Today, a century back, was the last day before the storm broke. The bombardment that had begun on the 24th continued, and many of the German defenders in their positions on the Somme front had been killed, wounded, or driven mad by the incessant pounding. Many–but not nearly enough: these were well-wired, deep-dug, many-layered positions that generally stood on higher ground than the British lines, commanding No Man’s Land with interlocking fields of fire. Many of the men who sheltered in them were sheltered well: in deep fortified dug-outs they waited for the barrage to lift, for their first chance to fire back.
If the Germans waited, uncertain of the battle’s timing, most of the British officers knew that the next morning would bring the decisive minutes of the campaign–even, perhaps, of the entire war.
And here, tomorrow will bring, well, a lot of stuff. So, faithful readers, be forewarned: I’ve decided to break up tomorrow into four separate (but still lengthy) posts; the first will go up over night, the second at 7:30, etc.
The 9th Devons “spent the last day resting in the wood.” They took communion from the battalion chaplain, Ernest Crosse; then the officers sat around a fire singing and swapping stories.
Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way to the line. Watering points were provided along the route and the sandwiches would be their breakfast: a long day lay ahead of them, and it was something to do in the final hours.
They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and strongpoints, and countering enemy bombers and machine guns. Hodgson, as bombing officer, answered directly to Lieutenant Colonel Storey and had his own copy of battalion orders.
…The front line trench had been badly damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days, forcing a late change of plan. Instead of using it, the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders on their left, further up on the hill, would advance from new forming-up positions in the reserve trenches. This possibility had always been envisaged. It was safer, given the accurate fire the Germans regularly directed into the front line. The disadvantage was that the two battalions now had 250 yards of extra ground to cross.
The change also caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could. Gaps had been cut in the wire over the previous three nights, and once the men were in position, bridges and trench ladders were put in place.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Back to the morning before–today, a century back, and Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion is going back instead of forward.
This morning warm and breezy. We go down to Kingston Road. Jordan and self out cutting, wire from 10.30 to 11.30. No one noticed us. Pleasant trenches; mustard, charlock and white weeds growing across the trenches. Another dead man lying on the firing-step. News of M.C. before lunch… Battle begins tomorrow. C. Company dispersed on carrying-parties etc. Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn when he found me alone at wire-cutting. Brow and eyes good: rest of face weak: Jaunty-fag-smoking demeanour under fire.
“News of M.C.:” Sassoon has been awarded the Military Cross for his courage and initiative in the aftermath of the failed raid of May 25th.
Noel Hodgson and his friends had written “last letters” a few days before, when the attack had been planned for the 29th. So too had Rob Gilson, whose 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The Cambridge Regiment) will go forward in the morning. But Gilson found time, today, to send one of the famous Field Service Post Cards–seen at right–as a last reassurance. Today, a century back, he is “quite well.”
J.R. Ackerley, whose battalion–the 8th East Surreys–was also slated to attack in the first waves, chose not to write home. One of his friends and fellow-subalterns wrote a letter proclaiming himself well, and post-dated it to July 2nd.
This, surely, was to tempt Nemesis, and Ackerley questioned the point of a “last letter:” the gap, the lag, would always be there, and no letter could really prove its writer to be still alive. Why try so sincerely to allay small measures of worry when it would do nothing to change the bare fact of life or death, and when any such efforts would be drowned in the accompanying infinities of grief.
Instead of writing, Ackerley “read Conrad’s Lord Jim for the fifth time.”
George Coppard has already assured us that he and his battalion weren’t much for writing. But he remembered the night’s march very well:
On the night of 30 June the 37th Machine Gun Company rested in a field near Albert. A fierce bombardment of the German lines was going on. We were in the area of the big guns… They were underneath camouflage nets and looked huge, bigger than anything we’d seen before…
And Edmund Blunden, to his frustration, has only a back seat to a sideshow. North of the Somme, there was a large diversionary attack on the Boar’s Head salient. Would this serve to confuse the German staff tomorrow, when the movement of reserves and ammunition supplies must be decided upon?
June 30, 1916
At the moment of the attack my platoon was in a familiar strong point on the La Bassee Road, called Port Arthur, two hundred yards in rear of our foremost breastwork. Sergeant Garton and myself obliged the men to withdraw into the cellars, and waited ourselves on the fire step in the failing darkness. Mad ideas of British supremacy flared in me as the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires; but those ideas sank instantly, for the sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon of punishing lightnings burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the tempest blast of explosion. A minute more, and a torrent of shells was screeching into Port Arthur; we had been in no doubt about this attention, for the place was an obvious “immediate reserve”; we (it was our good fortune) went below. The brickwork of the cellar cracked under one or two direct hits, but stood. Presently the gunners switched away, and we went out again into the summer morning, with an airplane or two arriving on bright wings.
There was not much shelling now, but machine guns continued to fire in a ragged way; no news came. My expectation was that we should be called up to reenforce, but no news came. At last a small straggling group of those unfortunate selected soldiers blundered dazedly round the trench corner into Port Arthur, and lay down in the first shelter available, among them Sergeant Compton, a brave and brilliant young fellow. All too eagerly I asked him, as I brought out to the sweating and twitching wretches whatever refreshment my dugout held, “What things were like”; in a great and angry groan he broke out,”Don’t ask me — it’s terrible, O God ” Then, after a moment, talking loud and fast: “We were in the third line. I came to a traverse, got out of the trench, and peeped; there was a Fritz creeping round the next traverse. I threw a bomb in; it hit the trench side and rolled just under his head; he looked down to see what it was . . .” He presently said that the attack had failed. Of his party, none had returned without bullet holes in their caps, uniforms, or equipment; one Single was already exhibiting his twice-perforated mess tin with his usual dejected wit. In No Man’s Land a deep wide dike had been met with, not previously observed or considered as an obstacle, which had given the German machine guns hideously simple targets; of those who crossed, most died against the uncut wire, including our colonel’s brother. A trench had been dug across No Man’s Land at heavy cost. So the attack on Boar’s Head closed, and so closed the admirable life of many a Sussex worthy.
