- 'The First Day of the Somme'
- by Philip Gibbs
- from his book 'the Battles of the Somme' 1917
The Historic First Of July
from 'the War Illustrated' - photos of the Somme offensive
With the British Armies in the Field, July 1, 1916
The attack which was launched to-day against the German lines on a 20-mile front began well. It is not yet a victory, for victory comes at the end of a battle, and this is only a beginning. But our troops, fighting with very splendid valour, have swept across the enemy's front trenches along a great part of the line of attack, and have captured villages and strongholds which the Germans have long held against us. They are fighting their way forward not easily but doggedly. Many hundreds of the enemy are prisoners in our hands. His dead lie thick in the track of our regiments.
And so, after the first day of battle, we may say: It is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war, in which the blood of brave men is poured out upon the sodden fields of Europe.
For nearly a week now we have been bombarding the enemy's lines from the Yser to the Somme. Those of us who have watched this bombardment knew the meaning of it. We knew that it was the preparation for this attack. All those raids of the week which I have recorded from day to day were but leading to a greater raid when not hundreds of men but hundreds of thousands would leave their trenches and go forward in a great assault.
We had to keep the secret, to close our lips tight, to write vague words lest the enemy should get a hint too soon, and the strain was great upon us and the suspense an ordeal to the nerves, because as the hours went by they drew nearer to the time when great masses of our men, those splendid young men who have gone marching along the roads of France, would be sent into the open, out of the ditches where they got cover from the German fire.
This secret was foreshadowed by many signs. Travelling along the roads we saw new guns arriving--heavy guns and field-guns, week after week. We were building up a great weight of metal.
Passing them, men raised their eyebrows and smiled grimly. ... A tide of men flowed in from the ports of France--new men of new divisions. They passed to some part of the front, disappeared for a while, were met again in fields and billets, looking harder, having stories to tell of trench life and raids.
The Army was growing. There was a mass of men here in France, and some day they would be ready, trained enough, hard enough, to strike a big blow.
A week or two ago the whisper passed, "We're going to attack." But no more than that, except behind closed doors of the mess-room. Somehow by the look on men's faces, by their silences and thoughtfulness, one could guess that something was to happen.
There was a thrill in the air, a thrill from the pulse of men who know the meaning of attack. Would it be in June or July? The fields of France were very beautiful this June. There were roses in the gardens of old French châteaux. Poppies put a flame of colour in the fields, close up to the trenches, and there were long stretches of gold across the countryside. A pity that all this should be spoilt by the pest of war.
So some of us thought, but not many soldiers. After the misery of a wet winter and the expectations of the spring they were keen to get out of the trenches again. All their training led up to that. The spirit of the men was for an assault across the open, and they were confident in the new power of our guns.
The guns spoke one morning last week with a louder voice than has yet been heard upon the front, and as they crashed out we knew that it was the signal for the new attack. Their fire increased in intensity, covering raids at many points of the line, until at last all things were ready for the biggest raid.
The scene of the battlefields at night was of terrible beauty. I motored out to it from a town behind the lines, where through their darkened windows French citizens watched the illumination of the sky, throbbing and flashing to distant shell-fire. Behind the lines the villages were asleep, without the twinkle of a lamp in any window. The shadow forms of sentries paced up and down outside the stone archways of old French houses.
Here and there on the roads a lantern waved to and fro, and its rays gleamed upon the long bayonet and steel casque of a French Territorial, and upon the bronzed face of an English soldier, who came forward to stare closely at a piece of paper which allowed a man to go into the fires of hell up there. It was an English voice that gave the first challenge, and then called out "Good night" with a strange and unofficial friendliness as a greeting to men who were going towards the guns.
The fields on the edge of the battle of guns were very peaceful. A faint breeze stirred the tall wheat, above which there floated a milky light transfusing the darkness. The poppy-fields still glowed redly, and there was a glint of gold from long stretches of mustard flower. Beyond, the woods stood black against the sky above little hollows where British soldiers were encamped.
There by the light of candles which gave a rose-colour to the painted canvas, boys were writing letters home before lying down to sleep. Some horsemen were moving down a valley road. Farther oft a long column of black lorries passed. It was the food of the guns going forward.
A mile or two more, a challenge or two more, and then a halt by the roadside. It was a road which led straight into the central fires of one great battlefield in a battle-line of 80 miles or more. A small corner of the front, yet in itself a broad and far-stretching panorama of our gunfire on this night of bombardment.
