[This is the second post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first, you may wish to scroll down…]
7:30 A.M., July 1st 1916 was the climactic moment of Britain’s war. This dramatic historic statement is actually fairly close to an objective claim. Since 1914, enormous social engineering and strategic planning had been devoted toward this year, this attack, this day, this very minute. So if there is ever a moment in the midst of this century-on reading/examination/commemoration of the war to take a moment to pause and reflect, this is it.
At 7:30 the barrage did not cease but rather “lifted,” moving off of the German front-line trenches and on to supporting positions. The first waves–variously arrayed in front-line trenches, newly-dug assembly trenches, support trenches that had become makeshift assembly points when German fire made the forward positions untenable, or lying out in no man’s land with their own artillery bursting just in front of them (and sometimes short)–now stood up under their ponderous burdens of arms, ammunition, tools, and supplies, and began to move forward. Most of the men were instructed–a fact made very familiar through retelling–to walk slowly, keeping their spacing, and not run. They must stay behind their own barrage and, after all, the German guns will have been silenced…
A very great moment in history…
But then of course the moment, like an archaeological artifact that cannot bear handling, crumbles apart as we try to comprehend it. Even the biggest, most sharply defined chunk of history shifts its shape once its moment is past and its place in the chronicle becomes subject to interpretation. So we will shrink from the size of it, and give way–at least for a little while–to some of the prevailing interpretative “meanings” of the First Day on the Somme.
As it happens, there was a writer not far from the epicenter. Not of the attack, per se, but of its future as vignette, stereotype, and historical parable. The moment when thousands of men came out of their trenches–expecting a walkover (though we have seen that many doubted this) but greeted instead with withering fire–has come to be viewed as the epitome of either the courageous and spirited innocence of the New Armies or the shocking ignorance and blithe wastefulness of their generals. Or both. And, while we’re at it, this moment was a necessary part of allied strategy: however badly the attack was executed, it was incumbent upon the British army to contribute, to try–before France buckled at Verdun or Russia collapsed–to break the German lines in a new section of the front.
But there is a great deal to read today–too much for us to dwell on strategy or the battle for the historiography of military strategy. And I promised a writer at an epicenter.
A True Relic of the Somme
A few days ago, Captain Billie Nevill came home from leave, bringing with him two footballs (some stories have four). He kept one himself and gave one to Bobby Soames, the best friend of J.R. Ackerley, another platoon commander of the 8th East Surreys. The balls were emblazoned with slogans–“The Great European Cup… East Surreys vs. Bavarians, Kick Off at Zero!” and brought forward when the battalion assembled for the attack.
The idea was something like this: Nevill’s company had seen a good deal of trench warfare, but they had never walked across a battlefield before. Perhaps following a football–or competing in the race to kick multiple footballs, as the story is usually told–would help overcome the strangeness of the moment and get them across 300 yards of No Man’s Land.
This is the sort of thing that inspires both incredulous disgust and enthusiastic celebration, even emulation. In the ten-second course of locating the above image (courtesy of the National Football Museum), I stumbled upon reports of re-enactments and even of a commemorative football tournament. How thrilling to treat war like a great game! But men died while this ball was in the air!
J.R. Ackerley followed one of those balls as his platoon attempted to advance over what John Masefield will call a “bare and hideous field” from which “little could be seen but the slope up to the enemy line.” Since he was there, he gets the last word:
The air, when we at last went over the top in broad daylight, positively hummed, buzzed, and whined with what sounded like hordes of wasps and hornets but were, of course, bullets. Far from being crushed, the Germans were in full possession of senses better than our own; their smartest snipers and machine-gunners were coolly waiting for us. G.H.Q., as was afterwards realized, had handed the battle to them by snobbishly distinguishing us officers from the men, giving us revolvers instead of rifles and marking our rank plainly upon our cuffs… [The German defenders] were thus enabled to pick off the officers first, which they had been carefully instructed to do, leaving our army almost without leadership.
Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step. Neville, the battalion buffoon, who had a football for his men to dribble over to the “flattened and deserted” German lines and was then going to finish off any “gibbering imbecile” he might meet with the shock of his famous grin (he had loose dentures and could make a skull-like grimace when he smiled), was also instantly killed, and so was fat Bobby Soames, my best friend…
How far I myself got I don’t remember; not more than a couple of hundred yards is my guess. I flew over the top like a greyhound and dashed across through the wasps, bent double. Squeamish always about blood, mutilations and death, averting my gaze, so far as I could, from the litter of corpses left lying about… my special private terror was a bullet in the balls, which accounts psychologically… for the crouched up attitude in which I hurled myself at the enemy. The realization that I was making an ass of myself soon dawned; looking back I saw that my platoon was still scrambling out of the trench, and had to wait until they caught up with me. My young Norfolk servant, Willimot, who then walked at my side, fell to the ground. “I’m paralyzed, sir,” he whimpered, his face paperwhite, his large blue ox-like eyes terrified. A bullet, perhaps aimed at me with my revolver and badges, had severed his spine…
Then I felt a smack on my left upper arm. Looking down I saw a hole in the sleeve and felt the trickling of blood. Then my cap flew off. I picked it up and put it on again; there was a hole in the crown. Then there was an explosion at my side, which sent me reeling to the ground. I lay there motionless. Griffin and one of the men picked me up and put me in a deep shell-hole. Griffin then tried to unbutton my tunic to examined and perhaps dress my wound. I was not unconscious, only dazed, and I had by now a notion of what had happened. It was another instance of the credulity of the time–my company commander’s contribution–that we officers had been told to carry a bottle of whisky or tum in our haversacks for the celebration of our victory after the “walk-over.” Some missile had struck my bottle of whisky and it had exploded…
I remember perfectly well… resisting Griffin’s attempts to examine me. I lay with my eyes closed and my wounded arm clamped firmly to my wounded side so that he could not explore beneath my tunic. I did not want to know, and I did not want him to know, what had happened to me. I did not feel ill, only frightened and dazed. I could easily have got up, and if I could have got up I should have got up. But I was down and down I stayed. Though my thoughts did not formulate themselves so clearly or so crudely at the time, I had a “Blighty” one… my platoon, in which I had taken much pride, could now look after itself.
My injuries where indeed of shamefully trivial nature, a bullet had gone through the flesh of my upper arm, missing the bone, and a piece of shrapnel or bottle… had lodged beneath the skin of my side above the ribs…
There are two nearly separate things to consider here. First, the bitter brilliance of Ackerley’s account of himself. Given his frankness (and the not inconsiderable fame of the book) there is little use holding to our “no spoilers” policy: this description is written later, at a time when publishers welcomed greater psychological acuity and anatomical precision. But leaving that aside (or not), Ackerley is significant for what he is willing to admit he was: terrified, human, flawed–and, again, terrified. I often refer to Paul Fussell here, and talk about how accurate war writing requires throwing over the old “elevated” diction. It does, but it also requires a willingness to dig beneath the surface: men don’t “fall,” they die; and they are not wounded and plunged into a terrible but uncomplicated physical anguish–they may also be horrified into irrationality by the sudden violation of their body.
Second, there is Ackerley’s version of what had already become a leading Story of the Somme. Other accounts differ, to say the least, but the more heroic tale told by Lt. Charles Alcock–which has Nevill reaching the German lines and beginning a grenade fight before being shot through the head–is suspect as well. Alcock included this detail in a letter to Nevill’s sister, and we know by now that this quintessentially painless death appears far too often in letters to survivors. So too do the details that a man “fell” either immediately or in glorious proximity to the enemy. Most were hit in “No Man’s Land,” that wasteland which seems by its name and nature to renounce purposeful heroism and cry out for modernism and meaninglessness.
Most of the Surreys, however, advanced through it. Although Ackerley, Soames, and Nevill never reached the German trenches, the following companies did.
This happened near Carnoy (see the map at left for the relative location of the writers discussed today). Ackerley and the East Surreys were part of the 18th Division’s assault on the southernmost of the line of low ridges which dominated the center of the battlefield. They were, in a sense, at the turning point of the battle, at least as it played out. They had gentle slopes ahead of them, instead of the nasty, banked little hills and narrow valley to the north, and as the day went on it became clear that the German artillery behind that sector had been mostly eliminated by the British bombardment. The machine-gunners still shot down their hundreds, but the ruins of Mametz village were taken. On the East Surrey’s right, the 30th division swept forward and took the village of Montauban, their first day’s objective (the dotted-and-dashed line shown at right).
