NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
The name (that "blood-bath") and the news of battle could
not be hidden from the people of German, who had already been chilled
with horror by the losses at Verdun, nor from the soldiers of reserve
regiments quartered in French and Belgian towns like Valenciennes, St.
Quentin, Cambrai, Lille, Bruges, and as far back as Brussels, waiting
to go to the front, nor from the civil population of those towns, held
for two years by their enemy -- those blond young men who lived in their
houses, marched down their streets, and made love to their women.
The news was brought down from the Somme front by Red Cross trains,
arriving in endless succession, and packed with maimed and mangled men.
German military policemen formed cordons round the railway stations,
pushed back civilians who came to stare with somber eyes at these blanketed
bundles of living flesh, but when the ambulances rumbled through the
streets toward the hospitals -- long processions of them, with the soles
of men's boots turned up over the stretchers on which they lay quiet
and still -- the tale was told, though no word was spoken.
The tale of defeat, of great losses, of grave and increasing anxiety,
was told clearly enough -- as I read in captured letters -- by the faces
of German officers who went about in these towns behind the lines with
gloomy looks, and whose tempers, never of the sweetest, became irritable
and unbearable, so that the soldiers hated them for all this cursing
and bullying. A certain battalion commander had a nervous breakdown
because he had to meet his colonel in the morning.
"He is dying with fear and anxiety," wrote one of his comrades.
Other men, not battalion commanders, were even more afraid of their
superior officers, upon whom this bad news from the Somme had an evil
The bad news was spread by divisions taken out of the line and sent
back to rest. The men reported that their battalions had been cut to
pieces. Some of their regiments had lost three-quarters of their strength.
They described the frightful effect of the British artillery -- the
smashed trenches, the shell-crater, the horror.
It was not good for the morale of men who were just going up there
to take their turn.
The man who was afraid of his colonel "sits all day long writing home,
with the picture of his wife and children before his eyes." He was afraid
of other things.
Bavarian soldiers quarreled with Prussians, accused them (unjustly)
of shirking the Somme battlefields and leaving the Bavarians to go to
"All the Bavarian troops are being sent to the Somme (this much
is certain, you can see no Prussians there), and this in spite of the
losses the 1st Bavarian Corps suffered recently at Verdun! And how we
did suffer! . . . It appears that we are in for another turn -- at least
the 5th Bavarian Division. Everybody has been talking about it for a
long time. To the devil with it! Every Bavarian regiment is being sent
into it, and it's a swindle."
It was in no cheerful mood that men went away to the Somme battlefields.
Those battalions of gray-clad men entrained without any of the old enthusiasm
with which they had gone to earlier battles. Their gloom was noticed
by the officers.
"Sing, you sheeps' heads, sing!" they shouted.
They were compelled to sing, by order.
"In the afternoon," wrote a man of the 18th Reserve Division,
"we had to go out again; we were to learn to sing. The greater
part did not join in, and the song went feebly. Then we had to march
round in a circle and sing, and that went no better. After that we had
an hour off, and on the way back to billets we were to sing 'Deutschland
Über Alles,' but this broke down completely. One never hears songs
of the Fatherland any more."
They were silent, grave-eyed men who marched through the streets of
French and Belgian towns to be entrained for the Somme front, for they
had forebodings of the fate before them. Yet none of their forebodings
were equal in intensity of fear to the frightful reality into which
they were flung.
The journey to the Somme front, on the German side, was a way of terror,
ugliness, and death. Not all the imagination of morbid minds searching
obscenely for the foulness and blood in the great, deep pits of human
agony could surpass these scenes along the way to the German lines round
Courcelette and Flers, Gueudecourt, Morval, and Lesboeufs.
Many times, long before a German battalion had arrived near the trenches,
it was but a collection of nerve-broken men bemoaning losses already
suffered far behind the lines and filled with hideous apprehension.
For British long-range guns were hurling high explosives into distant
villages, barraging crossroads, reaching out to rail-heads and ammunition
dumps, while British airmen were on bombing flights over railway stations
and rest-billets and highroads down which the German troops came marching
at Cambrai, Bapaume, in the valley between Irles and Warlencourt, at
Ligny-Thilloy, Busigny, and many other places on the lines of route.
