THE GERMANS ON THE SOMME
By Philip Gibbs.
(Reprinted by Permission of The Daily Chronicle.)
London: Darling & Son, Ltd., 1917
THE GERMANS ON THE SOMME.
THE BRITISH OFFENSIVE AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE.
The capture of Beaumont-Hamel, on the 13th day of this
month, with more than 6,000 prisoners, after a lull in which the progress
of our offensive seemed to have been brought to a halt by weather, was
undoubtedly the biggest surprise and shock we have yet given to the
German High Command on the Western front.
There may be other surprises of the same kind in store
for them--I think there will be--but now it is a good time to look back
a little and see as closely as possible what our soldiers have achieved,
actually, by so much heroism and so much sacrifice.
In this and one or two articles which may follow I
propose to give a picture of the great struggle as it was watched and
directed by the German staff, and as it was carried out by the German
troops. My narrative is not coloured by imagination or bias. It is coloured
only by the red vision of great bloodshed, for the story of the Somme
battles on the German side is ghastly and frightful.
From January to May of this year the German Command
on the Western front was concentrating all its energy and all its available
strength in man power and gun power upon the attack of Verdun. The Crown
Prince had staked all his reputation upon this adventure, which he believed
would end in the capture of the strongest French fortress and the destruction
of the French armies.
He demanded men and more men until every unit that
could be spared from other fronts of the line had been thrown into this
furnace. Divisions were called in from other theatres of war, and increased
the strength on the Western front to a total of about 130 divisions.
FEAR OF OUR OFFENSIVE.
But the months passed, and Verdun still held out above
piles of German corpses on its slopes, and in June Germany looked East
and saw a great menace. The Russian offensive was becoming violent.
German generals on the Russian fronts sent desperate messages for help.
"Send us more men" they said and from the Western front four divisions
containing battalions were sent to them.
They must have been sent grudgingly, for now another
menace threatened the enemy, and it was on the Western side. The British
Armies were getting ready to strike. In spite of Verdun, France still
had men enough -- withdrawn from a part of the line in which they had
been relieved by the British -- to co-operate in a new attack.
It was our offensive that the German Command feared
most, for they had no exact knowledge of our strength or of the quality
of our new troops. They knew that our Army had grown prodigiously since
the assault on Loos, nearly a year before.
PREPARING FOR THE BLOW.
They had heard of the Canadian reinforcements, and
the coming of the Australians, and the steady increase of recruiting
in England, and month by month they had heard the louder roar of our
guns along the line, and had seen their destructive effect spreading
and becoming more terrible. They knew of the steady, quiet, concentration
of batteries and divisions on the north and south of the Ancre.
The German Command expected a heavy blow, and prepared
for it, but as yet had no knowledge of the driving force behind it.
What confidence they had of being able to resist the British attack
was based upon the wonderful strength of the lines which they had been
digging and fortifying since the autumn of the first year of war --
"impregnable positions" they had called them -- the inexperience of
our troops, their own immense quantity of machine-guns, the courage
and skill of their gunners, and their profound belief in the superiority
of German Generalship.
In order to prevent espionage during the coming struggle,
and to conceal the movement of troops and guns, they ordered the civil
populations to be removed from villages close behind their positions,
drew cordons of military police across the country, picketed crossroads,
and established a network of counter espionage to prevent any leakage
To inspire the German troops with a spirit of martial
fervour (not easily aroused to fever-pitch after the bloody losses before
Verdun) Orders of the Day were issued to the battalions counselling
them to hold fast acrainst the hated English, who stood foremost in
the way of peace (that was the gist of a manifesto by Prince Rupprecht
of Bavaria, which I found in a dugout at Montauban), and promising them
a speedy ending to the war.
GREAT STORES OF MUNITIONS.
Great stores of material and munitions were concentrated
at railheads and dumps ready to be sent up to the firing lines, and
the perfection of German organisation may well have seemed flawless--before
the attack began.
The British attack began with the great bombardment
several days before July 1st and was a revelation, to the German Command
and to the soldiers who had to endure it, of the new and enormous power
of our artillery. A number of batteries were unmasked for the first
time, and the German gunners found that in "heavies" and in expenditure
of high explosives they were outclassed.
They were startled, too, by the skill and accuracy
of the British gunners whom they had scorned as "amateurs" and by the
daring of our airmen who flew over their lines with the utmost audacity
"spotting" for the guns, and registering on batteries, communication
trenches, cross-roads, railheads, and every vital point of organisation
in the German war-machine working opposite the British lines north and
south of the Ancre,
Even before the British infantry had left their trenches
at dawn on July 1 German officers behind the firing lines saw with anxiety
that all the organisation which had worked so smoothly in times of ordinary
trench-warfare was now working only in a hazardous way under a deadly
storm of shells.
FATE OF STAFF OFFICERS.
Food and supplies of all kinds could not be sent up
to front line trenches without many casualties, and sometimes could
not be sent up at all. Telephone wires were cut, and communications
broken between the front and headquarter staffs. Staff officers sent
up to report were killed on the way to the lines. Troops moving forward
from reserve areas came under heavy fire and lost many men before arriving
in the support trenches.
Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, sitting aloof from all
this in personal safety, must have known before July 1 that his resources
in men and material would be strained to the uttermost by the British
attack, but he could take a broader view than men closer to the scene
of battle, and taking into account the courage of his troops (he had
no need to doubt that), the immense strength of their positions, dug
and tunnelled beyond the power of high explosives, the number of his
machine-guns, the concentration of his artillery and the rawness of
the British troops, he could count up the possible cost and believe
that in spite of a heavy price to pay there would be no great break
in his lines.
At 7:30 a.m. on July 1 the British infantry left their
trenches and attacked on the right angle southwards from Gommecourt,
Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, and La Boiselle, and eastwards from
Fricourt, below Mametz and Montauban. For a week the German troops--Bavarians
and Prussians--had been crouching in their dug-outs, listening to the
ceaseless crashing of the British "drum-fire."
In places like Beaumont Hamel the men down in the deep
tunnels--some of them large enough to bold a battalion and a half--were
safe as long as they stayed there. But to get in or out was death. Trenches
disappeared into a sea of shell-craters, and the men holding them--for
some men had to stay on duty there--were blown to fragments of flesh.
Many of the shallower dug outs were smashed in by heavy
shells, and officers and men lay dead there as I saw them lying on the
first days of July, in Fricourt and Mametz and Montauban.
The living men kept their courage, but below ground,
under that tumult of bursting shells, wrote pitiful letters to their
people at home describing the horror of those hours. "We are quite shut
off from the rest of the world," wrote one of them. "Nothing comes to
us. No letters. The English keep such a barrage on our approaches it
is terrible. To-morrow evening it will be seven days since this bombardment
began. We cannot hold out much longer. Everything is shot to pieces."
TORTURES OF THIRST.
Thirst was one of their tortures. In many of the tunnelled
shelters there was food enough, but the water could not be sent up.
The German soldiers were maddened by thirst. When rain fell many of
them crept out and drank filthy water mixed with yellow shell sulphur,
and then were killed by high explosives. Other men crept out, careless
of death but compelled to drink. They crouched over the bodies of the
men who lay above, or in, the shell-holes, and lapped up the puddles,
and then crawled down again if they were not hit.
When our infantry attacked at Gommecourt and Beaumont
Hamel and Thiepval they were received by waves of machine-gun bullets
fired by men who, in spite of the ordeal of our seven days' bombardment,
came out into the open now, at the moment of attack which they knew
through their periscopes was coming. They brought their guns above the
shell-craters of their destroyed trenches under our barrage and served
They ran forward even into No Man's Land, and planted
their machine-guns there and swept down our men as they charged. Over
their heads the German gunners flung a frightful barrage ploughing dreadful
gaps in the ranks of our splendid men, who would not be checked, whatever
their losses might be, until they had reached the enemy's lines.
OUR OVERWHELMING WAVES.
On the left, by Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel, the
British attack did not succeed in all its objectives, though the German
line was pierced, and if this had been all the line of battle the enemy's
Generals at the end of that day might have said, "It is well. We can
hold them back."
But southward the "impregnable" lines were smashed
by a tide of British soldiers as sand castles are overwhelmed by the
waves. Our men swept up to Fricourt, struck straight up to Montauban
on the right, captured it, and flung a loop round Mametz village.
For the German Generals, receiving their reports with
great difficulty because runners were killed and telephones broken,
the question was, "How will these British troops fight in the open after
their first assault? How will our men stand between the first line and
As far as the German troops were concerned there were
no signs of cowardice, or "low moral" as we call it more kindly, in
those early days of the struggle. They fought with a desperate courage,
holding on to positions in rearguard actions when our guns were slashing
them, and when our men were getting near to them making us pay a heavy
price for every little copse or gully or section of trench, and above
all serving their machine-guns at La Boiselle, Ovillers, above Fricourt,
round Contalmaison, and at all points of their gradual retreat, with
a splendid obstinacy until they were killed or captured. But they could
not check our men, or stop their progress.
After the first week of battle the German General Staff
had learnt the truth about the qualities of those British "New Armies"
which had been mocked and caricatured in German comic papers. They learnt
that these "amateur soldiers" had the qualities of the finest troops
in the world -- not only extreme valour but skill and cunning, not only
a great power of endurance under the heaviest fire, but a spirit of
attack which was terrible in its effect.
They were great bayonet fighters. Once having gained
a bit of earth or a ruined village nothing would budge them unless they
could be blasted out by gunfire. General Sixt von Arnim put down some
candid notes in his report to Prince Rupprecht.
"The English infantry shows great dash in attack, a
factor to which immense confidence in its overwhelming artillery greatly
. It has shown great tenacity in defence. This was
especially noticeable in the case of small parties which when once established
with machine guns in the corner of a wood or a group of houses were
very difficult to drive out."
The German losses were piling up. The great agony
of the German troops under our shell fire was reaching unnatural limits
of torture. The early prisoners I saw -- Prussians and Bavarians of
the 14th Reserve Corps -- were nerve-broken, and told frightful stories
of the way in which their regiments had been cut to pieces. The German
Generals had to fill up the gaps, to put new barriers of men against
the waves of British infantry. They flung new troops into the line,
called up hurriedly from reserve depots.
But now, for the first time, their staff work showed
signs of disorder and demoralisation. When the Prussian Guards reserves
were brought up from Valenciennes to counter-attack at Contalmaison
they were sent on to the battlefield without maps or local guides, and
walked straight into our barrage. A whole battalion was cut to pieces,
and many others suffered frightful things. Some of the prisoners told
me that they had lost three-quarters of their number in casualties and
our troops advanced over heaps of killed and wounded.
