The Unspoken Compact

THE HORROR of the first day — the one in which the bullet and shrapnel-ridden bodies of British and Dominion soldiers had been spattered all over no man’s land and on enemy barbed wire — had passed into history.

Even though the received image is of one terrible first day, the Battle of the Somme was a campaign of many months. Its brutalities and terrors persisted throughout. So, like virtually everything else on the western front, did its apparent inconsequentialities. This week saw the British holding on to Contalmaison against strong German counter-attacks, capturing Longueval and the whole of Trones Wood on 14 July and Delville Wood on the following day. But there was never a moment when it threatened to become a war of movement.

From the perspective of horrified troops, woods held a particular place in the canon of horror. Tall trees and sprawling foliage evoked ghoulish terrors, and a well-founded apprehension any fighting would be at close-hand and rely on the bayonet as much as the bullet.

Corporal H. Diffy of the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers remembered that during the fighting for Mametz Wood, at its height this week:

Then came an order that you must not stop to help a wounded comrade during an attack. Those that did were sitting targets for enemy machine-gunners and consequently nobody reached the objective. Nobody knew what was happening or supposed to happen. And newspapers in the UK wrote of tremendous victories and killing Germans as a sport similar to ratting. We could laugh aloud at these reports, plagued by lice and living amongst the debris of war and the legends that sustained our armchair patriots at home.

Everyone had a reason to be scared. Sergeant Gottfried Kreibohm, 10th Company, Lehr Infantry Regiment, 3rd Guard Division recorded the fighting for High Wood in his diary on 11 July:

At 4 a.m. I left with three men and took up residence in the field of craters between the company’s forward trench and Mametz Wood. We immediately set to work deepening our holes, digging for two hours. Around eight o’clock the English began to systematically strafe the company sector with heavy-calibre shells. Geysers of earth a hundred feet high shot from the ground. With my field glasses I could see past Mametz Wood all the way to the village of Mametz. The entire area was swarming with the activity of English troops, wagons and ambulances moving forward, and prisoners going to the rear. It was a shame we did not have contact with our artillery. We sat watching this panorama until midday.

No relief came. The shell fire increased in our vicinity and every fifteen minutes we had to shovel clods of earth from our holes. Pieces of equipment were sent flying out of the Company’s trench while the barbed-wire stakes tumbled crazily in the air. The ground rumbled and heaved with each explosion. Suddenly, a noise like a roaring freight train rushed down on me and I instinctively covered my head with my hands. I waited one, two, five agonising seconds — for the explosion. When nothing happened I opened my eyes and saw, to my immense relief, a large shell half buried in the earth only one and a half metres from me. It was a dud. Thus we waited in our holes for ten hours — the most fearful ten hours I have ever experienced in my life.

On Friday 14 July, the cavalry was deployed for what would be the only cavalry charge of the Battle of the Somme. Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade had been a staple of Victorian and Edwardian schoolboys. An impossibly insouciant treatment of the suicidal charge made mistakenly by the British at the Battle of Balaclava in 1855, it sentimentalised a monumental military cock-up.

Because much happened in war that would have been otherwise inconceivable, life now threatened to imitate art. Two squadrons each of the 20th Deccan Horse, (part of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division), and the 7th Dragoon Guards of the Secunderbad Cavalry Brigade, assembled near Crucifix Corner and charged:

No troops presented a more inspiring sight than these natives of India with lance and sword, tearing in mad cavalcade onto the skyline. A few disappeared over it: they never came back. The remainder became the target of every gun and rifle. Turning their horses’ heads, with shrill cries, these masters of horsemanship galloped through a hell of fire, lifting their mounts lightly over yawning shell-holes; turning and twisting through the barrage of great shells; the ranks thinned but not a man escaped.

The charge took place in the context of a British attack launched against the German position along the Bazentin Ridge. It had enjoyed initial success and brought them within striking distance of Bois des Foureaux, known to the Allies as High Wood. Crowning the summit of the main German defence line through the Flers Ridge to Thiepval and, at a height of a few hundred feet, it dominated the surrounding battlefield. The cavalry were there to achieve a breakthrough. According to another eyewitness:

It was an incredible sight, an unbelievable sight; they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying, up the slope to High Wood and straight into it … They simply galloped on through all that and horses and men were dropping on the ground, with no hope against the machine-guns, because the Germans up on the ridge were firing down into the valley where the soldiers were. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic.

At nightfall, the Deccan Horse withdrew and linked with the Dragoon Guards in a defensive position along the High Wood to Longueval road. The charge had cost the lives of eight cavalrymen with another hundred or so wounded. At least 130 horses were either killed or wounded.

