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The failure on the left hardly balanced by the partial success on the right caused a sudden pause in the operations, camouflaged by small attacks on minor positions around and above Fricourt and Mametz. The Lincolns and others went over to Fricourt Wood and routed out German machine-gunners. The West Yorks attacked the sunken road at Fricourt. The Dorsets, Manchesters, Highland Light Infantry, Lancashire Fusiliers, and Borderers of the 32nd Division were in possession of La Boisselle and clearing out communication trenches to which the Germans were hanging on with desperate valor. The 21st Division -- Northumberland Fusiliers, Durhams, Yorkshires -- were making a flanking attack on Contalmaison, but weakened after their heavy losses on the first day of battle. The fighting for a time was local, in small copses -- Lozenge Wood, Peak Wood, Caterpillar Wood, Acid Drop Copse -- where English and German troops fought ferociously for yards of ground, hummocks of earth, ditches.

G.H.Q. had been shocked by the disaster on the left and the failure of all the big hopes they had held for a break-through on both sides of the German positions. Rumors came to us that the Commander-in-Chief [Haig] had decided to restrict future operations to minor actions for strengthening the line and to abandon the great offensive. It was believed by officers I met that Sir Henry Rawlinson was arguing, persuading, in favor of continued assaults on the grand scale(1).

Whatever division of opinion existed in the High Command I do not know; it was visible to all of us that for some days there were uncertainty of direction, hesitation, conflicting orders. On July 7th the 17th Division, under General Pilcher, attacked Contalmaison, and a whole battalion of the Prussian Guard hurried up from Valenciennes and, thrown on to the battlefield without maps or guidance, walked into the barrage which covered the advance of our men and were almost annihilated. But although some bodies of our men entered Contalmaison, in an attack which I was able to see, they were smashed out of it again by storms of fire followed by masses of men who poured out from Mametz Wood. The Welsh were attacking Mametz Wood.

They were handled, as Marbot said of his men in a Napoleonic battle, "like turnips." Battalion commanders received orders in direct conflict with one another. Bodies of Welshmen were advanced, and then retired, and left to lie nakedly without cover, under dreadful fire. The 17th Division, under General Pilcher, did not attack at the expected time. There was no coordination of divisions; no knowledge among battalion officers of the strategy or tactics of a battle in which their men were involved.

"Goodness knows what's happening," said an officer I met near Mametz. He had been waiting all night and half a day with a body of troops who had expected to go forward, and were still hanging about under harassing fire.

On July 9th Contalmaison was taken. I saw that attack very clearly, so clearly that I could almost count the bricks in the old château set in a little wood, and saw the left-hand tower knocked off by the direct hit of a fifteen-inch shell. At four o'clock in the afternoon our guns concentrated on the village, and under the cover of that fire our men advanced on three sides of it, hemmed it in, and captured it with the garrison of the 122nd Bavarian Regiment, who had suffered the agonies of hell inside its ruins. Now our men stayed in the ruins, and this time German shells smashed into the château and the cottages and left nothing but rubbish heaps of brick through which a few days later I went walking with the smell of death in my nostrils. Our men were now being shelled in that place.

View of Combles.
A view of Ovillers. See larger image.

Beyond La Boisselle, on the left of the Albert-Bapaume road, there had been a village called Ovillers. It was not longer there. Our guns had removed every trace of it, except as it lay in heaps of pounded brick. The Germans had a network of trenches about it, and in their ditches and their dugouts they fought like wolves. Our 12th Division was ordered to drive them out -- a division of English county troops, including the Sussex, Essex, Bedfords, and Middlesex -- all those country boys of ours fought their way among communication trenches, burrowed into tunnels, crouched below hummocks of earth and brick, and with bombs and bayonets and broken rifles, and boulders of stone, and German stick-bombs, and any weapon that would kill, gained yard by yard over the dead bodies of the enemy, or by the capture of small batches of cornered men, until after seventeen days of this one hundred and forty men of the 3rd Prussian Guard, the last of their garrison, without food or water, raised a signal of surrender, and came out with their hands up. Ovillers was a shambles, in a fight of primitive earth-men like human beasts. Yet our men were not beast-like. They came out from those places -- if they had the luck to come out -- apparently unchanged, without any mark of the beast on them, and when they cleansed themselves of mud and filth, boiled the lice out of their shirts, and assembled in a village street behind the lines, they whistled, laughed, gossiped, as though nothing had happened to their souls -- though something had really happened, as now we know.