The 122nd Bavarian regiment in Contalmaison was among
those which suffered horribly. Owing to our ceaseless gun-fire they
could get no food supplies and no water. The dugouts were crowded, so
that they had to take turns to get into these shelters, and outside
our shells were bursting over every yard of ground.
"Those who went outside," a prisoner told me, "were
killed or wounded. Some of them had their heads blown off, and some
of them had both their legs torn off, and some of them their arms. But
we went on taking turns in the hole, although those who went outside
knew that it was their turn to die, most likely. At last most of those
who came into the hole were wounded, some of them badly, so that we
lay in blood." It is one little picture in a great panorama of bloodshed.
The German Command was not thinking much about the
human suffering of its troops. It was thinking, necessarily, of the
next defensive line upon which they would have to fall back if the pressure
of the British offensive could be maintained--the Longueval-Bazentin-Pozieres
line. It was getting nervous. Owing to the enormous efforts made in
the Verdun offensive the supplies of ammunition were not adequate to
the enormous demand.
The German gunners were trying to compete with the
British in continuity of bombardments and the shells were running short.
Guns were wearing out under this incessant strain, and it was difficult
to replace them. General von Gallwitz received reports of "an alarmingly
large number of bursts in the bore, particularly in field guns."
General von Arnim complained that "reserve supplies
of ammunition were only available in very small quantities." The German
telephone system proved " totally inadequate in consequence of the development
which the fighting took." The German air service was surprisingly weak,
and the British airmen had established a complete mastery.
"The numerical superiority of the enemy's airmen,"
noted General von Arnim, "and the fact that their machines were better
made, became disagreeably apparent to us, particularly in the direction
of the enemy's artillery fire and in bomb-dropping."
FEAR OF BRITISH BAYONETS.
On July 15, one of the greatest days in the history
of the Somme battles, the British troops broke the German second line
at Longueval and the Bazentins, and inflicted great losses upon the
enemy, who fought with their usual courage until the British bayonets
were among them.
A day or two later the fortress of Ovillers fell, and
the remnants of the garrison--150 strong -- after a desperate and gallant
resistance in ditches and tunnels where they had fought to the last,
surrendered with honour.
Then began the long battle of the woods--Devil's Wood,
High Wood, Trones Wood--continued through August with most fierce and
bloody fighting, which ended in our favour and forced the enemy back,
gradually but steadily, in spite of the terrific bombardments which
filled those woods with hell-fire, and the constant counter-attacks
delivered by the Germans.
"Counter-attack!" came the order from the German Staff--and
battalions of men marched out obediently to certain death, sometimes
with incredible folly on the part of their commanding officers, who
ordered these attacks to be made without the slightest chance of success.
In all the letters written during those weeks of fighting
and captured by us from dead or living men there is one great cry of
agony and horror.
"I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of
my life," wrote one of them. "They were those of the battle of the Somme.
It began with a night attack on August 13-14. The attack lasted till
the evening of the 18th, when the English wrote on our bodies in letters
of blood: It is all over with you.' A handful of half-mad, wretched
creatures, worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of a whole
battalion. We were that handful."
The losses of many of the German battalions were staggering,
and by the middle of August the moral of the troops was severely shaken.
So far as I can ascertain, the 117th Division by Pozieres suffered very
heavily. The 11th Reserve and 157th Regiments each lost nearly three-quarters
of their effectives. The IX. Reserve Corps had also lost heavily. The
9th Reserve Jaeger Battalion also lost about three-quarters, the 84th
Reserve and 86th Reserve over half. On August 10 the 16th Division had
six battalions in reserve.
By August 19, owing to the large number of casualties,
the greater part of those reserves had been absorbed into the front
and support trenches, leaving as available reserves two exhausted battalions.
The weakness of the division and the absolute necessity
of reinforcing it led to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment (2nd Guards
Division) being brought up to strengthen the right flank in the Leipzig
salient. This regiment had suffered casualties to the extent of over
50 per cent. west of Pozieres during the middle of July, and showed
no eagerness to return to the fight. These are but a few examples of
what was happening along the whole of the German front on the Somme.
It became apparent by the end of August that the enemy
was having considerable difficulty in finding fresh troops to relieve
his exhausted divisions, and that the wastage was faster than the arrival
of fresh troops. It was also noticeable that he left divisions in the
line until incapable of further effort rather than relieving them earlier
so that after resting they might again be brought on to the battlefield.
The only conclusion to be drawn from this was that the enemy had not
sufficient formations available to make the necessary reliefs.
In July three of these exhausted divisions were sent
to the East, their place being taken by two new divisions, and in August
three more exhausted divisions were sent to Russia, eight new divisions
coming to the Somme front. The British and French offensive was drawing
in all the German reserves and draining them of their life's blood.
"We entrained at Savigny," wrote a man of one of these
regiments, "and at once knew our destination. It was our old Blood-bath--the
In many letters this phrase was used. The Somme was
called the "Bath of Blood" by the German troops who waded across its
shell-craters, and in the ditches which were heaped with their dead.
But what I have described is only the beginning of the battle, and the
bath was to be filled deeper in the months that followed.
