THE OLD FRONT LINE
By John Masefield.
Author of "Gallipoli," etc.
Macmillan; New York : 1917
To Neville Lytton
This description of the old front line, as it was when the Battle of
the Somme began, may some day be of use. All wars end; even this war
will some day end, and the ruins will be rebuilt and the field full
of death will grow food, and all this frontier of trouble will be forgotten.
When the trenches are filled in, and the plow has gone over them, the
ground will not long keep the look of war. One summer with its flowers
will cover most of the ruin that man can make, and then these places,
from which the driving back of the enemy began, will be hard indeed
to trace, even with maps. It is said that even now in some places the
wire has been removed, the explosive salved, the trenches filled, and
the ground plowed with tractors. In a few years' time, when this war
is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will
find his marks gone. Centre Way, Peel Trench, Munster Alley, and these
other paths to glory will be deep under the corn, and gleaners will
at Dead Mule Corner.
It is hoped that this description of the line will be followed by an
account of our people's share in the battle. The old front line was
the base from which the battle proceeded. It was the starting-place.
The thing began there. It was the biggest battle in which our people
were ever engaged, and so far it has led to bigger results than any
battle of this war since the Battle of the Marne. It caused a great
falling back of the enemy armies. It freed a great tract of France,
seventy miles long, by from ten to twenty-five miles broad. It first
gave the enemy the knowledge that he was beaten.
Very many of our people never lived to know the result of even the
first day's fighting. For then the old front line was the battlefield,
and the No Man's Land the prize of the battle. They never heard the
cheer of victory nor looked into an enemy trench. Some among them died
in the summer morning from some shell in the trench in the old front
line here described.
It is a difficult thing to describe without monotony, for it varies
so little. It is like describing the course of the Thames from Oxford
to Reading, or the Severn from Deerhurst to Lydney, or of the Hudson
from New York to Tarrytown. Whatever country the rivers pass they remain
water, bordered by shore. So our front-line trenches, wherever they
lie, are only gashes in the earth, fenced by wire, beside a greenish
strip of ground, pitted with shell-holes, which is fenced with thicker,
blacker, but more tumbled wire on the other side. Behind this further
wire is the parapet of the enemy front-line trench, which swerves to
take in a hillock or to flank a dip, or to crown a slope, but remains
roughly parallel with ours, from seventy to five hundred yards from
it, for miles and miles, up hill and down dale. All the advantages of
position and observation were in the enemy's hands, not in ours. They
took up their lines when they were strong and our side weak, and in
no place in all the old Somme position is our line better sited then
theirs, though in one or two places the sites are nearly equal. Almost
in every part of this old front our men had to go up hill to attack.
If the description of this old line be dull to read, it should be remembered
that it was dull to hold. The enemy had the lookout posts, with the
fine views over France, and the sense of domination. Our men were down
below with no view of anything but of stronghold after stronghold, just
up above, being make stronger daily. And if the enemy had strength of
position he had also strength of equipment, of men, of guns, and explosives
of all kinds. He had all the advantages for nearly two years of war,
and in all that time our old front line, whether held by the French
or by ourselves, was nothing but a post to be endured, day in day out,
in all weathers and under all fires, in doubt, difficulty, and danger,
with bluff and makeshift and improvisation, till the tide turned and
the besieged became the attackers.
To most of the British soldiers who took part in the Battle of the
Somme, the town of Albert must be a central point in a reckoning of
distances. It lies, roughly speaking, behind the middle of the line
of that battle. It is a knot of roads, so that supports and supplies
could and did move from it to all parts of the line during the battle.
It is on the main road, and on the direct railway line from Amiens.
It is by much the most important town within any easy march of the battlefield.
It will be, quite certainly, the center from which, in time to come,
travelers will start to see the battlefield where such deeds were done
by men of our race.
It is not now (after three years of war and many bombardments) an attractive
town; probably it never was. It is a small straggling town build of
red brick along a knot of cross-roads at a point where the swift chalk-river
Ancre, hardly more than a brook, is bridged and so channeled that it
can be use for power. Before the war it contained a few small factories,
including one for the making of sewing-machines. Its most important
building was a big church build a few years ago, through the energy
of a priest, as a shrine for the Virgin of Albert, a small, probably
not very old image, about which strange stories are told. Before the
war it was thought that this church would become a northern rival to
Lourdes for the working of miraculous cures during the September pilgrimage.
A gilded statue of the Virgin and Child stood on an iron stalk on the
summit of the church tower. During a bombardment of the town at a little
after three o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, January 15, 1915, a
shell so bent the stalk that the statue bent down over the Place as
though diving. Perhaps few of our soldiers will remember Albert for
anything except this diving Virgin. Perhaps half of the men engaged
in the Battle of the Somme passed underneath her as they marched up
to the line, and, glancing up, hoped that she might not come down till
they were past. From someone, French or English, a word has gone about
that when she does fall the war will end. Others have said that French
engineers have so fixed her with wire ropes that she cannot fall.
From Albert four roads lead to the battlefield of the Somme:
- In a north-westerly direction to Auchonvillers and Hébuterne.
- In a northerly direction to Authuille and Hamel.
- In a north-easterly direction to Pozières.
- In an easterly direction to Fricourt and Maricourt.
Between the second and the third of these the little
river Ancre runs down its broad, flat, well-wooded valley, much of which
is a marsh through which the river (and man) have forced more than one
channel. This river, which is a swift, clear, chalk stream, sometimes
too deep and swift to ford, cuts the English sector of the battlefield
into two nearly equal portions.
Following the first of the four roads, one passes
the wooded village of Martinsart, to the village of Auchonvillers, which
lies among a clump of trees upon a ridge or plateau top. The road dips
here, but soon rises again, and so, by a flat tableland, to the large
village of Hébuterne. Most of this road, with the exception of one little
stretch near Auchonvillers, is hidden by high ground from every part
of the battlefield. Men moving upon it cannot see the field.
Hébuterne, although close to the line and shelled
daily and nightly for more than two years, was never the object of an
attack in force, so that much of it remains. Many of its walls and parts
of some of its roofs still stand, the church tower is in fair order,
and no one walking in the streets can doubt that he is in a village.
Before the war it was a prosperous village; then, for more than two
years, it rang with the roar of battle and with the business of an army.
Presently the tide of the war ebbed away from it and left it deserted,
so that one may walk in it now, from end to end, without seeing a human
being. It is as though the place had been smitten by the plague. Villages
during the Black Death must have looked thus. One walks in the village
expecting at every turn to meet a survivor, but there is none; the village
is dead; the grass is growing in the street; the bells are silent; the
beasts are gone from the byre and the ghosts from the church. Stealing
about among the ruins and the gardens are the cats of the village, who
have eaten too much man to fear him, but are now too wild to come to
him. They creep about and eye him from cover and look like evil spirits.
|The Road up the Ancre Valley through Aveluy Wood.
The second of the four roads passes out of Albert, crosses the railway
at a sharp turn, over a bridge called Marmont Bridge, and runs northward
along the valley of the Ancre within sigh of the railway. Just beyond
the Marmont Bridge there is a sort of lake or reservoir or catchment
of the Ancre overflows, a little to the right of the road. By looking
across this lake as he walks northward, the traveler can see some rolls
of gentle chalk hill, just beyond which the English front line ran at
the beginning of the battle.
A little further on, at the top of a rise, the road
passes the village of Aveluy, where there is a bridge or causeway over
the Ancre valley. Aveluy itself, being within a mile and a half of enemy
gun positions for nearly two years of war, is knocked about, and rather
roofless and windowless. A cross-road leading to the causeway across
the valley once gave the place some little importance.
Not far to the north of Aveluy, the road runs for
more than a mile through the Wood of Aveluy, which is a well-grown plantation
of trees and shrubs. This wood hides the marsh of the river from the
traveler. Tracks from the road lead down to the marsh and across it
by military causeways.
On emerging from the wood, the road runs within
hail of the railway, under a steep and high chalk bank partly copsed
with scrub. Three-quarters of a mile from the wood it passes through
the skeleton of the village of Hamel, which is now a few ruined walls
of brick standing in orchards on a hillside. Just north of this village,
crossing the road, the railway, and the river-valley, is the old English
The third of the four roads is one of the main roads
of France. It is the state highway, laid on the line of a Roman road,
from Albert to Bapaume. It is by far the most used and the most important
of the roads crossing the battlefield. As it leads directly to Bapaume,
which was one of the prizes of the victory, and points like a sword
through the heart of the enemy positions it will stay in the memories
of our soldiers as the main avenue of the battle.
The road leaves Albert in a street of dingy and
rather broken red-brick houses. After passing a corner crucifix it shakes
itself free of the houses and rises slowly up a ridge of chalk hill
about three hundred feet high. On the left of the road, this ridge,
which is much withered and trodden by troops and horses, is called Usna
Hill. On the right, where the grass is green and the chalk of the old
communication trenches still white and clean, it is called Tara Hill.
Far away on the left, along the line of the Usna Hill, one can see the
Looking northward from the top of the Usna-Tara
Hill to the dip below it and along the road for a few years up the opposite
slope, one sees where the old English front line crossed the road at
right angles. The enemy front line faced it at a few yards' distance,
just about two miles from Albert town.
The fourth of the four roads runs for about a mile
eastwards from Albert, and then slopes down into a kind of gully or
shallow valley, through which a brook once ran and now dribbles. The
road crosses the brook-course, and runs parallel with it for a little
while to a place where the ground on the left comes down in a slanting
tongue and on the right rises steeply into a big hill. The ground of
the tongue bears traces of human habitation on it, all smashed and discolored.
This is the once pretty village of Fricourt. The hill on the right front
at this point is the Fricourt Salient. The lines run round the salient
and the road cuts across them.
Beyond Fricourt, the road leaves another slanting
tongue at some distance to its left. On this second tongue the village
of Mametz once stood. Near here the road, having now cut across the
salient, again crosses both sets of lines, and begins a long, slow ascent
to a ridge or crest. From this point, for a couple of miles, the road
is planted on each side with well-grown plane-trees, in some of which
magpies have build their nests ever since the war began. At the top
of the rise the road runs along the plateau top (under trees which show
more and more plainly the marks of war) to a village so planted that
it seems to stand in a wood. The village is built of red brick, and
is rather badly broken by enemy shell fire, though some of the houses
in it are still habitable. This is the village of Maricourt. Three or
hundred yards beyond Maricourt the road reaches the old English front
line, at the eastern extremity of the English sector, as it was at the
beginning of the battle.
These four roads which lead to the center and the
wings of the battlefield were all, throughout the battle and for the
months of war which preceded it, dangerous by daylight. All could be
shelled by the map, and all, even the first, which was by much the best
hidden of the four, could be seen, in places, from the enemy position.
On some of the trees or tree stumps by the sides of the roads one may
still see the "camouflage" by which these exposed places were screen
from the enemy observers. The four roads were not greatly used in the
months of war which preceded the battle. In those months, the front
was too near to them, and other lines of supply and approach were more
direct and safer. But there was always some traffic upon them of men
going into the line or coming out, of ration parties, munition and water
carriers, and ambulances. On all four roads many men of our race were
killed. All, at some time, or many times, rang and flashed with explosions.
Danger, death, shocking escape and firm resolve, went up and down those
roads daily and nightly. Our men slept and ate and sweated and dug and
died along them after all hardships and in all weathers. On parts of
them, no traffic moves, even at night, so that the grass grew high upon
them. Presently, they will be quiet country roads again, and tourists
will walk at ease, where brave men once ran and dodged and cursed their
luck, when the Battle of the Somme was raging.
