Robert Foden Petschler (he had a German grandfather) was born in Manchester in 1893 and after the outbreak of war enlisted as a sapper in the Royal Engineers in July 1915 following a fruitless attempt to join the Royal Naval Air Service as a pilot. Between the end of July and the beginning of 1916 he underwent a period of intensive training with the 1st London Divisional Engineers at Esher in Surrey. He was promoted to lance corporal in January and after a six weeks course in signalling at Chelsea Barracks he was promoted corporal. He was anxious for active service but draft after draft left without him and in October he applied for a commission and after three months training he emerged from cadet school as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He returned to Esher in 1917 where there were about fifty officers awaiting posting, his turn came in October. He arrived in France on 11 November and after waiting in Rouen for three weeks was posted to the 201st Field Company (30th Division) which was then in the Ypres Salient. At the end of January the company moved to the Somme area building redoubts, machine-gun emplacements, dugouts and trench systems. The extract from his memoir begins on the morning of 21 March 1918 at the start of the great German offensive. At the end of March his company returned to the Salient where he was awarded the Military Cross for constructing a bridge under bombing and intense machine-gun fire allowing an infantry advance to continue. He resigned his commission in December 1920 and was granted the honorary rank of Captain.
‘I think the Hun is coming'
At 4.45 am I was awakened by the sound of gunfire and bursting shells. A few minutes afterwards Lt. Aldred who was in the next bunk to mine, but in a separate room, came into my billet and said. ‘I think the Hun is really coming over this morning'. I agreed with him as the shelling was the worst I had ever heard. Aldred, who was dressed when he came, left me then and I never saw him again. The shells were now bursting all over our dugout and in the railway cutting.(1) Presently I began to smell gas, and as I had no gas curtain my dugout soon began to fill and I was obliged to wear my gas mask. Gas was beginning to pour down the two large ventilating shafts into my dugout followed by pieces of shrapnel. I had dressed by this time and was just about to make a dash up the stairs when with an awful crash the entrance was blown-in; fortunately I escaped from the pieces but was forced to return to my room where I was careful where I stood because of the shrapnel rattling down the ventilating shafts. The shells were now falling very fast and the concentration was enormous and I could see that the only way of reaching the men's billets was to make a very quick dash. I was hampered by wearing my gas mask which I dared not remove as the gas was very thick, and the blown in entrance was would have taken too long to crawl through especially as the shells continued to burst just in the entrance. Fortunately I found on examining my dugout that one side had been closed by a wooden partition and on removing this I found that it led to another chamber which had another exit which was also badly broken. I waited for what seemed to be favourable opportunity, scrambled out and made a dash for the men's billets. Everywhere showed the most indescribable wreckage - all this I took in as I raced along to the men's billets. I had only about 50 yards to go and in that short distance many shells fell quite close and mostly on the sides of the railway embankment. I found that the gas curtain had been dropped at the billets and entering by the mess I saw that it was deserted. I went down a flight of steps leading to the men's quarters: everywhere was in darkness, the electricity having failed. I found the quarters full of sappers from my company, some South Lancs Pioneers, a few signallers and some gunners. All our signal communications had been cut by shellfire so that we were very isolated. The men were mostly lying on their bunks all fully dressed and many wearing their gas masks.
On enquiry I found that I was the only officer, and on questioning my section sergeant (Lynch) I found that Lt. Aldred had attempted to lead out the two sections of my company but had received a slight head wound and ordered the men to return to the dugouts, but he himself and a sergeant had set off to reach the company at Vaux. He had not left any orders, and Sgt. Lynch has asked him where I was but the reply was that it would be useless to try and find me. I also learned that the pioneer officers had set off with their company, but the first two platoons had been badly cut up and the two platoons in the rear had returned to the dugouts. All this time the shelling continued unabated and shells could be heard bursting on top of the dugouts. I held a consultation with the sergeants in which we decided that immediate escape was impossible as we would be bound to suffer heavy casualties and should wait in the hope that the shelling would diminish. About 9.30 am a wounded man crawled into the dugouts and told me that the Germans had entered our line of resistance, not more than 1,000 yards away. Our position was beginning to be serious and I repeatedly went to the top of the stairs to find a favourable opportunity but was always obliged to return.
