Billy Congreve’s Sketch of the Southern Flank of the German Mini-Salient Near Hooge, Made in Preparation for Today’s Attack
Some days we make do with a scribble or two. Today, three of our writers are close behind two separate assaults while another charges into the German trenches–and several writers yet far from the guns are inconveniently busy as well.
The major action of today was the assault by elements of V Corps on recently ceded areas of the Ypres salient near Hooge. It’s usually called the Battle of Bellewaarde, and it has its own website, to whose editors I am today very heavily indebted.
Yesterday we read the build-up to the battle in the words of one infantry lance-corporal, and we’ll get back to Alf soon. But first, a primer on the preparations for this battle by our man on the staff, Billy Congreve. A brief reminder: there are several (usually four) battalions to the brigade, and several brigades (usually three) to the division. Congreve is the aide-de-camp to Major General Haldane of the 3rd Division and thus an influential member of the divisional staff, which will oversee the attack plan for several thousand men. But the 3rd Division is one of several divisions subordinate to V Corps–and we shall see what Billy thinks of those guys. Let’s move back six days to take in the planning as seen on the divisional level.
We have been ordered to do an attack on Bellewaarde Fam. The date of the attack is the 14th. It’s now the 9th and, of course, it is the most desperate business to get everything ready in four days. It is almost ludicrous…
The 9th Brigade… will have had some small chance of training themselves, but the 7th… will have no rest, no chance to organize all the little details… the ammunition supply is very limited… Altogether it is no pleasing job. The general has made up his mind, I think to fail. I think there need be no failure, but it is not a bit satisfactory…
We may now, I hear, get a day or possibly two days extra…
General A. comes every day and sits talking for ages, and generally finishes by saying how easy the whole thing is…
Who’s this, now? Why its Edmund Allenby! He’s now the commander of V Corps, and already well on his way to earning his reputation as a general who just does not give in, but only gets a devastating proportion of his men killed every time instead. The lion-leading donkey stereotype is not a fair representation of the British general–but the shoes do fit more than a few feet. Allenby is a paragon of the stubborn butcher.
It will take several more battles atop the relative casualty charts before Haig promotes him into a position where his talent for refusing to plan effectively will get fewer people killed. Or not: Allenby will eventually be sent to Jerusalem to work things out the politics there… so at least he’ll have a praiseworthy role in creating conditions of lasting peace somewhere.
Congreve’s description of Allenby is about as harsh as any judgment in his diary: “a bully and not a brilliant soldier.”
Congreve’s diary goes on to describe the problems of acclimating new troops to active warfare. Kitchener’s Army is out, remember, but it has yet to be depended on for a major assault.
We had a pioneer battalion of the 14th Division (K’s army) up to help dig. They were a little shelled and only about a quarter of them turned up for work. This is a beastly place to bring them to learn what war is like. It’s enough to demoralise a brick wall, let alone eight-month old soldiers…
The arranging is now nearly over… I always hate inspecting troops who are just going into a very gory battle. These next few days are going to be hard for everyone…
Congreve also relates that the same pioneer battalion “ran away” a second time: this explains the scratch trenches Pollard found yesterday.
We have another man crouching close behind the British lines today as well. John Lucy of the 2/Royal Irish Rifles is unusual in being an enlisted man of the pre-war Regular Army with a decent amount of schooling. Not surprisingly, he has been promoted into the non-commissioned ranks and put to literate work.
He fills us in on the mood of a battalion which suffered heavily on the Aisne in the fall–Lucy lost his brother–and is now facing its first intensive combat in many months.
Even the old soldiers began to lose faith. They said a gamble was good enough–a fight with a chance of winning–but useless sacrifice dismayed us all. We got our first touch of this kind of fighting in the following June. Our battalion, supporting an attack on the Ballewarde [Bellewaarde or Bellewaerde] salient near Hooge, went into battle six hundred and fifty strong and lost half that number.
