- 'My Story of the War So Far'
- from the book 'The Battles of the Somme '
- by Philip Gibbs
Introduction - The Coming of the New Armies
British officers taking afternoon tea behind the front-lines
In this book I have put together the articles which I have written day by day for more than three months, since that first day of July 1916 when hundreds of thousands of British troops rose out of the ditches held against the enemy for nearly two years of trench warfare, advanced over open country upon the most formidable system of defences ever organized by great armies, and began a series of battles as fierce and bloody as anything the old earth has seen on such a stretch of ground since the beginning of human strife.
Before July 1 I had an idea of writing a book about all that I had seen for nearly eighteen months, since I abandoned the hazardous game of a free-lance in the war-zones of France and Belgium (to me those were the great and wonderful days) and became officially accredited as a correspondent with the British armies in the field. I had seen a good deal in the trenches and behind the lines--nearly all there was to see--of stationary warfare from Ypres to the Somme, and enough to understand with every nerve in my body not only the abomination of this doom which put fine sensitive men into dirty mudholes and sinister ruins, in exile from the comforts and beauty and decency of life, under the continual menace of death or mutilation, but also the valour of great numbers of simple souls who hated it all and yet endured it with a queer gaiety, and laughed even while they cursed its beastliness, and resigned themselves to its worst miseries like Christian martyrs with a taste for beer and the pictures of the "vie parisienne."
I had seen, and suffered from, the boredom of this stationary warfare- -an intolerable boredom it is, demoralizing to men whose imaginations demand something brighter and more varied than a glimpse through the sandbags at the same old fringe of broken tree, the same old ruined house, the same old line of chalky trenches, from which death may come at any moment by rifle-grenade, sniper's bullet, or whizz-bang--which is not an exciting form of death giving men the thrill of dramatic moments before they drop. Even in this danger there was no cure for the deadening monotony after the first few days of new experience. It was just another part of the dirty business, and, for men of nerves, a nagging apprehensive thought, varied by moments of cold, horrible fear.
Behind the lines, on supply columns, at railheads, in billets, in squalid villages of Flanders and Picardy with their rows of miserable estaminets and evil-smelling farmyards, Boredom, monstrous and abominable, sat like a witch-hag on the shoulders of many men, divorced from the interests of their old home life, from their women- folk, from the reasonable normal routine of peaceful careers. Discipline and duty had taken the place of personal ambitions and the joy of life, and they are cold virtues, very comfortless. Artists, actors, barristers, writers, sportsmen, and men who had found good fun in youth and the wide world, or some corner of it, found themselves as officers on supply columns, R.T.O.'s, D.A.D.O.S.'s, and in other administrative jobs, condemned to a drudgery melancholy in its limitations and apparently interminable. To many of them their area of activity was confined between one squalid village and another, and the chance of a stray shell or of an aeroplane bomb did not really brighten up the scene.
They fought against this desolation of mind valiantly--and it wanted valour--forced themselves to get absorbed in the minute details of their work, sent for the old banjo from home, organized canteens, smoking concerts, boxing matches, cultivated cheeriness as the first law of daily life until it became a second nature, beneath which the first nature only obtruded at night when they went back to sleep in their billets and before sleeping cried out in a kind of agony, "How long is this going on?--this Insanity, this waste of life, this unnatural, damned existence!
The fighting men had all the danger and, on the whole, were less dull during the long period of stationary warfare. They too cultivated cheerfulness as the first law of daily life, and it was a harder job, yet they succeeded wonderfully in spite of the filthy trenches, the rats and vermin, the ice-cold water in which they waded up to the front line during the long months of a Flemish winter (beginning in October and ending--perhaps--in April), the trench-feet which for a time--until rubbing-drill was adopted--drained the strength of many battalions, and the enemy's shell-fire and mining activities which took a daily toll of life and limbs. Many of them found a gruesome humour in all this, laughed at death as a low comedian, guffawed if they dodged its knock-about tricks by the length of a traverse, and did not go very sick if it laid out their best pal. "You know, sir, it doesn't do to take this war seriously." So said a sergeant to me as we stood in a trench beyond our knees in water. It was a great saying, and I saw the philosophy which had kept men sane. Without laughter, somehow, anyhow, by any old joke, we should have lost the war long ago. The only way to avoid deadly depression was to keep smiling.