View of Combles.
A scene in the trenches at night on the 1st July, after the first day of the battle. See larger image.

It was not until July 14th that our High Command ordered another general attack after the local fighting which had been in progress since the first day of battle. Our field-batteries, and some of our "heavies," had moved forward to places like Montauban and Contalmaison -- where German shells came searching for them all day long. It was to be an attack on the second German line of defense on the ridges by the village of Bazentin le Grand and Bazentin le Petit to Longueval on the right and Delville Wood. I went up in the night to see the bombardment and the beginning of the battle and the swirl of its backwash, and I remember now the darkness of villages behind the lines through which our cars crawled, until we reached the edge of the battlefields, and saw the sky rent by incessant flames of gun-fire, while red tongues of flames leaped up from burning villages. Longueval was on fire, and the two Bazentins, and another belt of land in France, so beautiful to see, even as I had seen it first between the sandbags of our parapets, was being delivered to the charcoal-burners.

View of Combles.
Indian cavalry waiting to advance on 14th July. See larger image.

I have described that night scene elsewhere, in all its deviltry, but one picture which I passed on the way to the battlefield could not then be told. Yet it was significant of the mentality of our High Command, as was afterward pointed out derisively by Sixte von Arnim. It proved the strange unreasoning optimism which still lingered in the breasts of old-fashioned generals in sprite of what had happened on the left on the first day of July, and their study of trench maps, and their knowledge of German machine-guns. By an old mill-house called the Moulin Vivier, outside the village of Méaulte, were masses of cavalry -- Indian cavalry and Dragoons -- drawn up densely to leave a narrow passageway for field-guns and horse-transport moving through the village, which was in utter darkness. The Indians sat like statues on their horses, motionless, dead silent. Now and again there was a jangle of bits. Here and there a British soldier lit a cigarette and for a second the little flame of his match revealed a bronzed face or glinted on steel helmets.

Cavalry! . . . So even now there was a serious purpose behind the joke of English soldiers who had gone forward on the first day, shouting, "This way to the gap!" and in the converstion of some of those who actually did ride through Bazentin that day.

A troop or two made their way over the cratered ground and skired Delville Wood; the Dragood Guards charged a machine-gun in a cornfield, and killed the gunners. Germans rounded up by them clung to their stirrup leathers crying: "Pity! Pity!" The Indians lowered their lances, but took prisoners to show their chivalry. But it was nothing more than a beau geste. It was as futile and absurd as Don Quixote's charge of the windmill. They were brought to a dead halt by the nature of the ground and machine-gun fire which killed their horses, and lay out that night with German shells searching for their bodies.

One of the most disappointed men in the army was on General Haldane's staff. He was an old cavalry officer, and this major of the old, old school (belonging in spirit to the time of Charles Lever) was excited by the thought that there was to be a cavalry adventure. He was one of those who swore that if he had his chance he would "ride into the blue." It was the chance he wanted and he nursed his way to it by delicate attentions to General Haldane(2). The general's bed was not so comfortable as his. He changed places. He even went so far as to put a bunch of flowers on the general's table in his dugout.

"You seem very attentive to me, major," said the general, smelling a rat.

Then the major blurted out his desire. Could he lead a squadron round Delville Wood? Could he take that ride into the blue? He would give his soul to do it.

"Get on with your job," said General Haldane.

