War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 8

The Battalion occupies the Ligne de Contact

Having seen the difficulties to be met in the post my Company was to take over, I had decided previously with the CO to put only one platoon in the Tiergarten Wood and keep the remainder of the Company as a mobile reserve in a small village called Coleman which was to be occupied by Simon Fraser's Company ('B' Coy.).  I had the Company come up to the Ligne de Contact through the Foret de Bouzenville and took Smith and his platoon to the Tiergarten position and sent the remainder of the Company, under Allan Shearer, to Coleman.  On reaching the Tiergarten I found Ross with only three men left, he having sent the remainder back to Bn. HQ in anticipation of our arrival, rather unwisely I thought in the event of an attack before our arrival !  He said that they had been shelled and sniped off and on most of the day.  Chaos reigned everywhere and, as all the trench stores seemed to be scattered far and wide over the wood, it was impossible to have any kind of hand-over. Altogether it wasn't a very encouraging start. However, I got the platoon settled in, having collected as much as we could find of the scattered gear, gave Smith his orders and walked on down the road to Coleman.

The village was very like most of the other French villages we had been in and, of course, was uninhabited.  Here the French and British had made some effort to fortify it and many of the houses were sandbagged and loopholed.  It was built on a flat piece of ground and was surrounded by fields with woods some hundreds of yards away.  The road, which could be regarded as the forward defended locality of the whole line, ran through the village.  The distance from the Tiergarten post to the village was about half a mile and there was flat, open courtry between the two.  As I arrived the Cameron Company, commanded by Punch Redfell(?) (afterwards killed on the Somme), were just leaving.  I found Simon Fraser and arranged with him which buildings my Company were going to occupy and which were his.  It was fairly easy to occupy by day as there was a good field of view all round, but by night it was very much more difficult.  On our right there was a gap of half a mile to the next post and on our left an indefinite gap, as Rory Tarbat's Company were about two miles away in that direction.  However, having decided on our plan, Simon and I got the men in and, having arranged to have a meal sent up to Smith and his platoon after dark, we retired to our HQ in a house on the main village street and had supper.  I had Allan Shearer with me and Simon had Hec (Hecctor Gascoigne, brother) and Hayward Maclean, his other subaltern Murdo Maclennan being in another post in the Tiergarten.  We settled down for the night taking it in turns to sleep.

That night was quite uneventful and, having ascertained that Smith was OK in the Tiergarten, Simon and I with a runner each - which was later to prove a godsend to me - set off walking to Bn. HQ.  It was a heavenly morning and walking through the fields beside a little trout stream made one feel supremely happy somehow.  But, having  seen so little of war as yet, I kept on thinking of the lines "where every prospect pleases and only man is vile".  We attended a conference in Bn. HQ which would be of no particular interest in this account.  After I had been there an hour or so, the CO and I and my runner, Pte. Finlay Macrae, set off on foot through the Foret de Bouzenville.

It might be of interest here to anyone who is misguided enough to have continued reading as far as this fior me to write something about the brothers Duncan and Finlay Macrae who were my faithful Company runners for so long in England and France. Finlay was about 36 and Duncan 34.  They didn't resemble each other in any way except perhaps their speech and physique.  They were both magnificently built men not far short of 6 ft.  Duncan was fair with blue eyes and Finlay very dark.  They were both shepherds from the West Coast and had been employed by Ian Macrae at Druidaig. They were both very solid and after having seen them in one or two unpleasant and, to me, hair-raising experiences, I came to the conclusion that neither of them knew what fear was!  They were devoted to each other and both spoke Gaelic.  Their favourite occupation in their leisure hours in the billets was wrestling with one another!  A man from their village told me a story about them which he swore was true, which illustrates well the sort of men they were.  He said that one day, years ago, when they were lighting their pipes after having had their porridge one morning in their croft, Duncan looked up and said to Finlay, "I'm away to Australia the day", and without another word he went into the next room, picked up his bag and walked out of the cottage.  Finlay didn't see or hear from him for seven years and one day in walked Duncan without a word, just as if he had been away for the day!  He had apparently had quite a successful time in Australia but after seven years still missed Finlay's company so much that he decided he would come home again.  I will write more about them later on.  It is sad to think they are separated.  Duncan was taken prisoner at St Valery and Finlay, who was badly wounded in France on the Somme, was evacuated home where he recovered and got a Military Medal (I hope, and like to think, on my recommendation).  He then went out to North Africa in one of our Battalions where he got a Bar to his MM and was killed.  No one could have wished for a finer pair of men than these two brothers I had in my Company.

