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Coming Out of the Line-A Night March with the Guns.


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This remarkable article was published (in two parts) in the Breadalbane Academy School Magazines of 1919 & 1920. Written by Captain Robert K M Simpson, Royal Field Artillery, Mr and Mrs John Simpson, Bank Street, Aberfeldy.

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Coming Out of the Line-A Night March with the Guns.

"Coming out of the line" was always an anxious performance. For the infantry-men in the first line trenches it was, on certain sectors, one of the most dangerous and difficult operations in war. It was invariably performed in the dark. It necessitated a considerable movement of troops in close proximity to the enemy. But infantry-men had not a monopoly of this anxiety. Artillery-men also knew as the following account will show, what it was to spend a night on tenterhooks, coming out of action back to billets. We were in action at the mouth of the Struma. We were facing the Bulgars across the river in a pass which the river makes, cutting through a range of coastal mountains, just immediately before it opens into the sea. Our infantry held a line roughly along the river, sometimes on the far side, sometimes on the near, with our artillery in the high hills behind them. When the time came for our battery to go to rest billets, it was necessary for us to move down the hillside to the sea, then march along the beach in the direction of our front-line trenches till we reached the mouth of the river, and thence march back up the river through the pass along the front line of our defences. For the latter part of the journey the road was sometimes among our front line trenches, sometimes among the front line barbed wire, and at one place even in front of that, with nothing but the river between us and the enemy. Obviously it required a dark night to do that trek; and we got a thoroughly dark one. It had rained for twenty-four hours, and was raining harder than ever, when at nightfall, the gun-teams, and the ammunition waggons, and transport waggons came up the hill to take us out of the gun-position. As soon as it was dark they were allowed on to the position and activities started. Perhaps you can imagine the difficulty of getting limbered up and hooked-in on a steep slippery hillside in black darkness. It is not very romantic work. It may be all nicely planned how many gunners will go to No I gun-pit to man-handle the gun out, and exactly where the team will halt to get the gun limbered, and where it will take that gun to wait for the rest battery to form up ; and each man may have been told exactly on what horse or waggon he will ride, what equipment he will carry, or what spare horse he will lead. One may have it all cut and dried as to what luggage will go on each waggon, such as a meat-safe here, the office-box there, water tanks full of spare kit somewhere else, the saddlers' store on " B " subsection's waggon, the fitters' stores on "C" subsection's, the shoeing smiths', signalers', veterinary sergeants' and doctors' equipment may all have a place allotted, not forgetting the officers' kits, the canteen stores, the hens, and somebody's puppy or kitten. But although it is all put clearly in orders, it is Herculean labour to put it into practice in the black darkness without a lamp on the wet slippery hillside. Gunner Snooks starts off with an Atlas-like load on his shoulder to carry from a dug-out down to a waggon. The number of falls he takes in the second hundred yards slowly convinces him that he is going the wrong way. He puts the load down and leaves it to go in search of his waggon. When he has found the latter he cannot re-discover his load 'until he hears the exclamations of some mounted man whose horse stumbles over it. It is not so much a question of losing a box or a rifle; you may quite easily lose a team of six horses with three drivers, and spend half-an-hour finding a safe road to lead them back .to where they ought to be. This particular gun-position had a nasty precipice, with a forty foot drop, running along behind it. But the British soldier carries on, unperturbed; unseen and unsung. Physical conditions may prove too much for human methodisation, but calm human perseverance truimphs over all. By dint of each man doing three men's work we soon get clear, the battery is reported "all present and ready" and formed up on the so-called road. At about ten o'clock we start the hard night-march. We really ought to have a smoke, now we are on the move, to soothe us after these efforts and refresh us for the next struggle. But marching as we are, under the enemy's eye, we dare not show a light. A nice mess up a shell would make, landing among us in this narrow broken track with "a drop into nothing" over the side. If only the Bulgar knew: this road which he looks down on all day long. within easy range, empty and unused: if he could but see the traffic on it now! We have to keep our wits about us, because horses are stumbling on boulders, slipping on steep muddy places, or on smooth wet rock. It is a nasty descent, but uneventfully it passes and our wheels stop rattling and jolting as we reach the sand on the seashore. There is little danger of being heard now, as the noise of the breakers drowns all else. We halt for ten minutes to look round, or rather to feel round, and see that harness is fitting completely and waggon loads are tied securely. Then off we go again, the horses blowing hard under the strain of dragging guns through the loose sand. We get safely round" Shrapnel corner," a point on the road where the enemy is accustomed to drop shells intermittently throughout the night. There is right at the corner a new shellhole in the road, which must have been made that evening. A man stops at the shell-hole and warns each team to " pass off to the right" to avoid it, as a horse might stumble into it or a waggon overturn, and we don't want to have a halt at "Shrapnel Corner." At last we come to the river estuary, and turn away from the sea to go up the Struma through the pass, by a road which shelves the river bank. It is a bad road for a dark, wet night, because it is cut sheer out of the face of a precipitous hill, and is just wide enough to take a waggon with hardly room for a man to pass. There is no sort of wall on the river side, and at some places a drop of a dozen feet straight into the rapid river. High above us on the other side of the river, and within rifle range are' the enemy trenches. Hard-earned rest in billets, that is got by bringing a battery along here tonight! An officer is sent out in front to stop any troops, who might be coming down the pass as we go up. Passing would be impossible, and turning back for wheeled transport would be equally so at this narrow place or " Derbend." We reach the narrowest place, where a false step to the right would precipitate one straight into the river bed-a nasty place if a horse shies. Thank goodness it is too dark a night for even the most nervous horse to see anything to shy at. But the off-leader of the leading team does shy. Not his eyes, but his sense of smell, keener than human, has betrayed him. A horse had been killed there that day, and was lying at the river-side. The leader shies, the team backs, the wheels of the heavy ammunition waggon. reach the edge, slip over, waggon, horses and driver disappear. "Halt!" is passed down to the rest of the battery. (Continued in next issue.) ROBERT K. M. SIMPSON.