Then, indeed, those roads were used. Then the grass
that had grown on some of them was trodden and crushed under. The trees
and banks by the waysides were used to hie batteries, which roared all
day and all night. At all hours and in all weathers the convoys of horse
slipped and stamped along those roads with more shells for the ever-greedy
cannon. At night, from every part of those roads, one saw a twilight
of summer lightning winking over the high ground from the never-ceasing
flashes of guns and shells. Then there was no quiet, but a roaring,
a crashing, and a screaming from guns, from shells bursting and from
shells passing in the air. Then, too, on the two roads to the east of
the Ancre River, the troops for the battle moved up to the line. The
battalions were played by their bands through Albert, and up the slope
of Usna Hill to Pozières and beyond, or past Fricourt and the
wreck of Mametz to Montauban and the bloody woodland near it. Those
roads then were indeed paths of glory leading to the grave.
During the months which preceded the Battle of the
Somme, other roads behind our front lines were more used than these.
Little villages, out of shell fire, some miles from the lines, were
then of more use to us than Albert. Long after we are gone, perhaps,
stray English tourists, wandering in Picardy, will see names scratched
in a barn, some mark or notice on a door, some sign-post, some little
line of graves, or hear, on the lips of a native, some slang phrase
of English, learned long before in the wartime, in childhood, when the
English were there. All the villages behind our front were thronged
with our people. There they rested after being in the line and there
they established their hospitals and magazines. It may be said, that
men of our race died in our cause in every village within five miles
of the front. Wherever the traveler comes upon a little company of our
graves, he will know that he is near the site of some old hospital or
clearing station, where our men were brought in from the line.
So much for the roads by which our men marched to
this battlefield. Near the lines they had to leave the roads for the
shelter of some communication trench or deep cut in the mud, revetted
at the sides with wire to hinder it from collapsing inwards. By these
deep narrow roads, only broad enough for marching in single file, our
men passed to "the front", to the line itself. Here and there, in recesses
in the trench, under roofs of corrugated iron covered with sandbags,
they passed the offices and stores of war, telephonists, battalion headquarters,
dumps of bombs, barbed wire, rockets, lights, machine-gun ammunition,
tins, jars, and cases. Many men, passing these things as they went "in"
for the first time, felt with a sinking of the heart, that they were
leaving all ordered and arranged things, perhaps forever, and that the
men in charge of these stores enjoyed, by comparison, a life like a
life at home.
Much of the relief and munitioning of the fighting
lines was done at night. Men going into the lines saw little of where
they were going. They entered the gash of the communication trench,
following the load on the back of the man in front, but seeing perhaps
nothing but the shape in front, the black walls of the trench, and now
and then some gleam of a star in the water under foot. Sometimes as
they marched they would see the starshells, going up and bursting like
rockets, and coming down with a wavering slow settling motions, as white
and bright as burning magnesium wire, shedding a kind of dust of light
upon the trench and making the blackness intense when they went out.
These lights, the glimmer in the sky from the enemy's guns, and now
and then the flash of a shell, were the things seen by most of our men
on their first going in.
In the fire trench they saw little more than the parapet. If work were
being done in the No Man's Land, they still saw little save by these
lights that floated and fell from the enemy and from ourselves. They
could see only an array of stakes tangled with wire, and something distant
and dark which might be similar stakes, or bushes, or men, in front
of what could only be the enemy line. When the night passed, and those
working outside the trench had to take shelter, they could see nothing,
even at a loophole or periscope, but the greenish strip of ground, pitted
with shell-holes and fenced with wire, running up to the enemy line.
There was little else for them to see, looking to the front, for miles
and miles, up hill and down dale.
The soldiers who held this old front line of ours
saw this grass and wire day after day, perhaps, for many months. It
was the limit of their world, the horizon of their landscape, the boundary.
What interest there was in their life was the speculation, what lay
beyond that wire, and what the enemy was doing there. They seldom saw
an enemy. They heard his songs and they were stricken by his missiles,
but seldom saw more than, perhaps, a swiftly moving cap at a gap in
the broken parapet, or a gray figure flitting from the light of a starshell.
Aeroplanes brought back photographs of those unseen lines. Sometimes,
in raids in the night, our men visited them and brought back prisoners;
but they remained mysteries and unknown.
In the early morning of the 1st of July, 1916, our
men looked at them as they showed among the bursts of our shells. Those
familiar heaps, the lines, were then in a smoke of dust full of flying
clods and shards and gleams of fire. Our men felt that now, in a few
minutes, they would see the enemy and know what lay beyond those parapets
and probe the heart of that mystery. So, for the last-hour, they watched
and held themselves ready, while the screaming of the shells grew wilder
and the roar of the bursts quickened into a drumming. Then as the time
drew near, they looked a last look at that unknown country, now almost
blotted in the fog of war, and saw the flash of our shells, breaking
a little further off as the gunners "lifted", and knew that the moment
had come. Then for one wild confused moment they knew that they were
running towards that unknown land, which they could still see in the
dust ahead. For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front
of it, and began, as they ran, to pick out in their minds a path through
that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were
crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy
shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps,
a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky,
and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.
It may be some years before those whose fathers,
husbands and brothers were killed in this great battle, may be able
to visit the battlefield where their dead are buried. Perhaps many of
them, from brooking on the map, and from dreams and visions in the night,
have in their minds an image or picture of that place. The following
pages may help some few others, who have not already formed that image,
to see the scene as it appears today. What it was like on the day of
battle cannot be imagined by those who were not there.
It was a day of an intense blue summer beauty, full of roaring, violence,
and confusion of death, agony, and triumph, from dawn till dark. All
through that day, little rushes of the men of our race went towards
that No Man's Land from the bloody shelter of our trenches. Some hardly
left our trenches, many never crossed the green space, many died in
the enemy wire, many had to fall back. Others won [sic] across and went
further, and drove the enemy from his fort, and then back from line
to line and from one hasty trenching to another, till the Battle of
the Somme ended in the falling back of the enemy army.
Those of our men who were in the line at Hébuterne,
at the extreme northern end of the battlefield of the Somme, were opposite
the enemy salient of Gommecourt. This was one of those projecting fortresses
or flankers, like the Leipzig, Ovillers, and Fricourt, with which the
enemy studded and strengthened his front line. Those who visit it in
future times may be surprised that such a place was so strong.
All the country there is gentler and less decided
than in the southern parts of the battlefield. Hébuterne stands on a
plateau-top; to the east of it there is a gentle dip down to a shallow
hollow or valley; to the east of this again there is a gentle rise to
higher ground, on which the village of Gommecourt stood. The church
of Gommecourt is almost exactly one mile northeast and by north from
the church at Hébuterne; both churches being at the hearts of their
|Artillery Transport Crossing a Trench Bridge into
the Bapaume Road. See larger
Seen from our front line at Hébuterne, Gommecourt is little
more than a few red-brick buildings, standing in woodland on a rise
of ground. Wood hides the village to the north, the west, and the southwest.
A big spur of woodland, known as Gommecourt Park, thrusts out boldly
from the village towards the plateau on which the English lines stood.
This spur, strongly fortified by the enemy, made the greater part of
the salient in the enemy line. The landscape away from the wood is not
in any way remarkable, except that it is open, and gentle, and on a
generous scale. Looking north from our position at Hébuterne
there is the snout of the woodland salient; looking south there is the
green shallow shelving hollow or valley which made the No Man's Land
for rather more than a mile. It is just such a gentle waterless hollow,
like a dried-up river-bed, as one may see in several places in chalk
country in England, but it is unenclosed land, and therefore more open
and seemingly on a bigger scale than such a landscape would be in England,
where most fields are small and fenced. Our old front line runs where
the ground shelves or glides down into the valley; the enemy front line
runs along the gentle rise up from the valley. The lines face each other
across the slopes. To the south, the slope on which the enemy line stands
is very slight.
The impression given by this track of land once
held by the enemy is one of the graceful gentleness. The wood on the
little spur, even now, has something green about it. The village, once
almost within the wood, wrecked to shatters as it is, has still a charm
of situation. In the distance behind Gommecourt there is some ill-defined
rising ground forming gullies and ravines. On these rises are some dark
clumps of woodland, one of them called after the nightingales, which
perhaps sing there this year, in what is left of their home. There is
nothing now to show that this quiet landscape was one of the tragical
places of this way.
The whole field of the Somme is chalk hill and downland, like similar
formations in England. It has about it, in every part of it, certain
features well known to every one who has ever traveled in chalk country.
These features occur even in the gentle, rolling, and not strongly marked
sector near Hébuterne. Two are very noticeable, the formation
almost everywhere of those steep, regular banks or terraces, which the
French call remblais and our own farmers lynchets, and the presence,
in nearly all parts of the field, of roads sunken between tow such banks
into a kind of narrow gully or ravine. It is said, that these remblais
or lynchets, which may be seen in English chalk countries, as in the
Dunstable Downs, in the Chiltern Hills, and in many parts of Berkshire
and Wiltshire, are made in each instance, in a short time, by the plowing
away from the top and bottom of any difficult slope. Where two slopes
adjoin, such plowing steepens the valley between them into a gully,
which, being always unsown, makes a track through the crops when they
are up. Sometimes, though less frequently, the farmer plows away from
a used track on quite flat land, and by doing this on both sides of
the track, he makes the track a causeway or ridgeway, slightly raised
above the adjoining fields. This type of raised road or track can be
seen in one or two parts of the battlefield (just above Hamel and near
Pozières for instance), but the hollow or sunken road and the
steep remblai or lynchet are everywhere. One may say that no quarter
of a mile of the whole field is without one or other of them. The sunken
roads are sometimes very deep. Many of our soldiers, on seeing them,
have thought that they were cuttings make, with great labor, through
the chalk, and that the remblais or lynchets were piled up and smoothed
for some unknown purpose by primitive man. Probably it will be found,
that in every case they are natural slopes make sharper by cultivation.
Two or three of these lynchets and sunken roads cross the shallow valley
of the No Man's Land near Hébuterne. By the side of one of them, a line
of Sixteen Poplars, now ruined, make a landmark between the lines.
The line continues (with some slight eastward trendings,
but without a change in its gentle quiet) southwards from this point
for about a mile to a slight jut, or salient in the enemy line. This
jut was known by our men as the Point, and a very spiky point it was
to handle. From near the Point on our side of No Man's Land, a bank
or lynchet, topped along its edge with trees, runs southwards for about
a mile. In four places, the trees about this lynchet grow in clumps
or copses, which our men called after the four Evangelists, John, Luke,
Mark, and Matthew. This bank marks the old English front line between
the Point and the Serre Road a mile to the south of it. Behind this
English line are several small copses, on ground which very gently rises
towards the crest of the plateau a mile to the west. In front of most
of this part of our line, the ground rises towards the enemy trenches,
so that one can see little to the front, but the slope up. The No Man's
Land here is not green, but as full of shell-holes and the ruin of battle
as any piece of the field. Directly between Serre and the Matthew Copse,
where the lines cross a rough lump of ground, the enemy parapet is whitish
from the chalk. The whitish parapet makes the skyline to observers in
the English line. Over that parapet, some English battalions made one
of the most splendid charges of the battle, in the heroic attack on
Serre four hundred yards beyond.