The CO and I visited various posts that he wanted to see on our way up to mine.  We had lunch of a tin of bully and some biscuits with John Anderson, who was one of Ronnie P-B's platoon commanders.  We then went to Coleman village and eventually got to the Tiergarten post at 4 pm.  We had been looking at the positions here and discussing some improvements and the CO had promised to get the Brigadier up to look at them the next day.  Everything seemed very peaceful and quiet and he was just leaving when firing suddenly broke out on our right.  Unfortunately, neither of us had glasses with us so we couldn't see much of what was happening.  We waited to see if anything would develop.  The firing got louder and louder and seemed to be spreading along the line.  Then, just as the CO decided he should go back to Bn. HQ, two or three shells landed very close indeed.  He remained standing stock still and quite unperturbed and behaved as if a couple of bumble bees had just passed instead of some shells landing within a few yards of us!  I found it very hard to stand still and pretend I hadn't noticed anything much!  However, he walked off back to Bn. HQ and I returned to my HQ at Coleman.

I had only gone about half way when I met Allan Shearer doubling up the road with the remainder of the Company.  He said that Simon had sent him up as the village was being fired on and that, judging by the amount of noise all round, he thought it probable that an attack was coming shortly.  I got the men under cover and had to do a hurried reconnaissance and some pretty quick thinking.  There were no prepared positions and we had no tools, the transport having failed to turn up from the Ligne de Recoile.  Just as I had got the men into position behind trees, banks etc, some mortar shells landed in the middle of us and one man was hit.

Having been away with the CO all day, I had only a hazy idea as to what the situation was and so decided to go down and see Simon in the village.  So, taking Duncan Macrae with me, I set off in that direction.  As soon as we got out of the wood on to the flat fields between us and the village we were fired on.  We lay low and then crawled again, but each time we moved bullets whistled over our heads.  Macrae then got one through his pack and as we were completely exposed and had to cross a flat bit of ground in full view of the enemy, I decided it was suicide to go on and the only thing to do was to wait an hour till it got dark.  My CSM (Anderson) arrived with a message from Simon saying that orders had come over the phone from HQ that there would be a general withdrawal at 11 pm and that Smith, commanding the Tiergarten post, had received separate orders for withdrawal over his phone.

The first part of that night was pitch black, till the moon came out.  Although there was spasmodic firing in the distance, our immediate surroundings seemed very quiet.  I sent a runner up to Smith to see if he was alright and got hold of Alan Shearer and gave him orders for withdrawal.  I arranged with him that he should start withdrawing at 11 pm with the main body of the Company while I kept two sections behind with me to cover his withdrawal in case of difficulties.  I should explain here, perhaps, the rough idea of the French plans for withdrawal.  When the Germans attacked in force there was no idea of trying to hold the Ligne de Contact.  They considered in their plan that the Battalion holding this line was to be regarded more or less as a write-off!  They were to hold on as long as possible and then withdraw as best they could through the 'Ligne de Recoile' and eventually (a forlorn hope according to the French) behind the Maginot.