Investigation reveals a tremendous piece of luck. The waggon is not in the river, but lying on a narrow strip of ground between the river edge and the drop from the road. Have the men from the waggon been flung into the river? No, a stout apron of barbed wire in the river edge has caught them and saved their lives. But what about the six horses? How many broken legs or broken backs? It is not raining so heavily now, and a faint flicker of light at that time makes it possible. for eyes that have been in the darkness all night, to just see. First thing is to get the beasts free of their harness, as they are lying tied in a bundle at present; powerless, mute, waiting for man to help them, as tired horses do in face of fear. Thank goodness we are not marching against time to a battle, because it will take some time to get this righted! What about a a revolver to put injured horses out of pain? But the revolver is not required. One by one the horses are cast loose, disentangled, urged to their feet and walked a bit; "mirabile dictu," all are quite sound! Somebody finds a place further along the road where it is possible to lead the horses up from the river again. The battery moves on, but the waggon is left. It is deemed inexpedient to try and get it back on the road at that time of night, with tired men and two or three hours marching still to do before dawn. So its load is piled on to other waggons: men's kits, shells, bale of hay, sack of grain, oilcans, spare parts, everything detachable is stripped and some brushwood collected to put over the bare waggon by way of camouflage. There is no need to leave a guard, as there is little fear of anybody stealing a waggon from there; but it must be hidden so that, when daylight comes, " Johnnie Bulgar " won't see it and destroy it by shell fire. Tomorrow night we shall send back fresh stalwarts to raise it back on to the road. We are quite sure after that incident that our luck really is in for the night. The road now takes us out across our own front line trenches, through the very barbed wire and" into the blue," with nothing but the river between us and the Bulgar outposts on the opposite bank. They could almost throw a bomb across at us if they knew we were passing. Bang! bang! bang! and three gun flashes from beyond the river! "Go bli-mey " So they have spotted us after all! Where are these going to land? I hope nobody tries to gallop or even trot if they land among us. They seem to be taking a long time to arrive. They are not going to arrive at all. Ha! in the noise of the river we have mistaken bombs for guns. Our infantry must be raiding one of the enemy's riverside posts. There's rifle fire and flares now, and stray bullets flicking over us. A machine gun chimes in. Then suddenly the short sharp struggle is finished and our ears, once more, are left to the roar of the river. Soon we pass within our lines again, back across the trenches, challenged by sentries who have been warned to expect us. We come into flat open territory where marching becomes easy, and another two hours without incident brings us well into the safe country, where we find the deserted village of our billets. It is still black dark as horse lines are laid out, horses watered and fed, guns and waggons packed under trees, where they will be hidden from the enemy's morning aeroplane. Harness is bundled in saddle blankets behind the horses; tea that was made by an advanced party is issued, and all, save guards and pickets, hump their wet kits and go stumbling into scattered houses and throw their weary bodies on the first wooden floor that they have seen for many months. ROBERT K. M. SIMPSON.

