Part 8 out of 10
crowning episode of the evening when the little major was dancing the
Irish jig with a kitchen chair; when Falstaff was singing the Prologue
of Pagliacci to the stupefied colonel; when the boy, once of Barts',
was roaring like a lion under the mess table, and when the tall,
melancholy surgeon was at the top of the tent pole, scratching himself
like a gorilla in his native haunts. . . Outside, the field hospital
was quiet, under a fleecy sky with a crescent moon. Through the
painted canvas of the tent city candle-light glowed with a faint rose-
colored light, and the Red Cross hung limp above the camp where many
wounded lay, waking or sleeping, tossing in agony, dying in
unconsciousness. Far away over the fields, rockets were rising above
the battle-lines. The sky was flickering with the flush of gun-fire. A
red glare rose and spread below the clouds where some ammunition-dump
had been exploded . . . Old Falstaff fell asleep in the car on the way
back to our quarters, and I smiled at the memory of great laughter in
the midst of tragedy.
The struggle of men from one low ridge to another low ridge in a
territory forty miles wide by more than twenty miles deep, during five
months of fighting, was enormous in its intensity and prolongation of
slaughter, wounding, and endurance of all hardships and terrors of
war. As an eye-witness I saw the full scope of the bloody drama. I saw
day by day the tidal waves of wounded limping back, until two hundred
and fifty thousand men had passed through our casualty clearing
stations, and then were not finished. I went among these men when the
blood was wet on them, and talked with hundreds of them, and heard
their individual narratives of escapes from death until my imagination
was saturated with the spirit of their conflict of body and soul. I
saw a green, downy countryside, beautiful in its summer life, ravaged
by gun-fire so that the white chalk of its subsoil was flung above the
earth and grass in a wide, sterile stretch of desolation pitted with
shell-craters, ditched by deep trenches, whose walls were hideously
upheaved by explosive fire, and littered yard after yard, mile after
mile, with broken wire, rifles, bombs, unexploded shells, rags of
uniform, dead bodies, or bits of bodies, and all the filth of battle.
I saw many villages flung into ruin or blown clean off the map. I
walked into such villages as Contalmaison, Martinpuich, Le Sars,
Thilloy, and at last Bapaume, when a smell of burning and the fumes of
explosives and the stench of dead flesh rose up to one's nostrils and
one's very soul, when our dead and German dead lay about, and newly
wounded came walking through the ruins or were carried shoulder high
on stretchers, and consciously and subconsciously the living,
unwounded men who went through these places knew that death lurked
about them and around them and above them, and at any second might
make its pounce upon their own flesh. I saw our men going into battle
with strong battalions and coming out of it with weak battalions. I
saw them in the midst of battle at Thiepval, at Contalmaison, at
Guillemont, by Loupart Wood, when they trudged toward lines of German
trenches, bunching a little in groups, dodging shell-bursts, falling
in single figures or in batches, and fighting over the enemy's
parapets. I sat with them in their dugouts before battle and after
battle, saw their bodies gathered up for burial, heard their snuffle
of death in hospital, sat by their bedside when they were sorely
wounded. So the full tragic drama of that long conflict on the Somme
was burned into my brain and I was, as it were, a part of it, and I am
still seared with its remembrance, and shall always be.
But however deep the knowledge of tragedy, a man would be a liar if he
refused to admit the heroism, the gallantry of youth, even the gaiety
of men in these infernal months. Psychology on the Somme was not
simple and straightforward. Men were afraid, but fear was not their
dominating emotion, except in the worst hours. Men hated this
fighting, but found excitement in it, often exultation, sometimes an
intense stimulus of all their senses and passions before reaction and
exhaustion. Men became jibbering idiots with shell-shock, as I saw
some of them, but others rejoiced when they saw our shells plowing
into the enemy's earthworks, laughed at their own narrow escapes and
at grotesque comicalities of this monstrous deviltry. The officers
were proud of their men, eager for their honor and achievement. The
men themselves were in rivalry with other bodies of troops, and proud
of their own prowess. They were scornful of all that the enemy might
do to them, yet acknowledged his courage and power. They were quick to
kill him, yet quick also to give him a chance of life by surrender,
and after that were--nine times out of ten--chivalrous and kindly, but
incredibly brutal on the rare occasions when passion overcame them at
some tale of treachery. They had the pride of the skilled laborer in
his own craft, as machine-gunners, bombers, raiders, trench-mortar--
men, and were keen to show their skill, whatever the risks. They were
healthy animals, with animal courage as well as animal fear, and they
had, some of them, a spiritual and moral fervor which bade them risk
death to save a comrade, or to save a position, or to kill the fear
that tried to fetter them, or to lead men with greater fear than
theirs. They lived from hour to hour and forgot the peril or the
misery that had passed, and did not forestall the future by
apprehension unless they were of sensitive mind, with the worst
quality men might have in modern warfare--imagination.
They trained themselves to an intense egotism within narrow
boundaries. Fifty yards to the left, or five hundred, men were being
pounded to death by shell-fire. Fifty yards to the right, or five
hundred, men were being mowed down by machine-gun fire. For the time
being their particular patch was quiet. It was their luck. Why worry
about the other fellow? The length of a traverse in a ditch called a
trench might make all the difference between heaven and hell. Dead
bodies were being piled up on one side of the traverse. A shell had
smashed into the platoon next door. There was a nasty mess. Men sat
under their own mud-bank and scooped out a tin of bully beef and hoped
nothing would scoop them out of their bit of earth. This protective
egotism seemed to me the instinctive soul-armor of men in dangerous
places when I saw them in the line. In a little way, not as a soldier,
but as a correspondent, taking only a thousandth part of the risks of
fighting-men, I found myself using this self-complacency. They were
strafing on the left. Shells were pitching on the right. Very nasty
for the men in either of those places. Poor devils! But meanwhile I
was on a safe patch, it seemed. Thank Heaven for that!
"Here," said an elderly officer--one of those rare exalted souls who
thought that death was a little thing to give for one's country's
sake--"here we may be killed at any moment!"
He spoke the words in Contalmaison with a glow in his voice, as though
announcing glad tidings to a friend who was a war artist camouflaged
as a lieutenant and new to the scene of battle.
"But," said the soldier-artist, adjusting his steel hat nervously, "I
don't want to be killed! I hate the idea of it!"
He was the normal man. The elderly officer was abnormal. The normal
man, soldier without camouflage, had no use for death at all, unless
it was in connection with the fellow on the opposite side of the way.
He hated the notion of it applied to himself. He fought ferociously,
desperately, heroically, to escape it. Yet there were times, many
times, when he paid not the slightest attention to the near
neighborhood of that grisly specter, because in immediate, temporary
tranquillity he thrust the thought from his mind, and smoked a
cigarette, and exchanged a joke with the fellow at his elbow. There
were other times when, in a state of mental exaltation, or spiritual
self-sacrifice, or physical excitement, he acted regardless of all
risks and did mad, marvelous, almost miraculous things, hardly
conscious of his own acts, but impelled to do as he did by the passion
within him--passion of love, passion of hate, passion of fear, or
passion of pride. Those men, moved like that, were the leaders, the
heroes, and groups followed them sometimes because of their intensity
of purpose and the infection of their emotion, and the comfort that
came from their real or apparent self-confidence in frightful
situations. Those who got through were astonished at their own
courage. Many of them became convinced consciously or subconsciously
that they were immune from shells and bullets. They walked through
harassing fire with a queer sense of carelessness. They had escaped so
often that some of them had a kind of disdain of shell-bursts, until,
perhaps, one day something snapped in their nervous system, as often
it did, and the bang of a door in a billet behind the lines, or a
wreath of smoke from some domestic chimney, gave them a sudden shock
of fear. Men differed wonderfully in their nerve-resistance, and it
was no question of difference in courage.
In the mass all our soldiers seemed equally brave. In the mass they
seemed astoundingly cheerful. In spite of all the abomination of that
Somme fighting our troops before battle and after battle--a few days
after--looked bright-eyed, free from haunting anxieties, and were easy
in their way of laughter. It was optimism in the mass, heroism in the
mass. It was only when one spoke to the individual, some friend who
bared his soul a second, or some soldier-ant in the multitude, with
whom one talked with truth, that one saw the hatred of a man for his
job, the sense of doom upon him, the weakness that was in his
strength, the bitterness of his grudge against a fate that forced him
to go on in this way of life, the remembrance of a life more beautiful
which he had abandoned--all mingled with those other qualities of
pride and comradeship, and that illogical sense of humor which made up
the strange complexity of his psychology.
It was a colonel of the North Staffordshires who revealed to me the
astounding belief that he was "immune" from shell-fire, and I met
other men afterward with the same conviction. He had just come out of
desperate fighting in the neighborhood of Thiepval, where his
battalion had suffered heavily, and at first he was rude and sullen in
the hut. I gaged him as a hard Northerner, without a shred of
sentiment or the flicker of any imaginative light; a stern, ruthless
man. He was bitter in his speech to me because the North Staffords
were never mentioned in my despatches. He believed that this was due
to some personal spite--not knowing the injustice of our military
censorship under the orders of G.H.Q.
"Why the hell don't we get a word?" he asked. "Haven't we done as well
as anybody, died as much?"
I promised to do what I could--which was nothing--to put the matter
right, and presently he softened, and, later was amazingly candid in
"I have a mystical power," he said. "Nothing will ever hit me as long
as I keep that power which comes from faith. It is a question of
absolute belief in the domination of mind over matter. I go through
any barrage unscathed because my will is strong enough to turn aside
explosive shells and machine-gun bullets. As matter they must obey my
intelligence. They are powerless to resist the mind of a man in touch
with the Universal Spirit, as I am."
He spoke quietly and soberly, in a matter-of-fact way. I decided that
he was mad. That was not surprising. We were all mad, in one way or
another or at one time or another. It was the unusual form of madness
that astonished me. I envied him his particular "kink." I wished I
could cultivate it, as an aid to courage. He claimed another peculiar
form of knowledge. He knew before each action, he told me, what
officers and men of his would be killed in battle. He looked at a
man's eyes and knew, and he claimed that he never made a mistake . . .
He was sorry to possess that second sight, and it worried him.
There were many men who had a conviction that they would not be
killed, although they did not state it in the terms expressed by the
colonel of the North Staffordshires, and it is curious that in some
cases I know they were not mistaken and are still alive. It was indeed
a general belief that if a man funked being hit he was sure to fall,
that being the reverse side of the argument.
