The Somme - just fifty years after

 

 

somme

 

 

The Somme – just fifty years after

 

Henry Williamson

 

 

I

 

 

After the failures to break through the German lines in 1915, what was left of the original British Expeditionary Force was scattered either in the graveyards of Flanders and Artois, or ‘on the Staff’, or officering the New Armies being raised at home by Lord Kitchener.

 

The exhausting, the deadly failed assaults of 1915 at Festubert–Neuve Chapelle–Aubers Ridge – and at Loos, were of the past: a condition of nerve-sharp men, frantic within, advancing against uncut barbed-wire obstacles swept by machine-gun fire; men who had known their fate before they had climbed over trench parapets laid with small sacks filled with mud, called sandbags.

 

White-faced, a sleep-walker of terror with staring eyes, each man had been essentially alone as the advancing ragged lines became thinner and thinner, until the survivors of the first few shattering minutes threw themselves down to fire at unseen machine guns in redbrick ruins broken and gaunt upon a forsaken landscape of watery, cratered fields of clay.

 

What survivors there were waited until darkness dropped its pall, when magnesium flares streaked up into the sky, to glimmer awhile, to sink on parachutes in waves of greenish-white and reveal direction to those crawling to safety.

 

But now in 1916, a brighter future lay ahead! For soon the New Armies would arrive in France.

 

The first to be formed was the Fourth, in Picardy.

 

The very name had a freshness about it. And so it turned out: here were clear water streams in green valleys, fed by springs breaking below a gently rolling downland country.

 

For a dozen and more miles almost to the wide and steep valley of the Somme, where our right flank joined the French Army, we were, it was learned from the poilus, in the Garden of Eden.

 

An occasional shell, falling somewhere else. Sometimes at night the slow pop-pop-pop of a German machine gun, practising it seemed, or to show their Staff visitors that they were still awake.

 

Apple orchards had bloomed, nightingales sang in coppice and gardens, partridges flew among the wild grasses and flowers of no-man’s-land.

 

Far away, as in another world, a rusty tinge was visible above the blowing pollen of the grasses – the wire-belts of the German First Position.

 

And now, towards the end of the month, things began to liven up. Orders came for harassing and offensive local actions. At night patrols went out, to seek and bomb enemy patrols. Many new trenches were dug, barbed-wire obstacles put out at night.

 

More and more new battalions appeared for tours of duty, at first mingled with less unseasoned units. Thus the routine took on the old pattern of trench life. One could hardly call it war.

 

An occasional casualty from shrapnel or stray bullet, and the hero went back with a cushy one, even perhaps a blighty. Bad luck, old boy, you’ll miss the Big Push!

 

For it was evident by now that an offensive on a scale hitherto unknown was being prepared.

 

The new battalions, now fairly way-wise, spent two days in the front line, two in support, two in reserve, followed by two in billets among the sleepy old villages in the rear, but not to rest.

 

They spent most of the daylight and moonlight at working parties, aptly called fatigues; and, as more and more British troops arrived at the bases of Calais, Boulogne, and Havre, in large-scale manoeuvres well back.

 

How keen they were, those new officers and men of what was known at home as the Citizen Army! Training in back areas consisted of advances, armed as in battle, against real trenches, dug to patterns revealed by aerial photographs of the Royal Flying Corps over the German lines.

 

Platoons of 64 men, led by a second-lieutenant (temporary commission), four platoons to a company commanded by a captain (‘temporary gentleman’), and four companies to a battalion advanced up gentle slopes practising the latest techniques outlined in pamphlets marked CONFIDENTIAL.

 

As June of 1916 advanced upon the Western Front, and particularly in the Garden of Eden, optimism, excitement, and desire for the Big Push prevailed west of that silent and mysterious brown tinge which was the rusty wire entangled with tall grasses before the German First Position.

 

Lovely summer weather! Rolling downland country, minute white puffs following some frail, midge-like speck hardly moving, it seemed, at 15,000 feet and taking photographs, more photographs.

