Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, June 14, 2021

Recommended: The Utterly Exciting, Thrilling, and Heart-Stirring Adventures of Whippet Tank Musical Box

A Whippet Medium Tank Similar to Musical Box

One of the most famous - and bloody—exploits by an individual tank and crew, was done on 8 August 1918, during the first day of the Battle of Amiens—the so called "Black Day of the German Army"—when an individual "Whippet," commanded by Lieutenant Clement .B. Arnold, penetrated to the rear of the German lines where it roamed for ten hours, causing big damage and enormous confusion. This is a contemporary account, based on Arnold's own story.

"Munchausen-like yarns have been woven out of every campaign in history, beginning with Herodotus and continuing with Froissart and his present-day imitators; but no more unbelievable story was ever staged than that of a Whippet Tank of B Company, 6th Battalion,  "Musical Box." Other men have faced—and will face—unflinchingly "fearful odds "to bring off forlorn hopes, but as a rule they take their adventures in sequence and at due intervals. Lieutenant Arnold, the C.O. of " Musical Box," concentrated a whole lifetime of alarums and excursions within a single revolution of the sun. If his name had been Hawkins or Paul Jones one might have anticipated something buccaneering or swashbuckling, but bearing that of the prim Victorian critic he is an uncharted phenomenon. For what he did with his little Medium A 3-man-power machine was purely phenomenal.

His own version of the events suffers from the common English failing of understatement. We are so fearful of being melodramatic, of laying oil the colours too crudely, that we barely sketch in the outlines. It is an historian’s duty to fill in gaps and cover the nakedness of the land with a few flowers of the wayside, indigenous, not imported. They are all there sub rosa, and one is only bringing them into the limelight of the public eye.

Army records scorn every ornamental trapping and stick closely to brass tacks. They are incurably prosaic in describing even poetic happenings, and Lieutenant Arnold’s lone-handed assault on the German Army was not a whit less epic than the defence of the Tiber bridge by Horatius Cocles. He was in command, with Gunner Ribbans and Driver Carney as his crew; their united ages being under threescore. "Musical Box" left the lying-up point at 4:20 a.m., zero-hour, on 8 August 1918, and proceeded (the sacred B.E.F. word which embraces going on leave and going over the top) to the south side of the railway at Villers-Bretonneux. We crossed the railway and passed through the Australian infantry and some of our heavy (Mark V) Tanks. Four sections of B Company went across country due cast.

A Company of Whippets Advancing in the Somme Sector

"After 2000 yards I was alone, the others [7 of 8 whippets] being ditched. To the immediate front I could see more Mark V. Tanks, closely followed by Australian infantry. I came under direct fire from a German four-gun field battery." What that means can he more or less visualized when one remembers that a field gun can fire ten to twenty rounds a minute—48 shells to one hectic minute. The battery was close enough for him to see the gun flashes between Aboucourt and Bayonvillers, and the shooting so accurate as to knock out two Mark V. Tanks alongside "Musical Box." That only strung up Arnold. "I turned half-left and ran diagonally across the front of the battery at 600 yards range"—manoeuvering so that both his guns could fire at once. The Boche could do the same, and pumped in over 30 shells before Arnold got under cover of a belt of trees. He was not however going to earth, but doing an outflanking move: "I ran along until level with the battery, when I turned full half-right and attacked it in the rear."

A field gun cannot fire fore and aft, and so the Boches sensibly ran for their lives. "Gunner Ribbans and I finished them off." Lieutenant Arnold then becomes slightly nautical: "I cruised forward, making a detour to the left, and shot a number of the enemy who appeared to be demoralized." This was merely in heating about on the other tack, and he does not even count his slain, but resumes his cruise on to "the railway siding N.N.W. of Guillancourt. "His destruction of the German battery had an immediate effect, for he now records: "The Australians also had advanced and were taking cover in a sunken road 400 yards in advance of the abandoned battery"—a quarter-of-a-mile gain of ground at no cost to the infantry.

At this point Arnold allowed himself a breather: "I got out and asked an Australian Lieutenant if he wanted any help, and he was struck by a bullet in the shoulder during our talk." What a spot to select for a little quiet talk where bullets strike one in the shoulder, perhaps lower! It reminds one of a corner near the railway crossing at Philosophe, in the Loos Salient, where a sentry was posted to warn troops not to loiter there as it was the frequent landing-place of very large Boche shells. That was the popular practice-ground for footballers amongst the troops billeted in the village, and on one occasion, a Sunday, the Deputy Chaplain-General (an old Welsh International) did a very fine drop-kick across the hoe.

