Part 7 out of 10
"Better than your damned pessimism."
"It's quite possible that they will be in this city tonight. What is
to keep them back? There's nothing up the road."
"It would look silly if we were all captured to-night. How they would
"We shouldn't laugh, though. I think we ought to keep an eye on
"How are we to know? We are utterly without means of communication.
Anything may happen in the night."
Something happened then. It was half past seven in the evening. There
were two enormous crashes outside the windows of the Hotel du Rhin.
All the windows shook and the whole house seemed to rock. There was a
noise of rending wood, many falls of bricks, and a cascade of falling
glass. Instinctively and instantly a number of officers threw
themselves on the floor to escape flying bits of steel and glass
splinters blown sideways. Then some one laughed.
"Not this time!"
The officers rose from the floor and took their places at the table,
and lit cigarettes again. But they were listening. We listened to the
loud hum of airplanes, the well known "zooz-zooz" of the Gothas'
double fuselage. More bombs were dropped farther into the town, with
the same sound of explosives and falling masonry. The anti--aircraft
guns got to work and there was the shrill chorus of shrapnel shells
winging over the roofs.
"Bang! . . . Crash!"
That was nearer again.
Some of the officers strolled out of the dining room.
"They're making a mess outside. Perhaps we'd better get away before it
gets too hot."
Madame from the cash-desk turned to her accounts again. I noticed the
increasing pallor of her skin beneath the two dabs of red. But she
controlled her nerves pluckily; even smiled, too, at the young officer
who was settling up for a group of others.
The moon had risen over the houses of Amiens. It was astoundingly
bright and beautiful in a clear sky and still air, and the streets
were flooded with white light, and the roofs glittered like silver
above intense black shadows under the gables, where the rays were
barred by projecting walls.
"Curse the moon!" said one officer. "How I hate its damned light"
But the moon, cold and smiling, looked down upon the world at war and
into this old city of Amiens, in which bombs were bursting. Women were
running close to the walls. Groups of soldiers made a dash from one
doorway to another. Horses galloped with heavy wagons up the Street of
the Three Pebbles, while shrapnel flickered in the sky above them and
paving-stones were hurled up in bursts of red fire and explosions.
Many horses were killed by flying chunks of steel. They lay bleeding
monstrously so that there were large pools of blood around them.
An officer came into the side door of the Hotel du Rhin. He was white
under his steel hat, which he pushed back while he wiped his forehead.
"A fellow was killed just by my side." he said. "We were standing in a
doorway together and something caught him in the face. He fell like a
log, without a sound, as dead as a door-nail."
There was a flight of midges in the sky, droning with that double note
which vibrated like 'cello strings, very loudly, and with that
sinister noise I could see them quite clearly now and then as they
passed across the face of the moon, black, flitting things, with a
glitter of shrapnel below them. From time to time they went away until
they were specks of silver and black; but always they came back again,
or others came, with new stores of bombs which they unloaded over
Amiens. So it went on all through the night.
I went up to a bedroom and lay on a bed, trying to sleep. But it was
impossible. My will-power was not strong enough to disregard those
crashes in the streets outside, when houses collapsed with frightful
falling noises after bomb explosions. My inner vision foresaw the
ceiling above me pierced by one of those bombs, and the room in which
I lay engulfed in the chaos of this wing of the Hotel du Rhin. Many
times I said, "To hell with it all . . . I'm going to sleep," and then
sat up in the darkness at the renewal of that tumult and switched on
the electric light. No, impossible to sleep! Outside in the corridor
there was a stampede of heavy boots. Officers were running to get into
the cellars before the next crash, which might fling them into the
dismal gulfs. The thought of that cellar pulled me down like the law
of gravity. I walked along the corridor, now deserted, and saw a
stairway littered with broken glass, which my feet scrunched. There
were no lights in the basement of the hotel, but I had a flash-lamp,
going dim, and by its pale eye fumbled my way to a stone passage
leading to the cellar. That flight of stone steps was littered also
with broken glass. In the cellar itself was a mixed company of men who
had been dining earlier in the evening, joined by others who had come
in from the streets for shelter. Some of them had dragged down
mattresses from the bedrooms and were lying there in their trench-
coats, with their steel hats beside them. Others were sitting on
wooden cases, wearing their steel hats, while there were others on
their knees, and their faces in their hands, trying to sleep. There
were some of the town majors who had lost their towns, and some
Canadian cavalry officers, and two or three private soldiers, and some
motor-drivers and orderlies, and two young cooks of the hotel lying
together on dirty straw. By one of the stone pillars of the vaulted
room two American war correspondents--Sims and Mackenzie--were sitting
on a packing-case playing cards on a board between them. They had
stuck candles in empty wine-bottles, and the flickering light played
on their faces and cast deep shadows under their eyes. I stood
watching these men in that cellar and thought what a good subject it
would be for the pencil of Muirhead Bone. I wanted to get a
comfortable place. There was only one place on the bare stones, and
when I lay down there my bones ached abominably, and it was very cold.
Through an aperture in the window came a keen draft and I could see in
a square of moonlit sky a glinting star. It was not much of a cellar.
A direct hit on the Hotel du Rhin would make a nasty mess in this
vaulted room and end a game of cards. After fifteen minutes I became
restless, and decided that the room upstairs, after all, was
infinitely preferable to this damp cellar and these hard stones. I
returned to it and lay down on the bed again and switched off the
light. But the noises outside, the loneliness of the room, the sense
of sudden death fluking overhead, made me sit up again and listen
intently. The Gothas were droning over Amiens again. Many houses round
about were being torn and shattered. What a wreckage was being made of
the dear old city! I paced up and down the room, smoking cigarettes,
one after another, until a mighty explosion, very close, made all my
nerves quiver. No, decidedly, that cellar was the best place. If one
had to die it was better to be in the company of friends. Down I went
again, meeting an officer whom I knew well. He, too, was a wanderer
between the cellar and the abandoned bedrooms.
"I am getting bored with this," he said. "It's absurd to think that
this filthy cellar is any safer than upstairs. But the dugout sense
calls one down. Anyhow, I can't sleep."
We stood looking into the cellar. There was something comical as well
as sinister in the sight of the company there sprawled on the
mattresses, vainly trying to extract comfort out of packing-cases for
pillows, or gas-bags on steel hats. One friend of ours, a cavalry
officer of the old school, looked a cross between Charlie Chaplin and
Ol' Bill, with a fierce frown above his black mustache. Sims and
Mackenzie still played their game of cards, silently, between the
I think I went from the cellar to the bedroom, and from the bedroom to
the cellar, six times that night. There was never ten minutes' relief
from the drone of Gothas, who were making a complete job of Amiens. It
was at four in the morning that I met the same officer who saw me
"Let us go for a walk," he said. "The birds will be away by dawn."
It was nothing like dawn when we went out of the side door of the
Hotel du Rhin and strolled into the Street of the Three Pebbles. There
was still the same white moonlight, intense and glittering, but with a
paler sky. It shone down upon dark pools of blood and the carcasses of
horses and fragments of flesh, from which a sickly smell rose. The
roadway was littered with bits of timber and heaps of masonry. Many
houses had collapsed into wild chaos, and others, though still
standing, had been stripped of their wooden frontages and their walls
were scarred by bomb-splinters. Every part of the old city, as we
explored it later, had been badly mauled, and hundreds of houses were
utterly destroyed. The air raid ceased at 4.30 A.M., when the first
light of dawn came into the sky. . . .
That day Amiens was evacuated, by command of the French military
authorities, and the inhabitants trailed out of the city, leaving
everything behind them. I saw the women locking up their shops--where
there were any doors to shut or their shop still standing. Many people
must have been killed and buried in the night beneath their own
houses--I never knew how many. The fugitives escaped the next phase of
the tragedy in Amiens when, within a few hours, the enemy sent over
the first high velocities, and for many weeks afterward scattered them
about the city, destroying many other houses. A fire started by these
shells formed a great gap between the rue des Jacobins and the rue des
Trois Cailloux, where there had been an arcade and many good shops and
houses. I saw the fires smoldering about charred beams and twisted
ironwork when I went through the city after the day of exodus.
It was a pitiful adventure to go through Amiens in the days of its
desolation, and we who had known its people so well hated its
loneliness. All abandoned towns have a tragic aspect--I often think of
Douai, which was left with all its people under compulsion of the
enemy--but Amiens was strangely sinister with heaps of ruins in its
narrow streets, and the abominable noise of high-velocity shells in
flight above its roofs, and crashing now in one direction and now in
One of our sentries came out of a little house near the Place and
"Keep as much as possible to the west side of the town, sir. They've
been falling pretty thick on the east side. Made no end of a mess!"
On the way back from Villers-Bretonneux and the Australian
headquarters, on the left bank of the Somme, we ate sandwiches in the
public gardens outside the Hotel du Rhin. There were big shell-holes
in the flower-beds, and trees had been torn down and flung across the
pathway, and there was a broken statue lying on the grass. Some French
and English soldiers tramped past. Then there was no living soul about
in the place which had been so crowded with life, with pretty women
and children, and young officers doing their shopping, and the
business of a city at work.
"It makes one understand what Rome was like after the barbarians had
sacked and left it," said a friend of mine.
"There is something ghastly about it," said another.
We stood round the Hotel du Rhin, shut up and abandoned. The house
next door had been wrecked, and it was scarred and wounded, but still
stood after that night of terror.
One day during its desolation I went to a banquet in Amiens, in the
cellars of the Hotel de Ville. It was to celebrate the Fourth of July,
and an invitation had been sent to me by the French commandant de
place and the English A. P. M.
It was a beau geste, gallant and romantic in those days of trouble,
when Amiens was still closely beleaguered, but safer now that
Australians and British troops were holding the lines strongly
outside, with French on their right southward from Boves and Hangest
Wood. The French commandant had procured a collection of flags and his
men had decorated the battered city with the Tricolor. It even
fluttered above some of the ruins, as though for the passing of a
pageant. But only a few cars entered the city and drew up to the Town
Hall, and then took cover behind the walls.
Down below, in the cellars, the damp walls were garlanded with flowers
from the market-gardens of the Somme, now deserted by their gardeners,
and roses were heaped on the banqueting-table. General Monash,
commanding the Australian corps, was there, with the general of the
French division on his right. A young American officer sat very grave
and silent, not, perhaps, understanding much of the conversation about
him, because most of the guests were French officers, with Senators
and Deputies of Amiens and its Department. There was good wine to
drink from the cold vaults of the Hotel de Ville, and with the scent
of rose and hope for victory in spite of all disasters--the German
offensive had been checked and the Americans were now coming over in a
tide--it was a cheerful luncheon-party. The old general, black-
visaged, bullet-headed, with a bristly mustache like a French bull--
terrier, sat utterly silent, eating steadily and fiercely. But the
French commandant de place, as handsome as Athos, as gay as
D'Artagnan, raised his glass to England and France, to the gallant
Allies, and to all fair women. He became reminiscent of his days as a
sous-lieutenant. He remembered a girl called Marguerite--she was
exquisite; and another called Yvonne--he had adored her. O life! O
youth! . . . He had been a careless young devil, with laughter in his
heart. . . .