 

Remote and tiny puffs of Archie; for under the leaves of every coppice, in the shadow of every chalk quarry, in barns with camouflaged roof-spaces, behind every landsherd of unploughed steepness facing away from the German lines were the gun-pits; for all this country is now one great arsenal of death, waiting, waiting, to send a million and a half tons of high-explosive contained within steel shells upon the German First Position.

 

Wildfowl led their dappled young across the reedy lagoons of the wide valley of the Ancre, a swift-flowing chalk stream, filled with fine trout, joining the River Somme lower down, beyond the Golden Virgin of Albert Cathedral.

 

On the valley road, as everywhere else behind Fourth Army front – for General Sir Henry Rawlinson is to fight the coming battle – there is constant movement of wheeled traffic and marching men, files of mules and horses being led to water in long canvas troughs by the wayside, fed by pumps from the new artesian wells. Great black howitzers trundle behind caterpillar tractors, roads everywhere are being repaired (for they wear out of metalling every few days) by gangs of German prisoners.

 

What energy is observed as one rides down the road! Acre upon acre of dumped shells, boxes of bombs and small-arms ammunition, mortar ‘plum puddings’, boxes of hand grenades, shovels, picks, rolls of galvanised barbed wire, screw-pickets, like giant corkscrews, to hold the wire entanglements.

 

Flights of scout planes flying in formation into the East, to shoot down enemy reconnaissance planes and Randy Ruperts, otherwise tethered observation sausage balloons, behind the German lines.

 

Such movement is reassuring. Even the pessimistic old soldier of 1914 feels the prevailing optimism rising above a miasma of ancient dread.

 

For it was something hardly to be faced even in thought: that the known plan of General Rawlinson, based on annihilation of enemy positions by bombardment: total destruction of all defences and defenders before and behind the First Position, was based on an incomplete assessment of the enemy’s fortress-strength.

 

General Rawlinson’s headquarters lay beside the Amiens–Albert road, up which in endless columns foot and wheeled traffic was moving east. The long straight pavé road, built by Napoleon, was hard for marching feet.

 

Poplar trees lined the long route Napoleon, the shade of rustling leaves was welcome on grassy verges where the columns fell out to rest 10 minutes of every marching hour. Endless sweating faces, endless tramps of heavy nailed boots.

 

‘My dear old bean, I tell you, this time nothing of the old Huns’ field works will be left. Just think – seven days’ preliminary bombardment, night and day! A million and a half shells pooped off before Zero Hour!’

 

The division is out of the line, assembling at a back area behind Querrieu, for battle-formation practice as a division, under the eye of Fourth Army Commander, the great man himself.

 

There he is, with his guidon, banner with the Fourth Army’s device of a wild boar’s head, and the immaculate red-tabbed staff with the Divisional Commander.

 

Enemy trenches marked by tapes, lest enemy aircraft spot what’s going on. Markers with flags will move on as the (imagined) artillery barrage lifts to behind the enemy front trench.

 

Advance in six orderly lines, one hundred yards intervals in depth. Six ‘waves’ (new word) of carrying parties – pedlars in fact. For on Zero Day each infantryman will carry about 60lbs of clobber – wire, screw-pickets, bombs, SAA, iron rations in sandbags, water in two-gallon petrol cans, shovels, picks, all the usual stuff.

 

Is this clobber to be carried across a roadless, upheaved area like a frozen stormy sea of chalk and loam, of villages turned by high explosive into red dust clouds borne up into higher heated air . . .

 

‘The adjutant’s compliments, all company officers to the Commanding Officer’s conference, sir.’

 

The CO wears the MC riband with silver rosette, the Cross was twice won in the 1915 battles. He is a captain, with acting rank only.

 

‘To sum up, the Army Commander bases the attack on the belief that nothing will remain of the Boche fortifications at Zero Hour.’

 

Twelve thousand acres of total upheaval. Thirteen British divisions over the top.

 

One hundred and forty battalions advancing 2,400 yards on average, on the way dumping their pedlar’s junk and ‘dealing’ with any German troops who may or may not have survived 1,500,000 shell-bursts on top, sometimes, of those 30ft-deep dugouts.

 

‘Well, that’s about all. Any questions?’

 

Silence. One hardly dares to think it to oneself . . .

