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Q.6.a and Other places Part 4

XII

THE SOMME[7]

The battle on the Somme was to me the great tragedy of the war. A glorious noble tragedy, but still a tragedy. Both sides of course have claimed the victory, the British a tactical one, the Germans a strategic one. The net result to the Allies from a material point of view was the recapture of some hundreds of square miles of France, for the most part battered to bits and as desolate and useless as a wilderness; and the capture or destruction of so many thousands of the enemy at a cost altogether out of proportion to their numbers. The Germans claim, and claim quite rightly, that they frustrated our attempt to break through their line. On the other hand it can be little consolation for them to know that a nation of amateur soldiers[8] drove them out of the strongest fortress in the world; drove them out so completely that they were glad to take refuge, morally as well as physically, behind their famous Hindenburg Line.

No doubt our grand attack lasting from July to November 1916 cemented the Alliance with France and saved Verdun from falling. No doubt it paved the way, in knowledge and morale, for further attacks at a later date. The fact remains that before its lessons were learnt the slopes of the Ancre and the Somme were sown with the bodies of thousands of the finest specimens of the British race. What a cost was paid for the example and the lesson! Never again during the war had Britain such fine athletic men, such gallant and heroic sons to fight her battles.

No horror or hardship could subdue their spirit. Again and again, through shattered ranks and over ground covered with the fallen, they went forward to the supreme sacrifice as cheerfully and as light-heartedly as if they were out for a holiday. They knew they could beat the enemy in front of them, and they went on and did it again and again, in spite of the wire, in spite of the mud, in spite of thousands of machine-gun bullets and shells. The tragedy of it all is written in one word. _Waste_--waste of lives, waste of effort, waste of ammunition. The fact is now clear that in 1916 the resources of the British Nation were not sufficiently developed to smash the German war machine. That was undoubtedly the hope of every one who took part in the battle, to deliver a final knock-out blow. But this hope failed, even if it failed by a little. Our artillery, mighty as it undoubtedly was, was not mighty enough yet to destroy the enemy's defences and to shatter his power of resistance. Alas, it was a blow that could never be repeated again with such magnificent human resources!

After the supreme effort by all ranks a terrible wave of depression naturally followed. And can this be wondered at? For a time there was lack of confidence which made itself all too apparent in 1917, a year of unparalleled disasters. No one who has not set out with such high hopes can know how awful that depression can be.

The effort of the British Army was never so united, never so intense as it was in the battle on the Somme. Later on reverses brought knowledge and knowledge at last brought victory. But for some that victory had its sad side too; for thousands upon thousands of those gay and gallant comrades in the Great Endeavour were not there to share it.[9]

The part of the 50th Division in the battle was not a small one.

Briefly the Division went into the Somme area on August 17, 1916, and left it about March 10, 1917. Their first attack was launched on September 15, 1916, in company with the Guards and some of the finest divisions in the British Army. After almost continuous fighting they were withdrawn about October 5, and went back to the rest area around Henencourt till October 21--after having advanced their line from High Wood Ridge to the edge of Le Sars.

On October 25 they returned to the same front and made two gallant but fruitless attacks on the Butte of Warlencourt, in support of larger operations about Beaumont Hamel. The hardship of the fighting between October 25 and November 16 cannot be realised by those who did not actually experience the conditions. From December 28 to January 23 the Division held the line south of Le Barque and Ligny-Thilloy. After that they moved farther south and held the line in front of Belloy and Estrees, trenches that had been captured by the French. No wonder, after this hard work, that the 50th Division gained the reputation of a hard fighting division.

I can give no very accurate idea of the casualties suffered by the Division; but some idea of the losses may be drawn from the casualties among the bombers of the 7th N.F. Of these I have fairly accurate details. The bombers of the 7th N.F. went into action on September 15, 1916, about eighty strong--ten N.C.O.s and seventy men. When the roll was called at Bresle on November 20, 1916, eleven men alone answered.

Of the N.C.O.'s two were wounded and the rest were killed. The bombers of the 4th N.F. suffered almost as heavily, but I have now no details.

FOOTNOTES:

[7] See Illustration, p. 81.

[8] I allude of course to the New Armies.

[9] These views of the battle, I am told, are unduly pessimistic. But I let them stand as a record of personal feelings aroused as a result of the battle.

XIII

HeNENCOURT

Brigade Head-quarters were accommodated in wooden huts, but the battalions were mostly under canvas. Strenuous efforts had now to be made to complete the training of the men, and to initiate them to a style of warfare that was quite new and strange to them.

My own task was to train as many men as possible in the use of the Mills grenade. Each day I had fifty men to train, and they were kept at it all morning and again in the evening, until they had each thrown two live grenades. I had the services of three sergeant-instructors, who were invaluable in getting the men past the first stage. All the live firing I had to supervise myself; that being the rule of the Army, that an officer should always be present during live practice.

