'Fighting on the Somme'

British Troops on the Offensive






Prior to the beginning of July, 1916 - that is, during our first eleven months - the war for us had been purely stationary; and warfare a matter of learning the job. There had been no fighting save a few encounters of patrols. All we had learned had been to try to keep our trenches healthy, and to suffer shell and trench mortar fire, if not with equanimity, at least with a cynical humour. Our wastage had not been high. In consequence, our spirits were not yet damped. Actually we knew very little; and if the battalion did not expect a walkover, it still had the illusions bred of propaganda and the picture papers.

We marched out of Bailleulval with the band playing "The Girl I left Behind Me." We had garrisoned it for time enough to permit the traditional tune; though for the life of me I can recall no young face at the windows. As we followed a field track we were amused by the sight of a German 5.9 sniping lorries on the Doullens-Arras road. The companies sang; and even the Lewis gunners towing their baby carriages did not seem depressed. This gaiety could not last. Two miles from our destination the sky opened, and water fell on us in jet. In a trice the road was flooded; a stream, calf-high, rushed down the track. We crawled into Humbercourt as helpless as moths with sodden wings.

The transport came in next day and we received a brigade order to move to Albert. There was no news of the battalion except a rumour that they were in the line. Fairburn and I rode to Albert that afternoon, clattering in under the leaning Virgin, and found a house in the street that leads out to Bapaume. There were beds on the first floor. Said Fairburn, looking out on to the stinking, garbage-strewn cobbles, "Well, this is a bit of all right."

Whoop, crash! A shell banged into the yard of the factory across the road. Planks and pieces of timber whistled in the air, clapping down on the stones. The clerks were arranging the front room for my office. My batman put his head in and said: "There's Turnbull from Number Three wants to see you, sir and Mr. Leader's dead."

My mind shot out to the cheerful, comradely Leader. We had scarcely considered him last night; his grin, we felt sure, would bear him through all tribulations. Red-headed Turnbull, his creamy skin pale beneath his freckles, his eyes shadowed with grief and fear, slipped into the room. His uniform was plastered with clay; and he had no rifle. "It was after the attack, sir. They was bumping our line cruel hard with 5.9's. Captain Nelson and Mr. Leader was standing side by side. The Captain bent down to do up his puttee. A shell burst on the parapet above them. It missed the Captain, but it knocked Mr. Leader's brains out. Yes, sir, we buried him last night, back of the parados. The Captain was wounded, too. The Adjutant sent me down to see about Mr. Leader's kit, getting it home and there's a note for you."

Cuth's note said they had attacked and had taken all their objectives with comparatively few casualties, Leader killed, Nelson, Bliss, P. E. Lewis, and Morgan wounded. The battalion would reach Tara Hill during the early hours of next morning.

When I found them, the whole battalion, except the cooks and the half-dozen officers who had been left out, was asleep. They lay stretched on the hillside, their uniforms daubed with chalk, their faces and hands brown with mud, their hair tangled and their unshaved cheeks bloodless, the colour of dirty parchment, just as they had fallen in attitudes of complete exhaustion. Every now and then a figure moaned or beat the air with his hand. I found Cuthbertson engaged in an elaborate toilet. Even he who was ever the mirror of fashion was unkempt.

"We went up that night," he said," and got orders to attack at half-past eight in the morning, to the right of and above La Boisselle. We went over. There was a lot of bombing up one of the communication trenches. That was where P. E. got his: but we got our line all right. We caught a lot of Boche there. Then we got astride the Bapaume road, where we had a marvellous view of the attack on our left. We could see the Boche in Ovillers packing up to go, but he was too far off for us to hit. We settled down in the line, and then they started shelling us. That was where poor old Leader was killed and the others wounded The men stuck it very well; but oh, my God that !

I got him to go round the line once; he ran at full speed, keeping his head down, and then retired to his dug-out. About three o'clock that night, I'd just turned in when I saw him get up. He carefully put on his gas-mask, his belt, his revolver, map case, compass, and field glasses. I was so surprised that I asked him if he was going round the line.

'Oh, no, no,' he said, 'I'm only just going to the water-closet.' We must get rid of him Little old Ardagh is furious with him. He was up in the line all day, running about looking at shells."

While he talked there was a sudden stir. A few men rose, others woke and joined them, collecting in a mob round a khaki figure with a camera. Pickel-haubes, German helmets, Teutonic forage caps, leaf-shaped bayonets, automatics, were produced from haversacks. The faces which ten minutes earlier had seemed those of dying men were now alight with excited amusement. "Come on, come an' have your picture took," echoed from man to man; and amid much cheering, the official press was obliged with a sitting.

I sat down with Blake and Sidney Adler, near the crest of the slope. From here we looked down over the clustered red huddle of Albert. The front line was perhaps three thousand yards forward, yet the slope was thick with the infantry of four or five divisions. The enemy could not see over the crest without balloon or aeroplane observation, and no balloon could stay in the sky. Our aeroplanes were now strong enough to see to that. In between the lumps of infantry British 18-pounders and French 75's, tucked into shallow emplacements, were cracking and banging. A 60-pounder at the side of the road stirred the dust into whorles at each discharge; horses passing by shied and fled up the hill. There was a dressing-station by our side to which Ford ambulances came and went unceasingly and unhurriedly. Once or twice German shells fired blindly exploded on the road.