"THE BATH OF BLOOD"
Before the ending of the first phase of the Battles
of the Somme--the second phase begins, I imagine, with our great advance
on September 15 from the Pozieres-Longueval-Guillemont line -- the German
troops had invented a terrible name to describe this great ordeal ;
it was " The Blood Bath of the Somme."
The name and the news could not be hidden from the
people of Germany, who had already been chilled with horror by the losses
at Verdun, nor from the soldiers of reserve regiments quartered in French
and Belgian towns like Valenciennes, St. Quentin, Cambrai, Lille, Bruges,
and as far back as Brussels, waiting to go to the front, nor from the
civil population of those towns held for two years, by their enemy --these
blonde young men who lived in their houses, marched down their streets,
and made love to their women.
The news was brought down from the Somme front by Red
Cross trains, arriving in endless succession, and packed with maimed
and mangled men. German military policemen formed cordons round the
railway stations, pushed back civilians who came to stare with sombre
eyes at these blanketed bundles of living flesh, but when the ambulances
rumbled through the streets towards the hospitals -- long processions
of them, with the soles of men's boots turned up over the stretchers
on which they lay quiet and stiff -- the tale was told though no word
The tale of defeat, of great losses, of grave and increasing
anxiety, was told clearly enough -- as I have read in captured letters
--by the faces of German officers who went about in these towns behind
the lines with gloomy looks, and whose tempers, never of the sweetest,
became irritable and unbearable so that the soldiers hated them for
all this cursing and bullying. A certain battalion commander has a nervous
breakdown because he has to meet his colonel in the morning.
" He is dying with fear and anxiety," writes one of
his comrades. Other men, not battalion commanders, are even more afraid
of their superior officers, upon whom this bad news from the Somme has
an evil effect.
The bad news was spread by divisions taken out of the
line and sent back to rest. The men reported that their battalions had
been cut to pieces. Some of their regiments had lost three-quarters
of their strength. They described the frightful effect of the British
artillery --the smashed trenches, the shell-craters, the great horror.
It is not good for the moral of men who are just going
up there to take their turn.
The man who was afraid of his colonel "sits all
day long writing home with the picture of his wife and children before
his eyes." He is afraid of other things.
BAVARIANS BEAR THE BRUNT.
Bavarian soldiers quarrelled with Prussians, accused
them (unjustly) of shirking the Somme battlefields and leaving the Bavarians
to go to the blood-bath,
"All the Bavarian troops are being sent to the
Somme (this much is certain, you can see no Prussians there), and this
in spite of the losses the 1st Bavarian Corps suffered recently at Verdun!
And how we did suffer !
It appears that we are in for another turn,
at least the 5th Bavarian Division. Everybody has been talking about
it for a long time. To the devil with it ! Every Bavarian regiment is
being sent into it, and it's a swindle."
It was in no cheerful mood that men went away to the
Somme battlefields. Those battalions of grey-clad men entrained without
any of the old enthusiasm with which they had gone to earlier battles.
Their gloom was noticed by the officers.
"Sing, you sheep's heads, sing!" they shouted.
They were compelled to sing, by order.
"In the afternoon," wrote a man of the 18th Reserve
Division, " we had to go out again: we were to learn to sing. The greater
part did not join in, and the song went feebly. Then we had to march
round in a circle and sing, and that went no better.
After that we had an hour off, and on the way back to billets we were
to sing 'Deutschland uber Alles,' but this broke down completely. One
never hears songs of the Fatherland any more."
They were silent, grave-eyed men who marched through
the streets of French and Belgian towns to be entrained for the Somme
front, for they had borebodings of the fate before them. Yet none of
their forebodings were equal in intensity of fear to the frightful reality
into which they were flung.
The journey to the Somme front on the German side was
a way of terror, ugliness, and death. Not all the imagination of morbid
minds searching obscenely for foulness and blood in the great deep pits
of human agony could surpass these scenes along the way to the German
lines round Courcelette, and Flers, Gueudecourt, Morval and Lesboeufs.
Many times, long before a German battalion had arrived
near the trenches, it was but a collection of nerve-broken men bemoaning
losses already suffered far behind the lines and filled with hideous
apprehension. For British long-range guns were hurling high explosives
into distant villages, barraging cross-roads, reaching out to railheads
and ammunition dumps, while British airmen were on bombing flights over
railway stations and rest-billets and high roads down which the German
troops came marching at Cambrai, Bapaume, in the valley between Irles
and Warlencourt, at Ligny-Thilloy, Busigny, and many other places on
the lines of route.
BOMBED BY OUR AIRMEN.
German soldiers arriving at Cambrai by train found
themselves under the fire of a single aeroplane which flew very low
and dropped bombs. They exploded with heavy crashes, and one bomb hit
the first carriage behind the engine, killing and wounding several men.
A second bomb hit the station buildings, and there
was a great clatter of broken glass, the rending of wood and the fall
of bricks. All lights went out, and the German soldiers groped about
in the darkness amidst the splinters of glass and the fallen bricks,
searching for the wounded by the sound of their groans.
It was but one scene along the way to that bloodbath
through which they had to wade to the trenches of the Somme.
Flights of British aeroplanes circled over the villages
on the way. At Grevilliers, in August, eleven I 12-16 bombs fell in
the market square so that the centre of the village collapsed in a state
of ruin, burying soldiers billeted there. Every day the British airmen
paid these visits, meeting the Germans far up the roads on their way
to the Somme, and swooping over them like a flying Death.
