MY SECOND YEAR OF THE WAR
BY FREDERICK PALMER Author of "The Last Shot," "The Old Blood," "My Year of the Great War," etc.
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD & COMPANY 1917
BY DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY, Inc.
I BACK TO THE FRONT 1
II VERDUN AND ITS SEQUEL 18
III A CANADIAN INNOVATION 35
IV READY FOR THE BLOW 50
V THE BLOW 67
VI FIRST RESULTS OF THE SOMME 81
VII OUT OF THE HOPPER OF BATTLE 94
VIII FORWARD THE GUNS! 108
IX WHEN THE FRENCH WON 119
X ALONG THE ROAD TO VICTORY 130
XI THE BRIGADE THAT WENT THROUGH 142
XII THE STORMING OF CONTALMAISON 153
XIII A GREAT NIGHT ATTACK 167
XIV THE CAVALRY GOES IN 180
XV ENTER THE ANZACS 190
XVI THE AUSTRALIANS AND A WINDMILL 201
XVII THE HATEFUL RIDGE 213
XVIII A TRULY FRENCH AFFAIR 236
XIX ON THE AERIAL FERRY 244
XX THE EVER MIGHTY GUNS 255
XXI BY THE WAY 269
XXII THE MASTERY OF THE AIR 282
XXIII A PATENT CURTAIN OF FIRE 292
XXIV WATCHING A CHARGE 304
XXV CANADA IS STUBBORN 319
XXVI THE TANKS ARRIVE 332
XXVII THE TANKS IN ACTION 348
XXVIII CANADA IS QUICK 360
XXIX THE HARVEST OF VILLAGES 374
XXX FIVE GENERALS AND VERDUN 385
XXXI Au Revoir, SOMME! 400
MY SECOND YEAR OF THE WAR
BACK TO THE FRONT
How America fails to realize the war—Difficulties of realization—Uncle Sam is sound at heart—In London again—A Chief of Staff who has risen from the ranks—Sir William Robertson takes time to think—At the front—Kitchener's mob the new army—A quiet headquarters—Sir Douglas Haig—His office a clearing house of ideas—His business to deal in blows—"The Spirit that quickeneth."
"I've never kept up my interest so long in anything as in this war," said a woman who sat beside me at dinner when I was home from the front in the winter of 1915-16. Since then I have wondered if my reply, "Admirable mental concentration!" was not ironic at the expense of manners and philosophy. In view of the thousands who were dying in battle every day, her remark seemed as heartless as it was superficial and in keeping with the riotous joy of living and prosperity which strikes every returned American with its contrast to Europe's self-denial, emphasized by such details gained by glimpses in the shop windows of Fifth Avenue as the exhibit of a pair of ladies' silk hose inset with lace, price one hundred dollars.
Meanwhile, she was knitting socks or mufflers, I forget which, for the Allies. Her confusion about war news was common to the whole country, which heard the special pleading of both sides without any cross-questioning by an attorney. She remarked how the Allies' bulletins said that the Allies were winning and the German bulletins that the Germans were winning; but so far as she could see on the map the armies remained in much the same positions and the wholesale killing continued. Her interest, I learned on further inquiry, was limited and partisan. When the Germans had won a victory, she refused to read about it and threw down her paper in disgust.
There was something human in her attitude, as human as the war itself. It was a reminder of how far away from the Mississippi is the Somme; how broad is the Atlantic; how impossible it is to project yourself into the distance even in the days of the wireless. She was moving in the orbit of her affairs, with its limitations, just as the soldiers were in theirs. Before the war luxury was as common in Paris as in New York; but with so ghastly a struggle proceeding in Europe it seemed out of keeping that the joy of living should endure anywhere in the world. Yet Europe was tranquilly going its way when the Southern States were suffering pain and hardship worse than any that France and England have known. Paris and London were dining and smiling when Richmond was in flames.
War can be brought home to no community until its own sons are dying and risking death. In nothing are we so much the creatures of our surroundings as in war. For the first few weeks when I was at home, a nation going its way in an era of prosperity had an aspect of vulgarity; peace itself was vulgar by contrast with the atmosphere of heroic sacrifice in which I had lived for over a year. I asked myself if my country could ever rise to the state of exaltation of France and England. Though first thought, judging by superficial appearances alone, might have said "No," I knew that we could if there ever came a call to defend our soil—a call that could be brought home to the valleys of the Hudson and the Mississippi as a call was brought home to the valleys of the Somme, the Meuse and the Marne.
Many Americans had returned from Europe with reports of humiliation endured as a result of their country's attitude. Shopkeepers had made insulting remarks, they said, and in some instances had refused to sell goods. They had been conscious of hostility under the politeness of their French and English friends. A superficial confirmation of their contention might be taken from the poster I noticed on my way from Paddington Station to my hotel upon my arrival in England. It advertised an article in a cheap weekly under the title of "Uncle Sham."
I took this just as seriously as I took a cartoon in a New York evening paper of pro-German tendencies on the day that I had sailed from New York, which showed John Bull standing idly by and urging France on to sacrifices in the defense of Verdun. It was as easy for an American to be indignant at one as for an Englishman at the other, but a little unworthy of the intelligence of either. I was too convinced that Uncle Sam, who does not always follow my advice, is sound at heart and a respectable member of the family of nations to be in the least disturbed in my sense of international good will. If I had been irritated I should have contributed to the petty backbiting by the mischievous uninformed which makes bad blood between peoples.
I knew, too, from experience, as I had kept repeating at home, that when the chosen time arrived for the British to strike, they would prove with deeds the shamelessness of this splash of printer's ink and confound, as they have on the Somme, the witticism of a celebrated Frenchman who has since made his apology for saying that the British would fight on till the last drop of French blood was shed. Besides, on the same day that I saw the poster I saw in a British publication a reproduction of a German cartoon—exemplifying the same kind of vulgar facility—picturing Uncle Sam being led by the nose by John Bull.
Thinking Englishmen and Frenchmen, when they pause in their preoccupation of giving life and fortune for their cause to consider this extraneous subject, realize the widespread sympathy of the United States for the Allied cause and how a large proportion of our people were prepared to go to war after the sinking of the Lusitania for an object which could bring them no territorial reward. If we will fight only for money and aggrandizement, as the "Uncle Sham" style of reasoners hold, we should long ago have taken Mexico and Central America. Personally, I have never had anyone say to me that I was "too proud to fight," though if I went about saying that I was ashamed of my country I might; for when I think of my country I think of no group of politicians, financiers, or propagandists, no bureaucracy or particular section of opinion, but of our people as a whole. But unquestionably we were unpopular with the masses of Europeans. A sentence taken out of its context was misconstrued into a catch-phrase indicating the cravenness of a nation wedded to its flesh-pots, which pretended a moral superiority to others whose passionate sacrifice made them supersensitive when they looked across the Atlantic to the United States, which they saw profiting from others' misfortunes.
By living at home I had gained perspective about the war and by living with the war I have gained perspective about my own country. At the front I was concerned day after day with the winning of trenches and the storming of villages whose names meant as little in the Middle West as a bitter fight for good government in a Western city meant to the men at the front. After some months of peace upon my return to England I resented passport regulations which had previously been a commonplace; but soon I was back in the old groove, the groove of war, with war seeming as normal in England as peace seemed in the United States.
In London, recruiting posters with their hectic urgings to the manhood of England to volunteer no longer blanketed the hoardings and the walls of private buildings. Conscription had come. Every able-bodied man must now serve at the command of the government. England seemed to have greater dignity. The war was wholly master of her proud individualism, which had stubbornly held to its faith that the man who fought best was he who chose to fight rather than he who was ordered to fight.
There was a new Chief of Staff at the War Office, Sir William Robertson, who had served for seven years as a private before he received his commission as an officer, singularly expressing in his career the character of the British system, which leaves open to merit the door at the head of a long stairway which calls for hard climbing. England believes in men and he had earned his way to the direction of the most enormous plant with the largest personnel which the British Empire had ever created.
It was somewhat difficult for the caller to comprehend the full extent of the power and responsibility of this self-made leader at his desk in a great room overlooking Whitehall Place, for he had so simplified an organization that had been brought into being in two years that it seemed to run without any apparent effort on his part. The methods of men who have great authority interest us all. I had first seen Sir William at a desk in a little room of a house in a French town when his business was that of transport and supply for the British Expeditionary Force. Then he moved to a larger room in the same town, as Chief of Staff of the army in France. Now he had a still larger one and in London.
I had heard much of his power of application, which had enabled him to master languages while he was gaining promotion step by step; but I found that the new Chief of Staff of the British Army was not "such a fool as ever to overwork," as one of his subordinates said, and no slave to long hours of drudgery at his desk.
"Besides his routine," said another subordinate, speaking of Sir William's method, "he has to do a great deal of thinking." This passing remark was most illuminating. Sir William had to think for the whole. He had trained others to carry out his plans, and as former head of the Staff College who had had experience in every branch, he was supposed to know how each branch should be run.