I saw the serene cheerfulness of men in the places of death at many
times and in many places, and I remember one group of friends on the
Somme who revealed that quality to a high degree. It was when our
front-line ran just outside the village of Martinpuich to Courcelette,
on the other side of the Bapaume road, and when the 8th-l0th Gordons
were there, after their fight through Longueval and over the ridge. It
was the little crowd I have mentioned before in the battle of Loos,
and it was Lieut. John Wood who took me to the battalion headquarters
located under some sand-bags in a German dug--out. All the way up to
Contalmaison and beyond there were the signs of recent bloodshed and
of present peril. Dead horses lay about, disemboweled by shell-fire.
Legs and arms protruded from shell-craters where bodies lay half
buried. Heavy crumps came howling through the sky and bursting with
enormous noise here, there, and everywhere over that vast, desolate
battlefield, with its clumps of ruin and rows of dead trees. It was
the devil's hunting-ground and I hated every yard of it. But John
Wood, who lived in it, was astoundingly cheerful, and a fine, sturdy,
gallant figure, in his kilted dress, as he climbed over sand-bags,
walked on the top of communication trenches (not bothering to take
cover) and skirting round hedges of barbed wire, apparently
unconscious of the "crumps" that were bursting around. I found
laughter and friendly greeting in a hole in the earth where the
battalion staff was crowded. The colonel was courteous, but busy. He
rather deprecated the notion that I should go up farther, to the
ultimate limit of our line. It was no use putting one's head into
trouble without reasonable purpose, and the German guns had been
blowing in sections of his new-made trenches. But John Wood was
insistent that I should meet "old Thom," afterward in command of the
battalion. He had just been buried and dug out again. He would like to
see me. So we left the cover of the dugout and took to the open again.
Long lines of Jocks were digging a support trench--digging with a kind
of rhythmic movement as they threw up the earth with their shovels.
Behind them was another line of Jocks, not working. They lay as though
asleep, out in the open. They were the dead of the last advance.
Captain Thom was leaning up against the wall of the front-line trench,
smoking a cigarette, with his steel hat on the back of his head--a
handsome, laughing figure. He did not look like a man who had just
been buried and dug out again.
"It was a narrow shave," he said. "A beastly shell covered me with a
ton of earth . . . Have a cigarette, won't you?"
We gossiped as though in St. James's Street. Other young Scottish
officers came up and shook hands, and said: "Jolly weather, isn't it?
What do you think of our little show?" Not one of them gave a glance
at the line of dead men over there, behind their parados. They told me
some of the funny things that had happened lately in the battalion,
some grim jokes by tough Jocks. They had a fine crowd of men. You
couldn't beat them. "Well, good morning! Must get on with the job."
There was no anguish there, no sense of despair, no sullen hatred of
this life, so near to death. They seemed to like it. . . They did not
really like it. They only made the best of it, without gloom. I saw
they did not like this job of battle, one evening in their mess behind
the line. The colonel who commanded them at the time, Celt of the
Celts, was in a queer mood. He was a queer man, aloof in his manner, a
little "fey." He was annoyed with three of his officers who had come
back late from three days' Paris leave. They were giants, but stood
like schoolboys before their master while he spoke ironical, bitter
words. Later in the evening he mentioned casually that they must
prepare to go into the line again under special orders. What about the
store of bombs, small-arms ammunition, machine-guns?
The officers were stricken into silence. They stared at one another as
though to say: "What does the old man mean? Is this true?" One of them
became rather pale, and there was a look of tragic resignation in his
eyes. Another said, "Hell!" in a whisper. The adjutant answered the
colonel's questions in a formal way, but thinking hard and studying
the colonel's face anxiously.
"Do you mean to say we are going into the line again, sir? At once?"
The colonel laughed.
"Don't look so scared, all of you! It's only a field-day for
The officers of the Gordons breathed more freely. Poof! They had been
fairly taken in by the "old man's" leg-pulling . . . No, it was clear
they did not find any real joy in the line. They would not choose a
front-line trench as the most desirable place of residence.
In queer psychology there was a strange mingling of the pitiful and
comic--among a division (the 35th) known as the Bantams. They were all
volunteers, having been rejected by the ordinary recruiting-officer on
account of their diminutive stature, which was on an average five feet
high, descending to four feet six. Most of them came from Lancashire,
Cheshire, Durham, and Glasgow, being the dwarfed children of
industrial England and its mid-Victorian cruelties. Others were from
London, banded together in a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. They
gave a shock to our French friends when they arrived as a division at
the port of Boulogne.
"Name of a dog!" said the quayside loungers. "England is truly in a
bad way. She is sending out her last reserves!"
"But they are the soldiers of Lilliput!" exclaimed others.
"It is terrible that they should send these little ones," said kind-
Under the training of General Pi, who commanded them, they became
smart and brisk in the ranks. They saluted like miniature Guardsmen,
marched with quick little steps like clockwork soldiers. It was
comical to see them strutting up and down as sentries outside
divisional headquarters, with their bayonets high above their wee
bodies. In trench warfare they did well--though the fire-step had to
be raised to let them see over the top--and in one raid captured a
German machine-gun which I saw in their hands, and hauled it back (a
heavier weight than ours) like ants struggling with a stick of straw.
In actual battle they were hardly strong enough and could not carry
all that burden of fighting-kit--steel helmet, rifle, hand-grenades,
shovels, empty sand-bags--with which other troops went into action. So
they were used as support troops mostly, behind the Black Watch and
other battalions near Bazentin and Longueval, and there these poor
little men dug and dug like beavers and crouched in the cover they
made under damnable fire, until many of them were blown to bits. There
was no "glory" in their job, only filth and blood, but they held the
ground and suffered it all, not gladly. They had a chance of taking
prisoners at Longueval, where they rummaged in German dugouts after
the line had been taken by the 15th Scottish Division and the 3d, and
they brought back a number of enormous Bavarians who were like the
Brobdingnagians to these little men of Lilliput and disgusted with
that humiliation. I met the whole crowd of them after that adventure,
as they sat, half naked, picking the lice out of their shirts, and the
conversation I had with them remains in my memory because of its
grotesque humor and tragic comicality. They were excited and
emotional, these stunted men. They cursed the war with the foulest
curses of Scottish and Northern dialects. There was one fellow--the
jester of them all--whose language would have made the poppies blush.
With ironical laughter, outrageous blasphemy, grotesque imagery, he
described the suffering of himself and his mates under barrage fire,
which smashed many of them into bleeding pulp. He had no use for this
war. He cursed the name of "glory." He advocated a trade--unionism
among soldiers to down tools whenever there was a threat of war. He
was a Bolshevist before Bolshevism. Yet he had no liking for Germans
and desired to cut them into small bits, to slit their throats, to
disembowel them. He looked homeward to a Yorkshire town and wondered
what his missus would say if she saw him scratching himself like an
ape, or lying with his head in the earth with shells bursting around
him, or prodding Germans with a bayonet. "Oh," said that five-foot
hero, "there will be a lot of murder after this bloody war. What's
human life? What's the value of one man's throat? We're trained up as
murderers--I don't dislike it, mind you--and after the war we sha'n't
get out of the habit of it. It'll come nat'ral like!"
He was talking for my benefit, egged on to further audacities by a
group of comrades who roared with laughter and said: "Go it, Bill!
That's the stuff!" Among these Lilliputians were fellows who sat aloof
and sullen, or spoke of their adventure with its recent horror in
their eyes. Some of them had big heads on small bodies, as though they
suffered from water on the brain . . . Many of them were sent home
afterward. General Haldane, as commander of the 6th Corps, paraded
them, and poked his stick at the more wizened ones, the obviously
unfit, the degenerates, and said at each prod, "You can go . . . You.
. .You. . . ." The Bantam Division ceased to exist.
They afforded many jokes to the army. One anecdote went the round. A
Bantam died--of disease ("and he would," said General Haldane)--and a
comrade came to see his corpse.
"Shut ze door ven you come out," said the old woman of his billet.
"Fermez la porte, mon vieux."
The living Bantam went to see the dead one, and came downstairs much
moved by grief.
"I've seed poor Bill," he said.
"As-tu ferme la porte?" said the old woman, anxiously.
The Bantam wondered at the anxious inquiry; asked the reason of it.
"C'est a cause du chat!" said the old woman. "Ze cat, Monsieur, 'e
'ave 'ad your friend in ze passage tree time already to-day. Trois
Poor little men born of diseased civilization! They were volunteers to
a man, and some of them with as much courage as soldiers twice their
They were the Bantams who told me of the Anglican padre at Longueval.
It was Father Hall of Mirfield, attached to the South African Brigade.
He came out to a dressing station established in the one bit of ruin
which could be used for shelter, and devoted himself to the wounded
with a spiritual fervor. They were suffering horribly from thirst,
which made their tongues swell and set their throats on fire.
"Water!" they cried. "Water! For Christ's sake, water!"
There was no water, except at a well in Longueval, under the fire of
German snipers, who picked off our men when they crawled down like
wild dogs with their tongues lolling out. There was one German officer
there in a shell-hole not far from the well, who sat with his revolver
handy, and he was a dead shot.
But he did not shoot the padre. Something in the face and figure of
that chaplain, his disregard of the bullets snapping about him, the
upright, fearless way in which he crossed that way of death, held back
the trigger-finger of the German officer and he let him pass. He
passed many times, untouched by bullets or machine-gun fire, and he
went into bad places, pits of horror, carrying hot tea, which he made
from the well water for men in agony.
During these battles I saw thousands of German prisoners, and studied
their types and physiognomy, and, by permission of Intelligence
officers, spoke with many of them in their barbed-wire cages or on the
field of battle when they came along under escort. Some of them looked
degraded, bestial men. One could imagine them guilty of the foulest
atrocities. But in the mass they seemed to me decent, simple men,
remarkably like our own lads from the Saxon counties of England,
though not quite so bright and brisk, as was only natural in their
position as prisoners, with all the misery of war in their souls.
Afterward they worked with patient industry in the prison-camps and
established their own discipline, and gave very little trouble if well
handled. In each crowd of them there were fellows who spoke perfect
English, having lived in England as waiters and hairdressers, or
clerks or mechanics. It was with them I spoke most because it was
easiest, but I know enough German to talk with the others, and I found
among them all the same loathing of war, the same bewilderment as to
its causes, the same sense of being driven by evil powers above them.
The officers were different. They lost a good deal of their arrogance,
but to the last had excuses ready for all that Germany had done, and
almost to the last professed to believe that Germany would win. Their
sense of caste was in their nature. They refused to travel in the same
carriages with their men, to stay even for an hour in the same
inclosures with them. They regarded them, for the most part, as
inferior beings. And there were castes even among the officers. I
remember that in the last phase, when we captured a number of cavalry
officers, these elegant sky-blue fellows held aloof from the infantry
officers and would not mix with them. One of them paced up and down
all night alone, and all next day, stiff in the corsets below that
sky-blue uniform, not speaking to a soul, though within a few yards of
him were many officers of infantry regiments.
