from ‘the War Illustrated’ 16th September, 1916
'Caught in a Sea of Fire'
Told by the Rank and File


Thrilling Story of the Defence of Poziéres Ridge

from 'the War Illustrated'

left : illustration by Stanley Wood
right : a flame-thrower in action


I MISSED the beginning of the "big push," being in hospital in Blighty when it commenced, but I managed to get, into the captured German trenches soon after Poziéres village had been taken. We relieved a crowd of the Sussex men who had been through it all, and they looked as if they required relieving.

The first night out it was quite all right, for we had a splendid firework display, watching the Boches getting it "in the neck" from our artillery,. But later on we got a warm corner all on our very own, and we had all our work cut out to hold on to the ground the other and luckier chaps had taken.

I was posted in a tree to watch the enemy's movements as well as I could, and I carried a field telephone combination transmitter and receiver with me. For about an hour nothing happened; then I saw a crowd of Germans come over the top of their own trenches and advance towards our lads.

“There's about forty Germans coming this way," I reported through the telephone. The officer at the other end acknowledged the message, and told me to stay where I was for a bit, and report again.

But shortly afterwards I noted something that I'd missed before, and that was the flame -throwers the foremost Germans were carrying.

I shouted - “Hallo ! Hallo !" through the telephone, and I could hear the fellow at the other end cursing me for disturbing him. But my news disturbed him still more, and sent him off at the run to report.

Flammenwerfer at Work

"These Fritzes have got Flammenwerfer," was all I said. "Tell the officer I'm coming down out of this."

He did, at the run, but before I got down the old buzzer close to my car went off again.

"Stop where you are and report," was the order once more ; and though I knew I was looking for all sorts of trouble, I stopped. And I was rewarded for it, as it turned out.

Between our chaps and the famethrowers was an empty trench, which nobody had been able to hold because both German and British guns had the range to an inch, and strafed it impartially. ours, however, had left it alone for some time, though the Huns occasionally dropped a shell or two across to let us know they hadn't forgotten it altogether.

Well, the German soldiers advanced till they were within ten yards of this trench ; then they halted and I could see them getting ready to squirt. They must have been working under orders, for with appalling suddenness a score of white and yellow jets of fire darted up into the air, to fall plumb into the deserted trench. The smoke that rose was thick and dense, but I managed to get a glimpse of the Germans flat on the ground, and I telephoned all the sights I saw, and all the little things I noticed, to our own lines.

Our captain was at the other end of the wire. “That's very good news," he said, “By the way," - as cool as a cucumber, he was giving me a day's leave, "you'd better come down out of that tree and into the trench-it's going to be pretty warm up there in a minute or two."

I knew what was coming - our guns were going to commence firing - and I slithered down and across that fifty yards of open ground like a rabbit. A couple of snipers tried to score inners on me, but they were bad shots.

Living Torches-Dying Horribly

I'd scarcely got under cover before the shells came - "millions " of them. As they whistled and screamed I remembered Captain Bairnsfather's picture of the two old soldiers with the shells flying close and thick over their heads, and laughed at the remembrance.

But the sight ahead soon checked that laugh. I got a dim idea of what hell must be like. Our gunners had the range to an inch, and they simply poured shells over. Shrapnel shell burst about thirty yards ahead, and you could hear the leaden balls shrieking as they tore onwards ; lyddite tinged the burning liquid a dull yellow, and asphyxiated every man within forty yards.

The Germans broke and ran as the shells struck their Flammenwerfer, but it was impossible to escape. The ground was a sea of fire, with the blazing stuff spurting up in fountains where the shells struck and burst. The Germans were simply living torches, dying horribly. One chap didn't even attempt to run - I believe he was too paralysed with fear. He spun round slowly like a top, his clothes all aflame, till he fell into a pool of fire. Others rolled along the ground, squirming and screaming in mortal agony. I thought that they'd have had a quick death, but, in spite of the guns booming, the shells bursting, and the crackle of rifle fire on both flanks, you could hear those horrible screams.

Strangely enough, though the British soldiers are not at all vindictive as a rule, there wasn't an atom of pity for those Huns. You can't pity anybody who is dying by the same sort of death he was trying to inflict upon yourself.

When our guns lifted a bit, we saw that behind the curtain of flame and smoke: a German regiment had been advancing in close order, evidently intending to attack us as soon as the fire was extinct. But the sight had shocked them horribly, and they broke and ran as soon as our machine-guns on the flank opened fire, taking cover in the woods. The machine-guns sprayed them with bullets all the way, and lots of them rolled over, dead and wounded.


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