When I returned to the front, my first motor trip which took me along the lines of communication revealed the transformation, the more appreciable because of my absence, which the winter had wrought. The New Army had come into its own. And I had seen this New Army in the making. I had seen Kitchener's first hundred thousand at work on Salisbury Plain under old, retired drillmasters who, however eager, were hazy about modern tactics. The men under them had the spirit which will endure the drudgery of training. With time they must learn to be soldiers. More raw material, month after month, went into the hopper. The urgent call of the recruiting posters and the press had, in the earlier stages of the war, supplied all the volunteers which could be utilized. It took much longer to prepare equipment and facilities than to get men to enlist. New Army battalions which reached the front in August, 1915, had had their rifles only for a month. Before rifles could be manufactured rifle plants had to be constructed. As late as December, 1915, the United States were shipping only five thousand rifles a week to the British. Soldiers fully drilled in the manual of arms were waiting for the arms with which to fight; but once the supply of munitions from the new plants was started it soon became a flood.
All winter the New Army battalions had been arriving in France. With them had come the complicated machinery which modern war requires. The staggering quantity of it was better proof than figures on the shipping list of the immense tonnage which goes to sea under the British flag. The old life at the front, as we knew it, was no more. When I first saw the British Army in France it held seventeen miles of line. Only seventeen, but seventeen in the mire of Flanders, including the bulge of the Ypres salient.
By the first of January, 1915, a large proportion of the officers and men of the original Expeditionary Force had perished. Reservists had come to take the vacant places. Officers and non-commissioned officers who survived had to direct a fighting army in the field and to train a new army at home. An offensive was out of the question. All that the force in the trenches could do was to hold. When the world wondered why it could not do more, those who knew the true state of affairs wondered how it could do so much. With flesh and blood infantry held against double its own numbers supported by guns firing five times the number of British shells. The British could not confess their situation without giving encouragement to the Germans to press harder such attacks as those of the first and second battle of Ypres, which came perilously near succeeding.
This little army would not admit the truth even in its own mind. With that casualness by which the Englishman conceals his emotions the surviving officers of battalions which had been battered for months in the trenches would speak of being "top dog, now." While the world was thinking that the New Army would soon arrive to their assistance, they knew as only trained soldiers can know how long it takes to make an army out of raw material. So persistent was their pose of winning that it hypnotized them into conviction. As it had never occurred to them that they could be beaten, so they were not.
If sometimes the logic of fact got the better of simulation, they would speak of the handicap of fighting an enemy who could deliver blows with the long reach of his guns to which they could not respond. But this did not happen often. It was a part of the game for the German to marshal more guns than they if he could. They accepted the situation and fought on. They, too, looked forward to "the day," as the Germans had before the war; and their day was the one when the New Army should be ready to strike its first blow.
There was also a new leader in France, king of the British world there. Sir William sent him the new battalions and the guns and the food for men and guns and his business was to make them into an army. They arrived thinking that they were already one, as they were against any ordinary foe, though not yet in homogeneity of organization against a foe that had prepared for war for forty years and on top of this had had two years' experience in actual battle.
On a quiet byroad near headquarters town, where all the staff business of General Headquarters was conducted, a wisp of a flag hung at the entrance to the grounds of a small modern chateau. There seemed no place in all France more isolated and tranquil, its size forbidding many guests. It was such a house as some quiet, studious man might have chosen to rest in during his summer holiday. The sound of the guns never reached it; the rumble of army transport was unheard.
Should you go there to luncheon you would be received by a young aide who, in army jargon, was known as a "crock"; that is, he had been invalided as the result of wounds or exposure in the trenches and, though unfit for active service, could still serve as aide to the Commander-in-Chief. At the appointed minute of the hour, in keeping with military punctuality, whether of generals or of curtains of fire, a man with iron-gray hair, clear, kindly eyes, and an unmistakably strong chin, came out of his office and welcomed the guests with simple informality. He seemed to have left business entirely behind when he left his desk. You knew him at once for the type of well-preserved British officer who never neglects to keep himself physically fit. It amounts to a talent with British officers to have gone through campaigns in India and South Africa and yet always to appear as fresh as if they had never known anything more strenuous than the leisurely life of an English country gentleman.
I had always heard how hard Sir Douglas Haig worked, just as I had heard how hard Sir William Robertson worked. Sir Douglas, too, showed no signs of pressure, and naturally the masterful control of surroundings without any seeming effort is a part of the equipment of military leaders. The power of the modern general is not evident in any of the old symbols.
It was really the army that chose Sir Douglas to be Commander-in-Chief. Whenever the possibility of the retirement of Sir John French was mentioned and you asked an officer who should take his place, the answer was always either Robertson or Haig. In any profession the members should be the best judges of excellence in that profession, and through eighteen months of organizing and fighting these two men had earned the universal praise of their comrades in arms. Robertson went to London and Haig remained in France. England looked to them for victory.
Birth was kind to Sir Douglas. He came of an old Scotch family with fine traditions. Oxford followed almost as a matter of course for him and afterward he went into the army. From that day there is something in common between his career and Sir William's, simple professional zeal and industry. They set out to master their chosen calling. Long before the public had ever heard of either one their ability was known to their fellow soldiers. No two officers were more averse to any form of public advertisement, which was contrary to their instincts no less than to the ethics of soldiering. In South Africa, which was the practical school where the commanders of the British Army of to-day first learned how to command, their efficient staff work singled them out as coming men. Both had vision. They studied the continental systems of war and when the great war came they had the records which were the undeniable recommendation that singled them out from their fellows. Sir John French and Sir Ian Hamilton belonged to the generation ahead of them, the difference being that between the '50s and the '60s.
It was the test of command of a corps and afterward of an army in Flanders and Northern France which made Sir Douglas Commander-in-Chief, a test of more than the academic ability which directs chessmen on the board: that of the physical capacity to endure the strain of month after month of campaigning, to keep a calm perspective, never to let the mastery of the force under you get out of hand and never to be burdened with any details except those which are vital.
The subordinate who went in an uncertain mood to see either Sir Douglas or Sir William left with a sense of stalwart conviction. Both had the gift of simplifying any situation, however complex. When a certain general became unstrung during the retreat from Mons, Sir Douglas seemed to consider that his first duty was to assist this man to recover composure, and he slipped his arm through the general's and walked him up and down until composure had returned. Again, on the retreat from Mons Sir Douglas said, "We must stay here for the present, if we all die for it," stating this military necessity as coolly as if it merely meant waiting another quarter-hour for the arrival of a guest to dinner.
No less than General Joffre, Sir Douglas lived by rule. He, too, insisted on sleeping well at night and rising fresh for his day's work. During the period of preparation for the offensive his routine began with a stroll in the garden before breakfast. Then the heads of the different branches of his staff in headquarters town came in turn to make their reports and receive instructions. At luncheon very likely he might not talk of war. A man of his education and experience does not lack topics to take his mind off his duties. Every day at half-past two he went for a ride and with him an escort of his own regiment of Lancers. The rest of the afternoon was given over to conferences with subordinates whom he had summoned. On Sunday morning he always went into headquarters town and in a small, temporary wooden chapel listened to a sermon from a Scotch dominie who did not spare its length in awe of the eminent member of his congregation. Otherwise, he left the chateau only when he went to see with his own eyes some section of the front or of the developing organization.
Of course, the room in the chateau which was his office was hung with maps as the offices of all the great leaders are, according to report. It seems the most obvious decoration. Whether it was the latest photograph from an aeroplane or the most recent diagram of plans of attack, it came to him if his subordinates thought it worth while. All rivers of information flowed to the little chateau. He and the Chief of Staff alone might be said to know all that was going on. Talking with him in the office, which had been the study of a French country gentleman, one gained an idea of the things which interested him; of the processes by which he was building up his organization. He was the clearing house of all ideas and through them he was setting the criterion of efficiency. He spoke of the cause for which he was fighting as if this were the great thing of all to him and to every man under him, but without allowing his feelings to interfere with his judgment of the enemy. His opponent was seen without illusion, as soldier sees soldier. To him his problem was not one of sentiment, but of military power. He dealt in blows; and blows alone could win the war.
Simplicity and directness of thought, decision and readiness to accept responsibility, seemed second nature to the man secluded in that little chateau, free from any confusion of detail, who had a task—the greatest ever fallen to the lot of a British commander—of making a raw army into a force which could undertake an offensive against frontal positions considered impregnable by many experts and occupied by the skilful German Army. He had, in common with Sir William Robertson, "a good deal of thinking to do"; and what better place could he have chosen than this retreat out of the sound of the guns, where through his subordinates he felt the pulse of the whole army day by day?
His favorite expression was "the spirit that quickeneth"; the spirit of effort, of discipline, of the fellowship of cohesion of organization—spreading out from the personality at the desk in this room down through all the units to the men themselves. Though officers and soldiers rarely saw him they had felt the impulse of his spirit soon after he had taken command. A new era had come in France. That old organization called the British Empire, loose and decentrated—and holding together because it was so—had taken another step forward in the gathering of its strength into a compact force.
VERDUN AND ITS SEQUEL
German grand strategy and Verdun—Why the British did not go to Verdun—What they did to help—Racial characteristics in armies—Father Joffre a miser of divisions—The Somme country—Age-old tactics—If the flank cannot be turned can the front be broken?—Theory of the Somme offensive.