And so for laughter's sake and to keep normal in abnormal ways of life there was a great unconscious conspiracy of cheerfulness among officers and men, and the most popular man in a platoon was the fellow who could twist a joke out of a dead German, or the subaltern who could lead a patrol into No Man's Land with men chuckling over some whimsical word about his widow, or the comic corporal who could play ragtime tunes on a comb and tissue-paper. Behind the lines there were variety theatres in old warehouses ventilated by shell-holes, packed by muddy men just out of the trenches, who found it difficult to laugh for the first half-hour and then roared with laughter at funny fellows dressed as Mrs. Twankey, or Charlie Chaplin, or the red-nosed comic turn who satirized "brass hats" and the Army Safety Corps and Kaiser Bill, and the effect of a 17-inch shell in the neighbourhood of Private Spoofkins, V.C.
Discipline and hard work helped men to forget the voice that called back to the days of individual liberty and peace. There was always something to do up in the trenches, building up the parapets which in the Salient slipped down after every rain-storm, wiring, revetting, digging new communication-trenches (under the enemy's machine- gun fire), keeping German heads down by sniping every head that came up, between the stand-to at dusk and dawn. After the relief in the trenches--getting out was the risky job--there was not much rest in the rest camps, what with parades, bombing schools, bayonet drill, machine-gun courses, and practice at the rifle-range. "I'd rather be in the blinkin' trenches again," groused the tired Tommy. "Oh, you'll soon be back again, my lad," said the sergeant. "Yet another week of your bright young life."
It was the youngest men who were most cheerful--young officers especially, just down from the Universities or the Public Schools. Life was beginning for them, and even here in the dirty ditches they found the thrill of life, the splendour of life, the beauty of life. They found it splendid to command men, to win their trust, to "make good" with them. The comradeship with fellow-officers, the responsibility of their rank, the revelation of their own manhood and of their own courage-- they had been afraid of failing in pluck--and their professional interest in their jobs as gunners or sappers or bombers, whatever they might be, were great rewards for the dirt and the danger. I saw many of these boys in places where death lay in wait for them, and they had shining eyes and strode along cheerily, talking proudly of some little "stunt" they had done with their men, and not worrying about the menace overhead. It was all "topping" to them, until the strain began to tell. The ideals of the Public Schools, the old traditional ideals of British boyhood--"Dulce et decorum est . . ." "Play the game," "Floreat Etona," or whatever the old school motto of chivalry and service might be--inspired them and made a little white flame of enthusiasm in their hearts at which their spirit warmed itself when the body was very cold and everything comfortless. One by one many of them were soon picked off by German snipers or laid out by German shells, but others came out, and others, in an endless procession of splendid boyhood, still "to play the game." With them came new battalions of men, whistling and singing along the roads of France.
I saw the first Territorial Divisions come out, and then the first of the "Kitchener crowd," and gradually, month after month, the building up of the New Army. The Old Army, that little Regular army which fought on the retreat from Mons to the Marne and then upon the Aisne, and then had swung up into Flanders to bar the way to Calais--was gone for ever and was no more than an heroic memory. In the first Battle of Ypres and the second they had done all that human nature could do, and the fields were strewn with their dead until only a pitiful remnant held the lines of that salient against which the enemy had hurled himself in massed attacks supported by tremendous artillery. Battalions had been wiped out, divisions had been cut to pieces.
A year ago a battalion commander told me that he was one out of only 150 officers belonging to the original Expeditionary Force still serving in the trenches--and a year is a long time in such a war as this. I met men who had passed unscathed through all of that, but there were not many of them. The regiments remained, but they were filled up with new drafts. The old traditions remained, fostered by the old soldiers here and there, and by officers who know the value of tradition, but they were new men and new armies who were beginning to crowd the roads of France and to straighten the lines of defence. They were the lads who had been called to the colours by the shouts of the street placards: "Your King and Country need you," "What did you do, daddy, in the Great War? (I could not print the outrageous answers I have heard to that little simple question!) and "What will your best girl say if you don't wear khaki?
They had been called by quieter and nobler voices also, speaking to their hearts above the clicking of typewriters in city offices and the whirr of machinery in great workshops and in the silence of the fields where they followed the plough. It was an army of amateurs hastily drilled, hastily trained, knowing very little of the real business of war, but quick to learn and full of pluck. They were led for the most part by temporary officers "for the period of the war only," with a few old "dug- outs" among them and some old non-commissioned officers to stiffen them. The Germans jeered at them--not the enemy in the trenches but the enemy in hostile newspaper offices. " What can this rabble of amateurs do? they asked. The answer was kept waiting for a little while.