I was busy for days before the attack copying maps of the intricate German trench system for issue to officers commanding companies and platoons. On the morning of the attack, 15th June [i.e. 16th June], our guns bombarded the German front line for an hour and a half…
Billy Congreve’s Photograph of German Prisoners Captured June 16th, 1915 Near Bellewaarde
This bombardment, according to Billy Congreve, began at 3:20 and moved on to the second German line at 4:15–this tactic will later be described as “lifting,” and eventually refined into a “walking barrage” in which the artillery slowly increases its range, in theory allowing infantry to advance just behind.
Today, a century back, five battalions attacked in this first wave while the German second line was under fire. And with great success: the German front line trenches had not been sufficiently deepened or improved, and the artillery had killed and wounded many. The survivors were stunned and dozens of prisoners were taken (see Congreve’s photo, at right).
In yesterday’s post we left Alf Pollard crouched in a shallow assembly trench with the rest of the HAC, ready to act as a reserve to the second wave.
About an hour before zero hour a message came down the line that I was to report to Captain Boyle… Captain Boyle has great news for me. Two men were required to accompany the first wave as a connecting link. I was one of the two chosen; the other was a fellow called Springfield, whose father was the editor of London Opinion.
Springy and I were delighted. I especially so. My ambition was to be realised. I was to take part in a charge. With luck I might bayonet a Hun.
We reported to Captain Spooner of the 1st Lincolns… We had scarcely arrived when the barrage commenced.
Congreve’s Sketch Showing the Ground of Today’s Attack
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Swish, swish, swish, swish. Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Deafening Pandemonium! …the continuous noise of guns and shells rendered my sense of hearing completely inoperative. Guns firing and shells bursting were so intermingled, friend and foe, that there was one endless succession shattering detonations.
…My pulse raced; the blood pounded through my veins. I looked at Springy and grinned; Springy grinned back. Only a few more minutes…
Short three-rung ladders were placed against the parapet, a man stood by each one, his foot on the first step, his rifle and bayonet swung over his shoulder…
I fully expected that we should be met by a withering fire as soon as we had emerged into the open. I anticipated the crackle of machine-guns, the rattle of musketry, the sweeping away of our gallant charge, Except that I never once dreamed or considered that I myself should be hit, Even in the this first attack I had the extraordinary feeling of being myself exempt….
Instead of a hail of machine-gun and rifle bullets, there was–nothing! Not a sign of life was to be seen anywhere around the enemy position. Overhead the shells still whined and screeched; behind us and in front great spouts of earth went up in bursts. The noise was deafening, but from the menacing line of earth works opposite, not so much as a puff of smoke.
Just ahead of me Captain Spooner ran in a steady jog-trot across No Man’s Land…
Four hundred yards to go! We ran steadily on. Springy and I had lengthened our stride until we were right at Captain Spooner’s heels. Still not a movement in the trench we were rapidly approaching.
What should we meet when we got there, I wondered?
Perhaps they were reserving their fire until the last moment. Perhaps a hidden machine-gin nest would seep us away like chaff before the wind. Or it might be that the infantry would rise to meet us with a yell in a counter bayonet charge. I clenched my teeth and gripped my rifle tighter.
Ten yards from the trench Springy and I both sprinted. Two minds with but a single thought. We both wanted to be first to engage the enemy. There was no wire to bother us…
What a shock met my eyes as I mounted the German parapet. The trench was full of men; men with sightless eyes and waxen faces… We were attacking a position held by corpses!
…when at length I realised what I was looking at, I felt suddenly sick with horror. This was unvarnished war; war with the gloves off… they aroused a feeling of pity. Death must have come to them so suddenly, without giving them a chance in their own defence.
The Lincolns swept past and on to the second line. Springy and I turned and ran back… our job was to report that the first German line was clear.
Pollard is writing later, and seems heavily influenced by rather old-fashioned styles of military adventure novels. Adrenaline-drenched memory, heavily re-written, will generally sound like fiction. And then the qualities of the experience are somewhat circumscribed by the quality of the writing.