The orders I had received were to withdraw my Company to Danpont Farm (Bn. HQ) and from there to a given RV.  I arranged that Alan Shearer should take Finlay Macrae with him, he being the only person other than myself who knew the way back to Bn. HQ. Meanwhile, the moon had got up and it was very light indeed, and as the Company had to cross over a long stretch of very open country overlooked by the enemy, I was afraid that they might spot our withdrawal.  However, at 11 o'clock Alan Shearer set off with his party.  I followed with the remainder about a quarter of an hour later.  We had to pass within 300 yards of one of Ronnie Pelham-Burns' posts commanded by John Anderson. As we drew level with it a tremendous noise of small arms fire and grenades started.  I thought the post was probably being attacked by a German patrol but could only see the flashes.  I fully expected we should get the backwash of this and certainly that a few stray bullets would come our way.  It was no good trying to help as we couldn't have distinguished friend from foe.  Some days previously our battle patrol, having come up to one of the Cameron posts at night, had been mistaken for Germans and fired on, and Hector Mackenzie, who was commanding the patrol, had been hit in the leg.  So, remembering that, and all things being considered, I thought it best to steer clear of them and on we went.  I had to go pretty fast to catch up with Alan Shearer, which I eventually did by luck, as it turned out, as he was steering a very inaccurate course and heaven knows where he would have got to if I hadn't stopped him in time.  On reaching Bn. HQ there wasn't a sound to be heard and no signs of the sentry that was always at the entrance to the farmyard.  However, there was one small oil lamp still burning in one of the windows.  The whole thing seemed odd to me and I thought at first it might have been a Bosch trap.  So, drawing my revolver and taking one man with a rifle with me, we advanced rather gingerly into the courtyard. Still not a sound.  I pushed the door open and listened but could neither see nor hear anything.  In the room where the lamp was burning there were signs of a hurried departure and I guessed that HQ must have left on the pre-arranged 'withdrawal route'.  And so on we went down the road.  I was marching at the head of my Company when suddenly I was challenged by an officer in the middle of the road.  He was a Scots Fusilier and his Battalion was lining the route and covering our withdrawal.  I could just make out the dim outline of the Jocks lying in the ditch on either side of the road which ran through a thick wood, and an occasional glint of their bayonets.  I forget which Bn. it was but their CO was Lord Rowallan and his Adjutant a brother of Patrick Agnew of our 5th Bn.

By this time I knew we were a bit behind schedule and, as the withdrawal route only took me to a certain point, it was essential that we pushed on as quickly as possible in case Bn. HQ couldn't wait for us, as the whole plan of withdrawal of the entire force in front of the Maginot was on a timed programme and bridges were scheduled to be blown at a certain hour, regardless of who was still to come.  On our way through Bibiche village we passed some Lothian and Borders Horse sitting in their tanks.  They were remaining till last and were to blow the bridges.

Eventually we met the CO walking up the road to meet us.  He seemed tremendously relieved to see us and find that we had had no difficulty in getting out and had no casualties.  However, he was worried about Smith.  Meanwhile, Rory Tarbat had arrived with his Company and Ronnie Pelham-Burn arrived later.  But there was no sign of Simon Fraser and his Company.  We waited for an hour and I had time to talk to John Anderson and asked him what all the fuss was about as we passed his post earlier.  He said it was a ruse of Ronnie, who had ordered him to fire off rifles and Brens into the air at a certain time, to cover the noise of his (Ronnie's) withdrawal !  Simon Fraser's Company and Smith and his platoon not having arrived, the CO sent the remainder of the Battalion off on the withdrawal route under the command of Rory Tarbat.

The moon had gone in and it was pitch black again.  Most of the route was across country and many of the Jocks were pretty exhausted.  But we had at least another 15 kilometres to do that night and if any fell out they were bound sooner or later to be captured by the Bosch who were following up.  We stumbled on over barbed wire, through ploughed fields, ditches, hedges and gravel pits.  Incidentally, the men were carrying full packs, greatcoats, blankets, Brens and anti-tank rifles and a good many cooking containers etc as we had had no transport in the Ligne de Contact.

Soon we came to the 2nd Seaforths holding the 'Ligne de Recoile' through which we were to withdraw.  They were all interested to know what the news was and what the situation in front was, as they seemed to expect an attack pretty soon, thinking then, as we did, that we were being followed up quickly by the Bosch.  I met Colin Mackenzie, who was most helpful in piloting my Company through what appeared in the dark to be a series of cuttings and caves, but I suppose they couldn't have been!  We passed through the powder factory (now the 2nd Bn. HQ) and, as we went, kept on picking up more and more stragglers from various units.  As it got light the column seemed to have assumed enormous proportions and was now about a mile long.  It was not a happy or inspiring sight.  The officers had to go up and down encouraging the men, many of whom were now dead beat and found great difficulty in keeping going.  It must be remembered that all of them had already marched, fully equipped (and more), some 10 kilometres and most of them had had little or no sleep for about four nights, having been digging hard all day.  A withdrawal is not calculated to put men's spirits up.  At one moment some Bosch planes came over quite low but for some unknown reason made no attempt to attack the column.  As we went on we heard the bridges being blown behind us.

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