Our men treated their prisoners, nearly always, after the blood of
battle was out of their eyes, with a good--natured kindness that
astonished the Germans themselves. I have seen them filling German
water-bottles at considerable trouble, and the escorts, two or three
to a big batch of men, were utterly trustful of them. "Here, hold my
rifle, Fritz," said one of our men, getting down from a truck-train to
greet a friend.
An officer standing by took notice of this.
"Take your rifle back at once! Is that the way to guard your
Our man was astonished.
"Lor' bless you, sir, they don't want no guarding. They're glad to be
took. They guard themselves."
"Your men are extraordinary," a German officer told me. "They asked me
whether I would care to go down at once or wait till the barrage had
He seemed amazed at that thoughtfulness for his comfort. It was in the
early days of the Somme fighting, and crowds of our men stood on the
banks above a sunken road, watching the prisoners coming down. This
officer who spoke to me had an Iron Cross, and the men wanted to see
it and handle it.
"Will they give it back again?" he asked, nervously, fumbling at the
"Certainly," I assured him.
He handed it to me, and I gave it to the men, who passed it from one
to the other and then back to the owner.
"Your men are extraordinary," he said. "They are wonderful."
One of the most interesting prisoners I met on the field of battle was
a tall, black-bearded man whom I saw walking away from La Boisselle
when that place was smoking with shell-bursts. An English soldier was
on each side of him, and each man carried a hand-bag, while this
black-bearded giant chatted with them.
It was a strange group, and I edged nearer to them and spoke to one of
"Who's this? Why do you carry his bags?"
"Oh, we're giving him special privileges," said the man. "He stayed
behind to look after our wounded. Said his job was to look after
wounded, whoever they were. So there he's been, in a dugout bandaging
our lads; and no joke, either. It's hell up there. We're glad to get
out of it."
I spoke to the German doctor and walked with him. He discussed the
philosophy of the war simply and with what seemed like sincerity.
"This war!" he said, with a sad, ironical laugh. "We go on killing one
another-to no purpose. Europe is being bled to death and will be
impoverished for long years. We Germans thought it was a war for
Kultur--our civilization. Now we know it is a war against Kultur,
against religion, against all civilization."
"How will it end?" I asked him.
"I see no end to it," he answered. "It is the suicide of nations.
Germany is strong, and England is strong, and France is strong. It is
impossible for one side to crush the other, so when is the end to
I met many other prisoners then and a year afterward who could see no
end of the massacre. They believed the war would go on until living
humanity on all sides revolted from the unceasing sacrifice. In the
autumn of 1918, when at last the end came in sight, by German defeat,
unexpected a few months before even by the greatest optimist in the
British armies, the German soldiers were glad. They did not care how
the war ended so long as it ended. Defeat? What did that matter? Was
it worse to be defeated than for the race to perish by bleeding to
The struggle for the Pozieres ridge and High Wood lasted from the
beginning of August until the middle of September--six weeks of
fighting as desperate as any in the history of the world until that
time. The Australians dealt with Pozieres itself, working round Moquet
Farm, where the Germans refused to be routed from their tunnels, and
up to the Windmill on the high ground of Pozieres, for which there was
unceasing slaughter on both sides because the Germans counter-attacked
again and again, and waves of men surged up and fell around that mound
of forsaken brick, which I saw as a reddish cone through flame and
Those Australians whom I had seen arrive in France had proved their
quality. They had come believing that nothing could be worse than
their ordeal in the Dardanelles. Now they knew that Pozieres was the
last word in frightfulness. The intensity of the shell-fire under
which they lay shook them, if it did not kill them. Many of their
wounded told me that it had broken their nerve. They would never fight
again without a sense of horror.
"Our men are more highly strung than the English," said one Australian
officer, and I was astonished to hear these words, because those
Australians seemed to me without nerves, and as tough as gristle in
They fought stubbornly, grimly, in ground so ravaged with fire that
the earth was finely powdered. They stormed the Pozieres ridge yard by
yard, and held its crest under sweeping barrages which tore up their
trenches as soon as they were dug and buried and mangled their living
flesh. In six weeks they suffered twenty thousand casualties, and
Pozieres now is an Australian graveyard, and the memorial that stands
there is to the ghosts of that splendid youth which fell in heaps
about that plateau and the slopes below. Many English boys of the
Sussex, West Kents, Surrey, and Warwick regiments, in the 18th
Division, died at their side, not less patient in sacrifice, not
liking it better. Many Scots of the 15th and 9th Divisions, many New-
Zealanders, many London men of the 47th and 56th Divisions, fell,
killed or wounded, to the right of them, on the way to Martinpuich,
and Eaucourt l'Abbaye and Flers, from High Wood and Longueval, and
Bazentin. The 3d Division of Yorkshires and Northumberland Fusiliers,
Royal Scots and Gordons, were earning that name of the Iron Division,
and not by any easy heroism. Every division in the British army took
its turn in the blood-bath of the Somme and was duly blooded, at a
cost of 25 per cent. and sometimes 50 per cent. of their fighting
strength. The Canadians took up the struggle at Courcelette and
captured it in a fierce and bloody battle. The Australians worked up
on the right of the Albert-Bapaume road to Thilloy and Ligny Thilloy.
On the far left the fortress of Thiepval had fallen at last after
repeated and frightful assaults, which I watched from ditches close
enough to see our infantry--Wiltshires and Worcesters of the 25th
Division--trudging through infernal fire. And then at last, after five
months of superhuman effort, enormous sacrifice, mass-heroism,
desperate will-power, and the tenacity of each individual human ant in
this wild ant-heap, the German lines were smashed, the Australians
surged into Bapaume, and the enemy, stricken by the prolonged fury of
our attack, fell back in a far and wide retreat across a country which
he laid waste, to the shelter of his Hindenburg line, from Bullecourt
The goal of our desire seemed attained when at last we reached Bapaume
after these terrific battles in which all our divisions, numbering
nearly a million men, took part, with not much difference in courage,
not much difference in average of loss. By the end of that year's
fighting our casualties had mounted up to the frightful total of four
hundred thousand men. Those fields were strewn with our dead. Our
graveyards were growing forests of little white crosses. The German
dead lay in heaps. There were twelve hundred corpses littered over the
earth below Loupart Wood, in one mass, and eight hundred of them were
German. I could not walk without treading on them there. When I fell
in the slime I clutched arms and legs. The stench of death was strong
But our men who had escaped death and shell-shock kept their sanity
through all this wilderness of slaughter, kept--oh, marvelous!--their
spirit of humor, their faith in some kind of victory. I was with the
Australians on that day when they swarmed into Bapaume, and they
brought out trophies like men at a country fair . . . I remember an
Australian colonel who came riding with a German beer-mug at his
saddle . . . Next day, though shells were still bursting in the ruins,
some Australian boys set up some painted scenery which they had found
among the rubbish, and chalked up the name of the "Coo-ee Theater."
The enemy was in retreat to his Hindenburg line, over a wide stretch
of country which he laid waste behind him, making a desert of French
villages and orchards and parks, so that even the fruit-trees were cut
down, and the churches blown up, and the graves ransacked for their
lead. It was the enemy's first retreat on the western front, and that
ferocious fighting of the British troops had smashed the strongest
defenses ever built in war, and our raw recruits had broken the most
famous regiments of the German army, so in spite of all tragedy and
all agony our men were not downcast, but followed up their enemy with
a sense of excitement because it seemed so much like victory and the
end of war.
When the Germans retreated from Gommecourt, where so many boys of the
56th (London) Division had fallen on the 1st of July, I went through
that evil place by way of Fonquevillers (which we called "Funky
Villas"), and, stumbling over the shell-craters and broken trenches
and dead bodies between the dead masts of slashed and branchless
trees, came into the open country to our outpost line. I met there a
friendly sergeant who surprised me by referring in a casual way to a
little old book of mine.
"This place," he said, glancing at me, "is a strange Street of
It reminded me of another reference to that tale of mine when I was
among a crowd of London lads who had just been engaged in a bloody
fight at a place called The Hairpin.
A young officer sent for me and I found him in the loft of a stinking
barn, sitting in a tub as naked as he was born.
"I just wanted to ask you," he said, "whether Katharine married
The sergeant at Gommecourt was anxious to show me his own Street of
"I belong to Toc-emmas," he said (meaning trench--mortars), "and my
officers would be very pleased if you would have a look at their
latest stunt. We've got a 9.2 mortar in Pigeon Wood, away beyond the
infantry. It's never been done before and we're going to blow old
Fritz out of Kite Copse."
I followed him into the blue, as it seemed to me, and we fell in with
a young officer also on his way to Pigeon Wood. He was in a merry
mood, in spite of harassing fire round about and the occasional howl
of a 5.9. He kept stopping to look at enormous holes in the ground and
laughing at something that seemed to tickle his sense of humor.
"See that?" he said. "That's old Charlie Lowndes's work."
At another pit in upheaved earth he said: "That's Charlie Lowndes
again . . . Old Charlie gave 'em hell. He's a topping chap. You must
meet him . . . My God! look at that!"
He roared with laughter again, on the edge of an unusually large
"Who is Charlie?" I asked. "Where can I find him?"
"Oh, we shall meet him in Pigeon Wood. He's as pleased as Punch at
having got beyond the infantry. First time it has ever been done. Took
a bit of doing, too, with the largest size of Toc-emma."
We entered Pigeon Wood after a long walk over wild chaos, and, guided
by the officer and sergeant, I dived down into a deep dugout just
captured from the Germans, who were two hundred yards away in Kite
"What cheer, Charlie!" shouted the young officer.
"Hullo, fellow-my-lad! . . . Come in. We're getting gloriously binged
on a rare find of German brandy."
"Topping and I've brought a visitor."
Capt. Charles Lowndes--"dear old Charlie"--received us most politely
in one of the best dugouts I ever saw, with smoothly paneled walls
fitted up with shelves, and good deal furniture made to match.
"This is a nice little home in hell," said Charles. "At any moment, of
course, we may be blown to bits, but meanwhile it is very comfy down
here, and what makes everything good is a bottle of rare old brandy
and an unlimited supply of German soda-water. Also to add to the
gaiety of indecent minds there is a complete outfit of ladies'
clothing in a neighboring dugout. Funny fellows those German officers.
Take a pew, won't you? and have a drink. Orderly!"