 

The senior major, second-in-command, who will remain behind on Z-day and look after the cadre of officers and men left behind to form a nucleus speaks:–

 

‘I hear from the brigade major that “Duggie” Haig quoted the Infantry Training Manual to “Rawly”, saying it laid down that the first principle of an assault is to rush the position.’

 

‘The orders’, says the Colonel (acting) slowly and distinctly, ‘are based on the Army Commander’s assurance that there will be no opposition to speak of on Zero Day. At least, not in the First Position.’

 

Now let us see what is happening beyond the rusty brown line far away across no-man’s-land; and beyond, to Bapaume, 10 miles behind the First Position.

 

The red-brick town is the headquarters of the commander of the Second German Army.

 

A Senior Commanders’ Conference has been called thither, to discuss a somewhat puzzling situation.

 

First, what are the British up to? Is there to be a genuine offensive?

 

For they lack sufficient siege artillery to destroy the underground stellung or fortress system of thousands of linked dugouts, each a panelled chamber 7ft high and 30ft deep in the chalk, with 40 wood-lined steps leading down to the living chambers, with bunk beds and all with alternative exits and entrances.

 

Is this, then, to be a feint attack, to draw the German reserves from the French front at Verdun?

 

We shall now consider that our German troops evacuate all their positions the night before the attack, which we know by our ‘Moritz’ listening apparatus, by which all telephone talks have been recorded, to be the end of June.

 

Shall we allow the waves of attackers to go forward and finding our stellungen unmanned, advance further, and then shall we attack on the flanks with a pincer movement?

 

It was decided not to evacuate their positions, but to continue practising rapid ascent to the dugout entrances and to scramble over the trench parapets to conceal the machine-gun teams in shellholes in no-man’s-land, in front of the rush wire belts, and to fire down fixed corridors of arranged cross-fire when the pedlars, carrying their loads, and their eyes dazed by the sun rising in the east, were within 150 metres of the First Position.

 

 

 

II

 

 

Rainy weather delayed Zero hour by two days, and to avoid confusion Y/Z night became Y2/Z night. A south-west gale kept aircraft grounded.

 

But the shells rushed east from British batteries in orchard, cottage garden, spinney, and chalk quarry below the downlands which drained into the River Somme.

 

Distant groups of spoutings arose over the German lines, as from unseen whales in a rough sea breaking, in places, as on some far away Pacific reef.

 

Fourth Army, which was to fight the battle, wanted to know the disposition and strength of the German truppen which opposed the 13 British divisions in the line, so many night raids fell upon the First German Position, all along the 12 miles of Fourth Army Front, to bring back prisoners for questioning.

 

Scores of reports were sent back by battalion adjutants to Brigade, thence to Division, and Corps.

 

There were five Army Corps in Fourth Army, each Corps employing a staff of over 1,000 officers, warrant officers, NCOs and men.

 

Each Corps headquarters was known among the lesser Staffs as ‘the Post Office’. Here every day were delivered hundredweights of paper forms – reports, signals, indents – casualty lists – to be sorted and taken to various departments – Deputy Assistant Adjutants-General, ditto Quarter-masters-General, Medical, Intelligence, Veterinary, Paymasters, Gunners, and whatnots.

 

All more or less trained, but not tested in battle as staffs entire; and all more or less derided by front-line soldiers as the Royal Staybacks, Fireside Lancers, Bumph Brigade, and other titles.

 

At Fourth Army were vaster staffs, and at GHQ a gargantuan assembly of officers and personnel.

 

Now the Commander-in-Chief’s GHQ, and all subsequent commands to Army, Corps, Division, Brigade, and Battalion, depend on front-line information from reports sent in by junior officers.

 

The job of many a young ‘temporary gentleman’ with blackened face at night leading a section of his platoon ‘over the bags’ and across no-man’s-land into the enemy front line was to send back all significant information concerning the enemy’s strength, dispositions, and layout of his field works.

 

But in all the raids on the German line which preceded the assault of July 1, 1916, not one report included the most significant item: that the enemy dugouts were 30ft deep in solid chalk.