In order properly to set the stage for the battle of the Somme, which was the corollary of that of Verdun, we must, at the risk of appearing to thresh old straw, consider the German plan of campaign in 1916 when the German staff had turned its eyes from the East to the West. During the summer of 1915 it had attempted no offensive on the Western front, but had been content to hold its solid trench lines in the confidence that neither the British nor the French were prepared for an offensive on a large scale.
Blue days they were for us with the British Army in France during July and early August, while the official bulletins revealed on the map how von Hindenburg's and von Mackensen's legions were driving through Poland. More critical still the subsequent period when inside information indicated that German intrigue in Petrograd, behind the Russian lines which the German guns were pounding, might succeed in making a separate peace. Using her interior lines for rapid movement of troops, enclosed by a steel ring and fighting against nations speaking different languages with their capitals widely separated and their armies not in touch, each having its own sentimental and territorial objects in the war, the obvious object of Germany's policy from the outset would be to break this ring, forcing one of the Allies to capitulate under German blows.
In August, 1914, she had hoped to win a decisive battle against France before she turned her legions against Russia for a decision. Now she aimed to accomplish at Verdun what she had failed to accomplish on the Marne, confident in her information that France was exhausted. It was von Hindenburg's turn to hold the thin line while the Germans concentrated on the Western front twenty-six hundred thousand men, with every gun that they could spare and all the munitions that had accumulated after the Russian drive was over. The fall of Paris was unnecessary to their purpose. Capitals, whether Paris, Brussels, or Bucharest, are only the trophies of military victory. Primarily the German object, which naturally included the taking of Verdun, was to hammer at the heart of French defense until France, staggering under the blows, her morale broken by the loss of the fortress, her supposedly mercurial nature in the depths of depression, would surrender to impulse and ask for terms.
After the German attacks began at Verdun all the world was asking why the British, who were holding only sixty-odd miles of line at the time and must have large reserves, did not rush to the relief of the French. The French people themselves were a little restive under what was supposed to be British inaction. Army leaders could not reveal their plans by giving reasons—the reasons which are now obvious—for their action or inaction. To some unmilitary minds the situation seemed as simple as if Jones were attacked on the street by Smith and Robinson, while Miller, Jones' friend who was a block away, would not go to his rescue. To others, perhaps a trifle more knowing, it seemed only a matter of marching some British divisions across country or putting them on board a train.
Of course the British were only too ready to assist the French. Any other attitude would have been unintelligent; for, with the French Army broken, the British Army would find itself having to bear unassisted the weight of German blows in the West. There were three courses which the British Army might take.
First. It could send troops to Verdun. But the mixture of units speaking different languages in the intricate web of communications required for directing modern operations, and the mixture of transport in the course of heavy concentrations in the midst of a critical action where absolute cohesion of all units was necessary, must result in confusion which would make any such plan impracticable. Only the desperate situation of the French being without reserve could have compelled its second consideration, as it represented the extreme of that military inefficiency which makes wasteful use of lives and material.
Second. The British could attack along their front as a diversion to relieve pressure on Verdun. For this the Germans were fully prepared. It fell in exactly with their plan. Knowing that the British New Army was as yet undeveloped as an instrument for the offensive and that it was still short of guns and shells, the Germans had struck in the inclement weather of February at Verdun, thinking, and wrongly to my mind, that the handicap to the vitality of their men of sleet, frost and cold, soaking rains would be offset by the time gained. Not only had the Germans sufficient men to carry on the Verdun offensive, but facing the British their numbers were the largest mile for mile since the first battle of Ypres. Familiar with British valor as the result of actual contact in battle from Mons to the Marne and back to Ypres, and particularly in the Loos offensive (which was the New Army's first "eye-opener" to the German staff), the Germans reasoned that, with what one German called "the courage of their stupidity, or the stupidity of their courage," the British, driven by public demand to the assistance of the French, would send their fresh infantry with inadequate artillery support against German machine guns and curtains of fire, and pile up their dead until their losses would reduce the whole army to inertia for the rest of the year.
Of course, the German hypothesis—the one which cost von Falkenhayn his place as Chief of Staff—was based on such a state of exhaustion by the French that a British attack would be mandatory. The initial stage of the German attack was up to expectations in ground gained, but not in prisoners or material taken. The French fell back skilfully before the German onslaught against positions lightly held by the defenders in anticipation of the attack, and turned their curtains of fire upon the enemy in possession of captured trenches. Then France gave to the outside world another surprise. Her spirit, ever brilliant in the offensive, became cold steel in a stubborn and thrifty defensive. She was not "groggy," as the Germans supposed. For every yard of earth gained they had to pay a ghastly price; and their own admiration of French shell and valor is sufficient professional glory for either Petain, Nivelle, or Mangin, or the private in the ranks.
Third. The British could take over more trench line, thus releasing French forces for Verdun, which was the plan adopted at the conference of the French and British commands. One morning in place of a French army in Artois a British army was in occupation. The round helmets of the British took the place of the oblong helmets of the French along the parapet; British soldiers were in billets in place of the French in the villages at the rear and British guns moved into French gun-emplacements with the orderly precision which army training with its discipline alone secures; while the French Army was on board railway trains moving at given intervals of headway over rails restricted to their use on their way to Verdun where, under that simple French staff system which is the product of inheritance and previous training and this war's experience, they fell into place as a part of the wall of men and cannon.
Outside criticism, which drew from this arrangement the conclusion that it left the British to the methodical occupation of quiet trenches while their allies were sent to the sacrifice, had its effect for a time on the outside public and even on the French, but did not disturb the equanimity of the British staff in the course of its preparations or of the French staff, which knew well enough that when the time came the British Army would not be fastidious about paying the red cost of victory. Four months later when British battalions were throwing themselves against frontal positions with an abandon that their staff had to restrain, the same sources of outside criticism, including superficial gossip in Paris, were complaining that the British were too brave in their waste of life. It has been fashionable with some people to criticize the British, evidently under the impression that the British New Army would be better than a continental army instantly its battalions were landed in France.
Every army's methods, every staff's way of thinking, are characteristic in the long run of the people who supply it with soldiers. The German Army is what it is not through the application of any academic theory of military perfection, but through the application of organization to German character. Naturally phlegmatic, naturally disinclined to initiative, the Germans before the era of modern Germany had far less of the martial instinct than the French. German army makers, including the master one of all, von Moltke, set out to use German docility and obedience in the creation of a machine of singular industry and rigidity and ruthless discipline. Similar methods would mean revolt in democratic France and individualistic England where every man carries Magna Charta, talisman of his own "rights," in his waistcoat pocket.
The French peasant, tilling his fields within range of the guns, the market gardener bringing his products down the Somme in the morning to Amiens, or the Parisian clerk, business man and workman—they are France and the French Army. But the heart-strength and character-strength of France, I think, is her stubborn, conservative, smiling peasant. It is repeating a commonplace to say that he always has a few gold pieces in his stocking. He yields one only on a critical occasion and then a little grumblingly, with the thrift of the bargainer who means that it shall be well spent.
The Anglo-Saxon, whose inheritance is particularly evident in Americans in this respect, when he gives in a crisis turns extravagant whether of money or life, as England has in this war. The sea is his and new lands are his, as they are ours. Australians with their dollar and a half a day, buying out the shops of a village when they were not in the trenches, were astounding to the natives though not in the least to themselves. They were acting like normal Anglo-Saxons bred in a rich island continent. Anglo-Saxons have money to spend and spend it in the confidence that they will make more.
General Joffre, grounded in the France of the people and the soil, was a thrifty general. Indeed, from the lips of Frenchmen in high places the Germans might have learned that the French Army was running short of men. Joffre seemed never to have any more divisions to spare; yet never came a crisis that he did not find another division in the toe of his stocking, which he gave up as grumblingly as the peasant parts with his gold piece.
A miser of divisions, Father Joffre. He had enough for Verdun as we know—and more. While he was holding on the defensive there, he was able to prepare for an offensive elsewhere. He spared the material and the guns to cooeperate with the British on the Somme and later he sent to General Foch, commander of the northern group of French Armies, the unsurpassed Iron Corps from Nancy and the famous Colonial Corps.
It was in March, 1916, when suspense about Verdun was at its height, that Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the group of British Armies, and Sir Henry Rawlinson, who was to be his right-hand man through the offensive as commander of the Fourth Army, went over the ground opposite the British front on the Somme and laid the plans for their attack, and Sir Henry received instructions to begin the elaborate preparations for what was to become the greatest battle of all time. It included, as the first step, the building of many miles of railway and highway for the transport of the enormous requisite quantities of guns and materials.
The Somme winds through rich alluvial lands at this point and around a number of verdant islands in its leisurely course. Southward, along the old front line, the land is more level, where the river makes its bend in front of Peronne. Northward, generically, it rises into a region of rolling country, with an irregularly marked ridge line which the Germans held.