He shouted for his man and ordered a further supply of German soda-
We drank to the confusion of the enemy, in his own brandy and soda-
water, out of his own mugs, sitting on his own chairs at his own
table, and "dear old Charlie," who was a little etoile, as afterward I
became, with a sense of deep satisfaction (the noise of shells seemed
more remote), discoursed on war, which he hated, German psychology,
trench-mortar barrages (they had simply blown the Boche out of
Gommecourt), and his particular fancy stunt of stealing a march on the
infantry, who, said Captain Lowndes, are "laps behind." Other officers
crowded into the dugout. One of them said: "You must come round to
mine. It's a blasted palace," and I went round later and he told me on
the way that he had escaped so often from shell-bursts that he thought
the average of luck was up and he was bound to get "done in" before
Charlie Lowndes dispensed drinks with noble generosity. There was much
laughter among us, and afterward we went upstairs and to the edge of
the wood, to which a heavy, wet mist was clinging, and I saw the
trench-mortar section play the devil with Kite Copse, over the way.
Late in the afternoon I took my leave of a merry company in that far-
flung outpost of our line, and wished them luck. A few shells crashed
through the wood as I left, but I was disdainful of them after that
admirable brandy. It was a long walk back to "Funky Villas," not
without the interest of arithmetical calculations about the odds of
luck in harassing fire, but a thousand yards or so from Pigeon Wood I
looked back and saw that the enemy had begun to "take notice." Heavy
shells were smashing through the trees there ferociously. I hoped my
friends were safe in their dugouts again. . . .
And I thought of the laughter and gallant spirit of the young men,
after five months of the greatest battles in the history of the world.
It seemed to me wonderful.
I have described what happened on our side of the lines, our fearful
losses, the stream of wounded that came back day by day, the
"Butchers' Shops," the agony in men's souls, the shell-shock cases,
the welter and bewilderment of battle, the shelling of our own troops,
the lack of communication between fighting units and the command, the
filth and stench of the hideous shambles which were our battlefields.
But to complete the picture of that human conflict in the Somme I must
now tell what happened on the German side of the lines, as I was able
to piece the tale together from German prisoners with whom I talked,
German letters which I found in their abandoned dugouts, and documents
which fell into the hands of our staff--officers.
Our men were at least inspirited by the knowledge that they were
beating their enemy back, in spite of their own bloody losses. The
Germans had not even that source of comfort, for whatever it might be
worth under barrage fire. The mistakes of our generalship, the
inefficiency of our staff-work, were not greater than the blunderings
of the German High Command, and their problem was more difficult than
ours because of the weakness of their reserves, owing to enormous
preoccupation on the Russian front. The agony of their men was greater
To understand the German situation it must be remembered that from
January to May, 1916, the German command on the western front was
concentrating all its energy and available strength in man-power and
gun--power upon the attack of Verdun. The Crown Prince had staked his
reputation upon that adventure, which he believed would end in the
capture of the strongest French fortress and the destruction of the
French armies. He demanded men and more men, until every unit that
could be spared from other fronts of the line had been thrown into
that furnace. Divisions were called in from other theaters of war, and
increased the strength on the western front to a total of about one
hundred and thirty divisions.
But the months passed and Verdun still held out above piles of German
corpses on its slopes, and in June Germany looked east and saw a great
menace. The Russian offensive was becoming violent. German generals on
the Russian fronts sent desperate messages for help. "Send us more
men," they said, and from the western front four divisions containing
thirty-nine battalions were sent to them.
They must have been sent grudgingly, for now another menace threatened
the enemy, and it was ours. The British armies were getting ready to
strike. In spite of Verdun, France still had men enough---withdrawn
from that part of the line in which they had been relieved by the
British---to co-operate in a new attack.
It was our offensive that the German command feared most, for they had
no exact knowledge of our strength or of the quality of our new
troops. They knew that our army had grown prodigiously since the
assault on Loos, nearly a year before.
They had heard of the Canadian reinforcements, and the coming of the
Australians, and the steady increase of recruiting in England, and
month by month they had heard the louder roar of our guns along the
line, and had seen their destructive effect spreading and becoming
more terrible. They knew of the steady, quiet concentration of
batteries and divisions on the west and south of the Ancre.
The German command expected a heavy blow and, prepared for it, but as
yet had no knowledge of the driving force behind it. What confidence
they had of being able to resist the British attack was based upon the
wonderful strength of the lines which they had been digging and
fortifying since the autumn of the first year of war--"impregnable
positions," they had called them--the inexperience of our troops,
their own immense quantity of machine-guns, the courage and skill of
their gunners, and their profound belief in the superiority of German
In order to prevent espionage during the coming struggle, and to
conceal the movement of troops and guns, they ordered the civil
populations to be removed from villages close behind their positions,
drew cordons of military police across the country, picketed
crossroads, and established a network of counter espionage to prevent
any leakage of information.
To inspire the German troops with a spirit of martial fervor (not
easily aroused to fever pitch after the bloody losses before Verdun)
Orders of the Day were issued to the battalions counseling them to
hold fast against the hated English, who stood foremost in the way of
peace (that was the gist of a manifesto by Prince Rupprecht of
Bavaria, which I found in a dugout at Montauban), and promising them a
speedy ending to the war.
Great stores of material and munitions were concentrated at rail-heads
and dumps ready to be sent up to the firing-lines, and the perfection
of German organization may well have seemed flawless--before the
When they began they found that in "heavies" and in expenditure of
high explosives they were outclassed.
They were startled, too, by the skill and accuracy of the British
gunners, whom they had scorned as "amateurs," and by the daring of our
airmen, who flew over their lines with the utmost audacity, "spotting"
for the guns, and registering on batteries, communication trenches,
crossroads, rail-heads, and every vital point of organization in the
German war-machine working opposite the British lines north and south
of the Ancre.
Even before the British infantry had left their trenches at dawn on
July 1st, German officers behind the firing--lines saw with anxiety
that all the organization which had worked so smoothly in times of
ordinary trench--warfare was now working only in a hazardous way under
a deadly storm of shells.
Food and supplies of all kinds could not be sent up to front-line
trenches without many casualties, and sometimes could not be sent up
at all. Telephone wires were cut, and communications broken between
the front and headquarters staffs. Staff-officers sent up to report
were killed on the way to the lines. Troops moving forward from
reserve areas came under heavy fire and lost many men before arriving
in the support trenches.
Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, sitting aloof from all this in personal
safety, must have known before July 1st that his resources in men and
material would be strained to the uttermost by the British attack, but
he could take a broader view than men closer to the scene of battle,
and taking into account the courage of his troops (he had no need to
doubt that), the immense strength of their positions, dug and tunneled
beyond the power of high explosives, the number of his machine-guns,
the concentration of his artillery, and the rawness of the British
troops, he could count up the possible cost and believe that in spite
of a heavy price to pay there would be no break in his lines.
At 7.30 A.M. on July 1st the British infantry, as I have told, left
their trenches and attacked on the right angle down from Gommecourt,
Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, and La Boisselle, and eastward
from Fricourt, below Mametz and Montauban. For a week the German
troops--Bavarians and Prussians--had been crouching in their dugouts,
listening to the ceaseless crashing of the British "drum-fire." In
places like Beaumont Hamel, the men down in the deep tunnels--some of
them large enough to hold a battalion and a half--were safe as long as
they stayed there. But to get in or out was death. Trenches
disappeared into a sea of shell-craters, and the men holding them--for
some men had to stay on duty there--were blown to fragments.
Many of the shallower dugouts were smashed in by heavy shells, and
officers and men lay dead there as I saw them lying on the first days
of July, in Fricourt and Mametz and Montauban. The living men kept
their courage, but below ground, under that tumult of bursting shells,
and wrote pitiful letters to their people at home describing the
horror of those hours.
"We are quite shut off from the rest of the world," wrote one of them.
"Nothing comes to us. No letters. The English keep such a barrage on
our approaches it is terrible. To-morrow evening it will be seven days
since this bombardment began. We cannot hold out much longer.
Everything is shot to pieces."
Thirst was one of their tortures. In many of the tunneled shelters
there was food enough, but the water could not be sent up. The German
soldiers were maddened by thirst. When rain fell many of them crawled
out and drank filthy water mixed with yellow shell-sulphur, and then
were killed by high explosives. Other men crept out, careless of
death, but compelled to drink. They crouched over the bodies of the
men who lay above, or in, the shell-holes, and lapped up the puddles
and then crawled down again if they were not hit.
When our infantry attacked at Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel and
Thiepval they were received by waves of machine-gun bullets fired by
men who, in spite of the ordeal of our seven days' bombardment, came
out into the open now, at the moment of attack which they knew through
their periscopes was coming. They brought their guns above the shell-
craters of their destroyed trenches under our barrage and served them.
They ran forward even into No Man's Land, and planted their machine-
guns there, and swept down our men as they charged. Over their heads
the German gunners flung a frightful barrage, plowing gaps in the
ranks of our men.
On the left, by Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel, the British attack
failed, as I have told, but southward the "impregnable" lines were
smashed by a tide of British soldiers as sand castles are overwhelmed
by the waves. Our men swept up to Fricourt, struck straight up to
Montauban on the right, captured it, and flung a loop round Mametz
For the German generals, receiving their reports with great difficulty
because runners were killed and telephones broken, the question was:
"How will these British troops fight in the open after their first
assault? How will our men stand between the first line and the
As far as the German troops were concerned, there were no signs of
cowardice, or "low morale" as we called it more kindly, in those early
days of the struggle. They fought with a desperate courage, holding on
to positions in rearguard actions when our guns were slashing them and
when our men were getting near to them, making us pay a heavy price
for every little copse or gully or section of trench, and above all
serving their machine-guns at La Boisselle, Ovillers, above Fricourt,
round Contalmaison, and at all points of their gradual retreat, with a
wonderful obstinacy, until they were killed or captured. But fresh
waves of British soldiers followed those who were checked or broken.
After the first week of battle the German General Staff had learned
the truth about the qualities of those British "New Armies" which had
been mocked and caricatured in German comic papers. They learned that
these "amateur soldiers" had the qualities of the finest troops in the
world--not only extreme valor, but skill and cunning, not only a great
power of endurance under the heaviest fire, but a spirit of attack
which was terrible in its effect. They were fierce bayonet fighters.
Once having gained a bit of earth or a ruined village, nothing would
budge them unless they could be blasted out by gun-fire. General Sixt
von Arnim put down some candid notes in his report to Prince
"The English infantry shows great dash in attack, a factor to which
immense confidence in its overwhelming artillery greatly contributes .
. . It has shown great tenacity in defense. This was especially
noticeable in the case of small parties, which, when once established
with machine-guns in the corner of a wood or a group of houses, were
very difficult to drive out."
The German losses were piling up. The agony of the German troops under
our shell-fire was reaching unnatural limits of torture. The early
prisoners I saw--Prussians and Bavarians of the 14th Reserve Corps--
were nerve-broken, and told frightful stories of the way in which
their regiments had been cut to pieces. The German generals had to
fill up the gaps, to put new barriers of men against the waves of
British infantry. They flung new troops into the line, called up
hurriedly from reserve depots.