Here’s Billy Congreve, writing just after the attack, on what he saw from his post near the ramparts of Ypres:
At this moment [5 a.m.], it seemed as if the attack had been completely successful.
Yes–and then the two inevitable things happened: the attacking troops ran out of grenades and were forced back down the trenches they had captured, and the German artillery began to respond, tearing into the supporting troops moving up over the open ground of what had recently been No Man’s Land.
The shelling was now very intense, and men began to fall back on Y Wood. This left us in possession of the 1st line German trenches… The casualties were now considerable, and the units much disorganised by the heavy shelling and heavy losses in officers…
Now, as at Neuve Chapelle, there was a long delay while messages went back and forth over the torn, heavily-shelled ground between the advanced units and the brigade and division staffs. Congreve’s notes elide long gaps of squandered opportunity and constant casualties:
12 noon Orders to 9th Brigade to organise a new attack…
3:30 p.m. GOC 9th Brigade ordered two battalions of 7th Brigade… to start attack; objective being the edge of the lake and Bellewaarde Farm. The attack was preceded by a twenty-minute bombardment.
In the meantime, Alf Pollard had come back to the jump-off point to fulfill his role as messenger. Then, without orders to do so, he again moved forward to join the Lincolnshires, part of the second phase of the successful initial assault. By mid-morning he was probably on the western edge of Chateau Wood, just in front of the Hooge/Bellewaarde lake, and significantly behind where the German lines had been that morning. There he saw a wounded German–still firing his pistol–bayoneted by a Tommy.
But, other than this close-in view of killing, Pollard has been frustrated in his desire–there is no hand-to-hand fighting to be had.
Instead, he moves about trying to aid the wounded and clear the trenches that now must be immediately made defensible:
At one place a Hun had fallen and jammed the communications trench with his body. I took him by the shoulders and another fellow by the feet with the intention of heaving him out of the way. We lifted him all right, but a shell had taken away the top of his head which fell forward and poured the whole of his brains over my tunic. I was red from chin to ankle. From my appearance I might have been in the bloodiest of bloody encounters. And yet my bayonet was virgin steel; not one round had been fired through my rifle.
Another of the common ironies of the attack. Pollard ends up running messages for the machine-gun section of his battalion, as the British dig in and the German artillery–having waited to determine which trenches had been lost–enters the battle.
We’re now back, more or less, to the middle of the afternoon when, after this painful delay, a new attack is finally organized. (The delay is to some extent inevitable: there are no radios, and, even when the trenches will become heavily wired for telephone communication between infantry and artillery, carrying wires forward on an attack through a bombardment will always remain a chancy proposition. Foot speed over broken country will still limit the reactions time of even an efficient commanding officer.) Pollard is somewhere near by, providentially safe from the interdiction bombardment, when the two battalions of the 7th Brigade mentioned by Congreve go forward on the attack.
One of these two battalions was John Lucy‘s 2/Royal Irish Rifles:
Our job was to consolidate the front line of captured trenches, but our men lost their heads, and two high-spirited companies went forward beyond the line… They were recalled with difficulty and set to the less warlike task of improving the captured first line, which they worked at all day under heavy shell-dire, until about half-past three in the afternoon, when the futile order reached them to resume the attack in daylight.
This description is confirmed by the battalion war diary–indeed, Lucy may be drawing on it:
Unfortunately, two companies, “C” and “D,” carried away by their enthusiasm, advanced to the third line, and had to be reorganized and brought back to their proper position. “B” Company never got up. As it moved forward it was very heavily shelled in enfilade, lost forty of its leading ranks, and had to be withdrawn, somewhat shaken.