No part of the British front had been so quiet in the summer of 1915 as the region of Picardy. From the hill where later I watched the attack of July 1st, on one day in August of the previous year I had such a broad view that if a shell were to explode anywhere along the front of five miles it would have been visible to me, and I saw not a single burst of smoke from high explosive or shrapnel. Apparently the Germans never expected to undertake any offensive here. All their energy was devoted to defensive preparations, without even an occasional attack over a few hundred yards to keep in their hand. Tranquillity, which amounted to the simulation of a truce, was the result. At different points you might see Germans walking about in the open and the observer could stand exposed within easy range of the guns without being sniped at by artillery, as he would have been in the Ypres salient.
When the British took over this section of line, so short were they of guns that they had to depend partly on French artillery; and their troops were raw New Army battalions or regulars stiffened by a small percentage of veterans of Mons and Ypres. The want of guns and shells required correspondingly more troops to the mile, which left them still relying on flesh and blood rather than on machinery for defense. The British Army was in that middle stage of a few highly trained troops and the first arrival of the immense forces to come; while the Germans occupied on the Eastern front were not of a mind to force the issue. There is a story of how one day a German battery, to vary the monotony, began shelling a British trench somewhat heavily. The British, in reply, put up a sign, "If you don't stop we will fire our only rifle grenade at you!" to which the Germans replied in the same vein, "Sorry! We will stop"—as they did.
The subsoil of the hills is chalk, which yields to the pick rather easily and makes firm walls for trenches. Having chosen their position, which they were able to do in the operations after the Marne as the two armies, swaying back and forth in the battle for positions northward, came to rest, the Germans had set out, as the result of experience, to build impregnable works in the days when forts had become less important and the trench had become supreme. As holding the line required little fighting, the industrious Germans under the stiff bonds of discipline had plenty of time for sinking deep dugouts and connecting galleries under their first line and for elaborating their communication trenches and second line, until what had once been peaceful farming land now consisted of irregular welts of white chalk crossing fields without hedges or fences, whose sweep had been broken only by an occasional group of farm buildings of a large proprietor, a plot of woods, or the village communities where the farmers lived and went to and from their farms which were demarked to the eye only by the crop lines.
One can never make the mistake of too much simplification in the complicated detail of modern tactics where the difficulty is always to see the forest for the trees. Strategy has not changed since prehistoric days. It must always remain the same: feint and surprise. The first primitive man who looked at the breast of his opponent and struck suddenly at his face was a strategist; so, too, the anthropoid at the Zoo who leads another to make a leap for a trapeze and draws it out from under him; so, too, the thug who waits to catch his victim coming unawares out of an alley. Anybody facing more than one opponent will try to protect his back by a wall, which is also strategy—strategy being the veritable instinct of self-preservation which aims at an advantage in the disposition of forces.
Place two lines of fifty men facing each other in the open without officers, and some fellow with initiative on the right or the left end will instinctively give the word and lead a rush for cover somewhere on the flank which will permit an enfilade of the enemy's ranks. Practically all of the great battles of the world have been won by turning an enemy's flank, which compelled him to retreat if it did not result in rout or capture.
The swift march of a division or a brigade from reserve to the flank at the critical moment has often turned the fortune of a day. All manoeuvering has this object in view. Superior numbers facilitate the operation, and victory has most often resolved itself into superior numbers pressing a flank and nothing more; though subsequently his admiring countrymen acclaimed the victor as the inventor of a strategic plan which was old before Alexander took the field, when the victor's genius consisted in the use of opportunities that enabled him to strike at the critical point with more men than his adversary. In flank of the Southern Confederacy Sherman swung through the South; in flank the Confederates aimed to bend back the Federal line at Kulp's Hill and Little Round Top. By the flank Grant pressed Lee back to Appomattox. Yalu, Liao Yang and Mukden were won in the Russo-Japanese war by flanking movements which forced Kuropatkin to retire, though never disastrously.
Pickett's charge at Gettysburg remains to the American the most futile and glorious illustration of a charge against a frontal position, with its endeavor to break the center. The center may waver, but it is the flanks that go; though, of course, in all consistent operations of big armies a necessary incident of any effort to press back the wings is sufficient pressure on the front, simultaneously delivered, to hold all the troops there in position and keep the enemy command in apprehension of the disaster that must follow if the center were to break badly at the same time that his flanks were being doubled back. The foregoing is only the repetition of principles which cannot be changed by the length of line and masses of troops and incredible volumes of artillery fire; which makes the European war the more confusing to the average reader as he receives his information in technical terms.
The same object that leads one line of men to try to flank another sent the German Army through Belgium in order to strike the French Army in flank. It succeeded in this purpose, but not in turning the French flank; though by this operation, in violation of the territory of a neutral nation, it made enemy territory the scene of future action. One may discuss until he is blue in the face what would have happened if the Germans had thrown their legions directly against the old French frontier. Personally, in keeping with the idea that I expressed in "The Last Shot," I think that they would never have gone through the Trouee de Miracourt or past Verdun.
With a solid line of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea, any offensive must "break the center," as it were, in order to have room for a flanking operation. It must go against frontal positions, incorporating in its strategy every defensive lesson learned and the defensive tactics and weapons developed in eighteen months of trench warfare. If, as was generally supposed, the precision of modern arms, with rifles and machine guns sending their bullets three thousand yards and curtains of fire delivered from hidden guns anywhere from two to fifteen miles away, was all in favor of the defensive, then how, when in the days of muzzle-loading rifles and smooth-bore guns frontal attacks had failed, could one possibly succeed in 1916?
Again and again in our mess and in all of the messes at the front, and wherever men gathered the world over, the question, Can the line be broken? has been discussed. As discussed it is an academic question. The practical answer depends upon the strength of the attacking force compared to that of the defending force. If the Germans could keep only five hundred thousand men on the Western front they would have to withdraw from a part of the line, concentrate on chosen positions and depend on tactics to defend their exposed flanks in pitched battle. Three million men, with ten thousand guns, could not break the line against an equally skilful army of three millions with ten thousand guns; but five millions with fifteen thousand guns might break the line held by an equally skilful army of a million with five thousand guns. Thus, you are brought to a question of numbers, of skill and of material. If the object be attrition, then the offensive, if it can carry on its attacks with less loss of men than the defensive, must win. With the losses about equal, the offensive must also eventually win if it has sufficient reserves.
There could be no restraining the public, with the wish father to the thought, from believing that the attack of July 1st on the Somme was an effort at immediate decision, though the responsible staff officer was very careful to state that there was no expectation of breaking the line and that the object was to gain a victory in morale, train the army in actual conditions for future offensives, and, when the ledger was balanced, to prove that, with superior gunfire, the offensive could be conducted with less loss than the defensive under modern conditions. This, I think, may best be stated now. The results we shall consider later.
One thing was certain, with the accruing strength of the British and the French Armies, they could not rest idle. They must attack. They must take the initiative away from the Germans. The greater the masses of Germans which were held on the Western front under the Allied pounding, the better the situation for the Russians and the Italians; and, accordingly, the plan for the summer of 1916 for the first time permitted all the Allies, thanks to increased though not adequate munitions—there never can be that—to conduct something like a common offensive. That of the Russians, starting earlier than the others, was the first to pause, which meant that the Anglo-French and the Italian offensives were in full blast, while the Russians, for the time being, had settled into new positions.
Preparation for this attack on the Somme, an operation without parallel in character and magnitude unless it be the German offensive at Verdun which had failed, could not be too complete. There must be a continuous flow of munitions which would allow the continuation of the battle with blow upon blow once it had begun. Adequate realization of his task would not hasten a general to undertake it until he was fully ready, and military preference, if other considerations had permitted, would have postponed the offensive till the spring of 1917.
A CANADIAN INNOVATION
Gathering of the clans from Australia, New Zealand and Canada—England sends Sir Douglas Haig men but not an army—Methods of converting men into an army—The trench raid a Canadian invention—Development of trench raiding—The correspondents' quarters—Getting ready for the "big push"—A well-kept secret.
"Some tough!" remarked a Canadian when he saw the Australians for the first time marching along a French road. They and the New Zealanders were conspicuous in France, owing to their felt hats with the brim looped up on the side, their stalwart physique and their smooth-shaven, clean-cut faces. Those who had been in Gallipoli formed the stiffening of veteran experience and comradeship for those fresh from home or from camps in Egypt.
Canadian battalions, which had been training in Canada and then in England, increased the Canadian numbers until they had an army equal in size to that of Meade or Lee at Gettysburg. English, Scotch, Welsh, Irish, South Africans and Newfoundlanders foregathering in Picardy, Artois and Flanders left one wondering about English as "she is spoke." On the British front I have heard every variety, including that of different parts of the United States. One day I received a letter from a fellow countryman which read like this:
"I'm out here in the R.F.A. with 'krumps' bursting on my cocoanut and am going to see it through. If you've got any American newspapers or magazines lying loose please send them to me, as I am far from California."
The clans kept arriving. Every day saw new battalions and new guns disembark. England was sending to Sir Douglas Haig men and material, but not an army in the modern sense. He had to weld the consignments into a whole there in the field in face of the enemy. Munitions were a matter of resource and manufacturing, but the great factory of all was the factory of men. It was not enough that the gunners should know how to shoot fairly accurately back in England, or Canada, or Australia. They must learn to cooeperate with scores of batteries of different calibers in curtains of fire and, in turn, with the infantry, whose attacks they must support with the finesse of scientific calculation plus the instinctive liaison which comes only with experience under trained officers, against the German Army which had no lack of material in its conscript ranks for promotion to fill vacancies in the officers' lists.