The New Armies were learning. They were bearing the hardships, the cruelties, the brutalities of war, and had to suffer and "stick" them. They were learning the craft of modern warfare in trenches, mine- shafts, and saps, behind field-guns and "heavies," and they had to pay for their lessons by blood and agony. I went to see the New Armies learning their lesson in frightful places. Always the worst place was the Ypres Salient, where the enemy had the advantage of ground and observation, so that he could shoot at our men from three points of the compass and even hit them in the back. The names of all these places in the Salient are a litany of death--Pilkem, Potije, Hooge, Zillebeke, Vlamertinghe, Sanctuary Wood--and Hooge was the concentration-ground of all that was devilish. Dead bodies were heaped there, buried and unburied. Men dug into corruption when they tried to dig a trench. Men sat on dead bodies when they peered through their periscopes. They ate and slept with the stench of death in their nostrils. Below them were the enemy's mine-shafts; beyond them were our own mine-shafts. It was a competition in blowing up the tumbled earth, and men fought like devils with bombs and bayonets over mine-craters which had buried another score or so of men. The story of Hooge was a serial carried on from week to week, but the place was only one of our little schools of war for bright young men.
Always the City of the Salient--the ghost-city of Ypres--stood as a memorial of death, and of that dreadful day in April of 1915 when the enemy first discharged his poison-gas, flung a storm of great shells into the streets and strewed them and the fields around with dead men, dead horses, and dead women. I had been first into Ypres in March, when the beauty of its Cloth Hall and of all its churches and of its quaint old houses was untouched. The Grande Place was full of cheerful English soldiers chaffing the Flemish girls at their booths and stalls, buying picture post cards and souvenirs in the shops, and strolling into the Cloth Hall to stare at the painted frescoes and the richness of its medival decorations. I had tea with a party of officers in a bun-shop facing the Cathedral. . . . When I went into Ypres again, a few weeks later, there was a great hole where the bun-shop had been and only litters of stone and brickwork where the soldiers had bought their picture post cards, and the Grande Place was a desert about the tragic ruins of the great Cloth Hall and Cathedral, which were but skeletons in stone with broken arches, broken pillars, broken walls standing gaunt above great piles of masonry.
The Horror had come, when suddenly on the breath of the wind a poisonous cloud stole into the city, and there was a wild stampede of people choking and gasping, terror-stricken, black in the face with the struggle to breathe. British soldiers and Indian soldiers joined the flight of the people of Ypres in a wild turmoil through the streets. Many of them fell and died on the way. A dispatch-rider rode the other way, towards the poison cloud. He had a message to carry to the lines beyond. The gas caught him in the throat and he fell off his motor- cycle and lay dead, while his machine went on until it crashed into a wall. Then the storm of shells burst over the city, flinging down houses, tearing great holes in them, and lighting great bonfires which blazed high, so that from a distance Ypres was one flaming torch. . . . There were people who could not get away, poor women and children who were caught in their cellars. One woman lay ill and could not be moved. An officer of the R.A.M.C. promised to get back to her if he could get an ambulance through the fires and shells. Late in the evening he found her in a field two miles away with a new-born baby by her side. A young French officer stayed with a crowd of wounded all huddled in an underground drain-pipe and tried to bandage them and keep them alive till other help came. For four days they could not move out of the hole, so that it was pestilential. Two little wounded girls lay there among the dead and dying. One of them, with eyes strangely bright, talked continually in a voice preternaturally clear, sharp and metallic, without intonation. She was a Flemish child, but again and again she spoke three words of French: "Moi, morte demain. . . . Moi, morte demain." She died in the arms of the young Frenchman. "I am astonished that I did not go mad," says the young Baron de Rosen, remembering these hours.
In the summer of 1915 I went into Ypres several times, and always the sinister horror of the place put its spell upon me. I spent a night there with a friend--a strange, fantastic night, when shells came whirring overhead, falling with heavy crashes into the ruins. Beyond, the line of the Salient was outlined by the white light of flares. In abandoned dug-outs were wild cats who spat at me when I peered in. A lonely sentry--poor boy!--had the jim-jams and saw ghosts about; and truly Ypres should be full of ghosts if they walk o' nights--the ghosts of all the men who have been buried alive here under the fallen masonry, and have been killed here by shells which have dug enormous craters in the roadways. One day two German aeroplanes flung down bombs as I stood in the Grande Place staring at its desolation. I was amazed to know how quickly I found a hole under a wall which I had not seen before. . . . Ypres was never a safe place, and in the minds of many thousands of British soldiers who once passed through its ruins it is etched as one of the ghastly pictures of war.
