NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
I have described what happened on our side of the lines, our fearful
losses, the stream of wounded that came back day by day, the "Butchers'
Shops," the agony in men's souls, the shell-shock cases, the welter
and bewilderment of battle, the shelling of our own troops, the lack
of communication between fighting units and the command, the filth and
stench of the hideous shambles which were our battlefield. But to complete
the picture of that human conflict in the Somme I must now tell what
happened on the German side of the lines, as I was able to piece the
tale together from German prisoners with whom I talked, German letters
which I found in their abandoned dugouts, and documents which fell into
the hands of our staff officers.
Our men were at least inspirited [sic] by the knowledge that they were
beating their enemy back, in spite of their own losses. The Germans
had not even that source of comfort, for whatever it might be worth
under barrage fire. The mistakes of our generalship, the inefficiency
of our staff-work, were not greater than the blunderings of the German
High Command, and their problem was more difficult than ours because
of the weakness of their reserves, owing to enormous preoccupation on
the Russian front. The agony of their men was greater than ours.
To understand the German situation it must be remembered that from
January to May, 1916, the German command on the western front was concentrating
all its energy and available strength in manpower and gun-power upon
the attack of Verdun. The Crown Prince had staked his reputation upon
that adventure, which he believed would end in the capture of the strongest
French fortress and the destruction of the French armies. He demanded
men and more men, until every unit that could be spared from other fronts
of the line had been thrown into that furnace. Divisions were called
in from other theaters of war, and increased the strength on the western
from to a total of about one hundred and thirty divisions.
But the months passed and Verdun still held out above piles of German
corpses on its slopes, and in June Germany looked east and saw a great
menace. The Russian offensive was becoming violent. German generals
on the Russian fronts sent desperate messages for help. "Send us
more men," they said, and from the western front four divisions
containing thirty-nine battalions were sent to them.
They must have been sent grudgingly, for now another menace threatened
the enemy, and it was ours. The British armies were getting reading
to strike. In spite of Verdun, France still had men enough -- withdrawn
from that part of the line in which they had been relieved by the British
-- to cooperate in a new attack.
It was our offensive that the German command feared most, for they
had no exact knowledge of our strength or the quality of our new troops.
They knew that our army had grown prodigiously since the assault on
Loos, nearly a year before.
They had heard of the Canadian reinforcements, and the coming of the
Australians, and the steady increase of recruiting in England, and month
by month they had heard the louder roar of our guns along the line,
and had seen their destructive effect spreading and becoming more terrible.
They knew of the steady, quiet concentration of batteries and divisions
on the west and south of the Ancre.
The German command expected a heavy blow and prepared for it, but as
yet had no knowledge of the driving force behind it. What confidence
they had of being able to resist the British attack was based upon the
wonderful strength of the lines which they had been digging and fortifying
since the autumn of the first year of war -- "impregnable positions",
they had called them -- the inexperience of our troops, their own immense
quantity of machine-guns, the courage and skill of their gunners, and
their profound belief in the superiority of German generalship.
In order to prevent espionage during the coming struggle, and to conceal
the movement of troops and guns, they ordered the civil populations
to be removed from villages close behind their positions, drew cordons
of military police across the country, picketed crossroads, and established
a network of counter espionage to prevent any leakage of information.
To inspire the German troops with a spirit of martial fervor (not easily
aroused to fever pitch after the bloody losses before Verdun) Orders
of the Day were issued to the battalions counseling them to hold fast
against the hated English, who stood foremost in the way of peace (that
was the gist of a manifesto by Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, which I
found in a dugout at Montauban), and promising them a speedy ending
to the war.
Great stores of material and munitions were concentrated at rail-heads
and dumps ready to be sent up to the firing-lines, and the perfection
of German organization may well have seemed flawless -- before the attack
When they began they found that in "heavies" and in expenditure
of high explosives they were outclassed.