Soon after 10.00 am a gunner found his way into the tunnels and said that he had come from the battery which was only 600 yards away in the wood; he had volunteered to deliver a message to his headquarters in Savy village, but owing to the shelling it had taken him several hours to cover the short distance to our tunnels. He said that all their guns had been knocked out, their ammunition blown up, most of the men wounded and only one officer left. This battery, which I had heard firing intermittently, must have been captured soon after. About 11.00 am a wounded man arrived, who had come from the Manchester Redoubt, and said that the Germans were attacking the redoubt which was then nearly surrounded.
The shelling still continued without abating, except that I thought I noticed a marked diminution in the direction of Savy village. Reasoning this out I came to the conclusion that the village must be in German hands and I decided that if we wished to avoid capture we must leave the dugouts at once. I called all the men together, lined them up ready to lead out and gave them instructions that if they became separated they were to avoid Savy village and make a half-left direction to Vaux and Fluquières. Our plan of action was to follow the railway cutting to a point where a light railway led off on the left of the cutting and from this point work half-left until we had passed through the Battle Zone. We reached the point of the light railway but here a shell burst among us and we came under machine-gun fire. Nobody was hit but the men scattered and there was a danger of losing all the party. Many shells burst within a few feet of us and many times pieces of shrapnel would scream past but just miss. Presently, when we saw that as we had come a long way through the barrage without injury, we all gained more confidence. Unfortunately the barrage had begun to move forward with us and we also came within the range of the heavier guns. [On reaching the Battle Zone] we did not know where the gaps in the wire were and often had to scramble through belts of high wire entanglements which were about as much as twenty to thirty feet deep and, in consequence our clothes were in ribbons. Most of the men had discarded their packs and equipment, and I had been obliged to leave all my kit in the dugout.
After passing through the Battle Zone trenches we came to a sunken road where we had fairly good cover and, at the junction of this road with another, I noticed a party of infantry and I decided to halt and rest my men. Unfortunately we again came under machine-gun fire and Sapper Watkins was hit and I sent him away with another sapper to find a dressing station: this in spite of all the shelling was our first casualty. I did not consider it advisable to stay long and after a short rest we pushed on again. We passed a battery of 6-inch guns which the crews were making frantic efforts to draw out.
We had passed through the worst of the barrage and now had to contend with fire from the heavy guns engaging crossroads, villages etc, however, we carefully avoided all such places and eventually found ourselves by Etreillers where there was a large RE dump and I have a vivid recollection of it being in flames and seeing a mountainous pile of duckboards sailing into the air after being hit by a large calibre shell. Leaving Etreillers we skirted Vaux and struck across country to Fluquières which presently we were able to see. It was a welcome sight and as there was not much shelling we lay down and had a good rest. After a time we set off again, this time more leisurely and eventually reached the remainder of the company who were occupying trenches to get shelter from the splinters that were flying. Capt. Day was very pleased to see me and shook my hand saying that he knew I would get through: Bennet, however, said that he was not expecting to see any of us again. I was frightfully hungry and Bennet gave me a sandwich but, as I felt so exhausted, I was unable to eat it. However, a drink of whisky which Capt. Day gave me soon pulled me round. Presently we all fell in and Capt. Day marched us to a big quarry where we parked all our horses and transport and were joined by two other field companies and a pioneer battalion.