I suppose it was three months later when I saw the first crowds coming
back to their homes in Amiens. The tide had turned and the enemy was
in hard retreat. Amiens was safe again! They had never had any doubt
of this homecoming after that day nearly three months before, when, in
spite of the enemy's being so close, Foch said, in his calm way, "I
guarantee Amiens." They believed what Marshal Foch said. He always
knew. So now they were coming back again with their little bundles and
their babies and small children holding their hands or skirts,
according as they had received permits from the French authorities.
They were the lucky ones whose houses still existed. They were
conscious of their own good fortune and came chattering very
cheerfully from the station up the Street of the Three Pebbles, on
their way to their streets. But every now and then they gave a cry of
surprise and dismay at the damage done to other people's houses.
"O la la! Regardez ca! c'est affreux!"
There was the butcher's shop, destroyed; and the house of poor little
Madeleine; and old Christopher's workshop; and the milliner's place,
where they used to buy their Sunday hats; and that frightful gap where
the Arcade had been. Truly, poor Amiens had suffered martyrdom;
though, thank God, the cathedral still stood in glory, hardly touched,
with only one little shellhole through the roof.
Terrible was the damage up the rue de Beauvais and the streets that
went out of it. To one rubbish heap which had been a corner house two
girls came back. Perhaps the French authorities had not had that one
on their list. The girls came tripping home, with light in their eyes,
staring about them, ejaculating pity for neighbors whose houses had
been destroyed. Then suddenly they stood outside their own house and
saw that the direct hit of a shell had knocked it to bits. The light
went out of their eyes. They stood there staring, with their mouths
open. . . Some Australian soldiers stood about and watched the girls,
understanding the drama.
"Bit of a mess, missy!" said one of them. "Not much left of the old
The girls were amazingly brave. They did not weep. They climbed up a
hillock of bricks and pulled out bits of old, familiar things. They
recovered the whole of a child's perambulator, with its wheels
crushed. With an air of triumph and shrill laughter they turned round
to the Australians.
"Pour les bebes!" they cried.
"While there's life there's hope," said one of the Australians, with
So the martyrdom of Amiens was at an end, and life came back to the
city that had been dead, and the soul of the city had survived. I have
not seen it since then, but one day I hope I shall go back and shake
hands with Gaston the waiter and say, "Comment ca va, mon vieux?"
("How goes it, my old one?") and stroll into the bookshop and say,
"Bon jour, mademoiselle!" and walk round the cathedral and see its
beauty in moonlight again when no one will look up and say, "Curse the
There will be many ghosts in the city at night--the ghosts of British
officers and men who thronged those streets in the great war and have
now passed on.
Psychology on the Somme
All that had gone before was but a preparation for what now was to
come. Until July 1 of 1916 the British armies were only getting ready
for the big battles which were being planned for them by something
greater than generalship--by the fate which decides the doom of men.
The first battles by the Old Contemptibles, down from Mons and up by
Ypres, were defensive actions of rear--guards holding the enemy back
by a thin wall of living flesh, while behind the New Armies of our
race were being raised.
The battles of Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, and all minor attacks
which led to little salients, were but experimental adventures in the
science of slaughter, badly bungled in our laboratories. They had no
meaning apart from providing those mistakes by which men learn;
ghastly mistakes, burning more than the fingers of life's children.
They were only diversions of impatience in the monotonous routine of
trench warfare by which our men strengthened the mud walls of their
School of Courage, so that the new boys already coming out might learn
their lessons without more grievous interruption than came from the
daily visits of that Intruder to whom the fees were paid. In those two
years it was France which fought the greatest battles, flinging her
sons against the enemy's ramparts in desperate, vain attempts to
breach them. At Verdun, in the months that followed the first month of
'16, it was France which sustained the full weight of the German
offensive on the western front and broke its human waves, until they
were spent in a sea of blood, above which the French poilus, the
"hairy ones," stood panting and haggard, on their death-strewn rocks.
The Germans had failed to deal a fatal blow at the heart of France.
France held her head up still, bleeding from many wounds, but defiant
still; and the German High Command, aghast at their own losses--six
hundred thousand casualties--already conscious, icily, of a dwindling
man-power which one day would be cut off at its source, rearranged
their order of battle and shifted the balance of their weight
eastward, to smash Russia. Somehow or other they must smash a way out
by sledge-hammer blows, left and right, west and east, from that ring
of nations which girdled them. On the west they would stand now on the
defensive, fairly sure of their strength, but well aware that it would
be tried to the utmost by that enemy which, at the back of their
brains (at the back of the narrow brains of those bald-headed vultures
on the German General Staff), they most feared as their future peril--
England. They had been fools to let the British armies grow up and wax
so strong. It was the folly of the madness by which they had flung the
gauntlet down to the souls of proud peoples arrayed against them.
Our armies were now strong and trained and ready. We had about six
hundred thousand bayonet-men in France and Flanders and in England,
immense reserves to fill up the gaps that would be made in their ranks
before the summer foliage turned to russet tints.
Our power in artillery had grown amazingly since the beginning of the
year. Every month I had seen many new batteries arrive, with clean
harness and yellow straps, and young gunners who were quick to get
their targets. We were strong in "heavies," twelve-inchers, 9.2's,
eight-inchers, 4.2's, mostly howitzers, with the long-muzzled sixty-
pounders terrible in their long range and destructiveness. Our
aircraft had grown fast, squadron upon squadron, and our aviators had
been trained in the school of General Trenchard, who sent them out
over the German lines to learn how to fight, and how to scout, and how
to die like little gentlemen.
For a time our flying-men had gone out on old-fashioned "buses"--
primitive machines which were an easy prey to the fast-flying Fokkers
who waited for them behind a screen of cloud and then "stooped" on
them like hawks sure of their prey. But to the airdrome near St.-Omer
came later models, out of date a few weeks after their delivery,
replaced by still more powerful types more perfectly equipped for
fighting. Our knights-errant of the air were challenging the German
champions on equal terms, and beating them back from the lines unless
they flew in clusters. There were times when our flying-men gained an
absolute supremacy by greater daring--there was nothing they did not
dare--and by equal skill. As a caution, not wasting their strength in
unequal contests. It was a sound policy, and enabled them to come back
again in force and hold the field for a time by powerful
concentrations. But in the battles of the Somme our airmen, at a heavy
cost of life, kept the enemy down a while and blinded his eyes.
The planting of new airdromes between Albert and Amiens, the long
trail down the roads of lorries packed with wings and the furniture of
aircraft factories, gave the hint, to those who had eyes to see, that
in this direction a merry hell was being prepared.
There were plain signs of massacre at hand all the way from the coast
to the lines. At Etaples and other places near Boulogne hospital huts
and tents were growing like mushrooms in the night. From casualty
clearing stations near the front the wounded--the human wreckage of
routine warfare--were being evacuated "in a hurry" to the base, and
from the base to England. They were to be cleared out of the way so
that all the wards might be empty for a new population of broken men,
in enormous numbers. I went down to see this clearance, this tidying
up. There was a sinister suggestion in the solitude that was being
made for a multitude that was coming.
"We shall be very busy," said the doctors.
"We must get all the rest we can now," said the nurses.
"In a little while every bed will be filled," said the matrons.
Outside one hut, with the sun on their faces, were four wounded
Germans, Wurtemburgers and Bavarians, too ill to move just then. Each
of them had lost a leg under the surgeon's knife. They were eating
strawberries, and seemed at peace. I spoke to one of them.
"Wie befinden sie sich?"
"Ganz wohl; wir sind zufrieden mit unsere behandlung."
I passed through the shell-shock wards and a yard where the "shell-
shocks" sat about, dumb, or making queer, foolish noises, or staring
with a look of animal fear in their eyes. From a padded room came a
sound of singing. Some idiot of war was singing between bursts of
laughter. It all seemed so funny to him, that war, so mad!
"We are clearing them out," said the medical officer. "There will be
many more soon."
How soon? That was a question nobody could answer. It was the only
secret, and even that was known in London, where little ladies in
society were naming the date, "in confidence," to men who were
directly concerned with it--having, as they knew, only a few more
weeks, or days, of certain life. But I believe there were not many
officers who would have surrendered deliberately all share in "The
Great Push." In spite of all the horror which these young officers
knew it would involve, they had to be "in it" and could not endure the
thought that all their friends and all their men should be there while
they were "out of it." A decent excuse for the safer side of it--yes.
A staff job, the Intelligence branch, any post behind the actual
shambles--and thank God for the luck. But not an absolute shirk.
Tents were being pitched in many camps of the Somme, rows and rows of
bell tents and pavilions stained to a reddish brown. Small cities of
them were growing up on the right of the road between Amiens and
Albert--at Dernancourt and Daours and Vaux-sous-Corbie. I thought they
might be for troops in reserve until I saw large flags hoisted to tall
staffs and men of the R.A.M.C. busy painting signs on large sheets
stretched out on the grass. It was always the same sign--the Sign of
the Cross that was Red.
There was a vast traffic of lorries on the roads, and trains were
traveling on light railways day and night to railroads just beyond
shell-range. What was all the weight they carried? No need to ask. The
"dumps" were being filled, piled up, with row upon row of shells,
covered by tarpaulin or brushwood when they were all stacked. Enormous
shells, some of them, like gigantic pigs without legs. Those were for
the fifteen-inchers, or the 9.2's. There was enough high-explosive
force littered along those roads above the Somme to blow cities off
"It does one good to see," said a cheery fellow. "The people at home
have been putting their backs into it. Thousands of girls have been
packing those things. Well done, Munitions!"
I could take no joy in the sight, only a grim kind of satisfaction
that at least when our men attacked they would have a power of
artillery behind them. It might help them to smash through to a
finish, if that were the only way to end this long-drawn suicide of
My friend was shocked when I said:
"Curse all munitions!"
The British armies as a whole were not gloomy at the approach of that
new phase of war which they called "The Great Push," as though it were
to be a glorified football-match. It is difficult, perhaps impossible,
to know the thoughts of vast masses of men moved by some sensational
adventure. But a man would be a liar if he pretended that British
troops went forward to the great attack with hangdog looks or any
visible sign of fear in their souls. I think most of them were
uplifted by the belief that the old days of trench warfare were over
forever and that they would break the enemy's lines by means of that
enormous gun-power behind them, and get him "on the run." There would
be movement, excitement, triumphant victories--and then the end of the
war. In spite of all risks it would be enormously better than the
routine of the trenches. They would be getting on with the job instead
of standing still and being shot at by invisible earth-men.
"If we once get the Germans in the open we shall go straight through
That was the opinion of many young officers at that time, and for once
they agreed with their generals.