From seventeen miles of front to twenty-seven, and then to sixty and finally to nearly one hundred, the British had broadened their responsibility, which meant only practice in the defensive, while the Germans had had two years' practice in the offensive. The two British offensives at Neuve Chapelle had included a small proportion of the battalions which were to fight on the Somme; and the third, incomparably more ambitious, faced heavier concentration of troops and guns than its predecessors.
What had not been gained in battle practice must be approximated in drill. Every battalion commander, every staff officer and every general who had had any experience, must be instructor as well as director. They must assemble their machine and tune it up before they put it on a stiffer road than had been tried before.
The British Army zone in France became a school ground for the Grand Offensive; and while the people at home were thinking, "We've sent you the men and the guns—now for action!" the time of preparation was altogether too short for the industrious learners. Every possible kind of curriculum which would simulate actual conditions of attack had been devised. In moving about the rear the rattle of a machine gun ten miles back of the line told of the machine gun school; a series of explosions drew attention to bombers working their way through practice trenches in a field; a heavier explosion was from the academy for trench mortars; a mighty cloud of smoke and earth rising two or three hundred feet was a new experiment in mining. Sir Douglas went on the theory that no soldier can know his work too well. He meant to allow no man in his command to grow dull from idleness.
Trench warfare had become systematized, and inevitably the holding of the same line for month after month was not favorable to the development of initiative. A man used to a sedentary life is not given to physical action. One who is always digging dugouts is loath to leave the habitation which has cost him much labor in order to live in the open.
Battalions were in position for a given number of days, varying with the character of the position held, when they were relieved for a rest in billets. While in occupation they endured an amount of shell fire varying immensely between different sectors. A few men were on the watch with rifles and machine guns for any demonstration by the enemy, while the rest were idle when not digging. They sent out patrols at night into No Man's Land for information; exchanged rifle grenades, mortars and bombs with the enemy. Each week brought its toll of casualties, light in the tranquil places, heavy in the wickedly hot corner of the Ypres salient, where attacks and counter-attacks never ceased and the apprehension of having your parapet smashed in by an artillery "preparation," which might be the forerunner of an attack, was unremittingly on the nerves.
It was a commonplace that any time you desired you could take a front of a thousand or two yards simply by concentrating your gunfire, cutting the enemy's barbed wire and tearing the sandbags of his parapet into ribbons, with resulting fearful casualties to him; and then a swift charge under cover of the artillery hurricane would gain possession of the debris, the enemy's wounded and those still alive in his dugouts. Losses in operations of this kind usually were much lighter in taking the enemy's position than in the attempt to hold it, as he, in answer to your offensive, turned the full force of his guns upon his former trench which your men were trying to organize into one of their own. Later, under cover of his own guns, his charge recovered the ruins, forcing the party of the first part who had started the "show" back to his own former first line trench, which left the situation as it was before with both sides a loser of lives without gaining any ground and with the prospect of drudgery in building anew their traverses and burrows and filling new sandbags.
It was the repetition of this sort of "incident," as reported in the daily communiques, which led the outside world to wonder at the fatuousness and the satire of the thing, without understanding that its object was entirely for the purpose of morale. An attack was made to keep the men up to the mark; a counter-attack in order not to allow the enemy ever to develop a sense of superiority. Every soldier who participated in a charge learned something in method and gained something in the quality considered requisite by his commanders. He had met face to face in mortal hand-to-hand combat in the trench traverses the enemy who had been some invisible force behind a gray line of parapet sniping at him every time he showed his head.
Attack and counter-attack without adding another square yard to the territory in your possession—these had cost hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Western front. The next step was to obtain the morale of attack without wasting lives in trying to hold new ground.
Credit for the trench raid, which was developed through the winter of 1915, belongs to the Canadian. His plan was as simple as that of the American Indian who rushed a white settlement and fled after he was through scalping; or the cowboys who shot up a town; or the Mexican insurgents who descend upon a village for a brief visit of killing and looting. The Canadian proposed to enter the German trenches by surprise, remain long enough to make the most of the resulting confusion, and then to return to his own trenches without trying to hold and organize the enemy's position and thus draw upon his head while busy with the spade a murderous volume of shell fire.
The first raids were in small parties over a narrow front and the tactics those of the frontiersman, who never wants in individual initiative and groundcraft. Behind their lines the Canadians rehearsed in careful detail again and again till each man was letter perfect in the part that he was to play in the "little surprise being planned in Canada for Brother Boche." The time chosen for the exploit was a dark, stormy night, when the drumbeat of rain and the wind blowing in their direction would muffle the movements of the men as they cut paths through the barbed wires for their panther-like rush. It was the kind of experiment whose success depends upon every single participant keeping silence and performing the task set for him with fastidious exactitude.
The Germans, confident in the integrity of their barbed wire, with all except the sentries whose ears and eyes failed to detect danger asleep in their dugouts, found that the men of the Maple Leaf had sprung over the parapet and were at the door demanding surrender. It was an affair to rejoice the heart of Israel Putnam or Colonel Mosby, and its success was a new contribution in tactics to stalemate warfare which seemed to have exhausted every possible invention and novelty. Trench raids were made over broader and broader fronts until they became considerable operations, where the wire was cut by artillery which gave the same kind of support to the men that it was to give later on in the Grand Offensive.
There was a new terror to trench holding and dwelling. Now the man who lay down in a dugout for the night was not only in danger of being blown heavenward by a mine, or buried by the explosion of a heavy shell, or compelled to spring up in answer to the ring of the gong which announced a gas attack, but he might be awakened at two a.m. (a favorite hour for raids) by the outcry of sentries who had been overpowered by the stealthy rush of shadowy figures in the night, and while he got to his feet be killed by the burst of a bomb thrown by men whom he supposed were also fast asleep in their own quarters two or three hundred yards away.
Trench-raid rivalry between battalions, which commanders liked to instil, inevitably developed. Battalions grew as proud of their trench raids as battleships of their target practice. A battalion which had not had a successful trench raid had something to explain. What pride for the Bantams—the little fellows below regulation height who had enlisted in a division of their own on Lord Kitchener's suggestion—when in one of their trench raids they brought back some hulking, big Germans and a man's size German machine gun across No Man's Land!
Raiders never attempted to remain long in the enemy's trenches. They killed the obdurate Germans, took others prisoners and, aside from the damage that they did, always returned with identifications of the battalions which occupied the position, while the prisoners brought in yielded valuable information.
The German, more adaptive than creative, more organizing than pioneering, was not above learning from the British, and soon they, too, were undertaking surprise parties in the night. Although they tightened the discipline for the defensive of both sides, trench raids were of far more service to the British than to the Germans; for the British staff found in them an invaluable method of preparation for the offensive. Not only had the artillery practice in supporting actual rather than theoretical attacks, but when the men went over the parapet it was in face of the enemy, who might turn on his machine guns if not silenced by accurate gunfire. They learned how to cooerdinate their efforts, whether individually or as units, both in the charge and in cleaning out the German dugouts. Their sense of observation, adaptability and team play was quickened in the life-and-death contact with the foe.
Through the spring months the trench raids continued in their process of "blooding" the new army for the "big push." Meanwhile, the correspondents, who were there to report the operations of the army, were having as quiet a time as a country gentleman on his estate without any of the cares of his superintendent.
Our homing place from our peregrinations about the army was not too far away from headquarters town to be in touch with it or too near to feel the awe of proximity to the directing authority of hundreds of thousands of men. Trench raids had lost their novelty for the public which the correspondents served. A description of a visit to a trench was as commonplace to readers as the experience itself to one of our seasoned group of six men. We had seen all the schools of war and the Conscientious Objectors' battalion, too—those extreme pacifists who refuse to kill their fellow man. Their opinions being respected by English freedom and individualism, they were set to repairing roads and like tasks.
The war had become completely static. Unless some new way of killing developed, even the English public did not care to read about its own army. When my English comrades saw that a petty scandal received more space in the London papers than their accounts of a gallant air raid, they had moments of cynical depression.
Between journeys we took long walks, went birds'-nesting and chatted with the peasants. What had we to do with war? Yet we never went afield to trench or headquarters, to hospital or gun position, without finding something new and wonderful to us if not to the public in that vast hive of military industry.
"But if we ever start the push they'll read every detail," said our wisest man. "It's the push that is in everybody's mind. The man in the street is tired of hearing about rehearsals. He wants the curtain to go up."
Each of us knew that the offensive was coming and where, without ever speaking of it in our mess or being supposed to know. Nobody was supposed to know, except a few "brass hats" in headquarters town. One of the prime requisites of the gold braid which denotes a general or of the red band around the cap and the red tab on the coat lapel which denote staff is ability to keep a secret; but long association with an army makes it a sort of second nature, even with a group of civilians. When you met a Brass Hat you pretended to believe that the monotony of those official army reports about shelling a new German redoubt or a violent artillery duel, or four enemy planes brought down, which read the same on Friday as on Thursday, was to continue forever. The Brass Hats pretended to believe the same among themselves. For all time the British and the French Armies were to keep on hurling explosives at the German Army from the same positions.