About 6.00 pm another of my party turned up; he had belonged to the party that had remained behind. He said they had rested in a trench and then set off in the direction of Savy where they were surprised by a party of Germans and captured before they could offer any resistance. The Germans marched them off in the direction of St. Quentin and on nearing the Manchester Redoubt, where the gallant Manchesters were holding out and, although surrounded, had made a sudden counter attack and in the confusion that followed this man, L/Cpl. Jones, although fired on, got away. (2) There was one other man who had joined us. He had been on the night shift working on the trench mortar emplacements in Brown Quarry and the trench mortar officer had retained him to help in firing the mortars which had been working to the last, and only after all the ammunition was expended were they blown up. This sapper did not leave the quarry until he saw the Germans entering from the other side.
At about 7.00 pm we were ordered to make a reconnaissance of Aviation Wood for defence and prepare trenches. We were just about to start when there were orders for us to fall in and march to Aubigny, near Ham. It was midnight when we arrived and after some difficulty managed to find billets for men and horses. We entered a house which had apparently just been evacuated by the civilians as the fire was burning brightly and the coffee-pot steaming. There were chickens in the yard and rabbits in a hutch and, in the next yard, a cow. I soon fell asleep on one of the beds and, in spite of being thoroughly tired out, I awoke several times during the night to hear shells dropping in the town. Thus ended the first memorable day of the great battle.
The next morning (22nd) we paraded at about 8.00 am, drew shovels and marched into Ham. I found billets for my company and they settled down to a meal, but because of sudden orders Capt. Day, Bennet and I together with sergeants had to go out and site defences for the defence of the town. At 12 noon the others returned to the town but I remained behind, the company was sent out to me and we commenced digging. My dinner was also sent to me consisting of cold chicken and champagne. Around 3.00 pm Capt. Day met me and said that I had to report to General Stanley for special orders. (3) I set off at once to headquarters in Ham and found them busy packing up and preparing to depart. The General gave me personal orders about blowing up one of the canal bridges.
This bridge had to be left to the last as it was the main line of retreat. It spanned the canal at Ham on the main roads to Offoy and Noyon. I hurried off to the bridge after receiving my orders and found that it had already been prepared for demolition. There was a L/Cpl. Patterson and two men who had been detailed to help me and I made a careful examination of all the charges to see that they were intact. The bridge consisted of a double roadway, each roadway hung from two lattice steel girders; there were sixteen charges of guncotton in all designed to cut each girder in two places. The canal was almost dry in places and was passable by determined men, although without the bridge it would have been impossible for transport to pass.
The Germans now began to bombard Ham with heavy calibre shells which fell regularly every ten minutes, and a whole house, or several, would disappear each time.
I ran out my firing leads from the bridge to the archway of the house some fifty yards and carried my exploder (the firing device) to a handy spot close by. Every thirty minutes or so I tested the leads to make sure they were intact. About 6.00 pm feeling rather hungry, and not having food with me, we searched the Expeditionary Force Canteen close by which was deserted and found cake, biscuits and cigarettes, and making some tea we had a good meal. The road was now crowded with transport and guns which were retiring and all had to pass over my bridge. They came in endless streams for hours on end and I soon found that I had to act as traffic controller, but I did not mind as it gave me something to do. I had great difficulty with trains which were shunting on a level crossing near the bridge and which kept blocking the road, one of the front wagons had been derailed; miles of trains were held up and ultimately captured.
All through the night the traffic streamed over my bridge and I wondered if it would all get away. The sound of firing came nearer, and at about midnight troops went forward to man the trenches we had dug in front of the town and snipers were posted in the town to harass the Germans on their entry, which seemed inevitable. During the night Hun planes bombed the town, several bombs dropping near the bridge. The traffic still passed over the bridge without cessation and at about 1.00 pm a gunner officer asked me for some guncotton to blow up his guns. Having some to spare I gave it to him; his guns were 9.2 howitzers, and tractors should have gone forward earlier to draw them out. I saw them cross the bridge but they returned later having been unable to reach them Many wounded were now struggling down the road, but ambulances came only very occasionally to take them away. About 2.00 am (23 March), and much to my satisfaction, a party of South Lancs Pioneers reported to me and said they were a covering party for me. They had barely got into position when they were recalled leaving me on my own again. Presently I heard several explosions and realised that some of the other bridges were being blown. The traffic now began to dwindle and, at about 4.00 am occasionally ceased altogether. It was getting quite light but there was a heavy mist which prevented objects more than 100 yards away from being seen. The sound of machine-gun and rifle fire was now very close and the wounded more frequent.