In fact, the entire assault of XIII Corps–commanded by Major General W.N. Congreve, Billy Congreve‘s father–was notably successful. If most of the rest of today’s account dwells on death and disaster, this part of the assault is perhaps a more accurate foreshadowing of the war to come. A line of German trenches could indeed be taken, but the assault troops will find themselves staring across open country toward a second complete trench system, with a third under construction behind. And the day’s successes had come at the cost of 6,000 casualties to the two victorious divisions.
But we get ahead of ourselves. We must move a few thousand yards to the left, where Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devonshires faced that spur of the sinuous hill which held the village of Mametz.
This photograph from Masefield’s “The Old Front Line” shows Mametz in 1916 or 1917. The white lumps of chalk show where trenches have been dug; the photograph makes it difficult to appreciate the tactical importance of the gradual rise in the ground.
John Masefield’s description of this section of the line is worth quoting:
All the way of the hill, the enemy had the stronger position. It was above us almost invisible and unguessable, except from the air, at the top of a steep climb up a clay bank, which in wet weather makes bad going even for the Somme; and though the lie of the ground made it impossible for him to see much of our position, it was impossible for us to see anything or his or to assault him. The hill is a big steep chalk hill, with contours so laid upon it that not much of it can be seen from below. By looking to the left from our trenches on its western lower slopes one can see nothing of Fricourt, for the bulge of the hill’s snout covers it. One has a fair view of the old English line on the smoothish big slope between Fricourt and Becourt, but nothing of the enemy stronghold. One might have lived in those trenches for nearly two years without seeing any enemy except the rain and mud and lice.
The Devonshires had two terrible disadvantages. The first was that they were attacking from further back, and had to go over the top on the reverse slope behind their own front line. Thus they were only just reaching their own side of the shallow valley between the lines when the German machine-gunners were recovering. The second was that the village, however thoroughly its housing stock had been destroyed, had been converted into a fortress by the German defenders, with linked cellars and fortified machine gun nests. Captain Martin had studied the lay of the land, and to him the result was far from unguessable.
…as the Devons topped the rise and moved downhill, they were in full view of any enemy who might have survived the bombardment.
Mansel Copse is at the center, along the blue line which indicates the British Line. Due north is the “shrine” which housed a machine gun.
A single machine-gun, built into the base of the crucifix at the edge of the village, exactly where Capt. Martin had forecast, was only 400 yards away–easy range for a competent machine gunner… scores of men went down, among them Capt. Martin, killed at the exact spot by Mansel Copse that he had predicted from his model would be where his company would be doomed.
All the accounts do not match up perfectly, but the basic facts of the martyrdom of the Devonshires is not in any real dispute.
Charlotte Zeepvat adds a third factor that spelled disaster:
If the War Diary of 2nd Gordon Highlanders is correct in saying that their own advance did not begin until 7.30am, then for three minutes the 9th Devons were the only moving target near the road. They came under heavy fire
immediately from the open ground to the right…
As they drew nearer no man’s land they also came into view of the German lines just ahead and the firing increased, both from there, and in the distance from Fricourt Wood. According to the Adjutant, Lieutenant Hearse, there was also an intense artillery barrage…
But the machine guns were the worst:
…the combined effect of machine-gun fire from several directions was devastating. The Official History estimated that half of the battalion’s casualties occurred before they reached Mansel Copse.
Before, that is, they crossed their own front line. If the exact details of who saw Captain Martin’s model and who failed to act upon it may be in doubt, the details of his death are fairly secure. Private Jack Owen, a member of Hodgson’s bombing unit, remembered that
Capt. Martin was the first to fall. He had gone 15 yards when he was shot through the head above the right temple. He turned his head to the left, flung out his right arm and fell dead on his back.
Zeepvat comments that Martin was probably killed by a sniper rather than a machine gun. “Even allowing a margin of error, [this] leaves no possibility that Martin could have reached no man’s land.”
The battalion’s chaplain, Ernest Crosse, who had befriended the tight group of young subalterns and given them communion yesterday, had volunteered to come forward instead of remaining with Divisional headquarters. He watched the assault alongside the medical officer and came forward immediately to aid the wounded. In his diary, he “described finding Martin’s body on the little track road, which was invisible from the shrine but a horribly easy target from Mametz Trench.”
