HOW CAN WE EVEN BEGIN to imagine it?
Artillery meant eardrum-perforating thunder and screams as well as terror and death — and it is of course a truism that the Great War specialised in it.
Measured against the other harsh exigencies of the conflict, complaints about noise seem anti-climactic. That was not, however, the experience of those who fought. There is a vignette which dates from this week which supports that thought, and comes in a letter to his wife written by Lieutenant-Colonel Rowland Feilding, commander of 6th Connaught Rangers. On 5 September he saw the famous film just released about troops on the Somme — in situ, as it were, on a screen erected in a muddy field under the open sky at Morlancourt.
Presumably by way of contrast Charlie Chaplin was also to have appeared and I confess it was chiefly him that I went to see. However, I came too late and saw only the more harrowing part of the entertainment.
This battle film is really a wonderful and most realistic production, but must of necessity be wanting in that the battle is fought in silence, and moreover, that the most unpleasant part — the machine-gun and rifle fire — is entirely eliminated. Of the actual ‘frightfulness’ of war all that one sees is the bursting of shells; and perhaps it is as well. I have said that the battle is fought in silence; but no, on this occasion the roar of the real battle was loudly audible in the distance.
The Colonel admitted to having had some reservations about showing such a film to soldiers on the brink of battle in which they are to play the part of attackers
… However, on my way home, my mind was set at rest upon this point by a conversation I overheard between two recruits who were walking behind me. Said one, ‘As to reality, now you knows what you’ve got to face. If it was left to the imagination you might think all sorts of silly b — — — things’.
I wonder where his imagination would have led him had he not seen the Cinema. Would it, do you think, have gone beyond the reality? Hell itself could hardly do so. I think sometimes that people who have not seen must find it difficult to comprehend how undisturbed life in the trenches can be on occasion: equally, how terrible can be the battle.
Posterity has tended to treat the trenches as a homogenous experience, and an undiluted hell. Fielding reminds us that there were quiet times in nearly all sectors of the line, and quiet sectors too.
Ginchy, however, was currently not one of them. From 3 September until its final capture on 9 September this tiny village near the town of Combles, at a junction of six roads had been an Allied objective. Its capture would give a commanding view of the German third line of defences and deny the Germans the benefit of overlooking British positions. Two divisions of the British Fourth Army, assisted by one French division, would attack in the afternoon after a short bombardment in the morning, in the hope of consolidating any gains under cover of darkness before the Germans could counter-attack. It proved a successful manoeuvre. As Haig wrote:
At 4.45 on the 9th September the attack was re-opened on the whole of the Fourth Army front. At Ginchy and to the north of Leuze Wood it met with almost immediate success. On the right the enemy’s line was seized over a front of more than 1,000 yards from the southwest corner of Bouleaux Wood in a north-westerly direction to a point just south of the Guillemont-Morval tramway. Our troops again forced their way into Ginchy, and passing beyond it carried the line of enemy trenches to the east…Over 500 prisoners were taken in the operations of the 9th September and following days, making the total since the 1st July over 17,000.
Good reports from the Somme were very welcome. The Times greeted news of the successful attack with triumphant headlines: The Capture of Ginchy. Dashing Attack by the Irish. Kaiser’s Picked Troops Beaten. The whole of the village is ours; or the space of rubble and dust that was the village.
As the paper indicated, the part played by the Irish in this latest battle was immense. Their sacrifice was lent an additional pathos in the context of the toxic relationship being played out during this time between London and Dublin. These men at Ginchy were from the 16th (Irish Division) and their capture of the northern flank cost 4,000 officers and men between 1 and 10 September.
The Times correspondent praised their ‘irresistible dash’. He wrote:
In the village itself there was desperate fighting, not only with rifles and at close quarters with bombs, but also hand to hand in bayonet encounters …
Having gained the high ground they wanted, the Allies now drove the Germans so far back that they could no longer threaten Delville Wood, the previous target of intense German artillery fire. It was a small but significant victory, all achieved in a single day, and was a big blow to German morale, as well as having other, more practical, implications. General Max von Gallwitz, in command of the German 1st and 2nd Armies, wrote on 11 September that British heavy artillery was rapidly destroying the German guns and that, unless the attack were eased, the Germans would run out of men and guns.
Haig’s pleasure at the success could not eclipse other anxieties. One was a strictly local irritation. Lloyd George, the scheming, sceptical and mercurial Minister for Munitions, was in Verdun during the week and, although the stated purpose was to spend time with the brilliantly successful French Under Secretary for Munitions, Albert Thomas, he took the chance on 11 September to have lunch with Foch at his headquarters and ask why the British had taken so little ground yet suffered such heavy losses.
It was an outrageous question, especially when addressed by a civilian. Foch claimed later that he had answered that it was because the British were “green soldiers and his were veterans”. If indeed he did, it was an outrageous answer.
Five days earlier there had been a different kind of encounter between a soldier and a statesman. On 6 September, Raymond Asquith of the 3rd Grenadier Guards received a telegram ordering him to Fricourt for 10.45 a.m.to meet his father, the Prime Minister, on a visit to the front:
Two handsome motors from G.H.Q. arrived, the P.M. in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey, and one of two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service. We went up to see some of the captured German dug-outs and just as we were arriving at our first objective the Boches began putting over a few 4.2 shells from their field howitzer. The P.M. was not discomposed by this, but the G.H.Q. chauffeur to whom I had handed over my horse to hold, flung the reins into the air and himself flat on his belly in the mud.