It seemed to be a question of getting them in the open, and I confess
that when I studied the trench maps and saw the enemy's defensive
earthworks thirty miles deep in one vast maze of trenches and redoubts
and barbed wire and tunnels I was appalled at the task which lay
before our men. They did not know what they were being asked to do.
They had not seen, then, those awful maps.
We were at the height and glory of our strength. Out of England had
come the flower of our youth, and out of Scotland and Wales and Canada
and Australia and New Zealand. Even out of Ireland, with the 16th
Division of the south and west, and the 36th of Ulster. The New Armies
were made up of all the volunteers who had answered the call to the
colors, not waiting for the conscription by class, which followed
later. They were the ardent ones, the young men from office, factory,
shop, and field, university and public school. The best of our
intelligence were there, the noblest of our manhood, the strength of
our heart, the beauty of our soul, in those battalions which soon were
to be flung into explosive fires.
In the month of May a new type of manhood was filling the old roads
behind the front.
I saw them first in the little old town of St.-Pol, where always there
was a coming and going of French and English soldiers. It was market-
day and the Grande Place (not very grand) was crowded with booths and
old ladies in black, and young girls with checkered aprons over their
black frocks, and pigs and clucking fowls. Suddenly the people
scattered, and there was a rumble and rattle of wheels as a long line
of transport wagons came through the square.
"By Jove! . . . Australians!"
There was no mistaking them. Their slouch-hats told one at a glance,
but without them I should have known. They had a distinctive type of
their own, which marked them out from all other soldiers of ours along
those roads of war.
They were hatchet-faced fellows who came riding through the little old
market town; British unmistakably, yet not English, not Irish, nor
Scottish, nor Canadian. They looked hard, with the hardness of a
boyhood and a breeding away from cities or, at least, away from the
softer training of our way of life. They had merry eyes (especially
for the girls round the stalls), but resolute, clean-cut mouths, and
they rode their horses with an easy grace in the saddle, as though
born to riding, and drove their wagons with a recklessness among the
little booths that was justified by half an inch between an iron axle
and an old woman's table of colored ribbons.
Those clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered men, who had come out of
the hell of the Dardanelles and the burning drought of Egyptian sands,
looked wonderfully fresh in France. Youth, keen as steel, with a flash
in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came
riding down the street.
They were glad to be there. Everything was new and good to them
(though so old and stale to many of us), and after their adventures in
the East they found it splendid to be in a civilized country, with
water in the sky and in the fields, with green trees about them, and
flowers in the grass, and white people who were friendly.
When they came up in the train from Marseilles they were all at the
windows, drinking in the look of the French landscape, and one of
their officers told me that again and again he heard the same words
spoken by those lads of his.
"It's a good country to fight for . . . It's like being home again."
At first they felt chilly in France, for the weather had been bad for
them during the first weeks in April, when the wind had blown cold and
rain-clouds had broken into sharp squalls.
Talking to the men, I saw them shiver a little and heard their teeth
chatter, but they said they liked a moist climate with a bite in the
wind, after all the blaze and glare of the Egyptian sun.
One of their pleasures in being there was the opportunity of buying
sweets! "They can't have too much of them," said one of the officers,
and the idea that those hard fellows, whose Homeric fighting qualities
had been proved, should be enthusiastic for lollipops seemed to me an
amusing touch of character. For tough as they were, and keen as they
were, those Australian soldiers were but grown-up children with a
wonderful simplicity of youth and the gift of laughter.
I saw them laughing when, for the first time, they tried on the gas-
masks which none of us ever left behind when we went near the
fighting-line. That horror of war on the western front was new to
Poison-gas was not one of the weapons used by the Turks, and the gas-
masks seemed a joke to the groups of Australians trying on the
headgear in the fields, and changing themselves into obscene specters
. . . But one man watching them gave a shudder and said, "It's a pity
such splendid boys should have to risk this foul way of death." They
did not hear his words, and we heard their laughter again.
On that first day of their arrival I stood in a courtyard with a young
officer whose gray eyes had a fine, clear light, which showed the
spirit of the man, and as we talked he pointed out some of the boys
who passed in and out of an old barn. One of them had done fine work
on the Peninsula, contemptuous of all risks. Another had gone out
under heavy fire to bring in a wounded friend . . . "Oh, they are
great lads!" said the captain of the company. "But now they want to
get at the Germans and finish the job quickly. Give them a fair chance
and they'll go far."
They went far, from that time to the end, and fought with a simple,
They had none of the discipline imposed upon our men by Regular
traditions. They were gipsy fellows, with none but the gipsy law in
their hearts, intolerant of restraint, with no respect for rank or
caste unless it carried strength with it, difficult to handle behind
the lines, quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, primitive men, but lovable,
human, generous souls when their bayonets were not red with blood.
Their discipline in battle was the best. They wanted to get to a place
ahead. They would fight the devils of hell to get there.
The New-Zealanders followed them, with rosy cheeks like English boys
of Kent, and more gentle manners than the other "Anzacs," and the same
courage. They went far, too, and set the pace awhile in the last lap.
But that, in the summer of '16, was far away.
In those last days of June, before the big battles began, the
countryside of the Somme valley was filled with splendor. The mustard
seed had spread a yellow carpet in many meadows so that they were
Fields of the Cloth of Gold, and clumps of red clover grew like
flowers of blood. The hedges about the villages of Picardy were white
with elderflower and drenched with scent. It was haymaking time and
French women and children were tossing the hay on wooden pitchforks
during hot days which came between heavy rains. Our men were marching
through that beauty, and were conscious of it, I think, and glad of
Boulogne was a port through which all our youth passed between England
and the long, straight road which led to No Man's Land. The seven-day-
leave men were coming back by every tide, and all other leave was
New "drafts" were pouring through the port by tens of thousands--all
manner of men of all our breed marching in long columns from the
quayside, where they had orders yelled at them through megaphones by
A.P.M.'s, R.T.O.'s, A.M.L.O.'s, and other blue tabbed officers who
dealt with them as cattle for the slaughterhouses. I watched them
landing from the transports which came in so densely crowded with the
human freight that the men were wedged together on the decks like
herrings in barrels. They crossed from one boat to another to reach
the gangways, and one by one, interminably as it seemed, with rifle
gripped and pack hunched, and steel hat clattering like a tinker's
kettle, came down the inclined plank and lurched ashore. They were
English lads from every country; Scots, Irish, Welsh, of every
regiment; Australians, New-Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians, West
Indian negroes of the Garrison Artillery; Sikhs, Pathans, and Dogras
of the Indian Cavalry. Some of them had been sick and there was a
greenish pallor on their faces. Most of them were deeply tanned. Many
of them stepped on the quayside of France for the first time after
months of training, and I could tell those, sometimes, by the furtive
look they gave at the crowded scene about them, and by a sudden glint
in their eyes, a faint reflection of the emotion that was in them,
because this was another stage on their adventure of war, and the
drawbridge was down at last between them and the enemy. That was
all,just that look, and lips tightened now grimly, and the pack
hunched higher. Then they fell in by number and marched away, with
Redcaps to guard them, across the bridge, into the town of Boulogne
and beyond to the great camp near Etaples (and near the hospital, so
that German aircraft had a good argument for smashing Red Cross huts),
where some of them would wait until somebody said, "You're wanted."
They were wanted in droves as soon as the fighting began on the first
day of July.
The bun shops in Boulogne were filled with nurses, V.A.D.'s, all kinds
of girls in uniforms which glinted with shoulder-straps and buttons.
They ate large quantities of buns at odd hours of mornings and
afternoons. Flying-men and officers of all kinds waiting for trains
crowded the Folkestone Hotel and restaurants, where they spent two
hours over luncheon and three hours over dinner, drinking red wine,
talking "shop"--the shop of trench-mortar units, machine-gun sections,
cavalry squadrons, air-fighting, gas schools, and anti-gas schools.
Regular inhabitants of Boulogne, officers at the base, passed to inner
rooms with French ladies of dangerous appearance, and the transients
envied them and said: "Those fellows have all the luck! What's their
secret? How do they arrange these cushie jobs?" From open windows came
the music of gramophones. Through half-drawn curtains there were
glimpses of khaki tunics and Sam Brown belts in juxtaposition with
silk blouses and coiled hair and white arms. Opposite the Folkestone
there was a park of ambulances driven by "Scottish women," who were
always on the move from one part of the town to the other. Motor-cars
came hooting with staff-officers, all aglow in red tabs and armbands,
thirsty for little cocktails after a dusty drive. Everywhere in the
streets and on the esplanade there was incessant saluting. The arms of
men were never still. It was like the St. Vitus disease. Tommies and
Jocks saluted every subaltern with an automatic gesture of convulsive
energy. Every subaltern acknowledged these movements and in turn
saluted a multitude of majors, colonels, and generals. The thing
became farcical, a monstrous absurdity of human relationship, yet
pleasing to the vanity of men lifted up above the lowest caste. It
seemed to me an intensification of the snob instinct in the soul of
man. Only the Australians stood out against it, and went by all
officers except their own with a careless slouch and a look of "To
hell with all that handwagging."
Seated on high stools in the Folkestone, our young officers clinked
their cocktails, and then whispered together.
"When's it coming?"
"In a few days . . . I'm for the Gommecourt sector."
"Do you think we shall get through?"
"Not a doubt of it. The cavalry are massing for a great drive. As soon
as we make the gap they'll ride into the blue."
"By God! . . . There'll be some slaughter"
"I think the old Boche will crack this time."
There was a sense of enormous drama at hand, and the excitement of it
in boys' hearts drugged all doubt and fears. It was only the older
men, and the introspective, who suffered from the torture of
apprehension. Even timid fellows in the ranks were, I imagine,
strengthened and exalted by the communal courage of their company or
battalion, for courage as well as fear is infectious, and the
psychology of the crowd uplifts the individual to immense heights of
daring when alone he would be terror--stricken. The public-school
spirit of pride in name and tradition was in each battalion of the New
Army, extended later to the division, which became the unit of esprit
de corps. They must not "let the battalion down." They would do their
damnedest to get farther than any other crowd, to bag more prisoners,
to gain more "kudos." There was rivalry even among the platoons and
the companies. "A" Company would show "B" Company the way to go! Their
sergeant-major was a great fellow! Their platoon commanders were fine
kids! With anything like a chance--
In that spirit, as far as I, an outsider could see and hear, did our
battalions of boys march forward to "The Great Push," whistling,
singing, jesting, until their lips were dry and their throats parched
in the dust, and even the merriest jesters of all were silent under
the weight of their packs and rifles. So they moved up day by day,
through the beauty of that June in France, thousands of men, hundreds
of thousands to the edge of the battlefields of the Somme, where the
enemy was intrenched in fortress positions and where already, before
the last days of June, gunfire was flaming over a vast sweep of
On the 1st of July, 1916, began those prodigious battles which only
lulled down at times during two and a half years more, when our
British armies fought with desperate sacrificial valor beyond all
previous reckoning; when the flower of our youth was cast into that
furnace month after month, recklessly, with prodigal, spendthrift
haste; when those boys were mown down in swaths by machine-guns, blown
to bits by shell-fire, gassed in thousands, until all that country
became a graveyard; when they went forward to new assaults or fell
back in rearguard actions with a certain knowledge that they had in
their first attack no more than one chance in five of escape, next
time one chance in four, then one chance in three, one chance in two,
and after that no chance at all, on the line of averages, as worked
out by their experience of luck. More boys came out to take their
places, and more, and more, conscripts following volunteers, younger
brothers following elder brothers. Never did they revolt from the
orders that came to them. Never a battalion broke into mutiny against
inevitable martyrdom. They were obedient to the command above them.