Back to Lucy’s less restrained account:
The Ballewarde Salient was now an inferno on which every British and German gun in the vicinity concentrated its fire. There was great confusion. The German front line occupied by us was filling with the dead and wounded of about eight regiments, and our men, weakened by casualties and hard manual labor, had to drop picks and shovels and go forward without direct artillery support, over muddy ground spurting shell explosions every few yards and raked by enemy machine-guns from an unprotected left flank. As their waves moved forward patiently and dauntlessly to death and mutilation our officers at battalion headquarters stiffened to pale despair. The companies had just been committed when the signal came through from brigade to postpone the attack. Horror seized every one. The attack petered out, and the survivors fell back to the German front line exhausted and defeated…
Actually, now I would wager that Lucy’s account is indeed drawing on the battalion diary:
While sorting out the various units, he [the brigade commander] received orders to launch a new attack to take the final objective at 3.30 p.m. He pointed out that it was impossible for commanding officers to reach their units, and that owing to the mist no detailed objectives for close support could be given to the artillery.
The orders for attack were repeated, and the assault was allotted to the 3rd Worcestershire and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. At 3.35 p.m., five minutes after the hour fixed, there came a message postponing it till 3.50. This certainly never reached the troops, who had only the lifting of the bombardment, not easy to distinguish on the instant, to tell them when to advance.
This is where attention to genre is important. A private diary calling the generals murderers or a later memoir calling them knaves and fools is, in a way, less damning than an official regimental publication noting the reluctance of its men to be sentenced to such an attack.
Only those who have experienced it can realize how confusing and demoralizing are last-moment postponements of this nature. Men before an attack are taut-strung–strung to nigh breaking-point–and if the waiting period be unduly prolonged, a slackening is the lesser of two evils. A rupture is the more serious.
Nevertheless this attack was launched with the greatest dash and pressed with the greatest devotion… In this almost hopeless affair the men showed courage equaling their record in any of their actions before or afterwards. Pounded all day by heavy artillery, they had remained cool, steady and unshaken. Now they went forward with unimpaired vigour, after thirty hours without sleep and twelve under fire. But the odds were too great. They might have passed through the frontal fire; that from the flank, from the railway-line, swept away the advance, and the survivors, weary, dazed and angry, fell back to the German front trench.
Take a look at Congreve’s map, again: The Royal Irish are trying to reach the trenches on the western edge of the lake, almost at the eastern extent of the map (the “B” of Bellewaarde” is just visible within the lake). The railway slants east-north-east away off the map, and from the entire non-shaded length of that line German riflemen and machine-gunners could fire from their slightly elevated positions across the front of the attack.
Lucy, horrified but safe in battalion headquarters, ends his account in the clipped tones of outrage:
Our smashed battalion was relieved. Comment was impossible. Bleary-eyed, loose-lipped, and muddied the battered men went back to rest.
Congreve, two levels further back at division HQ, does not know–or chooses not to report–this dramatic tale of the order twice given and then countermanded too late. But he does not dispute the result:
No sooner had they left Y Wood [in the center of the map above], than they were swept away by shell and rifle fire. All the officers were almost instantly killed or wounded.
Alf Pollard had been ordered to stay in the vicinity of the German first line, which had been taken ages ago in the dawn light. He has nothing to say about the immolation of the Royal Irish in the mid-afternoon, but picks up the story not long after their withdrawal.
We had made a fairly easy capture; we were to be made to pay for our subsequent tenure…
The day slowly passed in a tornado of the worst shelling I was ever in during the whole War. Towards five o’clock Fritz made another counter-attack and we were able to let off some of our feelings towards him in the form of rifle and machine-gun fire. Any pity I had felt for any of them in the earlier part of the day was swallowed up in an intense hatred…
Congreve’s Photograph of German Shell Fire on the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Afternoon of June 16th, 1915
So passed Pollard’s first day on the attack. He wreaked no violence–unless we count the “we” of the machine guns he helped serve–but he saw much done; he worked from aggression through pity and on into hatred…and late at night, having been relieved by fresh troops, he rejoined the his battalion as they filed back into Ypres, have bulged out the salient by a few hundred yards…
Billy Congreve will close today’s account of the battle:
The result was that an important part of the Bellewaarde position was left in our hands. Casualties were: officers, 25 killed, 109 wounded and 9 missing; other ranks, 341 killed, 1,907 wounded and 1,169 missing. Total 3,560.. The German losses must have been considerable… We took about 200 prisoners and some hundreds of dead were buried.