Martin’s death thus rises toward the classical definition of the overused and meaning-sapped “tragedy:” the prophetic warner, unheeded, is struck down by implacable fate before he can complete–or even begin–his work.
The Devonshires advanced nonetheless, but so many men went down so quickly that their commander committed his reserve company only a few minutes into the battle. Some of them penetrated all three trench lines (of the German front line trench system–no one came near the “German Second Line,” which was another multi-trench system a few miles further back) and reached Hidden Wood and their day’s objective. But not enough.
And not Noel Hodgson. The brave young bombing lieutenant, already decorated; the loving brother and new uncle who had yet to meet his niece; the erstwhile scholar who had been working through the epics in his spare hours; and the promising poet who had so recently appealed to God for help today, was shot and killed.
In one story, “he is said to have reached as far as the third German line, keeping his men supplied with bombs, ‘and was then mortally wounded, a bullet passing through his throat. His last words, addressed to his sergeant, were: “Carry on; you know what to do.'”
But that is a third-hand account, tinged with the hopeful sort of heroism that tends to dominate survivors’ accounts to grieving families. It describes Hodgson as he was during Loos, and as he should have been during a successful assault. Charlotte Zeepvat writes that
It was even comforting to think he played his part and died in the thick of battle, but other evidence tells against it. Lieutenant Colonel Storey’s initial report to brigade, hastily hand-written on 2 July, names Noel Hodgson as one of three officers to be killed right at the start in the initial barrage of machine-gun fire, with Duncan Martin and William Riddell.
Is this somehow more cruel? It seems so. Yet we can make another story of it, and one that fits better with the testimony of Hodgson’s brother officers, and of Chaplain Crosse:
‘I found his body together with that of his faithful servant, Weston, in the afternoon of the battle in what was the hottest comer of the battlefield. He was hit in the neck & leg by bullets, probably from a machine gun.’
This suggests that Noel was hit first in the leg and went down, then, as Private Weston tried to help him, a second round of bullets firing at the same height took them both. This was the account his mother, Penelope, accepted:
‘He was shot in the morning charging across with his bombers & his faithful servant was found by his side, also shot, with a half-opened bandage in his hand.’
This, as Zeepvat reminds us, is Alfred Frederick Weston, alias ‘Pearson’, who had been the subject of one of Hodgson’s sketches: “He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no baths, so I’m glad he isn’t.”
Noel Hodgson was certainly brave, and some of the Devonshires gained their objective this morning. But Hodgson died within minutes of “Zero,” “within the area bounded by the two arms of Mansel Copse, before he could reach the British front line, never mind the German third.”
You never can know which letter–and which hot bath–will be the last. And sometimes Frodo and Sam are ridden down even before they make it out of the Shire.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
Rob Gilson, who with Ronald Tolkien and other school friends had founded the TCBS, a youthful “society” devoted to supporting each other’s creative efforts, left the trenches at 2 and a half minutes after zero–7:32:30, give or take–in his battalion’s third wave. This was a few miles to the north-northwest, where the low hills were indented by those steep, narrow little valleys.
Having watched the enormous mine go up at the Schwaben Höhe redoubt on their left, the Cambridgeshires (11th Suffolks) were to advance up “Sausage” valley, across several hundred yards of No Man’s Land, to take the German lines on the spur at the top. This was very bad ground, and the plan depended upon German defensive fire having been eliminated. It wasn’t.
Sausage Valley. This map–which like all similar “screen shot” detail maps that I include, comes from the invaluable archive at McMaster University–shows the July 1st trench positions, but was later in the possession of a Lt. Hayter of the Royal Engineers, who added the notes about water sources.
Private W. J. Senescall, one of the men on the spot interviewed years later for Martin Middlebrook’s collective chronicle, recalled the scene:
The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after another as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him.
But this officer was not Gilson. Rob Gilson survived this first advance over no man’s land, leading his men “perfectly calmly and confidently.”
Such reports and recollections, as we have seen, are impossible to correlate; their sum–or, rather, their common ground–impossible to comprehend. But both, surely, are as honest and as accurate as they can be. This sort of confusion is the nature of battle, especially this sort of battle. Timing is especially difficult to harmonize between different accounts, but the devastation of the German defensive fire, once the gunners returned to their firing positions, is not.