Second Lieutenant Norton Hughes-Hallett, 7th Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, participated in the largely successful attack on Montauban which took place under cover of darkness on 14 July, following a brief bombardment. His account would be written in hospital as he recovered from his battle wounds:

Everything was perfect. Not a sound was made and the Bosche showed no sign of having seen us, even when we were 100 yards or so from his line. At 3.20 a.m. our barrage was going to be put on to their first line, and was to last exactly till 3.25; watches were synchronized when the officers went to Battalion Headquarters. Then the barrage was to lift to their second line and behind it. At that moment, as the barrage lifted, we were to go forward, the first waves crossing the front line, leaving it to the bombers, and going forward to the second and last Bosche line. We had aeroplane photos, correct to July 13th showing us that he had no line beyond his second. The barrage was to allow us two minutes for this, for, at 3.27, it was to lift behind their second line.

3.25, zero time, came and the line suddenly rose from the grass and went forward in dead silence: silence as far as we were concerned, I mean! Immediately rifles and machine-guns started spitting fire at us from the Bosche trench, though I don’t think we got any shells from them; but behind, the Royal Scots, supporting us, did, and I believe got a lot of our own too, while lying out. We reached the wire, but found it absolutely uncut and far too thick ever to get through. For about two minutes we hacked at it, the men falling by scores the while; then I am told the remnant retired as best they could to the sunken road, though without me.

I saw Sergeant Davies killed, and Sergeant O’Leary hit. These two were within a couple of feet away from me, and then I got it, and tipped head first into a big shell-hole in the wire. I remember Ainsworth, late company storeman, and sacked for getting drunk, cutting off my equipment and propping me right end upwards and putting a body under my knee. I was found about twelve hours later by the ‘C’ Company stretcher-bearers. When collected I was the only one living of nine on that hole, and when they got me to the dressing-station, I was at first put among the pile of dead. In the end I had to be stretchered back through Montauban to Carnoy, and was then driven to Corbie in an ambulance.

This account has a compelling immediacy. Heavy casualties were suffered in the attack: eight officers and two hundred men were killed in Hughes-Hallett’s battalion. His own company lost thirty-eight killed and seventy-four wounded out of a total of one hundred and forty. Relieved to have survived, but bitter about the many who did not, he was particularly incensed by the incompetence of one of his fellow officers who had failed to transmit vital orders before the action:

He, like all undeserving people, got a ‘cushy’ wound in the arm, which I hear is quite cured, and nothing worse, tho’ his mistake might have cost many lives.

The idea that it was the best who fell and not the worst enjoyed wide currency: its attractiveness to bereaved friends and families is obvious, but hardly reassuring to those who survived, only to fight another day — more like a cruel refinement to the agonies of apprehensions they already suffered.

But the more troubling idea, also gaining traction, was of the remoteness of commanders and the yawning distance, physical and moral, which separated them from their men. The former (the so-called brass hats) were often believed to have made ignorant dispositions from the vantage point of safety and comfort. The latter, common soldiers and subalterns, were required to follow their orders unflinchingly. In the context of the carnage which was unfolding, such perfect compliance required astonishing discipline.

Private W. Hay of the Royal Scots 1st/9th Battalion, writing later about the ongoing battle for High Wood remembered:

You were between the devil and the deep blue sea. If you go forward, you’ll likely to be shot, if you go backward you’ll be court-martialled and shot, so what the hell do you do? What can you do? You just go forward because that’s the only bloke you can take your knife in, that’s the bloke you’re facing. We were sent in to High Wood in broad daylight in the face of heavy machine-gun fire and shell fire, and everywhere there was dead bodies all over the place where previous battalions and regiments had taken part in their previous attacks. We went in there and C Company got a terrible bashing there.

It was criminal to send men in broad daylight, into machine-gun fire, without any cover of any sort whatsoever. There was no need for it; they could have hung on and made an attack on the flanks somewhere or other, but we had to carry out our orders… there was one particular place just before we got to High Wood which was a crossroads, and it was really hell there, they shelled it like anything, you couldn’t get past it, it was almost impossible. There were men everywhere, heaps of men, not one or two men, but heaps of men everywhere, all dead …

The only possible way to take High Wood was if the Germans ran short of ammunition, they might be able to take it then. They couldn’t take it against machine-guns, just ridiculous. It was absolute slaughter. We always blamed the people up above. We had a saying in the Army, ‘The higher, the fewer’. They meant the higher the rank, the fewer the brains.