Their discipline did not break. However profound was the despair of
the individual, and it was, I know, deep as the wells of human tragedy
in many hearts, the mass moved as it was directed, backward or
forward, this way and that, from one shambles to another, in mud and
in blood, with the same massed valor as that which uplifted them
before that first day of July with an intensified pride in the fame of
their divisions, with a more eager desire for public knowledge of
their deeds, with a loathing of war's misery, with a sense of its
supreme folly, yet with a refusal in their souls to acknowledge defeat
or to stop this side of victory. In each battle there were officers
and men who risked death deliberately, and in a kind of ecstasy did
acts of superhuman courage; and because of the number of these feats
the record of them is monotonous, dull, familiar. The mass followed
their lead, and even poor coward-hearts, of whom there were many, as
in all armies, had courage enough, as a rule, to get as far as the
center of the fury before their knees gave way or they dropped dead.
Each wave of boyhood that came out from England brought a new mass of
physical and spiritual valor as great as that which was spent, and in
the end it was an irresistible tide which broke down the last barriers
and swept through in a rush to victory, which we gained at the cost of
nearly a million dead, and a high sum of living agony, and all our
wealth, and a spiritual bankruptcy worse than material loss, so that
now England is for a time sick to death and drained of her old pride
I remember, as though it were yesterday in vividness and a hundred
years ago in time, the bombardment which preceded the battles of the
Somme. With a group of officers I stood on the high ground above
Albert, looking over to Gommecourt and Thiepval and La Boisselle, on
the left side of the German salient, and then, by crossing the road,
to Fricourt, Mametz, and Montauban on the southern side. From Albert
westward past Thiepval Wood ran the little river of the Ancre, and on
the German side the ground rose steeply to Usna Hill by La Boisselle,
and to Thiepval Chateau above the wood. It was a formidable defensive
position, one fortress girdled by line after line of trenches, and
earthwork redoubts, and deep tunnels, and dugouts in which the German
troops could live below ground until the moment of attack. The length
of our front of assault was about twenty miles round the side of the
salient to the village of Bray, on the Somme, where the French joined
us and continued the battle.
From where we stood we could see a wide panorama of the German
positions, and beyond, now and then, when the smoke of shellfire
drifted, I caught glimpses of green fields and flower patches beyond
the trench lines, and church spires beyond the range of guns rising
above clumps of trees in summer foliage. Immediately below, in the
foreground, was the village of Albert, not much ruined then, with its
red-brick church and tower from which there hung, head downward, the
Golden Virgin with her Babe outstretched as though as a peace-offering
over all this strife. That leaning statue, which I had often passed on
the way to the trenches, was now revealed brightly with a golden
glamour, as sheets of flame burst through a heavy veil of smoke over
the valley. In a field close by some troops were being ticketed with
yellow labels fastened to their backs. It was to distinguish them so
that artillery observers might know them from the enemy when their
turn came to go into the battleground. Something in the sight of those
yellow tickets made me feel sick. Away behind, a French farmer was
cutting his grass with a long scythe, in steady, sweeping strokes.
Only now and then did he stand to look over at the most frightful
picture of battle ever seen until then by human eyes. I wondered, and
wonder still, what thoughts were passing through that old brain to
keep him at his work, quietly, steadily, on the edge of hell. For
there, quite close and clear, was hell, of man's making, produced by
chemists and scientists, after centuries in search of knowledge. There
were the fires of hate, produced out of the passion of humanity after
a thousand years of Christendom and of progress in the arts of beauty.
There was the devil-worship of our poor, damned human race, where the
most civilized nations of the world were on each side of the bonfires.
It was worth watching by a human ant.
I remember the noise of our guns as all our batteries took their parts
in a vast orchestra of drumfire. The tumult of the fieldguns merged
into thunderous waves. Behind me a fifteen-inch "Grandmother" fired
single strokes, and each one was an enormous shock. Shells were
rushing through the air like droves of giant birds with beating wings
and with strange wailings. The German lines were in eruption. Their
earthworks were being tossed up, and fountains of earth sprang up
between columns of smoke, black columns and white, which stood rigid
for a few seconds and then sank into the banks of fog. Flames gushed
up red and angry, rending those banks of mist with strokes of
lightning. In their light I saw trees falling, branches tossed like
twigs, black things hurtling through space. In the night before the
battle, when that bombardment had lasted several days and nights, the
fury was intensified. Red flames darted hither and thither like little
red devils as our trench mortars got to work. Above the slogging of
the guns there were louder, earth-shaking noises, and volcanoes of
earth and fire spouted as high as the clouds. One convulsion of this
kind happened above Usna Hill, with a long, terrifying roar and a
monstrous gush of flame.
"What is that?" asked some one.
"It must be the mine we charged at La Boisselle. The biggest that has
It was a good guess. When, later in the battle, I stood by the crater
of that mine and looked into its gulf I wondered how many Germans had
been hurled into eternity when the earth had opened. The grave was big
enough for a battalion of men with horses and wagons, below the chalk
of the crater's lips. Often on the way to Bapaume I stepped off the
road to look into that white gulf, remembering the moment when I saw
the gust of flame that rent the earth about it.
There was the illusion of victory on that first day of the Somme
battles, on the right of the line by Fricourt, and it was not until a
day or two later that certain awful rumors I had heard from wounded
men and officers who had attacked on the left up by Gommecourt,
Thiepval, and Serre were confirmed by certain knowledge of tragic
disaster on that side of the battle-line.
The illusion of victory, with all the price and pain of it, came to me
when I saw the German rockets rising beyond the villages of Mametz and
Montauban and our barrage fire lifting to a range beyond the first
lines of German trenches, and our support troops moving forward in
masses to captured ground. We had broken through! By the heroic
assault of our English and Scottish troops. West Yorks, Yorks and
Lancs, Lincolns, Durhams, Northumberland Fusiliers, Norfolks and
Berkshires, Liverpools, Manchesters, Gordons, and Royal Scots, all
those splendid men I had seen marching to their lines. We had smashed
through the ramparts of the German fortress, through that maze of
earthworks and tunnels which had appalled me when I saw them on the
maps, and over which I had gazed from time to time from our front-line
trenches when those places seemed impregnable. I saw crowds of
prisoners coming back under escort,fifteen hundred had been counted in
the first day,and they had the look of a defeated army. Our lightly
wounded men, thousands of them, were shouting and laughing as they
came down behind the lines, wearing German caps and helmets. From
Amiens civilians straggled out along the roads as far as they were
allowed by military police, and waved hands and cheered those boys of
ours. "Vive l'Angleterre!" cried old men, raising their hats. Old
women wept at the sight of those gay wounded, the lightly touched,
glad of escape, rejoicing in their luck and in the glory of life which
was theirs still and cried out to them with shrill words of praise and
"Nous les aurons les sales Boches! Ah, ils sont foutus, ces bandits!
C'est la victoire, grace a vous, petits soldats anglais!"
Victory! The spirit of victory in the hearts of fighting men, and of
women excited by the sight of those bandaged heads, those bare, brawny
arms splashed with blood, those laughing heroes.
It looked like victory, in those days, as war correspondents, we were
not so expert in balancing the profit and loss as afterward we became.
When I went into Fricourt on the third day of battle, after the last
Germans, who had clung on to its ruins, had been cleared out by the
Yorkshires and Lincolns of the 21st Division, that division which had
been so humiliated at Loos and now was wonderful in courage, and when
the Manchesters and Gordons of the 30th Division had captured
Montauban and repulsed fierce counter-attacks.
It looked like victory, because of the German dead that lay there in
their battered trenches and the filth and stench of death over all
that mangled ground, and the enormous destruction wrought by our guns,
and the fury of fire which we were still pouring over the enemy's
lines from batteries which had moved forward.
I went down flights of steps into German dugouts, astonished by their
depth and strength. Our men did not build like this. This German
industry was a rebuke to us, yet we had captured their work and the
dead bodies of their laborers lay in those dark caverns, killed by our
bombers, who had flung down handgrenades. I drew back from those fat
corpses. They looked monstrous, lying there crumpled up, amid a foul
litter of clothes, stickbombs, old boots, and bottles. Groups of dead
lay in ditches which had once been trenches, flung into chaos by that
bombardment I had seen. They had been bayoneted. I remember one man,
an elderly fellow sitting up with his back to a bit of earth with his
hands half raised. He was smiling a little, though he had been stabbed
through the belly and was stone dead. Victory! some of the German dead
were young boys, too young to be killed for old men's crimes, and
others might have been old or young. One could not tell, because they
had no faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags and uniforms.
Legs and arms lay separate, without any bodies thereabouts.
Outside Montauban there was a heap of our own dead. Young Gordons and
Manchesters of the 30th Division, they had been caught by blasts of
machinegun fire, but our dead seemed scarce in the places where I
Victory? Well, we had gained some ground, and many prisoners, and
here and there some guns. But as I stood by Montauban I saw that our
line was a sharp salient looped round Mametz village and then dipping
sharply southward to Fricourt. 0 God! had we only made another salient
after all that monstrous effort? To the left there was fury at La
Boisselle, where a few broken trees stood black on the skyline on a
chalky ridge. Storms of German shrapnel were bursting there, and
machineguns were firing in spasms. In Contalmaison, round a chateau
which stood high above ruined houses, shells were bursting with
thunderclaps, our shells. German gunners in invisible batteries were
sweeping our lines with barrage fire, it roamed up and down this side
of Montauban Wood, just ahead of me, and now and then shells smashed
among the houses and barns of Fricourt, and over Mametz there was
suddenly a hurricane of "hate." Our men were working like ants in
those muck heaps, a battalion moved up toward Boisselle. From a ridge
above Fricourt, where once I had seen a tall crucifix between two
trees, which our men called the "Poodles," a body of men came down and
shrapnel burst among them and they fell and disappeared in tall grass.
Stretcher bearers came slowly through Fricourt village with living
burdens. Some of them were German soldiers carrying our wounded and
their own. Walking wounded hobbled slowly with their arms round each
other's shoulders, Germans and English together. A boy in a steel hat
stopped me and held up a bloody hand. "A bit of luck!" he said. "I'm
off, after eighteen months of it."
