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There was the illusion of victory on that first day of the Somme battles, on the right of the line by Fricourt, and it was not until a day or two later that certain awful rumors I had heard from wounded men and officers who had attacked on the left up by Gommecourt, Thièpval, and Serre were confirmed by certain knowledge of tragic disaster on that side of the battle-line.

View of Combles.
A parade of the wounded walking cases. See larger image.

The illusion of victory, with all the price and pain of it, came to me when I saw the German rockets rising beyond the villages of Mametz and Montauban and our barrage fire lifting to a range beyond the first lines of German trenches, and our support troops moving forward in masses to captured ground. We had broken through! By the heroic assault of our English and Scottish troops -- West Yorks, Yorks and Lancs, Lincolns, Durhams, Northumberland Fusiliers, Norfolks and Berkshires, Liverpools, Manchesters, Gordons, and Royal Scots, all those splendid men I had seen marching to their lines -- we had smashed through the ramparts of the German fortress, through that maze of earthworks and tunnels which had appalled me when I saw them on the maps, and over which I had gazed from time to time from our front-line trenches when those places seemed impregnable. I saw crowds of prisoners coming back under escort--fifteen hundred had been counted in the first day--and they had the look of a defeated army. Our lightly wounded men, thousands of them, were shouting and laughing as they came down behind the lines, wearing German caps and helmets. From Amiens civilians straggled out along the roads as far as they were allowed by military police, and waved hands and cheered those boys of ours. "Vive l'Angleterre!" cried old men, raising their hats. Old women wept at the sight of those gay wounded (the lightly touched, glad of escape, rejoicing in their luck and in the glory of life which was theirs still) and cried out to them with shrill words of praise and exaltations.

"Nous les aurons -- les sales Boches! Ah, ils sont foutus, ces bandits! C'est la victoire, grâce à vous, petits soldats anglais!"

Victory! The spirit of victory in the hearts of fighting-men, and of women excited by the sight of those bandaged heads, those bare, brawny arms splashed with blood, those laughing heroes.

It looked like victory (in those days, as war correspondents, we were not so expert in balancing the profit and loss as afterward we became) when I went into Fricourt on the third day of battle, and after the last Germans, who had clung on to its ruins, had been cleared out by the Yorkshires and Lincolns of the 21st Division (that division which had been so humiliated at Loos and now was wonderful in courage), and when the Manchesters and Gordons of the 30th Division had captured Montauban and repulsed fierce counter-attacks.

View of Combles.
German dead in a German first-line trench. See larger image.

It looked like victory, because of the German dead that lay there in their battered trenches and the filth and stench of death over all that mangled ground, and the enormous destruction wrought by our guns, and the fury of fire which we were still pouring over the enemy's lines from batteries which had moved forward.

I went down flights of steps into German dugouts, astonished by their depth and strength. Our men did not build like this. This German industry was a rebuke to us -- yet we had captured their work and the dead bodies of their laborers lay in those dark caverns, killed by our bombers, who had flung down hand-grenades. I drew back from those fat corpses. They looked monstrous, lying there crumpled up, amid a foul litter of clothes, stick-bombs, old boots, and bottles. Groups of dead lay in ditches which had once been trenches, flung into chaos by that bombardment I had seen. They had been bayoneted. I remember one man--an elderly fellow--sitting up with his back to a bit of earth with his hands half raised. He was smiling a little, though he had been stabbed the belly and was stone dead. . . . Victory! . . . some of the German dead were young boys, too young to be killed for old men's crimes, and others might have been old or young. One could not tell, because they had no faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags and uniforms. Legs and arms lay separate, without any bodies thereabouts.

Outside Montauban there was a heap of our own dead. Young Gordons and Manchesters of the 30th Division, they had been caught by blasts of machine-gun fire -- but our dead seemed scarce in the places where I walked. Victory? . . . Well, we had gained some ground, and many prisoners, and here and there some guns. But as I stood by Montauban I saw that our line was a sharp salient looped round Mametz village and then dipping sharply southward to Fricourt. Oh God! had we only made another salient after all that monstrous effort? To the left there was fury at La Boisselle, where a few broken trees stood black on the sky-line on a chalky ridge. Storms of German shrapnel were bursting there, and machine-guns were firing in spasms. In Contalmaison, round a château which stood high above ruined houses, shells were bursting with thunderclaps--our shells. German gunners in invisible batteries were sweeping our lines with barrage-fire -- it roamed up and down this side of Montauban Wood, just ahead of me, and now and then shells smashed among the houses and barns of Fricourt, and over Mametz there was suddenly a hurricane of "hate". Our men were working like ants in those much heaps, a battalion moved up toward Boisselle. From a ridge above Fricourt, where once I had seen a tall crucifix between two trees, which our men called the "Poodles," a body of men came down and shrapnel burst among them and they fell and disappeared in tall grass. Stretcher-bearers came slowly through Fricourt village with living burdens. Some of them were German soldiers carrying our wounded and their own. Walking wounded hobbled slowly with their arms round each other's shoulders, Germans and English together. A boy in a steel hat stopped me and held up a bloody hand. "A bit of luck!" he said. "I'm off, after eighteen months of it."

German prisoners came down with a few English soldiers as their escort. I saw distant groups of them, and a shell smashed into one group and scattered it. The living ran, leaving their dead. Ambulances driven by daring fellows drove to the far edge of Fricourt, not a healthy place, and loaded up with wounded from a dressing station in a tunnel there.

It was a wonderful picture of war in all its filth and shambled. But was it Victory? . . . I knew then that it was only a breach in the German bastion, and that on the left, Gommecourt way, there had been black tragedy.

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