Even on the march in open country the German soldiers
tramping silently along --not singing in spite of orders --were bombed
and shot at by these British aviators, who flew down very low, pouring
out streams of machine-gun bullets.
The Germans lost their nerve at such times, and scattered
into the ditches, falling over each other, struck and cursed by their
"unteroffizieren," and leaving their dead and wounded in the roadway.
CHAOS ON THE ROADS.
As the roads went nearer to the battlefields they were
choked with the traffic of war, with artillery and transport wagons
and horse ambulances, and always thousands of grey men marching up to
the lines, or back from them, exhausted and broken after many days in
the fires of hell up there.
Officers sat on their horses by the roadside directing
all the traffic with the usual swearing and cursing, and rode alongside
the transport wagons and the troops, urging them forward at a quicker
pace, because of stern orders received from headquarters demanding quicker
movement. The reserves, it seemed, were desperately wanted up in the
lines. The English were attacking again.
God alone knew what was happening. Regiments had lost
their way. Wounded were pouring back. Officers had gone mad
the midst of all this turmoil shells fell --shells from long-range guns.
Transport wagons were blown to bits. The bodies, and fragments of artillery
horses lay all over the roads. Men lay dead or bleeding under the debris
of gunwheels and broken bricks.
Above all the noise of this confusion and death in
the night the hard, stern voices of German officers rang out, and German
discipline prevailed and men marched on to greater perils.
IN THE SHELL ZONE.
They were in the shell zone now, and sometimes a regiment
on the march was tracked all along the way by British gunfire directed
from acroplanes and captive balloons. It was the fate of a captured
officer I met who had detrained at Bapaume for the trenches at Contalmaison.
At Bapaume his battalion was hit by fragments of 12-inch shells.
Nearer to the line they came under the fire of 8-inch
and 6-inch shells. Four-point-sevens found them somewhere by Bazentin.
At Contalmaison they marched into a barrage, and here the officer was
taken prisoner. Of his battalion there were few men left.
It was so with the 3rd Jaeger Battalion, ordered up
hurriedly to make a counter-attack near Flers. They suffered so heavily
on the way to the trenches that no attack could be made. The stretcher-bearers
had all the work to do.
The way up to the trenches became more tragic as every
kilometre was passed, until the stench of corruption was wafted on the
wind, so that men were sickened and tried not to breathe, and marched
hurriedly to get on the lee side of its foulness. They walked now through
places which had once been villages, but were sinister ruins where death
lay in wait for German soldiers.
"It seems queer to me," wrote one of them, that whole
villages close to the front look as flattened as a child's toy run over
by a steam roller. Not one stone remains on another. The streets are
one line of shell-holes. Add to that the thunder of the guns, and you
will see with what feelings we come into the line --into trenches where
for months shells of all calibre have rained
Flers is a scrap-heap."
Again and again men lost their way up to the lines.
The reliefs could only be made at night, lest
they should be discovered by British airmen and British
gunners, and even if these German soldiers had trench-maps the guidance
was but little good when many trenches had been smashed in, and only
shell-craters could be found.
"In the front line of Flers," wrote one of these Germans,
"the men were only occupying shell-holes. Behind there was the intense
smell of putrefaction, which filled the trench-almost unbearably. The
corpses lie either quite insufficiently covered with earth on the edge
of the trench or quite close under the bottom of the trench, so that
the earth lets the stench through. In some places bodies lie quite uncovered
in a trench recess, and no one seems to trouble about them. One sees
horrible pictures --here an arm, here a foot, here a head, sticking
out of the earth. And these are all German soldiers --heroes!
"IMPOSSIBLE TO HOLD OUT."
Not far from us at the entrance to a dug-out nine men
were buried, of whom three were dead. All along the trench men kept
on getting buried. What had been a perfect trench a few hours before
was in parts completely blown in
The men are getting weaker. It
is impossible to hold out any longer. Losses can no longer be reckoned
accurately. Without a doubt many of our people are killed."
That is only one out of thousands of such gruesome
pictures, true as the death they described, which have gone home to
German homes during the Battles of the Somme. These German soldiers
are grand letter writers, and men sitting in wet ditches, in "fox-holes,"
as they call their dug-outs, "up to my waist in mud," as one of
them described, scribbled pitiful things which they hoped might reach
their people at home, as a voice from the dead. For they had had little
hope of escape from the "bloodbath.'' "When you get this I shall be
a corpse," wrote one of them, and one finds the same foreboding in many
of these documents.
WRITTEN BY ONE NOW DEAD.
Even the lucky ones who could get some cover from the
incessant bombardment by English guns began to lose their nerves after
a day or two. They were always in fear of British infantry, sweeping
upon them suddenly behind the "Trommel-feuer," rushing their dug-outs
with bombs and bayonets. Sentries became "jumpy" and signalled attacks
when there were no attacks. The gas-alarm was sounded constantly by
the clang of a bell in the trench, and men put on their heavy gas-masks
and sat in them until they were nearly stifled.
Here is a little picture of life in a German dug-out
near the British lines, written by a man now dead.
"The telephone bell rings. Are you there?
Yes, here's Nau's battalion. Good. That is all. Then
that ceases, and now the wire is in again, perhaps for the 25th or 30th
time. Thus the night is interrupted, and now they come, alarm messages,
one after the other, each more terrifying than the other, of enormous
losses through the bombs and shells of the enemy, of huge masses of
troops advancing upon us, of all possible possibilities, such as a man
broken down and tortured by the terrors of the day can invent. Our nerves
quiver. We clench our teeth. None of us can forget the horrors of the
Heavy rain fell, and the dug-outs became wet and filthy."
