NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
People who read my war dispatches will remember my first descriptions
of the tanks and those of other correspondents. They caused a sensation,
a sense of excitement, laughter which shook the nation because of the
comicality, the grotesque surprise, the possibility of quicker victory,
which caught hold of the imagination of people who heard for the first
time of those new engines of war, so beast-like in appearance and performance.
The vagueness of our descriptions was due to the censorship, which forbade,
wisely enough, any technical and exact definition, so that we had to
compare them to giant toads, mammoths, and prehistoric animals of all
kinds. Our accounts did, however, reproduce the psychological effect
of the tanks upon the British troops when these engines appeared for
the first time to their astonished gaze on September 13th. Our soldiers
roared with laughter, as I did, when they saw them lolloping up the
roads. On the morning of the great battle of September 15th the presence
of the tanks going into action excited all the troops along the front
with a sense of comical relief in the midst of the grim and deadly business
of attack. Men followed them, laughing and cheering. There was a wonderful
thrill in the airman's message, "Tank walking up the High Street
of Flers with the British army cheering behind." Wounded boys whom
I met that morning grinned in spite of their wounds at our first word
about the tanks. "Crikey!" said a cockney lad of the 47th Division.
"I can't help laughing every time I think of them tanks. I saw them
stamping down German machine-guns as though they were wasps' nests."
The adventures of Crème de Menthe, Cordon
Rouge, and the Byng Boys(1), on both sides of
the Bapaume road, when they smashed down barbed wire, climbed over trenches,
sat on German redoubts, and received the surrender of German prisoners
who held their hands up to these monsters and cried, "Kamerad!"
were like fairy-tales of war by H.G. Wells.
Yet their romance had a sharp edge of reality as I saw in those battles
of the Somme, and afterward, more grievously, in the Cambrai salient
and Flanders, when the tanks were put out of action by direct hits of
field-guns and nothing of humankind remained in them but the charred
bones of their gallant crews.
Before the battle in September of '16 I talked with the pilots of the
first tanks, and although they were convinced of the value of these
new engines of war and were out to prove it, they did not disguise from
me nor from their own souls that they were going forth upon a perilous
adventure with the odds of luck against them. I remember one young pilot
-- a tiny fellow like a jockey, who took me on one side and said, "I
want you to do me a favor," and then scribbled down his mother's
address and asked me to write to her if "anything" happened
He and other tank officers were anxious. They had not complete confidence
in the steering and control of their engines. It was a difficult and
clumsy kind of gear, which was apt to break down at a critical moment,
as I saw when I rode in one on their field of maneuver. These first
tanks were only experimental, and the tail arrangement was very weak.
Worse than all mechanical troubles was the short-sighted policy of some
authority at G.H.Q. who had insisted upon A.S.C.
drivers(2) being put to this job a few days before
the battle, without proper training.
"It is mad and murderous," said one of the officers. "These
fellows may have pluck, all right -- I don't doubt it -- but they don't
know their engines, nor the double steering trick, and they have never
been under shell-fire. It is asking for trouble."
As it turned out, the A.S.C. drivers proved their pluck, for the most
part, splendidly, but many tanks broke down before they reached the
enemy's lines, and in that action and later battles there were times
when they bitterly disappointed the infantry commanders and the troops.
Individual tanks, commanded by gallant young officers and served by
brave crews, did astonishing feats, and some of these men came back
dazed and deaf and dumb, after forty hours or more of fighting and maneuvering
within steel walls, intensely hot, filled with the fumes of their engines,
jolted and banged about over rough ground, and steering an uncertain
course, after the loss of their "tail", which had snapped
at the spine. But there had not been anything like enough tanks to secure
an annihilating surprise over the enemy as afterward was attained in
the first battle of Cambrai; and the troops who had been buoyed up with
the hope that at last the machine-gun evil was going to be scotched
were disillusioned and dejected when they saw tanks ditched behind the
lines or nowhere in sight when once again they had to trudge forward
under the flail of machine-gun bullets from earthwork redoubts. It was
a failure in generalship to give away our secret before it could be
I remember sitting in a mess of the Gordons in the village of Franvillers
along the Albert road, and listening to a long monologue by a Gordon
officer on the future of the tanks. He was a dreamer and a visionary,
and his fellow-officers laughed at him.
"A few tanks are no good," he said. "Forty or fifty
tanks are no good on a modern battle-front. We want hundreds of tanks,
brought up secretly, fed with ammunition by tank carriers, bringing
up field-guns and going into action without any preliminary barrage.
They can smash through the enemy's wire and get over his trenches before
he is aware that an attack has been organized. Up to now all our offensives
have been futile because of our preliminary advertisement by prolonged
bombardment. The tanks can bring back surprise to modern warfare, but
we must have hundreds of them."
Prolonged laughter greeted this speech. But the Celtic dreamer did
not smile. He was staring into the future. . . . And what he saw was
true, though he did not live to see it, for the Cambrai battle of November
11th the tanks did advance in hundreds, and gained an enormous surprise
over the enemy, and led the way to a striking victory, which turned
to tragedy because of risks too lightly taken.
(1) Lieu.-Gen. Sir Julian
Byng was commander of the Canadian Corps.
(2) ASC -- Army Service