After some minutes–a handful, or twenty, or ninety–Gilson’s company was deep into no man’s land, probably sheltering, now, and moving forward bit by bit when possible. Machine guns, firing from the heights on both sides of the valley, trench mortars (the “sausages” of Sausage Valley), and the reawakened German artillery had brought down scores of men in the Cambridgeshires alone, and some thousands throughout the twelve battalions of the closely packed 34th division.
Robert Quilter Gilson (Cambridge University Library)
They may have penetrated the German front line, and their advance may have stretched out over something like an hour and a half–the accounts differ. But sometime around nine o’clock, if not long before (the minutes proverbially stretching into experiential hours), Gilson’s batman was hit, and wounded. Then the C.O. of the company too was hit, and Gilson took over, leading the next stage of the advance.
Then, finally, Rob Gilson was hit by a shell-burst, and killed alongside the company sergeant-major. Or he was terribly wounded by the shrapnel, and managed to drag himself back toward the lines before he died. Recollections differ.
Six of the Cambridgeshires’ sixteen officers were killed; nine were wounded–over 500 men were casualties. The 34th division had one of the worst positions and took the heaviest casualties of any today, a century back–6,380.
Gilson’s last letter and his Field Service Postcard–proclaiming him to be “quite well” as of June 30th–will arrive shortly at his home in Birmingham. There, this morning, a century back, his family is now preparing for Sports Day at King Edward’s School, where the TCBS had come together and where Gilson’s father is headmaster. Gilson, like Ackerley, had chosen not to send a formal “last letter.” He told a friend that “[i]t is no use harrowing people with farewell letters… Those who survive can write all that is necessary.”
Instead, then, the letter-that-turned-out-to-be-last had talked of the beauty of gardens and of gunfire. But it did not obscure the truth of war with patriotic bromides: “It would be wonderful to be a hundred miles from the firing line once again.”
A telegram from the Army will follow that letter within the next few days.
Tolkien, whose own battalion is marching up now to relieve the assault troops, will have the good fortune to cross paths with his friend G.B. Smith in the coming days. Smith, too, was in the battle today, and his battalion had been mauled as it tried to hold a paltry advance some two miles to the north-east of Gilson’s battalion, in the Leipzig Salient. Smith was lucky to come through unscathed. The two will, of course, wonder about the fate of their fellow member of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. Although Gilson’s body would be almost in sight of their positions, it will be two weeks before the news of his death filters back to them, through the printed casualty lists.
Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion will support the attack with carrying parties, has been hunkered down in his dugout, an advertising slogan running in his head:
…Then the bombardment lifted and lessened, our vertigo abated, and we looked at one another in dazed relief. Two Brigades of our Division were now going over the top on our right. Our Brigade was to attack ‘when the main assault had reached its final objective’. In our fortunate rôle of privileged spectators Barton and I went up the stairs to see what we could from Kingston Road Trench. We left Jenkins crouching in a corner, where he remained most of the day. His haggard blinking face haunts my memory. He was an example of the paralysing effect which such an experience could produce on a nervous system sensitive to noise, for he was a good officer both before and afterwards. I felt no sympathy for him at the time, but I do now. From the support-trench, which Barton called ‘our opera box’, I observed as much of the battle as the formation of the country allowed, the rising ground on the right making it impossible to see anything of the attack towards Mametz. A small shiny black note-book contains my pencilled particulars, and nothing will be gained by embroidering them with afterthoughts. I cannot turn my field-glasses on to the past.
Perhaps not, but he does peer down through his binocular bifocals and clean up the diary a bit. I’ll quote from the memoir and correct from the original diary when necessary…
First, the diary:
July 1st, 7.30 a.m.
…The air vibrates with the incessant din—the whole earth shakes and reeks and throbs–it is one continuous roar… Attack should be starting now, but one can’t look our, as the machine-gun bullets are skimming.
And, from the memoir, a version of the battle’s first few minutes, as witnessed from a trench opposite Fricourt:
7 45. The barrage is now working to the right of Fricourt and beyond. I can see the 21st Division advancing
about three-quarters of a mile away on the left and a few Germans coming to meet them, apparently surrendering. Our men in small parties (not extended in line) go steadily on to the German front line.
Brilliant sunshine and a haze of smoke drifting along the landscape. Some Yorkshires a little way below on the left, watching the show and cheering as if at a football match. The noise almost as bad as ever.
