Today, a century back, a major attack was launched on the center of the Somme front. It will be a considerable success–except where two brigades of the Guards Division attacked from the outskirts of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs.
Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless… till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage replied.
Thus a great stylist. A blunter romancer condemns the tactics as succinctly as possible: “Their front of attack was too narrow, their objectives too far distant, and from the start their flanks were enfiladed.”
For any and all of these reasons, the 3rd Grenadier Guards met heavy, direct fire as soon as they left their trenches–there were machine-guns on three sides, and unexpected rifle fire just in front.
Harold Macmillan, leading his platoon, was hit in the knee, and stumbled on.
Raymond Asquith, leading No. 4 Company, was hit in the chest, and couldn’t.
Attempting nonchalance–perhaps to calm his men–Asquith lit a cigarette. He was quickly found by stretcher bearers and given morphia.
But he died on the stretcher on the way to the aid post. His soldier-servant, Needham, accompanied the body to burial.
What else can we add? Not much. Asquith’s contribution here has been wit, and a special sort of provocation–to take him lightly, to miss the context of his letters just because he dares us to. He’s been whistling into the hurricane, fiddling all the harder because his naughty, beloved, decadent Rome is being fired on from all sides. It looks like cynicism, and it tastes, sometimes, almost like nihilism–but it was, really, a tough, contrary, formidable love of life and love and beauty.
Now he’s gone, and his legacy–for his friends, but especially for his wife and three young children–is loss.
Is it too sentimental to claim that, although much wonderful writing is to come (we are not yet halfway through this ordeal) we will not see his like again? I hope not, because, really, we won’t. It’s September, and this death, surely, is the last fallen leaf of the Last Summer.
Onward, anyway. What happened? How did he die? There is not much more to know, since he was shot down so early on this chaotic day. There’s not much of a story, in the end. And the rest of the day is terrible chaos.
For form’s sake I will link my battle-piece-agnosticism to a narrator of unquestioned bravado:
German dead along the Ginchy-Flers sunken road
There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known danger-points — such as the Ginchy-Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the Brown and Yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon — once the affair was launched there was little chance of seeing far or living long.
If there cannot be a definite or accurate record–if there cannot be pre-historical chronicle, let alone “history”–there can still be impressions. C.E. Montague, who, now that he is an intelligence officer, has begun to keep a brief diary of his movements, was a witness in the rear, where all great hopes reside.
Sept. 15.–To point between Maricourt and Hardécourt (close by Nameless Copse) to see battle begin. Start 5 A.M., moonlight. Cavalry on silent road by Querriers. Lances bristling against dawn–twilight sky in fields beside road.
The cavalry will not advance. But other beasts will. Were it not for the loss of one of our very finest, here, this day’s story of battle would have to begin with the great surprise weapon. Of our writers, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, may have had the best view–even if, at day’s end, he did not have the most accurate perspective.
Guillemont, 15th September, 1916
To-day there has been another great battle, which seems to have been nothing less than a victory for us.
Mark I tank
I cannot talk about the “tanks,” as our new armoured caterpillars are called. These astounding machines… are huge armoured forts, weighting over thirty tons… they can go over any ground, however broken up… they are the most alarming things imaginable and are so heavily armoured that they are impervious to rifle or machine-gun fire; nothing but a direct hit from a gun can stop them…
Would that that were so. Kipling, laying about him with characteristic precision but unusual mercilessness, dwells not on the promise of the tanks but on the uselessness in such a deep attack over such ground of a mere handful of fragile new machines:
There had been instructions in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the Tanks are held up or not.” It was. The Tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the Cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume…
But that is bitter hindsight. Today, a century back, the cavalry were an old familiar hope and the tanks were an impressive novelty.
Charles Carrington, who often styles himself a retrospective voice of reason, notes, for his part, that he “flatly refused to believe” that “we possessed armoured cards that could cross trenches and wire… The secret was wonderfully well kept… And the lesson to be learned from the battle of 15th September was that the Mark I tank has almost no value except for the lift given to our morale and the shock to the German morale by the rumours about our secret weapon… Haig… believed, and for what it is worth I and my friends believed, that there was still a chance of fighting the decisive battle before the autumn and for such a prize everything must be stake…
Back now to the Master of Belhaven, writing this evening, a century back, and sanguine:
As it became lighter we could see four of the new monsters on the Guinchy ridge just in front of us…. They were rolling and pitching on the rough ground like ships at sea, but kept steadily on at about a mile an hour, till they reached the German parapet, hoisted themselves over and were lost to sight on the other side. Accounts vary very much so far, as to how they did…
We could see our infantry attacking, line after line, especially the Guards on our left. They went forward in perfect order at a walk, breaking into a run when they go near the German position…
But as Kipling will write, “no man saw anything coherently.” Belhaven was wrong. Quick progress was made on the flanks, but the Guards walked into machine-gun fire, and were mauled from the beginning. Soon they discovered that a scratch trench–or series of shell holes–that had not even been accounted for in their extremely ambitious orders was still being held by Germans. This was the source of the accurate rifle fire that was added to the traversing machine guns. And the artillery did not lag far behind.
