Our division was not to be in the initial attack. We were the troops to help the cavalry when the break-through was made - or to continue the attack on the trenchline if by unhappy chance it wasn’t. By1st July we were in billets close behind the line, somewhere, I think, around Albert, whose battered church we had passed, gazing up at its gilded virgin at the head of its tower, now horizontal, later to dip further and finally to fall. There we waited and fed on rumours. On the 4th we were ordered in to attack.
There must have been many soldiers in France - the older ones, the more serious-minded ones - who tried to keep abreast of the news and to obtain some sort of wide view of the conduct of the war. But they must have been in the minority and I knew of none: not so much ‘ours not to reason why’ as that we didn’t want to reason why.
Even those who did want to know must have found it difficult, for one of the arts of war is to hide unwelcome truths. The nub of this truth was that the Allied generals had been suffering from what all generals must suffer from, though some of their critics would hardly seem to allow it: there is an enemy; and he will do his damnedest to outwit you and forestall you. This battle of the Somme, the show-piece of the great concerted effort of 1916, was not turning out as was intended. Way back in February Falkenhayn, the then German generalissimo, had launched his great battle of attrition, choosing for it the fortress which he knew the French would do all in their power to save, Verdun. All through the spring and early summer that battle had gone on, whilst the disrupted plans for concerted action reduced themselves to hurried and abortive attacks by Italians and Russians and the taking over by the British of the last part of the line north of the Somme which the French had so far held.
Only on 24th June did the battle of Verdun finally die down; and by then the French armies were exhausted. The result: a further slight delay in the opening of the Somme battle and a great reduction in the French participation from what had been originally intended. The main reason for the choice of an otherwise not particularly favourable battle site - that this was where the two national armies joined and that they could thus attack together, bras-dessous bras-dessous, as Joffre put it - had now but little force. But it was too late to change.
All this few soldiers can have realized, or for that matter civilians either; for most of us none of it was realized at all - which was perhaps to the good, for the knowledge would have done us no good.
On 1st July, on a fine sunny morning, the great attack was made, five French divisions on an eight mile front south of the river and eighteen British divisions on a fourteen mile front north of the river.
The result is only too well known: in the south an advance but nowhere near great enough for a break-through; in the north virtually no advance at all; for the British a tale of casualties amounting to almost sixty thousand, of whom about a third were dead. There have been greater battle casualties. But it was an appalling figure.
The days of 2nd and 3rd July were days of regrouping and consolidation, with abortive attacks on the left but also with the final capture of Fricourt, where we were soon to be, on the right. Haig was now planning a fresh all-out attack; and for this some tactical ‘nibbling’ would be necessary in order to help that attack to success.
For that nibbling the Second East Lancashires would find themselves involved.
As for us, we continued to live on rumours. They were not of the wholly optimistic kind so far current in England - my sister’s diary for 7th July runs: ‘The British offensive began last Saturday. They have been doing very well’ (adding, on her own account, ‘but it is a terribly anxious time’). Our rumours were mixed. Some said that we had got no further than the parapet of our own trenches. Others told of villages captured and thousands of prisoners taken. It was obvious, from the evidence of our own ears, that the British bombardment had been stunning. But it was obvious too that there had not really been a breakthrough. We were not surprised. This, however, was not because we possessed superior wisdom; it was simply the natural pessimism of the expert, in this case the expert in staying put in trenches.
We now learnt that our brigade, the 24th (there were four battalions to a brigade, later three, and three brigades to a division) had been given the task of capturing the village of Contalmaison, and that the East Lancashires would not be the battalion in support. Our strength had just been augmented with a batch of new young officers; but they were, for this show, being left behind. They said farewell to us with a mixture of wistful regret and (probably) personal relief.
On the 5th it was ordered that two officers from each company should ride up to the front line and inspect the ground over which we would attack. Wade chose me to accompany him, perhaps because he thought I was least likely to fall off a horse. I was apprehensive of what would happen when we passed our guns; the horses however seemed on the whole less bothered by the noise than I was.