A terrific crash
I began to fear that the Germans would pass on the flanks and encircle the town; I had only three men with me and I posted them as sentries to the best advantage where they could see all round as far as the mist allowed. Presently a lot of infantry began to cross the bridge, together with my own company which had been manning the bridgehead defences outside the town. The position was now desperate. The stragglers got fewer and in smaller parties and I continually asked NCOs and officers if there were more to follow, and the answer was no, not many. The machine-gun fire was now intense and occasional bullets passed over the bridge. In the distance I saw an officer leading a platoon and when he reached me he said that he was the last of the infantry. I called in my sentries and waited and soon the officer to whom I had spoken came running back and said his commanding officer had ordered the bridge to be blown. I did not do it immediately and waited for at least a quarter of an hour. Then I heard a tremendous burst of cheering, it was the Germans entering the town.
Bullets were now flattening themselves on the walls and road near me. Presently through the mist I saw movement and then it was unmistakeable - a small party of Germans was rushing for the bridge. I waited until they had just set foot on the bridge and then pushed down the handle of the exploder for all I was worth. Up went the bridge with a terrific crash and it was quite some time before the pieces stopped falling and, strange to say, the cheering which had been very loud up until then suddenly stopped and there was dead silence for a few minutes. (4) And then a tremendous burst of machine-gun fire was directed along the street. Taking cover behind the railway wagons I ran down the road for all I was worth and did not stop until I had covered a fair distance and found a corner in the road where I was sheltered from the fire; the men who had been with me had bicycles and soon got away. I continued to walk rapidly until I reached Verlaines where I caught up with columns on the move and saw our infantry extending in open order to make a fresh stand.
I caught up with my company and Capt. Day was very pleased at my safe return. In the meantime we continued marching until we reached the village of Esmery-Hallon By about 10.00 am we had dug in and were holding the line until the infantry fell back on it.
The sun was shining brightly and evidently many German balloons were towed by lorries as they were never far away and kept up with the advance in a remarkable way. Unfortunately for us an infantry officer marched a large party of men along our line in order take up position on our right, but the movement was spotted by the enemy who gave us a very nasty shelling, Sapper Wooley was killed outright and Lt. Raine was also killed. Strange to say, earlier that morning Raine had given all his kit away saying that in a short time he would need it no longer. (5) We had a meal as best as we could in the little holes we had dug and when night came we buried the dead. There had been many other casualties besides our own.
We were relieved at 11.00 pm and returned to Esmery-Hallon, found billets in the empty houses and went to sleep. The next morning we were up early and marched out of the village halting a short distance outside to try and get in touch with headquarters to get orders. Unable to obtain any we returned to the billets we had just left and proceeded to cook breakfast. I had a good wash and shave, the first for several days, and having a great appetite for breakfast I sat down to enjoy it. I had barely taken the first mouthful when I heard men shouting and looking into the yard I saw them running about in great confusion. I grabbed my equipment and ran out as the men were shouting that the Germans were in the village. With some trouble we got the men together and marched out of the village but the roads were filled with stragglers in great confusion. Outside the village we could see several figures in what appeared to be grey uniforms. We loaded our rifles ready to fire but when they came close we could see they were French soldiers in their steel blue uniforms.