I stood with a few officers in the centre of a crescent sweeping round from Auchonvillers, Thiépval, La Boisselle, and Fricourt to Bray, on the Somme, at the southern end of the curve. Here in this beetroot- field on high ground, we stood watching one of the greatest artillery battles in which British gunners have been engaged. Up to that night the greatest.
The night sky, very calm and moist, with low-lying clouds not stirred by wind, was rent with incessant flashes of light as shells of every calibre burst and scattered. Out of the black ridges and woods in front of us came explosions of white fire, as though the earth had opened and let loose its inner heat. They came up with a burst of intense brilliance, which spread along a hundred yards of ground and then vanished abruptly behind the black curtain of the night. It was the work of high explosives and heavy trench mortars falling in the German lines. Over Thiépval and La Boisselle there were rapid flashes of bursting shrapnel shells, and these points of flame stabbed the sky along the whole battle-front.
From the German lines rockets were rising continually. They rose high and their star-shells remained suspended for half a minute with an intense brightness. While the light lasted it cut out the black outline of the trees and broken roofs, and revealed heavy white smoke- clouds rolling over the enemy's positions.
They were mostly white lights, but at one place red rockets went up. They were signals of distress, perhaps, from German infantry calling to their guns. It was in the zone of these red signals, over towards Ovillers, that our fire for a time was most fierce, so that sheets of flame waved to and fro as though fanned by a furious wind. All the time along the German line red lights ran up and down like little red dancing devils.
I cannot tell what they were, unless they were some other kind of signalling, or the bursting of rifle-grenades. Sometimes for thirty seconds or so the firing ceased, and darkness, very black and velvety, blotted out everything and restored the world to peace. Then suddenly, at one point or another, the earth seemed to open to furnace fires. Down by Bray, southwards, there was one of these violent shocks of light, and then a moment later another by Auchonvillers to the north.
And once again the infernal fires began, flashing, flickering, running along a ridge with a swift tongue of flame, tossing burning feathers above rosy smoke-clouds, concentrating into one bonfire of bursting shells over Fricourt and Thiépval, upon which our batteries always concentrated.
There was one curious phenomenon. It was the silence of all the artillery. By some atmospheric condition of moisture or wind (though the night was calm), or by the configuration of the ground, which made pockets into which the sound fell, there was no great uproar, such as I have heard scores of times jn smaller bombardments than this.
It was all muffled. Even our own batteries did not crash out with any startling thunder, though I could hear the rush of big shells, like great birds in flight. Now and then there was a series of loud strokes, an urgent knocking at the doors of night. And now and again there was a dull, heavy thunder-clap, followed by a long rumble, which made me think that mines were being blown farther up the line.
But for the most part it was curiously quiet and low-toned, and somehow this muffled artillery gave one a greater sense ef awfulness and of deadly work.
Along all this stretch of the battle-front there was no sign of men. It was all inhuman, the work of impersonal powers, and man himself was in hiding from these great forces of destruction. So I thought, peering through the darkness, over the beetroots and the wheat.
But a little later I heard the steady tramp of many feet and the thud of horses' hoofs walking slowly, and the grinding of wheels in the ruts. Shadow forms came up out of the dark tunnel below the trees, the black figures of mounted officers, followed by a battalion marching with their transport. I could not see the faces of the men, but by the shape of their forms could see that they wore their steel helmets and their fighting kit. They were heavily laden with their packs, but they were marching at a smart, swinging pace, and as they came along were singing cheerily.
They were singing some music-hall tune, with a lilt in it, as they marched towards the lights of all the shells up there in the places of death. Some of them were blowing mouth-organs and others were whistling. I watched them pass--all these tall boys of a North Country regiment, and something of their spirit seemed to come out of the dark mass of their moving bodies and thrill the air. They were going up to those places without faltering, without a backward look and singing--dear, splendid men.
I saw other men on the march, and some of them were whistling the "Marseillaise," though they were English soldiers. Others were gossiping quietly as they walked, and once the light of bursting shells played all down the line of their faces--hard, clean-shaven, bronzed English faces, with the eyes of youth there staring up at the battle- fires and unafraid.
A young officer walking at the head of his platoon called out a cheery good night to me. It was a greeting in the darkness from one of those gallant boys who lead their men out of the trenches without much thought of self in that moment of sacrifice.