Something else also bothered me. We had recently been issued with the standard shrapnel-helmet or ‘tin hat’. This, I found, bashed itself disconcertingly onto the top of my head as soon as my horse began to trot. There was admittedly a certain amount of padding between one’s head and the hard iron of the helmet, but it was very inadequate. I tightened my chin-strap, struck out my chin, and hoped for the best.
Shell-fire soon made me forget this trouble. But the bursts were really very few and far between: there was a lull, at least on this sector of the line. Indeed the scene was almost peaceful - as also almost panoramic, for the ground rose gently in front of us, and the trench lines, in this chalky soil, showed up white, with now and then a patch of red where the disturbed seed of poppies had sprung to life.
A line of observation balloons swayed lazily high above us, and the muted bursts and white puffs of shrapnel around them, which never seemed to hit them, gave an impression of laziness too.
The ground around us however, and increasingly as we progressed, gave the lie to this illusion of afternoon lazy peacefulness.
Here was the chaos of battle.
We dismounted and walked up the road to what had been the village of Fricourt. No wall seemed left more than man-high and on each side was mud and shell-holes and the woodwork thrown askew of once well-built trenches. Motor ambulances came down the road and a few walking wounded - there was some fighting somewhere all right. Our guide asked the way of one of those. “Turn right by the dead major,” he was told.
We went on and the road became narrower, and less distinguishable as a road. Dead men began to appear, and they seemed all to be British, and their faces looked pale green. Why, I wondered - gas, or the effect of fumes? Then we came to the dead major. He lay with his eyes open, and they were very blue, and his arm was ﬂung out and on it showed plainly the crown and three stripes on his sleeve - he was making a most easily recognizable signpost.
At length we had reached what they told us was the front line.
Nobody seemed to be bothering to take cover; the Germans were apparently too preoccupied to take much notice of us; also too far away. There, across a green and vast no-man’s-land, was the village of Contalmaison, a few houses sheltering among trees. As we watched, a squad of Germans, for some reason, rose and moved their position, running. My first sight of the enemy! As we watched, a shell landed in the middle of them. “Good spotting!” we said. But we could not see very well.
In fact, what a distance away was Contalmaison! Had we got to attack over that vast green ﬂatness? Well, if we had, we had. We came back the way we had come; and I suppose there were meetings of company officers, but I don’t think there was any very useful or helpful information that we who had done the reconnoitre could give. What remained ineradicably in my mind was the dead major and the pale green faces.
The next day the battalion was moving up into the line, ready to attack early on the following morning. It seemed a long way when one was not on horseback. We fell out in a field and had a meal, a sort of mass picnic. We then spread out by companies and then by platoons, ‘open-order drill’ proving useful. In Fricourt Wade halted his company for a rest and I, leading the first platoon, came and sat beside him. There was more activity today and more ambulances lurching down the road, from some of which came groans. “They ought to issue morphia tablets with the field dressing,” observed Wade. Was he getting ‘windy’? A Company finally got itself, at dusk, housed for the night in old, very deep and fairly intact German trenches. I walked up and down the parapet trying to supervise things. The shelling was now heavy, the great ‘crumps’ landing all about and sending up fountains of earth. I was thrilled that I didn’t feel afraid. “Come down out of there!” somebody yelled. I was again being guilty of foolhardiness.
The Germans had built very good dug-outs - it was this proficiency of course that was one of the great causes of the British failure in the battle of the Somme. We now made use of them, the company officers having one to themselves: we had an evening to spend there. A dug-out, whether British or German, is a very distinctive place. Most people have some ideas of it, from seeing a production of Journey’s End perhaps: the entrance at trench level protected by its impregnated anti-gas blanket, the stairs going down, the cavernous interior lit by inadequate pools of light from candles stuck on to a trestle table. Only the dank smell is missing and cannot come over the footlights, though a dug-out could be cosy once one had ‘got a good fug up’. I do not think that this one was particularly cosy however; perhaps it was too big, perhaps the circumstances were not conducive to such a feeling.
