The second occasion of angelic intervention became known as "The White Cavalry."
THE WHITE CAVALRY
The following account of what occurred between the months of April and August, 1918, I (Captain Cecil Wightwick Hayward) can personally vouch for as being true; as fair as that area of the front line trenches is concerned, lying roughly between the town of Ballieul, some fifteen miles south of Ypres, and the town of Arras, some fifteen miles south of Bethune, in La Bassee (France).
I was responsible for the intelligence on this sector of the battle area, and therefore made my headquarters in the bright little town of Bethune, as it was a very good position strategically, and had also remained practically untouched by enemy shell fire, although it was barely three miles from the trenches just across the La Bassee Canal.
It was an anxious time for Great Britain. The British troops had been in the trenches fighting for weeks without rest or relief owing to the fact that reserves were practically exhausted.
It was at this juncture that Portugal came in on our side, and raised a conscripted Army which landed in France early in March, 1918. Towards the end of that rnonth I was instructed by Headquarters that a Portuguese force would be passing through Bethune shortly in order to take over a sector of the front line trenches just in front of Bethune, so as to relieve the British who had been holding it for so long.
It was evident that the enemy was about to intensify this offensive shortly, with a greater concentration of men and heavy guns. On our side, especially between March and June, our troops had been greatly reduced in numbers by heavy casualties in the prolonged righting during those months, and our reserves were practically exhausted.
Although by the middle of May the United States of America had decided to join Great Britain and her Allies, their troops were still being formed, though the first contingent was on its way across the Atlantic. Later on, they came over at the rate of 50,000 weekly; but these reinforcements were not available for the front line much before the middle of June, according as they were dispatched to the various sectors.
As things stood, owing to the vigorous enemy action against the Allied lines to the north of Bethune, the line from La Bassee to Lens and Arras was left in a "pocket" which was liable to be "hemmed in" at any moment, with all the troops, ammunition, arms and equipment it contained.
It was highly improbable that the Portuguese troops, who had by now taken over the La Bassee trenches in front of Bethune, would make much difference to the enemy's plans. Indeed, they did not, for though there had been a temporary lull in the roar of the gun fire, it broke out again shortly afterwards with intensified fury. So tremendous was the reverberating crash of concentrated shell and high explosive fire, that it literally shook the ground and dazed us, though we were nearly three miles behind the front line.
It fell with a dense hall of shrapnel and lead on the unfortunate Portuguese, practically blotting them out wholesale, and thus causing a gap in our front line, through which the enemy began to pour in mass formation. The few Portuguese left came staggering through Bethune, having thrown away their arms and equipment in their mad desire to get away from the hell behind them as quickly as possible.
Shortly afterwards they were followed by British troops, whose flank had been turned, and who were retiring in good order, keeping up a stiff rearguard action as they went.
In Britain everyone was asking: "Would the Germans get through to Paris?" "Would the Americans arrive in time to check their advance?" "Will the English ports be shelled shortly by German big guns from the coast of France?"
But then we remembered the "Angels of Mons" and once again the whole British nation was called to prayer. The President of the United States summoned the Arnerican people to do likewise; and united prayer went up from all the English speaking peoples.
In the meantime, the enemy shell fire, which had been largely directed against the shattered town of Bethune, suddenly lifted and began to burst on a slight rise beyond its outskirts. This open ground was absolutely bare of tree, houses or human beings, yet the enemy gun fire broke on it with increasing fury, and was augmented by heavy bursts of masses machine guns which raked it backward and forward with a hail of lead. We stood looking in astonishment
"Firitz has gone balmy, Sir," said the Sergeant, "what in the world is he peppering the naked ground for?"
"I can't think," I replied. "Get along down to the canal and see what is happening there."
I followed him shortly afterwards, being eager to see for myself, as there were obviously no troops within sight against whom the Germans could be directing their fire.
As I made my way over the scattered debris of the ruined houses, the enemy's fire suddenly ceased, and a curious calm fell on everything. I went on wanderingly, and got outside the town. Then a lark suddenly arose from the remains of a meadow, and soared up, up, up, singing a trilling song which rings on my inward ear today, when I think of it.
I saw my Sergeant and men standing on the edge of a shell hole waving their tin hats. They shouted out:
"Fritz is retiring!"
Indeed he was. Outlined on the slight rise by the La Bassee village, and as far as we could see, was a dense line of German troops, who a short time before had commenced a forward movement to victory, in mass formation. This line suddenly halted, and, as we watched, we saw it break!
Before our astonished eyes, that well drilled and seemingly victorious army broke up into groups of frightened men who were fleeing from us, throwing down their arms, haversacks, rifles, coats and anything which might impede their flight.
It was not long before my Sergeant arrived with two German officer prisoners, and was soon followed by Tommies bringing in batches of twenty or so at a time.
Briefly, the statement the senior German officer made was as follows: The order had been given to advance in mass formation, and our troops were marching behind us singing their way to victory; when Friedrich my lieutenant here said:
"Herr, Kapitan, just look at that open ground behind Bethune, there is a brigade of cavalry coming up through the smoke drifting across it. They must be mad, these English, to advance against such a force as ours in the open. I suppose they must be cavalry of one of their Colonial forces, for see, they are all in white uniform and are mounted on white horses. "
"Strange," I said, "I never heard of the English having any white uniformed cavalry, whether Colonial or not. They have all been fighting on foot for several years past, and anyway, they wear khaki, not white."
"We saw the shells bursting amongst the horses and their riders, all of whom came forward at a quiet walk trot, in parade ground formation, each man and horse in his exact place.
Shortly afterwards, our machine guns opened a heavy fire, raking the advancing cavalry with a dense hail of lead. But they came quietly forward, though the shells were bursting amongst them with intensified fury, and not a single man or horse fell.
Steadily they advanced, clear in the shining sunlight; and a few paces in front of them rode their Leader, a fine figure of a man, whose hair, like spun gold, shone in an aura round his bare head. By his side was a great sword, but his hands lay quietly holding his horse's reins, as his huge white charger bore him proudly forward.
In spite of heavy shell, and concentrated machine gun fire, the White Cavalry advanced, remorseless as fate, like the incoming tide surging over a sandy beach. Then a great fear fell on me, and I turned to flee; yes I, an Officer of the Prussian Guard, fled, panic-stricken, and around me were hundreds of terrified men, whimpering like children, throwing away their arms and accoutrements in order not to have their movements impeded, all running. Their intense desire was to get away from that advancing White Cavalry; but most of all from their awe inspiring Leader.
That is all I have to tell you. We are beaten. The Gerrnan arrny is broken. There may be fighting, but we have lost the war. We are beaten, by the White Cavalry. I cannot understand."
During the following few days I examined many prisoners, and in substance, their accounts tallied with the one given here. This is in spite of the fact that at least two of us could swear that we saw no cavalry in action, here or elsewhere, at that particular time. Neither did any of us see so much as a single white horse either with or without a rider. But it was not necessary for us to do so, the evidence of their presence had to come from the enemy.
Shortly after this, the American forces came into action on the whole front, and about the second week in July there was a general advance which resulted in the capture of over 4,000 enemy and 100 guns on the sector between Bethune and Ypres during the ensuing weeks.
It is interesting to note that official reports give July 11th as the date of the Allied advance, for by November 11 th, 1 918, at 11.00 a.m. the war had ended and an Armistice was declared. Between these dates the British and Allied forces captured 385,000 prisoners and over 5,000 guns.