Occasionally a Brass Hat did intimate that the offensive would probably come in the spring of 1917, if not later, and you accepted the information as strictly confidential and indefinite, as you should accept any received from a Brass Hat. It never occurred to anybody to inquire if "1917" meant June or July of 1916. This would be as bad form as to ask a man whose head was gray last year and is black this year if he dyed his hair.
Those heavy howitzers, fresh from the foundry, drawn by big caterpillar tractors, were all proceeding in one direction—toward the Somme. Villages along their route were filling with troops. The nearer the front you went, the greater the concentration of men and material. Shells, the size of the milk cans at suburban stations, stood in close order on the platforms beside the sidings of new light railways; shells of all calibers were piled at new ammunition dumps; fields were cut by the tracks of guns moving into position; steam rollers were road-making in the midst of the long processions of motor trucks, heavy laden when bound toward the trenches and empty when returning; barbed-wire enclosures were ready as collecting stations for prisoners; clusters of hospital tents at other points seemed out of proportion to the trickle of wounded from customary trench warfare.
All this preparation, stretching over weeks and months, unemotional and methodical, infinite in detail, prodigious in effort, suggested the work of engineers and contractors and subcontractors in the building of some great bridge or canal, with the workmen all in the same kind of uniform and with managers, superintendents and foremen each having some insignia of rank and the Brass Hats and Red Tabs the inspectors and auditors.
The officer installing a new casualty clearing station, or emplacing a gun, or starting another ammunition dump, had not heard of any offensive. He was only doing what he was told. It was not his business to ask why of any Red Tab, any more than it was the business of a Red Tab to ask why of a Brass Hat, or his business to know that the same sort of thing was going on over a front of sixteen miles. Each one saw only his little section of the hive. Orders strictly limited workers to their sections at the same time that their lips were sealed. Contractors were in no danger of strikes; employees received no extra pay for overtime. It was as evident that the offensive was to be on the Somme as that the circus has come to town, when you see tents rising at dawn in a vacant lot while the elephants are standing in line.
Toward the end of June I asked the Red Tab who sat at the head of our table if I might go to London on leave. He was surprised, I think, but did not appear surprised. It is one of the requisites of a Red Tab that he should not. He said that he was uncertain if leave were being granted at present. This was unusual, as an intimation of refusal had never been made on any previous occasion. When I said that it would be for only two or three days, he thought that it could be arranged all right. What this considerate Red Tab meant was that I should return "in time." Yet he had not mentioned that there was to be any offensive and I had not. We had kept the faith of military secrecy. Besides, I really did not know, unless I opened a pigeonhole in my brain. It was also my business not to know—the only business I had with the "big push" except to look on.
Over in London my friends surprised me by exclaiming, "What are you doing here?" and, "Won't you miss the offensive which is about to begin?" Now, what would a Brass Hat say in such an awkward emergency? Would he look wise or unwise when he said it? Trying to look unwise, I replied: "They have the men now and can strike any time that they please. It's not my place to know where or when. I asked for leave and they gave it." I was quite relieved and felt that I was almost worthy of a secretive Brass Hat myself, when one man remarked: "They don't let you know much, do they?"
To keep such immense preparations wholly a secret among any English-speaking people would be out of the question. Only the Japanese are mentally equipped for security of information. With other races it is a struggling effort. Can you imagine Washington keeping a military secret? You could hear the confidential whispers all the way from the War Department to the Capitol. In such a great movement as that of the Somme one weak link in a chain of tens of thousands of officers is enough to break it, not to mention a million or so of privates.
READY FOR THE BLOW
French national spirit—Our gardeners—Tuning up for the attack—Policing the sky—Sausage balloons—Matter-of-fact, systematic war—A fury of trench raids—Reserves marching forward—Organized human will—Sons of the old country ready to strike—The greatest struggle of the war about to begin.
Our headquarters during my first summer at the front had been in the flat border region of the Pas de Calais, which seemed neither Flanders nor France. Our second summer required that we should be nearer the middle of the British line, as it extended southward, in order to keep in touch with the whole. In the hilly country of Artois a less comfortable chateau was compensated for by the smiling companionship of neighbors in the fields and villages of the real France.
The quality of this sympathetic appeal was that of the thoroughbred racial and national spirit of a great people, in the politeness which gave to a thickset peasant woman a certain grace, in the smiles of the land and its inhabitants, in that inbred patriotism which through the centuries has created a distinctive civilization called French by the same ready sacrifices for its continuity as those which were made on the Marne and at Verdun. Flanders is not France, and France is increasingly French as you proceed from Ypres to Amiens, the capital of Picardy. I was glad that Picardy had been chosen as the scene of the offensive. It made the blow seem more truly a blow for France. I was to learn to love Picardy and its people under the test of battle.
In order that we might be near the field of the Somme we were again to move our quarters, and we had the pang of saying good-by to another garden and another gardener. All the gardeners of our different chateaux had been philosophers. It was Louis who said that he would like to make all the politicians who caused wars into a salad, accompanying his threat with appropriate gestures; Charles who thought that once the "Boches" were properly pruned they might be acceptable second-rate members of international society; and Leon who wanted the Kaiser put to the plow in a coat of corduroy as the best cure for his conceit. That afternoon, when au revoirs were spoken and our cars wound in and out over the byroads of the remote countryside, not a soldier was visible until we came to the great main road, where we had the signal that peaceful surroundings were finally left behind in the distant, ceaseless roar of the guns, like some gigantic drumbeat calling the armies to combat.
A giant with nerves of telephone wires and muscles of steel and a human heart seemed to be snarling his defiance before he sprang into action. We knew the meaning of the set thunders of the preliminary bombardment. That night to the eastward the sky was an aurora borealis of flashes; and the next day we sought the source of the lightnings.
Seamed and tracked and gashed were the slopes behind the British line and densely peopled with busy men in khaki. Every separate scene was familiar to us out of our experience, but every one had taken on a new meaning. The whole exerted a majestic spell. Graded like the British social scale were the different calibers of guns. Those with the largest reach were set farthest back. Fifteen-inch howitzer dukes or nine-inch howitzer earls, with their big, ugly mouths and their deliberate and powerful fire, fought alone, each in his own lair, whether under a tree or in the midst of the ruins of a village. The long naval guns, though of smaller caliber, had a still greater reach and were sending their shells five to ten miles beyond the German trenches.
The eight-inch and six-inch howitzers were more gregarious. They worked in groups of four and sometimes a number of batteries were in line. Beyond them were those alert commoners, the field guns, rapid of fire with their eighteen-pound shells. These seemed more tractable and companionable, better suited for human association, less mechanically brutal. They were not monstrous enough to require motor tractors to draw them at a stately gait, but behind their teams could be up and away across the fields on short notice, their caissons of ammunitions creaking behind them. Along the communication trenches perspiring soldiers carried "plum puddings" or the trench-mortar shells which were to be fired from the front line and boxes of egg-shaped bombs which fitted nicely in the palm of the hand for throwing.
It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats. Again, the covers were being put over the muzzles for the night, or, out of what had seemed blank hillside, a concealed battery which had not been firing before sent out its vicious puffs of smoke before its reports reached your ears. Every battery was doing as it was told from some nerve-center; every one had its registered target on the map—a trench, or a road, or a German battery, or where it was thought that a German battery ought to be.
The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day's belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land. One trench mortar would consume in an hour plum puddings for an orphan school. For you might pause to think of it in this way if you chose. Thousands do at the front.
Down on the banks of the Somme the blue uniforms of the French in place of the British khaki hovered around the gun-emplacements; the soixante-quinze with its virtuoso artistic precision was neighbor to the British eighteen-pounder. Guns, guns, guns—French and English! The same nests of them opposite Gommecourt and at Estrees thundered across at one another from either bank of the Somme through summer haze over the green spaces of the islands edged with the silver of its tranquil flow in the moonlight or its glare in the sunlight.
Not the least of the calculations in this activity was to screen every detail from aerial observation. New hangars had risen at the edge of level fields, whence the swift fighting machines of an aircraft concentration in keeping with the concentration of guns and all other material rose to reconnaissance, or to lie in wait as a falcon to pounce upon an invading German plane. Thus the sky was policed by flight against prying aerial eyes. If one German plane could descend to an altitude of a thousand feet, its photographs would reveal the location of a hundred batteries to German gunners and show the plan of concentration clearly enough to leave no doubt of the line of attack; but the anti-aircraft guns, plentiful now as other British material, would have caught it going, if not coming, provided it escaped being jockeyed to death by half a dozen British planes with their machine guns rattling.
To "camouflet" became a new English verb British planes tested out a battery's visibility from the air. Landscape painters were called in to assist in the deceit. One was set to "camouflet" the automobile van for the pigeons which, carried in baskets on the men's backs in charges, were released as another means of sending word of the progress of an attack obscured in the shell-smoke. This conscientious artist "camoufleted" the pigeon-van so successfully that the pigeons could not find their way home.