 

Now it is history that the depth of these underground fortresses came as ‘a complete surprise to GHQ’. How else was the Staff to know?

 

Nine months before, September 1915, the battle of Loos revealed the German dugouts to be 8ft deep, mere pits roofed with timber and sandbags and shored by iron rails.

 

A 6-inch howitzer shell destroyed one with a direct hit. But nothing under a 9.2-inch howitzer could blow in one of the thousands of linked dugouts comprising the great fortress, or stellung, of the Somme uplands.

 

Was such a report sent in, to be smothered under the daily hundredweights of paper received at any Corps ‘Post Office’?

 

In any event, it would have been too late to alter the plan of attack based on ‘complete annihilation of the enemy field-works’, and substitute Haig’s suggestion to Rawlinson to ‘rush the position’, after shedding all the carrying-party clobber and crawling across no-man’s-land while the final bombardment concealed all in flying scriddicks and dust and smoke turning the early morning sunshine a dubious brown.

 

It is now the night of June 30–July 1, 1916. The British soldiers are moving in twilight from their billets in cottage, barn, cattle shed, and bivouac encampment in the woods, to their assembly places.

 

Each unit of these assault troops who were, in military phrase, to enjoin the battle, had its guide and marked route out of the valley.

 

In Albert itself, the streets were filled with lorries, motor-cycle despatch riders, limber and wagons drawn by teams of mules and draught horses.

 

Leaving the town – we are in the mid-centre of the 12-mile assault area: similar scenes are taking place in all villages and valleys in what is known as the Somme battlefield – the tracks up to the assembly trenches are marked by dim green and red lantern lights set upon the ground.

 

Each man, of nearly 150,000 comprising the initial assault troops (with the French on our right flank), is now in a dark world of his own. Finished are the songs and jests of comradeship, as terrific shocks of light and sound from among the town’s ruins, and from emplacements on slopes of rising ground smite every soul on its journey into an appalling and unknown future.

 

As they move on and up, every tree and figure seems as though turned to stone in each great successive shock of light beyond any previous imagining.

 

Figures blanched and petrified by every fresh shock of light-noise, seeming staggered-still by enormous stabbings of light-crashings from gun batteries now almost wheel-to-wheel and blasting off shells which pass screaming and only just missing, it seems, their steel helmets.

 

They stop, each column at its dump, to pick up rolls of barbed wire, picks and shovels, water cans and bombs, screw-pickets and bundles of sand-bags; all the impedimenta of battle is loaded upon them.

 

Some of them stick in the communication trenches opening abruptly before their feet, where a guide directs them downwards.

 

They are talking now: no Jerry shelling, no strafing at all! It’s a Cake Walk!

 

Keep it going, boys. Your race is almost run.

 

And as suddenly as it began the shelling ceased, and the darkness seemed thick, so that it seemed hard to breathe. There was no moon.

 

A vast shadow had congealed all life. They lay or squatted in the front, reserve and support trenches, smoking, rarely talking, some trying to sleep.

 

Their officers moved among them, rolls were quietly called by company sergeant-majors, each man was checked that his equipment, fatigue stores, and above all his rifle, were in order.

 

A message was read out from the Army Commander, that remote figure who was not as they were.

 

Silence again, nearly all figures in recline. Owls are heard calling in the valley woods below. And suddenly the sky leaps alight, shells scream over and as abruptly cease. From in front the abrupt coughing of hand grenades is heard.

 

It is the first of several raids on the German lines. The idea is to deceive the enemy into thinking that this night is like any other preceding night during the past two weeks. If raids ceased, it was declared at Fourth Army, ‘the Boche might smell a rat’. However, by sending the Army Commander’s message of good will over the telephone to the troops assembled in the front line, ‘the Boche’ has already read it by means of the ‘Moritz’ listening system which picks up all such electrical signals.

 

Also they had read in a British paper a report of the British Prime Minister’s speech to munition workers, asking them to work throughout Whitsun, for reasons which he, Lloyd George, would not and could not state openly, lest it give information to you know who, of what was coming!

 

So now the German garrison were sleeping, deep down in their dugouts, awaiting what they knew was coming with the rising of the sun.