All my spare time was spent in going over and testing the grenades to be fired next day, or in baling out the bombing trench, which filled very rapidly in wet weather. And so it went on day after day. Thirteen officers and 671 men who had never previously thrown a live grenade went through the course at Henencourt; and about 1400 live grenades were fired. The battalion bombers used the ground in the afternoon in charge of their own officers; and they got through another 1000 grenades. On September 2 I was able to tell the General that every man in the Brigade, including machine-gunners and trench-mortar men, had been through the course, with which he expressed himself very pleased.

Towards the end of our stay the General came to see the live throwing several times in the evenings, and he always spoke very encouragingly to the men.

About September 6 I went with a party of officers from the Brigade to view the trenches we were to take over on the Somme battlefield. And as this was my first visit there it naturally made a great impression on me. We started off in the dark and rode through Henencourt and Millencourt to Albert. Just before we reached Albert we passed through a cloud of lachrymatory gas, which made me weep copious tears for nearly half an hour. The great sight in Albert was of course the ruined cathedral, with its colossal statue of the Virgin and Child hanging downwards over the roadway. We rode on to where the front line had been at Fricourt then to Fricourt 'Circus,' Mametz, and then to the south of Mametz Wood, where we left our horses. First we went through the wood to B.H.Q., which were in some deep dugouts there.

Having obtained guides and a rough sort of map, we went on to Battalion H.Q. at the Chalk Quarry east of Bazentin-le-Petit. This was about 1000 yards from the front line, which lay just below the ridge from Martinpuich to High Wood. A deep C.T. called 'Jutland Alley'

took us up to the front line--'Clark's Trench.' So far we had little trouble from shelling, but we passed over the bodies of two unfortunate Highlanders in Jutland Alley who had been recently killed by a shell. The entrance to Intermediate Trench on the left was terrible, the smell being overpowering. As a matter of fact there were scores of dead men just out of sight on both sides of this trench, whom it had been impossible to bury. It was not unusual to see an arm or leg protruding out of the side of the C.T., so hastily had the Germans buried their dead. And there were swarms and swarms of flies everywhere. When we had finished looking round in the front line, which was a good trench and quite quiet, we turned back down Jutland Alley. The German 'heavies' were now shelling the supports and close to the C.T. One shell, which seemed not to explode, hit the edge of the C.T.; and when we got to the place we found the trench partially filled in and an unfortunate man buried up to his neck, much shaken but not much hurt. We left him to be extricated by his friends who had got spades. I then visited the trenches near the windmill and then returned to the south of Mametz Wood. Whilst waiting here I examined with interest the many curious little 'cubby holes' that our troops had made during the attack on Mametz Wood. I also watched the German 'heavies' shelling our field batteries near Bazentin-le-Grand, and sending up clouds of chalky dust. A few shrapnel shells were also fired near the road, and I believe our horses and orderlies were nearly hit, but escaped by galloping off when the first shell came.

The countryside looked very desolate and knocked about till we got to Fricourt Circus, only the chalky roads were crammed with limbers and lorries taking up supplies. At the Circus there was a remarkable sight, a huge camping ground covering several square miles, every available spot on it packed with dumps and horse-lines, artillery parks, bivouacs, and tents. All the roads round here were full of troops on the move, and of lines and lines of lorries either coming or going. After passing Albert there was less of interest, but we saw one of our aeroplanes stranded in a ploughed field east of Millencourt.

The pilot told us he had got his machine damaged over the German line, but had managed to get back thus far, when he had made a bad landing.

Such was my first visit to the great battlefield, a dreary looking spot with a general aspect of chalk, broken stumps of trees, and crowded muddy roads.

Our stay at Henencourt was drawing to a close, but before we left we had an inspection by the III Corps Commander. And on the last day, September 9, we held a grand sports day and had a band playing. The men looked splendidly fit and well after their month's rest, and they displayed a wonderful spirit, talking eagerly of their part in the coming attack. Alas and alas! At times I could have wept to see these splendid bronzed men go marching by, the very flower of our English race. For I knew that very soon I should see few of them again, or few indeed of their like.

XIV

MAMETZ WOOD

On Sunday September 10, the Brigade left Henencourt, and B.H.Q. went to the deep dugouts in Mametz Wood. I travelled there with Sergts.

Moffat and Hogg, and we were lucky enough to get good lifts, first in a Canadian Staff car and then on a motor-lorry. Capt. Bloomer (5th D.L.I. and attached to B.H.Q.) shared a deep dugout with me, and we had meals together.

It was the first deep dugout I had entered, and of course it was the work of the Germans. There were about twenty steps down at either end, the wooden sides of the stairway scarred with bullet holes and splinters. Inside there were just two narrow apartments, one for our bedroom and the other for meals. Though rather draughty it was comfortable enough and practically shell-proof. Capt. Bloomer had an unpleasant job, which kept him out late at nights, and I did not envy him. In order to make the attack, it was decided to dig a forward trench some way in front of Clark's Trench. The digging was done at night and cost us a number of casualties from shell and rifle fire.

Capt. Bloomer used to go up every night to see the work done.

The second morning at Mametz Wood I was greatly shocked to hear that our Brigadier had been killed by a sniper from High Wood, as he was going out to inspect the forward trench just after dawn. It was nearly two days before his body could be brought in, owing to the shelling that went on at night. He was buried at Albert. A few days later Brigadier-General Ovens, an Irishman, came to take command of the 149th Infantry Brigade.