To return to the C.O. of "Musical Box" chatting with the Aussies. He was now joined by Major Ryeroft and Lieutenant Waterhouse of his own Corps, and decided he must be doing some more damage: "I then followed the railway east and came up with two cavalry patrols of twelve men each "(which he, luckily for them, recognized as our own) "who were being fired at by a party of the enemy, hiding in standing corn. I dealt with them." There is a deadly brevity about those four words which are the winding-sheet of the Germans hiding in the corn. "Going farther east, I came across a second patrol pursuing the enemy. The leading horse was so tired that he could not gain on the Hun . . . and with his sword stretched out at the back of the Hun his rider was shot down." Arnold has the artist’s eye. He makes you see the stumbling horse and its rider straining forward, and the flying German suddenly realizing that he is safe and turning to fire fatally at his pursuer. But Arnold the artist is also Arnold the practical soldier.

Australian Infantry Passing Through German Dead,
8 August 1918

"I dealt with that party who had taken up a position on the railway bridge." They were not of the family of Horatius, and when "Musical Box "heaved herself on to one end of the bridge they tumbled off the other end—at least, the few survivors did—whilst Arnold went on his destructive way. "Proceeding farther east (i.e. always in the direction of Berlin, I entered a valley marked on my map as containing Boche hutments. As I entered many were packing kit... As I opened fire crowds more appeared and made for the embankment and safety; I accounted for many of them. I cruised round, and Ribbans went out and counted the slain, about sixty."

There were probably about 600 Boches, and yet Gunner Ribbans left the shelter of the tank to do his little sum. "I turned left from the railway and cruised across country, where lines of enemy infantry could be seen retiring. We fired at these from 200 to 600 yards range. As our cruise lasted an hour, we inflicted much damage." Arnold was now absolutely in the blue—an island entirely surrounded by undiluted Huns. "I did not see any more of our troops or machines after leaving the cavalry patrols." Consequently he drew all the fire, from every kind of weapon that the harassed Bosches could bring to bear on "Musical Box," which kept on playing her own devil’s tattoo in reply. The only thing to do was to keep on moving, like the stormy petrel in a typhoon. At this point Arnold inserts a mild protest "I would beg to suggest that no petrol tins should be carried on the outside [of Tanks] as we did, as they were always being perforated by bullets and the fumes of the burning petrol made breathing so difficult that we had to use our box-respirators, having been in action about ten hours."

Ten hours in action with the very likely prospect of being burned alive, or at any rate asphyxiated, would have damped most men’s fire for further adventuring, but not Arnold’s. "At about 2 p.m. I again proceeded east, and arrived at a large aerodrome with a captive balloon and a great quantity of horse-transport and motors." What lie did to the balloon is not mentioned, but most probably he brought it down, having stampeded the motors and transport.

"Over the top of another bridge I could see a lorry coming in my direction." "Musical Box" lay hid in a hollow and waited. As soon as the Hun topped the bridge, the Whippet leapt forward and rammed him backwards into the ditch. "The railway was now quite close, and I could see long lines of men retiring along it at ranges of 400 to 500 yards. I fired at them and did much damage. Leaving these in a state of panic, 'Musical Box' looked round for more exciting quarry. Passing by a two-horse canvased waggon, I knocked that out—Gunner Ribbans (R.H. gun) did some good shooting on the motor and horse transport, whilst I fired many bursts at 600 to 800 yards on the transport blocking the roads on the left (L.H. gun). I turned quarter-left to a small copse. On the way we came under the most intense rifle and machine-gun fire (bullet splash). The L.H. revolver port-cover was shot away. I withdrew the forward gun, locked the mounting and held the body of the gun against the hole." This was pretty level-headed after over ten hours’ delirious brain-storm. Arnold kept his balance, and if only the Fates had done the same it is conceivable that he would have overrun the German Army H.Q. His luck, however, ran out, like the petrol on the cab, and he describes it without bitterness: "Petrol was still running down the inside of the back door (of course ignited). As it was no longer possible to continue the action, 1 shouted to Driver Carney to turn about, when two heavy concussions closely followed each other and the cab burst into flames." (At last a field gun had got in a knock-out blow.)