Captain Simpson RFA, Aberfeldy, awarded the Military Cross. He is the son of Mr and Mrs John Simpson, Bank Street, Aberfeldy, and went to France in December 1914.Wounded at Ypres, he went to Salonika on his recovery, and had been previously mentioned in despatches. (Perthshire Constitutional)

Lt R K M MID Lond Gazette 21/7/1917 page 7448 Vol 30196

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Thanks for posting this Mike - thought provoking indeed.

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Thanks squirrel. It would have been fresh in his mind written 1919. It was published in the School Magazine in 1919, and 1920 and have just realised it was printed in Aberfeldy, by John Simpson, Robert's father.

Mike

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Accounts such as this by "Gunners", and especially war diaries, clearly illustrate the amount of sheer hard work and hard labour that the Artillery was involved in when changing position or going back to billets, as in this instance.

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Thanks for posting this wonderful description. Simpson writes very well. It would be interesting to see if he wrote a longer memoir of the period.

Googling didn't immediately bring a result but there was an RKMS at Edinburgh University- Arts

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I suspect 1315! should read 131st Bty. both 98 and 131 were under 27th Division (I've checked original book)

and a Prof of English in Hong Kong who might be same man ? edit It is very probably him, Dean of Arts Faculty Univ HK, RKM Simpson MC MA 1948-51

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Charlie

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Good morning - a very naive question: Am I right in assuming that "coming out of the line" means withdrawing from the line of battle, leaving others in situ?

Thanks

Susan

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Good morning - a very naive question: Am I right in assuming that "coming out of the line" means withdrawing from the line of battle, leaving others in situ?

Thanks

Susan

Pretty much Susan. Others will be able to say in more detail, but one unit who had been in the line, would be relieved by another, for a rest basically.

Mike

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Pretty much Susan. Others will be able to say in more detail, but one unit who had been in the line, would be relieved by another, for a rest basically.

Mike

Just a clarification, Susan mentioned 'Battle' the line is the positions held outside of battles or actions, all units, infantry, artillery, medical etc, rotatated regularly in and out of the line and the line could come under attack during a battle when attacked by the enemy or might be the start point of attacking the enemy at the beginning of a battle.

Hope that makes sense.

I really enjoyed reading Captain Simpson's acount, thank you Skipman for posting it, personal accounts especially well written ones help to give a sense of what it was like all those years ago.

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Thanks Mike and Gardenerbill

I think I've got the picture.

My grandfather was in the RHA/RFA in France and then Mesopotamia and I imagine that he might well have experienced situations similar to the description given by Captain Simpson.

Amazing men.

Kind regards

Susan

Edited by susancammas
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  • 2 years later...

The images below are from a copy of "The 51st (Highland) Division : War Sketches" with a note on the front end-paper that the book formerly belong to David Gilmore, M. C., "who served with the Gordons in the 51st Division", before being given to the (then current) owner by Norah Gilmore "in memory of David". It is signed underneath "R. K. M. Simpson" who adds a note to page 15 that he was transferred to the Balkans in late 1915, so presumably the same R. K. M. Simpson.

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