But just as in March my thoughts pressed eagerly forward, from the sight allowed me of the machine, to its uses on the battle-front, to that line of living and fighting men for which it exists—so now.
Only, since I stood upon the hill near Poperinghe on March 2nd, that line of men has been indefinitely strengthened; and the main scene of battle is no longer the Ypres salient. Looking southward from the old windmill, whose supports sheltered us on that cold spring afternoon, I knew that, past Bailleul, and past Neuve Chapelle, I was looking straight toward Albert and the Somme, and I knew too that it was there that the British were taking over a new portion of the line,—so that we might be of some increased support—all that was then allowed us by the Allied Command!—to that incredible defence of Verdun, which was in all our minds and hearts.
But what I could not know was that in that misty distance was hidden—four months away—a future movement, at which no one then guessed, outside the higher brains of the Army. The days went on. The tide of battle ebbed and flowed round Verdun. The Crown Prince hewed and hacked his way, with enormous loss to Germany, to points within three and four miles of the coveted town—fortress no longer. But there France stopped him—like the beast of prey that has caught its claws in the iron network it is trying to batter down, and cannot release them; and there he is still. Meanwhile, in June, seven to eight weeks before the expected moment, Brusiloff's attack broke loose, and the Austrian front began to crumble; just in time to bring the Italians welcome aid in the Trentino.
And still from the Somme to the Yser, the Anglo-French forces waited; and still across the Channel poured British soldiers and British guns. In industrial England, the Whitsuntide holidays had been given up; and there were at any rate some people who knew that there would be no August holidays either. Leave and letters had been stopped. But there had been apparent signs, wrongly interpreted, before. The great Allied attack on the West—was it ready, at last?
Then—with the 27th of June, along the whole British battle-front of 90 miles, there sprang up a violent and continuous bombardment varied by incessant raids on the enemy lines. Those who witnessed that bombardment can hardly find words in which to describe it. "It was an extraordinary and a terrible spectacle," says a correspondent. "Within the dreadful zone the woods are leafless, chateau and farm and village, alike, mere heaps of ruins." Ah! ce beau pays de France—with all its rich and ancient civilisation—it is not French hearts alone that bleed for you! But it was the voice of deliverance, of vengeance, that was speaking in the guns which crashed incessantly day and night, while shells of all calibres rained—so many to the second—from every yard of the British front, on the German lines. The correspondents with the British Headquarters could only speculate with held breath, as to what was happening under that ghastly veil of smoke and fire on the horizon, and what our infantry would find when the artillery work was done, and the attack was launched.
The 1st of July dawned, a beautiful summer morning, with light mists dispersing under the sun. Precisely to the moment, at 7.30 A.M., the Allied artillery lifted their guns, creating a dense barrage of fire between the German front and its support trenches, while the British and French infantry sprang over their parapets and rushed to the attack of the German first line; the British on a front of some twenty-five miles, the French, on about ten miles, on both sides of the Somme. The English journalists, who, watch in hand, saw our men go, "knowing what it was they were going to, marvelled for the fiftieth time at the way in which British manhood has proved itself, in this most terrible of all wars."
But though it was a grand, it was an anxious moment for those who had trained and shaped the New Armies of Britain. How would they bear themselves, these hundreds of thousands of British and Imperial volunteers, men, some of them, with the shortest possible training compatible with efficiency—against the famous troops of Germany—beside the veteran, the illustrious army of France?
Four hours after the fighting began, Sir Douglas Haig telegraphed: "Attack launched north of River Somme this morning at 7.30 A.M. In conjunction with French, British troops have broken into German forward system of defences, on front of sixteen miles. Fighting is continuing. French attack on our immediate right proceeding equally satisfactorily." Twelve hours later, on the same day, when the summer night had fallen on the terrible battle-field, the British Commander-in-Chief added:—"Heavy fighting has continued all day between the rivers Somme and Ancre. On the right of our attack we have captured the German labyrinth of trenches on a front of seven miles to a depth of 1,000 yards, and have stormed and occupied the strongly fortified villages of Montauban and Mametz. In the centre on a front of four miles we have gained many strong points. North of the Ancre Valley the battle has been equally violent, and in this area we have been unable to retain portions of the ground gained in our first attacks, while other portions remain in our possession.... Up to date, 2,000 German prisoners have passed through our collecting stations. The large number of the enemy dead on the battle-field indicate that the German losses have been very severe."
