NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
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
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
"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.
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.
|A scene in the trenches at night on the 1st July,
after the first day of the battle. See larger
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.
|Indian cavalry waiting to advance on 14th July.
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
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.
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.