All through 1915 we had in France not an army of attack but an army of defence. This was not properly realized by the people at home, by our Allies, or by some of our generals. There were demands for attack before we had enough men or enough guns or enough ammunition. It was a tragedy that we had to make several attacks without a real chance of success. Neuve Chapelle was one of them. Loos was another, more formidable and brilliantly carried out as far as Hill 70 by the 15th (Scottish) Division and the 47th (London Territorial) Division, supported on their left by the 9th (Scottish) Division and co- operating with a strong French attack on the right along the Vimy Ridge, but unable to inflict as much damage upon the enemy as we suffered in the assault and the following days when the Guards attacked at Hulluch.
It was the first great bombardment of ours I had seen, though I had seen many small ones since an attack on Wytschaete in March of 1915, and was the first time when we showed any real strength in massed artillery, but we did not support the first assault with strong reserves, tactical blunders were made, and the enemy was able to rally after some hours of panic, when their gunners began to move away from Lens and we had a great chance. The disappointment came very quickly upon one's first hopes, but to me the memory of Lops is the revelation of the astounding courage of those men of the London, the Scottish, and the Guards Divisions who proved the mettle of the New Armies (for even most of the Guards were new men) and went into battle with a high-spirited valour which could not have been surpassed by the old Regulars. The Scots were played on by their pipers. The London men played mouth-organs, dribbled a football--as every one knows--all the way to Loos, and sang "Who's Your Lady Friend? amidst the crash of shell-fire.
So now there were other classrooms in the school of war--the Hohenzollern Redoubt, Hulluch, Loos, and other hot spots in that broad, flat, barren, villainous plain pimpled by black slag-heaps-- Fosse 8 and Fosse 14 bis--which one approached through miles of communication-trenches under the whirring of many shells. I went to these places when the battle was on, and afterwards. Quite a long way away from them there were spots where one hated to linger, and through which one had to pass to get to the battlefields. Noyelles-les- Vermelles was one of them, and I had some nasty hours there when I went for afternoon tea with some officers and found the enemy searching for that house with four-inch shells, which knocked out three gunners in the back yard just as I arrived, and killed some horses as I walked across the field between the bursting crumps-- there was a blue sky overhead and fleecy clouds and a golden sunshine--to a hall door where a number of young men were expecting death--disliking it exceedingly, but chatting about trivial things with occasional laughter which did not ring quite true. Vermelles was another of them, and I never went without foreboding into that village of ruins where the French had fought like tigers from garden to garden and house to house before the capture of the château--do you remember how they fought on the ground floor with the Germans above and below them, until the first-floor ceiling gave way and Germans came through and a young French lieutenant swung a marble Venus round his head in the midst of a writhing mob of men clutching at each other's throats? Shells made smaller dust day by day of all these rubbish-heaps and bigger holes in the standing walls. The smell of poison-gas reeked from the bricks and the litter. Other smells lurked about like obscene spectres. At any moment of the day or night death might come here, and did, without warning. . . .
Higher up one felt safer in the winding ditches leading to the front lines. But it was the ostrich sense of safety. One had only to mount a sandbag and glance over the side of the trench to see how the enemy's "crumps" were flinging up fountains of earth in all directions. They came whining with their high gobbling note overhead. Dead bodies lay about. Up in the front trenches, by Hulluch and the Hohenzollern, men lived always close to mine-shafts which might open the earth beneath them at any moment and bury them or hurl them high. There were bombing fights on the lips of the shell-craters. In some places a few yards only separated British soldiers and German soldiers. They fought with each other in saps. It was another Hooge.
I was only a looker-on and reporter of other men's courage and sacrifice--a miserable game, rather wearing to the nerves and spirit. There were many places to visit along the front, and although they were not places where it is agreeable to pass a few hours for amusement's sake, there was an immense interest in these peep- shows of war where one saw the real thing and the spirit of it all and the ugliness, and the simple heroism of the men there. "Plug Street" was the elementary training school for many of the new divisions, with a touch of Arcadia in its woods in spite of the snipers' bullets which came "zip-zip" through the branches and the brushwood fringes along the outer walks, past which one had to creep warily lest watchful eyes should see one and stop one dead. A fairly safe place "Plug Street" was supposed to be, but men were killed there all right-- each time I went I saw a dead body carried down one of the glades-- and at Hyde Park Corner, on the edge of it, a colleague of mine was hit in the stomach by the nose of a shell, and here I first heard the voice of "Percy," a high-velocity fellow who kills you before you know he is coming.