In the camps the lights were out and the tents were dark. The soldiers who had been writing letters home had sent their love and gone to sleep. But the shell-fire never ceased all night.
A Staff officer had whispered a secret to us at midnight in a little room, when the door was shut and the window closed. Even then they were words which could be only whispered, and to men of trust.
"The attack will be made this morning at 7.30."
So all had gone well, and there was to be no hitch. The preliminary bombardments had done their work with the enemy's wire and earthworks. All the organization for attack had been done, and the men were ready in their assembly trenches waiting for the words which would hold all their fate.
There was a silence in the room where a dozen officers heard the words--men who were to be lookers-on and who would not have to leave a trench up there on the battlefields when the little hand of a wrist-watch said " It is now."
The great and solemn meaning of next day's dawn made the air seem oppressive, and our hearts beat jumpily for just a moment. There would be no sleep for all those men crowded in the narrow trenches on the north of the Somme. God give them courage in the morning. . . .
The dawn came with a great beauty. There was a pale blue sky flecked with white wisps of cloud. But it was cold and over all the fields there was a floating mist which rose up from the moist earth and lay heavily upon the ridges, so that the horizon was obscured. As soon as light came there was activity in the place where I was behind the lines. A body of French engineers all blue from casque to puttees, and laden with their field packs, marched along with a steady tramp, their grave, grim faces turned towards the front. British Staff officers came motoring swiftly by and dispatch-riders mounted their motor- cycles and scurried away through the market carts of French peasants to the open roads. French sentries and French soldiers in reserve raised their hand to the salute as our officers passed.
Each man among them guessed that it was England's day, and that the British Army was out for attack. It was the spirit of France saluting their comrades in arms when the oldest "poilu" there raised a wrinkled hand to his helmet and said to an English soldier, "Bonne chance, mon camarade!
Along the roads towards the battlefields there was no movement of troops. For a few miles there were quiet fields, where cattle grazed and where the wheat grew green and tall in the white mist. The larks were singing high in the first glinting sunshine of the day above the haze. And another kind of bird came soaring overhead.
It was one of our monoplanes, which flew steadily towards the lines, a herald of the battle. In distant hollows there were masses of limber, and artillery horses hobbled in lines.
The battle-line came into view, the long sweep of country stretching southwards to the Somme. Above the lines beyond Bray, looking towards the German trenches, was a great cluster of kite balloons. They were poised very high, held steady by the air-pockets on their ropes, and their baskets, where the artillery observers sat, caught the rays of the sun. I counted seventeen of them, the largest group that has ever been seen along our front; but I could see no enemy balloons opposite them. It seemed that we had more eyes than they, but to-day theirs have been staring out of the veil of the mist.
We went farther forward to the guns, and stood on the same high field where we had watched the night bombardment. The panorama of battle was spread around us, and the noise of battle swept about us in great tornadoes. I have said that in the night one was startled by the curious quietude of the guns, by that queer muffled effect of so great an artillery. But now on the morning battle this phenomenon, which I do not understand, no longer existed. There was one continual roar of guns, which beat the air with great waves and shocks of sound, prodigious and overwhelming.
The full power of our artillery was let loose at about 6 o'clock this morning. Nothing like it has even been seen or heard upon our front before, and all the preliminary bombardment, great as it was, seemed insignificant to this. I do not know how many batteries we have along this battle-line or upon the section of the line which I could see, but the guns seemed crowded in vast numbers of every calibre, and the concentration of their fire was terrific in its intensity.
For a time I could see nothing through the low-lying mist and heavy smoke-clouds which mingled with the mist, and stood like a blind man, only listening. It was a wonderful thing which came to my ears. Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world had leapt their rails and were driving at express speed through endless tunnels in which they met each other with frightful collisions.
Some of these shells, firing from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one's bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvos, and great clangorous strokes, as of iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of death.
The mist was shifting and dissolving. The tall tower of Albert Cathedral appeared suddenly through the veil, and the sun shone full for a few seconds on the golden Virgin and the Babe, which she held head downwards above all this tumult as a peace-offering to men. The broken roofs of the town gleamed white, and the two tall chimneys to the left stood black and sharp against the pale blue of the sky, into which dirty smoke drifted above the whiter clouds.