Our sleeping-places were full of water. We had to try and bail out the
trenches with cooking dishes. I lay down in the water with G----. We
were to have worked on dug-outs, but not a soul could do any more. Only
a few sections got coffee. Mine got nothing at all. I was frozen in
every limb, poured the water out of my boots, and lay down again."
GENERAL STAFF ALARMED.
The German generals and their staffs could not be quite
indifferent to all this welter of human suffering among their troops,
in spite of the cold scientific spirit with which they regard the problem
of war. The agony of the individual soldier would not trouble them.
There is no war without agony. But the psychology of masses of men had
to be considered, because it affects the efficiency of the machine.
As I shall show, the German General Staff on the Western
front were becoming seriously alarmed by the declining moral of their
infantry under the increasing strain of the British attacks, and adopted
stern measures to cure it. But they could not hope to cure the heaps
of German dead who were lying on the battlefields, nor the maimed men
who were being carried back to the dressing stations, nor to bring back
the prisoners taken in droves by the French and British troops.
Before the attack on the Flers line, the capture of
Thiepval, and the German debacle at Beaumont-Hamel the enemy's
command was already filled with a grave anxiety at the enormous losses
of its fighting strength, was compelled to adopt new expedients for
increasing the number of its divisions. It was forced to withdraw troops
badly needed on other fronts, and, as I shall point out, the successive
shocks of the British offensive reached as far as Germany itself, so
that the whole of its recruiting system had to be revised to fill up
the gaps torn out of the German ranks.
THE BREAKING OF MORAL.
All through July and August the enemy's troops fought
with great and stubborn courage, defending every bit of broken woodland,
every heap of bricks that was once a village, every line of trenches
smashed by heavy shell-fire, with obstinacy.
It is, indeed, fair and just to say that throughout
these battles of the Somme up to the present day our men have fought
against an enemy hard to beat, grim and resolute, and inspired sometimes
with the courage of despair, which is hardly less dangerous than the
courage of hope.
The Australians who struggled to get the high ground
at Pozieres did not have an easy task. The enemy made many counter attacks
against them. All the ground hereabouts was so smashed that the earth
became finely powdered, and it was the arena of bloody fighting at close
quarters which did not last a day or two, but many weeks. Mouquet Farm
was like the Phoenix which rose again out of its ashes.
In its tunnelled ways German soldiers hid and came
out to fight our men in the rear long after the site of the farm was
in our hands. Delville Wood was a living horror, which could not for
a long time be cleared of its devilish properties. Our shell fire slashed
through its broken trees and our men fought their way over its barricades
of fallen logs and dead bodies, but the German soldier crept back with
machine-guns, and would not give up this place of dreadful memory. It
was not until the beginning of September that it was finally taken.
FIGHTING REARGUARD ACTIONS.
But the German troops were fighting what they now knew
to be a losing battle. They were fighting rearguard actions, trying
to gain time for the hasty digging of ditches behind them, trying to
sell their lives at the highest price.
They lived not only under incessant gun-fire, gradually
weakening their nerve power, working a physical as well as a moral change
in them, but in constant terror of British attacks.
They could never be sure of safety at any hour of the
day or night, even in their deepest dug-outs. The British varied their
times of attack. At dawn, at noon, when the sun was reddening in the
west, just before the dusk, in pitch darkness even, the steady, regular
bombardment that had never ceased all through the days and nights would
concentrate into the great tumult of sudden drum fire, and presently
waves of men --English or Scottish or Irish, Australians or Canadians
--would be sweeping on to them and over them, rummaging down into the
dug-outs with bombs and bayonets, gathering up prisoners, quick to kill
if men were not quick in surrender.
In this way Thièpval was encircled so that the
garrison there --the 180th Regiment, who had held it for two years --
knew that they were doomed. In this way Guillemont and Ginchy fell,
so that in the first place not a man out of 2,000 men escaped to tell
the tale of horror in German lines, and in the second place there was
no long fight against the Irish, who stormed it in a wild, fierce rush,
which even machine-guns could not check.
SHORTAGE OF MUNITIONS.
The German General Staff was getting flurried, grabbing
at battalions, from short parts of the line, disorganising its divisions
under the urgent need of flinging in men to stop this rot in the lines,
ordering counter-attacks which were without any chance of success, so
that thin waves of men came out into the open, as I have seen them myself,
to be swept down by scythes of bullets which cut them clean to the earth.
Before September 15 they hoped that the British offensive was wearing
itself out. It seemed to them at least doubtful that after the struggle
of two and a half months the British troops could still have spirit
and strength enough to fling themselves against new lines.
Their own reserves of strength were failing to keep
pace with the tremendous strain upon the whole machinery of their organisation.
Many of their guns had worn out, and could not be replaced
Many batteries had been knocked out in their emplacements
along the line of Bazentin and Longueval before the artillery was drawn
back to Grandcourt and a new line of safety.
Battalion commanders clamoured for greater supplies
of hand grenades, entrenching tools, trenchmortars, signal rockets,
and all kinds of fighting material enormously in excess of all previous
The difficulties of dealing with the wounded, who littered
the battlefields and choked the roads with the traffic of ambulances
became increasingly severe owing, to the dearth of horses for transport
and the longer range of British guns which had been brought far forward.