Then there was Kemmel and its neighbourhood for an afternoon's adventure any time one liked to be brave or felt, inclined to look down into the German trenches from Hill 65, which gave a very fine view of them, up above Kemmel village, strafed into a miserable huddle of ruins and damnably sinister about the deep shell-craters and the overthrown crosses in a wrecked churchyard. I went there one day in a snowstorm, and coming back out of its desolation--where plucky young men lived with their guns and wondered now and then, at their mess-table in a broken barn, whose number would be written up next--saw a man in full evening dress without an overcoat and with a bowler-hat upon his head, walking in a leisurely way through the snowflakes and past the churchyard with its opened graves. A fantastic figure to meet on a battlefield, but not madder than many things in this mad dream which is war.
Up in the trenches at Neuve Chapelle, beyond the ruins of Croix Barbée, there were bits of open country across which one had to sprint between one trench and another because of German machine- guns trained upon them day and night. I ran across them on Christmas Day to wish good luck to some country boys who were sitting in puddles below the fire-step and chatting with grave irony about peace on earth, goodwill to men, and the Christmas stockings-- waders, really--which they had hung up outside their dug-outs to see how the trick would work in war-time. It hadn't worked, and they groused against Santa Claus and laughed at this little joke of theirs to hide the sentiment in their hearts.
Festubert and Givenchy, Armentières and Houplines, were other familiar places which one approached through ruins before getting into the ditches where the British Army was learning its lessons. Then as the armies grew the British line was lengthened and we took over from the French, from Hébuterne to Vaux-sur-Somme, and afterwards, in February, when the Germans began their great attack upon Verdun, from the Vimy Ridge to the south of Arras. There was plenty of room here for the new Divisions who were coming out to learn, and plenty of practical object-lessons in the abominable business of war. We learnt a lot of French geography, and dozens of small villages unknown before to history are now famous among British soldiers as places where they lived under daily shell-fire, where they escaped death by the queerest flukes, or where they were hit at last after a thousand escapes.
Sailly-au-Bois was a village on the way to Hébuterne. A charming little place it must have been once, with quaint old cottages and a market square. When I went there first the Germans disliked it, plugged shells into most of the houses and into one where a number of Sussex gentlemen were sitting down to lunch. It spoilt their meal for them and made a new entrance through the dining-room wall. Beyond the village was the road to Hébuterne. It led through open fields and past a belt of trees less than a thousand yards away, where the Germans lay watching behind their rifle-barrels. But the French had made a friendly little arrangement. If an open car crawled down slowly the Germans did not snipe. If it were a covered car, presumably a General's, or went fast, they had the right to shoot. Queer, though it seemed to work. But I was always glad to get the length of that road and to find some cover in the fortress-village of Hébuterne, with its deep dug-outs, proof against the lighter kind of shells. The Germans had been here first and had dug in with their usual industry. Then the French had turned them out after ferocious fighting--there are many French graves there in the Orchard and in the trenches, and a little altar still kept in good order by British soldiers to Notre-Dame-des-Tranchées; they had gone on digging and strengthening the place, and when our men took over the ground they continued the fortifications, so that it was a model of defensive work. But the Germans shelled it with method, and it was safer below ground than above. In the Orchard young fruit of life fell before it had ripened, and I did not like to linger there among the apple-trees.
The taking over of Arras and its neighbourhood down from the Vimy Ridge to Souchez, Ablain-St.-Nazaire, La Targette, Neuville-St.- Vaast--the very names make me feel cold--liberated a complete French army for the defence of Verdun, and it was our biggest service to France before the battles of the Somme.