Which brings us back to Harold Macmillan, who lived to tell this tale. Those of his platoon of the 3rd Grenadier Guards who made it through the first wave of machine-gun fire discovered that the tanks had failed–Macmillan saw one of “these strange objects” stranded in a shell-hole–and the barrage had moved on with its brisk, foreordained optimism. They had to scrape together some sort of improvisational attack, or die where they lay. Macmillan will write that
the German artillery barrage was very heavy, but we got through the worst of it after the first half-hour. I was wounded slightly in the right knee. I bound up the wound at the first halt, and was able to go on. . . . About 8.20 we halted again. We found that we were being held up on the left by Germans in about 500 yards of uncleared trench. We attempted to bomb and rush down the trench. I was taking a party across to the left with a Lewis gun, to try and get in to the trench, when I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh [apparently at close range]. It was a severe wound, and I was quite helpless. I dropped into a shell-hole, shouted to Sgt. Robinson to take command of my party and go on with the attack. Sgt. Sambil helped me tie up the wound. I had no water, as the bullet had previously gone thro’ my water bottle. . .
I don’t believe that Macmillan and Asquith knew each other well, but they were both Balliol men, and readers, and Asquith, minutes or hours dead, would have approved of how Macmillan spent his morning:
He lay in the shell-hole all morning, while the tide of battle flowed back and forth around him–lying ‘doggo’ and pretending to be dead when any Germans came near, lest they be tempted to ‘despatch’ him. Though realising that he had been seriously wounded, he was surprised to discover that–unlike the far less dangerous wound through his hand at Loos–‘which was excruciatingly painful, this body blow knocked me out but did not hurt’. Remembering that he had in his pocket a copy of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek), which Nellie had sent him, he fell to reading it intermittently; ‘It was a play I knew well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position.’
The great classical wit is dead, but long live classical wit. Prometheus Bound (no longer unanimously attributed to Aeschylus, but we live in a fallen world) features a number of long speeches made to and by the titan Prometheus, as he is chained in place and tortured. “Violence” and “Authority” appear as characters, and there is a matter of giving fire to mankind…
After a morphia-aided nap, Macmillan was found:
Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now . . . bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: “Thank you, sir, for leave to carry you away,” as if he’d been on a parade ground!
But Macmillan’s grim adventure was not over. After dark he and another wounded officer were carried to Ginchy, where confusion reigned and ambulances could not be found. They sent their bearers back to the battalion, then tried to limp back on their own. They became separated, and Macmillan, wounded and alone, felt fear catch up with him at last. He will look back on today, and comment that
bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride, because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend . . . there was nobody for whom you were responsible, not even the stretcher bearers. Then I was very frightened. . . . I do remember the sudden feeling–you went through a whole battle for two days . . . suddenly there was nobody there . . . you could cry if you wanted to. . .
After passing out in a ditch, Macmillan was found by a passing officer and taken at last to an ambulance.
There are tales of heroism that go with this attack, of course. Macmillan’s friend Oliver Lyttleton, who as adjutant did not go forward with the attacking companies, went forward later to gather in the remnants of several battalions and defend the few trenches they had taken. He was driven out by German counterattacks, throwing his empty revolver at the Germans like a grenade as a last ruse to cover the last retreat.
But for the most part it is only death. So we’ll close with two concise tales of death, framed as tragedies. A few days ago, Rowland Feilding had marched back with his new, shattered, battalion past his former battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He will remember this chance meeting when he next writes to his wife:
I stopped for lunch. The young officers crowded round me afterwards to hear my news, joking and laughing about it all, and asking what it was like “up there.” Poor little Dilberoglue, who commanded one of the Companies, clung to the boy next to him, and pretended to shiver with fear at the prospect of what was before him. And the Fates have taken his joke seriously, for to-day he is dead. He was a very competent young officer.
Finally, I want to end with a new turn, a twist away from the death of Raymond Asquith that nonetheless shows how the war’s thread runs through so many lives, linking even where it does not entangle. Carroll Carstairs, a writer we have heard nothing from yet, is an American volunteer. By now he has taken a commission and made his way into the Grenadier Guards, completing training at one of their depot camps. He has only been awaiting a gap to fill–so he will be moving up to the line shortly, now. He remembers another American Guardsman, and the dreams and strange paths of eager young volunteers.
While on short leave in Amiens I heard about Dill Star. He wanted to go into the Flying Corps, but thought it would take too long to get to the front. Walter Oakman, who had joined the Coldstream, persuaded him to transfer into that Regiment.
Dill went to France about September 1st, and was killed on the 15th of that month.
“You knew him?” asked the young officer in the Coldstream with whom I was having a drink.
“He went over in fine style . . .”
And then I thought of the story told me once about Dill. Whenever he had had a bit too much drink in his club at Harvard he could be found sitting in front of a certain picture. It was an old coloured print and represented a charge by a regiment in the Brigade of Guards.