To the right of our front at Matthew Copse the ground
slopes southward a little, past what may once have been a pond or quarry,
but is now a pit in the mud, to the Serre road. Here one can look up
the muddy road to the hamlet of Serre, where the wrecks of some brick
buildings stand in a clump of tree stumps, or half-right down a God-forgotten
kind of glen, blasted by fire to the look of a moor in hell. A few rampikes
of trees standing on one side of this glen give the place its name of
Ten Tree Alley. Immediately to the south of the Serre road, the ground
rises into one of the many big chalk spurs, which thrust from the main
Hébuterne plateau towards the Ancre Valley. The spur at this point runs
east and west, and the lines cross it from north and south. They go
up it side by side, a hundred and fifty yards apart, with a greenish
No Man's Land between them. The No Man's Land, as usual, is the only
part of all this chalk spur that is not burnt, gouged, pocked, and pitted
with shell fire. It is, however, enough marked by the war to be bad
going. When they are well up the spur, the lines draw nearer, and at
the highest point of the spur they converge in one of the terrible places
of the battlefield.
For months before the battle began, it was a question
here, which side should hold the highest point of the spur. Right at
the top of the spur there is one patch of ground, measuring, it may
be, two hundred yards each way, from which one can see a long way in
every direction. From this patch, the ground droops a little towards
the English side and stretches away fairly flat towards the enemy side,
but one can see far either way, and to have this power of seeing, both
sides fought desperately.
Until the beginning of the war, this spur of ground
was corn-land, like most of the battlefield. Unfenced country roads
crossed it. It was a quiet, lonely, prosperous plow-land, stretching
for miles, up and down, in great sweeping rolls and folds, like our
own chalk downlands. It had one feature common to all chalk countries;
it was a land of smooth expanses. Before the war, all this spur was
a smooth expanse, which passed in a sweep from the slope to the plateau,
over this crown of summit.
Today, the whole of the summit (which is called
the Redan Ridge), for all its two hundred yards, is blown into pits
and craters from twenty to fifty feet deep, and sometimes fifty yards
long. These pits and ponds in rainy weather fill up with water, which
pours from one pond into another, so that the-hill-top is loud with
the noise of the brooks. For many weeks, the armies fought for this
patch of hill. It was all mined, counter-mined, and re-mined, and at
each explosion the crater was fought for and lost and won. It cannot
be said that either side won that summit till the enemy was finally
beaten from all that field, for both sides conquered enough to see from.
On the enemy side, a fortification of heaped earth was made; on our
side, castles were built of sandbags filled with flint. These strongholds
gave both sides enough observation. The works face each other across
the ponds. The sandbags of the English works have now rotted, and flag
about like the rags of uniform or like withered grass. The flint and
chalk laid bare by their rotting look like the gray of weathered stone,
so that, at a little distance, the English works look old and noble,
as though they were the foundations of some castle long since fallen
To the right, that is to the southward, from these
English castles there is a slope of six hundred yards into a valley
or gully. The slope is not in any way remarkable or seems not to be,
except that the ruin of a road, now barely to be distinguished from
the field, runs across it. The opposing lines of trenches go down the
slope, much as usual, with the enemy line above on a slight natural
glacis. Behind this enemy line is the bulk of the spur, which is partly
white from up-blown chalk, partly burnt from months of fire, and partly
faintly green from recovering grass. A little to the right or south,
on this bulk of spur, there are the stumps of trees and no grass at
all, nothing but upturned chalk and burnt earth. On the battlefield
of the Somme, these are the marks of a famous place.
The valley into which the slope descends is a broadish
gentle opening in the chalk hills, with a road running at right angles
to the lines of trenches at the bottom of it. As the road descends,
the valley tightens in, and just where the enemy line crosses it, it
becomes a narrow deep glen or gash, between high and steep banks of
chalk. Well within the enemy position and fully seven hundred yards
from our line, another such glen or gash runs into this glen, at right
angles. At this meeting place of the glens is or was the village of
Beaumont Hamel, which the enemy said could never be taken.
For the moment it need not be described; for it
was not seen by many of our men in the early stages of the battle. In
fact our old line was at least five hundred yards outside it. But all
our line in the valley here was opposed to the village defenses, and
the fighting at this point was fierce and terrible, and there are some
features in the No Man's Land just outside the village which must be
described. These features run parallel with our line right down to the
road in the valley, and though they are not features of great tactical
importance, like the patch of summit above, where the craters are, or
like the windmill at Pozières, they were the last things seen
by, many brave Irish and Englishmen, and cannot be passed lightly by.
The features are a lane, fifty or sixty yards in
front of our front trench, and a remblai or lynchet fifty or sixty yards
in front of the lane.
The lane is a farmer's track leading from the road
in the valley to the road on the spur. It runs almost north and south,
like the lines of trenches, and is about five hundred yards long. From
its start in the valley-road to a point about two hundred yards up the
spur it is sunken below the level of the field on each side of it. At
first the sinking is slight, but it swiftly deepens as it goes up hill.
For more than a hundred yards it lies between banks twelve or fifteen
feet deep. After this part the banks die down into insignificance, so
that the road is nearly open. The deep part, which is like a very deep,
broad, natural trench, was known to our men as the Sunken Road. The
banks of this sunken part are perpendicular. Until recently, they were
grown over with a scrub of dwarf beech, ash, and sturdy saplings, now
mostly razed by fire. In the road itself our men built up walls of sandbags
to limit the effects of enemy shell fire. From these defenses steps
cut in the chalk of the bank lead to the field above, where there were
The field in front of the lane (where these pits
were) is a fairly smooth slope for about fifty yards. Then there is
the lynchet or remblai, like a steep cliff, from three to twelve feet
high, hardly to be noticed from above until the traveler is upon it.
Below this lynchet is a fairly smooth slope, so tilted that it slopes
down to the right towards the valley road, and slopes up to the front
towards the enemy line. Looking straight to the front from the Sunken
Road our men saw no sudden dip down at the lynchet, but a continuous
grassy field, at first flat, then slowly rising towards the enemy parapet.
The line of the lynchet-top merges into the slope behind it, so that
it is not seen. The enemy line thrusts out in a little salient here,
so as to make the most of a little bulge of ground which was once wooded
and still has stumps. The bulge is now a heap and ruin of burnt and
tumbled mud and chalk. To reach it our men had to run across the flat
from the Sunken Road, slide down the bank of the lynchet, and then run
up the glacis to the parapet.
|Troops moving to the Front in the Dust of the
Summer Fighting. See larger
The Sunken Road was only held by our men as an advanced post and "jumping
off" (or attacking) point. Our line lay behind it on a higher part of
the spur, which does not decline gradually into the valley road, but
breaks off in a steep bank cut by our soldiers into a flight of chalk
steps. These steps gave to all this part of the line the name of Jacob's
Ladder. From the top of Jacob's Ladder there is a good view of the valley
road running down into Beaumont Hamel. To the right there is a big steep
knoll of green hill bulking up to the south of the valley, and very
well fenced with enemy wire. All the land to the right or south of Jacob's
Ladder is this big green hill, which is very steep, irregular, and broken
with banks, and so ill-adapted for trenching that we were forced to
make our line further from the enemy than is usual on the front. The
front trenches here are nearly five hundred yards-apart. As far as the
hill-top the enemy line has a great advantage of position. To reach
it our men had to cross the open and ascend a slope which gave neither
dead ground nor cover to front or flank. Low down the hill, running
parallel with the road, is a little lynchet, topped by a few old hawthorn
bushes. All this bit of the old front line was the scene of a most gallant
attack by our men on the 1st of July. Those who care may see it in the
official cinematograph films of the Battle of the Somme.
Right at the top of the hill there is a dark enclosure
of wood, orchard, and plantation, with several fairly well preserved
red-brick buildings in it. This is the plateau-village of Auchonvillers.
On the slopes below it, a couple of hundred yards behind Jacob's Ladder,
there is a little round clump of trees. Both village and clump make
conspicuous landmarks. The clump was once the famous English machinegun
post of the Bowery, from which our men could shoot down the valley into
The English line goes up the big green hill, in trenches and saps of
reddish clay, to the plateau or tableland at the top. Right up on the
top, well behind our front line and close to one of our communication
trenches, there is a good big hawthorn bush, in which a magpie has built
her nest. This bush, which is strangely beautiful in the spring, has
given to the plateau the name of the Hawthorn Ridge.
Just where the opposing lines reach the top of the
Ridge they both bend from their main north and south direction towards
the southeast, and continue in that course for several miles. At the
point or salient of the bending, in the old enemy position, there is
a crater of a mine which the English sprang in the early morning of
the 1st of July. This is the crater of the mine of Beaumont Hamel. Until
recently it was supposed to be the biggest crater ever blown by one
explosion. It is not the deepest: one or two others near La Boisselle
are deeper, but none on the Somme field comes near it in bigness and
squalor. It is like the crater of a volcano, vast, ragged, and irregular,
about one hundred and fifty yards long, one hundred yards across, and
twenty-five yards deep. It is crusted and scabbed with yellowish tetter,
like sulfur or the rancid fat on meat. The inside has rather the look
of meat, for it is reddish and all streaked and scabbed with this pox
and with discolored chalk. A lot of it trickles and oozes like sores
discharging pus, and this liquid gathers in holes near the bottom, and
is greenish and foul and has the look of dead eyes staring upwards.
All that can be seen of it from the English line
is a disarrangement of the enemy wire and parapet. It is a hole in the
ground which cannot be seen except from quite close at hand. At first
sight, on looking into it, it is difficult to believe that it was the
work of man; it looks so like nature in her evil mood. It is hard to
imagine that only three years ago that hill was cornfield, and the site
of the chasm grew bread. After that happy time, the enemy bent his line
there and made the salient a stronghold, and dug deep shelters for his
men in the walls of his trenches; the marks of the dugouts are still
plain in the sides of the pit. Then, on the 1st of July, when the explosion
was to be a signal for the attack, and our men waited in the trenches
for the spring, the belly of the chalk was heaved, and chalk, clay,
dugouts, gear, and enemy, went up in a dome of blackness full of pieces,
and spread aloft like a toadstool, and floated, and fell down.
From the top of the Hawthorn Ridge, our soldiers could see a great
expanse of chalk downland, though the falling of the hill kept them
from seeing the enemy's position. That lay on the slope of the ridge,
somewhere behind the wire, quite out of sight from our lines. Looking
out from our front line at this salient, our men saw the enemy wire
almost as a skyline. Beyond this line, the ground dipped. towards Beaumont
Hamel. (which was quite out of sight in the valley) and rose again sharply
in the steep bulk of Beaucourt spur. Beyond this lonely spur, the hills
ranked and ran, like the masses of a moor, first the high ground above
Miraumont, and beyond that the high ground of the Loupart Wood, and
away to the east the bulk that makes the left bank of the Ancre River.
What trees there are in this moorland were not then all blasted. Even
in Beaumont Hamel some of the trees were green. The trees in the Ancre
River Valley made all that marshy meadow like a forest. Looking out
on all this, the first thought of the soldier was that here he could
really see something of the enemy's ground.