Damaged Musical Box with Dead Pvt. Carney and
Wounded Gunner Ribbans and Lt. Arnold

If there ever was a situation for losing one’s head it was then, when they were trapped in a burning Tank, choked by petrol fumes and worn from want of sleep and food. "Carney and Bibbans got to the door and collapsed. I was almost overcome, but managed to get the door open, fell out on to the ground and was able to drag out the other two. Burning petrol was running on to the ground where we were lying. The fresh air revived us and we all got up, and made a short rush to get away from the burning petrol. We were all on fire." Now is the moment for the chivalrous foe to charge forward with army blankets to the rescue I Not a bit of it! In this rush, Carney was shot in the stomach and killed." The other two, apparently, were saved from this peril by the more pressing danger. "We rolled over and over to extinguish the flames," and so were harder to hit.

Our code is not to hit a fellow when he is down, but that is not the Code d’Allemagne. "I saw numbers of the enemy approaching from all round. The first arrival came at me with a rifle and bayonet. I got hold of this and the front of the bayonet entered my forearm. The second man struck at my head with the butt of his rifle, which glanced off and hit my shoulder, knocking me out. When I came to, there were dozens all round me, and everyone who could reach me did so, and I was well kicked." This was not worthy of the fellow-countrymen of the Crown Prince, who sent New Year Greetings at Verdun to his chivalrous foe, General Sarrail. Anyhow, "they were furious," and forgot all about the Barmherzlichkeit due to a fallen foe; and one in a state of combustion. The kicks, however, did stamp out the flames, so they served some purpose.

We were eventually marched to a dug-out. Later, we marched past a field-kitchen (a cruel stroke!). I made signs for food. We had had nothing since 8.30 p.m. the previous night, and it was 3.30 p.m. when we were set on fire. Then I was taken before an elderly Staff Officer and interrogated. As I always answered "I do not know," he said: You mean you do not know, or you will not tell me? "I said: "You can take it whichever way you wish." (To which Arnold must have added under his breath "and be damned to you! "For something in his "dumb insolence" made that Hun officer and gentleman descend to the level of the kicking privates, for "He then struck me in the face and went away"—presumably to weep over the downfall of his own decorum. Arnold was sent back to the rear, but he does not say anything about being fed: only that they put paper bandages on some of his wounds but left his scarred face alone.

"The second time I was interrogated I received five days solitary confinement in a room with no window—this time with a little soup and bread thrown in. This did nothing towards breaking his contumacious spirit, as "the next time I was interrogated I told the officer he had no right to give me solitary confinement and that I would report him to the highest authority." That threat, most awful to the authority-ridden German soul, had its effect; and "I was then sent to Freiburg, where I met my brother." The only fitting climax to this ascending series of adventures would have been for the brothers Arnold to escape from the prison-camp and return through the German lines to report to their respective units. They did not, unfortunately, see their way to doing so. In the camp near Canterbury, in January 1919, through which our prisoners-of-war were distributed to their homes, one of those met there by the present writer was Gunner Ribbans.

In Prisoner of War Camp, Lt. Clement B. Arnold, DSO

Lieutenant Arnold ends his own tale in the way those who know him would expect: "The conduct of Gunner Ribbans and Driver Carney was beyond all praise; throughout, Driver Carney drove from Villers-Bretonneux . . ." The amount of damage actually and morally inflicted on the enemy by those three Englishmen in their Whippet was about equal to that which a brigade of infantry could have wrought at the cost of half of their effectives. It is, in the opinion of one of the least hysterical historians of the late war, the most fruitful individual achievement on record. It was not fireworks, which make a prodigious noise and end in smoke, but the stroke of another Attila - "the Scourge of God." He too harassed the Teutons of his day."

Source: Fighting Tanks—An account of The Royal Tank Corps in action 1916-1919, published in 1929 and edited by G. Murray Wilson.

Editor's Notes:  Thanks to Owain Alexander for bring this account to our attention.  For his adventures on 8 August 1918, Lt. Arnold received the Distinguished Service Order. In the Second World War Lt. Col. C.B. Arnold would return to service and be decorated for his service with the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

1 comment:

  1. "He too harassed the Teutons of his day."
    What a great account!