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By Philip Gibbs.

New York : Harper & Bros.; 1920.



The first battles by the Old Contemptibles(1), down from Mons, and up by Ypres, were defensive actions of rearguards holding the enemy back by a thin wall of living flesh, while behind the New Armies of our race were being raised.

The battles of Festubert, Neuvre Chapelle, Loos, and all minor attacks which led to little salients, were but experimental adventures in the science of slaughter, badly bungled in our laboratories. They had no meaning apart from providing those mistakes by which men learn; ghastly mistakes, burning more than the fingers of life's children. They were only diversions of impatience in the monotonous routine of trench warfare by which our men strengthened the mud walls of their School of Courage, so that the new boys already coming out might learn their lessons without more grievous interruption than came from the daily visits of that Intruder to whom the fees were paid. In those two years it was France which fought the greatest battles, flinging her sons against the enemy's ramparts in desperate, vain attempts to breach them. At Verdun, in the months that followed the first month of '16, it was France which sustained the full weight of the German offensive on the western front and broke its human waves, until they were spent in a sea of blood, above which the French poilus(2), the "hairy ones," stood panting and haggard, on their death-strewn rocks. The Germans had failed to deal a fatal blow at the heart of France. France held her head up still, bleeding from many wounds, but defiant still; and the German High Command, aghast at their own losses--six hundred thousand casualties--already conscious, icily, of a dwindling man-power which one day would be cut off at its source, rearranged their order of battle and shifted the balance of their weight eastward, to smash Russia. Somehow or other they must smash a way out by sledge-hammer blows, left and right, west and east, from that ring of nations which girdled them. On the west they would stand now on the defensive, fairly sure of their strength, but well aware that it would be tried to the utmost by that enemy which, at the back of their brains (at the back of the narrow brains of those bald-headed vultures on the German General Staff), they most feared as their future peril -- England. They had been fools to let the British armies grow up and wax so strong. It was the folly of the madness by which they had flung the gauntlet down to the souls of proud peoples arrayed against them.

Our armies were now strong and trained and ready. We had about six hundred thousand bayonet-men in France and Flanders and in England, immense reserves to fill up the gaps that would be made in their ranks before the summer foliage turned to russet tints.

Our power in artillery had grown amazingly since the beginning of the year. Every month I had seen many new batteries arrive, with clean harness and yellow straps, and young gunners who were quick to get their targets. We were strong in "heavies," twelve-inchers, 9.2's, eight-inchers, 4.2's, mostly howitzers, with the long-muzzled sixty-pounders terrible in their long range and destructiveness. Our aircraft had grown fast, squadron upon squadron, and our aviators had been trained in the school of General Trenchard(3), who sent them out over the German lines to learn how to fight, and how to scout, and how to die like little gentlemen.

For a time our flying-men had gone out on old-fashioned "buses"--primitive machines which were an easy prey to the fast-flying Fokkers who waited for them behind a screen of cloud and then "stooped" on them like hawks sure of their prey. But to the airdrome near St.-Omer came later models, out-of-date a few weeks after their delivery, replaced by still powerful types more perfectly equipped for fighting. Our knights-errant of the air were challenging the German champions on equal terms, and beating them back from the lines unless they flew in clusters. There were times when our flying-men gained an absolute supremacy by greater daring--there was nothing they did not dare--and by equal skill. As a rule, and by order, the German pilots flew with more caution, not wasting their strength in unequal contests. It was a sound policy, and enabled them to come back again in force and hold the field for a time by powerful concentrations. But in the battles of the Somme our airmen, at a heavy cost of life, kept the enemy down a while and blinded his eyes.

The planting of new airdromes between Albert and Amiens, the long trail down the roads of lorries packed with wings and the furniture of aircraft factories, gave the hint, to those who had eyes to see, that in this direction a merry hell was being prepared.

There were plain signs of massacre at hand all the way from the coast to the lines. At Etaples and other places near Boulogne hospital huts and tents were growing like mushrooms in the night. From casualty clearing stations near the front the wounded -- the human wreckage of routine warfare -- were being evacuated "in a hurry" to the base, and from the base to England. They were to be cleared out of the way so that all the wards might be empty for a new population of broken men, in enormous numbers. I went down to see this clearance, this tidying up. There was a sinister suggestion in the solitude that was being made for a multitude that was coming.

"We shall be very busy," said the doctors.

"We must get all the rest we can now," said the nurses.

"In a little while every bed will be filled," said the matrons.

Outside out hut, with the sun on their faces, were four wounded Germans, Würtemburgers and Bavarians, too ill to move just then. Each of them had lost a leg under the surgeon's knife. They were eating strawberries, and seemed at peace. I spoke to one of them.

"Wie befinden sie sich?"  [ How are you? ]

"Ganz wohl; wir sind zufieden mit unsere behandlung."  [Fine; we are satisfied with out treatment.]

I passed through the shell-shock wards and a yard were the "shell-shocks" sat about, dumb, or making queer, foolish noises, or staring with a look of animal fear in their eyes. From a padded room came a sound of singing. Some idiot of war was singing between bursts of laughter. It all seemed so funny to him, that war, so mad?

"We are clearing them out," said the medical officer. "There will be many more soon."

How soon? That was a question nobody could answer. It was the only secret, and even that was known in London, where little ladies in society were naming the date, "in confidence," to men who were directly concerned with it--having, as they knew, only a few more weeks, or days, of certain life. But I believe there were not many officers who would have surrendered deliberately all share in "The Great Push." In spite of all the horror which these young officers knew it would involve, they had to be "in it" and could not endure the thought that all their friends and all their men should be there while they were "out of it." A decent excuse for the safer side of it -- yes. A staff job, the Intelligence branch, any post behind the actual shambles -- and thank God for the luck. But not an absolute shirk.

View of Combles.
An advanced dressing-station. A Red Cross flag is affixed to the tree. See larger image.

Tents were being pitched in many camps of the Somme, rows and rows of bell tents and pavilions stained to a reddish brown. Small cities of them were growing up on the right of the road between Amiens and Albert--at Dernancourt and Daours and Vaux-sous-Corbie. I thought they might be for troops in reserve until I say large flags hoisted to tall staffs and men of the R.A.M.C. busy painting signs on large sheets stretched out on the grass. It was always the same sign--the Sign of the Cross that was Red.

There was a vast traffic of lorries on the roads, and trains were traveling on light railways day and night to railroads just beyond shell-range. What was all the weight they carried? No need to ask. The "dumps" were being filled, piled up, with row upon row of shells, covers by tarpaulin or brushwood when they were all stacked. Enormous shells, some of them, like gigantic pigs without legs. Those were for the fifteen-inchers, or the 9.2's. There was enough high-explosive force littered along those roads above the Somme to blow cities off the map.

View of Combles.
Tired out : A gunner asleep on live shells. See larger image.

"It does one good to see," said a cheery fellow. "The people at home have been putting their backs into it. Thousands of girls have been packing those things. Well done, Munitions!"

I could take no joy in the sight, only a grim kind of satisfaction tat at least when our men attacked they would have a power of artillery behind them. It might help them to smash through to a finish, if that were the only way to end this long-drawn suicide of nations.

My friend was shocked when I said: "Curse all munitions!"


(1) "Old Contemptibles" -- British Regular Army, sent in and decimated in the battles of 1914-1915. Augmented in 1916 by the all volunteer and still relatively untrained "New Armies".

(2) "Poilu" -- Nick-name for a French soldier much like "Tommy" or later "Yank".

(3) General Hugh Montague Trenchard, commander in France of the Royal Flying Corps -- later the Royal Air Force.

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