It is true, that from this hilltop much land, then
held by the enemy, could be seen, but very little that was vital to
the enemy could be observed. His lines of supply and support ran in
ravines which we could not see; his batteries lay beyond crests, his
men were in hiding places. Just below us on the lower slopes of this
Hawthorn Ridge he had one vast hiding place which gave us a great deal
of trouble. This was a gully or ravine, about five hundred yards long,
well within his position, running (roughly speaking) at right angles
with his front line. Probably it was a steep and deep natural fold made
steeper and deeper by years of cultivation. It is from thirty to forty
feet deep, and about as much across at the top; it has abrupt sides,
and thrusts out two forks to its southern side. These forks give it
the look of a letter Y upon the maps, for which reason both the French
and ourselves called the place the " Ravin en Y" or "Y Ravine". Part
of the southernmost fork was slightly open to observation from our lines;
the main bulk of the gully was invisible to us, except from the air.
Whenever the enemy has had a bank of any kind, at
all screened from fire, he has dug into it for shelter. In the Y Ravine,
which provided these great expanses of banks, he dug himself shelters
of unusual strength and size. He sank shafts into the banks, tunneled
long living rooms, both above and below the gully-bottom, linked the
rooms together with galleries, and cut hatchways and bolting holes to
lead to the surface as well as to the gully. All this work was securely
done, with balks of seasoned wood, iron girders, and concreting. Much
of it was destroyed by shell fire during the battle, but much not hit
by shells is in good condition today even after the autumn rains and
the spring thaw. The galleries which lead upwards and outwards from
this underground barracks to the observation posts and machine-gun emplacements
in the open air, are cunningly planned and solidly made. The posts and
emplacements to which they led are now, however, (nearly all) utterly
destroyed by our shell fire.
In this gully barracks, and in similar shelters cut in the chalk of
the steeper banks near Beaumont Hamel, the enemy could hold ready large
numbers of men to repel an attack or to make a counterattack. They lived
in, these dugouts in comparative safety and in moderate comfort.
When our attacks came during the early months of
the battle, they were able to pass rapidly and safely by these underground
galleries from one part of the position to another, bringing their machine
guns with them. However, the Ravine was presently taken and the galleries
and underground shelters were cleared. In one underground room in that
barracks, nearly fifty of the enemy were found lying dead in their bunks,
all unwounded, and as though asleep. They had been killed by the concussion
of the air following on the burst of a big shell at the entrance.
One other thing may be mentioned about this Hawthorn
Ridge. It runs parallel with the next spur (the Beaucourt spur) immediately
to the north of it, then in the enemy's hands. Just over the crest of
this spur, out of sight from our lines, is a country road, well banked
and screened, leading from Beaucourt to Serre. This road was known by
our men as Artillery Lane, because it was used as a battery position
by the enemy. The wrecks of several of his guns lie in the mud there
still. From the crest in front of this road there is a view to the westward,
so wonderful that those who see it realize at once that the enemy position
on the Ridge, which, at a first glance, seems badly sited for observation,
is, really, well placed. From this crest, the Ridge-top, all our old
front line, and nearly all the No Man's Land upon it, is exposed, and
plainly to be seen. On a reasonably clear day, no man could leave our
old line unseen from this crest. No artillery officer, correcting the
fire of a battery, could ask for a better place from which to watch
the bursts of his shells. This crest, in front of the lane of enemy
guns, made it possible for the enemy batteries to drop shells upon our
front line trenches before all the men were out of them at the instant
of the great attack.
The old English line runs along the Hawthorn Ridge-top
for some hundreds of yards, and then crosses a dip or valley, which
is the broad, fan-shaped, southern end of a fork of Y Ravine. A road
runs, or ran, down this dip into the Y Ravine. It is not now recognizable
as a road, but the steep banks at each side of it, and some bluish metaling
in the shell holes, show that one once ran there. These banks are covered
with hawthorn bushes. A remblai, also topped with hawthorn, lies a little
to the north of this road.
From this lynchet, looking down the valley into
the Y Ravine, the enemy position is saddle-shaped, low in the middle,
where the Y Ravine narrows, and rising to right and left to a good height.
Chalk hills from their form often seem higher than they really are,
especially in any kind of haze. Often they have mystery and nearly always
beauty. For some reason, the lumping rolls of chalk hill rising up on
each side of this valley have a menace and a horror about them. One
sees little of the enemy position from the English line. It is now nothing
but a track of black wire in front of some burnt and battered heapings
of the ground, upon which the grass and the flowers have only now begun
to push. At the beginning of the battle it must have been greener and
fresher, for then the fire of hell had not come upon it; but even then,
even in the summer day, that dent in the chalk leading to the Y Ravine
must have seemed a threatening and forbidding place.
Our line goes along the top of the ridge here, at
a good distance from the enemy line. It is dug on the brow of the plateau
in reddish earth on the top of chalk. It is now much as our men left
it for the last time. The trench-ladders by which they left it are still
in place in the bays of the trenches. All the outer, or jumping-off
trenches, are much destroyed by enemy shell fire, which was very heavy
here from both sides of the Ancre River. A quarter of a mile to the
southeast of the Y Ravine the line comes within sight of the great gap
which cuts the battlefield in two. This gap is the valley of the Ancre
River, which runs here beneath great spurs of chalk, as the Thames runs
at Goring and Pangbourne. On the lonely hill, where this first comes
plainly into view, as one travels south along the line, there used to
be two bodies of English soldiers, buried once, and then unburied by
the rain. They lay in the No Man's Land, outside the English wire, in
what was then one of the loneliest places in the field. The ruin of
war lay all round them.
There are many English graves (marked, then, hurriedly, by the man's
rifle thrust into the ground) in that piece of the line. On a windy
day, these rifles shook in the wind as the bayonets bent to the blast.
The field testaments of both men lay open beside them in the mud. The
rain and the mud together had nearly destroyed the little books, but
in each case it was possible to read one text. In both cases, the text
which remained, read with a strange irony. The one book, beside a splendid
youth, cut off in his promise, was open at a text which ran, "And Moses
was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and mighty in word and
in deed." The other book, beside one who had been killed in an attack
which did not succeed at the moment, but which led to the falling back
of the enemy nation from many miles of conquered ground, read even more
strangely. It was open at the eighty-ninth Psalm, and the only legible
words were, "Thou hast broken down all his hedges; thou hast brought
his strong holds to ruin."
From the hill-top where these graves are the lines
droop down towards the second of the four roads, which runs here in
the Ancre valley parallel with the river and the railway. The slope
is steep and the ground broken with shallow gullies and lynchets. Well
down towards the river, just above the road, a flattish piece of land
leads to a ravine with steep and high banks. This flattish land, well
within the enemy line, was the scene of very desperate fighting on the
1st of July.
Looking at the enemy line in front of our own line
here, one sees little but a gentle crest, protected by wire, in front
of another gentle crest, also wired, with other gentle crests beyond
and to the left. To the right there is a blur of gentle crests behind
tree-tops. It is plain from a glance that gullies run irregularly into
the spurs here, and make the defense easy. All through the fighting
here, it happened too often that the taking of one crest only meant
that the winners were taken in flank by machine guns in the crest beyond,
and (in this bit of the line), by other guns on the other side of the
Well to the back of the English line here, on the
top of the plateau, level with Auchonvillers, some trees stand upon
the skyline, with the tower of a church, battered, but not destroyed,
like the banner of some dauntless one, a little to the west of the wood.
The wood shows marks of shelling, but nothing like the marks on the
woods attacked by our own men. There are signs of houses among the trees,
and the line of a big wood to the east of them.
This church and the buildings near it are parts
of Mesnil village, most of which lies out of sight on the further side
of the crest. They are conspicuous landmarks, and can be made out from
many parts of the field. The chalk scarp on which they stand is by much
the most beautiful thing on the battlefield, and the sight of Mesnil
church tower on the top of it is most pleasant. That little banner stood
all through the war, and not all the guns of the enemy could bring it
down. Many men in the field near Mesnil, enduring the mud of the thaw,
and the lice, wet, and squalor of dugouts near the front, were cheered
by that church tower. " For all their bloody talk the bastards couldn't
bring it down."
The hill with the lines upon it slopes steeply down
to the valley of the Ancre. Just where the lines come to the valley,
the ground drops abruptly, in a cliff or steep bank, twenty-five feet
high, to the road.
Our line on this slope covers the village of Hamel,
which lies just behind the line, along the road and on the hill-slopes
above it. The church and churchyard of Hamel, both utterly ruined, lie
well up the hill in such a position that they made good posts from which
our snipers could shoot across the river at men in the Schwaben Redoubt.
Crocuses, snowdrops, and a purple flower once planted on the graves
of the churchyard, but now escaped into the field, blossomed here in
this wintry spring, long before any other plant on the battlefield was
Hamel in peace time may have contained forty houses,
some shatters of which still stand. There are a few red-brick walls,
some frames of wood from which the plaster has been blown, some gardens
gone wild, fruit trees unpruned and more or less ragged from fire, and
an air of desecration and desertion. In some of the ruins there are
signs of use. The lower windows are filled with sandbags, the lower
stories are strengthened with girders and bulks. From the main road
in the valley, a country track or road, muddy even for the Somme, leads
up the hill, through the heart of the village, past the church, towards
our old line and Auchonvillers.
Not much can be seen from the valley road in Hamel,
for it is only a few feet above the level of the river-bed, which is
well grown with timber not yet completely destroyed. The general view
to the eastward from this low-lying road is that of a lake, five hundred
yards across, in some wild land not yet settled. The lake is shallow,
blind with reeds, vivid with water-grass, and lively with moor-fowl.
The trees grow out of the water, or lie in it, just as they fell when
they were shot. On the whole, the trees just here, though chipped and
knocked about, have not suffered badly; they have the look of trees,
and are leafy in summer. Beyond the trees, on the other side of the
marsh, is the steep and high eastern bank of the Ancre, on which a battered
wood, called Thiepval Wood, stands like an army of black and haggard
rampikes. But for this stricken wood, the eastern bank of the Ancre
is a gentle, sloping hill, bare of trees. On the top of this hill is
the famous Schwaben Redoubt.
The Ancre River and the marshy valley through which
it runs are crossed by several causeways. One most famous causeway crosses
just in front of Hamel on the line of the old Mill Road. The Mill from
which it takes its name lies to the left of the causeway on a sort of
green island. The wheel, which is not destroyed, still shows among the
ruins. The enemy had a dressing station there at one time.
The marshy valley of the Ancre splits up the river
here into several channels besides the mill stream. The channels are
swift and deep, full of exquisitely clear water just out of the chalk.
The marsh is rather blind with snags cut off by shells. For some years
past the moor-fowl in the marsh have been little molested. They are
very numerous here; their cries make the place lonely and romantic.
When one stands on this causeway over the Ancre
one is almost at the middle point of the battlefield, for the river
cuts the field in two. Roughly speaking, the ground to the west of the
river was the scene of containing fighting, the ground to the east of
the river the scene of our advance. At the eastern end of the causeway
the Old Mill Road rises towards the Schwaben Redoubt.
All the way up the hill the road is steep, rather
deep and bad. It is worn into the chalk and shows up very white in sunny
weather. Before the battle it lay about midway between the lines, but
it was always patrolled at night by our men. The ground on both sides
of it is almost more killed and awful than anywhere in the field. On
the English or south side of it, distant from one hundred to two hundred
yards, is the shattered wood, burnt, dead, and desolate. On the enemy
side, at about the same distance, is the usual black enemy wire, much
tossed and bunched by our shells, covering a tossed and tumbled chalky
and filthy parapet. Our own old line is an array of rotted sandbags,
filled with chalkflint, covering the burnt wood. One need only look
at the ground to know that the fighting here was very grim, and to the
death. Near the road and up the slope to the enemy the ground is littered
with relics of our charges, moldy packs, old shattered scabbards, rifles,
bayonets, helmets curled, torn, rolled, and starred, clips of cartridges,
and very many graves. Many of the graves are marked with strips of wood
torn from packing cases, with pencilled inscriptions, "An unknown British
Hero " ; "In loving memory of Pte. ___"; "Two unknown British heroes"
; "An unknown British soldier" ; "A dead Fritz." That gentle slope to
the Schwaben is covered with such things.
