[This is the third post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first or second, you may wish to scroll down…]
A major theme of Henry Williamson‘s many-volumed autobiographical novel is the struggle between father and son. Two major weaknesses of the novel are Williamson’s tendency to be heavy-handed with his inter-cutting and to give in to the temptation to put his fictionalized self at every crucial moment of the war. But these faults can perhaps be forgiven, today.
Around 8:00, having heard the rumble of guns in France during his morning walk on a hilltop in suburban London, Richard Maddison returns home for breakfast. He shares the news with his wife, correctly guessing that the climax of the bombardment means that the Big Push has begun. She thinks of their son–it has not occurred to Richard that Phillip may be in combat. Instead, he is grumbling about their daughter’s prolonged occupation of the bathroom. Maddison Senior is the epitome of the armchair militarist, an avid reader of all of the quick-fire military histories, upbeat “sketches,” and pro-war rants that fill the newspapers. But Saturday is still a working day: if he can’t yet look forward to his armchair, he can look forward to the reports of the Great Offensive in the afternoon papers. He feels as if the women are keeping him from his battle.
Richard went into the front room, and sat down, tense with resentment that he should have to wait to get into his own bathroom… his routine was put out… If only he had been twenty years younger, or even ten, then he might by now be in France, living a comparatively free and spacious life… the brushing of teeth, preceded by work with a rubber band to clear spaces of food, made him feel less burdened by himself, but when he walked up the gully again, into quiet air, romance was gone from the Hill.
Phillip was then lying down in no-man’s-land, with the fragments of his platoon. He had been going forward, carrying the Lewis gun which Sergeant Jones had dropped on being hit, when an apparition in coils of white smoke had run to him, screaming to be saved. It collapsed and hung to his legs. The sandbag of phosphorous grenades carried by Howells had caught fire, to close him in crackling loops and spurtings of white thick smoke. His tunic smouldered; fuming ulcers ate into his flesh; he ran to his officer for help. Phillip tried to knock away phosphorous fragments like broken nuts, which were dividing and sub-dividing on Howell’s uniform and equipment. His efforts were in vain.
Before he can kill the burning man with the Lewis gun, Phillip is hit in the leg, and falls to the ground. Howell dies in agony.
A different sort of romance soon returns to take over the story: the posh Catholic padre Father Aloysius finds Phillip and gives him not only doctrine but an apt quotation from Julian Grenfell:
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, soThat it be not the Destined Will.
But it’s the bit of doctrine, whispered by the brave chaplain who has not waited in a trench for the wounded, but, like Ernest Crosse of the Devonshires, come forward to seek them, which takes us ironically back from the realm of God and destiny and eternal security and back to the Somme. The padre goes on:
…The Virgin and Child is not a symbol of what should be, but of what is Phillip. That Love is in the world always, waiting for all men. It is the love of God. Now I must go. Good luck!
But the Virgin on Phillip’s mind is the presiding deity of the battle, a Virgin who seems more like a Fury fully committed to her local harrowings than any symbol of a more perfect world. This is the Golden Virgin of his book’s title, the too-ominous-to-be-good tableau that greets nearly all the men arriving in the battle sector. When will she hurl her child into the rubble beneath?
But fiction takes liberties. Phillip Maddison begins to crawl back toward the British Front Line.
It will be many hours before even the local commanders can grasp the strategic situation, and days before anyone in England–or the soldiers whose view is confined to what can be seen from their trenches, for that matter–can piece together the facts. We cheat just a little, then, in drawing this summary from Charles Carrington:
The Fourth Army assault was successful on the right, made some slight progress in the centre, and was a total failure on the left…
Suffering most acutely in this failure of the left (i.e. northern) flank of the attack were many of the “Pals” battalions of the north country. These were men who had answered Lord Kitchener’s call en masse in 1914, enlisting in large groups alongside other men from their neighborhoods or professional associations. The informal names that these numbered “Service” (i.e. Kitchener, or New Army) battalions took are evocative of that primary symbolic significance of today’s brutal toll: they are a volunteer army gone willingly into an uphill battle in which they will be outmatched and overwhelmed.
