The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.
As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.
Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:
To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.
A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.
S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away. There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.
At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.
It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.
But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.
I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:
Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.
It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)
One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.
My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”
Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.
But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.
The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.
The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood
(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)
Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”
At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.
Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:
We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.
Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”
…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…
As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.
Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”
Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.
When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…
Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…
Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.
Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:
I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.
Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.
It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.
Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:
The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…
Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.
The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.
And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?
The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.
Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…
Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.
The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.
Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.
Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:
I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.
Both my wounds are luckily very slight…
Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.
I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.
We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…
…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…
The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…
Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.
Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.
Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.
He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.
It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.
Major Billy Congreve, VC
Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.
And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:
It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'
Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.