to let a wagon pass. This stopped in front of us, and to our surprise some of the HQ lads started unloading a drum and musical instruments. It was a band! They formed up with plenty of drums and played 'Col Bogey'. The boys took up the tune, and to my delight started singing, 'Oh, Johnny, oh Johnny, we do love you!' It was a tribute to our Colonel who was a fine gentleman, and, as one noted grumbler said, 'He is a father to us all.' No one would hear a word against him at any time.
We moved on wet, but that did not matter, and nearly at the end of the day had to fill in a large crater in the road, to allow the brigade transport to move up. It was dark when we arrived at our billets in Roeulx. We were in a very old house, and part of it had bunks which had been kept for the Germans and were very comfortable; others had the same experience, and it appeared that all houses had to have billets available for German troops at any time.
Next morning I had to take a party back down the road to finish off our job of the previous evening. Then we saw Belgians pulling all kinds of stuff out of a hollow tree—one that I had wanted to cut down the previous evening. Bottles of wine, etc!