That ride into the blue did not encourage the cavalry to the belief that they would be of real value in a warfare of trench lines and barbed wire, but for a long time later they were kept moving backward and forward between the edge of the battlefields and the back areas, to the great encumbrance of the roads, until they were "guyed" by the infantry, and irritable, so their officers told me, to the verge of mutiny. Their irritability was cured by dismounting them for a turn in the trenches, and I came across the Household Cavalry digging by the Coniston Steps, this side of Thièpval, and cursing their spade-work.

In this book I will not tell again the narrative of that fighting in the summer and autumn of 1916, which I have written with many details of each day's scene in my collected dispatches called The Battles of the Somme. There is little that I can add to those word-pictures which I wrote day by day, after haunting experiences amid the ruin of those fields, except a summing-up of their effect upon the mentality of our men, and upon the Germans who were in the same "blood-bath," as they called it, and a closer analysis of the direction and mechanism of our military machine.

Looking back upon those battles in the light of knowledge gained in the years that followed, it seems clear that our High Command was too prodigal in its expenditure of life in small sectional battles, and that the army corps and divisional staffs had not established an efficient system of communication with the fighting units under their control. It seemed to an outsider like myself that a number of separate battles were being fought without reference to one another in different parts of the field. It seemed as though our generals, after conferring with one another over telephones, said, "All right, tell So-and-so to have a go at Thièpval", or, "Today we will send such-and-such a division to capture Delville Wood," or, "We must get that line of trenches outside Bazentin." Orders were drawn up on the basis of that decision and passed down to brigades, who read them as their sentence of death, and obeyed with or without protest, and sent three or four battalions to assault a place which was covered by German batteries round an arc of twenty miles, ready to open out a tempest of fire directly [as soon as] a rocket rose from their infantry, and to tear up the woods and earth in that neighborhood if our men gained ground. If the whole battle-line moved forward the German fire would have been dispersed, but in these separate attacks on places like Trônes Wood and Delville Wood, and later on High Wood, it was a vast concentration of explosives which plowed up our men.

So it was that Delville Wood was captured and lost several times and became "Devil's" Wood to men who lay there under the crash and fury of massed gun-fire until a wretched remnant of what had been a glorious brigade of youth crawled out stricken and bleeding when relieved by another brigade ordered to take their turn in that devil's caldron, or to recapture it when German bombing-parties and machine-gunners had followed in the wake of fire, and had crouched again among the fallen trees, and in the shell-craters and ditches, with our dead and their dead to keep them company. In Delville Wood the South African Brigade of the 9th Division was cut to pieces, and I saw the survivors come out with few officers to lead them.

In Trônes Wood, in Bernafay Wood, in Mametz Wood, there had been great slaughter of English troops and Welsh. The 18th Division and the 38th suffered horribly. In Delville Wood many battalions were slashed to pieces before these South Africans. And after that came High Wood. . . . All that was left of High Wood in the autumn of 1916 was a thin row of branch-less trees, but in July and August there were still glades under heavy foliage, until the branches were lopped off and the leaves scattered by our incessant fire. It was an important position, vital for the enemy's defense, and our attack on the right flank of the Pozières Ridge, above Bazentin and Delville Wood, giving on the reverse slope a fine observation of the enemy's lines above Martinpuich and Courcelette away to Bapaume. For that reason the Germans were ordered to hold it at all costs, and many German batteries had registered on it to blast our men out if they gained a foothold on our side of the slope or theirs.

So High Wood became another Hell, on a day of great battle -- September 14, 1916 -- when for the first time tanks were used, demoralizing the enemy in certain places, though they were too few in number to strike a paralyzing blow. The Londoners gained part of High Wood at frightful cost and then were blown out of it. Other divisions followed them and found the wood stuffed with machine-guns which they had to capture through hurricanes of bullets before they crouched in craters amid dead Germans and dead English, and then were blown out like the Londoners, under shell-fire, in which no human life could stay for long.

The 7th Division was cut up there. The 33rd Division lost six thousand men in an advance against uncut wire in the wood, which they were told was already captured.