I could see now as well as hear. I could see our shells falling upon the German lines by Thiépval and La Boisselle and farther by Mametz, and southwards over Fricourt. High explosives were tossing up great vomits of black smoke and earth all along the ridges. Shrapnel was pouring upon these places, and leaving curly white clouds, which clung to the ground.
Below there was the flash of many batteries like Morse code signals by stabs of flame. The enemy was being blasted by a hurricane of fire. I found it in my heart to pity the poor devils who were there, and yet was filled by a strange and awful exultation because this was the work of our guns, and because it was England's day.
Over my head came a flight of six aeroplanes, led by a single monoplane, which steered steadily towards the enemy. The sky was deeply blue above them, and when the sun caught their wings they were as beautiful and delicate as butterflies. But they were carrying death with them, and were out to bomb the enemy's batteries and to drop their explosives into masses of men behind the German lines.
Farther away a German plane was up. Our anti-aircraft guns were searching for him with their shells, which dotted the sky with snowballs.
Every five minutes or so a single gun fired a round. It spoke with a voice I knew, the deep, gruff voice of old "Grandmother," one of our 15-inch guns, which carries a shell large enough to smash a cathedral with one enormous burst. I could follow the journey of the shell by listening to its rush through space. Seconds later there was the distant thud of its explosion.
Troops were moving forward to the attack from behind the lines. It was nearly 7.30. All the officers about me kept glancing at their wrist- watches. We did not speak much then, but stared silently at the smoke and mist which floated and banked along our lines. There, hidden, were our men. They, too, would be looking at their wrist- watches.
The minutes were passing very quickly--as quickly as men's lives pass when they look back upon the years. An officer near me turned away, and there was a look of sharp pain in his eyes. We were only lookers-on. The other men, our friends, the splendid Youth that we have passed on the roads of France, were about to do this job. Good luck go with them! Men muttering such wishes in their hearts.
It was 7.30. Our watches told us that, but nothing else. The guns had lifted and were firing behind the enemy's first lines, but there was no sudden hush for the moment of attack. The barrage by our guns seemed as great as the first bombardment. For ten minutes or so before this time a new sound had come into the general thunder of artillery. It was like the "rafale" of the French soixante-quinze, very rapid, with distant and separate strokes, but louder than the noise of field-guns. They were our trench-mortars at work along the whole length of the line before me.
It was 7.80. The moment for the attack had come. Clouds of smoke had been liberated to form a screen for the infantry, and hid the whole line. The only men I could see were those in reserve, winding along a road by some trees which led up to the attacking points. They had their backs turned as they marched very slowly and steadily forward. I could not tell who they were, though I had passed some of them on the road a day or two before. But, whoever they were, English, Irish, or Welsh, I watched them until most had disappeared from sight behind a clump of trees. In a little while they would be fighting, and would need all their courage.
At a minute after 7.30 there came through the rolling smoke-clouds a rushing sound. It was the noise of rifle-fire and machine-guns. The men were out of their trenches and the attack had begun. The enemy was barraging our lines.
The country chosen for our main attack to-day stretches from the Somme for some 20 miles northwards. The French were to operate on our immediate right. It is very different country from Flanders, with its swamps and flats, and from the Loos battlefields, with their dreary plain pimpled by slack-heaps.
It is a sweet and pleasant country, with wooded hills and little valleys along the river-beds of the Ancre and the Somme, and fertile meadow-lands and stretches of woodland, where soldiers and guns may get good cover. "A clean country," said one of our Generals when he first went to it from the northern war zone.
It seemed very queer to go there first, after a knowledge of in the Ypres salient, where there is seldom view of the enemy's lines from any rising ground--except Kemmel Hill and Observatory Ridge--and where certainly one cannot walk on the skyline in full view of German earthworks 2000 yards away.
But at Hebuterne, which the French captured after desperate fighting, and at Auchonvillers (opposite Beaumont), and on the high ground by the ruined city of Albert, looking over to Frieourt and Mametz, and farther south on the Somme, looking towards the little German stronghold at Curlu, beyond the marshes, one could see very clearly and with a strange, unreal sense of safety.
I saw a German sentry pacing the village street of Curlu, and went within 20 paces of his outposts. Occasionally one could stare through one's glasses at German working parties just beyond sniping range round Beaumont and Frieourt, and to the left of Frieourt the Crucifix between its seven trees seemed very near as one looked at it in the German lines.