Passing these things, by some lane through the wire
and clambering over the heaps of earth which were once the parapet,
one enters the Schwaben, where so much life was spent. As in so many
places on this old battlefield, the first thought is: "Why, they were
in an eyrie here; our fellows had no chance at all." There is no wonder,
then, that the approach is strewn with graves. The line stands at the
top of a smooth, open slope, commanding our old position and the Ancre
Valley. There is no cover of any kind upon the slope except the rims
of the shell-holes, which make rings of mud among the grass. Just outside
the highest point of the front line there is a little clump of our graves.
Just inside there is a still unshattered concrete fortlet, built for
the machine gun by which those men were killed.
All along that front trench of the Schwaben, lying
on the parapet, half buried in the mud, are the belts of machine guns,
still full of cartridges. There were many machine guns on that earthen
wall last year. When our men scrambled over the tumbled chalky line
of old sandbags, so plain just down the hill, and came into view on
the slope, running and stumbling in the hour of the attack, the machine
gunners in the fortress felt indeed that they were in an eyrie, and
that our fellows had no chance at all.
For the moment one thinks this, as the enemy gunners
must have thought it; then, looking up the hill at the inner works of
the great fort, the thought comes that it was not so happy a fate to
have to hold this eyrie. Sometimes, in winter storms, the Atlantic is
heaved aloft and tossed and tumbled under an evil heaven till all its
wilderness is hideous. This hill-top is exactly as though some such
welter of water had suddenly become mud. It is all heaped and tossed
and tumbled as though the earth there had been a cross-sea. In one place
some great earth wave of a trench has been bitten into and beaten back
and turned blind into an eddy by great pits and chasms and running heaps.
Then in another place, where the crown of the work once reared itself
aloft over the hill, the heaps of mud are all blurred and pounded together,
so that there is no design, no trace, no visible plan of any fortress,
only a mess of mud bedeviled and bewildered. All this mess of heaps
and hillocks is strung and filthied over with broken bodies and ruined
gear. There is nothing whole, nor alive, nor clean, in all its extent;
it is a place of ruin and death, blown and blasted out of any likeness
to any work of man, and so smashed that there is no shelter on it, save
for the one machine gunner in his box. On all that desolate hill our
fire fell like rain for days and nights and weeks, till the watchers
in our line could see no hill at all, but a great, vague, wreathing
devil of darkness in which little sudden fires winked and glimmered
Once in a lull of the firing a woman appeared upon
the enemy parapet and started to walk along it. Our men held their fire
and watched her. She walked steadily along the whole front of the Schwaben
and then jumped down into her trench. Many thought at the time that
she was a man masquerading for a bet, but long afterwards, when our
men took the Schwaben, they found her lying in the ruins dead. They
buried her there, up on the top of the hill. God alone knows who she
was and what she was doing there.
Looking back across the Ancre from the Schwaben
the hill of the right bank of the river is clear from the woods near
Mesnil to Beaucourt. All along that graceful chalk hill our communication
trenches thrust up like long white mole-runs, or like the comb of rollers
on a reef. At right angles to these long white lines are black streaks
which mark the enemy's successive front lines. The later ones are visibly
more ragged than those near our old line.
There are few more lonely places than that scene
of old battles. One may stand on the Schwaben for many days together
and look west over the moor, or east over the wilderness, without seeing
any sign of human life, save perhaps some solitary guarding a dump of
The hill on which the Schwaben is built is like a great thumb laid
down beside the Ancre River. There is a little valley on its eastern
side exactly like the space between a great thumb and a great forefinger.
It is called Crucifix Valley, from an iron Calvary that stood in it
in the early days of the war. It must once have been a lovely and romantic
glen, strangely beautiful throughout. Even now its lower reach between
a steep bank of scrub and Thiepval Wood is as lovely as a place can
be after the passing of a cyclone. Its upper reach, which makes the
eastern boundary of the Schwaben, is as ghastly a scene of smash as
the world can show. It is nothing but a collection of irregular pools
dug by big shells during months of battle. The pools are long enough
and deep enough to dive into, and full to overflowing with filthy water.
Sometimes the pressure of the water bursts the mud banks of one of these
pools and a rush of water comes, and the pools below it overflow, and
a noise of water rises in that solitude which is like the mud and water
of the beginning of the world before any green thing appeared.
Our line runs across this Crucifix Valley in a strong
sandbag barricade. The enemy line crosses it higher up in a continuation
of the front line of the Schwaben. As soon as the lines are across the
valley they turn sharply to the south at an important point.
The Schwaben spur is like a thumb; Crucifix Valley
is like the space between a thumb and a forefinger. Just to the east
of Crucifix Valley a second spur thrusts away down to the south like
a forefinger. It is a long sloping spur, wooded at the lower end. It
is known on the maps as Thiepval Hill or the Leipzig Salient. When the
lines turn to the south after crossing Crucifix Valley they run along
the side of this hill and pass out of sight round the end. The lines
are quite regular and distinct. From the top of the Schwaben it looks
as though the side of the hill were fenced into a neat green track or
racecourse. This track is the No Man's Land, which lies like a broad
green regular stripe between brown expanses along the hillside. All
this hill was of the greatest importance to the enemy. It was as strong
an eyrie as the Schwaben; it turned and made very dangerous our works
in front of Hamel; and it was the key to a covered way to the plateau
from which all these spurs thrust southward.
It is a bolder, more regular spur than the others
which thrust from this plateau. The top slopes so slightly as to be
almost level, the two flanks are rather steep.
Right at the top of it, just where it springs from
the plateau, much where the knuckle of the imagined hand would be, and
perhaps five hundred yards east from our old sandbag barricade in Crucifix
Valley, there is a redness in the battered earth and upon the chalk
of the road. The redness is patchy over a good big stretch of this part
of the spur, but it is all within the enemy lines and well above our
own. Where the shattered hillside slopes towards our lines there are
many remnants of trees, some of them fruit trees arranged in a kind
of order behind the burnt relics of a hedge, others dotted about at
random. All are burnt, blasted, and killed. One need only glance at
the hill on which they stand to see that it has been more burnt and
shell-smitten than most parts of the lines. It is as though the fight
here had been more than to the death, to beyond death, to the bones
and skeleton of the corpse which was yet unkillable. This is the site
of the little hill village of Thiepval, which once stood at a crossroads
here among apple orchards and the trees of a park. It had a church,
just at the junction of the roads, and a fine seigniorial chateau, in
a garden, beside the church; otherwise it was a little lonely mean place,
built of brick and plaster on a great lonely heap of chalk downland.
It had no importance and no history before the war, except that a Seigneur
of Thiepval is mentioned as having once attended a meeting at Amiens.
It was of great military importance at the time of the Battle of the
Somme. In the old days it may have had a beauty of position.
It is worth while to clamber up to Thiepval from
our lines. The road runs through the site of the village in a deep cutting,
which may have once been lovely. The road is reddish with the smashed
bricks of the village. Here and there in the mud are perhaps three courses
of brick where a house once stood, or some hideous hole bricked at the
bottom for the vault of a cellar. Blasted, dead, pitted stumps of trees,
with their bark in rags, grow here and there in a collection of vast
holes, ten feet deep and fifteen feet across, with filthy water in them.
There is nothing left of the church; a big reddish mound of brick, that
seems mainly powder round a core of cement, still marks where the chateau
stood. The chateau garden, the round village pond, the pine-tree which
was once a landmark there, are all blown out of recognition.
The mud of the Somme, which will be remembered by
our soldiers long after they have forgotten the shelling, was worse
at Thiepval than elsewhere, or, at least, could not have been worse
elsewhere. The road through Thiepval was a bog, the village was a quagmire.
Near the chateau there were bits where one sank to the knee. In the
great battle for Thiepval, on the 26th of last September, one of our
Tanks charged an enemy trench here. It plunged and stuck fast and remained
in the mud, like a great animal stricken dead in its spring. It was
one of the sights of Thiepval during the winter, for it looked most
splendid; afterwards, it was salved and went to fight again.
From this part of Thiepval one can look along the
top of the Leipzig Spur, which begins here and thrusts to the south
for a thousand yards.
There are two big enemy works on the Leipzig Spur:
one, well to the south of the village, is (or was, for it is all blown
out of shape) a six-angled star-shaped redoubt called the Wonder Work;
the other, still further to the south, about a big, disused, and very
evil-looking quarry, towards the end of the spur, is, or was, called
the Leipzig Salient, or, by some people, the Hohenzollern, from the
Hohenzollern Trench, which ran straight across the spur about halfway
down the salient.
In these two fortresses the enemy had two strong,
evil eyries, high above us. They look down upon our line, which runs
along the side of the hill below them. Though, in the end, our guns
blasted the enemy off the hill, our line along that slope was a costly
one to hold, since fire upon it could be observed and directed from
so many points -- from the rear (above Hamel), from the left flank (on
the Schwaben and near Thiepval), and from the hill itself.
The hill is all skinned and scarred, and the trace
of the great works can no longer be followed. At the top of the hill,
in the middle of a filthy big pool, is a ruined enemy trench-mortar,
sitting up like a swollen toad.
At the end of the spur the lines curve round to
the east to shut in the hill. A grass-grown road crosses the lines here,
goes up to the hilltop, and then along it. The slopes at this end of
the hill are gentle, and from low down, where our lines are, it is a
pleasant and graceful brae, where the larks never cease to sing and
where you may always put up partridges and sometimes even a hare.. It
is a deserted hill at this time, but for the wild things. The No Man's
Land is littered with the relics of a charge; for many brave Dorsetshire
and Wiltshire men died in the rush up that slope. On the highest point
of the enemy parapet, at the end of the hill, is a lonely white cross,
which stands out like a banner planted by a conqueror. It marks the
grave of an officer of the Wilts, who was killed there among the ruin,
in the July attack.
Below the lines, where the ground droops away toward
the river, the oddly shaped, deeply-valleyed Wood of Authuille begins.
It makes a sort of socket of woodland so curved as to take the end of
It is a romantic and very lovely wood, pleasant
with the noise of water and not badly damaged by the fighting. The trees
are alive and leafy, the shrubs are pushing, and the spring flowers,
wood anemones, violets, and the oxlip (which in this country takes the
place of the primrose and the cowslip) flower beautifully among the
shell-holes, rags, and old tins of war. But at the northeastern end
it runs out in a straggling spinney along the Leipzig's east flank,
and this horn of wood is almost as badly shattered as if the shell fire
upon it had been English. Here the enemy, fearing for his salient, kept
up a terrible barrage. The trees are burnt, ragged, unbarked, topped,
and cut off short, the trenches are blown in and jumbled, and the ground
blasted and gouged.
Standing in the old English front line just to the
north of Authuille Wood, one sees the usual slow gradual grassy rise
to the dark enemy wire. Mesnil stands out among its trees to the left;
to the right is this shattered stretch of wood, with a valley beyond
it, and a rather big, steep, green hill topped by a few trees beyond
the valley. The jut of the Leipzig shuts out the view to the flanks,
so that one can see little more than this.