My job was now to prepare the Brigade bomb stores and to see that the grenades were properly packed into sandbag carriers for taking up the line. A special dugout had been prepared as a bomb store near the Chalk Quarry at Bazentin-le-Petit, but almost at the last moment the R.A.M.C. commandeered the place for their forward dressing-station. So the boxes of grenades had to lie in the open in large shell-holes, covered with German greatcoats, mackintosh sheets, or anything else we could get hold of. I spent hours and hours examining the grenades and packing them into sandbag carriers. One of our transport-wagons[10]

had a lucky escape, whilst carrying a load of 2000 Mills grenades, all detonated, to one of our dumps. The safety-pin of one of the grenades broke with the jolting of the wagon, and the grenade went off, bursting its own and several other boxes, but not setting off any other of the grenades. I had an anxious time unpacking that wagon-load. The brass safety-pins of the Mills grenades were very unsatisfactory at this time; but I had collected a large number of steel pins from the bombing grounds, and I used to re-pin any that I thought had weak brass-pins. This examination of the grenades was rather wearisome, but it was time well spent, for we had no accident with them when the carrying-parties took them up the line. And other units were not so fortunate in that respect. About 24,000 grenades went through my hands, and of these perhaps 5000 went into the sandbags. On September 14 we first saw the mysterious tanks, which had arrived behind the quarry to take part in the great attack next day.

We had two allotted to our Division. That night we moved from Mametz Wood to the Chalk Quarry at Bazentin-le-Petit. Here one of the Divisional Field Co. R.E. had prepared for us excellent H.Q. in the side of the Quarry. The offices were well down in the side of the Quarry, the mess room was a large shelter covered with sandbags a little higher up. We were fairly crowded that night, for a large number of 'liaison' officers arrived for duty next day. We were sleeping inside the mess shelter, practically shoulder to shoulder all over the floor. Officers were sleeping and feeding and working there all at the same time. A day and night mess was run for the benefit of all that came in.

For the last four or five days our artillery had kept up an almost continual fire on the enemy's lines. Now at the last moment the guns of the Field Artillery were taken out of their hiding places and brought forward into the open. Our chalk pit was practically under the muzzles of about a dozen field guns.

Later on that night we heard a curious whistling, puffing sound, it was the two tanks clambering up the hill to get into position near the front line.

FOOTNOTES:

[10] Lieut. F.C. Clayton was now Brigade Transport Officer.

XV

THE 15TH SEPTEMBER 1916

We were all up early next morning, and got some breakfast well before dawn. The air outside had a regular autumn chill. At first only an occasional gun fired in the distance. But about twenty minutes before dawn, our heavy guns opened their bombardment. To one standing in the quarry, below the level of the ground, they had the most weird of sounds. A dull rumbling in the rear and a continual whizz and hiss high overhead. Hardly a sound of the guns firing and no sound of the shells bursting. Only that terrible grinding swish in the air above.

Twenty minutes of that, and then, with a terrific roar, all our field guns opened, and we knew that our comrades in front, the 4th N.F. on the right and the 7th N.F. on the left, had 'gone over the top.' The noise in front of the field batteries was pandemonium, excruciating to the nerves. The air shook and quivered with the sound, the quarry seemed to shake. You could only hear when the speaker shouted in your ear. And so it went on hour by hour all day. The rate of fire subsided, but the guns went on all day. I was standing with the Staff-Captain in the Quarry, when I got what felt like a stone in the face. It proved to be a piece of a shell, but happily for me it struck the ground first and caught me on the rebound. A small cut about the nose and chin, but I had to go and have it dressed. I got well chaffed afterwards on my rather comical appearance. It was an anxious time before the first news got back, but when it did it was good. Our men had taken the first German trench, and were waiting to go ahead again. Unfortunately High Wood was not taken by the 47th Division on our right till midday, and meanwhile we lost numerous casualties from having our right flank exposed to machine-gun fire. A report came in that a large party of Germans were starting a bombing attack on our right, so it was decided to send up a supply of grenades. I went, therefore, and found Lieut. Mackenzie, who was in charge of 100 men acting as carriers, and handed over 2400 grenades.

This party went up to the front line and back without mishap. But shortly afterwards Lieut. Mackenzie was badly wounded by one of our own shells bursting prematurely. We had fifty casualties at the Quarry from premature bursts. It was not the fault of the gunners, but either the guns were worn or the shells were defective.

[Illustration: Scene of Attacks by 50th Division. Sept. 15-Nov.

14, 1916.]

I lost two sergeant-instructors in the Quarry. Sergt. Moffat was badly hit in the thigh with a fragment from a premature and died a few days after. Sergt. Hogg was wounded in the chest by a bullet, but not fatally. The wounded and prisoners began to stream back past the Quarry. And as they came we began to get news of our friends in front. Though successful the Brigade had to pay a heavy price. The 4th N.F. were literally cut to pieces. I lost many friends killed, including Capt. J.W. Merivale, 2nd-Lieut. J. Robinson, and Sergt.

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