On The Road To Canterbury
By telegraph from our military correspondent in West Kent, March 13th, 1896
Once again I was with the 68th Infantry Regiment in the van of our forces advancing to surround Canterbury and once again was in company with Fahnrich Klaus-Deiter Weber. Weber and his two squads from the 2nd Company on the way to hold a crossroads, the eastern road of which led to the beleaguered town. At our coffee stop Fahnrich Weber introduced me to his new second-in-command, the young Gefrieter Arz-Vasegg, replacing our redoubtable Obergefrieter Muller who had been promoted and moved to the telegraph section. Arz-Vasegg, a volunteer who won the Iron Cross in the capture of Paris, seemed very keen and appeared to inspire his squad with his enthusiasm.
Our advance along the Ashford road to the tiny village of Chartham was relatively peaceful until we saw horsemen - presumably English scouts - watching us from the hills to our left. At their first appearance Fahnrich Weber ordered Arz-Vasegg’s squad forward pushing out flank guards a good 50 metres wider and slowing the pace slightly. “Don’t want any Teutoburgerwalds round here, thanks very much,” he said with a smile. His smile faded as he observed that the river was forcing his right flank guard in too close to the road and he tutted, frowning. He opened his mouth, no doubt to order a further change of formation when two shots barked out from woods across the river and young Schmidt of Arz-Vasegg’s squad was hit.
Immediately, Weber doubled his squad into the copse on our left and ordered Arz-Vasegg to get half his squad into the wood to his left while the other half provided covering fire. As I scurried to join Fahnrich Weber’s squad, he hustling a couple of laggards on, we moved stealthily but swiftly through the trees towards the northern end, intending, as I found later, to sweep across to the wall covered by Arz-Vasegg’s squad.
However, as we did so, we saw Gefrieter Arz-Vasegg wave his men to their feet and charge towards the small house where the firing was coming from. Weber gave vent to a soldierly expletive as Arz-Vasegg’s squad charged forward uttering a thin cheer. No sooner had they done so than more firing came from the large building ahead and to the left. Fully expecting this to cause Arz Vasegg to at least amend his headlong charge, Weber and I halted for a second as Arz-Vasegg plunged on. “Oh my G_d, under fire from three separate directions and the idiot’s still barging ahead”, gasped Weber then, collecting himself, urged his troops through the wood and up to the wall. “We have to suppress those Tommies on the roof there otherwise Arz-Vasegg’s lot are done for!” he yelled. He paused, suddenly and listened as firing came from behind. “I hope that’s Egon and Fischer shooting at the Tommies across the river,” he said then shrugged “Can’t be helped now – you lot keep firing!” he shouted.
Gefreiter Arz-Vasegg leads his men in a daring attack on the British-occupied building.
No sooner had he spoken than the squad opened an even more intense fire on the Englishmen on the roof and one at least, disappeared from view. Another expletive came from Weber as another thin cheer came from the direction of the small house on the right. “Since that idiot took his squad off on his medal hunt we are effectively fighting two separate and totally different uncoordinated engagements”, he muttered to me. “I don’t know if that means he has taken the house or the Englishmen are cheering his retreat”. He drew breath. “Keep firing!” he yelled to the squad. As the firing from the roof died away, a young, slightly wounded, member of Arz-Vasegg’s squad appeared and told us breathlessly that the gefreiter had stormed the wooden building and captured two Englishmen. Weber grunted ungraciously. “Now, if only he has the sense to stay there and suppress those Tommies on the roof we can storm the building from the rear.”
No sooner had he spoken than another thin cheer rang out from the direction of the captured house and Weber looked round desperately. “G_d, in heaven! - Right, Husten, Kleinschmidt, keep up a steady fire on the roof – and you”- he said to the wounded soldier. He grabbed the other two, pulled out his pistol and waved them forward bent double but moving quickly along the wall towards the house. “Stay here, scribbler!” he barked to me over his shoulder and set off towards the house followed by his two acolytes.
A few seconds later there was some brisk shooting followed by another cheer and then a soldier appeared on the roof waving a pickelhaube on the end of his rifle. I assumed this meant that victory was ours, and accompanied by Husten, Kleinschmidt and the wounded fellow I trotted over to find Gefrieter Arz-Vasegg outside the building, looking very pleased with himself and ushering a British prisoner forward while clapping several of his surviving men on the back. A few seconds later Weber emerged from the larger house pushing two more English prisoners. Arz-Vasegg saluted him smartly and smiling. “A great victory, Herr Fahnrich,” he beamed. Weber grunted then said, “Gefreiter, take these prisoners and use them to get your wounded up to the house in case the Tommies across the river are inclined to continue the argument." This deflated Arz-Vasegg somewhat and Weber then turned to the medical orderly Schneider and told him to clear a space for the wounded on the lower floor and to attend to them there.
“Gefrieter, get one of your men to guard the prisoners and get the others to knock some loopholes in the walls facing to the north and west” said Weber. “My squad, clean weapons and make some food and coffee – decent coffee for a change, Meyer. I’ll be up on the roof.” I followed him up on to the roof and he squatted there peering over the balcony with his binoculars. He turned to me and stood up after a few seconds. “I’ve got one badly wounded and one lightly. Arz-Vasegg has one dead, two badly wounded and one lightly.” he paused, “A bit more expensive than I’d been hoping for,” he said, pensively. He indicated the dead British sergeant. “He’s a regular, the rest are probably new recruits so if we’d taken our time we could have probably hustled them out of here with less blood and glory all round.” He shrugged. “Well, we’ve got the place now so we should be fine from the east for a bit.” He grinned. “Good luck to Tommy if he tries a daylight river crossing under fire – better him than me”.
From below we could hear Arz-Vasegg telling the landser that “The English cannot withstand Prussian dash & verve.” Weber shook his head. “He was lucky out there today - some Englishman without the benefit of dash and verve but who actually knew his business would have shot him through his wooden head.” As we spoke a face peeped cautiously up from the ladder and Schneider the medic said hurriedly, “Herr Fahnrich, the English prisoners said one of their soldiers is still out there somewhere with a sniper rifle." The fahnrich muttered another expletive and sat abruptly down on the roof and I quickly followed. “Never a dull moment.” he said. “Thank you, Schneider, you have saved your beloved fahnrich from becoming an involuntary hero. Tell everyone to keep heads down until Hausser blows the ‘Cease Fire’. Schneider’s head disappeared.
As Schneider descended two other landser came up the ladder and began searching the dead sergeant’s body before half carrying, half dragging it downstairs. Weber watched, sighed and said, “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” When I looked up enquiringly he said “ - From Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.” He grinned again. “Damned lucky for the gefreiter that none of Herr Burns’ countrymen were out there today or we might all be singing a different tune just now." No sooner had he spoken than there came a cry of pain from below and Weber grimaced. “Another quote for you, Herr Scribbler, since you are a man of letters : Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word.” - Shakespeare, Henry IV.” And with that he took himself off down the ladder.
The main body arrived the following morning as expected and moved east to complete the encirclement of Canterbury. The city surrendered three days later. The 68th., as part of VIII AK, moved into the gap behind Canterbury and after heavy fighting took Ashford. Subsequent to the fall of Canterbury the front ran Whitstable - Ashford - Folkestone and the 68th moved to rest in a quieter sector outside beleaguered Dover.