'The German View of the Somme'
by Philip Gibbs
from his book 'the Battles of the Somme' 1917


A British Reporter's Observations

German prisoners on the Somme


AUGUST 9, 1916

I have not been across to the enemy's side of the line (except when it has been broken by our guns and men), and I have no intention of following the example of a friend of mine who deliberately tried to get across to them in search of information. But now and again it is possible to get a mental glimpse of how the enemy lives and works and thinks behind the barbed wire and the ditches and the machine- gun redoubts which make up his defensive system.

I mean the enemy's fighting men, and not all those people in Germany who starve on false promises and grow sick with hope deferred, and count up the number of their dead, and still say, with a resolute pride, "At least — we cannot be beaten."

From talks with prisoners, and explorations of German dug-outs, and the reading of captured documents, and many days spent (before the battles of the Somme) in our own trenches from which through a loophole or a tuft of grass I have looked over to the German lines and seen, not often, but several times, German soldiers moving about in working parties, and German infantry marching down a hill-side over 2000 yards away, I have been able to conjure up a fair answer to questions which have often come into my head: "What are the fellows doing over the way? What are they thinking about and talking about? What does it look like behind their lines? And how do their methods and their ' moral' differ from our own?"

Since the beginning of our attack on July 1 I have gained some later information about those things, and it seems to me interesting to put down a few of the facts, so that people at home may know more about the enemy than they seem to know.

There is no doubt at all that as a fighting man the German knows his business thoroughly, and performs it with great skill, courage, and discipline. He has had the advantage of us in an enormous reserve of highly trained officers and non-commissioned officers, and although the advantage is rapidly disappearing, because after two years of war we are getting large numbers of the same class of men and he is losing and has lost a great mass of them by death and wounds, he still has, I imagine, more than enough for his needs.

Now, and to the end of the war (for he is careful to keep his best brains out of danger), he can call upon a great store of professional and scientific knowledge to direct the machinery of this business of destruction and defence, and to organize the lives of his machine- made men.

In minute detail of organization, and in a driving industry behind it, the German High Command is masterly, and there is not a soldier in the Kaiser's armies who is not well equipped (down to the "housewife" full of pins and needles, cotton, buttons, and thread, which he carries in his pouch) and well fed, unless our guns do not permit his supplies to come up.

Enormous attention is paid to the "moral" of the men, by organizing concerts, religious services, and beer-parties behind the lines, so that they shall be kept cheerful until they die, and the news of the world, as we all know, is specially edited for them with that point of view in mind.

But the German High Command is careful of the lives of its men until the day comes when they have to be flung ruthlessly forward, in wave after wave, against the guns of the Allies.

Again and again I have described the spaciousness and the depth and comfort of the German dug-outs. That is part of the system of life-saving, and the divisional commanders set their men to work and keep them at work in a way which our men would call slave-driving.

I have described those at Montauban and Fricourt as I saw them immediately after their capture, and after the bombardment which crumpled up all the trenches about them, but left them, for the most part, solid and untouched.

At Ovillers they are even more elaborate, some of them having six or eight rooms communicating with each other, and two separate stories — rooms as large as fifteen feet by thirty feet, furnished with spring beds, carpets, washing arrangements with water laid on, electric light, tapestries to keep out the draughts, and other luxuries. One of the dug-outs at Ovillers has nine entrances, with beds for 110 men, thirty feet below the surface, and with a cook-house containing three big boilers. But it is not only in the trenches and in places like Ovillers that the Germans dig so industriously. Far behind their lines, wherever our long-range guns can reach them, they have these elaborate subterranean shelters, deeper and stronger than most of ours, and with much greater accommodation. It means incessant work in addition to all the work which keeps our own soldiers busy night and day.

But it is work that saves life, and the Germans do not begrudge it, and have no special pride in taking risks. That is good generalship and good soldiering. But it does not save them. Some of our officers are apt to imagine — I confess it was in my own imagination for a time — that the German was so snug in these burrows of his that our bombardments in normal times without infantry attacks to follow did not cause him many casualties.

The truth is that continuous artillery-fire like ours has been and is frightfully destructive of human life, and that no amount of digging will safeguard it. Transport must move along the roads. Men must go up communication-trenches. Working parties must come out into the open.

During all the month that our artillery has been increasing its weight of metal and the number of rounds fired, the Germans, therefore, have been suffering great losses, and the strain upon the nerves and "moral" of the men has been severe.