Below this Calvary was the Tambour and the Bois Français, where not a week passed without a mine being blown on one side or the other, so that the ground was a great upheaval of mingling mine- craters and tumbled earth, which but half covered the dead bodies of men.
It was difficult ground in front of us. The enemy was strong in his defences. In the clumps of woodland beside the ruined villages he hid many machine-guns and trench-mortars, and each ruined house in each village was part of a fortified stronghold difficult to capture by direct assault. It was here, however, and with good hopes of success that our men attacked to-day, working eastwards across the Ancre and northwards up from the Somme.
At the end of this day's fighting it is still too soon to give a clear narrative of the battle. Behind the veil of smoke which hides our men there were many different actions taking place, and the messages that come back at the peril of men's lives and by the great gallantry of our signallers and runners give but glimpses of the progress of our men and of their hard fighting.
I have seen the wounded who have come out of the battle, and the prisoners brought down in batches, but even they can give only confused accounts of fighting in some single sector of the line which comes within their own experience.
At first, it is certain, there was not much difficulty in taking the enemy's first line trenches along the greater part of the country attacked. Our bombardment had done great damage, and had smashed down the enemy's wire and flattened his parapets. When our men left their assembly trenches and swept forward, cheering, they encountered no great resistance from German soldiers, who had been in hiding in their dug-outs under our storm of shells.
Many of these dug-outs were blown in and filled with dead, but out of others which had not been flung to pieces by high explosives crept dazed and deafened men who held their hands up and bowed their heads. Some of them in one part of the line came out of their shelters as soon as our guns lifted, and met our soldiers half-way with signs of surrender.
They were collected and sent back under guard, while the attacking columns passed on to the second and third lines in the network of trenches, and then if they could get through them to the fortified ruins behind.
But the fortunes of war vary in different places, as I know from the advance of troops, including the South Staffords, the Manchesters, and the Gordons. In crossing the first line of trench the South Staffordshire men had a comparatively easy time, with hardly any casualties, gathering up Germans who surrendered easily. The enemy's artillery fire did not touch them seriously, and both they and the Manchesters had very great luck.
But the Gordons fared differently. These keen fighting men rushed forward with great enthusiasm until they reached one end of the village of Mametz, and then quite suddenly they were faced by rapid machine-gun fire and a storm of bombs. The Germans held a trench called Danzig Avenue on the ridge where Mametz stands, and defended it with desperate courage. The Gordons flung themselves upon this position, and had some difficulty in clearing it of the enemy. At the end of the day Mametz remained in our hands.
It was these fortified villages which gave our men greatest trouble, for the German troops defended them with real courage, and worked their machine-guns from hidden emplacements with skill and determination.
pricourt is, I believe, still holding out (its capture has since been officially reported), though our men have forced their way on both sides of it, so that it is partly surrounded. Montauban, to the north- east of Mametz, was captured early in the day, and we also gained the strong point at Serre, until the Germans made a somewhat heavy counter-attack, and succeeded in driving out our troops.
Beaumont-Hamel was not in our hands at the end of the day, but here again our men are fighting on both sides of it. The woods and village of Thiépval, which I had watched under terrific shell-fire in our preliminary bombardments, was one point of our first attack, and our troops swept from one end of the village to the other, and out beyond to a new objective.
They were too quick to get on, it seems, for a considerable number of Germans remained in the dug-outs, and when the British soldiers went past them they came out of their hiding-places and became a fighting force again. Farther north our infantry attacked both sides of the Gommecourt salient with the greatest possible valour.
That is my latest knowledge, writing at midnight on the first day of July, which leaves our men beyond the German front lines in many places, and penetrating to the country behind like arrow-heads between the enemy's strongholds.
In the afternoon I saw the first batchs of prisoners brought in. In parties of 50 to 100 they came down, guarded by men of the Border Regiment, through the little French hamlets close behind the fighting- lines, where peasants stood in their doorways watching these first fruits of victory.
They were damaged fruit, some of these poor wretches, wounded and nerve-shaken in the great bombardment. Most «f them belonged to the 109th and 110th Regiments of the 14th Reserve Corps, and they seemed to be a mixed lot of Prussians and Bavarians. On the whole, they were tall, strong fellows, and there were striking faces among them, of men higher than the peasant type, and thoughtful. But they were very haggard and worn and dirty.