I went into Arras and saw the despoiled beauty of this old city of Artois, silent and desolate, in its ruined gardens where white statues lay in the rank grass, except when shells opened great craters in the Grande Place or tore off a gable from one of the Spanish houses in the Petite Place, or came crashing into the wreckage of the railway station or knocked a few more stones out of the immense walls of the Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace, through which I wandered, gazing up long vistas of white ruin. In the suburbs of St.-Laurent and St.- Nicholas the enemy was very close across the garden walls, and in the Maison Rouge one had to tiptoe and talk in whispers by chinks in the wall (there was a rosewood piano in the front room), through which one could look at the enemy's sandbags a few yards away. Wrinkled old women and wan-faced girls lived still in the deep cellars of the city, coming up for a little sunlight when the air was quiet, and scuttling down again at the scream of a shell. In the dusk small boys roamed the broken streets, searched among the litter of stones for shrapnel-bullets for games of marbles (I once played such a game in a night at Ypres), and cocked a snook at German shells falling a street or two away. Our soldiers became familiar with all these places, strode through them with that curious matter-of-fact way of the British Tommy, who makes himself at home in hell-on-earth as though it were the usual thing, and in Souchez, Neuville-St.-Vaast, Ablain-St.- Nazaire, and on the ridge of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette held the lines in spite of five-point-nines, aerial torpedoes, every kind of high-explosive force which tried to blast them out. For miles the ground was strewn with "duds"--so that one had to pick one's way lest one should kick a fuse--and with the litter of men's clothes and bodies.
The months passed. Spring came, and nightingales sang in the bushes of old French châteaux and the woodpecker laughed in the forest glades; the fields were strewn with flowers, and the beauty of France sang a great song in one's heart. The wheat grew tall and green. And all this time the roads in the British war-zone were becoming more crowded with the traffic of men and horses and guns and lorries--miles of motor-lorries--as new Divisions came out, with belts and harness looking very fresh, making their way slowly forward to the firing-lines to learn their lesson like others who had gone before them. The billeting areas widened, became congested districts from Boulogne to the Somme. In Picardy and Artois there was khaki everywhere. In old market-places of St.-Omer, Bailleul, Béthune, St.- Pol, Hesdin, Fruges, Doullens, our Tommies jostled among the stalls and booths, among the old women and girls and blue-coated "poilus," making friends with them, learning a wonderful lingua franca, settling down into the queer life, which alternated between the trenches and the billets, as though it would last for ever.
The human picture changed. New types of men arrived and some of the old stagers departed. The Indian infantry also went, and the flat fields behind Neuve Chapelle, where the canals cut straight between the rushes, lost those grave, sad-eyed, handsome men who seemed like fairy-book princes to the French peasants, whose language they had learnt to speak with a courtesy, and with soft, simple manners which won the friendship of these people. In the winter trenches the Indians had shivered; in the dank mists across the flats they had wandered dolefully. They had fought gallantly under officers who sacrificed their own lives with noble devotion, but they hated modern shell-fire and all the misery of trench-warfare in a wet, cold climate, and were, I think, glad to go.
The Australians came, and for the first time we saw in France those bronzed, hatchet-faced, handsome fellows who brought a new character of splendid manhood into the medley of British types. The New Zealanders followed with Maoris among them. The Canadians were adding many new battalions to their strength. The South African Scottish sent more kilts swinging down the roads of war. There were Newfoundlanders, West Indians from Barbados. All the Empire was sending her men. For what?
That was the question which we were all asking. How and when were these men going to be used? The months were dragging on and there was no great attack. There had been savage fighting on a small scale up in the Salient at St.-Eloi and the Bluff. The Canadians lost ground under a sudden storm of shell-fire which flattened out their trenches, and retook it after bloody counter-attacks. The Vimy Ridge had seen heavy and costly fighting which gained nothing. All along the line there were raids into the enemy's trenches, but it was Red Indian warfare and not the big thing. France, after four months of desperate fighting at Verdun, asked when the English were going to strike. And British soldiers who had been in and out of the trenches, month after month, seeing heavy losses mount up by the usual daily toll, with nothing to show for them, began to despair a little. Was it going on for ever like this? This existence was intolerable. To sit in a trench and be shelled to death--what was the sense of it? At the mess-table there were men who found the world all black, the war a monstrous horror, an outrage to God and life. I had queer conversations with men in dugouts, in wooden huts under shell-fire, in French châteaux inhabited by British officers, and heard the secrets of men's souls, their protests against the doom that had enchained them, their perplexities, their strivings to find some spiritual meaning in the devilish appearance of things, their revolt against the brutality and senselessness of war, their ironic laughter at the bloody contrast between Christian teaching and Christian practice, their blind gropings for some light in all the darkness and damnation.
