NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
All though July and August the enemy's troops fought with wonderful
and stubborn courage, defending every bit of broken woodland, every
heap of bricks that was once a village, every line of trenches smashed
by heavy shell-fire, with obstinacy.
It is indeed fair and just to say that throughout those battles of
the Somme our men fought against an enemy hard to beat, grim and resolute,
and inspired sometimes with the courage of despair, which was hardly
less dangerous than the courage of hope.
The Australians who struggled to get the high ground at Pozières
did not have an easy task. The enemy made many counter-attacks against
them. All the ground thereabouts was, as I have said, so smashed that
the earth became finely powdered, and it was the arena of bloody fighting
at close quarters which did not last a day or two, but many weeks. Mouquet
Farm was like the phoenix which rose again out of its ashes. In its
tunneled ways German soldiers hit and came out to fight our men in the
rear long after the site of the farm was in our hands.
But the German troops were fighting what they knew to be a losing battle.
They were fighting rear-guard actions, trying to gain time for the hasty
digging of ditches behind them, trying to sell their lives at the highest
They lived not only under incessant gun-fire, gradually weakening their
nerve-power, working a physical as well as a moral change in them, but
in constant terror of British attacks.
They could never be sure of safety at any hour of the day or night,
even in their deepest dugouts. The British varied their times of attack.
At dawn, at noon, when the sun was reddening in the west, just before
the dusk, in pitch darkness, even, the steady, regular bombardment that
had never ceased all through the days and nights would concentrate into
the great tumult of sudden drum-fire, and presently waves of men --
English or Scottish or Irish, Australians or Canadians -- would be sweeping
on to them and over them, rummaging down into the dugouts with bombs
and bayonets, gathering up prisoners, quick to kill if men were not
quick to surrender.
The German General Staff was getting flurried, grabbing at battalions
from other parts of the line, disorganizing its divisions under the
urgent need of flinging in men to stop this rot in the lines, ordering
counter-attacks which were without any change of success, so that thin
waves of men came out into the open, as I saw them several times, to
be swept down by scythes of bullets which cut them clean to the earth.
Before September 15th they hoped that the British offensive was wearing
itself out. It seemed to them at least doubtful that after the struggle
of two and a half months the British troops could still have spirit
and strength enough to fling themselves against new lines.
But the machinery of their defense was crumbling. Many of their guns
had worn out, and could not be replaced quickly enough. Many batteries
had been knocked out in their emplacements along the line of Bazentin
and Longueval before the artillery was drawn back to Grandcourt and
a new line of safety. Battalion commanders clamored for greater supplies
of hand-grenades, entrenching tools, trench-mortars, signal rockets,
and all kinds of fighting material enormously in excess of all previous
The difficulties of dealing with the wounded, who littered the battlefields
and choked the roads with the traffic ambulances, became increasingly
severe, owing to the dearth of horses for transport and the longer range
of British guns which had been brought far forward.
The German General Staff studied its next lines of defense away through
Courcelette, Martinpuich, Lesboeufs, Morval, and Combles, and they did
not look too good, but with luck and the courage of German soldiers,
and the exhaustion -- surely those fellows were exhausted! -- of British
troops -- good enough.
On September 15th the German command had another shock when the whole
line of the British troops on the Somme front south of the Ancre rose
out of their trenches and swept over the German defenses in a tide.
Those defenses broke hopelessly, and the waves dashed through. Here
and there, as on the German left at Morval and Lesboeufs, the bulwarks
stood for a time, but the British pressed against them and round them.
On the German right, below the little river of the Ancre, Courcelette
fell, and Martinpuich, and at last, as I have written, High Wood, which
the Germans desired to hold at all costs, and had held against incessant
attacks by great concentration of artillery, was captured and left behind
by the London men. A new engine of war had come as a demoralizing influence
among German troops, spreading terror among them on the first day out
of the tanks. For the first time the Germans were outwitted in inventions
of destruction they who had been foremost in all engines of death. It
was the moment of real panic in the German lines -- a panic reaching
back from the troops to the High Command.
Then days later, on September 25th, when the British made a new advance
-- all this time the French were pressing forward, too, on our right
by Roye -- Combles was evacuated without a fight and with a litter of
dead in its streets; Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs, and Morval were lost by
the Germans; and a day later Thièpval, the greatest fortress
position next to Beaumont Hamel, fell, with all its garrison taken prisoners.