Over the barbed wire which had been stretched across a farmyard, in the shadow of an old French church, I spoke to some of them. To one man especially, who answered all my questions with a kind of patient sadness. He told me that most of his comrades and himself had been without food and water for several days, as our intense fire made it impossible to get supplies up the communication-trenches.
About the bombardment he raised his hands and eyes a moment-- eyes full of a remembered horror--and said, "Es war schrecklich" (It was horrible). Most of the officers had j remained in the second line, but the others had been killed, he thought. His own brother had been killed, and in Baden his mother and sisters would weep when they heard. But he was glad to be a prisoner, out of the war at last, which would last much longer.
A new column of prisoners was being brought down, and I suddenly the man turned and uttered an exclamation with a look of surprise and awe.
"Ach, da ist ein Hauptmann! He recognized an officer among these new prisoners, and it seemed clearly a surprising thing to him that one of the great caste should be in this plight, should suffer as he had suffered.
Some of his fellow-prisoners lay on the ground all bloody and bandaged. One of them seemed about to die. But the English soldiers gave them water, and one of our officers emptied his cigarette-case and gave them all he had to smoke.
Other men were coming back from the fields of fire, glad also to be back behind the line. They were our wounded, who came in very quickly after the first attack to the casualty clearing stations close to the lines, but beyond the reach of shell-fire. Many of them were lightly wounded in the hands and feet, and sometimes 50 or more were on one lorry, which had taken up ammunition and was now bringing back the casualties.
They were wonderful men. So wonderful in their gaiety and courage that one's heart melted at the sight of them. They were all grinning as though they had come from a "jolly" in which they had been bumped a little. There was a look of pride in their eyes as they came driving down like wounded knights from a tourney.
They had gone through the job with honour, and have come out with their lives, and the world was good and beautiful again, in this warm sun, in these snug French villages, where peasant men and women waved hands to them, and in these fields of scarlet and gold and green.
The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the lorries--some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly--seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men's hearts.
To-night the guns are at work again, and the sky flushes as the shells burst over there where our men are fighting.
- The First Charge
- July 2
It is possible now to get something like a clear idea of the fighting which began yesterday morning at 7.30, when the furious tempest of our guns passed farther over the German lines and our infantry left their trenches for the great adventure.
The battle goes on, with success to our arms. Fricourt, partly surrounded yesterday (by the 21st Division), was taken by assault to- day, and a German counter-attack upon Montauban was repulsed with losses that tore gaps into the enemy's ranks. Prisoners come tramping down in batches, weary, worn men, who have the gallantry to praise our own infantry and remember with a shudder the violence of our gunfire.
Wounded men who are coming out of the fighting-lines ask one question, "How are we doing? Men suffering great pain have a smile in their eyes when the answer comes, "We are doing well." The spirit of our men is so high that it is certain we shall gain further ground, however great the cost.
The ground we have already gained was won by men who fought to win, and who went "all out," as they say, with a fierce enthusiasm to carry their objective, quickly and utterly and cleanly. This wonderful spirit of the men is praised by all their officers as a kind of new revelation, though they saw them in trench life and in hard times.
"They went across toppingly," said a wounded boy of the West Yorkshires, who was in the first attack on Fricourt. "The fellows were glorious," said another young officer who could hardly speak for the pain in his left shoulder, where a piece of shell struck him down in Mametz Wood. "Wonderful chaps! said a lieutenant of the Manchesters. "They went cheering through machine-gun fire as though it were just the splashing of rain. They beat everything for real pluck."
They beat everything for pluck except their own officers, who, as usual, led their men forward without a thought of their own risks.
The attack on Montauban was one of our best successes yesterday. The men were mainly Lancashire troops (of the Manchester Regiment) supported by men of the Home Counties, including those of Surrey, Kent, Essex, Bedford, and Norfolk. They advanced in splendid order straight for their objective, swept over the German trenches, and captured large numbers of prisoners, without great loss to themselves.
Their commanding officers were anxious about a German strong point called the Briqueterie, or brickfield, which had been full of machine-guns and minenwerfers, and the original intention was to pass this without a direct attempt to take it.
But the position was found to be utterly destroyed by our bombardment, and a party of men (the Liverpools) were detached to seize it, which they did with comparative ease. The remainder of the men in those battalions went on to the ruined village of Montauban and, in spite of spasmodic machine-gun fire from some of the broken houses, carried it in one great flood of invasion.