At about 200 yards outside the village we extended to both sides of the road, fixed bayonets, and taking cover behind a little bank we waited for the Germans. Wounded passed us along the road and our object was to fight a rearguard action to let our infantry gain a new position. Coming along the road I saw a badly wounded officer, naked to the waist, and leaning on two soldiers. He was covered in blood and looking again I saw it was Lt. Harvey, South Lancs Pioneers, who had been attached to us in the Salient. In spite of his wounds he was very cheerful and we waved to him and wished him good luck. We remained in our position for a considerable time, and as we had not been attacked we decided to withdraw as our infantry had had time to take up a new line. We therefore fell in and marched down the road to Libermont, it must have been 10.00 am and we halted for a rest. Our infantry must have been making a stand not far from Esmery-Hallon because presently we saw them retiring in extended order. One of the most thrilling sights in these exciting days was watching our artillery; often they did not retire until the infantry had reached them, and then gun teams and limbers would thunder down the road at a mad gallop to get the guns, and would very soon tear past us on the road to take up a new position. No sooner was this accomplished then off would go the limbers at the same mad gallop to the rear to bring up ammunition. Often in getting out the guns the gunners would be involved in hand-to-hand fighting, and one little incident I heard was that a team had crept through German lines one night, limbered up some guns which had been captured and galloped back with them.
On the same day (24 March) we commenced to dig a trench system near the village of Ercheu and were helped by French troops who built machine-gun emplacements. At the time Ercheu was being heavily shelled and a battery of our guns was vigorously replying. About 4.00 pm we left our work on receiving orders to march to Solente, but in passing through the streets of Ercheu which was still being shelled, tiles and bricks were rattling about our ears and there were pools of blood lying about. We were glad to get outside the place as there is nothing worse than to be in the streets of a town which is being shelled. It was a long march to Solente. We were all very tired and after a meal I fell asleep on a stretcher. Next morning (25 March) we were up at 7.30 am and proceeded to dig trenches and we remained at this work until about 1.00 pm when we, with all the troops in the vicinity, were suddenly recalled, issued with rations and ammunition and took to the road again and marched to Roiglise. Our orders were not to leave Roiglise until the following morning but Major Chippendale, the senior officer, decided at 11.00 pm that we should move off and we harnessed up our wagons and took to the road again. We passed through the town of Roye at midnight which was quite deserted except for hundreds of cows and calves which, having been abandoned, were roaming the streets. The sappers led some of the cows along with them and, on the halts, frequently milked them, but the poor beasts ultimately became so exhausted we turned them loose to graze in a field.
We soon passed through Roye and we could hear firing all the time which seemed very close on our right, the line must have been very close as we heard the next day that the Germans had entered Roye early in the morning. We marched for miles without seeing any dwellings but much to our relief at about 4.00 am we entered the village of Bouchoir. After seeing the men under cover we entered a house which was still occupied and proceeded to warm ourselves by the fire and cook breakfast. Later on we left the house and found a ruined cottage, built a huge fire and laid down our mattresses in front of it. Orders were received to reconnoitre the village of Fresnoy for defence. On arrival we found the village was only held by scattered posts and a few cavalry patrols. Capt. Day and I examined the village and I was told by the brigade major, who arrived just then, to proceed forward of our line along the road leading out of the village. We took up trenches in support of the infantry and proceeded to consolidate them. The house we had occupied that morning was near our trenches and we were able to use it for cooking. From 10.00 pm to 2.00 am the next morning (27 March) I was off duty when at about midnight I was disturbed by rifle shots in the streets and on going out found that infantry patrols (Royal Scots Fusiliers) had captured some German transport, mostly cookers with hot soup, which had come right through our line.
‘Last stand boys!'
The night passed and in the morning we stood to in the trenches. About 9.00 am we saw infantry streaming away on our right leaving us exposed and we had to retire. We sent out runners and got in touch with the infantry who were now in our rear, and after some trouble managed to reform our line. We then all advanced in open order and were heavily shelled by low bursting shrapnel but managed to reach Bouchoir again and consolidate a position there. We were now holding the front line and were asked for targets to fire at by our artillery. Seeing a place where the enemy was collecting we gave this as a target but the shells dropped short and we came in for the pieces. We could see several parties of Germans passing along a road about 600 yards in front of us. Choosing a few of our best shots under the command of Cpl. Lane they crawled out some distance and began to snipe the Germans.