I do not remember that evening well. We had a meal of sorts I suppose, though the lugubrious Crumb could hardly have produced his masterpiece, sardines on toast. We may have drunk our rum ration. We certainly did not get drunk - we were in fact a remarkably abstemious mess, the usual drink being sticky French syrups, Citrone and Grenadine, with soda. I found some discarded German greatcoats, cut off a few buttons for souvenirs, and when I lay down on the ﬂoor to sleep put one of the coats over me because I did not feel very warm. Was I suffering from the ‘wind up’ that I had ungenerously attributed to Wade? Wade ordained ‘lights out’ early because our attack was timed for 7.30 a.m. But we had some idea of the rate of casualties of those who were ‘going over the top’ in the battle of the Somme, and I doubt whether any of us got to sleep very early.
As for myself: this was ‘the eve of the battle’ and I was aware that I ought to be thinking heroic or sentimentally nostalgic thoughts. But neither would come at the conscious summons. My home, the green drawing-room, the sunny garden, the dark, solid dining room? But I could only think of them in a thoroughly detached sort of way: they were of another world, so different from the blown-up chaos outside, the scattered dead, the dimly seen mud walls of this German dug- out. I could only feel rather miserable and rather cold. But that was solely of course because, coming up in battle order, we had not our usual trench coats to spread out as an eiderdown. I did get to sleep in the end and stayed so till wakened.
In the morning we were told that our attack had been put back by half an hour. I don’t think many of us knew the reason, that an attack the night before on which we were to depend had miscarried but that it had been too late to alter the artillery programme, this meaning that we should lose much of the advantage of our supporting barrage. It was not a good start. Up the road out of Fricourt and towards the dead major I was accosted, as it happened, by an old school friend. He had just come out of a ‘stunt’. It was pretty hot up there, he said. I wished rather heartily that I was in his shoes and not mine. Then I consulted my marked map once more, checked my loaded revolver and spare ammunition, and commanded, “Platoon, ’shun! At ease, quick march!” The dead major was still there; and then we were passing the place from which we had gazed across at Contalmaison, and the village did not look any nearer. We moved to the right and past some more unburied dead. One had died of haemorrhage with red froth round his lips; he looked like a clown. Then we found our jumping off place, a gully more than a trench. I looked over the top: there was a small copse, I noticed, to the left. I extended my men along the gully and looked at my synchronized watch. There were seven minutes to wait.
No one said much, though twice came the question, “How much longer, sir?” I don’t think we were afraid any more. It was Shakespeare’s courage screwed to the sticking point, not an exaltation but a sort of self-drugging. Then, in thoroughly approved style I was blowing my whistle, giving the overarm signal, and commanding “Advance!” Nothing happened at first. We advanced at a slow double. I noticed that it had begun to rain.
Then we came to a low muddy trench, the continuation probably of the one we had left to man our jumping off place. We jumped into it, and found Long’s platoon already there. He told me I had come too far to my left. Then he saw that I already had my revolver out, and chaffed me. Someone laughed, and I put the thing back in its holster. We all moved forward again, over the grass, forming one long line. And then the enemy machine-gunning started, first one gun, then many. They traversed, and every now and then there came the swish of bullets. Someone on the extreme right fell.
Long gave the command to lie down, and my men took it for a signal for themselves too. Now what? Presumably, ‘sectional rushes’, as per drill book, one section firing hard to cover the advance of the other. “Pass the word down,” I said, “my platoon will make a sectional rush.”
I waited until the machine-gunning had swished by and we rose and made a not very fast staggering run. When the machine-gunning was coming back I signalled to lie down. Long’s platoon came up in line with us.