The German General Staff studied its next lines of
defence away through Courcelette, Martinpuich, Les boeufs, Morval, and
Combles, and they did not look too good, but, with luck and the courage
of German soldiers, and the exhaustion --surely those fellows were exhausted!
--of British troops good enough.
TIDAL WAVE AND "TANKS."
On September 15 the German command had another great
shock. The whole line of the British troops on the Somme front south
of the Ancre rose out of their trenches and swept over the German defences
in a great tide.
The defences broke hopelessly, and the waves dashed
through. Here and there, as on the German left at Morval and Les boeufs,
the bulwarks. stood for a time, but the British pressed against them
and round them. On the German right, below the little river of the Ancre,
Courcelette fell, and Martinpuich, and High Wood, which the Germans
desired to hold at all costs, and had held against incessant attacks
by great concentration of artillery, was captured and left behind by
the London men. A new engine of war had come as a demoralising influence
among German troops, spreading terror among them.
It was the first day out of those fantastic monsters
the Tanks, strange and horrible in their surprise, very deadly in their
action against machine-gun emplacements, not stopped by trenches or
barbedwire, or tree stumps, or refuse heaps of fallen houses. For the
first time the Germans were outwitted in inventions of destruction,
they who had been foremost in all engines of death.
It was the moment of real panic in the German lines
-- a panic reaching back from the troops to the High Command.
BLACK DAYS FOR THE ENEMY.
Ten days later, on September 25, when the British made
a new advance -- all this time the French were pressing forward too
but that is no part of my story -- Combles was evacuated without a fight
and with a litter of dead in its streets story; Gueudecourt, Les boeufs,
and Morval were lost by the Germans ; and a day later Thipèval,
the greatest fortress position next to Beaumont Hamel, fell, with all
its garrison taken prisoners.
They were black days in the German Headquarters, where
Staff officers heard the news over their telephones, and sent stern
orders to artillery commanders and divisional Generals, and, after dictating
new instructions that certain trench systems must be held at whatever
price, heard that already they were lost.
It was at this time that the moral of the German troops
on the Somme front showed most signs of breaking. In spite of all their
courage the ordeal had been too hideous for them, and in spite of all
their discipline, the iron discipline of the German soldier, they were
on the edge of revolt. The intimate and undoubted facts of this break
in the moral of the enemy's troops during this period reveal a pitiful
picture of human agony.
"We are now fighting on the Somme with the English,"
wrote a man of the 17th Bavarian Regiment.
"You can no longer call it war. It is mere murder.
We are at the focal point of the present battle in Foureaux Wood (near
Guillemont). All my previous experience in this war --the slaughter
at Ypres and the battle in the gravel-pit at Hulluch --are the purest
child's play compared with this massacre, and that is much too mild
a description. I hardly think they will bring us into the fight again,
for we are in a very bad way."
"From September 12 to 27 we were on the Somme," wrote
a man of the 10th Bavarians, " and my regiment had 1,500 casualties."
A detailed picture of the German losses under our bombardment
is given in the diary of an officer captured in a trench near Flers,
and dated September 22.
"The four days ending September 4 spent in the trenches
were characterised by a continual enemy bombardment that did not abate
for a single instant.
"The enemy bad registered on our trenches with light,
as well as medium and heavy batteries, notwithstanding that he had no
direct observation from his trenches, which lie on the other side of
the summit. His registering was done by his excellent air-service, which
renders perfect reports of everything observed.
"During the first day, for instance, whenever the slightest
movement was visible in our trenches during the presence, as is usually
the case, of enemy aircraft flying as low as 300-400 yards, a heavy
bombardment of the particular section took place. The very heavy losses
during the first day brought about the resolution to evacuate the trenches
during the daytime. Only a small garrison was left, the remainder withdrawing
to a part of the line on the left of the Martinpuich-Pozieres road.
ENGLISH AIRMEN'S SUPERIORITY.
The signal for a bombardment by heavies was given by
the English aeroplanes. On the first day we tried to fire by platoons
on the aeroplanes, but a second aeroplane retaliated by dropping bombs
and firing his machine-gun at our troops. Our own airmen appeared only
once for a short time behind our lines.
"While enemy aeroplanes are observing from early
morning till late at night our own hardly ever venture near. The opinion
is that our trenches cannot protect troops during a barrage of the shortest
duration owing to lack of dug-outs.
"The enemy understands how to prevent with his terrible
barrage the bringing up of building material and even how to hinder
the work itself. The consequence is that our trenches are always ready
for an assault on his part. Our artillery, which does occasionally put
a heavy barrage on the enemy trenches at a great expense of ammunition,
cannot cause similar destruction to him. He can bring his building material
up, can repair his trenches as well as build new ones, can bring up
rations and ammunition, and remove the wounded.
"The continual barrage on our lines of communication
makes it very difficult for us to ration and relieve our troops, to
supply water, ammunition and building material, to evacuate wounded,
and causes heavy losses. This and the lack of protection from artillery
fire and the weather, the lack of hot meals, the continual necessity
of lying still in the same place, the danger of being buried, the long
time the wounded have to remain in the trenches, and chiefly the terrible
effect of the machine and heavy artillery fire, controlled by an excellent
air service, has a most demoralising effect on the troops.
