NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
Boulogne was a port through which all our youth passed between England
and the long, straight road which led to No Man's Land. The seven-days-leave
men were coming back by every tide, and all other leave was canceled.
New "drafts" were pouring through the port by tens of thousands--all
manner of men of all our breed marching in long columns from the quayside,
where they had orders yelled at them through megaphones by A.P.M.'s,
R.T.O.'s, A.M.L.O.'s(1), and other blue-tabbed
officers who dealt with them as cattle for the slaughter-houses. I watched
them landing from the transports which came in so densely crowded with
the human freight that the men were wedged together on the decks like
herrings in barrels. They crossed from one boat to another to reach
the gangways, and one by one, interminably as it seemed, with rifle
gripped and pack hunched, and steel hat clattering like a tinker's kettle,
came down the inclined plank and lurched ashore. They were English lads
from every county; Scots, Irish, Welsh, of every regiment; Australians,
New-Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians, West Indian negroes of the
Garrison Artillery; Sikhs, Pathans, and Dogras of the Indian Cavalry.
Some of them had been sick and there was a greenish pallor on their
faces. Most of them were deeply tanned. Many of them stepped on the
quayside of France for the first time after months of training, and
I could tell those, sometimes, by the furtive look they gave at the
crowded scene about them, and by a sudden glint in their eyes, a faint
reflection of the emotion that was in them, because this was another
stage on their adventure of war, and the drawbridge was down at last
between them and the enemy. That was all -- just that look, and lips
tightened now grimly, and the pack hunched higher. Then they fell in
by number and marched away, with Red-caps to card them, across the bridge,
into the town of Boulogne and beyond to the great camp near Etaples
(and near the hospital, so that German aircraft had a good argument
for smashing Red Cross huts), where some of them would wait until somebody
said, "You're wanted." They were wanted in droves as soon
as the fighting began on the first day of July.
The bun-shops in Boulogne were filled with nurses, V.A.D.'s(2),
all kinds of girls in uniforms which glinted with shoulder-straps and
buttons. They ate large quantities of buns at odd hours of mornings
and afternoons. Flying-men and officers of all kinds waiting for trains
crowded the Folkestone Hotel and restaurants, where they spent two hours
over luncheon and three hours over dinner, drinking red wine, talking
"shop" -- the shop of trench-mortar units, machine-gun sections, cavalry
squadrons, air-fighting, gas schools, and anti-gas schools. Regular
inhabitants of Boulogne, officers at the base, passed to inner rooms
with French ladies of dangerous appearance, and the transients envied
them and said: "Those fellows have all the luck! What's their secret?
How do they arrange those cushie jobs?" From open windows came
the music of gramophones. Through half-drawn curtains there were glimpses
of khaki tunics and Sam Brown belts in juxtaposition with silk blouses
and coiled hair and white arms. Opposite the Folkestone there was a
park of ambulances driven by "Scottish women," who were always
on the move from one part of the town to the other. Motor-cars came
hooting with staff-officers, all aglow in red tabs and arm-bands, thirsty
for little cocktails after a dusty drive. Everywhere in the streets
and on the esplanade there was incessant saluting. The arms of men were
never still. It was like the St. Vitus disease. Tommies
and Jocks(3) saluted every subaltern with an
automatic gesture of convulsive energy. Every subaltern acknowledged
these movements and in turn saluted a multitude of majors, colonels,
generals. The thing became farcical, a monstrous absurdity of human
relationship, yet pleasing to the vanity of men lifted up above the
lowest caste. It seemed to me an intensification of the snob instinct
in the soul of man. Only the Australians stood out against it, and went
by all officers except their own with a careless slouch and a look of
"To hell with all that handwagging."
Seated on high stools in the Folkestone, our young officers clinked
their cocktails, and then whispered together.
"When's it coming?"
"In a few days . . . . I'm for the Gommecourt sector."
"Do you think we shall get through?"
"Not a doubt of it. The cavalry are massing for a great drive.
As soon as we make the gap they'll ride into the blue."
"By God! . . . There'll be some slaughter!"
"I think the old Boche will crack this time."
There was a sense of enormous drama at hand, and the excitement of
it in boys' hearts drugged all doubts and fears. It was only the older
men, and the introspective, who suffered from the torture of apprehension.
Even timid fellows in the ranks were, I imagine, strengthened and exalted
by the communal courage of their company or battalion, for courage as
well as fear is infectious, and the psychology of the crowd uplifts
the individual to immense heights of daring when alone he would be terror-stricken.
The public-school spirit of pride in a name and tradition was in each
battalion of the New Army, extended later to the division, which became
the unit of esprit de corps. They must not "let the battalion
down." They would do their damnedest to get farther than any other
crowd, to bag more prisoners, to gain more "kudos." There
was rivalry even among the platoons and the companies. "A"
Company would show "B" Company the way to go! Their sergeant-major
was a great fellow! Their platoon commanders were fine kids! With anything
like a chance. . .
In that spirit, as far as I -- an outsider -- could see and hear, did
our battalions of boys march forward to "The Great Push," whistling,
singing, jesting, until their lips were dry and their throats parched
in the dust, and even the merriest jesters of all were silent under
the weight of their packs and rifles. So they moved up day by day through
the beauty of that June in France -- thousands of men -- hundreds of
thousands -- to the edge of the battlefields of the Somme, where the
enemy was entrenched in fortress positions and where already, before
the last days of June, gun-fire was flaming over a vast sweep of country.
(1) "A.P.M.'s, R.T.O.'s,
A.M.L.O." -- Assistant Provost Marshals, Railroad Transportation
Officers and .
(2) "VAD" --
Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses; volunteer nurses as distinguished from
(3) "Tommies and
Jocks" -- English and Scottish soldiers.