These preliminary casualty statistics reflect the inevitable confusion–many of those missing were dead, and many of those wounded died.
And here’s how the same battle looks in Conan Doyle‘s romantic/patriotic history:
The advance still continued with great fury. It should have ended on the taking of the second line of trenches, but it was impossible to restrain the men, who yelled, “Remember the Lusitania!” to each other as they surged over the parapets and dashed once more at the enemy with bayonet and bomb. The third trench was carried, and even the fourth. But the assault had gone too far. The farther spray of stormers had got as far as the Bellewaarde Lake. It was impossible to hold these advanced positions. The assailants dropped sullenly back, and finally contented themselves by settling into the first line and consolidating their position there on a front of a thousand yards. The losses had been heavy, especially from the high-explosive shells, which, as usual, blew both trenches and occupants to pieces. Men died happy, however, with the knowledge that the days were past when no artillery answer could be made, and that now at least they had given the enemy the same intolerable experience which they had themselves so often endured.
I doubt that there can be any greater sin, from the particular point of view of this project, than an older, non-combatant writer–someone writing “history,” no less–vouching for the dying emotions of the troops. And it’s such a tortured thought that one assumes he realized what he was doing: they are happy… that their guns have more shells? And that the enemy is suffering? So revenge? And the failed attack? Disgusting. And, if Roland Leighton or Alan Seeger are at all representative (they’re not, but on this count they may be close enough), anyone calling out “remember the Lusitania” was either a humorist or a bitter ironist.
I had what I had intended to use as a tension-breaking humorous last line. But it’s soured, somehow by Conan Doyle’s egregious pablum.
Anyway: so what became of the Bellewarde battlefield?
It’s now a theme park–Flanders’ largest family fun park.
Well then. Rowland Feilding was in battle today too, believe it or not–there was a diversionary attack mounted by the 1/Coldstream Guards on the southern end of the British line. But perhaps there has been enough bloodshed for today…
A few notes, instead, from writers still in England, or in dusty corners of forever-England abroad:
Ivor Gurney wrote today to his friend Marion Scott:
16 June 1915
Pte Gurney, B Company, 2nd 5th Glosters,
Dear Miss Scott:
Thank you for your letter, and the kind things; not to say flattery… Tomorrow we march to camp, somewhere near Epping; but your letter would be forwarded at once…
My health is still slowly improving; and as my mind clears, and as the need for self-expression grows less weak; the thought of leaving all I have to say unsaid, makes me cold. Could I only hand on my gift! Anyway, I have been rejected for second-reinforcements, and Territorial 3rd reinforcements will be late in going. The war however seems like lasting a year, and there is none of the exhilaration of battle in hot weather training.
Still, I chose this path, and do not regret it; do not see what else I could have done under the circumstances; and if the Lord God should have the bad taste to delete me:
“Deil anither word tae God from a gentleman like me”.
But Gurney, though hitherto most active as a composer, is clearly thinking of how the poets he admires have answered the call, and reading everything about the war that he can get his hands on:
Masefield is with the Red Cross in France.
John Drinkwater’s new book seems to be good. Have you read any of Neil Munro’s books? …What a fine speech was Churchill’s, at Dundee. The man has pluck enough.
“Land and Water”, Belloc’s affair is optimistic but John Buchan thinks it highly probably that there will be another winter campaign…
One of the best signs of healthy taste at present, is the significant fact that though Rabinadrath Tagore has been knighted, the critics I read did not pretend to be transported by his work — Not so much, indeed, as before the war.
Yours very sincerely
Finally, two brief publication notes for today, a century back:
Punch stalwart A. A. Milne had a piece in today’s number–but it will be his last for some time, as his duties as a New Army subaltern and communications instructor have become more pressing.
And the afterlife of Rupert Brooke was placed between boards, today, as 1914 and Other Poems was published.