They were startled, too, by the skill and accuracy of the British gunners,
whom they had scorned as "amateurs", and by the daring of
our airmen, who flew over their lines with the utmost audacity, "spotting"
for the guns, and registering on batteries, communication trenches,
crossroads, rail-heads, and every vital point of organization in the
German war-machine working opposite the British lines north and south
of the Ancre.
Even before the British infantry had left their trenches at dawn on
July 1st, German officers behind the firing-lines saw with anxiety that
all the organization which had worked so smoothly in times of ordinary
trench-warfare was now working only in a hazardous way under a deadly
storm of shells.
Food and supplies of all kinds could not be sent up to frontline trenches
without many casualties, and sometimes could not be sent up at all.
Telephone wires were cut, and communications broken between the front
and headquarters staffs. Staff officers sent up to report were killed
on the way to the lines. Troops moving forward from reserve areas came
under heavy fire and lost many men before arriving in the support trenches.
Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, sitting aloof from all this in personal
safety, must have known before July 1st that his resources in men and
material would be strained to the uttermost by the British attack, but
he could take a broader view than men closer to the scene of battle,
and taking into account the courage of his troops (he had no need to
doubt that), the immense strength of their positions, dug and tunneled
beyond the power of high explosives, the number of his machine-guns,
the concentration of his artillery, and the rawness of the British troops,
he could count up the possible cost and believe that in spite of a heavy
price to pay there would be no break in his lines.
At 7.30 am on July 1st the British infantry, as I have told, left their
trenches and attacked on the right angle down from Gommecourt, Beaumont
Hamel, Thièpval, Ovillers, and La Boisselle, and eastward from
Fricourt, below Mametz and Montauban. For a week the German troops --
Bavarians and Prussians -- had been crouching in their dugouts, listening
to the ceaseless crashing of the British "drum fire". In places
like Beaumont Hamel, the men down in the deep tunnels -- some of them
large, enough to hold a battalion and a half -- were safe as long as
they stayed there. But to get in or out was death. Trenches disappeared
into a sea of shell-craters, and the men holding them -- for some men
had to stay on duty there -- were blown to fragments.
Many of the shallower dugouts were smashed in by heavy shells, and
officers and men lay dead there as I saw them lying on the first days
of July, in Fricourt and Mametz and Montauban. The living men kept their
courage, but below ground, under that tumult of bursting shells, [they]
wrote pitiful letters to their people at home describing the horror
of those hours.
"We are quite shut off from the rest of the world," wrote
one of them. "Nothing comes to us. No letters. The English keep
such a barrage on our approaches it is terrible. Tomorrow evening it
will be seven days since this bombardment began. We cannot hold out
much longer. Everything is shot to pieces."
Thirst was one of their tortures. In many of the tunneled shelters
there was food enough, but the water could not be sent up. The German
soldiers were maddened by thirst. When rain fell many of them crawled
out and then drank filthy water mixed with yellow shell-sulfur, and
then were killed by high explosives. Other men crept out, careless of
death, but compelled to drink. They crouched over the bodies of the
men who lay above, or in, the shell-holes, and lapped up the puddles
and then crawled down again if they were not hit.
When our infantry attacked at Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel and Thièpval
they were received by waves of machine-gun bullets fired by men who,
in spite of the ordeal of our seven days' bombardment, came out into
the open now, at the moment of attack which they knew through their
periscopes was coming. They brought their guns above the shell craters
of their destroyed trenches under our barrage and served them. They
ran forward even into No Man's Land, and planted their machine-guns
there, and swept down our men as they charged. Over their heads the
German gunners flung a frightful barrage, plowing gaps in the ranks
of our men.
On the left, by Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel, the British attack failed,
as I have told, but southward the "impregnable" lines were
smashed by a tide of British soldiers as sand castles are overwhelmed
by the waves. Our men swept up to Fricourt, struck straight up to Montauban
on the right, captured it, and flung a loop round Mametz village.
For the German generals, receiving their reports with great difficulty
because runners were killed and telephones broken, the question was:
"How will these British troops fight in the open after their first
assault? How will our men stand between the first line and the second?"