We prefer the lyric voice–the poetry of the personal–because when poets speak, in their compressed and powerful way, for multitudes, any major claims may feel political, rather than poetical. But sometimes later poets speak with authority, or just with clarity. I want to stay focused on the here and now, but when we read of the destruction of the Pals Battalions we should be reminded, at least, of Philip Larkin’s poem:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word…
Never such innocence again.
The East Yorkshire Regiment’s 10th through 13th battalions took the names “Hull Commercials,” “Hull Tradesmen,” “Hull Sportsmen,” and, wittily, “T’others;” the West Yorks fielded the Leeds, Durham, and Bradford “Pals,” and the Yorks and Lancs had two battalions of “Barnsley Pals” and the Sheffield City Battalion, or Sheffield Pals.
Will Streets, coal miner, poet, and now sergeant, served in the last of these, and his D company went over in the second wave on the extreme left, in the assault on Serre. They were supposed to pass through the rest of their battalion in the German front trenches by 7:50, but the first wave had been largely destroyed in its own trenches and in no man’s land. D Company may have taken nearly 50% casualties before they even reached their own wire, but Will Streets was not among them. Yet neither did he reach the German wire.
Once again, a young man in his prime walks uphill into the smoke, never to return.
There are stories told afterwards to members of his family–two of Will’s brothers, RAMC men, were working today in the shadow of the golden virgin, for the big basilica in Albert had been converted into an aid post–that have Will coming back toward the lines, wounded but walking, then going back into no man’s land to help more seriously wounded men. Perhaps he did, but another survivor told one of Streets’ brothers that Will’s arm had been blown off by a shell in no man’s land.
These stories matter more than they usually do because Streets’ family will suffer the special agony of having him listed as “missing.” Like thousands of others who died between the lines, in areas that would be fought over now for months, his body was not immediately recovered.
Nearly two thirds of the men of the Sheffield City Battalion who went forward were killed or wounded, a ratio that was matched or exceeded by at least a dozen battalions on that ravaged left flank.
And like so many of our writers, Streets had addressed the possibility of his death in his recent writing. He had hoped to see his poems published, but he will now join a great number of posthumous poets, the amateurs of Kitchener’s Army who will swarm the anthologies as the headstones fill the crowded new cemeteries.
Streets had written of a cemetery, recently, and of “A Soldier’s Funeral.” He knew that this was a likely fate. But perhaps the poem that can best stand sentinel here is his “An English Soldier:”
He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.
When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.
There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.
Not far from Streets was Donald Hankey, a platoon commander in the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment–Regulars, in the nearly all-regular-army Fourth Division. (See, once again, the map below).
Hankey had guessed all too well what would happen, but he, in a twist less gruesome than most, will be the master of his own fate.
His battalion was to attack in a mid-morning support wave, but after the two forward battalions were shot down and failed to gain their objectives, the advance was called off. Hankey, in any case, had been detailed to stay behind and organize the carrying parties that would resupply the fighters–it was thought that there would be an especially great need for bombs, i.e. hand grenades, given all of the fighting that would take place within the German trench system.
It’s difficult to tell if Hankey’s assignment showed the animus of higher-ups–Hankey “loathed” his company commander, and may have been despised as a former Regular officer who had left the army and then chosen to serve in the ranks at the outbreak of war–or rather just the luck of the draw.
But Hankey, who had learned of his survival, as it were, three days ago, amply demonstrates that it was not only the innocent, the bloody-minded, or the suicidal who craved the experience of a major battle.
In his diary entry for June 28th he had written:
I see myself counting ration bags while the battalion is charging with fixed bayonets; and in the evening sending up parties of weary laden carriers while I myself stay at the Dump. Damn! Damn!! Damn!!! Then I shall receive ironical congratulations on my “cushy” job.