Even now, we apprehended that a fresh forlorn hope might be demanded of the brigade.
At the risk–nay, the utter certainty–of sidetracking an excellent writer with an unnecessary learned digression, I want to point out how apt this reference is. A “forlorn hope” is not a “foolish expectation” or “sadly mistaken wish” but a corrption of the Dutch for a “lost troop.” As a technical term of Early Modern siege warfare, it refers to a unit–usually volunteers–who lead the attack on a fortress, usually by storming a breach. They are not expected to survive, since they will draw the fire of the prepared defenders. But in doing so, they will open the way for another storming party which may succeed while the defenders reload…
What the brigade felt was summed up by some sentry who, asked by the General next morning what he thought of the attack, answered in the roundest fashion, “Like a butcher’s shop.” Our own trenches had been knocked silly, and all the area of attack had been turned into an Aceldama. Every prominent point behind, Factory Trench, Chocolate Menier Corner, and so on, was now unkindly ploughed up with heavy shells. Roads and tracks were blocked and exposed. The communique that morning, when in the far and as yet strange-seeming south a holocaust was roaring, like our own extended for mile upon mile, referred to the Boar’s Head massacre somehow thus:
“East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”
Perhaps, too, it claimed prisoners; for we were told that three Germans had found their way “to the Divisional Cage.”
Explanations followed. Our affair had been a cat’s-paw, a “holding attack” to keep German guns and troops from the Somme. This purpose, previously concealed from us with success, was unachieved, for just as our main artillery pulled out southward after the battle, so did the German; and only a battalion or two of reserve infantry was needed by them to secure their harmless little salient. The explanations were almost as infuriating to the troops as the attack itself… and deep down in the survivors there grew a bitterness of waste…
But in the spirit of the thing, we should sweep this direct testimony of the failed “cat’s paw” under the rug. However disillusioning, the Battle of the Boar’s Head can’t escape its destiny: from conception to execution–and even in its literary re-purposing, though to different effect–it was always a diversion, a feint, a flam-tap of history before the great crash of cymbals. “The bitterness of waste” is retrospection, which is out of bounds. Today, a century back, is about tomorrow.
So back then to fiction: Phillip Maddison will be in the thick of it tomorrow–being fictional makes it easier to experience (and survive) several of the great British assaults in succession. On battle’s eve, he marches up…
The night of 30 June was fine in the valley of the Ancre, and fairly quiet. Cries of water-fowl came through the darkness as the column halted in the traffic congestion.
The last hues of sunset were congealed upon the north-west rim of the earth above which arose a steely haze of light. Phillip wondered, as he leaned on his rifle, if this was the glow of the midnight sun, the distant rays in space rising millions of miles beyond the horizon of the battlefield. How small it must all seem to the sun, which had looked upon so much life and death on the planet. Everything was vast to one human brain, but to the sun, how small…
Where was God in the actual scheme of things? His Son had failed to alter the scheme… It was all right for Father Aloysius to talk; but it was a fairy story.
He quivered with terror of death, waiting to enter the dead town of Albert…
The platoon marched straight on, passing under the red-brick mass of high walls and shattered roof above which the Golden Virgin leaned down from the campanile, high over the street, gleaming in every gun-flash…
“With so much stuff going over, it will be a cake-walk,” said the Adjutant to Phillip…
From skepticism and foreshadowing, then, we will go back to the Traditional Voice, on what in some ways is its last day of unquestioned ascendancy.
Lieutenant Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, MC does not, in verse at least, entertain any of the same doubts. His 8th West Yorkshires moved up tonight to assault trenches opposite Thiepval, and today, a century back, he wrote this “last letter” in verse:
To My People Before The Great Offensive
Dark with uncertainty of doubtful doom
The future looms across the path we tread;
Yet, undismayed we gaze athwart the gloom,
Prophetically tinged with hectic red.
The mutterings of conflict, sullen, deep,
Surge over homes where hopeless tears are shed,
And ravens their ill-omened vigils keep
O’er legions dead.
But louder, deeper, fiercer still shall be
The turmoil and the rush of furious feet,
The roar of war shall roll from sea to sea,
And on the sea, where fleet engages fleet.
The fortunate who can, unharmed, depart
From that last field where Right and Wrong shall meet.
If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,—
Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been,
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where’er the borders of our empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I’m fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring
A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, “Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,”
And lift your heads in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door.
For if there’s any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If Life is more than so much indrawn breath,
Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life, that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta’en its ancient earthy form anew.
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the Song of Life for tones you knew.
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature’s powers
I’ll speak to you.
References and Footnotes
- Zeepvat, Before Action, 193-4. ↩
- Diaries, 82. ↩
- From the Trinity College Cambridge Library (spoilers abound). ↩
- Parker, Ackerley, 23. ↩
- With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 79. ↩
- I am trying, you see, to work through all my most egregious mixed metaphors, in preparation for the grim task of writing up the Big Push... ↩
- The Golden Virgin, 271-3. ↩
- But not really. I am compelled to remind everyone that, even as the tide of disillusionment and disenchantment will begin to rise sharply, here, as the Somme attack founders, the public face of "poetry" and "war literature" will remain largely positive, patriotic, and traditional for more than a decade to come. ↩