Then there for a while we stuck. The rain continued and the machine-gunning continued too. We gave up firing: it was too far away for rifle fire to be effective; we could in any case see no Germans. We lay as fiat as possible and winced each time the machine-gun bullets passed. There were one or two groans; men were getting hit.
Ought I to make another sectional rush? Suddenly Wade had thrown himself by my side. “This is simply chucking men away!” he said. What was he going to do, I asked. B Company and the Worcesters on the right, he said, had less far to go. They might get in on the flank. He was going to wait. Then he had disappeared.
The machine gunning and the rain continued. Then Wade was at my side once more. “Make for the shelter of that copse!” he said.
We made for it, running with our knees and backs bent. We were out of the machine gun fire; but the German spotting was good and almost at once light artillery fire found us, ‘Whizz-bangs’ arriving, as their name implied, with hardly any warning.
Everyone lay along the outskirts of the little wood or just inside, and no one said anything. I looked round, and could see no sign of Wade or Long. Had the others retired? “Let’s get out of this, it’s a bloody death trap!” somebody said. I told him to shut up. But was he right? More men were getting wounded. A shell landed just in front of me, dislodging a sapling which fell across my legs but failing to explode. I felt temporarily elated at the escape. But what was happening - had the order to retire failed to reach me? But I couldn’t retire without orders.
The Assistant Adjutant was by my side. Where was Wade? He asked. I didn’t know. He said we were doing better on the right, but here it was a bloody fiasco. Everybody seemed to have retired - I had better do the same.
The men needed no encouragement. Stooping, they ran back, and I followed them.
We reached the trench where we had first met Long’s platoon. It was now half full of mud, the rain had done that: mud up to the knees, the consistency of stuff men bale out from street gratings. It was also full of men.
The shelling was growing heavier now, high explosives, with also shrapnel bursting overhead. The men were getting back as best they could, wading through, intent on escaping to safety.
There were wounded in the trench, one lying with a smashed leg and asking for water. I was horrified that no one seemed to be taking any notice and I gave him a drink from my water bottle. Ought I to try to carry him back, or was that the job of the stretcher bearers and was he safer at present at the bottom of the trench? A little ashamedly I decided that it was right to leave him.
I came up with a sergeant of another platoon. “Bad as the Ninth of May, sir,” he said. We struggled on through the mud and the rain and the shelling. Then came a terrific crack above my head, a jolt in my left shoulder, and at the same time I was watching in an amazed, detached sort of way my right forearm twist upward of its own volition and then hang limp. I realized that I had been hit.
The men treated a young officer in two ways, either generously and genuinely as their leader, or else, equally generously, as a sort of precious and slightly incomprehensible child to be taken care of. For a while I had, I suppose, been the former; I now returned to the latter. My servant was at my side almost at once - servants in the line served with their platoon.
“Get back along the top of the trench!” he commanded. He saw that my arms were useless. “Let your equipment slip off!” I did so, and left it in the Somme mud.
We continued over open ground - less safe but less slow and neither he nor I knew how badly I was wounded: he was taking a risk for my sake. I noticed that there was a good number of German dead about here; but I was more concerned with myself. Finally we reached the end of the trench where, as at a turnstile, stood the battalion doctor and his orderlies, sorting out the wounded from the whole. They dressed my wounds, told me that a shrapnel bullet had gone through my right forearm and another was probably still somewhere in my left shoulder, and put back my rain and mud and blood soaked tunic over my shoulders. Could I walk, asked the doctor. I would find a field dressing station down the road. “You’re for Blighty all right! Goodbye.” I started down the Fricourt road. People coming up grinned at me with friendly and probably jealous compassion, and I grinned back.
I was suddenly filled with a surge of happiness. It was a physical feeling almost, consciousness of a reprieve from the shadow of death, no less. That I had just taken part in a failure, that I had really done nothing to help win the war, these things were forgotten - if ever indeed they had entered my consciousness. I had been through the Somme battle and I was alive: that was enough.