German prisoners came down with a few English soldiers as their
escort. I saw distant groups of them, and a shell smashed into one
group and scattered it. The living ran, leaving their dead. Ambulances
driven by daring fellows drove to the far edge of Fricourt, not a
healthy place, and loaded up with wounded from a dressing station in a
It was a wonderful picture of war in all its filth and shambles. But
was it Victory? I knew then that it was only a breach in the German
bastion, and that on the left, Gommecourt way, there had been black
On the left, where the 8th and l0th Corps were directing operations,
the assault had been delivered by the 4th, 29th, 36th, 49th, 32nd,
8th, and 56th Divisions.
The positions in front of them were Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel on
the left side of the River Ancre, and Thiepval Wood on the right side
of the Ancre leading up to Thiepval Chateau on the crest of the cliff.
These were the hardest positions to attack, because of the rising
ground and the immense strength of the enemy's earthworks and tunneled
defenses. But our generals were confident that the gun power at their
disposal was sufficient to smash down that defensive system and make
an easy way through for the infantry. They were wrong. In spite of
that tornado of shell-fire which I had seen tearing up the earth, many
tunnels were still unbroken, and out of them came masses of German
machine-gunners and riflemen, when our infantry rose from their own
trenches on that morning of July 1st.
Our guns had shifted their barrage forward at that moment, farther
ahead of the infantry than was afterward allowed, the men being
trained to follow close to the lines of bursting shells, trained to
expect a number of casualties from their own guns--it needs some
training--in order to secure the general safety gained by keeping the
enemy below ground until our bayonets were round his dugouts.
The Germans had been trained, too, to an act of amazing courage. Their
discipline, that immense power of discipline which dominates men in
the mass, was strong enough to make them obey the order to rush
through that barrage of ours, that advancing wall of explosion and, if
they lived through it, to face our men in the open with massed
machine-gun fire. So they did; and as English, Irish, Scottish, and
Welsh battalions of our assaulting divisions trudged forward over what
had been No Man's Land, machine-gun bullets sprayed upon them, and
they fell like grass to the scythe. Line after line of men followed
them, and each line crumpled, and only small groups and single
figures, seeking comradeship, hurried forward. German machine-gunners
were bayoneted as their thumbs were still pressed to their triggers.
In German front-line trenches at the bottom of Thiepval Wood, outside
Beaumont Hamel and on the edge of Gommecourt Park, the field-gray men
who came out of their dugouts fought fiercely with stick-bombs and
rifles, and our officers and men, in places where they had strength
enough, clubbed them to death, stuck them with bayonets, and blew
their brains out with revolvers at short range. Then those English and
Irish and Scottish troops, grievously weak because of all the dead and
wounded behind them, struggled through to the second German line, from
which there came a still fiercer rattle of machine-gun and rifle-fire.
Some of them broke through that line, too, and went ahead in isolated
parties across the wild crater land, over chasms and ditches and
fallen trees, toward the highest ground, which had been their goal.
Nothing was seen of them. They disappeared into clouds of smoke and
flame. Gunner observers saw rockets go up in far places--our rockets--
showing that outposts had penetrated into the German lines. Runners
came back--survivors of many predecessors who had fallen on the way--
with scribbled messages from company officers. One came from the Essex
and King's Own of the 4th Division, at a place called Pendant Copse,
southeast of Serre. "For God's sake send us bombs." It was impossible
to send them bombs. No men could get to them through the deep barrage
of shell-fire which was between them and our supporting troops. Many
tried and died.
The Ulster men went forward toward Beaumont Hamel with a grim valor
which was reckless of their losses. Beaumont Hamel was a German
fortress. Machine-gun fire raked every yard of the Ulster way.
Hundreds of the Irish fell. I met hundreds of them wounded--tall,
strong, powerful men, from Queen's Island and Belfast factories, and
Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scots.
"They gave us no chance," said one of them--a sergeant-major. "They
just murdered us."
But bunches of them went right into the heart of the German positions,
and then found behind them crowds of Germans who had come up out of
their tunnels and flung bombs at them. Only a few came back alive in
Into Thiepval Wood men of ours smashed their way through the German
trenches, not counting those who fell, and killing any German who
stood in their way. Inside that wood of dead trees and charred
branches they reformed, astonished at the fewness of their numbers.
Germans coming up from holes in the earth attacked them, and they held
firm and took two hundred prisoners. Other Germans came closing in
like wolves, in packs, and to a German officer who said, "Surrender!"
our men shouted, "No surrender!" and fought in Thiepval Wood until
most were dead and only a few wounded crawled out to tell that tale.
The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the
worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break
through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the
London Rifle Brigade. The Rangers and the Queen Victoria Rifles--the
old "Vics "--formed their center. Their right was made up by the
London Scottish, and behind came the Queen's Westminsters and the
Kensingtons, who were to advance through their comrades to a farther
objective. Across a wide No Man's Land they suffered from the bursting
of heavy crumps, and many fell. But they escaped annihilation by
machine-gun fire and stormed through the upheaved earth into
Gommecourt Park, killing many Germans and sending back batches of
prisoners. They had done what they had been asked to do, and started
building up barricades of earth and sand-bags, and then found they
were in a death-trap. There were no troops on their right or left.
They had thrust out into a salient, which presently the enemy saw. The
German gunners, with deadly skill, boxed it round with shell-fire, so
that the Londoners were inclosed by explosive walls, and then very
slowly and carefully drew a line of bursting shells up and down, up
and down that captured ground, ravaging its earth anew and smashing
the life that crouched there--London life.
I have written elsewhere (in The Battles of the Somme) how young
officers and small bodies of these London men held the barricades
against German attacks while others tried to break a way back through
that murderous shell-fire, and how groups of lads who set out on that
adventure to their old lines were shattered so that only a few from
each group crawled back alive, wounded or unwounded.
At the end of the day the Germans acted with chivalry, which I was not
allowed to tell at the time. The general of the London Division
(Philip Howell) told me that the enemy sent over a message by a low-
flying airplane, proposing a truce while the stretcher-bearers worked,
and offering the service of their own men in that work of mercy. This
offer was accepted without reference to G.H.Q., and German stretcher-
bearers helped to carry our wounded to a point where they could be
Many, in spite of that, remained lying out in No Man's Land, some for
three or four days and nights. I met one man who lay out there
wounded, with a group of comrades more badly hurt than he was, until
July 6th. At night he crawled over to the bodies of the dead and took
their water-bottles and "iron" rations, and so brought drink and food
to his stricken friends. Then at last he made his way through roving
shells to our lines and even then asked to lead the stretcher-bearers
who volunteered on a search-party for his "pals."
"Physical courage was very common in the war," said a friend of mine
who saw nothing of war. "It is proved that physical courage is the
commonest quality of mankind, as moral courage is the rarest." But
that soldier's courage was spiritual, and there were many like him in
the battles of the Somme and in other later battles as tragic as
I have told how, before "The Big Push," as we called the beginning of
these battles, little towns of tents were built under the sign of the
Red Cross. For a time they were inhabited only by medical officers,
nurses, and orderlies, busily getting ready for a sudden invasion, and
spending their surplus energy, which seemed inexhaustible, on the
decoration of their camps by chalk-lined paths, red crosses painted on
canvas or built up in red and white chalk on leveled earth, and
flowers planted outside the tents--all very pretty and picturesque in
the sunshine and the breezes over the valley of the Somme.
On the morning of battle the doctors, nurses, and orderlies waited for
their patients and said, "Now we shan't be long!" They were merry and
bright with that wonderful cheerfulness which enabled them to face the
tragedy of mangled manhood without horror, and almost, it seemed,
without pity, because it was their work, and they were there to heal
what might be healed. It was with a rush that their first cases came,
and the M.O.'s whistled and said, "Ye gods! how many more?" Many more.
The tide did not slacken. It became a spate brought down by waves of
ambulances. Three thousand wounded came to Daours on the Somme, three
thousand to Corbie, thousands to Dernancourt, Heilly, Puchevillers,
Toutencourt, and many other "clearing stations."
At Daours the tents were filled to overflowing, until there was no
more room. The wounded were laid down on the grass to wait their turn
for the surgeon's knife. Some of them crawled over to haycocks and
covered themselves with hay and went to sleep, as I saw them sleeping
there, like dead men. Here and there shell-shocked boys sat weeping or
moaning, and shaking with an ague. Most of the wounded were quiet and
did not give any groan or moan. The lightly wounded sat in groups,
telling their adventures, cursing the German machine-gunners. Young
officers spoke in a different way, and with that sporting spirit which
they had learned in public schools praised their enemy.
"The machine-gunners are wonderful fellows--topping. Fight until
they're killed. They gave us hell."
Each man among those thousands of wounded had escaped death a dozen
times or more by the merest flukes of luck. It was this luck of theirs
which they hugged with a kind of laughing excitement.
"It's a marvel I'm here! That shell burst all round me. Killed six of
my pals. I've got through with a blighty wound. No bones broken. . .
God! What luck!"
The death of other men did not grieve them. They could not waste this
sense of luck in pity. The escape of their own individuality, this
possession of life, was a glorious thought. They were alive! What
luck! What luck!
We called the hospital at Corbie the "Butcher's Shop." It was in a
pretty spot in that little town with a big church whose tall white
towers looked down a broad sweep of the Somme, so that for miles they
were a landmark behind the battlefields. Behind the lines during those
first battles, but later, in 1918, when the enemy came nearly to the
gates of Amiens, a stronghold of the Australians, who garrisoned it
and sniped pigeons for their pots off the top of the towers, and took
no great notice of "whizz-bangs" which broke through the roofs of
cottages and barns. It was a safe, snug place in July of '16, but that
Butcher's Shop at a corner of the square was not a pretty spot. After
a visit there I had to wipe cold sweat from my forehead, and found
myself trembling in a queer way. It was the medical officer--a
colonel--who called it that name. "This is our Butcher's Shop," he
said, cheerily. "Come and have a look at my cases. They're the worst
possible; stomach wounds, compound fractures, and all that. We lop off
limbs here all day long, and all night. You've no idea!"
I had no idea, but I did not wish to see its reality. The M.O. could
not understand my reluctance to see his show. He put it down to my
desire to save his time--and explained that he was going the rounds
and would take it as a favor if I would walk with him. I yielded
weakly, and cursed myself for not taking to flight. Yet, I argued,
what men are brave enough to suffer I ought to have the courage to
see. . . I saw and sickened.
These were the victims of "Victory" and the red fruit of war's
harvest-fields. A new batch of "cases" had just arrived. More were
being brought in on stretchers. They were laid down in rows on the
floor-boards. The colonel bent down to some of them and drew their
blankets back, and now and then felt a man's pulse. Most of them were
unconscious, breathing with the hard snuffle of dying men. Their skin
was already darkening to the death-tint, which is not white. They were
all plastered with a gray clay and this mud on their faces was, in
some cases, mixed with thick clots of blood, making a hard
incrustation from scalp to chin.
"That fellow won't last long," said the M. O., rising from a
stretcher. "Hardly a heart-beat left in him. Sure to die on the
operating-table if he gets as far as that. . . Step back against the
wall a minute, will you?"