In his diary for the previous day, Hankey, Secretary of the War Council, offered a vivid physical description of the mis-en-scene:
As we approached the battle of the Somme, the roar of the guns, which had been continuous and loud even at Beauval became tremendous. We stopped for a few minutes in Albert. The cathedral is an extraordinary sight. At the top of the tower was a gigantic gilt figure of a Virgin and Child, which has been hit by a shell and is actually hanging horizontally over the road, face downward, a most pathetic sight. The French say that the day it falls the war will come to an end.
His allusion to the end of the war may seem whimsical, especially when one reflects on the years of fighting which lay ahead. But the prospect of a glorious and final victory occupied the imaginations of many, soldier and civilian alike. Nurse Edith Appleton in Etretat — ever a steady and practical sort — was not insensitive to the idea of a sudden resolution either. She had taken time off from writing her diary in recent days as a consequence of an ear infection but when she resumed it on September 11, the same thought was there:
A Canadian said to me yesterday he didn’t know how the British Tommies had done what they did. They had advanced uphill and taken dugouts that were like underground fortresses, some as much as 60 feet deep, and well fortified. They think the last advance will be less difficult than the last, and also that Fritz’s number is up. May they be right.
Even the fastidious and mannered Raymond Asquith commented rather archly to his wife in a letter of 8 September:
We move either tomorrow or the day after. Probably tomorrow. We are only allowed 50lbs. of kit, which is a bore. It would be awful to arrive in Berlin looking a perfect scarecrow.
Haig was perhaps one of few who never wallowed in this fantasy. The Somme offensive was consuming men and materiel in prodigious quantities. While he did not believe the end of the war was imminent, he badly wanted the Germans on the run, and that was impossible while the French continued to pile on pressure for a joint action. He had received yet another letter from Joffre on 9 September urging him to advance the date of the offensive planned for 15 September. Haig was having none of it, and in this matter he could rely on the support and understanding of both military and civilian top brass.
He was more isolated in the matter of tanks, upon whose arrival and deployment he laid such stress, ordering Rawlinson to derive ‘full value from the element of surprise, which, after all, is fleeting! Moreover the season for fighting is nearly over’. Rawlinson and Gough were inclined to stick with their usual methods of bombardment and assault and their scepticism was shared by Asquith and most of the Cabinet. At dinner on 7 September, Hankey sniffily passed judgement on them:
It is a mistake to put them into the battle of the Somme. They were built for the purpose of breaking an ordinary trench system with a normal artillery fire only, whereas on the Somme they will have to penetrate a terrific artillery barrage, and will have to operate in a broken country full of shell-craters, where they will be able to see very little.
The significance Haig placed upon tanks, merited or otherwise, is not hard to understand in the context of what was actually happening during these days. Edith Appleton’s diary for September 11 offers a startling picture of those wounded in battle at this time:
We had a convoy of 399 in yesterday, but only 70 wounded. By far the majority of the sick were suffering badly from shellshock. It is sad to see them — they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin-faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers, and sometimes going through the trenches he had to push past men with their arms blown off or horribly wounded, and they would yell at him, ‘Don’t touch me,’ but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down — and see it was a dying or dead man, half covered in mud. Once he returned to find his own officer blown to bits — a leg in one place, his body in another. Another man told me quite calmly, ‘Our Div was terribly cut up, because we had to be sacrificed to let the others advance … and they did advance all right’.
With stretcher-bearers overwhelmed with serious cases, men classed as the ‘walking wounded’ often had to make their own way to the aid post or dressing stations. Second Lieutenant Blake O’Sullivan, 6th battalion Connaught Rangers, got a ‘Blighty’ in the ferocious battle for the village of Guillemont, fought between 3 and 6 September. Recovering in hospital in Chelsea he wrote an account of his experience:
Near the edge of the village a groaning and agonized German with half his thigh blown off, feebly beckoned to me; and before going on I made some futile efforts to staunch his bleeding. Then, heading for the main east-west street still vaguely indicated through the pulverised rubble, I stumbled over a weeping and terribly mauled little man whose head cringed away from an expected bullet, and instead of the bullet put the water bottle to his lips. He grabbed it with both hands and tried to drain it. As the bottle was firmly attached to my equipment I finally had to drag it away from the poor creature in order to free myself …
At Rouen the X-ray located a Luger pistol bullet. It had stabbed in under the left arm, chipped a spinal vertebra and then lodged in my right shoulder …
He was alive, at least. Seven officers and two hundred men from the 9th Battalion Dublin Fusiliers were killed on 7 September. The great Irish soldier-statesman Tom Kettle now assumed command of ‘B’ Company and overnight they dug assembly trenches for the attack on Ginchy scheduled for 9 September.
Along with so many others, he spent the final night before he went into action writing letters. One of these distilled an extraordinary accumulation of wisdom, compassion and resignation:
So you see, even I have no particular certainty of coming back. I passed through, as everybody of sense does, a sharp agony of separation….Now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into the silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement …
If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men …
We are moving up tonight into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers… I have had two chances of leaving them — one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my colleagues … I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live.
The attack began at 4.45 pm on 9 September but as Irish soldiers reached the village of Ginchy, Kettle was killed. As his friend Lieutenant Dalton wrote: I was just behind Tom when we went over the top. He was in a bent position and a bullet got over a steel waistcoat that he wore and entered his heart. Well, he only lasted one minute, and he had my crucifix in his hands.
Kettle himself knew that the complexity of the Irish situation would haunt him even after death: he wrote that the Dublin rebels, whom he had supported, ‘would go down in history as heroes and martyrs, and I will go down — if I go down at all — as a bloody British officer’.
That last remark contains an element of self-parody more than regret. There was plenty about Britain and the British against which one might inveigh but, having shared with them the experience of this accursed war, Kettle knew you could not only hate them.