The grim irony extended to the battalion: after having been pounded all week by German retaliatory fire, the Warwickshires, held within the British lines and–mercifully–never sent forward, suffered “only” 61 casualties, which was not much more than their average over the previous week.
And then the irony rebounds: his battalion was not needed, but his bombs still were. And so, while the proud Regulars cooled their heels and waited for tomorrow, Donald Hankey had an adventure today, a century back.
There are two accounts of what Hankey did on that day. Both of them are his, and both agree that he was ‘the only officer of my Company to set foot in a German trench’. The difference is as to the means by which this feat was achieved…
In a letter to his sister Hilda, Hankey will explain that
I have taken a very small part in a very big battle…
I was in charge of the ration and ammunition carriers, and the only part of the battle that I saw was when I had to carry bombs to a party of British who were trying to hang on to a comer of the Bosche front line. The scene was far more like one of Caton Woodville’s battle pictures than I had thought possible. An irregular mound, held by a wild mixture of men from all sorts of regiments, broken wire, dead, wounded, bomb[s], machine guns, shell holes, smoke.
As Hankey’s biographer Ross Davies suggests, this letter home implies that he was ordered forward. But his diary reveals a more personal response to the chaos of battle… and we will read it in the next post, covering the events of the afternoon and evening.
Our other carrying-party officer is Siegfried Sassoon. Strangely, given his recent bloodthirstiness and great enthusiasm for raids, he is content to be a spectator. He had little other choice, perhaps–or perhaps this overwhelming battle does not seem the sort of spectacle that provides a place for the solitary heroisms of the Hun-hunting lyric poet.
9.30. Came back to dug-out and had a shave. 21st Division still going across the open, apparently without casualties. The sunlight flashes on bayonets as the tiny figures move quietly forward and disappear beyond mounds of trench debris. A few runners come back and ammunition parties go across. Trench mortars are knocking hell out of Sunken Road trench and the ground where the Manchesters will attack soon. Noise not so bad now and very little retaliation.
9.50. Fricourt half-hidden by clouds of drifting smoke, blue, pinkish and grey. Shrapnel bursting in small bluish-white puffs with tiny flashes. The birds seem bewildered; a lark begins to go up and then flies feebly along, thinking better of it. Others flutter above the trench with querulous cries, weak on the wing. I can see seven of our balloons, on the right…
Yes, in the midst of all this, another lark. This is bizarre, but wonderful in its own way. That is, such a scene could be seized upon by a modern mythologizer or movie-maker (as Williamson wrote a lark into his account of this morning) and turned into symbolic melodrama. Yet it’s real: this is what Sassoon saw, and wrote, these very minutes, a century back. And the lark is no more or no less true than Will Streets’ traditionally-minded poetry of sacrifice–or, for that matter, than the poetry of disillusionment that will come, now, as tens of thousands of bodies join those of Streets and his comrades out in No Man’s Land and in hasty graves.
10.5. I can see the Manchesters down in New Trench, getting ready to go over. Figures filing down the trench. Two of them have gone out to look at our wire gaps! Have just eaten my last orange….
I am staring at a sunlit picture of Hell, and still the breeze shakes the yellow weeds, and the poppies glow under Crawley Ridge where some shells fell a few minutes ago. Manchesters are sending forward some scouts. A bayonet glitters. A runner comes back across the open to their Battalion Headquarters, close here on the right. 21st Division still trotting along the skyline toward La Boisselle. Barrage going strong t0 the right of Contalmaison Ridge. Heavy shelling toward Mametz.
12.15. Quieter the last two hours. Manchesters still waiting. Germans putting over a few shrapnel shells. Silly if I got hit! Weather cloudless and hot. A lark singing confidently overhead.
We will go back to the north, now, and to Charles Carrington, for an update on the progress of the battle. It begins with bracing honesty:
We could see nothing, and we knew nothing. When the bombardment slackened and the colonel and I made a tour of the line, walking about rather freely in the open with a facility that was new to me, and made me glow with satisfaction. Strange but true that it was safer to wander behind the lines in a battle when the leading troops were busy firing on one another than on a quiet day when keen-eyed snipers were searching for a target. At 11.25 the London Scottish sent us word that they were in the German trenches and held some prisoners. About the same time we reported to brigade that we could see the Germans collecting in the trenches opposite us. There was nothing we could do about it.