Night was the hour of movement. At night the planes, if they went forth, saw only a vague and shadowy earth. The sausage balloons, German and Allied, those monitors of the sky, a line of opaque, weird question marks against the blue, stared across at each other out of range of the enemy's guns, "spotting" the fall of shells for their own side from their suspended basket observation posts from early morning until they were drawn in by their gasoline engines with the coming of dusk. Clumsy and helpless they seemed; but in common with the rest of the army they had learned to reach their dugouts swiftly at the first sign of shell fire, and descended then with a ridiculous alacrity which suggested the possession of the animal intelligence of self-preservation. Occasionally one broke loose and, buffeted like an umbrella down the street by the wind, started for the Rhine. And the day before the great attack the British aviation corps sprang a surprise on the German sausages, six of which disappeared in balls of flame.
A one-armed man of middle age from India, who offered to do his "bit," refused a post at home in keeping with his physical limitations. His eyes were all right, he said, when he nominated himself as a balloon observer, and he never suffered from sea-sickness which sausage balloons most wickedly induce. Many a man who has ascended in one not only could see nothing, but wanted to see nothing, and turning spinach lopping over the basket rail prayed only that the engine would begin drawing in immediately.
One day the one-armed pilot was up with a "joy-rider"; that is, an officer who was not a regular aerial observer but was sight-seeing. The balloon suddenly broke loose with the wind blowing strong toward Berlin, which was a bit awkward, as he remarked, considering that he had an inexperienced passenger.
"We mustn't let the Boches get us!" he said. "Look sharp and do as I say."
First, he got the joy-rider into the parachute harness for such emergencies and over the side, then himself, both descending safely on the right side of the British trenches—which was rather "smart work," as the British would say, but all to the taste of the one-armed pilot who was looking for adventures. I have counted thirty-three British sausage balloons within my range of vision from a hill. The previous year the British had not a baker's dozen.
What is lacking? Have we enough of everything? These questions were haunting to organizers in those last days of preparation.
After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars.
The most resourceful of descriptive writers is warranted in saying that the scene was indescribable. Correspondents did their best, and after they had squeezed the rhetorical sponge of its last drop of ink distilled to frenzy of adjectives in inadequate effort, they gaspingly laid their copy on the table of the censor, who minded not "word pictures" which contained no military secrets.
Vision exalted and numbed by the display, one's mind sought the meaning and the purpose of this unprecedented bombardment, with its precision of the devil's own particular brand of "kultur," which was to cut the Germans' barbed wire, smash in their trenches, penetrate their dugouts, close up their communication trenches, do unto their second line the same as to their first line, bury their machine guns in debris, crush each rallying strong point in that maze of warrens, burst in the roofs of village billets over their heads, lay a barrier of death across all roads and, in the midst of the process of killing and wounding, imprison the men of the front line beyond relief by fresh troops and shut them off from food and munitions. Theatric, horrible and more than that—matter-of-fact, systematic war! There was relatively little response from the German batteries, whose silence had a sinister suggestion. They waited on the attack as the target of their revenge for the losses which they were suffering.
By now they knew from the bombardment, if not from other sources, that a British attack was coming at some point of the line. Their flares were playing steadily over No Man's Land to reveal any movement by the British or the French. From their trenches rose signal rockets—the only real fireworks, leisurely and innocent, without any sting of death in their sparks—which seemed to be saying "No movement yet" to commanders who could not be reached by any other means through the curtains of fire and to artillerists who wanted to turn on their own curtains of fire instantly the charge started. Then there were other little flashes and darts of light and flame which insisted on adding their moiety to the garish whole. And under the German trenches at several points were vast charges of explosives which had been patiently borne under ground through arduously made tunnels.
So much for the machinery of material. Thus far we have mentioned only guns and explosions, things built of steel to fire missiles of steel and things on wheels, and little about the machine of human beings now to come abreast of the tape for the charge, the men who had been "blooded," the "cannon fodder." Every shell was meant for killing men; every German battery and machine gun was a monster frothing red at the lips in anticipation of slaughter.
A fury of trench raids broke out from the Somme to Ypres further to confuse the enemy as to the real front of attack. Men rushed the trenches which they were to take and hold later, and by their brief visit learned whether or not the barbed wire had been properly cut to give the great charge a clear pathway and whether or not the German trenches were properly mashed. They brought in prisoners whose identification and questioning were invaluable to the intelligence branch, where the big map on the wall was filled in with the location of German divisions, thus building up the order of battle, so vital to all plans, with its revelation of the disposition and strength of the enemy's forces. It was known that the Germans were rapidly bringing up new batteries north of the Ancre while low visibility postponed the day of the attack.
The men that worked on the new roads keeping them in condition for the passage of the heavy transport, whether columns of motor trucks, or caissons, or the great tractors drawing guns, were no less a part of the scheme than the daring raiders. Every soldier who was going over the parapet in the attack must have his food and drink and bombs to throw and cartridges to fire after he had reached his objective.
Most telling of all the innumerably suggestive features to me were the streets of empty white tents at the casualty clearing stations, and the empty hospital cars on the railway sidings, and the new enclosures for prisoners—for these spoke the human note. These told that man was to be the target.
The staff might plan, gunners might direct their fire accurately against unseen targets by the magic of their calculations, generals might prepare their orders, the intricate web of telephone and telegraph wires might hum with directions, but the final test lay with him who, rifle and bomb ready in hand, was going to cross No Man's Land and take possession of the German trenches. A thousand pictures cloud the memory and make a whole intense in one's mind, which holds all proudly in admiration of human stoicism, discipline and spirit and sadly, too, with a conscious awe in the possession as of some treasure intrusted to him which he cheapens by his clumsy effort at expression.
Stage by stage the human part had moved forward. Khaki figures were swarming the village streets while the people watched them with a sort of worshipful admiration of their stalwart, trained bodies and a sympathetic appreciation of what was coming. These men with their fair complexion and strange tongue were to strike against the Germans. Two things the French had learned about the English: they were generous and they were just, though phlegmatic. Now they were to prove that with their methodical deliberation they were brave. Some would soon die in battle—and for France.
By day they loitered in the villages waiting on the coming of darkness, their training over—nothing to do now but wait. If they went forward it was by platoons or companies, lest they make a visible line on the chalky background of the road to the aviator's eye. A battalion drawn up in a field around a battalion commander, sitting his horse sturdily as he gave them final advice, struck home the military affection of loyalty of officer to man and man to officer. A soldier parting at a doorway from a French girl in whose eyes he had found favor during a brief residence in her village struck another chord. That elderly woman with her good-by to a youth was speaking as she would to her own son who was at the front and unconsciously in behalf of some English mother. Up near the trenches at dusk, in the last billet before the assembly for attack, company officers were recalling the essentials of instructions to a line standing at ease at one side of the street while caissons of shells had the right of way.
With the coming of night battalions of reserves formed and set forth on the march, going toward the flashes in the heavens which illumined the men in their steady tramp, the warmth of their bodies and their breaths pressing close to your car as you turned aside to let them pass. "East Surreys," or "West Ridings," or "Manchesters" might come the answer to inquiries. All had the emblems of their units in squares of cloth on their shoulders, and on the backs of some of the divisions were bright yellow or white patches to distinguish them from Germans to the gunners in the shell-smoke.
Nothing in their action at first glance indicated the stress of their thoughts. Officers and men, their physical movements set by the mold of discipline, were in gesture, in voice, in manner the same as when they were on an English road in training. This was a part of the drill, a part of man's mastery of his emotions. None were under any illusions as soldiers of other days had been. Few nursed the old idea of being the lucky man who would escape. They knew the chances they were taking, the meaning of frontal attacks and of the murderous and wholesale quickness of machine gun methods.
Will, organized human will, was in their steps and shining out of their eyes. It occurred to me that they might have escaped this if England had kept out of the war at the price of something with which Englishmen refused to part. "The day" was coming, "the day" they had foreseen, "the day" for which their people waited.
When they were closing in with death, the clans which make up the British Empire kept faith with their character as do all men. These battalions sang the songs and whistled the tunes of drill grounds at home, though in low notes lest the enemy should hear, and lapsed into silence when they drew near the front and filed through the communication trenches.
Quiet the English, that great body of the army which sees itself as the skirt for the Celtic fringe, ploddingly undemonstrative with memories of the phlegm of their history holding emotions unexpressed; the Scotch in their kilts, deep-chested, with their trunk-like legs and broad hips, braw of face under their mushroom helmets, seemed like mediaeval men of arms ready in spirit as well as looks for fierce hand-to-hand encounters; the Welsh, more emotional than the English, had songs which were pleasant to the ear if the words were unrecognizable; and the ruddy-faced Irish, with their soft voices, had a beam in their eyes of inward anticipation of the sort of thing to come which no Irishman ever meets in a hesitating mood. No overseas troops were there except the Newfoundland battalion; for only sons of the old country were to strike on July 1st.