Sassoon was able to see some of the small successes in this part of the line, but further to the north few of the British troops made progress. Those who entered the German lines were in most cases soon driven out again. Had he been a bit higher or further back he would have been able to see Rob Gilson and the Cambridgeshires in their futile run up Sausage Valley. Further to the north was the spur of La Boisselle, and beyond it “Mash Valley”–the natural complement to Sausage. Beyond that, the spur of Ovillers and Nab Valley (latterly “Blighty Valley”).
Nab Valley was assaulted by troops of the 70th Brigade. The 9th York and Lancs, who had moved forward into recently-dug assembly trenches, would be the first wave, while the 11th Sherwood Foresters would attack as a second wave later in the morning, moving through the German front lines and on toward Mouquet Farm.
But the German artillery had not been destroyed, and it had the new trenches accurately mapped and measured. By the time the 11th Sherwood Foresters–one of their platoons led by Edward Brittain–moved forward, they had to pass many dead and many wounded screaming and crying out in the assembly trenches. They could have had few doubts about what would await them as they went over the top.
Will Streets, of the 12th York and Lancs–in the 94th Brigade, the 31st Division, and the 8th Corps, on the left, or northern, flank of the 4th Army’s assault–faced a similar situation, but even worse. The first two companies of the battalion went over at Zero Hour, 7:30, and were immediately raked by massed machine gun and artillery fire. His D Company was slated to move up and through the first wave at Zero plus twenty, or 7:50. But the first wave had already been destroyed. Another member of the battalion remembered:
The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk… They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened…. a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones… Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.
Charles Carrington had a very good view of this disastrous attack, aimed at Serre–until he didn’t. We’ll close this post with his description of the scene at 7:30, which illustrates both the necessity of taking a strategic view of the huge battle, and the impossibility of making any sense of it from afar:
Let us narrow our gaze to Hunter-Weston’s 8th Corps…. Twenty-nine infantry battalions, ‘went over the top’ on this narrow frontage, which is to say that the action of this corps alone was comparable to the British share of the Battle of Waterloo…. Wellington… won a decisive victory for a loss of 7,000 British killed and wounded; Hunter-Weston…. lost 15,000 men in a day, without securing a foothold in the German front at any point; and his was one of six British corps–six battles of Waterloo in a row, and four of them massive defeats.On the left, the two attacking divisions of the Third Army (56th and 46th) failed in their attempts to pinch out Gommecourt Wood, since only the right-hand claw of the pincer got a hold. It was this episode that I witnessed.
The morning of Saturday, 1st July, broke clear and fine… We stood to at 6.30 and as I left the village for our forward trench–wildly excited at actually being in the centre of a great battle–the air quivered with bombardment of a new intensity, to which the Germans gave the name of drum-fire. Gusts of shrapnel were stripping the trees of their leaves, which lay in a carpet on the ground as if it were autumn…
Ten minutes before zero I sent the code-message by landline to brigade and, half an hour after zero, reported again that the poisonous smoke-cloud was blowing steadily away. No need for us to put on gas-masks. At 7.30 someone said: “There they go!” and on our left we had glimpses of a few men of the London Scottish in their hodden-grey kilts, running forward into the smoke. That was all. That and a growing hullaballoo of noise. On the right towards Serre, no visibility. You could hear the battle but you couldn’t see it.
Finally, here is John Masefield’s collective evocation of Zero Hour. He will write it next year, but it seems almost post-war–mournful and elegiac, if still proud. But 7:30 AM on July the First, 1916 is not a moment that a future Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom can overlook.
Our men felt that now, in a few minutes, they would see the enemy and know what lay beyond those parapets and probe the heart of that mystery. So, for the last half-hour, they watched and held themselves ready, while the screaming of the shells grew wilder and the roar of the bursts quickened into a drumming. Then as the time drew near, they looked a last look at that unknown country, now almost blotted in the fog of war, and saw the flash of our shells, breaking a little further off as the gunners “lifted,” and knew that the moment had come. Then for one wild confused moment they knew that they were running towards that unknown land, which they could still see in the dust ahead. For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front of it, and began, as they ran, to pick out in their minds a path through that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps, a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky, and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.
The next post, scheduled for noon, will track several of our writers into the later morning as the battle unfolds.