NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
By September 25th, when the British troops made another attack, the
morale of the German troops was reaching its lowest ebb. Except on their
right, as Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt, they were far beyond the great
system of protective dugouts which had given them a sense of safety
before July 1st. Their second and third lines of defense had been carried,
and they were existing in shell-craters and trenches hastily scraped
up under ceaseless artillery fire.
The horrors of the battlefield were piled up to heights of agony and
terror. Living men dwelt among the unburied dead, made their way to
the front-lines over heaps of corpses, breathed in the smell of human
corruption and had always in their ears the cries of the wounded they
could not rescue. They wrote these things in tragic letters -- thousands
of them -- which never reached their homes in Germany, but lay in their
"The number of dead lying about is awful. One stumbles over
"The stench of the dead lying round us is unbearable."
"We are no longer men here. We are worse than beasts."
"It is hell let loose." . . . "It is horrible." . . . "We've
lived in misery."
"If the dear ones at home could see all this perhaps there would
be a change. But they are never told."
"The ceaseless roar of the guns is driving us mad."
Poor, pitiful letters, out of their cries of agony one gets to the
real truth of war -- the "glory" and the "splendor"
of it preached by the German philosophers and British Jingoes, who upheld
it as the great strengthening tonic for their race, and as the noblest
experience of men. Every line these German soldiers wrote might have
been written by one of ours; from both sides of the shifting lines there
was the same death and same hell.
Behind the lines the German General Staff, counting up the losses of
battalions and divisions who staggered out weakly, performed juggling
tricks with what reserves it could lay its hands on, and flung up stray
units to relieve the poor wretches in the trenches. Many of those reliefs
lost their way in going up, and came up late, already shattered by the
shell-fire through which they passed.
"Our position," wrote a German infantry officer, "was,
of course, quite different from what we had been told. Our company alone
relieved a whole battalion. We had been told we were to relieve a company
of fifty men weakened by casualties.
"The men we relieved had no idea where the enemy was, how far
off he was, or whether any of our own troops were in front of us. We
got no idea of our support position until six o'clock this evening.
The English are four hundred yards away, by the windmill over the hill."
One German soldier wrote that the British "seem to relieve their
infantry very quickly, while the German commands work on the principle
of relieving only in the direst need, and leaving the divisions in as
long as possible."
Another wrote that:
"The leadership of the divisions really fell through. For the
most part we did not get orders, and the regiment had to manage as
best it could. If orders arrived they generally came too late or were
dealt out 'from the green table' without knowledge of the conditions
in front, so that to carry them out was impossible."
All this was a sign of demoralization, not only among the troops who
were doing the fighting and the suffering, but among the organizing
generals behind, who were directing the operations. The continual hammer-strokes
of the British and French armies on the Somme battlefields strained
the German war-machine on the western front almost to breaking-point.
It seemed as though a real debacle might happen, and that they would
be forced to effect a general retreat -- a withdrawal more or less at
ease or a retirement under pressure from the enemy . . . .
But they had luck -- astonishing luck. At the very time when the morale
of the German soldiers was lowest and when the strain on the High Command
was greatest the weather turned in their favor and gave them just the
breathing-space they desperately needed. Rain fell heavily in the middle
of October, autumn mists prevented airplane activity and artillery-work,
and the ground became a quagmire, so that the British troops found it
difficult to get up their supplies for a new advance.
The Germans were able in this respite to bring up new divisions, fresh
and strong enough to make heavy counter-attacks in the Stuff and Schwaben
and Regina trenches, and to hold the lines more securely for a time,
while great digging was done farther back at Bapaume and the next line
of defense. Successive weeks of bad weather and our own tragic losses
checked the impetus of the British and French driving power, and the
Germans were able to reorganize and reforms.
As I have said, the shock of our offensive reached as far as Germany,
and caused a complete reorganization in the system of obtaining reserves
of man-power. The process of "combing out", as we call it,
was pursued with astounding ruthlessness, and German mothers, already
stricken with the loss of their elder sons, raised cries of despair
when the youngest born were also seized -- boys of eighteen belonging
to the 1918 class.
The whole of the 1917 class had joined the depots in March and May
of this year, receiving a three months' training before being transferred
to the field-recruit depots in June and July. About the middle of July
the first large drafts joined their units and made their appearance
at the front, and soon after the beginning of our offensive at least
half this class was in the front-line regiments. The massacre of the
boys had begun.