Soon after 12:00 we saw larger groups of Germans in the distance moving across country towards Gommecourt and disappearing into the communications trenches. We engaged them with rifle-fire and with the one machine-gun in our trench at over 1,500 yard range, which was worthless. I twice rang the corps artillery on a telephone that faded and finally broke, but got no reply except that it was not a target for them, but in the area of the 7th Corps, to whom we had no line. We sent a message to the Kensingtons on our left and after long delay were told that their artillery considered it was in our area.
Meanwhile, the German counter-attack was delivered and was accompanied by a crashing bombardment on the whole of our front. For the second time they scored a direct hit on our headquarters, with a heavy shell that burst on the parapet, throwing the colonel, the sergeant-major, the two leading company commanders… and me, into a heap on the floor. But shell-fire is chancy in effect and only one of us was wounded. Then calm descended on the battlefield. No news at all. A hot bright afternoon with grumblings of noise in the distance.
In the long stretch of the attack’s center, between Carrington’s southern view and Sasson’s northern prospect (blocked by the row of spurs or little ridges hinted at on the map by the curve of the German line, which followed the top of the slope), many thousands of men are dead or dying.
Those who are wounded but still possess the will to live and the power to move have essentially three choices: they can drag themselves into a shell-hole, they can lie where they are–in either case hoping to be spared both the attentions of the German machine gunners and the random visitations of shrapnel which will continue to pound the area throughout the day, and to hope for rescue once the interminable mid-summer day ends–or they can try to drag themselves back into the Old Front Line.
Edward Brittain chose the third option. Not for the first time we will hear the report of the day’s action as it came to be told to the soldier’s loved ones. The history of combat is often history that never can even come as far as chronicle, can never become an unimpeachably well-ordered series of events. And then the terror-tinged memories are passed on, and transmuted by those who were left behind into especially charged stories–not simple tales of walking and running, of wounding and death, but stories, stories of heroism or sacrifice, stories that mean something, that make something out of pain.
Enough editorializing. You will recognize the writer, here:
Edward himself had to lead the first wave of his company. They were not the very first to attack, and while they were waiting to go over the parapet, whole crowds of wounded began to come in & block up the trench, & not only this, but a certain battalion got into a panic & came running back. What with the blocked trench & the sight of the wounded, the panic began to communicate itself to Edward’s men. Had it not been for him they would never have gone. Twice he had to go back to rally them. Finally he got them over the parapet. . . .
He was wounded for the first time when about 90 yards along “No Man’s Land” by a bullet through his thigh; he tried to go on but could not; he fell, & crawled into a shell hole. Quite soon a shell burst very close to him & either a bit of this or a machine-gun bullet went through his left arm above the elbow. It seemed a far worse pain than the bullet in his thigh had been; he thought his arm had been blown off, & for the first time lost his nerve & cried out. He noticed when he had lain there about an hour & a half that the hail of machine-gun bullets was getting less & thought he would try & crawl back.
There is one more post today–I have scheduled it to go up at six in the evening, British time.
References and Footnotes
- Williamson himself was in England in July 1916, but Phillip has been back out for some weeks, commanding a platoon and aiding the heroic efforts of "Spectre" West, his Somme Cassandra, to alert the high command to the dreadful shortcomings of the attack plans. ↩
- Williamson, The Golden Virgin, 287-91. ↩
- Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 78-81. ↩
- Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-5. ↩
- The diary includes a more precise location, for those still keen on their maps: "(I am about five hundred yards behind the front trenches, where Sandown Avenue joins Kingston Road.)" ↩
- Diaries, 85ff; Complete Memoirs, 331-4. ↩
- Soldier From the Wars Returning, 115. ↩
- Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth (Diary), 327. ↩