This may or may not be an extract from my next book “Poppies From Oblivion” of which that may or may not be the title.
16th September 1916
Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton crosses from Folkestone to Boulogne. Ernest Swinton is credited with being the father of the “Tank.” here are his thoughts on the day.
“On that fateful morning-Friday, Sept 15, 1916-I boarded the crowded boat-train at Charing cross, en route for France, to learn for myself how my “babies,” the Tanks, had fared in the offensive in which they were taking part.
I felt that everything rested on the knees of the gods. I did not know precisely at what time the Tanks had made the plunge; but I realized that long before I had set out on my journey they must have crossed the Rubicon, and at that very moment be in the thick of things.
My feelings were mixed. Naturally, I was full of regret that in the hour of its great adventure I had not been able to be with the first detachment of the Heavy section Machine-Gun corps-the unit which I had raised and commanded.
But anxiety and hope as to the outcome swamped the more personal point of view.
The guard blew his whistle. Men waved and women wept as the train started with its freight of human beings returning to what the Germans called “The Blood Bath of the Somme.”
I found many friends on board. But the subject that interested me I could not discuss with those not already in the secret of that morning’s attack: and I did not feel inclined to converse on any other topic.
My mind was full of one thing, and one alone-that the weapon of which I had thought and dreamed, and for which I had contrived and schemed, for nearly two years, was being put to the test.
That I did not agree with the policy of employing the small number of tanks then ready, but regarded it as the premature revelation of a secret and the wasting of a chance of surprise, did not affect the question.
Was we rushed through Kent the whole Chequered history of the struggle to get the Tanks taken up unfolded itself-the opposition and rebuffs met with , as well as the help and encouragement received.
My mind went back to the original inception during the battle of the Aisne of the ida which was to help our infantry, for even at that early date their principle foe was the murderous combination of machine-guns and wire.
I recalled the slaughter at Neuve Chappelle, at Festubert, at Loos, and at the opening of the Somme offensive a few weeks earlier.
I conjured up once again the picture which had, in my imagination, so often been before my eyes-the consternation of the amazed German machine-gunners when faced by bullet-proof monsters which could not be shot down like unprotected men, and the destruction of the weapons which had for so many months taken such a heavy toll of British manhood.
None the less I was not blind to the casualties which were bound to occur among my own splendid officers and men-pioneers and crusaders both-who, at that moment, with but scanty training and embryonic machines, were engaged in a mighty endeaver to help their comrades on foot. But the price had to be paid: and the realization of what even a measure of success on their part would mean to the infantry in the future brought consolation. What, I kept wondering was happening “over there,” some 65 miles beyound Boulogne?
Ashford, Sandling Junction, Shorncliffe, Folkestone. Ah a haze over the sea. That should help those in Flanders!
After what seemed an interminable delay the overcrowded boat started, and we saw-many of us for the last time-the white cliffs of old England fade from sight. With no troops under me, and no duties to preform, my thoughts as I sat on deck were uninterrupted save by the mewing of seagulls, which wheeled and swooped and dipped ahead, abeam, and astern of the ship.
At last, close ahead, so peaceful, undisturbed, and apparently remote from war, lay Boulogne, smiling in the sunlight.
A hoarse roar from our siren, the clang of the engine room gong, and the vessel slowed-though, surely to God, we had been travelling slowly enough-and glided between the piers stretching out towards us like a pair of welcoming arms. On each pier, high above our deck, were men fishing, stolidly fishing, at such a time!
The troops slipped off their lifebelts and donned their equipment, resignedly without excitement. They did not appear downhearted-Tommy seldom shows his depression, even when he feels it-but they were serious, for all on board had already “had some,” and realized only too well the hell to which they were returning.
How I long to encourage them, to impart to them my hopes that the morning’s events might henceforth temper that hell for them!
We slid on into the harbour. The familiar picture opened up at close range-waiting Channel steamers, fantastically camouflaged destroyers, mine sweepers, fishing boats, troop trains, lorries, motor-cars, crowd of British officers and men and French officials-everything so calm, just as usual.
But no, as we drew near there seemed to be more than the customary bustle on the quay. Or was it my imagination?
Gradually the strip of greasy water between ship and shore narrowed. Our hull crushed the fenders against the creaking piles. Deliberately, according to plan and ritual, as if nothing abnormal had happened that morning, the gang ways were slid across. The suspense was agonizing.
Some officers of the landing-staff came aboard. I rushed to the nearest-a stranger-and asked for news.
“Fourth and Reserve Armies started new push on the Somme s’morning. Went over the top at six-thirty ack emma. Pretty useful. Used some new sort of comic armoured-cars.”
“Yes, yes____” In my soul I cursed his slowness. All this was no more than the usual Base gossip: and during the first hours of an offensive, rumours were always rosy…. “Any details? What did they do?”
“ Oh! There is a report that our airman sent back the message : “A Tank”-that’s what these cars are called-” is walking up the main street of Flers , with the British Army cheering behind it!””
“Flers? Flers!”-that was some way behind the German front, and one of my “babes” had got there, and the infantry with it! “Anything more more?” I gasped.
“No. but that’s…”
I did not wait. I raced for the shore. All were agog with the news: “ A Tank is walking up the main street of Flers!”
(Maj,-Gen. Sir E. D. Swinton, K.B.E., D.S.O.)