So much for the first day's news. On the following day Fricourt was captured; and the prisoners went up to 3,500, together with a quantity of war material. Meanwhile the French on the right had done brilliantly, capturing five villages, and 6,000 prisoners. The attack was well begun.
And the New Armies?—"Kitchener's Men"? "Whatever we have imagined of our New Armies," says an eye-witness of the first day's battle, "they are better than we can have ever dared to hope. Nothing has in any case stopped them, except being killed." And a neutral who saw the attack on Mametz told the same eye-witness that he had seen most of the fighting in the world in recent years, and that he "did not believe a more gallant feat was ever performed in war." The story of the British advance was written "in the dead upon the ground, and in the positions as they stand." "Nothing which the Japanese did in the Russian War" was more entirely heroic.
But let me carry on the story.
On Tuesday, July 11th, Sir Douglas Haig reported: "After ten days and nights of continuous fighting our troops have completed the methodical capture of the whole of the enemy's first system of defence on a front of 14,000 yards.
"This system of defence consisted of numerous and continuous lines of foretrenches, support trenches and reserve trenches, extending to various depths of from 2,000 to 4,000 yards, and included five strongly fortified villages, numerous heavily wired and intrenched woods, and a large number of immensely strong redoubts."
The villages captured were Fricourt, Mametz, Montauban, La Boiselle, and Contalmaison—the latter captured on July 10th, after particularly fierce fighting. Every observer dwells on "the immense strength of the German defences." "All the little villages and woods, each eminence and hollow, have been converted into a fortress as formidable as the character of the ground makes possible." The German has omitted nothing "that could protect him against such a day as this."
Yet steadily, methodically, with many a pause for consolidation of the ground gained, and for the bringing up of the heavy guns, the British advance goes forward—toward Bapaume and Lille; while the French press brilliantly on toward Peronne—both movements aimed at the vital German communications through France and Belgium. Every step of ground, as the Allies gain it, "is wrecked with mines, torn with shell, and watered with the blood of brave men." The wood-fighting, amid the stripped and gaunt trunks rising from labyrinths of wire, is specially terrible; and below the ground everywhere are the deep pits and dugouts, which have not only sheltered the enemy from our fire, but concealed the machine-guns, which often when our men have passed over, emerge and take them in the rear. The German machine-guns seem to be endless; they are skilfully concealed, and worked with the utmost ability and courage.
But nothing daunts the troops attacking day and night, in the name of patriotism, of liberty, of civilisation. Men from Yorkshire and Lancashire, from Northumberland, Westmoreland and Cumberland, the heart of England's sturdy north; men from Sussex and Kent, from Somerset and Devon; the Scotch regiments; the Ulster Division, once the Ulster Volunteers; the men of Munster and Connaught; the town-lads of Manchester; the youths of Cockney London:—all their names are in the great story. "There were no stragglers—none!" says an officer, describing in a kind of wonder one of the fierce wood-attacks. And these are not the seasoned troops of a Continental Army. They belong to regiments and corps which did not exist, except in name, eighteen months ago; they are units from the four-million army that Great Britain raised for this struggle, before she passed her Military Service Law. The "Old Army," the Expeditionary Force, which the nation owed to the organising genius of Lord Haldane and his General Staff, has passed away, passed into history, with the retreat from Mons, the first victory of Ypres, the saving of the Channel ports; but its spirit remains, and its traditions are firmly planted in the new attackers. I think of the men I saw in March, during that long and weary wait; of the desire—and the patience—in their eyes.