The Leipzig, itself, like the Schwaben, is a hawk's
nest or eyrie. Up there one can look down by Authuille Wood to Albert
church and chimneys, the uplands of the Somme, the Amiens road, down
which the enemy marched in triumph and afterwards retreated in a hurry,
and the fair fields that were to have been the booty of this war. Away
to the left of this is the wooded clump of Becourt, and, beyond it,
One Tree Hill with its forlorn mound, like the burial place of a King.
On the right flank is the Ancre Valley, with the English position round
Hamel like an open book under the eye; on the left flank is the rather
big, steep, green hill, topped by a few trees, before mentioned. These
trees grow in and about what was once the village of Ovillers-la-Boisselle.
The hill does not seem to have a name; it may be called here Middle
Finger Hill or Ovillers Hill.
|Dug-outs and barbed wire in La Boiselle. Usna-Tara
Hill, with English Support Lines in Background. At Extreme Left
is the Albert-Bapaume Road. See larger
Like the Schwaben and the Leipzig Hills this hill thrusts out from
the knuckle of the big chalk plateau to the north of it like the finger
of a hand, in this case the middle finger. It is longer and less regularly
defined than the Leipzig Hill; because instead of ending, it merges
into other hills not quite so high. The valley which parts it from the
Leipzig is steeply sided, with the banks of great lynchets. The lines
cross the valley obliquely and run north and south along the flank of
this hill, keeping their old relative positions, the enemy line well
above our own, so that the approach to it is up a glacis.
As one climbs up along our old line here, the great
flank of Ovillers Hill is before one in a noble, bare sweep of grass,
running up to the enemy line. Something in the make of this hill, in
its shape, or in the way it catches the light, gives it a strangeness
which other parts of the battlefield have not. The rise between the
lines of the trenches is fully two hundred yards across, perhaps more.
Nearly all over it, in no sort of order, now singly, now in twos or
threes, just as the men fell, are the crosses of the graves of the men
who were killed in the attack there. Here and there among the little
crosses is one bigger than the rest, to some man specially loved or
to the men of some battalion. It is difficult to stand in the old English
line from which those men started without the feeling that the crosses
are the men alive, still going forward, as they went in the July morning
a year ago.
Just within the enemy line, three-quarters of the
way up the hill, there is a sort of small flat field about fifty yards
across where the enemy lost very heavily. They must have gathered there
for some rush and then been caught by our guns.
At the top of the hill the lines curve to the southeast,
drawing closer together. The crest of the hill, such as it is, was not
bitterly disputed here, for we could see all that we wished to see of
the hill from the eastern flank. Our line passes over the spur slightly
below it, the enemy line takes in as much of it as the enemy needed.
From it, he has a fair view of Albert town and of the country to the
east and west of it, the wooded hill of Becourt, and the hill above
Fricourt. From our line, we see his line and a few treetops. From the
eastern flank of the hill, our line gives a glimpse of the site of the
village of Ovillers-la-Boisselle, once one of the strong places of the
enemy, and now a few heaps of bricks, and one spike of burnt ruin where
the church stood.
Like most Picardy villages, Ovillers was compactly
built of red brick along a country road, with trees and orchards surrounding
it. It had a lofty and pretentious brick church of a modern type. Below
and beyond it to the east is a long and not very broad valley which
lies between the eastern flank of Ovillers Hill and the next spur. It
is called Mash Valley on the maps. The lines go down Ovillers Hill into
this valley and then across it.
Right at the upper end of this valley, rather more
than a mile away, yet plainly visible from our lines near Ovillers,
at the time of the beginning of the battle, were a few red-brick ruins
in an irregular row across the valley-head.
A clump of small fir and cypress trees stood up
dark on the hill at the western end of this row, and behind the trees
was a line of green hill topped with the ruins of a windmill. The ruins,
now gone, were the end of Pozières village, the dark trees grew
in Pozières cemetery, and the mill was the famous windmill of
Pozières, which marked the crest that was one of the prizes of
the battle. All these things were then clearly to be seen, though in
The main hollow of the valley is not remarkable
except that it is crossed by enormous trenches and very steeply hedged
by a hill on its eastern flank. This eastern hill which has such a steep
side is a spur or finger of chalk thrusting southward from Pozières,
like the ring-finger of the imagined hand. Mash Valley curves round
its finger-tip, and just at the spring of the curve the third of the
four Albert roads crosses it, and goes up the spur towards Pozières
and Bapaume. The line of the road, which is rather banked up, so as
to be a raised way, like so many Roman roads, can be plainly seen, going
along the spur, almost to Pozières. In many places, it makes
the eastern skyline to observers down in the valley.
Behind our front line in this Mash Valley is the
pleasant green Usna Hill, which runs across the hollow and shuts it
in to the south. From this hill, seamed right across with our reserve
and support trenches, one can look down at the enemy position, which
crosses Mash Valley in six great lines all very deep, strong, and dug
into for underground shelter.
Standing in Mash Valley, at the foot of Ring Finger
Spur, just where the Roman Road starts its long rise to Pozières,
one sees a lesser road forking off to the right, towards a village called
Contalmaison, a couple of miles away. The fork of the road marks where
our old front line ran. The trenches are filled in at this point now,
so that the roads may be used, but the place was once an exceedingly
hot corner. In the old days, all the space between the two roads at
the fork was filled with the village or hamlet of La Boisselle, which,
though a tiny place, had once a church and perhaps a hundred inhabitants.
The enemy fortified the village till it was an exceedingly strong place.
We held a part of the village cemetery. Some of the broken crosses of
the graves still show among the chalk here.
To the left of the Roman Road, only a stone's throw
from this ruined graveyard, a part of our line is built up with now
rotting sandbags full of chalk, so that it looks like .a mound of gray
rocks. Opposite the mound, perhaps a hundred yards up the hill, is another,
much bigger, irregular mound, of chalk that has become dirty, with some
relics of battered black wire at its base. The space between the two
mounds is now green with grass, though pitted with shell-holes, and
marked in many places with the crosses of graves. The space is the old
No Man's Land, and the graves are of men who started to charge across
that field on the 1st of July. The big gray mound is the outer wall
or casting of a mine thirty yards deep in the chalk and a hundred yards
across, which we sprang under the enemy line there on that summer morning,
just before our men went over.
La Boisselle, after being battered by us in our
attack, was destroyed by enemy fire after we had taken it, and then
cleared by our men who wished to use the roads. It offers no sight of
any interest; but just outside it, between the old lines, there is a
stretch of spur, useful for observation, for which both sides fought
bitterly. For about 200 yards, the No Man's Land is a succession of
pits in the chalk where mines have been sprung. Chalk, wire, stakes,
friends, and enemies seem here to have been all blown to powder.
The lines cross this debated bit, and go across
a small, ill-defined bulk of chalk, known as Chapes Spur, on the top
of which there is a vast heap of dazzlingly white chalk, so bright that
it is painful to look at. Beyond it is the pit of a mine, evenly and
cleanly blown, thirty-five yards deep, and more than a hundred yards
across, in the pure chalk of the upland, as white as cherry blossom.
This is the finest, though not the biggest, mine in the battlefield.
It was the work of many months, for the shafts by which it was approached
began more than a quarter of a mile away. It was sprung on the 1st of
July as a signal for the attack. Quite close to it are the graves of
an officer and a sergeant, both English, who were killed in the attack
a few minutes after that chasm in the chalk had opened. The sergeant
was killed while trying to save his officer.
The lines bend down south-eastward from Chapes Spur,
and cross a long, curving, shallow valley, known as Sausage Valley,
famous, later in the battle, as an assembly place for men going up against
Pozières. Here the men in our line could see nothing but chalk
slope to right, left, or front, except the last tree of La Boisselle,
rising gaunt and black above the line of the hill. Just behind them,
however, at the foot of the Sausage Valley they had a pleasant wooded
hill, the hill of Becourt, which was for nearly two years within a mile
of the front line, yet remained a green and leafy hill, covered with
living trees, among which the chateau of Becourt remained a habitable
The lines slant in a south-easterly direction across
the Sausage Valley; they mount the spur to the east of it, and proceed,
in the same direction, across a bare field, like the top of a slightly
tilted table, in the long slope down to Fricourt. Here, the men in our
front lines could see rather more from their position. In front of them
was a smooth space of grass slightly rising to the enemy lines two hundred
yards away. Behind the enemy lines is a grassy space, and behind this,
there shows what seems to be a gully or ravine, beyond which the high
ground of another spur rises, much as the citadel of an old encampment
rises out of its walled ditch. This high ground of this other spur is
not more than a few feet above the ground near it, but it is higher;
it commands it. All the high ground is wooded. To the southern or lower
end of it the trees are occasional and much broken by fire. To the northern
or upper end they grow in a kind of wood though all are much destroyed.
Right up to the wood, all the high ground bears traces of building;
there are little tumbles of bricks and something of the color of brick
all over the pilled, poxed, and blasted heap that is so like an old
citadel. The ravine in front of it is the gully between the two spurs;
it shelters the sunken road to Contalmaison; the heap is Fricourt village,
and the woodland to the north is Fricourt Wood. A glance is enough to
show that it is a strong position.
|A view of Fricourt, captured on the 2nd July by
the British. See larger
To the left of Fricourt, the spur rises slowly into a skyline. To the
right the lines droop down the spur to a valley, across a brook and
a road in the valley, and up a big bare humping chalk hill placed at
right angles to the spur on which Fricourt stands.
The spur on which Fricourt stands and the spur down
which the lines run both end at the valley in a steep drop. Just above
the steep fall our men fought very hard to push back the enemy a little
towards Fricourt, so that he might not see the lower part of the valley,
or be able to enfilade our lines on the other side of it. For about
three hundred yards here the space between the lines is filled with
the craters of mines exploded under the enemy's front line. In some
cases, we seized and held the craters; in others the craters were untenable
by either side. Under one of those held by us it was found that the
enemy had sunk a big counter-mine, which was excavated and ready for
charging at the time of the beginning of the battle, when Fricourt fell.
This part of the line is more thickly coated with earth than most of
the chalk hills of the battlefield. The craters lie in a blown and dug
up wilderness of heaps of reddish earth, pocked with shell-holes, and
tumbled with wire. The enemy lines are much broken and ruined, their
parapets thrown down, the mouths of their dugouts blown in, and their
The Fricourt position was one of the boasts of the
enemy on this front. Other places on the line, such as the Leipzig,
the Schwaben, and the trenches near Hamel, were strong, because they
could be supported by works behind them or on their flanks. Fricourt
was strong in itself, like Gommecourt. It was perhaps the only place
in the field of which it could be said that it was as strong as Gommecourt.
As at Gommecourt, it had a good natural glacis up to the front line,
which was deep, strong, and well wired. Behind the front line was a
wired second line, and behind that, the rising spur on which the village
stood, commanding both with machine-gun emplacements.
Fricourt was not captured by storm, but swiftly
isolated and forced to surrender. It held out not quite two days. It
was the first first-rate fortress taken by our men from the enemy in
this engagement. In the ruins, they saw for the first time the work
which the enemy puts into his main defenses, and the skill and craft
with which he provides for his comfort. For some weeks, the underground
arrangements of Fricourt, the stairs with wired treads, the bolting
holes, the air and escape shafts, the living rooms with electric light,
the paneled walls, covered with cretonnes of the smartest Berlin patterns,
the neat bunks and the signs of female visitors, were written of in
the press, so that some may think that Fricourt was better fitted than
other places on the line. It is not so.