Now, for the first time, their staff-work showed signs of disorder and
demoralization. When the Prussian Guards Reserves were brought up from
Valenciennes to counter--attack at Contalmaison they were sent on to
the battlefield without maps or local guides, and walked straight into
our barrage. A whole battalion was cut to pieces and many others
suffered frightful things. Some of the prisoners told me that they had
lost three-quarters of their number in casualties, and our troops
advanced over heaps of killed and wounded.
The 122d Bavarian Regiment in Contalmaison was among those which
suffered horribly. Owing to our ceaseless gun-fire, they could get no
food-supplies and no water. The dugouts were crowded, so that they had
to take turns to get into these shelters, and outside our shells were
bursting over every yard of ground.
"Those who went outside," a prisoner told me, "were killed or wounded.
Some of them had their heads blown off, and some of them their arms.
But we went on taking turns in the hole, although those who went
outside knew that it was their turn to die, most likely. At last most
of those who came into the hole were wounded, some of them badly, so
that we lay in blood." That is one little picture in a great panorama
The German command was not thinking much about the human suffering of
its troops. It was thinking of the next defensive line upon which they
would have to fall back if the pressure of the British offensive could
be maintained--the Longueval-Bazentin-Pozires line. It was getting
nervous. Owing to the enormous efforts made in the Verdun offensive,
the supplies of ammunition were not adequate to the enormous demand.
The German gunners were trying to compete with the British in
continuity of bombardments and the shells were running short. Guns
were wearing out under this incessant strain, and it was difficult to
replace them. General von Gallwitz received reports of "an alarmingly
large number of bursts in the bore, particularly in field-guns."
General von Arnim complained that "reserve supplies of ammunition were
only available in very small quantities." The German telephone system
proved "totally inadequate in consequence of the development which the
fighting took." The German air service was surprisingly weak, and the
British airmen had established temporary mastery.
"The numerical superiority of the enemy's airmen," noted General von
Arnim, "and the fact that their machines were better made, became
disagreeably apparent to us, particularly in their direction of the
enemy's artillery fire and in bomb-dropping."
On July 15th the British troops broke the German second line at
Longueval and the Bazentins, and inflicted great losses upon the
enemy, who fought with their usual courage until the British bayonets
were among them.
A day or two later the fortress of Ovillers fell, and the remnants of
the garrison--one hundred and fifty strong--after a desperate and
gallant resistance in ditches and tunnels, where they had fought to
the last, surrendered with honor.
Then began the long battle of the woods--Devil's Wood, High Wood,
Trones Wood--continued through August with most fierce and bloody
fighting, which ended in our favor and forced the enemy back,
gradually but steadily, in spite of the terrific bombardments which
filled those woods with shell-fire and the constant counter-attacks
delivered by the Germans.
"Counter-attack!" came the order from the German staff, and battalions
of men marched out obediently to certain death, sometimes with
incredible folly on the part of their commanding officers, who ordered
these attacks to be made without the slightest chance of success.
I saw an example of that at close range during a battle at Falfemont
Farm, near Guillemont. Our men had advanced from Wedge Wood, and I
watched them from a trench just south of this, to which I had gone at
a great pace over shell-craters and broken wire, with a young
observing officer who had been detailed to report back to the guns.
(Old "Falstaff," whose songs and stories had filled the tent under the
Red Cross with laughter, toiled after us gallantly, but grunting and
sweating under the sun like his prototype, until we lost him in our
hurry.) Presently a body of Germans came out of a copse called Leuze
Wood, on rising ground, faced round among the thin, slashed trees of
Falfemont, and advanced toward our men, shoulder to shoulder, like a
solid bar. It was sheer suicide. I saw our men get their machineguns
into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and
then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line
followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward,
but it seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death.
They died. The simile is outworn, but it was exactly as though some
invisible scythe had mown them down.
In all the letters written during those weeks of fighting and captured
by us from dead or living men there was one cry of agony and horror.
"I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life," wrote one
of them. "They were those of the battle of the Somme. It began with a
night attack on August 13th and 14th. The attack lasted till the
evening of the 18th, when the English wrote on our bodies in letters
of blood, 'It is all over with you.' A handful of half-mad, wretched
creatures, worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of a
whole battalion. We were that handful."
The losses of many of the German battalions were staggering (yet not
greater than our own), and by the middle of August the morale of the
troops was severely shaken. The 117th Division by Pozires suffered
very heavily. The 11th Reserve and 157th Regiments each lost nearly
three-quarters of their effectives. The 9th Reserve Corps had also
lost heavily. The 9th Reserve Jager Battalion lost about three-
quarters, the 84th Reserve and 86th Reserve over half. On August 10th
the 16th Division had six battalions in reserve.
By August 19th, owing to the large number of casualties, the greater
part of those reserves had been absorbed into the front and support
trenches, leaving as available reserves two exhausted battalions.
The weakness of the division and the absolute necessity of reinforcing
it led to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment (2d Guards Division)
being brought up to strengthen the right flank in the Leipzig salient.
This regiment had suffered casualties to the extent of over 50 percent
west of Pozires during the middle of July, and showed no eagerness to
return to the fight. These are but a few examples of what was
happening along the whole of the German front on the Somme.
It became apparent by the end of August that the enemy was in trouble
to find fresh troops to relieve his exhausted divisions, and that the
wastage was faster than the arrival of new men. It was noticeable that
he left divisions in the line until incapable of further effort rather
than relieving them earlier so that after resting they might again be
brought on to the battlefield. The only conclusion to be drawn from
this was that the enemy had not sufficient formations available to
make the necessary reliefs.
In July three of these exhausted divisions were sent to the east,
their place being taken by two new divisions, and in August three more
exhausted divisions were sent to Russia, eight new divisions coming to
the Somme front. The British and French offensive was drawing in all
the German reserves and draining them of their life's blood.
"We entrained at Savigny," wrote a man of one of these regiments, "and
at once knew our destination. It was our old blood-bath--the Somme."
In many letters this phrase was used. The Somme was called the "Bath
of Blood" by the German troops who waded across its shell-craters and
in the ditches which were heaped with their dead. But what I have
described is only the beginning of the battle, and the bath was to be
filled deeper in the months that followed.
The name (that "blood-bath") and the news of battle could not be
hidden from the people of Germany, who had already been chilled with
horror by the losses at Verdun, nor from the soldiers of reserve
regiments quartered in French and Belgian towns like Valenciennes, St.
Quentin, Cambrai, Lille, Bruges, and as far back as Brussels, waiting
to go to the front, nor from the civil population of those towns, held
for two years by their enemy--these blond young men who lived in their
houses, marched down their streets, and made love to their women.
The news was brought down from the Somme front by Red Cross trains,
arriving in endless succession, and packed with maimed and mangled
men. German military policemen formed cordons round the railway
stations, pushed back civilians who came to stare with somber eyes at
these blanketed bundles of living flesh, but when the ambulances
rumbled through the streets toward the hospitals--long processions of
them, with the soles of men's boots turned up over the stretchers on
which they lay quiet and stiff--the tale was told, though no word was
The tale of defeat, of great losses, of grave and increasing anxiety,
was told clearly enough--as I read in captured letters--by the faces
of German officers who went about in these towns behind the lines with
gloomy looks, and whose tempers, never of the sweetest, became
irritable and unbearable, so that the soldiers hated them for all this
cursing and bullying. A certain battalion commander had a nervous
breakdown because he had to meet his colonel in the morning.
"He is dying with fear and anxiety," wrote one of his comrades.
Other men, not battalion commanders, were even more afraid of their
superior officers, upon whom this bad news from the Somme had an evil
The bad news was spread by divisions taken out of the line and sent
back to rest. The men reported that their battalions had been cut to
pieces. Some of their regiments had lost three-quarters of their
strength. They described the frightful effect of the British
artillery--the smashed trenches, the shell-crater, the horror.
It was not good for the morale of men who were just going up there to
take their turn.
The man who was afraid of his colonel "sits all day long writing home,
with the picture of his wife and children before his eyes." He was
afraid of other things.
Bavarian soldiers quarreled with Prussians, accused them (unjustly) of
shirking the Somme battlefields and leaving the Bavarians to go to the
"All the Bavarian troops are being sent to the Somme (this much is
certain, you can see no Prussians there), and this in spite of the
losses the 1st Bavarian Corps suffered recently at Verdun! And how we
did suffer! . . . It appears that we are in for another turn--at least
the 5th Bavarian Division. Everybody has been talking about it for a
long time. To the devil with it! Every Bavarian regiment is being sent
into it, and it's a swindle."
It was in no cheerful mood that men went away to the Somme
battlefields. Those battalions of gray-clad men entrained without any
of the old enthusiasm with which they had gone to earlier battles.
Their gloom was noticed by the officers.
"Sing, you sheeps' heads, sing!" they shouted.
They were compelled to sing, by order.
"In the afternoon," wrote a man of the 18th Reserve Division, "we had
to go out again; we were to learn to sing. The greater part did not
join in, and the song went feebly. Then we had to march round in a
circle and sing, and that went no better. After that we had an hour
off, and on the way back to billets we were to sing 'Deutschland uber
Alles,' but this broke down completely. One never hears songs of the
Fatherland any more."
They were silent, grave-eyed men who marched through the streets of
French and Belgian towns to be entrained for the Somme front, for they
had forebodings of the fate before them. Yet none of their forebodings
were equal in intensity of fear to the frightful reality into which
they were flung.
The journey to the Somme front, on the German side, was a way of
terror, ugliness, and death. Not all the imagination of morbid minds
searching obscenely for foulness and blood in the great, deep pits of
human agony could surpass these scenes along the way to the German
lines round Courcelette and Flers, Gueudecourt, Morval, and Lesboeufs.
Many times, long before a German battalion had arrived near the
trenches, it was but a collection of nerve--broken men bemoaning
losses already suffered far behind the lines and filled with hideous
apprehension. For British long-range guns were hurling high explosives
into distant villages, barraging crossroads, reaching out to rail-
heads and ammunition-dumps, while British airmen were on bombing
flights over railway stations and rest-billets and highroads down
which the German troops came marching at Cambrai, Bapaume, in the
valley between Irles and Warlencourt, at Ligny-Thilloy, Busigny, and
many other places on the lines of route.
German soldiers arriving one morning at Cambrai by train found
themselves under the fire of a single airplane which flew very low and
dropped bombs. They exploded with heavy crashes, and one bomb hit the
first carriage behind the engine, killing and wounding several men. A
second bomb hit the station buildings, and there was a clatter of
broken glass, the rending of wood, and the fall of bricks. All lights
went out, and the German soldiers groped about in the darkness amid
the splinters of glass and the fallen bricks, searching for the
wounded by the sound of their groans. It was but one scene along the
way to that blood-bath through which they had to wade to the trenches
of the Somme.