As far as the German troops were concerned, there were no signs of
cowardice, or "low morale" as we called it more kindly, in
these early days of the struggle. They fought with a desperate courage,
holding on to positions in rearguard actions when our guns were slashing
them and when our men were getting near to them, making us pay a heavy
price for every little copse or gully or section of trench, and above
all serving their machine-guns at La Boisselle, Ovillers, above Fricourt,
round Contalmaison, and at all points of their gradual retreat, with
a wonderful obstinacy, until they were killed or captured. But fresh
waves of British soldiers followed those who were checked or broken.
After the first week of battle the German General Staff had learned
the truth about the qualities of those British "New Armies"
which had been mocked and caricatured in German comic papers. They learned
that these "amateur soldiers" had the qualities of the finest
troops in the world -- not only extreme valor, but skill and cunning,
not only a great power of endurance under the heaviest fire, but a spirit
of attack which was terrible in its effect. They were fierce bayonet
fighters. Once having gained a bit of earth or a ruined village, nothing
would budge them unless they could be blasted out by gunfire. General
Sixt von Arnim put down some candid notes in his report to Prince Rupprecht.
"The English infantry shows great dash in attack, a factor to
which immense confidence in its overwhelming artillery greatly contributes.
. . . It has shown great tenacity in defense. This was especially
noticeable in the case of small parties, which, when once established
with machine-guns in the corner of a wood or a graup of houses, were
very difficulty to drive out."
The German losses were piling up. The agony of the German troops under
our shell-fire was reaching unnatural limits of torture. The early prisoners
I saw -- Prussians and Bavarians of the 14th Reserve Corps -- were nerve-broken,
and told frightful stories of the way in which their regiments had been
cut to pieces. The German generals had to fill up the gaps, to put new
barriers of men against the waves of British infantry. They flung new
troops into the line, called up hurriedly from reserve depots.
Now, for the first time, their staff-work showed signs of disorder
and demoralization. When the Prussian Guards Reserves were brought up
from Valenciennes to counterattack at Contalmaison they were sent on
to the battlefield without maps or local guides, and walked straight
into our barrage. A whole battalion was cut to pieces and many others
suffered frightful things. Some of the prisoners told me that they had
lost three-quarters of their number in casualties, and our troops advanced
over heaps of killed and wounded.
The 122nd Bavarian Regiment in Contalmaison was among those which suffered
horribly. Owing to our ceaseless gun-fire, they could get no food-supplies
and no water. The dugouts were crowded, so that they had to take turns
to get into these shelters, and outside our shells were bursting over
every yard of ground.
"Those who went outside," a prisoner told me, "were killed
or wounded. Some of them had their heads blown off, and some of them
their arms. But we went on taking turns in the hole, although those
who went outside knew that it was their turn to die, most likely. At
last most of those who came into the hole were wounded, some of them
badly, so that we lay in blood." That is one little picture in
a great panorama of bloodshed.
The German command was not thinking much about the human suffering
of its troops. It was thinking of the next defensive line upon which
they would have to fall back if the pressure of the British offensive
could be maintained -- the Longueval-Bazentin- Pozières line.
It was getting nervous. Owing to the enormous efforts made in the Verdun
offensive, the supplies of ammunition were not adequate to the enormous
The German gunners were trying to compete with the British in continuity
of bombardments and the shells were running short. Guns were wearing
out under this incessant strain, and it was difficulty to replace them.
General von Gallwitz received reports of "an alarmingly large number
of bursts in the bore, particularly in field-guns."
General von Arnim complained that "reserve supplies of ammunition
were only available in very small quantities." The German telephone
system proved "totally inadequate in consequence of the development
which the fighting took." The German air service was surprisingly weak,
and the British airmen had established temprary mastery.
"The numerical superiority of the enemy's airmen," not General
von Arnim, "and the fact that their machines were better made,
became disagreeably apparent to us, particularly in their direction
of the enemy's artillery fire and in bomb dropping."
On July 15th the British troops broke the German second line at Longueval
and the Bazentins, and inflicted great losses upon the enemy, who fought
with their usual courage until the British bayonets were among them.