And of patience they and the nations behind them will still have ample need. Since surprise on the Somme front was no longer possible, the great advance has gone surely indeed, but more slowly. On July 14, after delay caused by extraordinarily heavy rains, the German second line was breached, and their trenches carried, on a front of four miles and held against counter attacks. Longueval, the wood of Bazentin-le-Grand, and the village, Bazentin-le-Petit, were attacked and captured with an elan that nothing could resist. "The enemy losses in guns," said the British Headquarters, "are now over 100. We have not lost one." On July 17, Ovillers was cleared, Waterlot Farm taken, and 1,500 more yards of the German line. The British had by now taken 11,000 prisoners, to a somewhat larger number taken by the French, 17 heavy guns, 37 field-guns, 30 trench howitzers, and 66 machine-guns. On Saturday night, July 22-23, the greater part of Pozieres, on the high ground toward Bapaume, was taken. "Shortly after midnight," wrote the official correspondent at Headquarters with the Australian Imperial Forces in France, "on the 23rd, by a splendid night attack, the Australians took the greater portion of Pozieres." The previous bombardment had been magnificent. "I had never before seen such a spectacle. A large sector of the horizon was lit up not by single flashes, but by a continuous band of quivering light." And under the protection of the guns, the Anzacs swept forward, passing over trenches, so entirely obliterated by shell-fire that they were often not recognised as trenches at all, till they were in the heart of the village. Then for two days they fought from house to house, and trench to trench; till on July 27th came the news—"The whole of the village of Pozieres is now in our hands." And the Times correspondent writes "our establishment at Pozieres will probably be regarded historically as closing the second phase of the battle of the Somme."
Since then (I write on August 16) three weeks have passed. The German Third Line has been entered at the Bois de Foureaux, the whole of Delville Wood has been carried; and in the combined advance of July 30th, the French swept on to Maurepas on the north of the Somme, and are closely threatening both Combles and Peronne, while we are attacking Thiepval on the left of our line and Guillemont on the right, and pushing forward, north of Pozieres, toward Bapaume. The whole of the great advance has been a thrust up-hill from the valley floors of the Ancre and the Somme toward a low ridge running roughly east and west and commanding an important stretch of country and vital communications beyond. "It has in just four weeks of effort," writes Mr. Belloc—"accounted for some thirty thousand unwounded or slightly wounded prisoners; for much more than 100 guns; for a belt of territory over five miles in its extreme breadth, and—what is much more important than any of these numerical and local calculations—it has proved itself capable of continuous effort against all the concentration which the enemy has been able to bring against it."
But it has done yet more than this. It has welded the French and English Alliance—the wills and minds of the two nations—more closely than ever before; and it has tested the British war-machine—the new Armies and the new arms—as they have never yet been tested in this war. The result has set the heart of England aflame; even while we ponder those long, long casualty lists which represent the bitter price that British fathers and mothers, British wives and daughters have paid, and must still pay, for the only victory which will set up once again the reign of law and humanity in Europe. What the future has in store we cannot see yet in detail; but the inevitable end is clear at last. The man-power of Germany is failing, and with it the insolent confidence of her military caste; the man-power of the Allies, and the gun-power of the Allies, are rising steadily. Russia is well launched on her return way to Warsaw, to Cracow, to East Prussia. Italy, after the fall of Gorizia, is on the march for Trieste. The Turks are fleeing across the desert of Sinai; and the Allies at Salonika are taking the first steps toward Sofia.
But it is in the "holy spirit of man" itself that the secret of the future lies. On the Somme battle-fields, thousands and thousands of young lives have been again laid down, that England—that France—may live. Here is a letter, written the day before his death in action, on July 1st, the opening day of the offensive, by a young English Officer.[C] One must read it, if one can, dry-eyed. Not tears, but a steeled will, a purer heart, are what it asks of those for whom the writer died:—
"I am writing this letter to you just before going into action to-morrow morning about dawn.
"I am about to take part in the biggest battle that has yet been fought in France, and one which ought to help to end the war very quickly.
"I never felt more confident or cheerful in my life before, and would not miss the attack for anything on earth. The men are in splendid form, and every officer and man is more happy and cheerful than I have ever seen them.
"I have just been playing a rag game of football in which the umpire had a revolver and a whistle.
"My idea in writing this letter is in case I am one of the 'costs,' and get killed. I do not expect to be; but such things have happened, and are always possible.
"It is impossible to fear death out here, when one is no longer an individual, but a member of a regiment and of an army. To be killed means nothing to me, and it is only you who suffer for it; you really pay the cost.
"I have been looking at the stars, and thinking what an immense distance they are away. What an insignificant thing the loss of, say, forty years of life is compared with them! It seems scarcely worth talking about. Well, good-bye, you darlings. Try not to worry about it, and remember that we shall meet again really quite soon.
"This letter is going to be posted if...."
The letter was posted. But its message of Death is also a message of Victory.
MARY A. WARD.
[C] Published in the Times.