Then suddenly all changed. The "Big Push" was to come at last. Trench warfare was to end, and all this great army of ours in France was to get out of its ditches and out into the open and strike. Enormous hope took the place of the doubts and dolefulness that had begun to possess men of melancholy minds. It would be a chance of ending the business. At least we had the strength to deliver a smashing, perhaps a decisive, blow. All our two years of organization and training and building up would be put to the test, and the men were sure of themselves, confident in the new power of our artillery, which was tremendous, without a doubt in the spirit of attack which would inspire all our battalions. They would fight with the will to win.
So we came to July 1, that day so great in hope, in achievement, and in tragedy, and what happened then and for three and a half months of fighting days is told in the articles now printed in this book. I might have rewritten them, polished their style, put in new facts here and there, and written a narrative of history with a more considered judgment than was possible day by day. But I have thought it best to let them stand as they were written at great speed, sometimes in utter exhaustion of body and brain, but always with the emotion that comes from the hot impress of new and tremendous sensations. They may hold some qualities that would be lost if I wrote them with more coldness and criticism of words and phrases. Even the repetition of incidents and impressions have some value, for that is true of modern warfare--a continual repetition of acts and sounds, sights and smells and emotions.
The method of attack has become a formula--the intense preliminary bombardment almost annihilating the enemy's front trenches (but not all his dug-outs), the advance across No Man's Land under the enemy's curtain-fire, the rush over the enemy's broken parapets in the face of machine-gun fire the bombing-out of the dug-outs, the taking of prisoners. One captured "village" destroyed utterly by shell- fire days before the final attack upon its earth-works is exactly like another in its rubbish-heaps of bricks and woodwork. The pictures repeat themselves. Heroic acts--the knocking-out of a machine-gun, the bombing down a section of trench, the rescue of wounded--repeat themselves also through all the battles. In my chronicles these repetitions will be found, and the effect of them on the reader's mind should be the effect in a faint, far-off way of the real truth.
Some people imagine, and some critics have written, that the war correspondents with the armies in France have been "spoon-fed" with documents and facts given to them by General Headquarters, from which they write up their dispatches. They recognize the same incident, told in different style by different correspondents, and say, "Ah, that is how it is done! They are wrong. All that we get from the General Staff are the brief bulletins of the various army corps, a line or two of hard news about the capture or loss of this or that trench such as appears afterwards in the official communiqués. For all the details of an action we have to rely upon our own efforts in the actual theatre of operations day by day, seeing as much of the battle as it is possible to see (sometimes one can see everything and sometimes nothing but smoke and bursting shells), getting into the swirl and traffic of the battlefields, talking to the walking wounded and the prisoners, the men going in and the men coming out, going to the headquarters of brigades, divisions, and corps for exact information as to the progress of the battle from the generals and officers directing the operations, and getting into touch as soon as possible with the battalions actually engaged. All this is not as easy as it sounds. It is not done without fatigue, and mental as well as physical strain. It takes one into unpleasant places from which one is glad and lucky to get back. But we have full facilities for seeing and knowing the truth of things, and see more and know more of the whole battle- line than is possible even to Divisional Generals and other officers in high command. jror we have a pass enabling us to go to any part of the front at any time and get the facts and points of view from every class and rank, from the trenches to G.H.Q.
Because the correspondents sometimes tell the same stories it is because we tell them to each other, not believing in professional rivalry in a war of this greatness. Our only limitations in truth-telling are those of our own vision, skill, and conscience under the discipline of the military censorship. I have no personal quarrel with that censorship--though all censorship is hateful. After many alterations in method and principle it was exercised throughout the battles of the Somme (and for months before that, when there was no conspiracy of silence but only the lack of great events to chronicle) with a really broad-minded policy of allowing the British people to know the facts about their fighting men save those which would give the enemy a chance of spoiling our plans or hurting us. If there had been no censorship at all it would be impossible for an honourable correspondent to tell some things within his knowledge--our exact losses in a certain action, failures at this or that point of the line, tactical blunders which might have been made here or there, the disposition or movement of troops, the positions of batteries and observation-posts.