"Only with the greatest difficulty could the men be
persuaded to stay in the trenches under those conditions."
MORAL ROT THREATENED.
There were some who could not be persuaded to stay,
if they could see any chance of deserting or malingering. For the first
time on our front the German officers could not trust the courage of
their men, nor their loyalty, nor their sense of discipline. All this
horror of men blown to bits over living men, of trenches heaped with
dead and dying, was stronger than courage, stronger than loyalty, stronger
than discipline. A moral rot was threatening to bring the German troops
on the Somme front to disaster.
Large numbers of men reported sick, and tried by every
kind of trick to be sent back to base hospitals.
In the 4th Bavarian Division desertions were frequent,
and several times whole bodies of men refused to go forward into the
front line. The moral of men in the 393rd Regiment taken at Courcelette
seemed to be very weak. One of the prisoners declared that they gave
themselves up without firing a shot because they could trust the English
not to kill them.
The platoon commander had gone away, and the prisoner
was ordered to alarm the platoon in case of attack, but did not do so
on purpose. They did not shoot with rifles or machine-guns, and did
not throw bombs.
OFFICERS WHO SHIRKED.
Many of the German officers were as demoralised as
the men, shirking their posts in the trenches, shamming sickness, and
even leading the way to surrender. Prisoners of the 361st Regiment,
which lost 1,300 men in 15 days, told of officers who had refused to
take their men up to the front line, and of whole companies who had
declined to move when ordered to do so. An officer of the 74th Landwehr
Regiment is said by prisoners to have told his men during our preliminary
bombardment to surrender as soon as we attacked.
A German regimental Order says : "I must state with
the greatest regret that the regiment during this change of position
had to take notice of the sad fact that men of four of the companies,
inspired by shameful cowardice, left their companies on their own initiative
and did not move into line."
Another Order contains the same fact and a warning
of what punishment may be meted out :-
"Proofs are multiplying of men leaving the position
without permission and hiding at the rear. It is our duty --each at
his post --to deal with this fact with energy and success."
Many Bavarians complained that their officers did not
accompany them into the trenches, but went down to the hospitals with
imaginary diseases. In any case, there was a great deal of real sickness,
mental and physical. The ranks were depleted men suffering, from fever,
pleurisy, jaundice, and stomach complaints of all kinds, twisted tip
with rheumatism after lying in water-logged holes, lamed for life by
bad cases of trench-foot, and nerve-broken so that they could do nothing
The nervous cases were the worst, and in greatest number.
Many men went raving mad. The shellshock victims clawed at their mouths
unceasingly, or lay motionless like corpses with staring eyes, or trembled
in every limb, moaning miserably and afflicted with a great terror.
To the Germans the Somme battlefields were not only
shambles but a territory which the devil claimed as his own for the
torture of men's brains and souls before they died in the furnace fires.
A spirit of revolt against all this crept into the minds of men who
retained their sanity --a revolt against the people who had ordained
this vast outrage against God and humanity.
Into their letters there crept bitter, burning words
against "the millionaires --who grow rich out of the war," against
the high people who live in comfort behind the lines. Letters from home
inflamed these thoughts.
it was not good reading for men under shell fire.
"It seems that you soldiers fight so that official
stay-at-homes can treat us as female criminals. Tell me, dear husband,
are you a criminal when you fight in the trenches, or why do people
treat women and children here as such ? . . .
"For the poor here it is terrible, and yet the
rich, the gilded ones, the bloated aristocrats, gobble up everything
in front of our very eyes
All soldiers --friend and foe --ought
to throw down their weapons and go on strike, so that this war which
enslaves the people more may cease."
Thousands of letters, all in this strain, were reaching
the German soldiers on the Somme, and they did not strengthen the moral
of men already victims of terror and despair.
PHYSIC FOR FAINT-HEARTED.
Behind the lines deserters were shot in batches. To
those in front came Orders of the Day, warning them, exhorting them,
commanding them to hold fast.
"To the hesitating and faint-hearted in the regiment,"
says one of these Orders, " I would say the following :--
"What the Englishman can do the German can do also.
Or if, on the other hand, the Englishman really is a better and superior
being, he, would be quite justified in his aim as regards this war,
viz., the extermination of the German. There is a further point to be
noted : this is the first time we have been in the line on the Somme,
and, what is more, we are there at a time when things are more calm.
The English regiments opposing us have been in the firing-line for the
second, and in some cases even the third, time. Heads up, and play the
It was easy to write such documents. It was more difficult
to bring up reserves of men and ammunition. The German command was hard
pressed by the end of September.
From July 1 to September 8, it has been reckoned, from
what I believe was trustworthy information, that fifty-three German
divisions in all were engaged against the Allies on the Somme battle
front. Out of these, fourteen were still in the line on September 8.
Twenty-eight had been withdrawn, broken and exhausted,
to quieter areas. Eleven more had been withdrawn to rest billets. Under
the Allies' artillery fire and infantry attacks the average life of
a German division as a unit fit for service on the Somme was nineteen
days. More than two new German divisions had to be brought into the
front line every week since the end of June to replace those smashed
in the process of resisting the Allied attack. It is now reckoned by
competent observers in the field that well over 120 German divisions
have been passed through the ordeal of the Somme --this Bath of Blood,
as they call it ; this number including those which have appeared there
more than once.