This is certain not only from the statements of German soldiers brought into our lines, but from new instructions issued as late as July 16, which refer to the treatment of the great numbers of wounded, and the terrible conditions of the present fighting. Significant sentences reveal the truth of things behind the German lines, and again the organizing minds which try to better them as far as possible:

"As the circumstances of the present fighting do not as a rule permit of a dressing-station being established near the fighting troops, the wounded must at any rate be taken to places which are easy to find, easy to describe, and easy to recognize.

"Companies must inform battalions, and battalions regiments, where the wounded are to be found, and how many there are to remove.

"They can as a rule only be moved at night. The stretcher-bearers who come to fetch them generally waste a good deal of time in searching for the wounded, and sometimes do not find them if they are not assisted by the unit which has been engaged.

"The nights are short for carrying out these large evacuations.

"I have already reminded units that troops which are relieved should carry their wounded with them." That reveals a tragic picture of the enemy's losses. It is emphasized again that many of the wounded are not found, and suggestions are made that pieces of canvas dipped in luminous paint might be used to indicate the whereabouts of the wounded, or white canvas cut into the form of a cross.

The German mind is busy with the problem of its dead also. The enemy goes to great risk and trouble to remove the dead from the fields because the living men who follow are disheartened and terrified by the sight of so many corpses on their way.

Search-parties are sent out under shell-fire to collect them, even though many of the searchers may join the dead, and the bodies are put into mortuary chambers like one found by us the other day at Pozieres.

It was filled with dead bodies waiting to be taken away on a light railway which runs up to the place, but the enemy's artillery fired upon this mortuary and set it on fire, as though they were more jealous of their dead than of the living who were our prisoners.

I have said that they keep their best brains out of danger-This is true, even when the brains are second-best. It is very seldom that any officer over the rank of a captain is found in the front-line trenches, and officers of higher rank remain well in the background. Lately, during our attack, orders have been given that officers and N.C.O.'s commanding companies and platoons should visit their trenches at night "so that the men may see or hear their commanders." It is all very naive, and reveals that curious lack of humour which characterizes the German war lord.

"The men," say these instructions, "should be instructed as to the whereabouts of their commanding officer, and know where to go if they feel that they require inspiring with courage. To stimulate courage and to foster the feeling of confidence and the spirit of resistance, these should be the first duties of an officer in the front line, at all events in the present circumstances. Courage rather than tactful theory is the essence of a true leader."

To give their men courage in hours when these German soldiers, who are brave men, might well give way to terror, the German chemists have manufactured tabloids which drug them with a kind of frenzy. There is no doubt of this, which sometimes I have doubted, because many of these drugs were found by a friend of mine — the medical officer of the Kentish men who helped to take the trenches north of Pozieres a few days ago.

They contained ether and opium in sufficient quantity to intoxicate the strongest man. In the German opinion it is good stuff before a counter-attack.

German organization is remarkably good. It does not neglect the spiritual or the physical side of their soldiers. It provides them with song-books and prayer-books as well as with food and drink.

It has never revealed a shortage of shells. Its gunners are full of science and wonderfully quick to get on to their targets when the infantry calls for help by sending up signals of distress.

In all the mechanics of war and in the fine art of keeping up the pride of men the German war lords and high officers show real genius. But they cannot bring dead men to life nor hide the agonies of all their wounded, nor blink the fact that British troops have broken their second line, and hammered them with terrific blows and reached out far with long-range guns to destroy them behind their lines.

They live in many ruins as bad as Ypres — French ruins, alas — and I know that, on the eve of our great attack, all instructions were prepared for a general retreat, with every detail ready in case our troops should break through on a wide front.

That is a confession of deep apprehension. It shows that they are envisaging defeat and preparing for it — wisely enough — in case of need. It is a state of mind not expressed in an Order of the Day issued by the German Emperor a few days ago and found on a German officer captured to the north of Pozieres:

"To the leaders of the troops of the First Army," says the Kaiser, "I express from the bottom of my heart my deep appreciation and my Imperial gratitude for the splendid achievement in warding off the Anglo-French mass attacks of the 80th of July. They have accomplished with German faithfulness what I and their country expected from them.
"God help them further.
"(Signed) WILHELM I.E.."

Since then the ground to the north of Pozieres has been captured, and to-day there has been fierce fighting and further progress made by British troops towards Guillemont. God has not helped them it seems.

Behind the German lines, in spite of the Kaiser's gratitude for the courage of his troops — a courage which we must not belittle, for it is great — men are thinking gloomily and wondering when all the agony of this great war, which holds no victory for Germany, will have an ending, after all their blood and all their tears.


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