We flattened ourselves against the passage wall while ambulance-men
brought in a line of stretchers. No sound came from most of those
bundles under the blankets, but from one came a long, agonizing wail,
the cry of an animal in torture.
"Come through the wards," said the colonel. "They're pretty bright,
though we could do with more space and light."
In one long, narrow room there were about thirty beds, and in each bed
lay a young British soldier, or part of a young British soldier. There
was not much left of one of them. Both his legs had been amputated to
the thigh, and both his arms to the shoulder-blades.
"Remarkable man, that," said the colonel. "Simply refuses to die. His
vitality is so tremendous that it is putting up a terrific fight
against mortality. . . There's another case of the same kind; one leg
gone and the other going, and one arm. Deliberate refusal to give in.
'You're not going to kill me, doctor,' he said. 'I'm going to stick it
through.' What spirit, eh?"
I spoke to that man. He was quite conscious, with bright eyes. His
right leg was uncovered, and supported on a board hung from the
ceiling. Its flesh was like that of a chicken badly carved-white,
flabby, and in tatters. He thought I was a surgeon, and spoke to me
"I guess you can save that leg, sir. It's doing fine. I should hate to
I murmured something about a chance for it, and the M. O. broke in
"You won't lose it if I can help it. How's your pulse? Oh, not bad.
Keep cheerful and we'll pull you through." The man smiled gallantly.
"Bound to come off," said the doctor as we passed to another bed. "Gas
gangrene. That's the thing that does us down."
In bed after bed I saw men of ours, very young men, who had been
lopped of limbs a few hours ago or a few minutes, some of them
unconscious, some of them strangely and terribly conscious, with a
look in their eyes as though staring at the death which sat near to
them, and edged nearer.
"Yes," said the M. O., "they look bad, some of 'em, but youth is on
their side. I dare say seventy-five per cent. will get through. If it
wasn't for gas gangrene--"
He jerked his head to a boy sitting up in bed, smiling at the nurse
who felt his pulse.
"Looks fairly fit after the knife, doesn't he? But we shall have to
cut higher up. The gas again. I'm afraid he'll be dead before to-
morrow. Come into the operating-theater. It's very well equipped."
I refused that invitation. I walked stiffly out of the Butcher's Shop
of Corbie past the man who had lost both arms and both legs, that
vital trunk, past rows of men lying under blankets, past a stench of
mud and blood and anesthetics, to the fresh air of the gateway, where
a column of ambulances had just arrived with a new harvest from the
fields of the Somme.
"Come in again, any time!" shouted out the cheery colonel, waving his
I never went again, though I saw many other Butcher's Shops in the
years that followed, where there was a great carving of human flesh
which was of our boyhood, while the old men directed their sacrifice,
and the profiteers grew rich, and the fires of hate were stoked up at
patriotic banquets and in editorial chairs.
The failure on the left hardly balanced by the partial success on the
right caused a sudden pause in the operations, camouflaged by small
attacks on minor positions around and above Fricourt and Mametz. The
Lincolns and others went over to Fricourt Wood and routed out German
machine-gunners. The West Yorks attacked the sunken road at Fricourt.
The Dorsets, Manchesters, Highland Light Infantry, Lancashire
Fusiliers, and Borderers of the 32d Division were in possession of La
Boisselle and clearing out communication trenches to which the Germans
were hanging on with desperate valor. The 21st Division--
Northumberland Fusiliers, Durhams, Yorkshires-were making a flanking
attack on Contalmaison, but weakened after their heavy losses on the
first day of battle. The fighting for a time was local, in small
copses--Lozenge Wood, Peak Wood, Caterpillar Wood, Acid Drop Copse--
where English and German troops fought ferociously for yards of
ground, hummocks of earth, ditches.
G. H. Q. had been shocked by the disaster on the left and the failure
of all the big hopes they had held for a break-through on both sides
of the German positions. Rumors came to us that the Commander-in-Chief
had decided to restrict future operations to minor actions for
strengthening the line and to abandon the great offensive. It was
believed by officers I met that Sir Henry Rawlinson was arguing,
persuading, in favor of continued assaults on the grand scale.
Whatever division of opinion existed in the High Command I do not
know; it was visible to all of us that for some days there were
uncertainty of direction, hesitation, conflicting orders. On July 7th
the 17th Division, under General Pilcher, attacked Contalmaison, and a
whole battalion of the Prussian Guard hurried up from Valenciennes
and, thrown on to the battlefield without maps or guidance, walked
into the barrage which covered the advance of our men and were almost
annihilated. But although some bodies of our men entered Contalmaison,
in an attack which I was able to see, they were smashed out of it
again by storms of fire followed by masses of men who poured out from
Mametz Wood. The Welsh were attacking Mametz Wood.
They were handled, as Marbot said of his men in a Napoleonic battle,
"like turnips." Battalion commanders received orders in direct
conflict with one another. Bodies of Welshmen were advanced, and then
retired, and left to lie nakedly without cover, under dreadful fire.
The 17th Division, under General Pilcher, did not attack at the
expected time. There was no co-ordination of divisions; no knowledge
among battalion officers of the strategy or tactics of a battle in
which their men were involved.
"Goodness knows what's happening," said an officer I met near Mametz.
He had been waiting all night and half a day with a body of troops who
had expected to go forward, and were still hanging about under
On July 9th Contalmaison was taken. I saw that attack very clearly, so
clearly that I could almost count the bricks in the old chateau set in
a little wood, and saw the left-hand tower knocked off by the direct
hit of a fifteen-inch shell. At four o'clock in the afternoon our guns
concentrated on the village, and under the cover of that fire our men
advanced on three sides of it, hemmed it in, and captured it with the
garrison of the 122d Bavarian Regiment, who had suffered the agonies
of hell inside its ruins. Now our men stayed in the ruins, and this
time German shells smashed into the chateau and the cottages and left
nothing but rubbish heaps of brick through which a few days later I
went walking with the smell of death in my nostrils. Our men were now
being shelled in that place.
Beyond La Boisselle, on the left of the Albert-Bapaume road, there had
been a village called Ovillers. It was no longer there. Our guns has
removed every trace of it, except as it lay in heaps of pounded brick.
The Germans had a network of trenches about it, and in their ditches
and their dugouts they fought like wolves. Our 12th Division was
ordered to drive them out--a division of English county troops,
including the Sussex, Essex, Bedfords, and Middlesex--and those
country boys of ours fought their way among communication trenches,
burrowed into tunnels, crouched below hummocks of earth and brick, and
with bombs and bayonets and broken rifles, and boulders of stone, and
German stick-bombs, and any weapon that would kill, gained yard by
yard over the dead bodies of the enemy, or by the capture of small
batches of cornered men, until after seventeen days of this one
hundred and forty men of the 3rd Prussian Guard, the last of their
garrison, without food or water, raised a signal of surrender, and
came out with their hands up. Ovillers was a shambles, in a fight of
primitive earth-men like human beasts. Yet our men were not beast-
like. They came out from those places--if they had the luck to come
out--apparently unchanged, without any mark of the beast on them, and
when they cleansed themselves of mud and filth, boiled the lice out of
their shirts, and assembled in a village street behind the lines, they
whistled, laughed, gossiped, as though nothing had happened to their
souls--though something had really happened, as now we know.
It was not until July 14th that our High Command ordered another
general attack after the local fighting which had been in progress
since the first day of battle. Our field-batteries, and some of our
"heavies," had moved forward to places like Montauban and
Contalmaison--where German shells came searching for them all day
long--and new divisions had been brought up to relieve some of the men
who had been fighting so hard and so long. It was to be an attack on
the second German line of defense on the ridges by the village of
Bazentin le Grand and Bazentin le Petit to Longueval on the right and
Delville Wood. I went up in the night to see the bombardment and the
beginning of the battle and the swirl of its backwash, and I remember
now the darkness of villages behind the lines through which our cars
crawled, until we reached the edge of the battlefields and saw the sky
rent by incessant flames of gun-fire, while red tongues of flames
leaped up from burning villages. Longueval was on fire, and the two
Bazentins, and another belt of land in France, so beautiful to see,
even as I had seen it first between the sand-bags of our parapets, was
being delivered to the charcoal-burners.
I have described that night scene elsewhere, in all its deviltry, but
one picture which I passed on the way to the battlefield could not
then be told. Yet it was significant of the mentality of our High
Command, as was afterward pointed out derisively by Sixte von Arnim.
It proved the strange unreasoning optimism which still lingered in the
breasts of old-fashioned generals in spite of what had happened on the
left on the first day of July, and their study of trench maps, and
their knowledge of German machine-guns. By an old mill-house called
the Moulin Vivier, outside the village of Meaulte, were masses of
cavalry--Indian cavalry and Dragoons--drawn up densely to leave a
narrow passageway for field-guns and horse-transport moving through
the village, which was in utter darkness. The Indians sat like statues
on their horses, motionless, dead silent. Now and again there was a
jangle of bits. Here and there a British soldier lit a cigarette and
for a second the little flame of his match revealed a bronzed face or
glinted on steel helmets.
Cavalry! . . . So even now there was a serious purpose behind the joke
of English soldiers who had gone forward on the first day, shouting,
"This way to the gap!" and in the conversation of some of those who
actually did ride through Bazentin that day.
A troop or two made their way over the cratered ground and skirted
Delville Wood; the Dragoon Guards charged a machine-gun in a
cornfield, and killed the gunners. Germans rounded up by them clung to
their stirrup leathers crying: "Pity! Pity!" The Indians lowered their
lances, but took prisoners to show their chivalry. But it was nothing
more than a beau geste. It was as futile and absurd as Don Quixote's
charge of the windmill. They were brought to a dead halt by the nature
of the ground and machine-gun fire which killed their horses, and lay
out that night with German shells searching for their bodies.
One of the most disappointed men in the army was on General Haldane's
staff. He was an old cavalry officer, and this major of the old, old
school (belonging in spirit to the time of Charles Lever) was excited
by the thought that there was to be a cavalry adventure. He was one of
those who swore that if he had his chance he would "ride into the
blue." It was the chance he wanted and he nursed his way to it by
delicate attentions to General Haldane. The general's bed was not so
comfortable as his. He changed places. He even went so far as to put a
bunch of flowers on the general's table in his dugout.
"You seem very attentive to me, major," said the general, smelling a
Then the major blurted out his desire. Could he lead a squadron round
Delville Wood? Could he take that ride into the blue? He would give
his soul to do it.
"Get on with your job," said General Haldane.
That ride into the blue did not encourage the cavalry to the belief
that they would be of real value in a warfare of trench lines and
barbed wire, but for a long time later they were kept moving backward
and forward between the edge of the battlefields and the back areas,
to the great incumbrance of the roads, until they were "guyed" by the
infantry, and irritable, so their officers told me, to the verge of
mutiny. Their irritability was cured by dismounting them for a turn in
the trenches, and I came across the Household Cavalry digging by the
Coniston Steps, this side of Thiepval, and cursing their spade-work.