A day or two later their fortress of Ovillers fell, and the remnants
of the garrison -- one hundred and fifty strong -- after a desperate
and gallant resistance in ditches and tunnels, where they had fought
to the last, surrendered with honor.
Then began the long battle of the woods -- Devil's Wood, High Wood,
Trones Wood -- continued through August with more fierce and bloody
fighting, which ended in our favor and forced the enemy back, gradually
but steadily, in spite of the terrific bombardments which filled those
woods with shell-fire and the constant counter-attacks delivered by
"Counter-attack!" came the order from the German staff, and
battalions of men marched out obediently to certain death, sometimes
with incredible folly on the part of their commanding officers, who
ordered these attaches to be made without the slightest chance of success.
I saw an example of that at close range during a battle at Falfemont
Farm, near Guillemont. Our men had advanced from Wedge Wood, and I watched
them from a trench just south of this, to which I had gone at a great
pace over shell-craters and broken wire, with a young observing officer
who had been detailed to report back to the guns. (Old "Falstaff",
whose songs and stories had filled the tent under the Red Cross with
laughter, toiled after us gallantly, but grunting and sweating under
the sun like his prototype, until we lost him in our hurry.) Presently
a body of Germans came out of a copse called Leuze Wood, on rising ground,
faced round among the thin, slashed trees of Falfemont, and advanced
toward our men, shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar. It was sheer
suicide. I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right
side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell
into the scorched grass. Another line followed. They were tall men,
and did not falter as they came forward, but it seemed to me they walked
like men conscious of going to death. They died. The simile is outworn,
but is was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down.
In all the letters written during those weeks of fighting and captured
by us from dead or living men there was one cry of agony and horror.
"I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life,"
wrote one of them. "They were those of the battle of the Somme.
It began with a night attack on August 13th and 14th. The attack lasted
till the evening of the 18th, when the English wrote on our bodies in
letters of blood, 'It is all over with you.' A handful of half-mad,
wretched creatures, worn out in body and mind, were all that was left
of a whole battalions. We were that handful."
The losses of many of the German battalions were staggering (yet not
greater than our own), and by the middle of August the morale of the
troops was severely shaken. The 117th Division by Pozières suffered
very heavily. The 11th Reserve and the 157th Regiments each lost nearly
three-quarters of their effectives. The 9th Reserve Jäger Battalion
lost about three-quarters, the 84th Reserve and 86th Reserve over half.
On August 10th the 16th Division had six battalions in reserve.
By August 19th, owing to the large number of casualties, the greater
part of those reserves had been absorbed into the front and support
trenches, leaving as available reserves two exhausted battalions.
The weakness of the division and the absolute necessity of reinforcing
it led to the 5th Reserve Infantry Regiment (2nd Guards Division) being
brought up to strengthen the right flank in the Leipzig salient. This
regiment had suffered casualties to the extent of over 50 percent west
of Pozières during the middle of July, and showed no eagerness
to return to the fight. These were but a few examples of what was happening
along the whole of the German front on the Somme.
It became apparent by the end of August that the enemy was in trouble
to find fresh troops to relieve his exhausted divisions, and that the
wastage was faster than the arrival of new men. It was noticeable that
he left divisions in the line until incapable of further effort rather
than relieving them earlier so that after resting they might again be
brought on to the battlefield. The only conclusion to be drawn from
this was that the enemy had not sufficient formations available to make
the necessary reliefs.
In July three of these exhausted divisions were sent to the east, their
place being taken by two new divisions, and in August three more exhausted
divisions were sent to Russia, eight new divisions coming to the Somme
front. The British and French offensive was drawing in all the German
reserves and draining them of their life's blood.
"We entrained at Savigny," wrote a man of one of these regiments,
"and at once knew our destination. It was our old blood-bath --
In may letters this phrase was used. The Somme was called the "Bath
of Blood" by the German troops who waded across its shell-craters
and in the ditches which were heaped with their dead. But what I have
described is only the beginning of the battle, and the bath was to be
filled deeper in the months that followed.