Hay’s contempt and rage challenges the comforting half-truths used to reconcile friends and families to the dangers faced by all those on active service. Though seldom spelled out as such, the terrors endured by British soldiers were shouldered ultimately as part of a compact — they would take pretty much whatever was thrown at them, but only if it were indispensable to victory. What Hay suggests is that this compact had been broken by leaders who were insufficient and, apparently, callous. This was nothing less than a betrayal.

Weary disgust afflicted soldiers in the east as well. Despite the awesome successes of Russian soldiers in recent weeks during the so-called Brusilov offensive, a human and moral cost had been exacted. The future Bolshevik Commissar Dmitry Oskin, a peasant from the Tula region south of Moscow described leading his platoon after the Russians had broken through fifty miles of the Austro-Hungarian line:

Right on top of the Austrian trenches. Scattered machine-gun fire whizzing all around, shells falling like hailstones. My soldiers are losing their nerve. Some are trying to retreat. I have to threaten a few flinching cowards with my gun. After about an hour, the shooting subsides. Seizing our chance opportunity, we race towards the barbed wire at full tilt. Luckily, there are some holes in it.

During the night of 13 July we receive the order to advance again. Bloody idiots. The Austrians will have reinforced their positions by now. This time we met fierce resistance. For the first time in this whole war, there was a bayonet fight in our trenches. The Austrians fought tenaciously. Our soldiers, too, attacked the Austrians in a frenzy until they retreated into the forest, where it wasn’t so easy for us to use our bayonets. The battle became so vicious that our soldiers started using spades to split Austrians’ skulls. This hand-to-hand fighting went on for at least two hours. Only nightfall stopped the butchery. At dawn, seeing no movement from the Austrian side, we began to survey the forest cautiously. A horrific scene emerged before our very eyes: piles of Russian corpses in front of our trenches, and just as many Austrian dead behind them.

Always the dead. Father J.B. Marshall, Roman Catholic Chaplain to the 62nd Infantry Brigade, 21st Division, continued his pastoral work as the battle of the Somme. The succour he offered belonged not to this world but to the next — a safer bet, perhaps. He described a visit made this week to the “moribund tent”, set aside for men “marked out by the doctor as too far gone to be able to spare a place for in an ambulance at the expense of others in better condition”:

A tragic place. A bell tent with one, two or three men on stretchers on the ground at close quarters with death — and none with time to stay by them and help them and watch them. Now and again one of the doctors would look in to see developments — and the padres did their best to ease and spiritualize those deathbeds. But they mostly lay alone and died alone — for how could doctor or chaplain spend long hours by their side with the constant stream of war’s victims arriving at the station?

There were several Catholics who found their way to the moribund tent — and what a blessed thing the faith was there — such light in the gloom for the sufferer — such definite spiritual business for the priest. One boy who died there — he looked very young — was a Scotch lad in the Black Watch. His was a perforating wound in the abdomen and he suffered terrible agony. When I warned him to prepare for death his first thought was ‘It will kill my poor mother’. I stayed as long and visited him as often as I could. I raised him in my arms from time to time because it eased the awful pain. He made his confession, received extreme unction and prayed with me as well as the torture would allow. It was an edifying death.

That last sentence jars, but Fr Marshall was there and we were not.

The mood of Britain during this third week of the Somme offensive was one of gravity. Perhaps that much is obvious — the huge casualty and death lists would have seen to that. But it is possible to see it cutting across many of the usual fault lines of British society. Only weeks earlier Prime Minister Asquith told Parliament:

His Majesty’s Government, after taking into consideration the very urgent need for a continuous and increasing supply of munitions of war at the present time, have come to the conclusion that it is necessary in the national interest that all holidays — both the general Whitsun holiday and any special local holidays — shall be deferred in munitions areas until after the end of July.

Now — and less predictably — the trade unions backed him completely. On 13 July, a further reason for the seriousness of the hour became apparent when there was a rise in the Bank Rate to 6% on 13 July. The bean counters in the Treasury buildings in Whitehall had done a reckoning and announced on 17 July that the war was costing £6 million per day.

Perhaps it is a mark of distinction that Britain, embattled as it was, showed its most unforgiving and vengeful face towards those it considered the enemy within. Three miles north east of Whitehall, Roger Casement now languished in the condemned cell of Pentonville Gaol as prisoner No 1270. Irish freedom-fighter to some, invert and traitor to others, he had been found guilty of treason on 29 June, a verdict upheld at appeal on 17 July. He was sentenced to death for the “crime of assisting the King’s enemies, that is the Empire of Germany, during the terrible war in which we are engaged”. His knighthood had been rescinded — a refinement of hauteur that seems unlikely to have bothered Casement much, but presumably made the British people feel better. God knows, they needed a bit of cheering up.