Then older men, men beyond middle age, who correspond to the French
Territorial class, exempted from fighting service and kept on lines
of communication, were also called to the front, and whole garrisons
of these gray heads were removed from German towns to fill up the ranks.
"The view is held here," wrote a German soldier of the Somme,
"that the Higher Command intends gradually to have more and more
Landsturm battalions (men of the oldest reserves) trained in trench
warfare for a few weeks, as we have been, according to the quality of
the men, and thus to secure by degrees a body of troops on which it
can count in an emergency."
In the month of November the German High Command believed that the
British attacks were definitely at an end, "having broken down,"
as they claimed, "in mud and blood," but another shock came
to them when once more British troops -- the 51st Highland Division
and the 63rd Naval Division -- left their trenches, in fog and snow,
and captured the strongest fortress position on the enemy's front, at
Beaumont Hamel, bringing back over six thousand prisoners. It was after
that they began their retreat.
These studies of mine, of what happened on both sides of the shifting
lines in the Somme, must be as horrible to read as they were to write.
But they are less than the actual truth, for no pen will ever in one
book, or in hundreds, give the full record of the individual agony,
the broken heart-springs, the soul-shock as well as the shell-shock,
of that frightful struggle in which, on one side and the other, two
million men were engulfed. Modern civilization was wrecked on those
fire-blasted fields, though they led to what we called "Victory".
More died there than the flower of our youth and German manhood. The
Old Order of the world died there, because many men who came alive out
of that conflict were changed, and vowed not to tolerate a system of
thought which had led up to such a monstrous massacre of human beings
who prayed to the same God, loved the same joys of life, and had no
hatred of one another except as it had been lighted and inflamed by
their governors, their philosophers, and their newspapers.
The German soldier cursed the militarism which had plunged him into
that horror. The British soldier cursed the German as a direct cause
of all his trouble, but looked back on his side of the lines and saw
an evil there which was also his enemy -- the evil of a secret diplomacy
which juggled with the lives of humble men so that war might be sprung
upon them without their knowledge or consent, and the evil of rulers
who hated German militarism not because of its wickedness, but because
of its strength in rivalry and the evil of a folly in the minds of men
which had taught them to regard war as a glorious adventure, and patriotism
as the right to dominate other peoples, and liberty as a catchword of
politicians in search of power.
After the Somme battles there were many other battles as bloody and
terrible, but they only confirmed greater numbers of men in the faith
that the old world had been wrong in its "make-up" and wrong
in its religion of life. Lip service to Christian ethics was not good
enough as an argument for this. Either the heart of the world must be
changed by a real obedience to the gospel of Christ or Christianity
must be abandoned for a new creed which would give better results between
men and nations. There could be no reconciling of bayonet-drill and
high explosives with the words "Love one another". Or if bayonet-drill
and high-explosive force were to be the rule of life in preparation
for another struggle such as this, then at least let men put hypocrisy
away and return to the primitive law of the survival of the fittest
in a jungle world subservient to the king of beasts. The devotion of
military chaplains to the wounded, their valor, their decorations for
gallantry under fire, their human comradeship and spiritual sincerity,
would not bridge the gulf in the minds of many soldiers between a gospel
of love and this argument by bayonet and bomb, gas-shell and high velocity,
blunderbuss, club, and trench-shovel.
Some time or other, when German militarism acknowledged defeat by the
break of its machine or by the revolt of its people -- not until then
-- there must be a new order of things, which would prevent such another
massacre in the fair fields of life, and that could come only by a faith
in the hearts of many peoples breaking down old barriers of hatred and
reaching out to one another in a fellowship of common sense based on
common interests, and inspired by an ideal higher than this beast-like
rivalry of nations. So thinking men thought and talked. So said the
soldier-poets who wrote from the trenches. So said many onlookers. The
simple soldiers did not talk like that unless he were a Frenchman. Our
men only began to talk like that after the war -- as many of them are
now talking -- and the revolt of the spirit, vague but passionate, against
the evil that had produced this devil's trap of war, and the German
challenge, was subconscious as they sat in their ditches in the battles
of the Somme.
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