They were black days in the German headquarters, where staff-officers
heard the news over their telephones and sent stern orders to artillery
commanders and divisional generals, and after dictating new instructions
that certain trench systems must be held at whatever price, heard that
already they were lost.
It was at this time that the morale of the Germans troops on the Somme
front showed signs of breaking. In spite of all their courage, the ordeal
had been too hideous for them, and in spite of all their discipline,
the iron discipline of the German soldier, they were on the edge of
revolt. The intimate and undoubted facts of this break in the morale
of the enemy's troops during this period reveal a pitiful picture of
"We are now fighting on the Somme with the English," wrote a man
of the 17th Bavarian Regiment. "You can no longer call it war. It is
mere murder. We are at the focal-point of the present battle in Foureaux
Wood (near Guillemont). All my previous experiences in this war -- the
slaughter at Ypres and the battle in the gravel-pit at Hulluch -- are
the purest child's play compared with this massacre, and that is much
too mild a description. I hardly think they will bring us into the fight
again, for we are in a very bad way."
"From September 12th to 27th we were on the Somme," wrote a man
of the 10th Bavarians, "and my regiment had fifteen hundred casualties."
A detailed picture of the German losses under our bombardment was given
in the diary of an officer captured in a trench near Flers, and dated
"The four days ending September 4th, spent in the trenches were
characterized by a continual enemy bombardment that did not abate
for a single instant. The enemy had registered on our trenches with
light, as well as medium and heavy, batteries, notwithstanding that
he had no direct observation from his trenches, which lie on the other
side of the summit. His registering was done by his excellent air
service, which renders perfect reports of everything observed.
"During the first day, for instance, whenever the slightest
movement was visible in our trenches during the presence, as is usually
the case, of enemy aircraft flying as low as three and four hundred
yards, a heavy bombardment of the particular section took place. The
very heavy losses during the first day brought about the resolution
to evacuate the trenches during the daytime. Only a small garrison
was left, the remainder withdrawing to a part of the line on the left
of the Martinpuich-Pozières road.
"The signal for a bombardment by 'heavies' was given by the
English airplanes. On the first day we tried to fire by platoons on
the airplanes, but a second airplane retaliated by dropping bombs
and firing his machine-gun at our troops. Our own airmen appeared
only once for a short time behind our lines.
"While many airplanes are observing from early morning till
late at night, our own hardly ever venture near. The opinion is that
our trenches cannot protect troops during a barrage of the shortest
duration, owing to lack of dugouts.
"The enemy understands how to prevent, with his terrible barrage,
the bringing up of building material, and even how to hinder the work
itself. The consequence is that our trenches are always ready for
an assault on his part. Our artillery, which does occasionally put
a heavy barrage on the enemy trenches at a great expense of ammunition,
cannot cause similar destruction to him. He can bring his building
material up, can repair his trenches as well as build new ones, can
bring up rations and ammunition, and remove the wounded.
"The continual barrage on our lines of communication makes it
very difficult for us to ration and relieve our troops, to supply
water, ammunition, and building materials, to evacuate wounded, and
causes heavy losses. This and the lack of protection from artillery
fire and the weather, the lack of hot meals, the continual necessity
of lying still in the same place, the danger of being buried, the
long time the wounded have to remain in the trenches, and chiefly
the terrible effect of the machine- and heavy-artillery fire, controlled
by an excellent air service, has a most demoralizing effect on the
"Only with the greatest difficulty could the men be persuaded
to stay in the trenches under those conditions."
There were some who could not be persuaded to stay if they could see
any chance of deserting or malingering. For the first time on our front
the German officers could not trust the courage of their men, nor their
loyalty, nor their sense of discipline. All this horror of men blown
to bits over living men, of trenches heaped with dead and dying, was
stronger than courage, stronger than loyalty, stronger than discipline.
A moral rot was threatening to bring the German troops on the Somme
front to disaster.
Large numbers of men reported sick and tried by every kind of trick
to be sent back to base hospitals.
In the 4th Bavarian Division desertions were frequent and several times
whole bodies of men refused to go forward into the front line. The morale
of men in the 393rd Regiment, taken at Courcelette, seemed to be very
weak. One of the prisoners declared that they gave themselves up without
firing a shot, because they could trust the English not to kill them.