The work at Fricourt was well done, but it was no
better than that at other places, where a village with cellars in it
had to be converted into a fortress. Our men took Fricourt at the beginning
of the battle, in a fair state of preservation. Such work was then new
to our men, and this good example was made much of.
In the valley below the village, in great, deep,
and powerfully revetted works, the enemy had built himself gun emplacements,
so weighted with timber balks that they collapsed soon after his men
ceased to attend them. The line of these great works ran (as so many
of his important lines have run) at the foot of a steep bank or lynchet,
so that at a little distance the parapet of the work merged into the
bank behind it and was almost invisible.
This line of guns ran about east and west across
the neck of the Fricourt Salient, which thrust still further south,
across the little valley and up the hill on the other side.
Our old line crosses the valley just to the east
of the Fricourt Station on the little railway which once ran in the
valley past Fricourt and Mametz to Montauban. It then crossed the fourth
of the roads from Albert, at Fricourt cemetery, which is a small, raised
forlorn garden of broken tombs at cross-roads, under facing Fricourt.
Here our line began to go diagonally up the lower slopes of the hill.
The enemy line climbed it further to the east, round the bulging snout
of the hill, at a steep and difficult point above the bank of a sunken
road. Towards the top of the hill the lines converged.
|An old British trench near Fricourt. This gives
an idea of the number of sandbags used in trench construction. See
All the way of the hill, the enemy had the stronger position. It was
above us almost invisible and unguessable, except from the air, at the
top of a steep climb up a clay bank, which in wet weather makes bad
going even for the Somme; and though the lie of the ground made it impossible
for him to see much of our position to see much of our position, it
was impossible for us to see anything or his or to assault him. The
hill is a big steep chalk hill, with contours so laid upon it that not
much of it can be seen from below. By looking to the left from our trenches
on its western lower slopes one can see nothing of Fricourt, for the
bulge of the hill's snout covers it. One has a fair view of the old
English line on the smoothish big slope between Fricourt and Becourt,
but nothing of the enemy stronghold. One might have lived in those trenches,
for nearly two years without seeing any enemy except the rain and mud
Up at the top of the hill, there is an immense prospect
over the eastern half of the battlefield, and here, where the lines
converge, it was most necessary for us to have the crest and for the
enemy to keep us off it. The highest ground is well forward, on the
snout, and this point was the only part of the hill which the enemy
strove to keep. His line goes up the hill to the highest point, cuts
off the highest point, and at once turns eastward, so that his position
on the hill is just the northern slope and a narrow line of crest. It
is as though an army holding Fleet Street against an army on the Embankment
and in Cheapside should have seized Ludgate Hill to the top of the steps
of St. Paul's and left the body of the cathedral to its opponent. The
lines securing this important salient are of immense strength and intricacy,
with many great avenues of approach. The front line is double across
the greater part of the crest, and behind it is a very deep, strong,
trebly wired support line which is double at important points.
Our old front line runs almost straight across the
crest parallel with the enemy front line, and distant from it from forty
to one hundred and fifty yards. The crest on highest ground is on both
flanks of the hill-top close to the enemy line. Between the lines at
both these points are the signs of a struggle which raged for weeks
and months for the possession of those lumps of hill, each, perhaps,
two hundred yards long, by fifty broad, by five high. Those fifteen
feet of height were bartered for with more than their own weight of
sweat and blood; the hill can never lose the marks of the struggle.
In those two patches of the hill the space between
the lines is a quarry of confluent craters, twenty or thirty yards deep,
blown into and under each other till the top of the hill is split apart.
No man can now tell which of all these mines were sunk by our men. The
quarry runs irregularly in heaps and hollows of chalk and red earth
mingled like flesh and blood. On our side of the pits the marks of our
occupation are plain. There in several places, as at La Boisselle and
on the Beaucourt spur, our men have built up the parapet of our old
front line by thousands of sandbags till it is a hill-top or cairn from
which they could see beyond. The sandbags have rotted and the chalk
and flints within have fallen partly through the rags, and Nature has
already begun to change those heaps to her own colors, but they will
be there for ever as the mark of our race. Such monuments must be as
lasting as Stonehenge. Neither the mines nor the guns of the enemy could
destroy them. From among them our soldiers peered through the smoke
of burning and explosions at the promised land which the battle made
From those heaps there is a wide view over that
part of the field. To the left one sees Albert, the wooded clump of
Becourt, and a high green spur which hides the Sausage Valley. To the
front this green spur runs to the higher ground from which the Fricourt
spur thrusts. On this higher ground, behind Fricourt and its wood, is
a much bigger, thicker, and better grown wood, about a mile and a half
away; this is the wood of Mametz. Some short distance to the left of
this wood, very plainly visible on the high, rather bare hill, is a
clump of pollarded trees near a few heaps of red brick. The trees were
once the shade-giving trees about the market-place of Contalmaison,
a hamlet at a cross-roads at this point. Behind these ruins the skyline
is a kind of ridge which runs in a straight line, broken in one place
by a few shatters of trees. These trees are the remains of the wood
which once grew outside the village of Pozières. The ridge is
the Albert-Bapaume Road, here passing over the highest ground on its
Turning from these distant places and looking to
the right, one sees, just below, twelve hundred yards to the east of
Fricourt, across the valley at the foot of this hill of the salient,
the end of an irregular spur, on which are the shattered bricks of the
village of Mametz before mentioned.
To the north of Mametz the ground rises. From the eyrie of the salient
one can look over it and away to the north to big rolling chalk land,
most of it wooded. Mametz Wood is a dark expanse to the front; to the
right of it are other woods, Bazentin Woods, Big and Little, and beyond
them, rather to the right and only just visible as a few sticks upon
the skyline, are two other woods, High Wood, like a ghost in the distance,
and the famous and terrible Wood of Delville. High Wood is nearly five
miles away and a little out of the picture. The other wooded heights
are about three miles away. All that line of high ground marked by woods
was the enemy second line, which with a few slight exceptions was our
front line before the end of the third week of the battle.
From this hill-top of the salient the lines run
down the north-eastern snout of the hill and back across the valley,
so as to shut in Mametz. Then they run eastward for a couple of miles,
up to and across a plateau in front of the hamlet of Carnoy, which was
just within our line. From our line, in this bare and hideous field,
little could be seen but the slope up to the enemy line. At one point,
where the road or lane from Carnoy to Montauban crossed the enemy line,
there was a struggle for the power to see, and as a result of the struggle
mines and counter-mines were sprung here till the space between the
lines is now a chaos of pits and chasms full of water. The country here
is an expanse of smoothish tilted slopes, big, empty, and lonely, and
crossed (at about the middle point) by a strange narrow gut or gully,
up which the railway once ran to Montauban. No doubt there are places
in the English chalk counties which resemble this sweep of country,
but I know of none so bare or so featureless. The ground is of the reddish
earth which makes such bad mud. The slopes are big and gradual, either
up or down. Little breaks the monotony of the expanse except a few copses
or sites of copses; the eye is always turning to the distance.
In front, more than half a mile away, the ground
reaches its highest point in the ridge or bank which marks the road
to Montauban. The big gradual sweep up is only broken by lines of trenches
and by mud heaped up from the road. Some of the trees which once made
Montauban pleasant and shady still stand over the little heaps of brick
and solitary iron gate which show where the village used to stand. Rather
to the right of this, and nearer to our lines, are some irregular red
heaps with girders protruding from them. This is the enemy fortress
of the brickworks of Montauban. Beyond this, still further to the right,
behind the old enemy line, the ground loses its monotony and passes
into lovely and romantic sweeping valleys, which our men could not see
from their lines.
Well behind our English lines in this district and
above the dip where Carnoy stands, the fourth of the four roads from
Albert runs eastward along a ridge-top between a double row of noble
trees which have not suffered very severely, except at their eastern
end. Just north of this road, and a little below it on the slopes of
the ridge, is the village of Maricourt. Our line turns to the southeast
opposite Montauban, and curves in towards the ridge so as to run just
outside Maricourt, along the border of a little wood to the east of
the houses. From all the high ground to the north of it, from the enemy's
second line and beyond, the place is useful to give a traveler his bearings.
The line of plane-trees along the road on the ridge, and the big clumps
of trees round the village, are landmarks which cannot be mistaken from
any part of the field.
Little is to be seen from our line outside Maricourt
Wood, except the enemy line a little beyond it, and the trees of other
woods behind it.
The line turns to the south, parallel with the wood,
crosses the fourth road (which goes on towards Peronne) and goes down
some difficult, rather lovely, steep chalk slopes, wooded in parts,
to the ruins of Fargny Mill on the Somme River.
The Somme River is here a very beautiful expanse
of clear chalk water like a long wandering shallow lake. Through this
shallow lake the river runs in half a dozen channels, which are parted
and thwarted in many places by marsh, reed-beds, osier plots, and tracts
of swampy woodland. There is nothing quite like it in England. The river-bed
is pretty generally between five and six hundred yards across.
Nearly two miles above the place where the old enemy
line comes down to the bank, the river thrusts suddenly north-westward,
in a very noble great horse-shoe, the bend of which comes at Fargny
where our lines touched it. The enemy line touched the horse-shoe close
to our own at a curious wooded bank or slope, known (from its shape
on the map, which is like a cocked hat) as the Chapeau de Gendarme.
Just behind our lines, at the bend, the horseshoe sweeps round to the
south. The river-bed at once broadens to about two-thirds of a mile,
and the river, in four or five main channels, passes under a most beautiful
sweep of steep chalk cliff, not unlike some of the chalk country near
Arundel. These places marked the end of the British sector at the time
of the beginning of the battle. On the south or left bank of the Somme
River the ground was held by the French.
Such was our old front line at the beginning of
the battle, and so the travelers of our race will strive to picture
it when they see the ground under the crops of coming Julys. It was
never anything but a makeshift, patched together, and held, God knows
how, against greater strength. Our strongest places were the half dozen
built-up observation posts at the mines near Fricourt, Serre, and La
Boisselle. For the rest, our greatest strength was but a couple of sandbags
deep. There was no concrete in any part of the line, very few iron girders
and not many iron "humpies" or "elephant backs" to make the roofs of
dugouts. The whole line gives the traveler the impression that it was
improvised (as it was) by amateurs with few tools, and few resources,
as best they could, in a time of need and danger. Like the old, hurriedly
built Long Walls at Athens, it sufficed, and like the old camps of Caesar
it served, till our men could take the much finer lines of the enemy.
A few words may be said about those enemy lines. They were very different
lines from ours.
The defenses of the enemy front line varied a little
in degree, but hardly at all in kind, throughout the battlefield. The
enemy wire was always deep, thick, and securely staked with iron supports,
which were either crossed like the letter X, or upright, with loops
to take the wire and shaped at one end like corkscrews so as to screw
into the ground. The wire stood on these supports on a thick web, about
four feet high and from thirty to forty feet across. The wire used was
generally as thick as sailor's marline stuff, or two twisted rope-yarns.