Returning from a tour at night I had absorbed what seemed at one moment the unrealness and at another the stern, unyielding reality of the scenes. The old French territorial, with wrinkled face and an effort at a military mustache, who came out of his sentry box at a control post squinting by the light of a lantern held close to his nose at the bit of paper which gave the bearer freedom of the army and nodding with his polite word of concurrence, was a type who might have stopped a traveler in Louis XIV.'s time. All the farmers sleeping in the villages who would be up at dawn at their work, all the people in Amiens, knew that the hour was near. The fact was in the air no less than in men's minds. Nobody mentioned that the greatest struggle of the war was about to begin. We all knew that it was in hearts, souls, fiber.
There were moments when imagination gave to that army in its integrity of organization only one heart in one body. Again, it was a million hearts in a million bodies, deaf except to the voice of command. Most amazing was the absence of fuss whether with the French or the British. Everybody seemed to be doing what he was told to do and to know how to do it. With much to be left to improvisation after the attack began, nothing might be neglected in the course of preparation.
In other days where infantry on the march deployed and brought up suddenly against the enemy in open conflict the anticipatory suspense was not long and was forgotten in the brief space of conflict. Here this suspense really had been cumulative for months. It built itself up, little by little, as the material and preparations increased, as the battalions assembled, until sometimes, despite the roar of the artillery, there seemed a great silence while you waited for a string, drawn taut, to crack.
On the night of June 30th the word was passed behind a closed door in the hotel that seven-thirty the next morning was the hour and the spectators should be called at five—which seemed the final word in staff prevision.
Plans at headquarters—A battle by inches—In the observation post—The debris of a ruined village—"Softening" by shell fire—A slice out of the front—The task of the infantryman—The dawn before the attack—Five minutes more—A wave of men twenty-five miles long—Mist and shell-smoke—Duty of the war-correspondent.
I was glad to have had glimpses of every aspect of the preparation from battalion headquarters in the front line trenches to General Headquarters, which had now been moved to a smaller town near the battlefield where the intelligence branch occupied part of a schoolhouse. In place of exercises in geography and lithographs of natural history objects, on the schoolroom walls hung charts of the German Order of Battle, as built up through many sources of information, which the British had to face. There was no British Order of Battle in sight. This, as the Germans knew it, you might find in a German intelligence office; but the British were not going to aid the Germans in ascertaining it by giving it any publicity.
By means of a map spread out on a table an officer explained the plan of attack with reference to broad colored lines which denoted the objectives. The whole was as explicit as if Bonaparte had said:
"We shall engage heavily on our left, pound the center with our artillery, and flank on our right."
The higher you go in the command the simpler seem the plans which by direct and comprehensive strokes conceal the detail which is delegated down through the different units. At Gommecourt there was a salient, an angle of the German trench line into the British which seemed to invite "pinching," and this was to be the pivot of the British movement. The French who were on both sides of the Somme were to swing in from their southern flank of attack near Soyecourt in the same fashion as the British from the northern, thus bringing the deepest objective along the river in the direction of Peronne, which would fall when eventually the tactical positions commanding it were gained.
Not with the first rush, for the lines of the objective were drawn well short of it, but with later rushes the British meant to gain the irregular ridge formation from Thiepval to Longueval, which would start them on the way to the consummation of their siege hammering. It was to be a battle by inches; the beginning of a long task. German morale was still high on the Western front; their numbers immense. Morale could be broken, numbers worn down, only by pounding.
Granted that the attack of July 1st should succeed all along the line, it would gain little ground; but it would everywhere break through the first line fortifications over a front of more than twenty-five miles, the British for about fifteen and the French for about ten. The soldierly informant at "Intelligence" reminded the listener, too, that battalions which might be squeezed or might run into unexpected obstacles would suffer fearfully as in all great battles and one must be careful not to be over-depressed by the accounts of the survivors or over-elated by the roseate narratives of battalions which had swept all before them with slight loss.
The day before I saw the map of the whole I had seen the map of a part at an Observation Post at Auchonvillers. The two were alike in a standardized system, only one dealt with corps and the other with battalions. A trip to Auchonvillers at any time during the previous year or up to the end of June, 1916, had not been fraught with any particular risk. It was on the "joy-riders'" route, as they say.
When I said that the German batteries were making relatively little reply to the preliminary British bombardment I did not mean to imply that they were missing any opportunities. At the dead line for automobiles on the road the burst of a shrapnel overhead had a suggestiveness that it would not have had at other times. Perhaps the Germans were about to put a barrage on the road. Perhaps they were going to start their guns in earnest. Happily, they have always been most considerate where I was concerned and they were only throwing in a few shells in the course of artillery routine, which happened also on our return from the Observation Post. But they were steadily attentive with "krumps" to a grove where some British howitzers sought the screen of summer foliage. If they could put any batteries out of action while they waited for the attack this was good business, as it meant fewer guns at work in support of the British charge.
An artilleryman, perspiring and mud-spattered from shell-bursts, who came across the fields, said: "They knocked off the corner of our gun-pit and got two men. That's all." His eyes were shining; he was in the elation of battle. Casualties were an incident in the preoccupation of his work and of the thought: "At last we have the shells! At last it is our turn!"
On our way forward we passed more batteries and wisely kept to the open away from them, as they are dangerous companions in an artillery duel. Then we stepped into the winding communication trench with its system of wires fast to the walls, and kept on till we passed under a lifted curtain into a familiar chamber roofed with heavy cement blocks and earth.
"Safe from a direct hit by five-point-nines," said the observation officer, a regular promoted from the ranks who had been "spotting" shells since the war began. "A nine-inch would break the blocks, but I don't think that it would do us in."
Even if it did "do us in," why, we were only two or three men. All this protection was less perhaps to insure safety than to insure security of observation for these eyes of the guns. The officer was as proud of his O.P. as any battalion commander of his trench or a battery commander of his gun-position, which is the same kind of human pride that a man has in the improvements on his new country estate.
There was a bench to sit on facing the narrow observation slit, similar to that of a battleship's conning tower, which gave a wide sweep of vision. A commonplace enough mise-en-scene on average days, now significant because of the stretch of dead world of the trench systems and No Man's Land which was soon to be seething with the tumult of death.
Directly in front of us was Beaumont-Hamel. Before the war it had been like hundreds of other villages. Since the war its ruins were like scores of others in the front line. Parts of a few walls were standing. It was difficult to tell where the debris of Beaumont-Hamel began and that of the German trench ended. Dust was mixed with the black bursts of smoke rising from the conglomerate mass of buildings and streets thrown together by previous explosions. The effect suggested the regular spout of geysers from a desert rock crushed by charges of dynamite.
Could anybody be alive in Beaumont-Hamel? Wasn't this bombardment threshing straw which had long since yielded its last kernel of grain? Wasn't it merely pounding the graves of a garrison? Other villages, equally passive and derelict, were being submitted to the same systematic pounding, which was like timed hammer-beats.
"We keep on softening them," said the observer.
Soldiers have a gift for apt words to describe their work, as have all professional experts. Softening! It personified the enemy as something hard and tough which would grow pulpy under enough well-mapped blows striking at every vital part from dugouts to billets.
All the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the first-line trenches appeared to be cut, mangled, twisted into balls, beaten back into the earth and exhumed again, leaving only a welt of crater-spotted ground in front of the chalky contour of the first-line trenches which had been mashed and crushed out of shape.
"Yes, the Boche's first line looks rather messy," said the officer. "We've been giving him an awful doing these last few days. Turning our attention mostly to the second line, now. That's our lot, there," he added, indicating a cluster of bursts over a nest of burrows farther up on the hillside.
"Any attempts to repair their wire at night?" I asked.
"No. They have to do it under our machine gun fire. Any Boches who have survived are lying doggo."
How many dugouts were still intact and secure refuges for the waiting Germans? Only trench raids could ascertain. As well might the observer with his glasses or an aeroplane looking down try to take a census of the number of inhabitants of a prairie dog village who were all in their holes.
The officer spread out his map marked "Secret and confidential," delimiting the boundaries of a narrow sector. He had nothing to do with what lay to the right and left—other sectors, other men's business—of the area inclosed in the clear, heavy lines crosswise of British and German trenches—a slice out of the front, as it were. Speaking over the telephone to the blind guns, he was interested only in the control of gunfire in this sector. The charge to him was lines on the map parallel with the trenches which would be at given points at given moments—lines which he must support when their soldier counterparts were invisible through the shell-smoke in the nice calculation of time and range which should put the shells into the enemy and never into the charging man.
To infantry commanders with similar maps those lines were breathing human lines of men whom they had trained, and the gunfire a kind of spray which the gunners were to adjust for the protection of the battalions when they should cross that dead space. Once the British were in the German front trenches, details which had been told off for the purpose were to take possession of the dugouts and "breach" them of prisoners and disarm all other Germans, lest they fire into the backs of those who carried the charge farther on to the final stage of the objective. What awaited them they would know only when they climbed over the parapet and became silhouettes of vulnerable flesh in the open. Yes, one had the system in the large and the small, by the army, the corps, the division, the brigade, the battalion, and the man, the individual infantryman who was to suffer that hazard of marching in the open toward the trenches which not guns, or motor trucks, or trench-mortar shells could take, but only he could take and hold.
The advantage of watching the attack from this O.P. in comparison with that of other points was mooted; for the spectator had to choose his seat for the panorama. This time we sought a place where we hoped to see something of the battle as a whole.