The platoon commander had gone away, and the prisoner was ordered to
alarm the platoon in case of attack, but did not do so on purpose. They
did not shoot with rifles or machine-guns and did not throw bombs.
Many of the German officers were as demoralized as the men, shirking
their posts in the trenches, shamming sickness, and even leading the
way to surrender. Prisoners of the 351st Regiment, which lost thirteen
hundred men in fifteen days, told of officers who had refused to take
their men up to the front-line, and of whole companies who had declined
to move when ordered to do so. An officer of the 74th Landwehr Regiment
is said by prisoners to have told his men during our preliminary bombardment
to surrender as soon as we attacked.
A German regimental order says: "I must state with the greatest
regret that the regiment, during this change of position, had to take
notice of the sad fact that men of four of the companies, inspired by
shameful cowardice, left their companies on their own initiative and
did not move into line."
Another order contains the same fact, and a warning of what punishment
may be meted out:
"Proofs are multiplying of men leaving the position without
permission and hiding at the rear. It is our duty. . . each at his
post -- to deal with this fact with energy and success."
Many Bavarians complained that their officers did not accompany them
into the trenches, but went down to the hospitals with imaginary diseases.
In any case here was a great deal of real sickness, mental and physical.
The ranks were depleted by men suffering from fever, pleurisy, jaundice,
and stomach complaints of all kinds, twisted up with rheumatism after
lying in waterlogged holes, lamed for life by bad cases of trench-foot,
and nerve-broken so that they could do nothing but weep.
The nervous cases were the worst and in greatest number. Many men went
raving mad. The shell-shock victims clawed at their mouths unceasingly,
or lay motionless like corpses with staring eyes, or trembled in every
limb, moaning miserably and afflicted with a great terror.
To the Germans (barely less to British troops) the Somme battlefields
were not only shambles, but a territory which the devil claimed as his
own for the torture of men's brains and souls before they died in the
furnace fires. A spirit of revolt against all this crept into the minds
of men who retained their sanity -- a revolt against the people who
had ordained this vast outrage against God and humanity.
Into German letters there crept bitter, burning words against "the
millionaires -- who grow rich out of the war," against the high
people who live in comfort behind the lines. Letters from home inflamed
It was not good reading for men under shell-fire.
"It seems that you soldiers fight so that official stay-at-homes
can treat us as female criminals. Tell me, dear husband, are you a
criminal when you fight in the trenches, or why do people treat women
and children here as such? . . .
"For the poor here it is terrible, and yet the rich, the gilded
ones, the bloated aristocrats, gobble up everything in front of our
very eyes . . . . All soldiers -- friend and foe -- ought to throw
down their weapons and go on strike, so that this war which enslaves
the people more that ever may cease."
Thousands of letters, all in this strain, were reaching the German
soldiers on the Somme, and they did not strengthen the morale of men
already victims of terror and despair.
Behind the lines deserters were shot in batches. To those in front
came Orders of the Day warning them, exhorting them, commanding them
to hold fast.
"To the hesitating and faint-hearted in the regiment," said
one of these Orders, "I would say the following:
"What the Englishman can do the German can do also. Or if, on
the other hand, the Englishman really is a better and superior being,
he would be quite justified in his aim as regards this war, viz.,
the extermination of the German. There is a further point to be noted:
this is the first time we have been in the line on the Somme, and
what is more, we are there at a time when things are more calm. The
English regiments opposing us have been in the firing-line for the
second, and in some cases even the third, time. Heads up and play
It was easy to write such documents. It was more difficult to bring
up reserves of men and ammunition. The German command was harder pressed
by the end of September.
From July 1st to September 8th, according to trustworthy information,
fifty-three German divisions in all were engaged against the Allies
on the Somme battlefront. Out of these fourteen were still in the line
on September 8th.
Twenty-eight had been withdrawn, broken and exhausted, to quieter areas.
Eleven more had been withdrawn to rest-billets. Under the Allies' artillery
fire and infantry attacks the average life of a German division as a
unit fit for service on the Somme was nineteen days. More than two new
German divisions had to be brought into the front-line every week since
the end of June, to replace those smashed in the process of resisting
the Allied attack. In November it was reckoned by competent observers
in the field that well over one hundred and twenty German divisions
had been passed through the ordeal of the Somme, this number including
those which have appeared there more than once.