It was now about 8.00 am (28 March) and the Germans opened rapid machine-gun fire and we noticed several white lights being fired in our direction and, after a time, from the direction of the lights, the fire became the most intense. We were much harassed by this fire and replied vigorously at first but we were obliged to conserve our ammunition. Cpl. Lane was hit and died within a few minutes. (6) Presently I noticed men retiring on my left and this continued for some time and we were obliged to retire as well and at last reached a position in front of a wood. I was joined by Capt. Day and we began to form a new line in small holes already dug. I got more ammunition and handed it out to the men and tried to organise the line. Two wounded infantry officers retiring arm in arm saw us and shouted, ‘The last stand, boys!' but Bennet replied, ‘Not a bit of it!' I then got into one of the holes and began to devour huge chunks of bread which I had in my pocket.
We had barely been settled in this new position before the line was withdrawn again.and we formed up in line to cover the withdrawal of the other troops. We saw Germans advancing in a wood just in front of us and lying down we gave them rapid fire. We scattered them and then retired a short distance and did the same thing again. After a time we retired in open order covered by a single French mitrailleuse, the gunner of which waved us to one side in order to get a bigger sweep with his gun. We saw many wounded lying on the ground who cried for help but this we were not able to do as own position was desperate. Whilst we had been retiring streams of bullets were striking the ground at our feet sending up spurts of dust.
Passing through a wood we found that a good many French troops had taken up posts, and coming to a road we resumed marching formation. French and British troops were retiring everywhere, although more French troops were arriving. We now commenced a long trek to Rouvrel, and avoiding the columns on the roads, and the dust, kept to the fields. At last we arrived in Rouvrel which was packed with troops and transport and it was some time before we got billets. Many civilians were still in the houses and we slept in the padre's house.
The next morning (29 March) we received orders to return to the last village and commenced digging trenches for defence, but just after our arrival the order was cancelled and we returned to Rouvrel. In our absence the billets had been taken and we had some difficulty finding new ones. Much to our relief we then heard that our exhausted division had been relieved and for a time our share in the fighting was over.
(1) The dugouts were in a railway cutting in Savy Wood - some 4 miles west of St. Quentin.
(2) Manchester Redoubt (also known as Manchester Hill) was defended by the 16th Battalion, Manchester Regiment which held out until 4.30 pm. Their commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, was awarded a posthumous VC for his outstanding leadership and his utter refusal to capitulate that day.
(3) Brigadier General commanding 89 Brigade.
(4) ‘This a temporary double lattice bridge of 84-foot span....crossed a lock, its under surface being 6 feet above the level of the lock walls. It was fired at 8.00 am just as the enemy were gaining a foot on it. The explosion cut the girders in the centre, but their shore ends stayed on the abutments and the hanging ends fell on the lock walls, so that the gap was small. As the enemy was getting very near, nothing more could be done.' Official History 1918
(5) 166734 Sapper T. Woolley, (38) 201st Field Coy RE. Son of Charles and Hannah Woolley, of 214, Uttoxeter Rd., Blythe Bridge, Stoke-on-Trent; husband of the late Kate Woolley (nee Beech) is buried in Ham British Cemetery Muille Villette, Grave Ref. II.C.21. Lieutenant Hubert Raine (33), 202nd Field Coy RE, son of Robert and M. A. Raine of Whitby Yorkshire, is also buried in Ham British Cemetery Muille Villette, Grave Ref. I.D.11
(6) 134316 Corporal John Lane, 201st Field Coy RE, has no known grave. He is remembered on the Pozieres Memorial Panels 10-13
This article is the featured article from Edition 91 of Stand To!, the Journal of The Western Front Association.