Large numbers of Germans were taking cover in dug-outs and cellars, but as soon as our men entered they came up into the open and surrendered. Many of them were so cowed by the great bombardment they had suffered and by the waves of men that swept into their stronghold that they fell upon their knees and begged most piteously for mercy, which was granted to them.
The loss of Mantauban was serious to the enemy, and they prepared a counter-attack, which was launched this morning, at 3 o'clock, at a strength of two regiments. Our men were expecting this and had organized their defence. The Germans came on in close order, very bravely, rank after rank advancing over the dead and wounded bodies of their comrades, who were caught by our machine-gun fire and rifle-fire and mown down. Only a few men were able to enter our trenches, and these died.
Mantauban remains in our hands, and so far the enemy has not attempted another attack.
Our line winds round the village in a sharp salient which drops south- eastwards to Mametz, which is full of German dead and wounded, who are being found in the cellars and taken back to our hospitals. It was in the taking of Mametz that some of the Gordons suffered heavily. With English troops they advanced across the open with sloped arms. There was very little shell-fire and not a rifle-shot came from the enemy's broken trenches.
"Suddenly," says one of their officers, "a machine-gun opened fire upon us point-blank, and caught us in the face. I shouted to my men to advance at the double, and we ran forward through a perfect stream of shattering bullets. Many of my poor boys dropped, and then I fell and knew nothing more for a while. But afterwards I heard that we had taken Mametz, and hold it still. . . . My Gordons were fine, but we had bad luck."
It was the fire of German machine-guns which was most trying to our men. Again and again soldiers have told me to-day that the hard time came when these bullets began to play upon them. In spite of our enormous bombardment there remained here and there, even in a front-line trench, a machine-gun emplacement so strongly built with steel girders and concrete cover that it had defied our high explosives. And inside were men who were defiant also.
A young officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers paid a high tribute to them. "They are wonderful men," he said, " and work their machines until they are bombed to death. In the trenches by Fricourt they stayed on when all the other men had either been killed or wounded, and would neither surrender nor escape. It was the same at Loos, and it would not be sporting of us if we did not say so, though they have knocked out so many of our best."
The same opinion in almost the same words was given to me to-day by many men whose bodies bore witness to these German Maxims, and though their words were a tribute to the enemy, they also proved the fine generosity in the heart of our own men.
While the attacks were being made on Montauban and Mametz very hard fighting was in progress on the left, or western, side of our line from Gommecourt downwards. So far I have heard very little of the action at Gommecourt, where the German salient was most difficult to assault owing to formidable defences. In that direction our progress has not been great.
Farther south at Ovillers and La Boisselle our attacks were rather more fortunate, and some ground was gained with great loss in life to the enemy, though not without many casualties to ourselves. Fortunately, as in all this fighting, the proportion of lightly wounded men is wonderfully high.
The advance upon the ridge of La Boisselle was a splendid and memorable thing. The men who took part in it were hard, tough fellows who fear neither man nor devil, nor engines of war. They went forward cheering, and the Tyneside pipers played on their men. The German guns were flinging Jack Johnsons over, but they did not inflict much damage, and the men jeered at them.
"Silly old five-point-nine crumps! said a young officer to-day who had been among them. "They only made a beastly stink and the devil of a noise. It was the machine-guns which did all the work."
The machine-guns were enfilading our men from La Boisselle, and from the high ground above their bullets came pattering down in showers, so that when they hit men in the shoulder they came out at the wrist. They swept No Man's Land like a scythe.
But our troops passed on steadily with fixed bayonets at parade step, not turning their heads when comrades dropped to right and left of them. They took the first line of German trenches, which were blown to dust-heaps with the bodies of the men who had held them. In the second line there were men still living, and still resolute enough to defend themselves. They were bombed out of this position, and our men went on to the third line still under machine-gun fire.
"It seemed to me," said à Lincolnshire lad, "as if there was a machine-gun to every five men." Without exaggeration there were many of these machines and they were served skilfully and terribly by their gunners. Beyond La Boisselle, which was pressed on one side, the fire became very intense. High explosives, shrapnel, and trench- mortars ploughed up the ground.
"They threw everything at us except half-croons," said a man of the Royal Scots.
It was the Royal Scots who charged with the bayonet into a body of German troops, and the other battalions advanced at the double and captured batches of men who had no more stomach for the fight.