In the morning sun every figure, every stunted tree, was illuminated with a clarity of outline as in a Manet picture. The round white rumps of men seated on latrines facing the town added points of light to the drab tints of the worn grass, the baked leaves and the dusty, creamy track. The crowd shifted and heaved. But for the guns spitting and flashing and the half-naked men, it might have been Parliament Hill on an August Bank Holiday. Notre-Dame-des-Brebiéres clung tenaciously by her toes to the ruddy campanile. She was not yet to fall.

Blake's face was slack and haggard, but not from weariness. He greeted me moodily, and then sat silent, abstracted in some distant perplexity.

“What's the matter, Terence ?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. . . . Nothing. . . . At least . . . Look here, we took a lot of prisoners in those trenches yesterday morning. Just as we got into their line, an officer came out of a dugout. He'd got one hand above his head, and a pair of field-glasses in the other.”

He held the glasses out to S. you know, that ex-sailor with the Messina earthquake medal-and said, 'Here you are, sergeant, I surrender.' S said, 'Thank you, sir,' and took the glasses with his left hand. At the same moment he tucked the butt of his rifle under his arm and shot the officer straight through the head. What the hell ought I to do?"

He tore a withered blade of grass out of the ground, and chewed it angrily, his eyes roving over the barren landscape. I thought hard for a minute.

“I don't see that you can do anything," I answered slowly.

"What can you do? Besides, I don't see that S's really to blame. He must have been half mad with excitement by the time he got into that trench. I don't suppose he ever thought what he was doing. If you start a man killing, you can't turn him off again like an engine. After all, he is a good man. He was probably half off his head." It wasn't only him. Another did exactly the same thing."

"Anyhow, it's too late to do anything now. I suppose you ought to have shot both on the spot. The best thing now is to forget it."

“I dare say you're right."

He got up and moved stiffly away. I turned to Adler, who was carefully powdering his feet. He was bubbling over with cheerfulness. Late on the previous night, Nos. 3 and 4 had been pushed forward suddenly to take a line of trenches vaguely spoken of as lying a few hundred yards ahead. Either because the actual objective had been blotted out and the trench they eventually reached was past the one against which the attack was directed, or because our artillery was firing short, the gutter in which they eventually settled was being whipped by English shrapnel. They stood it for two hours, and then after messages had failed to stop the gun-fire they were ordered to come back to the starting-point. They brought back the dead and wounded through a storm of low-burst shrapnel, quick flame and hailing bullets.

There was already a change in the battalion. In the first place, there had come to the men, now that they were awakened and had shaken out of them their first drugged nervous slumber, a new confidence, almost a jauntiness. They had come through their first battle successfully; they were all right. Secondly, between those who had been in the show and those who had not, there was a gulf fixed. It may have been due to a certain delicacy on the part of the latter; but the gulf existed.

There was enough to occupy one in Albert with the constant stream of messengers coming to and fro, the melancholy business of the casualty lists, next-of-kin, sorting out these humble parcels of the personal effects of the dead, the creased, greasy letters, addressed to No.6494 Private Smith, On Active Service, B.E.F., the knick-knacks and trifles. There were letters to be returned. One addressed to Leader in a sloping French hand I put on one side. I had seen these before. I had to tear the envelope to discover the address and saw the first passionate lines. Strange that my ugly, stolid little friend should inspire such. I thought of him looking at me over a mug of hot milk and rum at stand-to in the dead of winter, and with a grin of his terrier mouth croaking, "Chin-chin. Happy days." I stumbled an hour over the appropriate letter.

Three nights later the battalion went up again, this time in support. By now we knew that our division had been split up, and the infantry loaned right and left. Our whole brigade replaced four broken battalions of the Fifth Fusiliers in the 34th Division, whose general was described as a fire-eater. The area was hotting up. The enemy had succeeded in getting observation over the ridge and had seen enough to justify him in shelling' both sides of the road freely. One of our officers had been very slightly wounded in the hand. From the dressing station he was carried away on an ebb tide of wounded and before we knew of his wound was in England. Adler fell into a trench while leading a carrying party and broke his collar bone. Our street in Albert was becoming uncommonly nasty. 5.9's would scream down out of the hot sky, smashing among the flimsy brick houses. The water main, cut by a shell, burst into a dusky fountain a hundred yards from our door. Fairburn shook his head and decided that the stores would be more conveniently situated with the transport. I missed his company and felt unhappy at night alone in my cock-loft when the shells came over.

The sordid street never slept. The noise of wheels was ceaseless. Up and down, all day and all night, passed lorries, limbers, G.S. wagons, ammunition columns, ambulances. At the sides marched weary infantrymen stupefied with battle, dragging their feet as they came out to rest. Over it hovered and sank stagnant dust from road, broken brick, dried paint, stirred into lifeless movement by the wheels, only to fall back. Through it all the yellow smell of garbage, and beyond the guns thud-thudding, bruising the tired air. The 2nd S.W.B., short sturdy Welsh miners, occupied houses all round us. One platoon was billeted on the first floor next door. They sang choruses in fine deep voices; the tone was beautiful, but they sang all day and half the night, and at that one song. It had a refrain which sounded like "Hop along, sister Mary, hop along."