 

Far behind the British battalions in their assembly places, other troops are on the march. They are the reserves, who will attack the Second German line, when the capture of the First is consolidated.

 

They march into an illuminated horizon, thrilled by the silent running up and down, the noiseless expansion of flashes, the tremble and quiver of light in the sky.

 

There is the steady rhythm of the columns in step, occasionally a song, but towards the end of the march no sound other than that of nails biting the hard, grey road.

 

No sounds of gunfire: only the noiseless play of light far ahead, single flashes above the shimmering horizon, then many flickering together, so near together as to make a great butterfly of light tremulant above the horizon before flitting into darkness, to rise again with palpitating wings which seem to be filling all the starry dome with soundless light.

 

Owing to the lie of the slowly rising downland ahead, and the hollows of the valleys, there was no sound of the cannonade, except an occasional dull boom of the railway gun a night’s march away.

 

And so these new soldiers, without front-line experience, came to the town of Albert as the eastern sky was becoming rosy with the dawn, to see above them the Golden Virgin leaning from the shattered campanile above, and holding the Babe in her arms.

 

This legendary figure received many a sigh, many a prayer, with thoughts of a mother at home, and what she would do if . . .

 

The pace is now slower. Break step is the order. They halt, to find the Town Major and his staff of guides awaiting their arrival, and to lead them to barns, cottages, and bivouac encampments which the assault troops had quit the night before.

 

In an hour or so the final bombardment will begin, at 6.25 a.m., and we shall be with the troops in the front line, as they ‘go over the bags’ to begin the Battle of the Somme. But one must give this warning: it is not going to be easy.

 

 

 

III

 

 

At 5 o’clock (British Summer Time), 3 a.m. (Berlin time) the sun rose upon a still, fine morning in Picardy, Northern France. It was July the First, 1916, at home but dateless on the battlefield.

 

Over a quarter of a million English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh troops, nearly all amateur soldiers, including the reserves, waited in chalk trenches along a 12-mile front for the bombardment to open.

 

Extending for another eight miles on the right flank of the British, the French were to attack simultaneously.

 

Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig wanted to attack at dawn. He had been overruled by ‘Papa’ Joffre, commanding the French Armies. Marshal Joffre’s tactics required full sunlight for his superb field guns, the Seventy Fives, to co-operate fully and elastically with his advancing infantry.

 

The British plan was fixed, and almost stolid: an annihilating bombardment would smash and overwhelm, preceding the infantry assault, all German underground dugouts, trench systems, and garrisons.

 

Thus, it was declared, would be prepared the way for a general advance into enemy territory. Then, on high ground the British troops would dig in and prepare for the counter-attack.

 

This having been broken, the cavalry would go through, trench war would end, and a German retreat out of North-West France and Belgium be inevitable.

 

Such was ‘Papa’ Joffre’s idea. The Germans were amazed. If the attack succeeded it would mean a great salient in their lines, which would be cut off!

 

The final bombardment started just before 6.30 a.m. Across the hundreds of yards of no-man’s-land rising smoke and dust turned the sunshine brown.

 

Shells of all weights and sizes from 13-pounder shrapnel to ton-weight 15-inch howitzer shells, continued for almost an hour to shake the chalk stratum.

 

After weeks of rehearsal in back areas every soldier knew his job. Coloured ribbons were tied to shoulder-straps of tunics to distinguish bomber from bayonet-man, Lewis-gunners from rifle-grenadier.

 

Each division had its device of animal, shield, flower, butterfly, bloody hand (of Ulster), and other signs.

 

So great the belief in the total destruction of the artillery that the assault troops were, in fact, carrying-parties, each soldier being weighed down with about 66lbs of material, ammunition, tools, which would be necessary when holding the German lines against counter attacks.

 

The assault troops were to go forward in six extended lines with 100-yard intervals between the ‘waves’. The first wave would deal with any survivors of the bombardment, the second wave support the first, and also supply escorts for prisoners; the other three waves to advance to the Pozières Ridge, two miles to the east, dig in, put out wire, and await the counter-attack.