It contained, as a rule, some sixteen barbs to the foot. The wire used
in front of our lines was generally galvanized, and remained gray after
months of exposure. The enemy wire, not being galvanized, rusted to
a black color, and shows up black at a great distance. In places this
web or barrier was supplemented with trip-wire, or wire placed just
above the ground, so that the artillery observing officers might not
see it and so not cause it to be destroyed. This trip-wire was as difficult
to cross as the wire of the entanglements. In one place (near the Y
Ravine at Beaumont Hamel) this trip-wire was used with thin iron spikes
a yard long of the kind known as calthrops. The spikes were so placed
in the ground that about one foot of spike projected. The scheme was
that our men should catch their feet in the trip-wire, fall on the spikes,
and be transfixed.
|Sleighs used for conveying the Wounded through
the Mud. See larger
In places, in front of the front line in the midst of his wire, sometimes
even in front of the wire, the enemy had carefully hidden snipers and
machine-gun posts. Sometimes these outside posts were connected with
his front-line trench by tunnels, sometimes they were simply shell-holes,
slightly altered with a spade to take the snipers and the gunners. These
outside snipers had some success in the early parts of the battle. They
caused losses among our men by firing in the midst of them and by shooting
them in the backs after they had passed. Usually the posts were small
oblong pans in the mud, in which the men lay. Sometimes they were deep
narrow graves in which the men stood to fire through a funnel in the
earth. Here and there, where the ground was favorable, especially when
there was some little knop, hillock, or bulge of ground just outside
their line, as near Gommecourt Park and close to the Sunken Road at
Beaumont Hamel, he placed several such posts together. Outside Gommecourt,
a slight lynchet near the enemy line was prepared for at least a dozen
such posts invisible from any part of our line and not easily to be
picked out by photograph, and so placed as to sweep at least a mile
of No Man's Land.
When these places had been passed, and the enemy
wire, more or less cut by our shrapnel, had been crossed, our men had
to attack the enemy fire trenches of the first line. These, like the
other defenses, varied in degree, but not in kind. They were, in the
main, deep, solid trenches, dug with short bays or zigzags in the pattern
of the Greek Key or badger's earth. They were seldom less than eight
feet and sometimes as much as twelve feet deep. Their sides were revetted,
or held from collapsing, by strong wickerwork. They had good, comfortable
standing slabs or banquettes on which the men could stand to fire. As
a rule, the parapets were not built up with sandbags as ours were.
In some parts of the line, the front trenches were
strengthened at intervals of about fifty yards by tiny forts or fortlets
made of concrete and so built into the parapet that they could not be
seen from without, even five yards away. These fortlets were pierced
with a foot-long slip for the muzzle of a machine gun, and were just
big enough to hold the gun and one gunner.
In the forward wall of the trenches were the openings
of the shafts which led to the frontline dugouts. The shafts are all
of the same pattern. They have open mouths about four feet high, and
slant down into the earth for about twenty feet at an angle of forty-five
degrees. At the bottom of the stairs which led down are the living rooms
and barracks which communicate with each other so that if a shaft collapse
the men below may still escape by another. The shafts and living rooms
are strongly propped and paneled with wood, and this has led to the
destruction of most of the few which survived our bombardment. While
they were needed as billets our men lived in them. Then the wood was
removed, and the dugout and shaft collapsed.
During the bombardment before an attack, the enemy
kept below in his dugouts. If one shaft were blown in by a shell, they
passed to the next. When the fire "lifted" to let the attack begin,
they raced up the stairs with their machine guns and had them in action
within a minute. Sometimes the fire was too heavy for this, for trench,
parapet, shafts, dugouts, wood, and fortlets, were pounded out of existence,
so that no man could say that a line had ever run there; and in these
cases the garrison was destroyed in the shelters. This happened in several
places, though all the enemy dugouts were kept equipped with pioneer
tools by which buried men could dig themselves out.
The direction of the front-line trenches was so
inclined with bends, juts, and angles as to give flanking fire upon
At some little distance behind the front line (a
hundred yards or so) was a second fire line, wired like the first, though
less elaborate and generally without concrete fortlets. This second
line was usually as well sited for fire as the front line. There were
many communication trenches between the two lines. Half a mile behind
the second line was a third support line; and behind this, running along
the whole front, a mile or more away, was the prepared second main position,
which was in every way like the front line, with wire, concrete fortlets,
dugouts, and a difficult glacis for the attacker to climb.
The enemy batteries were generally placed behind
banks or lynchets which gave good natural cover; but in many places
he mounted guns in strong permanent emplacements, built up of timber
balks, within a couple of miles (at Fricourt within a quarter of a mile)
of his front line. In woods from the high trees of which he could have
clear observation, as in the Bazentin, Bernafay, and Trônes Woods,
he had several of these emplacements, and also stout concrete fortlets
for heavy single guns.
All the enemy position on the battlefield was well
gunned at the time of the beginning of the battle. In modern war, it
is not possible to hide preparations for an attack on a wide front.
Men have to be brought up, trenches have to be dug, the artillery has
to prepare, and men, guns, and trenches have to be supplied with food,
water, shells, sandbags, props, and revetments. When the fire on any
sector increases tenfold, while the roads behind the lines are thronged
with five times the normal traffic of troops and lorries, and new trenches,
the attack or "jumping-off" trenches, are being dug in front of the
line, a commander cannot fail to know that an attack is preparing. These
preparations must be made and cannot be concealed from observers in
the air or on the ground. The enemy knew very well that we were about
to attack upon the Somme front, but did not know at which point to expect
the main thrust. To be ready, in any case, he concentrated guns along
the sector. It seems likely that he expected our attack to be an attempt
to turn Bapaume by a thrust from the west, by Gommecourt, Puisieux,
Grandcourt. In all this difficult sector his observations and arrangements
for cross-fire were excellent. He concentrated a great artillery here
(it is a legend among our men that he brought up a hundred batteries
to defend Gommecourt alone). In this sector, and in one other place
a little to the south of it, his barrage upon our trenches, before the
battle, was very accurate, terrible, and deadly.
Our attacks were met by a profuse machinegun fire
from the trench parapets and from the hidden pits between and outside
the lines. There was not very much rifle fire in any part of the battle,
but all the hotly fought for strongholds were defended by machine guns
to the last. It was reported that the bodies of some enemy soldiers
were found chained to their guns, and that on the bodies of others were
intoxicating pills, designed to madden and infuriate the takers before
an attack. The fighting in the trenches was mainly done by bombing with
hand-grenades, of which the enemy had several patterns, all effective.
His most used type was a gray tin cylinder, holding about a pound of
explosive, and screwed to a wooden baton or handle about a foot long
for the greater convenience of throwing.
|The Great Assault of July 1st (at La Boisselle).
Early in the spring of 1916, it was determined that an attack should
be made by our armies upon these lines of the enemy, so as to bring
about a removal of the enemy guns and men, then attacking the French
at Verdun and the Russians on the eastern front.
Preparations for this attack were made throughout
the first half of the year. New roads were cut, old roads were remetalled,
new lines of railways were surveyed and laid, and supplies and munitions
were accumulated not far from the front. Pumping stations were built
and wells were sunk for the supply of water to the troops during the
battle. Fresh divisions were brought up and held ready behind the line.
An effort was made to check the enemy's use of aeroplanes. In June,
our Air Service in the Somme sector made it so difficult for the enemy
to take photographs over our lines that his knowledge of our doings
along the front of the planned battle was lessened and thwarted. At
the same time, many raids were made by our aeroplanes upon the enemy's
depots and magazines behind his front. Throughout June, our infantry
raided the enemy line in many places to the north of the planned battle.
It seems possible that these raids led him to think that our coming
attack would be made wholly to the north of the Ancre River.
During the latter half of June, our armies concentrated
a very great number of guns behind the front of the battle. The guns
were of every kind, from the field gun to the heaviest howitzer. Together
they made what was at that time by far the most terrible concentration
of artillery ever known upon a battlefield. Vast stores of shells of
every known kind were made ready, and hourly increased.
As the guns came into battery, they opened intermittent
fire, so that, by the 20th of June, the fire along our front was heavier
than it had been before. At the same time, the fire of the machine guns
and trench mortars in our trenches became hotter and more constant.
On the 24th of June this fire was increased, by system, along the front
designed for the battle, and along the French front to the south of
the Somme, until it reached the intensity of a fire of preparation.
Knowing, as they did, that an attack was to come, the enemy made ready
and kept on the alert. Throughout the front, they expected the attack
for the next morning.
The fire was maintained throughout the night, but
no attack was made in the morning, except by aeroplanes. These raided
the enemy observation balloons, destroyed nine of them, and made it
impossible for the others to keep in the air. The shelling continued
all that day, searching the line and particular spots with intense fire
and much asphyxiating gas. Again the enemy prepared for an attack in
the morning, and again there was no attack, although the fire of preparation
still went on. The enemy said, "Tomorrow will make three whole days
of preparation; the English will attack tomorrow." But when the morning
came, there was no attack, only the never-ceasing shelling, which seemed
to increase as time passed. It was now difficult and dangerous to move
within the enemy lines. Relieving exhausted soldiers, carrying out the
wounded, and bringing up food and water to the front, became terrible
feats of war. The fire continued and increased, all that day and all
the next day, and the day after that. It darkened the days with smoke
and lit the nights with flashes. It covered the summer landscape with
a kind of haze of hell, earth-colored above fields and reddish above
villages, from the dust of blown mud and brick flung up into the air.
The tumult of these days and nights cannot be described nor imagined.
The air was without wind yet it seemed in a hurry with the passing of
death. Men knew not which they heard, a roaring that was behind and
in front, like a presence, or a screaming that never ceased to shriek
in the air. No thunder was ever so terrible as that tumult. It broke
the drums of the ears when it came singly, but when it rose up along
the front and gave tongue together in full cry it humbled the soul.
With the roaring, crashing, and shrieking came a racket of hammers from
the machine guns till men were dizzy and sick from the noise, which
thrust between skull and brain, and beat out thought. With the noise
came also a terror and an exultation, that one should hurry, and hurry,
and hurry, like the shrieking shells, into the pits of fire opening
on the hills. Every night in all this week the enemy said, "The English
will attack tomorrow," and in the front lines prayed that the attack
might come, that so an end, any end, might come to the shelling.
It was fine, cloudless, summer weather, not very
clear, for there was a good deal of heat haze and of mist in the nights
and early mornings. It was hot yet brisk during the days. The roads
were thick in dust. Clouds and streamers of chalk dust floated and rolled
over all the roads leading to the front, till men and beasts were grey
At half-past six in the morning of the 1st of July
all the guns on our front quickened their fire to a pitch of intensity
never before attained. Intermittent darkness and flashing so played
on the enemy line from Gommecourt to Maricourt that it looked like a
reef on a loppy day. For one instant it could be seen as a white rim
above the wire, then some comber of a big shell struck it fair and spouted
it black aloft. Then another and another fell, and others of a new kind
came and made a different darkness, through which now and then some
fat white wreathing devil of explosion came out and danced. Then it
would show out, with gaps in it, and with some of it level with the
field, till another comber would fall and go up like a breaker and smash
it out of sight again. Over all the villages on the field there floated
a kind of bloody dust from the blasted bricks.
In our trenches after seven o'clock on that morning,
our men waited under a heavy fire for the signal to attack. Just before
half-past seven, the mines at half a dozen points went up with a roar
that shook the earth and brought down the parapets in our lines. Before
the blackness of their burst had thinned or fallen the hand of Time
rested on the half-hour mark, and along all that old front line of the
English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave
climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death,
and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across the No Man's
Land to begin the Battle of the Somme.