"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is a born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better” – G.K. Chesterton
Dr. Halliday Sutherland tells of the events in Deal and at Walmer Castle, Kent in 1916:
At Deal I assisted in the defence against the invasion of England. No news of this episode was ever published in the Press, and it is not recorded in the official history of the Great War. Nevertheless the thing happened, and the truth is known to several thousand people. For that reason the story is now to be published for the first time—Official Secrets Act or no Official Secrets Act—with all copyright reserved and reproduction forbidden. The major had shooting rights over a marsh a few miles from the depot, and one forenoon he and I were out after snipe. We had reached the end of the marsh when a marine appeared, running, in the distance. Splashing his way through pools and mud, he was making straight for us.
“Why can’t the fool keep on the dry?” said the major.
“Looks like a cinema show,” I replied.
Ten minutes later a breathless, soaked and mud-bespattered marine saluted, and from his tunic produced a message. The major read it and passed it to me. “Return at once,” was the message, signed by the adjutant. We returned in a two-seater car, and found the gates of the depot closed. At the orderly-room was another message—to report at the general’s house on the sea front.
The general was sitting at the dining-room table, around which were officers seated and standing. The major apologised for our appearance in mufti with twelve-bore guns in our hands.
“As every one is now present, I shall read the orders received from the Central Army: “Enemy wearing our uniform and speaking our language expected to land between North Foreland and Dover. The Royal Marines will hold the coast from a point one mile north of Deal to a point one hundred yards south of Walmer Castle. Landing will probably be covered by bombardment from the sea. As soon as bombardment begins civilian population will leave the town, using fields and bye-roads, leaving all main roads clear for military operations. Ten thousand troops will proceed to the point of attack as soon as this is known. The position is to be held at all costs and under no circumstances will a retirement be permitted.” The general paused, and I had a sinking sensation in the epigastric region. He continued: “It is unnecessary, gentlemen, for me to add anything. You all know your duties, and the traditions of the corps will be maintained.”
Within half an hour the adjutant had allotted to me thirty-six raw recruits as stretcher-bearers. They would be of no use in the trenches as they had not yet learned to handle a rifle. I marched them to the hospital, and obtained nine horse-hair mattresses to be used as stretchers. There were only two real stretchers in the whole establishment. The mattresses were carried to an empty garage, where we fitted rope handles to each corner so that they might be carried like stretchers. I gave the recruits twenty minutes of stretcher drill—all that I could remember out of Sutherland’s First Aid to the Sick and Injured. After that I dismissed them, telling them to fall-in at the garage when the corps paraded to march to the trenches already dug on the foreshore. These trenches were only to be fully manned during the night, as in daylight we would have ample warning of the raid. I told the recruits to wear double underclothing as the night would be cold.
The line of trenches for which I was medically responsible reached from a hillock at the south end of the town to the point beyond Walmer Castle. My next task was to commandeer a house to serve as a casualty clearing-station. At random I chose one in a terrace behind the hillock, as this hillock might give some protection against bombardment. The house selected was occupied by an elderly lady, a widow, with two daughters in their twenties. I explained my business. They were delighted, and offered there and then to move the furniture out of the drawing-room into the garden. I said this was unnecessary, and that nothing need be done until something happened. Even then it would be sufficient if arrangements were made for an ample supply of hot water in the kitchen. The three ladies were so pleased that I said I would do my best to look after their house when they left it.
“What perfect nonsense!” said the mother. “Whatever happens, we’re not going away.”
“No,” added one of the girls, “and if we went away I wouldn’t be here to drive you about in my car.”
That settled the matter.
In the late afternoon I marched my stretcher-bearers to positions behind the lines. On the way, I led them past the house behind the hillock, so that they would know where the casualty clearing-station was situated. I left them in three groups more or less equidistant, and about one hundred yards behind our trenches. I reported in the trenches where the stretcher-bearers were to be found if wanted. I was leading the third lot towards Walmer Castle. The light was failing, rain was falling, and a mist was blown in gusts from the sea. As we came to a bend in the road I saw a column of troops marching like a phantom army out of the mist. They carried their rifles at the slope, and my heart thumped when I saw at a glance that they were not wearing our uniforms, but the field-grey of the Prussian infantry. But for the twelve lads behind me I would there and then have bolted inland. As it-was I halted my stretcher-bearers, and, with as much assurance as I could muster, shouted to the advancing army: “Halt! Who goes there?” They halted, and the next moment I expected to be riddled with bullets. My challenge was answered by a shout of: “Friends. Volunteers from Dover.” With great cordiality I replied: “Advance, friends, for recognition.” An elderly gentleman marched briskly forward and explained that the volunteers were to occupy the line to the south of ours. He had over-marched the distance by a quarter of a mile. This was the first I had seen of the volunteers, and in colour their uniforms resembled those of the German troops. Leaving my stretcher-bearers on the road, I showed him the place where our lines ended. These volunteers were all old and mostly retired professional or business men. Three of them died of pneumonia in consequence of their vigil that night on the coast.
On returning I found some of the stretcher-bearers shivering. It was a cold night with half a gale of wind, and the sea was a swirling vortex of white-ridged waves. Any Germans crossing the North Sea that night in motor barges deserved the Iron Cross and anything else they could obtain. Under my naval greatcoat I was wearing a camel-hair dressing-gown and yet I was cold.
To one shivering recruit I said: “How old are you?” “Eighteen, sir,” was the answer. “That’s your army age,”
I said. “What I want to know is your real age.”
“Excuse me, sir, but I’m nearly sixteen.” I marched them to the front door of Walmer Castle, and rang the bell. It was then the country residence of the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith. He was not there that night, and his butler readily agreed to my request that these stretcher-bearers should spend the night in the kitchen. I arranged that two of them would be on duty outside on the road. This they did by pairs every hour, and the butler give them cocoa and sandwiches throughout the night.
I returned to the casualty clearing-station and there had supper. Afterwards the girl got the car out and drove me to inspect the stretcher-bearers. It was a dark night of rain and wind, the car had no lights, and I had some difficulty in finding the places where I had left my men.
Once something large loomed out of the darkness on the road. The girl ran her car on to the sward and braked, as an enormous motor lorry thundered past without lights.
“What’s that?” asked the girl.
I told her. “Twenty thousand rounds of extra ammunition from the Central Army.”
“But how thrilling!” she said.
At dawn the troops returned to barracks, and most of us slept all forenoon. In the late afternoon the trenches were again occupied for the night. Next day the Marine Office in London telephoned to know why certain routine reports had not been received. They were not yet aware of the state of emergency on the coast, and full particulars were forthwith sent to London by motor dispatch rider. Marine headquarters telephoned to the Admiralty. The Admiralty knew nothing about the threatened invasion, and telephoned to the War Office. The War Office knew nothing about it, but the Admiralty insisted that the War Office must know something about it, and two hours later the War Office made a discovery. Two days previously they had transmitted the following intelligence to the Central Army: “Enemy spies wearing our uniform and speaking our language expected to land between North Foreland and Dover.” During the transmission the word “spies” had been omitted, and the Staff of the Central Army had done the rest—very effectively.
From: The Arches of the Years by Halliday Sutherland.
Picture: Walmer Castle in “walmer” weather.
Next post: 1st August 2016.