I also suffered another disillusionment. The bed on which I camped was, I discovered too late, infested. I was lousy.

Hordes of minor parasites ran about my body, in and out of the seams of my breeches. In vain I attempted to hunt out the tribe by hand. It required a Briareus to deal with the plague in this fashion. I surrendered and hoped I might one day see my kit again.

In the meantime the battalion near Contalmaison Wood was enduring pertinacious shelling and constant casualties. Each morning a list came down with a fervent appeal from Cuth to send up every man who returned from leave or a course. The big guard of half a company under Amberton had already come back. So, too, had Ned Kelly, a Punch-faced elderly subaltern with a row of ribbons from previous wars. His words were a sharp chirrup, precise as a thrush's. Borrowing a steel hat and a gas-mask he went up the line with a mackintosh over his arm and a little swagger cane, as cheerful as if he were going to a city dinner. He reached the battalion in time to join in one of the ghastly mistakes which break soldiers' hearts. A big attack on Pozieres had been ordered. One of our battalions had already made an effort against this stronghold. The few who got as far as the orchards had been killed by machine guns.

To-day the Rifle Brigade were to take part in a big encircling assault at 11 a.m., and the 13th were to support them. At the last moment the plan was cancelled; but the message reached neither battalion. So at zero they started with their flanks in the air and no protecting artillery. At once every German gun covering that section was concentrated on them. The Rifle Brigade struggled forward in the teeth of the storm, half-way to their objective. By that time their colonel and their second-in-command had been wounded, and all four company commanders killed. The attack withered away and stopped in a sunken road. Behind them the i3th moved forward a hundred yards, and seeing the catastrophe in front, lay down. For an hour they endured a barrage in the open: then the news of the cancelling of the attack reached them, and Major Ardagh, who led, ordered them to fall back to their jumping-off line. The casualties were heavy. Williamson was severely wounded, and Blake, while both the sergeants whose conduct in the earlier attack had made him bite his nails, were dead. That afternoon I received a further urgent call for men from the adjutant. While I was reading it, Leader's Tumbull reported. His expression was worn and anxious.

“What am I to do, sir ?”

"I'm afraid you must report to the company, Turnbull. I'm sorry. Every available man has got to go. I'd like to keep you. But you see..."

A docile resignation crept into his face. "I suppose so, sir."

At that instant there was a terrific explosion immediately overhead. Turnbull yelped and crouched. The hanging lamp over the table hovered for an instant and then crashed down. Bits of hard substance went banging into the floor, and about the walls. There was a yell from the street, followed by shouts of " Stretcher bearers, stretcher bearers." The passage was filled with dust and the stairs choked with debris. I ran out into the street. The shell had hit the roof exactly at the junction of the two houses. Screams and groans were echoing from next door. S.W.B. stretcher bearers ran up the street. From the wreckage of the upper storey they pulled out two-and-twenty Welshmen, unconscious, pale and shocked. The orderly room emerged from the basement with self-conscious grins. My batman led me upstairs to look at the damage. Both rooms were wrecked and the contents of my pack tossed hither and thither among the fallen plaster. A pair of scissors had been neatly cut in two. I reflected on the prescience which had induced Fairburn to seek more pastoral surroundings. It was his hour for a nap, and the shell would have burst over his head. In the turmoil, Tumbull had disappeared.

I slept on the floor of the office that night. Next morning's runner from the line grinned when he saw me. "We was laughing up there," he said, "to hear orderly room 'ad been done in." I glanced down the casualty reports. One name stood out above all the others: "No. . . . Pte. Turnbull, 3 Co.

On the night of 20th July, the battalion was relieved. That afternoon I removed the orderly room to the transport lines. My first action was to strip, walk naked into the middle of a small patch of standing corn, and drop my garments among the wheat. No doubt by the time the harvester found them they would be clean. Next morning we trudged solemnly back to Bresle. On the way an ambulance passed us. In it was one man with a bandaged foot. I caught his eye and waved a hand. Turnbull answered me with a melancholy grin as he was swept past the dusty, depleted companies. I have no doubt that those entirely efficient generals and staff officers on whose manner I should have modelled myself, would have reprehended so gross a failure in discipline. Yet I could not do otherwise. I had known Turnbull for a year. He had served - I might almost say, had shielded - an intimate friend through troubles and stresses. Perhaps with Leader's death something cracked in him. The loyalty to one man had been too concentrated, and with his end, it died, leaving him with no other creed. Into the vacuum rushed the need for escape. A bullet fired deliberately at the foot was the only way out. Perhaps those who called this man a coward will consider the desperation to which he was driven, to place his rifle against the foot, and drive through the bones and flesh the flames of the cordite and the smashing metal.

Let me hope that the court-martial's sentence was light. Not that it matters, for, in truth, the real sentence had been inflicted long ere it sat.


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