NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
On the left, where the 8th and 10th Corps were directing operations,
the assault had been delivered by the 4th, 29th, 36th, 49th, 32nd, 8th,
and 56th Divisions.
The positions in front of them were Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel on
the left side of the River Ancre, and Thièpval Wood on the right
side of the Ancre leading up to Thièpval Château on the
crest of the cliff. These were the hardest positions to attack, because
of the rising ground and the immense strength of the enemy's earthworks
and tunneled defenses. But our generals were confident that the gun-power
at their disposal was sufficient to smash down that defensive system
and make an easy way through for the infantry. They were wrong. In spite
of that tornado of shell-fire which I had seen tearing up the earth,
many tunnels were still unbroken, and out of them came masses of German
machine-gunners and riflemen, when our infantry rose from their own
trenches on that morning of July 1st.
Our guns had shifted their barrage forward at that moment, farther
ahead of the infantry than was afterward allowed, the men being trained
to follow close to the lines of bursting shells, trained to expect a
number of casualties from their own guns -- it needs some training!
-- in order to secure the general safety gained by keeping the enemy
below ground until our bayonets were round his dugouts.
The Germans had been trained, too, to an act of amazing courage. Their
discipline, that immense power of discipline which dominates men in
the mass, was strong enough to make them obey the order to rush through
that barrage of ours, that advancing wall of explosion, and, if they
lived through it, to face our men in the open with massed machine-gun
fire. So they did; And as English, Scottish, and Welsh battalions of
our assaulting divisions trudged forward over what had been No Man's
Land, machine-gun bullets sprayed upon them, and they fell like grass
to the scythe. Line after line of men followed them, and each line crumpled,
and only small groups followed them, and each line crumpled, and only
small groups and single figures, seeking comradeship, hurried forward.
German machine-gunners were bayoneted as their thumbs were still pressed
to their triggers. In German front-line trenches at the bottom of Thièpval
Wood, outside Beaumont Hamel and on the edge of Gommecourt Park, the
field-gray men who came out of their dugouts fought fiercely with stick-bombs
and rifles, and our officers and men, in places where they had strength
enough, clubbed them to death, struck them with bayonets, and blew their
brains out with revolvers at short range. Then those English and Irish
and Scottish troops, grievously weak because of all the dead and wounded
behind them, struggled through to the second German line, from which
there came a still fiercer rattle of machine- and rifle-fire. Some of
them broke through that line, too, and went ahead in isolated parties
across the wild crater land, over chasms and ditches and fallen trees,
toward the highest ground, which had been their goal. Nothing was seen
of them. They disappeared into clouds of smoke and flame. Gunner observers
saw rockets go up in far places -- our rockets -- showing that outposts
had penetrated into the German lines. Runners came back -- survivors
of many predecessors who had fallen on the way -- with scribbled messages
from company officers. One came from the Essex and King's Own of the
4th Division, at a place called Pendant Copse, southeast of Serre. "For
God's sake send us bombs." It was impossible to send them bombs. No
men could get to them through the deep barrage of shell-fire which was
between them and our supporting troops. Many tried and died.
The Ulster men went forward toward Beaumont Hamel with a grim valor
which was reckless of their losses. Beaumont Hamel was a German fortress.
Machine-gun fire raked every yard of the Ulster way. Hundreds of the
Irish fell. I met hundreds of them wounded -- tall, strong, powerful
men, from Queen's Island and Belfast factories, and Tyneside Irish and
"They gave us no chance," said one of them -- a sergeant-major. "They
just murdered us."
But bunches of them went right into the heart of the German positions,
and then found behind them crowds of Germans who had come up out of
their tunnels and flung bombs at them. Only a few came back alive in
Into Thièpval Wood men of ours smashed their way through the
German trenches, not counting those who fell, and killing any German
who stood in their way. Inside that wood of dead trees and charred branches
they reformed, astonished at the fewness of their numbers. Germans coming
up from holes in the earth attacked them, and they held firm and took
two hundred prisoners. Other Germans came closing in like wolves, in
packs, and to a German officer who said, "Surrender!" our men shouted,
"No surrender!" and fought in Thièpval Wood until most were dead
and only a few wounded crawled out to tell that tale.
The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the
worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break
through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the London
Rifle Brigade. The Rangers and the Queen Victoria Rifles -- the old
"Vics" -- formed their center. Their right was made up by the London
Scottish, and behind came the Queen's Westminsters and the Kensingtons,
who were to advance through their comrades to a farther objective. Across
a wide No Man's Land they suffered from the bursting of heavy
crumps(1), and many fell. But they escaped annihilation
by machine-gun fire and stormed through the upheaved earth into Gommecourt
Park, killing many Germans and sending back batches of prisoners. They
had done what they had been asked to do, and started building up barricades
of earth and sand-bags, and then found they were in a death-trap. There
were no troops on their right or left. They had thrust out into a salient,
which presently the enemy saw. The German gunners, with deadly skilled,
boxed it round with shell-fire, so that the Londoners were enclosed
by explosive walls, and then very slowly and carefully drew a line of
bursting shells up and down, up and down that captured ground, ravaging
its earth anew and smashing the life that crouched there -- London life.
I have written elsewhere (in The Battles of
the Somme (2)) how young officers and small
bodies of these London men held the barricades against German attacks
while others tried to break a way back through that murderous shell-fire,
and how groups of lads who set out on that adventure to their old lines
were shattered so that only a few from each group crawled back alive,
wounded or unwounded.
At the end of the day the Germans acted with chivalry, which I was
not allowed to tell at the time. The general of the London Division
(Philip Howell) told me that the enemy sent over a message by a low-flying
airplane, proposing a truce while the stretcher-bearers worked, and
offering the service of their own men in that work of mercy. This offer
was accepted without reference to G.H.Q., and German stretcher-bearers
helped to carry our wounded to a point where they could be reached.
Many, in spite of that, remained lying out in No Man's Land, some for
three or four days and nights. I met one man who lay out there wounded,
with a group of comrades more badly hurt than he was, until July 6th.
At night he crawled over to the bodies of the dead and took their water-bottles
and "iron" rations, and so brought drink and food to his stricken friends.
Then at last he made his way through roving shells to our lines and
even then asked to lead the stretcher-bearers who volunteered on a search-party
for his "pals".
"Physical courage was very common in the war," said a friend of mine
who saw nothing of war. "It is proved that physical courage is the commonest
quality of mankind, as moral courage is the rarest." But that soldier's
courage was spiritual, and there were many like him in the battles of
the Somme and in other later battles as tragic as those.
(2) Gibbs, Philip. The
battles of the Somme. New York, G. H. Doran .