These are things which the enemy must not know. So I do not think that during the whole of the Somme fighting there was more than a line or two taken out of one or the other of my dispatches, and with the exception of those words they are printed as they were written. They tell the truth. There is not one word, I vow, of conscious falsehood in them. But they do not tell all the truth. I have had to spare the feelings of men and women who have sons and husbands still fighting in France. I have not told all there is to tell about the agonies of this war, nor given in full realism the horrors that are inevitable in such fighting. It is perhaps better not to do so, here and now, although it is a moral cowardice which makes many people shut their eyes to the shambles, comforting their souls with fine phrases about the beauty of sacrifice. One thing hurt me badly in writing my accounts and hurts me still. For military reasons I have not been permitted to give the names of all the troops engaged from day to day, but only a few names allowed by our Intelligence. The Germans were counting up our divisions, reckoning how many men we had in reserve, how many were against them in the lines. It was not for us to help them in this arithmetic. But it is hard on the men and on their people. They do not get that immediate fame and honour for their regiments which they have earned by the splendour of their courage and achievements. It is not my fault, for I would give all their names if I could, and tire out my wrist in praising them if it could give them a little spark of pleasure and pride. But, after all, each man who fought on the Somme shares the general honour which belongs to all of them.
The correspondents with the armies in the field do not prophesy or criticize or sit in judgment. That is not within our orders, and belongs to the liberty of writing-men who sit at home with their maps and the official bulletins and our dispatches from the front. "There is not one of these industrious men," writes a critic of our work, "who has had the experience to form a military judgment." Well, that is as may be, though we have had more experience of war than most men will have, I think, for another fifty years. In our own mess we are critics and prophets and judges, and I fancy we could give a point or two to the experts at home, and, with luck, later on, may do so. Now in the war-zone we are but chroniclers of the fighting day by day, trying to get the facts as fully as possible and putting them down as clearly as they appear out of the turmoil of battle. Even now in this Introduction I shall attempt no summing up of the results achieved by these battles of the Somme, except by saying that by enormous sacrifices, by individual courage beyond the normal laws of human nature as I thought I knew them once, by great efficiency in organization and a resolute purpose not checked or weakened by any obstacles, our troops broke through positions which the enemy believed, and had a right to believe, impregnable, carried by assault his first, second, and third systems of trenches, drew in his reserves with many guns and men from Verdun so that the French could counter-attack with brilliant success and inflicted upon the enemy heavy and irreparable loss which we hope and believe, though with imperfect knowledge, he cannot afford without weakening his line of defence on our own front and facing our Allies.
These hammer-strokes were not decisive in victory. I believe that the German strength of resistance and attack is still great. I do not see a quick ending of this most horrible massacre in the fields of Europe. But it was only the weather which stopped for a time our forward progress when at the end of October the rain-storms made all the battlefield a swamp and obscured the observation which our men had won by three months and a half of uphill fighting and desperate strife. Even then in the mud they took many more prisoners in heavy fighting up by the Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts which the enemy hated us to hold because of their dominating ground to the north of Thiépval--and then in the fog made that great, audacious attack on Beaumont-Hamel, which captured one of the strongest positions against our own front with over 6000 prisoners. Of that last attack I saw nothing, being home on sick-leave.
I must say a word or two about the Tanks. After the first great surprise, the exaltation of spirits caused by these new motor- monsters, there followed a disappointment in the public mind and even among our soldiers. Some of the infantry, poor lads, hoped that at last the enemy's deadly machine-gun fire would be killed by these things and that in future infantry attacks would be a walk-over behind the Tanks. That was hoping too much. It would require thousands of Tanks to do that and we had only a few. But I have the record of what each Tank did in action up to the middle of October, and it leaves no room for doubt that, balancing success with failure, these new machines of war have justified their inventors a hundred-fold. They saved many casualties at certain points of the line and helped to gain many important positions, as at Thiépval and Flers, Courcelette and Martinpuich. If we had enough of them--and it would be a big number- -trench warfare would go for ever and machine-gun redoubts would lose their terror.
The battles of the Somme--as we call this fighting, curiously, for on our side it is not very near the Somme--are not yet finished. As I write these words it is only a lull which seems to end them, and does end at least the first phase with which I deal in the pages that follow. They are pages written on the evenings of battle hastily and sometimes feverishly, after days of intense experience and tiring sensation. Yet there is in them and through them one passionate purpose. It is to reveal to our people and the world the high valour, the self-sacrificing discipline of soul, the supreme endurance of those men of ours who fought and suffered great agonies and died, and if not killed or wounded, came out to rest a little while and fight again, not liking it, you understand--hating it like the hell it is--but doing their duty, with a great and glorious devotion, according to the light that is in them.
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