Hundreds of men were vomiting from the effect of gas-shells, choking and blinded. Behind, the transport wagons and horses were smashed to bits.

The divisional staffs were often ignorant of what was happening to the fighting-men when the attack was launched. Light signals, rockets, heliographing, were of small avail through the dust- and smoke-clouds. Forward observing officers crouching behind parapets, as I often saw them, and sometimes stood with them, watched fired burning, red rockets and green, gusts of flame, and bursting shells, and were doubtful what to make of it all. Telephone wires trailed across the ground for miles, were cut into short lengths by shrapnel and high explosive. Accidents happened as part of the inevitable blunders of war. It was all a vast tangle and complexity of strife.

On July 17th I stood in a tent by a staff-officer who was directing a group of heavy guns supporting the 3rd Division. He was tired, as I could see by the black lines under his eyes and tightly drawn lips. On a camp-table in front of him, upon which he leaned his elbows, there was a telephone apparatus, and the little bell kept ringing as we talked. Now and then a shell burst in the field outside the tent, and he raised his head and said: "They keep crumping about here. Hope they won't tear this tent to ribbons. . . . That sounds like a gas-shell."

Then he turned to the telephone again and listened to some voice speaking.

"Yes, I can hear you. Yes, go on. 'Our men seen leaving High Wood.' Yes. 'Shelled by our artillery.' Are you sure of that? I say, are you sure they were our men? Another message. Well, carry on. 'Men digging on road from High Wood southeast to Longueval.' Yes. I've got that. 'They are our men and not Boches.' Oh, hell! . . . Get off the line. Get off the line, can't you? . . . . 'Our men and not Boches.' Yes, I have that. 'Heavily shelled by our guns.'"

The staff-officer tapped on the table with a lead-pencil a tattoo, while his forehead puckered. Then he spoke into the telephone again.

"Are you there, 'Heavies'? . . . Well, don't disturb those fellows for half an hour. After that I will give you new orders. Try and confirm if they are our men."

He rang off and turned to me.

"That's the trouble. Looks as if we had been pounding our own men like hell. Some damn fool reports 'Boches.' Gives the reference number. Asks for the 'Heavies'. Then some other fellow says: 'Not Boches. For God's sake cease fire!' How is one to tell?"

I could not answer that question, but I hated the idea of our men sent forward to capture a road or a trench or a wood and then "pounded" by our guns. They had enough pounding from the enemy's guns. There seemed a missing link in the system somewhere. Probably it was quite inevitable.

Over and over again the wounded swore to God that they had been shelled by our own guns. The Londoners said so from High Wood. The Australians said so from Mouquet Farm. The Scots said so from Longueval! They said: "Why the hell do we get murdered by British gunners? What's the good of fighting if we're slaughtered by our own side?"

In some cases they were mistaken. It was enfilade fire from German batteries. But often it happened according to the way of that telephone conversation the tent by Bronfay Farm.

The difference between British soldiers and German soldiers crawling over shell-craters or crouching below the banks of a sunken road was no more than the difference between two tribes of ants. Our flying scouts, however low they flew, risking the Archies(3) and machine-gun bullets, often mistook khaki for field gray, and came back with false reports which led to tragedy.


(1) Commander-in-Chief, etc -- Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Lieu. Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson commanded the British 4th Army--the 4th Army being responsible for most of the fighting at the Somme. Major-General J. A. L. Haldane commanding the 3rd Division

(2) General Haldane -- Major-General J. A. L. Haldane commanding the 3rd Division. Charles Level (1806-1872) was a popular novelist of the Victorian era, known for "rollicking novels full of lively incident and ludicrous situations" including the "irrepressible" Charles O'Malley: the Irish Dragoon (1841) . (Table-Talk: Death of Charles Lever... Appletons' journal: a magazine of general literature. vol. 8, iss. 171 pp 23 : July 6, 1872. MOA)

(3) Archies -- Anti-aircraft guns or shells.

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