Flights of British airplanes circled over the villages on the way. At
Grevilliers, in August, eleven 112-16 bombs fell in the market square,
so that the center of the village collapsed in a state of ruin,
burying soldiers billeted there. Every day the British airmen paid
these visits, meeting the Germans far up the roads on their way to the
Somme, and swooping over them like a flying death. Even on the march
in open country the German soldiers tramping silently along--not
singing in spite of orders--were bombed and shot at by these British
aviators, who flew down very low, pouring out streams of machine-gun
bullets. The Germans lost their nerve at such times, and scattered
into the ditches, falling over one another, struck and cursed by their
Unteroffizieren, and leaving their dead and wounded in the roadway.
As the roads went nearer to the battlefields they were choked with the
traffic of war, with artillery and transport wagons and horse
ambulances, and always thousands of gray men marching up to the lines,
or back from them, exhausted and broken after many days in the fires
of hell up there. Officers sat on their horses by the roadside,
directing all the traffic with the usual swearing and cursing, and
rode alongside the transport wagons and the troops, urging them
forward at a quicker pace because of stern orders received from
headquarters demanding quicker movement. The reserves, it seemed, were
desperately wanted up in the lines. The English were attacking again .
. . God alone knew what was happening. Regiments had lost their way.
Wounded were pouring back. Officers had gone mad. Into the midst of
all this turmoil shells fell--shells from long-range guns. Transport
wagons were blown to bits. The bodies and fragments of artillery
horses lay all over the roads. Men lay dead or bleeding under the
debris of gun-wheels and broken bricks. Above all the noise of this
confusion and death in the night the hard, stern voices of German
officers rang out, and German discipline prevailed, and men marched on
to greater perils.
They were in the shell-zone now, and sometimes a regiment on the march
was tracked all along the way by British gun-fire directed from
airplanes and captive balloons. It was the fate of a captured officer
I met who had detrained at Bapaume for the trenches at Contalmaison.
At Bapaume his battalion was hit by fragments of twelve-inch shells.
Nearer to the line they came under the fire of eight-inch and six-inch
shells. Four-point-sevens (4.7's) found them somewhere by Bazentin. At
Contalmaison they marched into a barrage, and here the officer was
taken prisoner. Of his battalion there were few men left.
It was so with the 3d Jager Battalion, ordered up hurriedly to make a
counter-attack near Flers. They suffered so heavily on the way to the
trenches that no attack could be made. The stretcher-bearers had all
the work to do.
The way up to the trenches became more tragic as every kilometer was
passed, until the stench of corruption was wafted on the wind, so that
men were sickened, and tried not to breathe, and marched hurriedly to
get on the lee side of its foulness. They walked now through places
which had once been villages, but were sinister ruins where death lay
in wait for German soldiers.
"It seems queer to me," wrote one of them, "that whole villages close
to the front look as flattened as a child's toy run over by a steam-
roller. Not one stone remains on another. The streets are one line of
shell--holes. Add to that the thunder of the guns, and you will see
with what feelings we come into the line--into trenches where for
months shells of all caliber have rained. . . Flers is a scrap heap."
Again and again men lost their way up to the lines. The reliefs could
only be made at night lest they should be discovered by British airmen
and British gunners, and even if these German soldiers had trench maps
the guidance was but little good when many trenches had been smashed
in and only shell-craters could be found.
"In the front line of Flers," wrote one of these Germans, "the men
were only occupying shell-holes. Behind there was the intense smell of
putrefaction which filled the trench--almost unbearably. The corpses
lie either quite insufficiently covered with earth on the edge of the
trench or quite close under the bottom of the trench, so that the
earth lets the stench through. In some places bodies lie quite
uncovered in a trench recess, and no one seems to trouble about them.
One sees horrible pictures--here an arm, here a foot, here a head,
sticking out of the earth. And these are all German soldiers-heroes!
"Not far from us, at the entrance to a dugout, nine men were buried,
of whom three were dead. All along the trench men kept on getting
buried. What had been a perfect trench a few hours before was in parts
completely blown in . . . The men are getting weaker. It is impossible
to hold out any longer. Losses can no longer be reckoned accurately.
Without a doubt many of our people are killed."
That is only one out of thousands of such gruesome pictures, true as
the death they described, true to the pictures on our side of the line
as on their side, which went back to German homes during the battles
of the Somme. Those German soldiers were great letter-writers, and men
sitting in wet ditches, in "fox-holes," as they called their dugouts,
"up to my waist in mud," as one of them described, scribbled pitiful
things which they hoped might reach their people at home, as a voice
from the dead. For they had had little hope of escape from the blood--
bath. "When you get this I shall be a corpse," wrote one of them, and
one finds the same foreboding in many of these documents.
Even the lucky ones who could get some cover from the incessant
bombardment by English guns began to lose their nerves after a day or
two. They were always in fear of British infantry sweeping upon them
suddenly behind the Trommelfeuer, rushing their dugouts with bombs and
bayonets. Sentries became "jumpy," and signaled attacks when there
were no attacks. The gas--alarm was sounded constantly by the clang of
a bell in the trench, and men put on their heavy gas-masks and sat in
them until they were nearly stifled.
Here is a little picture of life in a German dugout near the British
lines, written by a man now dead:
"The telephone bell rings. 'Are you there? Yes, here's Nau's
battalion.' 'Good. That is all.' Then that ceases, and now the wire is
in again perhaps for the twenty-fifth or thirtieth time. Thus the
night is interrupted, and now they come, alarm messages, one after the
other, each more terrifying than the other, of enormous losses through
the bombs and shells of the enemy, of huge masses of troops advancing
upon us, of all possible possibilities, such as a train broken down,
and we are tortured by all the terrors that the mind can invent. Our
nerves quiver. We clench our teeth. None of us can forget the horrors
of the night."
Heavy rain fell and the dugouts became wet and filthy.
"Our sleeping-places were full of water. We had to try and bail out
the trenches with cooking-dishes. I lay down in the water with G-. We
were to have worked on dugouts, but not a soul could do any more. Only
a few sections got coffee. Mine got nothing at all. I was frozen in
every limb, poured the water out of my boots, and lay down again."
Our men suffered exactly the same things, but did not write about
The German generals and their staffs could not be quite indifferent to
all this welter of human suffering among their troops, in spite of the
cold, scientific spirit with which they regarded the problem of war.
The agony of the individual soldier would not trouble them. There is
no war without agony. But the psychology of masses of men had to be
considered, because it affects the efficiency of the machine.
The German General Staff on the western front was becoming seriously
alarmed by the declining morale of its infantry under the increasing
strain of the British attacks, and adopted stern measures to cure it.
But it could not hope to cure the heaps of German dead who were lying
on the battlefields, nor the maimed men who were being carried back to
the dressing stations, nor to bring back the prisoners taken in droves
by the French and British troops.
Before the attack on the Flers line, the capture of Thiepval, and the
German debacle at Beaumont Hamel, in November, the enemy's command was
already filled with a grave anxiety at the enormous losses of its
fighting strength; was compelled to adopt new expedients for
increasing the number of its divisions. It was forced to withdraw
troops badly needed on other fronts, and the successive shocks of the
British offensive reached as far as Germany itself, so that the whole
of its recruiting system had to be revised to fill up the gaps torn
out of the German ranks.
All through July and August the enemy's troops fought with wonderful
and stubborn courage, defending every bit of broken woodland, every
heap of bricks that was once a village, every line of trenches smashed
by heavy shell-fire, with obstinacy.
It is indeed fair and just to say that throughout those battles of the
Somme our men fought against an enemy hard to beat, grim and resolute,
and inspired sometimes with the courage of despair, which was hardly
less dangerous than the courage of hope.
The Australians who struggled to get the high ground at Pozieres did
not have an easy task. The enemy made many counter-attacks against
them. All the ground thereabouts was, as I have said, so smashed that
the earth became finely powdered, and it was the arena of bloody
fighting at close quarters which did not last a day or two, but many
weeks. Mouquet Farm was like the phoenix which rose again out of its
ashes. In its tunneled ways German soldiers hid and came out to fight
our men in the rear long after the site of the farm was in our hands.
But the German troops were fighting what they knew to be a losing
battle. They were fighting rear-guard actions, trying to gain time for
the hasty digging of ditches behind them, trying to sell their lives
at the highest price.
They lived not only under incessant gun-fire, gradually weakening
their nerve-power, working a physical as well as a moral change in
them, but in constant terror of British attacks.
They could never be sure of safety at any hour of the day or night,
even in their deepest dugouts. The British varied their times of
attack. At dawn, at noon, when the sun was reddening in the west, just
before the dusk, in pitch darkness, even, the steady, regular
bombardment that had never ceased all through the days and nights
would concentrate into the great tumult of sudden drum-fire, and
presently waves of men--English or Scottish or Irish, Australians or
Canadians--would be sweeping on to them and over them, rummaging down
into the dugouts with bombs and bayonets, gathering up prisoners,
quick to kill if men were not quick to surrender.
In this way Thiepval was encircled so that the garrison there--the
180th Regiment, who had held it for two years--knew that they were
doomed. In this way Guillemont and Ginchy fell, so that in the first
place hardly a man out of two thousand men escaped to tell the tale of
horror in German lines, and in the second place there was no long
fight against the Irish, who stormed it in a wild, fierce rush which
even machine-guns could not check. The German General Staff was
getting flurried, grabbing at battalions from other parts of the line,
disorganizing its divisions under the urgent need of flinging in men
to stop this rot in the lines, ordering counter-attacks which were
without any chance of success, so that thin waves of men came out into
the open, as I saw them several times, to be swept down by scythes of
bullets which cut them clean to the earth. Before September 15th they
hoped that the British offensive was wearing itself out. It seemed to
them at least doubtful that after the struggle of two and a half
months the British troops could still have spirit and strength enough
to fling themselves against new lines.
But the machinery of their defense was crumbling. Many of their guns
had worn out, and could not be replaced quickly enough. Many batteries
had been knocked out in their emplacements along the line of Bazentin
and Longueval before the artillery was drawn back to Grand-court and a
new line of safety. Battalion commanders clamored for greater supplies
of hand-grenades, intrenching-tools, trench-mortars, signal rockets,
and all kinds of fighting material enormously in excess of all
The difficulties of dealing with the wounded, who littered the
battlefields and choked the roads with the traffic of ambulances,
became increasingly severe, owing to the dearth of horses for
transport and the longer range of British guns which had been brought
The German General Staff studied its next lines of defense away
through Courcelette, Martinpuich, Lesboeufs, Morval, and Combles, and
they did not look too good, but with luck and the courage of German
soldiers, and the exhaustion--surely those fellows were exhausted!--of
British troops--good enough.