German soldiers arriving one morning at Cambrai by train found themselves
under the fire of a single airplane which flew very low and dropped
bombs. They exploded with heavy crashes, and one bomb hit the first
carriage behind the engine, killing and wounding several men. A second
bomb hit the station buildings, and there was a clatter of broken glass,
the rending of wood, and the fall of bricks. All lights went out, and
the German soldiers groped about in the darkness amid the splinters
of glass and the fallen bricks, searching for the wounded by the sound
of their groans. It was but one scene along the way to that blood-bath
through which they had to wade to the trenches of the Somme.
Flights of British airplanes circled over the villages on the way.
At Grevilliers, in August, eleven 112-16 bombs fell in the market square,
so that the center of the village collapsed in a state of ruin, burying
soldiers billeted there. Every day the British airmen paid these visits,
meeting the Germans far up the roads on their way to the Somme, and
swooping over them like a flying death. Even on the march in open country
the German soldiers tramping silently along -- not singing in spite
of orders -- were bombed and shot at by these British aviators, who
flew down very low, pouring out streams of machine-gun bullets. The
Germans lost their nerve at such times, and scattered into the ditches,
falling over one another, struck and cursed by their Unteroffizieren,
and leaving their dead and wounded in the roadway.
As the roads went nearer to the battlefields they were choked with
the traffic of war, with artillery and transport wagons and horse ambulances,
and always thousands of gray men marching up to the lines, or back from
them, exhausted and broken after many days in the fires of hell up there.
Officers sat on their horses by the roadside, directing all the traffic
with the usual swearing and cursing, and rode alongside the transport
wagons and the troops, urging them forward at a quicker pace because
of stern orders received from headquarters demanding quicker movement.
The reserves, it seemed, were desperately wanted up in the lines. The
English were attacking again. . . . God alone knew what was happening.
Regiments had lost their way. Wounded were pouring back. Officers had
gone mad. Into the midst of all this turmoil shells fell -- shells from
long-range guns. Transport wagons were blown to bits. The bodies and
fragments of artillery horses lay all over the roads. Men lay dead or
bleeding under the debris of gun-wheels and broken bricks. Above all
the noise of this confusions and death in the night the hard, stern
voices of German officers rang out, and German discipline prevailed,
and men marched on to greater perils.
They were in the shell-zone now, and sometimes a regiment on the march
was tracked all along the way by British gun-fire directed from airplanes
and captive balloons. It was the fate of a captured officer I met who
had detrained at Bapaume for the trenches at Contalmaison.
At Bapaume his battalion was hit by fragments of twelve-inch shells.
Nearer to the line they came under the fire of eight-inch and six-inch
shells. Four-point-sevens (4.7's) found them somewhere by Bazentin.
At Contalmaison they marched into a barrage, and here the officer was
taken prisoner. Of his battalion there were few men left.
It was so with the 3rd Jäger Battalion, ordered up hurriedly to
make a counter-attack near Flers. They suffered so heavily on the way
to the trenches that no attack could be made. The stretcher-bearers
had all the work to do.
The way up to the trenches became more tragic as every kilometer was
passed, until the stench of corruption was wafted on the wind, so that
men were sickened, and tried not to breathe, and marched hurriedly to
get on the lee side of its foulness. They walked now through places
which had once been villages, but were sinister ruins where death lay
in wait for German soldiers.
"It seems queer to me," wrote one of them, "that whole
villages close to the front look as flattened as a child's toy run over
by a steam-roller. Not one stone remains on another. The streets are
one line of shell-holes. Add to that the thunder of the guns, and you
will see with what feelings we come into the line -- into trenches where
for months shells of all caliber have rained . . . . Flers is a scrap
Again and again men lost their way up to the lines. The reliefs could
only be made at night lest they should be discovered by British airmen
and British gunners, and even if these German soldiers had trench maps
the guidance was but little good when many trenches had been smashed
in and only shell-graters could be found.