 

The bombardment on July the First, a culmination of many days’ shelling, totalling over a million and a half shells, lifted at zero hour, 7.30 a.m. The sun, now fairly high in the clear eastern sky, in which many larks were singing, blazed into the eyes of the advancing British and French, many now white-faced and trembling, others swearing and shouting to free themselves of fear as they climbed up wooden step-ladders and over the sandbags filled with chalk.

 

For these parapets were now spurting and breaking with German machine-gun bullets. Each man found himself as though naked and alone in dreaded no-man’s-land where, strangely, men were dropping rifles, sitting down, or sinking to their knees. While those remaining upright still advanced in line, monstrous shells began to roar down and burst blackly.

 

From far north, down into and up again from the valley of the Ancre, men were similarly falling. The German dugouts had not been destroyed. They were too far down in the chalk.

 

Their garrisons had remained unhurt, and when the British guns had lifted, they had come fast up the 40 wood-encased steps, run into no-man’s-land, set up their Spandau machine guns, and fired bursts along lines laid down.

 

Thus no-man’s-land was swept with tens of thousands of bullets every minute and soon nothing was left standing.

 

At Gommecourt, at the northern end of the British line (a fortified park and château) a few soldiers of the 46th (North Midland) Division got into the front trench before being bombed out.

 

The 56th (London) Division of Territorials fared little better. Queen’s Westminsters, London Rifle Brigade, Rangers, the London Scottish, and other proud units stood up to the fire and fell.

 

Parties tried to cross no-man’s-land, in broad daylight, to help comrades being bombed out of fire-trenches, and fell dead. More took their places and died beside them.

 

By evening the few survivors were back in their own lines. Below, or southwards of the London Division’s sector, lay the South Midland Division, the 48th of Territorials.

 

They lay, indeed, never to rise again, beside those on the right flank, the 31st Division, lads from Yorkshire and Lancashire. No gains, all losses.

 

All back in their own lines, the dead asprawl in no-man’s-land; also the next division, the 4th, with which I served in 1914. No gains. Then the 29th Division – no gains. Back where they started from – going forth in the morning light thick as a Cup-tie crowd, but in order – and returning in ones and twos.

 

So we cross the River Ancre and come to the bloody hand of Ulster. Those boys got through the Pommern redoubt and the Wonderwork – they rushed the positions, they got through, a thin trickle of khaki, almost to the German gun-pits and had to come back because their flanks were in the air, which meant nobody on their flanks to stop them being shot in the rear.

 

So they came back, fighting all the way, and were the first in the line coming down from the north as we have seen, to get through the German trenches, their tremendous surge had taken them almost through to open country.

 

The 32nd Division, lying next to them, left their dead in no-man’s-land but kept a few, still living, in the front German trench.

 

Now I return to the 8th Division: I have told the story of that crossing by La Boisselle, of the mines going up just before Zero Hour, and over 5,000 casualties in half an hour, to the losses of just over 100 among the Germans opposite. If you want more, it is in a book called The Golden Virgin.

 

Below the 8th’s territory, the Geordies, tough, good boys from Durham, grand miners under the Y sap and beside the Glory Hole by the Albert–Bapaume Road. The 34th Division – smashed to hell.

 

So my elegiac story approaches its end.

 

If they suffered hard north of the road, the Divisions south of it, the 17th, 7th, 18th, and 30th, had better luck – or leadership – or terrain. I do not know.

 

But they took Mametz village, and also Montauban – the Mount of the Dawn, I suppose, and beautiful it must have been before that war, when there was still surety in Great Britain, and her Empire.

 

Nearly 60,000 casualties on July 1 and the battle which was to have broken out into open country in a month or so took four and a half months to reach the Second Position, but we were not fighting for territory but to carry out ‘Papa’ Joffre’s plan of attrition.

 

Two nations bleeding themselves white on the Somme.

 

 


 

 

 

'The Somme – just fifty years after' was first published in the Daily Express over three days, Wednesday to Friday, 29/30 June and 1 July 1966. It was later collected in Days of Wonder (1987; e-book 2013, Henry Williamson Society). The illustration heading the article, used by the Express, is by Don Roberts, then Art Director at the newspaper.

 

 

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