In this book I will not tell again the narrative of that, fighting in
the summer and autumn of 1916, which I have written with many details
of each day's scene in my collected despatches called The Battles of
the Somme. There is little that I can add to those word-pictures which
I wrote day by day, after haunting experiences amid the ruin of those
fields, except a summing-up of their effect upon the mentality of our
men, and upon the Germans who were in the same "blood-bath," as they
called it, and a closer analysis of the direction and mechanism of our
Looking back upon those battles in the light of knowledge gained in
the years that followed, it seems clear that our High Command was too
prodigal in its expenditure of life in small sectional battles, and
that the army corps and divisional staffs had not established an
efficient system of communication with the fighting units under their
control. It seemed to an outsider like myself that a number of
separate battles were being fought without reference to one another in
different parts of the field. It seemed as though our generals, after
conferring with one another over telephones, said, "All right, tell
So-and-so to have a go at Thiepval," or, "To-day we will send such-
and-such a division to capture Delville Wood," or, "We must get that
line of trenches outside Bazentin." Orders were drawn up on the basis
of that decision and passed down to brigades, who read them as their
sentence of death, and obeyed with or without protest, and sent three
or four battalions to assault a place which was covered by German
batteries round an arc of twenty miles, ready to open out a tempest of
fire directly a rocket rose from their infantry, and to tear up the
woods and earth in that neighborhood if our men gained ground. If the
whole battle-line moved forward the German fire would have been
dispersed, but in these separate attacks on places like Trones Wood
and Delville Wood, and later on High Wood, it was a vast concentration
of explosives which plowed up our men.
So it was that Delville Wood was captured and lost several times and
became "Devil's" Wood to men who lay there under the crash and fury of
massed gun-fire until a wretched remnant of what had been a glorious
brigade of youth crawled out stricken and bleeding when relieved by
another brigade ordered to take their turn in that devil's caldron, or
to recapture it when German bombing-parties and machine-gunners had
followed in the wake of fire, and had crouched again among the fallen
trees, and in the shell-craters and ditches, with our dead and their
dead to keep them company. In Delville Wood the South African Brigade
of the 9th Division was cut to pieces, and I saw the survivors come
out with few officers to lead them.
In Trones Wood, in Bernafay Wood, in Mametz Wood, there had been great
slaughter of English troops and Welsh. The 18th Division and the 38th
suffered horribly. In Delville Wood many battalions were slashed to
pieces before these South Africans. And after that came High Wood . .
. All that was left of High Wood in the autumn of 1916 was a thin row
of branchless trees, but in July and August there were still glades
under heavy foliage, until the branches were lopped off and the leaves
scattered by our incessant fire. It was an important position, vital
for the enemy's defense, and our attack on the right flank of the
Pozieres Ridge, above Bazentin and Delville Wood, giving on the
reverse slope a fine observation of the enemy's lines above
Martinpuich and Courcellette away to Bapaume. For that reason the
Germans were ordered to hold it at all costs, and many German
batteries had registered on it to blast our men out if they gained a
foothold on our side of the slope or theirs.
So High Wood became another hell, on a day of great battle--September
14, 1916--when for the first time tanks were used, demoralizing the
enemy in certain places, though they were too few in number to strike
a paralyzing blow. The Londoners gained part of High Wood at frightful
cost and then were blown out of it. Other divisions followed them and
found the wood stuffed with machine-guns which they had to capture
through hurricanes of bullets before they crouched in craters amid
dead Germans and dead English, and then were blown out like the
Londoners, under shell-fire, in which no human life could stay for
The 7th Division was cut up there. The 33d Division lost six thousand
men in an advance against uncut wire in the wood, which they were told
was already captured.
Hundreds of men were vomiting from the effect of gas-shells, choking
and blinded. Behind, the transport wagons and horses were smashed to
The divisional staffs were often ignorant of what was happening to the
fighting-men when the attack was launched. Light signals, rockets,
heliographing, were of small avail through the dust--and smoke-clouds.
Forward observing officers crouching behind parapets, as I often saw
them, and sometimes stood with them, watched fires burning, red
rockets and green, gusts of flame, and bursting shells, and were
doubtful what to make of it all. Telephone wires trailed across the
ground for miles, were cut into short lengths by shrapnel and high
explosive. Accidents happened as part of the inevitable blunders of
war. It was all a vast tangle and complexity of strife.
On July 17th I stood in a tent by a staff-officer who was directing a
group of heavy guns supporting the 3d Division. He was tired, as I
could see by the black lines under his eyes and tightly drawn lips. On
a camp-table in front of him, upon which he leaned his elbows, there
was a telephone apparatus, and the little bell kept ringing as we
talked. Now and then a shell burst in the field outside the tent, and
he raised his head and said: "They keep crumping about here. Hope they
won't tear this tent to ribbons. . . .That sounds like a gas-shell."
Then he turned to the telephone again and listened to some voice
"Yes, I can hear you. Yes, go on. 'Our men seen leaving High Wood.'
Yes. 'Shelled by our artillery.' Are you sure of that? I say, are you
sure they were our men? Another message. Well, carry on. 'Men digging
on road from High Wood southeast to Longueval.' Yes, I've got that.
'They are our men and not Boches.' Oh, hell! . . . Get off the line.
Get off the line, can't you? . . . 'Our men and not Boches.' Yes, I
have that. 'Heavily shelled by our guns.' "
The staff-officer tapped on the table with a lead-pencil a tattoo,
while his forehead puckered. Then he spoke into the telephone again.
"Are you there, 'Heavies'? . . . Well, don't disturb those fellows for
half an hour. After that I will give you new orders. Try and confirm
if they are our men."
He rang off and turned to me.
"That's the trouble. Looks as if we had been pounding our own men like
hell. Some damn fool reports 'Boches.' Gives the reference number.
Asks for the 'Heavies'. Then some other fellow says: 'Not Boches. For
God's sake cease fire!' How is one to tell?"
I could not answer that question, but I hated the idea of our men sent
forward to capture a road or a trench or a wood and then "pounded" by
our guns. They had enough pounding from the enemy's guns. There seemed
a missing link in the system somewhere. Probably it was quite
Over and over again the wounded swore to God that they had been
shelled by our own guns. The Londoners said so from High Wood. The
Australians said so from Mouquet Farm. The Scots said so from
Longueval! They said: "Why the hell do we get murdered by British
gunners? What's the good of fighting if we're slaughtered by our own
In some cases they were mistaken. It was enfilade fire from German
batteries. But often it happened according to the way of that
telephone conversation in the tent by Bronfay Farm.
The difference between British soldiers and German soldiers crawling
over shell-craters or crouching below the banks of a sunken road was
no more than the difference between two tribes of ants. Our flying
scouts, however low they flew, risking the Archies and machine-gun
bullets, often mistook khaki for field gray, and came back with false
reports which led to tragedy.
People who read my war despatches will remember my first descriptions
of the tanks and those of other correspondents. They caused a
sensation, a sense of excitement, laughter which shook the nation
because of the comicality, the grotesque surprise, the possibility of
quicker victory, which caught hold of the imagination of people who
heard for the first time of those new engines of war, so beast-like in
appearance and performance. The vagueness of our descriptions was due
to the censorship, which forbade, wisely enough, any technical and
exact definition, so that we had to compare them to giant toads,
mammoths, and prehistoric animals of all kinds. Our accounts did,
however, reproduce the psychological effect of the tanks upon the
British troops when these engines appeared for the first time to their
astonished gaze on September 13th. Our soldiers roared with laughter,
as I did, when they saw them lolloping up the roads. On the morning of
the great battle of September 15th the presence of the tanks going
into action excited all the troops along the front with a sense of
comical relief in the midst of the grim and deadly business of attack.
Men followed them, laughing and cheering. There was a wonderful thrill
in the airman's message, "Tank walking up the High Street of Flers
with the British army cheering behind." Wounded boys whom I met that
morning grinned in spite of their wounds at our first word about the
tanks. "Crikey!" said a cockney lad of the 47th Division. "I can't
help laughing every time I think of them tanks. I saw them stamping
down German machine-guns as though they were wasps' nests." The
adventures of Creme de Menthe, Cordon Rouge, and the Byng Boys, on
both sides of the Bapaume road, when they smashed down barbed wire,
climbed over trenches, sat on German redoubts, and received the
surrender of German prisoners who held their hands up to these
monsters and cried, "Kamerad!" were like fairy-tales of war by H. G.
Yet their romance had a sharp edge of reality as I saw in those
battles of the Somme, and afterward, more grievously, in the Cambrai
salient and Flanders, when the tanks were put out of action by direct
hits of field-guns and nothing of humankind remained in them but the
charred bones of their gallant crews.
Before the battle in September of '16 I talked with the pilots of the
first tanks, and although they were convinced of the value of these
new engines of war and were out to prove it, they did not disguise
from me nor from their own souls that they were going forth upon a
perilous adventure with the odds of luck against them. I remember one
young pilot--a tiny fellow like a jockey, who took me on one side and
said, "I want you to do me a favor," and then scribbled down his
mother's address and asked me to write to her if "anything" happened
He and other tank officers were anxious. They had not complete
confidence in the steering and control of their engines. It was a
difficult and clumsy kind of gear, which was apt to break down at a
critical moment, as I saw when I rode in one on their field of
maneuver. These first tanks were only experimental, and the tail
arrangement was very weak. Worse than all mechanical troubles was the
short-sighted policy of some authority at G.H.Q., who had insisted
upon A.S.C. drivers being put to this job a few days before the
battle, without proper training.
"It is mad and murderous," said one of the officers, "These fellows
may have pluck, all right--I don't doubt it--but they don't know their
engines, nor the double steering trick, and they have never been under
shell-fire. It is asking for trouble."
As it turned out, the A.S.C. drivers proved their pluck, for the most
part, splendidly, but many tanks broke down before they reached the
enemy's lines, and in that action and later battles there were times
when they bitterly disappointed the infantry commanders and the
Individual tanks, commanded by gallant young officers and served by
brave crews, did astounding feats, and some of these men came back
dazed and deaf and dumb, after forty hours or more of fighting and
maneuvering within steel walls, intensely hot, filled with the fumes
of their engines, jolted and banged about over rough ground, and
steering an uncertain course, after the loss of their "tails," which
had snapped at the spine. But there had not been anything like enough
tanks to secure an annihilating surprise over the enemy as afterward
was attained in the first battle of Cambrai; and the troops who had
been buoyed up with the hope that at last the machine--gun evil was
going to be scotched were disillusioned and dejected when they saw
tanks ditched behind the lines or nowhere in sight when once again
they had to trudge forward under the flail of machine-gun bullets from
earthwork redoubts. It was a failure in generalship to give away our
secret before it could be made effective.
I remember sitting in a mess of the Gordons in the village of
Franvillers along the Albert road, and listening to a long monologue
by a Gordon officer on the future of the tanks. He was a dreamer and
visionary, and his fellow-officers laughed at him.