"In the front lines of Flers," wrote one of these Germans,
"the men were only occupying shell-holes. Behind there was the
intense smell of putrefaction which filled the trench -- almost unbearably.
The corpses lie either quite insufficiently covered with earth on
the edge of the trench or quite close under the bottom of the trench,
so that the earth lets the stench though. In some places bodies lie
quite uncovered in a trench recess, and no one seems to trouble about
them. One sees horrible pictures -- here an arm, there a foot, here
a head, sticking out of the earth. And these are all German soldiers
"Not far from us, at the entrance to a dugout, nine men were buried,
of whom three were dead. All along the trench men kept on getting
buried. What had been a perfect trench a few hours before was in parts
completely blown in. . . . The men are getting weaker. It is impossible
to hold out any longer. Losses can no longer be reckoned accurately.
Without a doubt many of our people are killed."
That is only one out of thousands of such gruesome pictures, true as
the death they described, true to the pictures on our side of the line
as on their side, which went back to German homes during the battles
of the Somme. Those German soldiers were great letter-writers, and men
sitting in wet ditches, in "fox-holes," as they called their
dugouts, "up to my waist in mud," as one of them described,
scribbled pitiful things which they hoped might reach their people at
home, as a voice from the dead. For they had had little hope of escape
from the blood-bath. "When you get this I shall be a corpse,"
wrote one of them, and one finds the same foreboding in many of these
Even the lucky ones who could get some cover from the incessant bombardment
by English guns began to lose their nerves after a day or two. They
were always in fear of British infantry sweeping upon them suddenly
behind the Trommelfeuer, rushing their dugouts with bombs and
bayonets. Sentries became "jumpy", and signaled attacks when
there were no attacks. The gas-alarm was sounded constantly by the clang
of a bell in the trench, and men put on their heavy gas-masks and sat
in them until they were nearly stifled.
Here is a little picture of life in a German dugout near the British
lines, written by a man now dead:
"The telephone bell rings. 'Are you there? Yes, here's Nau's
battalion.' 'Good. That is all.' Then that ceases, and now the wire
is in again perhaps for the twenty-fifth or thirtieth time. Thus the
night is interrupted, and now they come, alarm messages, one after
the other, each more terrifying than the other, of enormous losses
through the bombs and shells of the enemy, of huge masses of troops
advancing upon us, of all possible possibilities, such as a train
broken down, and we are tortured by all the terrors that the mind
can invent. Our nerves quiver. We clench out teeth. None of us can
forget the horrors of the night."
Heavy rain fell and the dugouts became wet and filthy.
"Our sleeping-places were full of water. We had to try and bail
out the trenches with cooking-dishes. I lay down in the water with
G__. We were to have worked on dugouts, but not a soul could do any
more. Only a few sections got coffee. Mine got nothing at all. I was
frozen in every limb, poured the water out of my boots, and lay down
Our men suffered exactly the same things, but did not write about them.
The German generals and their staffs could not be quite indifferent
to all this welter of human suffering among their troops, in spite of
the cold, scientific spirit with which they regarded the problem of
war. The agony of the individual soldier would not trouble them. There
is no war without agony. But the psychology of masses of men had to
be considered, because it affects the efficiency of the machine.
The German General Staff on the western front was becoming seriously
alarmed by the declining morale of its infantry under the increasing
strain of the British attacks, and adopted stern measures to cure it.
But it could not hope to cure the heaps of German dead who were lying
on the battlefields, nor the maimed men who were being carried back
to the dressing stations, nor to bring back the prisoners taken in droves
by the French and British troops.
Before the attack on the Flers line, the capture of Thièpval,
and the German debacle at Beaumont Hamel, in November, the enemy's command
was already filled with a grave anxiety at the enormous losses of its
fighting strength; was compelled to adopt new expedients for increasing
the number of its divisions. It was forced to withdraw troops badly
needed on other fronts, and the successive shocks of the British offensive
reached as far as Germany itself, so that the whole of its recruiting
system had to be revised to fill up the gaps torn out of the German