On September 15th the German command had another shock when the whole
line of the British troops on the Somme front south of the Ancre rose
out of their trenches and swept over the German defenses in a tide.
Those defenses broke hopelessly, and the waves dashed through. Here
and there, as on the German left at Morval and Lesboeufs, the bulwarks
stood for a time, but the British pressed against them and round them.
On the German right, below the little river of the Ancre, Courcelette
fell, and Martinpuich, and at last, as I have written, High Wood,
which the Germans desired to hold at all costs, and had held against
incessant attacks by great concentration of artillery, was captured
and left behind by the London men. A new engine of war had come as a
demoralizing influence among German troops, spreading terror among
them on the first day out of the tanks. For the first time the Germans
were outwitted in inventions of destruction; they who had been
foremost in all engines of death. It was the moment of real panic in
the German lines--a panic reaching back from the troops to the High
Ten days later, on September 25th, when the British made a new
advance--all this time the French were pressing forward, too, on our
right by Roye--Combles was evacuated without a fight and with a litter
of dead in its streets; Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs, and Morval were lost
by the Germans; and a day later Thiepval, the greatest fortress
position next to Beaumont Hamel, fell, with all its garrison taken
They were black days in the German headquarters, where staff-officers
heard the news over their telephones and sent stern orders to
artillery commanders and divisional generals, and after dictating new
instructions that certain trench systems must be held at whatever
price, heard that already they were lost.
It was at this time that the morale of the German troops on the Somme
front showed most signs of breaking. In spite of all their courage,
the ordeal had been too hideous for them, and in spite of all their
discipline, the iron discipline of the German soldier, they were on
the edge of revolt. The intimate and undoubted facts of this break in
the morale of the enemy's troops during this period reveal a pitiful
picture of human agony.
"We are now fighting on the Somme with the English," wrote a man of
the 17th Bavarian Regiment. "You can no longer call it war. It is mere
murder. We are at the focal-point of the present battle in Foureaux
Wood (near Guillemont). All my previous experiences in this war--the
slaughter at Ypres and the battle in the gravel-pit at Hulluch--are
the purest child's play compared with this massacre, and that is much
too mild a description. I hardly think they will bring us into the
fight again, for we are in a very bad way."
"From September 12th to 27th we were on the Somme," wrote a man of the
l0th Bavarians, "and my regiment had fifteen hundred casualties."
A detailed picture of the German losses under our bombardment was
given in the diary of an officer captured in a trench near Flers, and
dated September 22d.
"The four days ending September 4th, spent in the trenches, were
characterized by a continual enemy bombardment that did not abate for
a single instant. The enemy had registered on our trenches with light,
as well as medium and heavy, batteries, notwithstanding that he had no
direct observation from his trenches, which lie on the other side of
the summit. His registering was done by his excellent air service,
which renders perfect reports of everything observed.
"During the first day, for instance, whenever the slightest movement
was visible in our trenches during the presence, as is usually the
case, of enemy aircraft flying as low as three and four hundred yards,
a heavy bombardment of the particular section took place. The very
heavy losses during the first day brought about the resolution to
evacuate the trenches during the daytime. Only a small garrison was
left, the remainder withdrawing to a part of the line on the left of
the Martinpuich-Pozieres road.
"The signal for a bombardment by 'heavies' was given by the English
airplanes. On the first day we tried to fire by platoons on the
airplanes, but a second airplane retaliated by dropping bombs and
firing his machine-gun at our troops. Our own airmen appeared only
once for a short time behind our lines.
"While many airplanes are observing from early morning till late at
night, our own hardly ever venture near. The opinion is that our
trenches cannot protect troops during a barrage of the shortest
duration, owing to lack of dugouts.
"The enemy understands how to prevent, with his terrible barrage, the
bringing up of building material, and even how to hinder the work
itself. The consequence is that our trenches are always ready for an
assault on his part. Our artillery, which does occasionally put a
heavy barrage on the enemy trenches at a great expense of ammunition,
cannot cause similar destruction to him. He can bring his building
material up, can repair his trenches as well as build new ones, can
bring up rations and ammunition, and remove the wounded.
"The continual barrage on our lines of communication makes it very
difficult for us to ration and relieve our troops, to supply water,
ammunition, and building material, to evacuate wounded, and causes
heavy losses. This and the lack of protection from artillery fire and
the weather, the lack of hot meals, the continual necessity of lying
still in the same place, the danger of being buried, the long time the
wounded have to remain in the trenches, and chiefly the terrible
effect of the machine--and heavy-artillery fire, controlled by an
excellent air service, has a most demoralizing effect on the troops.
"Only with the greatest difficulty could the men be persuaded to stay
in the trenches under those conditions."
There were some who could not be persuaded to stay if they could see
any chance of deserting or malingering. For the first time on our
front the German officers could not trust the courage of their men,
nor their loyalty, nor their sense of discipline. All this horror of
men blown to bits over living men, of trenches heaped with dead and
dying, was stronger than courage, stronger than loyalty, stronger than
discipline. A moral rot was threatening to bring the German troops on
the Somme front to disaster.
Large numbers of men reported sick and tried by every kind of trick to
be sent back to base hospitals.
In the 4th Bavarian Division desertions were frequent, and several
times whole bodies of men refused to go forward into the front line.
The morale of men in the 393d Regiment, taken at Courcelette, seemed
to be very weak. One of the prisoners declared that they gave
themselves up without firing a shot, because they could trust the
English not to kill them.
The platoon commander had gone away, and the prisoner was ordered to
alarm the platoon in case of attack, but did not do so on purpose.
They did not shoot with rifles or machine-guns and did not throw
Many of the German officers were as demoralized as the men, shirking
their posts in the trenches, shamming sickness, and even leading the
way to surrender. Prisoners of the 351st Regiment, which lost thirteen
hundred men in fifteen days, told of officers who had refused to take
their men up to the front-line, and of whole companies who had
declined to move when ordered to do so. An officer of the 74th
Landwehr Regiment is said by prisoners to have told his men during our
preliminary bombardment to surrender as soon as we attacked.
A German regimental order says: "I must state with the greatest regret
that the regiment, during this change of position, had to take notice
of the sad fact that men of four of the companies, inspired by
shameful cowardice, left their companies on their own initiative and
did not move into line."
Another order contains the same fact, and a warning of what punishment
may be meted out:
"Proofs are multiplying of men leaving the position without permission
and hiding at the rear. It is our duty . . . each at his post--to deal
with this fact with energy and success."
Many Bavarians complained that their officers did not accompany them
into the trenches, but went down to the hospitals with imaginary
diseases. In any case there was a great deal of real sickness, mental
and physical. The ranks were depleted by men suffering from fever,
pleurisy, jaundice, and stomach complaints of all kinds, twisted up
with rheumatism after lying in waterlogged holes, lamed for life by
bad cases of trench-foot, and nerve-broken so that they could do
nothing but weep.
The nervous cases were the worst and in greatest number. Many men went
raving mad. The shell-shock victims clawed at their mouths
unceasingly, or lay motionless like corpses with staring eyes, or
trembled in every limb, moaning miserably and afflicted with a great
To the Germans (barely less to British troops) the Somme battlefields
were not only shambles, but a territory which the devil claimed as his
own for the torture of men's brains and souls before they died in the
furnace fires. A spirit of revolt against all this crept into the
minds of men who retained their sanity--a revolt against the people
who had ordained this vast outrage against God and humanity.
Into German letters there crept bitter, burning words against "the
millionaires--who grow rich out of the war," against the high people
who live in comfort behind the lines. Letters from home inflamed these
It was not good reading for men under shell-fire.
"It seems that you soldiers fight so that official stay-at-homes can
treat us as female criminals. Tell me, dear husband, are you a
criminal when you fight in the trenches, or why do people treat women
and children here as such? . . .
"For the poor here it is terrible, and yet the rich, the gilded ones,
the bloated aristocrats, gobble up everything in front of our very
eyes . . . All soldiers--friend and foe--ought to throw down their
weapons and go on strike, so that this war which enslaves the people
more than ever may cease.
Thousands of letters, all in this strain, were reaching the German
soldiers on the Somme, and they did not strengthen the morale of men
already victims of terror and despair.
Behind the lines deserters were shot in batches. To those in front
came Orders of the Day warning them, exhorting them, commanding them
to hold fast.
"To the hesitating and faint-hearted in the regiment," says one of
these Orders, "I would say the following:
"What the Englishman can do the German can do also. Or if, on the
other hand, the Englishman really is a better and superior being, he
would be quite justified in his aim as regards this war, viz., the
extermination of the German. There is a further point to be noted:
this is the first time we have been in the line on the Somme, and what
is more, we are there at a time when things are more calm. The English
regiments opposing us have been in the firing-line for the second, and
in some cases even the third, time. Heads up and play the man!"
It was easy to write such documents. It was more difficult to bring up
reserves of men and ammunition. The German command was harder pressed
by the end of September.
From July 1st to September 8th, according to trustworthy information,
fifty-three German divisions in all were engaged against the Allies on
the Somme battlefront. Out of these fourteen were still in the line on
Twenty-eight had been withdrawn, broken and exhausted, to quieter
areas. Eleven more had been withdrawn to rest-billets. Under the
Allies' artillery fire and infantry attacks the average life of a
German division as a unit fit for service on the Somme was nineteen
days. More than two new German divisions had to be brought into the
front-line every week since the end of June, to replace those smashed
in the process of resisting the Allied attack. In November it was
reckoned by competent observers in the field that well over one
hundred and twenty German divisions had been passed through the ordeal
of the Somme, this number including those which have appeared there
more than once.
By September 25th, when the British troops made another attack, the
morale of the German troops was reaching its lowest ebb. Except on
their right, at Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt, they were far beyond the
great system of protective dugouts which had given them a sense of
safety before July 1st. Their second and third lines of defense had
been carried, and they were existing in shell-craters and trenches
hastily scraped up under ceaseless artillery fire.
The horrors of the battlefield were piled up to heights of agony and
terror. Living men dwelt among the unburied dead, made their way to
the front-lines over heaps of corpses, breathed in the smell of human
corruption and had always in their ears the cries of the wounded they
could not rescue. They wrote these things in tragic letters--thousands
of them--which never reached their homes in Germany, but lay in their
"The number of dead lying about is awful. One stumbles over them."
"The stench of the dead lying round us is unbearable."
"We are no longer men here. We are worse than beasts."
"It is hell let loose." . . . "It is horrible." . . . "We've lived
"If the dear ones at home could see all this perhaps there would be a
change. But they are never told."
"The ceaseless roar of the guns is driving us mad."