"A few tanks are no good," he said. "Forty or fifty tanks are no good
on a modern battle-front. We want hundreds of tanks, brought up
secretly, fed with ammunition by tank carriers, bringing up field-guns
and going into action without any preliminary barrage. They can smash
through the enemy's wire and get over his trenches before he is aware
that an attack has been organized. Up to now all our offensives have
been futile because of our preliminary advertisement by prolonged
bombardment. The tanks can bring back surprise to modern warfare, but
we must have hundreds of them."
Prolonged laughter greeted this speech. But the Celtic dreamer did not
smile. He was staring into the future. . . And what he saw was true,
though he did not live to see it, for in the Cambrai battle of
November 11th the tanks did advance in hundreds, and gained an
enormous surprise over the enemy, and led the way to a striking
victory, which turned to tragedy because of risks too lightly taken.
One branch of our military machine developed with astonishing rapidity
and skill during those Somme battles. The young gentlemen of the Air
Force went "all out" for victory, and were reckless in audacity. How
far they acted under orders and against their own judgment of what was
sensible and sound in fighting-risks I do not know. General Trenchard,
their supreme chief, believed in an aggressive policy at all costs,
and was a Napoleon in this war of the skies, intolerant of timidity,
not squeamish of heavy losses if the balance were tipped against the
enemy. Some young flying-men complained to me bitterly that they were
expected to fly or die over the German lines, whatever the weather or
whatever the risks. Many of them, after repeated escapes from anti-
aircraft shells and hostile craft, lost their nerve, shirked another
journey, found themselves crying in their tents, and were sent back
home for a spell by squadron commanders, with quick observation for
the breaking-point; or made a few more flights and fell to earth like
Sooner or later, apart from rare cases, every man was found to lose
his nerve, unless he lost his life first. That was a physical and
mental law. But until that time these flying-men were the knights-
errant of the war, and most of them did not need any driving to the
risks they took with boyish recklessness.
They were mostly boys--babes, as they seemed to me, when I saw them in
their tents or dismounting from their machines. On "dud" days, when
there was no visibility at all, they spent their leisure hours joy-
riding to Amiens or some other town where they could have a "binge."
They drank many cocktails and roared with laughter over, bottles of
cheap champagne, and flirted with any girl who happened to come within
their orbit. If not allowed beyond their tents, they sulked like baby
Achilles, reading novelettes, with their knees hunched up, playing the
gramophone, and ragging each other.
There was one child so young that his squadron leader would not let
him go out across the battle-lines to challenge any German scout in
the clouds or do any of the fancy "stunts" that were part of the next
day's program. He went to bed sulkily, and then came back again, in
his pajamas, with rumpled hair.
"Look here, sir," he said. "Can't I go? I've got my wings. It's
perfectly rotten being left behind."
The squadron commander, who told me of the tale, yielded.
"All right. Only don't do any fool tricks."
Next morning the boy flew off, played a lone hand, chased a German
scout, dropped low over the enemy's lines, machine-gunned infantry on
the march, scattered them, bombed a train, chased a German motor-car,
and after many adventures came back alive and said, "I've had a rare
On a stormy day, which loosened the tent poles and slapped the wet
canvas, I sat in a mess with a group of flying-officers, drinking tea
out of a tin mug. One boy, the youngest of them, had just brought down
his first "Hun." He told me the tale of it with many details, his eyes
alight as he described the fight. They had maneuvered round each other
for a long time. Then he shot his man en passant. The machine crashed
on our side of the lines. He had taken off the iron crosses on the
wings, and a bit of the propeller, as mementoes. He showed me these
things (while the squadron commander, who had brought down twenty-four
Germans, winked at me) and told me he was going to send them home to
hang beside his college trophies . . . I guessed he was less than
nineteen years old. Such a kid! . . . A few days later, when I went to
the tent again, I asked about him. "How's that boy who brought down
his first 'Hun'?" The squadron commander said:
"Didn't you hear? He's gone west. Brought down in a dog-fight. He had
a chance of escape, but went back to rescue a pal . . . a nice boy."
They became fatalists after a few fights, and believed in their luck,
or their mascots--teddy-bears, a bullet that had missed them, china
dolls, a girl's lock of hair, a silver ring. Yet at the back of their
brains, most Of them, I fancy, knew that it was only a question of
time before they "went west," and with that subconscious thought they
crowded in all life intensely in the hours that were given to them,
seized all chance of laughter, of wine, of every kind of pleasure
within reach, and said their prayers (some of them) with great fervor,
between one escape and another, like young Paul Bensher, who has
revealed his soul in verse, his secret terror, his tears, his hatred
of death, his love of life, when he went bombing over Bruges.
On the mornings of the battles of the Somme I saw them as the heralds
of a new day of strife flying toward the lines in the first light of
dawn. When the sun rose its rays touched their wings, made them white
like cabbage butterflies, or changed them to silver, all a sparkle. I
saw them fly over the German positions, not changing their course.
Then all about them burst black puffs of German shrapnel, so that many
times I held my breath because they seemed in the center of the burst.
But generally when the cloud cleared they were flying again, until
they disappeared in the mists over the enemy's country. There they did
deadly work, in single fights with German airmen, or against great
odds, until they had an air space to themselves and skimmed the earth
like albatrosses in low flight, attacking machine-gun nests, killing
or scattering the gunners by a burst of bullets from their Lewis guns,
dropping bombs on German wagon transports, infantry, railway trains
(one man cut a train in half and saw men and horses falling out), and
ammunition--dumps, directing the fire of our guns upon living targets,
photographing new trenches and works, bombing villages crowded with
German troops. That they struck terror into these German troops was
proved afterward when we went into Bapaume and Peronne and many
villages from which the enemy retreated after the battles of the
Somme. Everywhere there were signboards on which was written "Flieger
Schutz!" (aircraft shelter) or German warnings of: "Keep to the
sidewalks. This road is constantly bombed by British airmen."
They were a new plague of war, and did for a time gain a complete
mastery of the air. But later the Germans learned the lesson of low
flying and night bombing, and in 1917 and 1918 came back in greater
strength and made the nights horrible in camps behind the lines and in
villages, where they killed many soldiers and more civilians.
The infantry did not believe much in our air supremacy at any time,
not knowing what work was done beyond their range of vision, and
seeing our machines crashed in No Man's Land, and hearing the rattle
of machine-guns from hostile aircraft above their own trenches.
"Those aviators of ours," a general said to me, "are the biggest liars
in the world. Cocky fellows claiming impossible achievements. What
proof can they give of their preposterous tales? They only go into the
air service because they haven't the pluck to serve in the infantry."
That was prejudice. The German losses were proof enough of our men's
fighting skill and strength, and German prisoners and German letters
confirmed all their claims. But we were dishonest in our reckoning
from first to last, and the British public was hoodwinked about our
losses. "Three of our machines are missing." "Six of our machines are
missing." Yes, but what about the machines which crashed in No Man's
Land and behind our lines? They were not missing, but destroyed, and
the boys who had flown in them were dead or broken.
To the end of the war those aviators of ours searched the air for
their adventures, fought often against overwhelming numbers, killed
the German champions in single combat or in tourneys in the sky, and
let down tons of high explosives which caused great death and
widespread destruction; and in this work they died like flies, and one
boy's life--one of those laughing, fatalistic, intensely living boys--
was of no more account in the general sum of slaughter than a summer
midge, except as one little unit in the Armies of the Air.
I am not strong enough in the science of psychology to understand the
origin of laughter and to get into touch with the mainsprings of
gaiety. The sharp contrast between normal ethics and an abnormality of
action provides a grotesque point of view arousing ironical mirth. It
is probable also that surroundings of enormous tragedy stimulate the
sense of humor of the individual, so that any small, ridiculous thing
assumes the proportion of monstrous absurdity. It is also likely--
certain, I think--that laughter is an escape from terror, a liberation
of the soul by mental explosion, from the prison walls of despair and
brooding. In the Decameron of Boccaccio a group of men and women
encompassed by plague retired into seclusion to tell one another
mirthful immoralities which stirred their laughter. They laughed while
the plague destroyed society around them and when they knew that its
foul germs were on the prowl for their own bodies . . . So it was in
this war, where in many strange places and in many dreadful days there
was great laughter. I think sometimes of a night I spent with the
medical officers of a tent hospital in the fields of the Somme during
those battles. With me as a guest went a modern Falstaff, a "ton of
flesh," who "sweats to death and lards the lean earth as he walks
He was a man of many anecdotes, drawn from the sinks and stews of
life, yet with a sense of beauty lurking under his coarseness, and a
voice of fine, sonorous tone, which he managed with art and a melting
On the way to the field hospital he had taken more than one nip of
whisky. His voice was well oiled when he sang a greeting to a medical
major in a florid burst of melody from Italian opera. The major was a
little Irish medico who had been through the South African War and in
tropical places, where he had drunk fire-water to kill all manner of
microbes. He suffered abominably from asthma and had had a heart-
seizure the day before our dinner at his mess, and told us that he
would drop down dead as sure as fate between one operation and another
on "the poor, bloody wounded" who never ceased to flow into his tent.
But he was in a laughing mood, and thirsty for laughter-making liquid.
He had two whiskies before the dinner began to wet his whistle. His
fellow-officers were out for an evening's joy, but nervous of the
colonel, an austere soul who sat at the head of the mess with the look
of a man afraid that merriment might reach outrageous heights beyond
his control. A courteous man he was, and rather sad. His presence for
a time acted as a restraint upon the company, until all restraint was
broken by the Falstaff with me, who told soul-crashing stories to the
little Irish major across the table and sang love lyrics to the
orderly who brought round the cottage pie and pickles. There was a
tall, thin young surgeon who had been carving up living bodies all day
and many days, and now listened to that fat rogue with an intensity of
delight that lit up his melancholy eyes, watching him gravely between
gusts of deep laughter, which seemed to come from his boots. There was
another young surgeon, once of Barts', who made himself the cup-server
of the fat knight and kept his wine at the brim, and encouraged him to
fresh audacities of anecdotry, with a humorous glance at the colonel's
troubled face . . . The colonel was forgotten after dinner. The little
Irish major took the lid off the boiling pot of mirth. He was entirely
mad, as he assured us, between dances of a wild and primitive type,
stories of adventure in far lands, and spasms of asthmatic coughing,
when he beat his breast and said, "A pox in my bleeding heart!"
Falstaff was playing Juliet to the Romeo of the tall young surgeon,
singing falsetto like a fat German angel dressed in loose-fitting
khaki, with his belt undone. There were charades in the tent. The boy
from Barts' did remarkable imitations of a gamecock challenging a
rival bird, of a cow coming through a gate, of a general addressing
his troops (most comical of all). Several glasses were broken. The
corkscrew was disregarded as a useless implement, and whisky-bottles
were decapitated against the tent poles. I remember vaguely the