Some of the hardest fighting at La Boisselle was done by men of Dorset and Manchester with Highland Light Infantry and Borderers. They had an easy time over the front line, but when the second was reached had to engage in a battle of bombs with a large body of Germans. This resistance was broken down and when there was a show of bayonets the enemy surrendered. They were haggard men, who had suffered, like most of our prisoners, from long hunger and thirst as our bombardment had cut off their supplies and broken the water-pipes.
Farther north there was a severe struggle for the possession of Thiépval, which was once in our hands but is now again in the enemy's grip. It is clear from all the evidence I can get that our men passed beyond to a further objective without staying to clear out the dug-outs where Germans were in hiding or to search for all the machine-gun emplacements. The enemy came out of their hiding- places and served their machine-guns upon the British troops who had gone forward.
A sergeant-major of the Manchesters, who took part in one of the attacks which followed each other in waves upon the Thiépval positions, says that he and his comrades forced their way across the front trenches and had to walk over the bodies of large numbers of German dead, who had fallen in the bombardment. With his regiment he went forward into a wood known to the men as "Blighty," and then fell wounded.
Machine-gun bullets and shrapnel were slashing through it with a storm of lead, lopping off branches and ricochetting from the tree- trunks. The men stood this ordeal superbly, and those who were not wounded fought their way through towards the village. Some battalions working on the left of Thiépval had a very severe ordeal. One of them, wounded, told me that they seized the first system of trenches in the face of machine-gun fire and captured the men who remained alive in the dug-outs.
They were deep dug-outs, going 30 feet below ground, and in some cases, even at that depth, had trap-doors leading to still lower chambers, so that our bombardment had not touched them- Many of them were elaborately fitted and furnished, and were well stocked with wine and beer. A great deal of correspondence was found and sent back to our lines in sandbags.
It was when our men advanced upon the Thiépval woods that they had their hardest hours, for the enemy's fire was heavy, and they had to pass through an intense barrage. Meanwhile big fighting was in progress at Fricourt, and some of the North-countrymen had a great ordeal of fire. They have done magnificently, and Fricourt is ours.
Other troops were engaged, for masses of men of many British regiments advanced on both sides of the village endeavouring to get possession of Shelter Wood, Lozenge Wood, and the high ground to the north of the village from the position known as the Crucifix. Large numbers of Germans were killed and wounded, but the garrison of Fricourt maintained a very stout resistance, and until this morning our attacks did not succeed in taking this stronghold, although it was nearly surrounded.
Heroic acts were done by our men, as I know from the comrades who were with them. One boy of eighteen, to give only one instance, was so good a captain, although a private soldier, that when the officers of his platoon had fallen he rallied the men and led them forward. " Come on, my lads," he cried. "We'll get them out! A pipe-major of the Royal Scots led this battalion forward to an old Scottish tune, and during the attack stood out alone in No Man's Land playing still until he fell wounded.
Early this morning a very fine flanking attack was made on Fricourt by the men who had held on to the ground during the night, and Crucifix Trench was taken after the explosion of two big mines. The attack then closed in, one body of troops working round to the north and another fighting their way round the south side in order to get the village within a pair of tongs.
The operation succeeded and the village was taken, but fighting still went on to gain possession of the high ridge above.
A whole company of German soldiers were seen to come suddenly across the open with their hands up. Other me straggled singly over the shell-beaten ground to surrender our men.
But the enemy's guns put up a heavy barrage of shrapnel and high explosives when our men tried to advance along the ridge, and from the upper end of the Fricourt Wood there came the incessant clatter of machine-gun fire. Our attack did not falter, and as far as I can learn the position to-night is good.
Here, then, are some scraps of fact about a great battle still in progress and covering a wide stretch of ground, in which many separate actions are taking place. It is impossible for an eye-witness to see more than a corner of these battlefields, and at this hour for one man to write a clear, straight chronicle of so great an adventure. I have been travelling to-day about the lines, trying to gather the threads together, talking to many of our fighting men, going among the wounded and the prisoners, and in the intense and immediate interest of this great drama of war which is all about me, trying to get at the latest facts of | our progress from hour to hour.
But what I have written is only the odds and ends of a long, heroic story which must be written later with fuller knowledge!] of men and deeds. Only one thing is really very clear and shining in all this turmoil of two days of battle--it is the unconquerable spirit of our men.
see also : Philip Gibbs : Five Years on the Western Front
moving up supplies
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