Poor, pitiful letters, out of their cries of agony one gets to the
real truth of war-the "glory" and the "splendor" of it preached by the
German philosophers and British Jingoes, who upheld it as the great
strengthening tonic for their race, and as the noblest experience of
men. Every line these German soldiers wrote might have been written by
one of ours; from both sides of the shifting lines there was the same
death and the same hell.
Behind the lines the German General Staff, counting up the losses of
battalions and divisions who staggered out weakly, performed juggling
tricks with what reserves it could lay its hands on, and flung up
stray units to relieve the poor wretches in the trenches. Many of
those reliefs lost their way in going up, and came up late, already
shattered by the shell-fire through which they passed.
"Our position," wrote a German infantry officer, "was, of course,
quite different from what we had been told. Our company alone relieved
a whole battalion. We had been told we were to relieve a company of
fifty men weakened by casualties.
"The men we relieved had no idea where the enemy was, how far off he
was, or whether any of our own troops were in front of us. We got no
idea of our support position until six o'clock this evening. The
English are four hundred yards away, by the windmill over the hill."
One German soldier wrote that the British "seem to relieve their
infantry very quickly, while the German commands work on the principle
of relieving only in the direst need, and leaving the divisions in as
long as possible."
Another wrote that:
"The leadership of the divisions really fell through. For the most
part we did not get orders, and the regiment had to manage as best it
could. If orders arrived they generally came too late or were dealt
out 'from the green table' without knowledge of the conditions in
front, so that to carry them out was impossible."
All this was a sign of demoralization, not only among the troops who
were doing the fighting and the suffering, but among the organizing
generals behind, who were directing the operations. The continual
hammer-strokes of the British and French armies on the Somme
battlefields strained the German war-machine on the western front
almost to breaking-point.
It seemed as though a real debacle might happen, and that they would
be forced to effect a general retreat--a withdrawal more or less at
ease or a retirement under pressure from the enemy . . . .
But they had luck--astonishing luck. At the very time when the morale
of the German soldiers was lowest and when the strain on the High
Command was greatest the weather turned in their favor and gave them
just the breathing-space they desperately needed. Rain fell heavily in
the middle of October, autumn mists prevented airplane activity and
artillery-work, and the ground became a quagmire, so that the British
troops found it difficult to get up their supplies for a new advance.
The Germans were able in this respite to bring up new divisions, fresh
and strong enough to make heavy counter--attacks in the Stuff and
Schwaben and Regina trenches, and to hold the lines more securely for
a time, while great digging was done farther back at Bapaume and the
next line of defense. Successive weeks of bad weather and our own
tragic losses checked the impetus of the British and French driving
power, and the Germans were able to reorganize and reform.
As I have said, the shock of our offensive reached as far as Germany,
and caused a complete reorganization in the system of obtaining
reserves of man-power. The process of "combing out," as we call it,
was pursued with astounding ruthlessness, and German mothers, already
stricken with the loss of their elder sons, raised cries of despair
when the youngest born were also seized--boys of eighteen belonging to
the 1918 class.
The whole of the 1917 class had joined the depots in March and May of
this year, receiving a three months' training before being transferred
to the field-recruit depots in June and July. About the middle of July
the first large drafts joined their units and made their appearance at
the front, and soon after the beginning of our offensive at least half
this class was in the front-line regiments. The massacre of the boys
Then older men, men beyond middle age, who correspond to the French
Territorial class, exempted from fighting service and kept on lines of
communication, were also called to the front, and whole garrisons of
these gray heads were removed from German towns to fill up the ranks.
"The view is held here," wrote a German soldier of the Somme, "that
the Higher Command intends gradually to have more and more Landsturm
battalions (men of the oldest reserves) trained in trench warfare for
a few weeks, as we have been, according to the quality of the men, and
thus to secure by degrees a body of troops on which it can count in an
In the month of November the German High Command believed that the
British attacks were definitely at an end, "having broken down," as
they claimed, "in mud and blood," but another shock came to them when
once more British troops--the 51st Highland Division and the 63d Naval
Division--left their trenches, in fog and snow, and captured the
strongest fortress position on the enemy's front, at Beaumont Hamel,
bringing back over six thousand prisoners. It was after that they
began their retreat.
These studies of mine, of what happened on both sides of the shifting
lines in the Somme, must be as horrible to read as they were to write.
But they are less than the actual truth, for no pen will ever in one
book, or in hundreds, give the full record of the individual agony,
the broken heart-springs, the soul-shock as well as the shell-shock,
of that frightful struggle in which, on one side and the other, two
million men were engulfed. Modern civilization was wrecked on those
fire-blasted fields, though they led to what we called "Victory." More
died there than the flower of our youth and German manhood. The Old
Order of the world died there, because many men who came alive out of
that conflict were changed, and vowed not to tolerate a system of
thought which had led up to such a monstrous massacre of human beings
who prayed to the same God, loved the same joys of life, and had no
hatred of one another except as it had been lighted and inflamed by
their governors, their philosophers, and their newspapers. The German
soldier cursed the militarism which had plunged him into that horror.
The British soldier cursed the German as the direct cause of all his
trouble, but looked back on his side of the lines and saw an evil
there which was also his enemy--the evil of a secret diplomacy which
juggled with the lives of humble men so that war might be sprung upon
them without their knowledge or consent, and the evil of rulers who
hated German militarism not because of its wickedness, but because of
its strength in rivalry and the evil of a folly in the minds of men
which had taught them to regard war as a glorious adventure, and
patriotism as the right to dominate other peoples, and liberty as a
catch--word of politicians in search of power. After the Somme battles
there were many other battles as bloody and terrible, but they only
confirmed greater numbers of men in the faith that the old world had
been wrong in its "make-up" and wrong in its religion of life. Lip
service to Christian ethics was not good enough as an argument for
this. Either the heart of the world must be changed by a real
obedience to the gospel of Christ or Christianity must be abandoned
for a new creed which would give better results between men and
nations. There could be no reconciling of bayonet-drill and high
explosives with the words "Love one another." Or if bayonet-drill and
high-explosive force were to be the rule of life in preparation for
another struggle such as this, then at least let men put hypocrisy
away and return to the primitive law of the survival of the fittest in
a jungle world subservient to the king of beasts. The devotion of
military chaplains to the wounded, their valor, their decorations for
gallantry under fire, their human comradeship and spiritual sincerity,
would not bridge the gulf in the minds of many soldiers between a
gospel of love and this argument by bayonet and bomb, gas-shell and
high velocity, blunderbuss, club, and trench-shovel. Some time or
other, when German militarism acknowledged defeat by the break of its
machine or by the revolt of its people--not until then--there must be
a new order of things, which would prevent such another massacre in
the fair fields of life, and that could come only by a faith in the
hearts of many peoples breaking down old barriers of hatred and
reaching out to one another in a fellowship of common sense based on
common interests, and inspired by an ideal higher than this beast-like
rivalry of nations. So thinking men thought and talked. So said the
soldier--poets who wrote from the trenches. So said many onlookers.
The simple soldier did not talk like that unless he were a Frenchman.
Our men only began to talk like that after the war--as many of them
are now talking--and the revolt of the spirit, vague but passionate,
against the evil that had produced this devil's trap of war, and the
German challenge, was subconscious as they sat in their dugouts and
crowded in their ditches in the battles of the Somme.
THE FIELDS OF ARMAGEDDON
During the two years that followed the battles of the Somme I recorded
in my daily despatches, republished in book form ("The Struggle in
Flanders" and "The Way to Victory"), the narrative of that continuous
conflict in which the British forces on the western front were at
death-grips with the German monster where now one side and then the
other heaved themselves upon their adversary and struggled for the
knock-out blow, until at last, after staggering losses on both sides,
the enemy was broken to bits in the last combined attack by British,
Belgian, French, and American armies. There is no need for me to
retell all that history in detail, and I am glad to know that there is
nothing I need alter in the record of events which I wrote as they
happened, because they have not been falsified by any new evidence;
and those detailed descriptions of mine stand true in fact and in the
emotion of the hours that passed, while masses of men were slaughtered
in the fields of Armageddon.
But now, looking back upon those last two years of the war as an eye-
witness of many tragic and heroic things, I see the frightful drama of
them as a whole and as one act was related to another, and as the plot
which seemed so tangled and confused, led by inevitable stages, not
under the control of any field-marshal or chief of staff, to the
climax in which empires crashed and exhausted nations looked round
upon the ruin which followed defeat and victory. I see also, as in one
picture, the colossal scale of that human struggle in that Armageddon
of our civilization, which at the time one reckoned only by each day's
success or failure, each day's slaughter on that side or the other.
One may add up the whole sum according to the bookkeeping of Fate, by
double-entry, credit and debit, profit and loss. One may set our
attacks in the battles of Flanders against the strength of the German
defense, and say our losses of three to one (as Ludendorff reckons
them, and as many of us guessed) were in our favor, because we could
afford the difference of exchange and the enemy could not put so many
human counters into the pool for the final "kitty" in this gamble with
life and death. One may balance the German offensive in March of '18
with the weight that was piling up against them by the entry of the
Americans. One may also see now, very clearly, the paramount
importance of the human factor in this arithmetic of war, the morale
of men being of greater influence than generalship, though dependent
on it, the spirit of peoples being as vital to success as the
mechanical efficiency of the war-machine; and above all, one is now
able to observe how each side blundered on in a blind, desperate way,
sacrificing masses of human life without a clear vision of the
consequences, until at last one side blundered more than another and
was lost. It will be impossible to pretend in history that our High
Command, or any other, foresaw the thread of plot as it was unraveled
to the end, and so arranged its plan that events happened according to
design. The events of March, 1918, were not foreseen nor prevented by
French or British. The ability of our generals was not imaginative nor
inventive, but limited to the piling up of men and munitions, always
more men and more munitions, against positions of enormous strength
and overcoming obstacles by sheer weight of flesh and blood and high
explosives. They were not cunning so far as I could see, nor in the
judgment of the men under their command, but simple and
straightforward gentlemen who said "once more unto the breach," and
sent up new battering-rams by brigades and divisions. There was no
evidence that I could find of high directing brains choosing the
weakest spot in the enemy's armor and piercing it with a sharp sword,
or avoiding a direct assault against the enemy's most formidable
positions and leaping upon him from some unguarded way. Perhaps that
was impossible in the conditions of modern warfare and the limitations
of the British front until the arrival of the tanks, which, for a long
time, were wasted in the impassable bogs of Flanders, where their
steel skeletons still lie rusting as a proof of heroic efforts vainly
used. Possible or not, and rare genius alone could prove it one way or
another, it appeared to the onlooker, as well as to the soldier who
carried out commands that our method of warfare was to search the map
for a place which was strongest in the enemy's lines, most difficult
to attack, most powerfully defended, and then after due advertisement,