Elaborate and very detailed orders for the coming battle came out, and were altered and revised again and again. Inspections and addresses followed each other in rapid succession whenever we came out of the line. The country, miles ahead of our starting trench, was studied on maps and models. Mouquet Farm, the objective of my company on the first day, will always stand out in my memory as a name, though I was never to see it.
Our battalion was to be the last of the four battalions of our Brigade to go 'over the top'. We were to carry immense loads of stores needed by the leading battalion, when the forward enemy trench system was overrun, and dump our loads before we advanced on Mouquet Farm. In the opening phase therefore, we were reduced to the status of pack mules. We flattered ourselves however that we had been specially selected to carry out the more highly skilled and onerous role of open warfare fighting, when the trench system had been overcome.
Never in history, we were told, had so many guns been concentrated on any front. Our batteries had the greatest difficulty in finding gun positions, and millions of shells were dumped at the gun sites. Had all the guns, we were told, been placed on one continuous line, their wheels would have interlocked. Nothing, we were assured, could live to resist our onslaught.
The first unpleasant hitch in the arrangements occurred when the attack was put off for twenty-four hours. It was later postponed another twenty-four hours. The explanation given was that the French were not ready. Our own non-stop night and day bombardment continued. We were in the front line, with the assaulting battalions behind us in reserve trenches. Apart from the strain of waiting, we found our own shelling exhausting, and received a fair amount counter-shelling and mortaring in reply. We remained in the front line from 27 June until the night of 30 June, when we were withdrawn to allow the assaulting units to take up their positions. As a result of the forty-eight hour postponement the men were not as fresh for the attack as we had hoped, and there was a feeling abroad that a lot of ammunition had been expended which might be badly missed later.
That night, 30 June, we spent in dugouts cut into the side of a high bank. Behind us lay the shell-shattered remains of Authuile Wood, and further back the town of Albert. That night I was asked to attend a party given by the officers of another company. Reluctantly I went. Though no one in the smoke-filled dugout when I arrived was drunk, they were far from being sober and obviously strung up. Their efforts to produce a cheerful atmosphere depressed me. Feeling a wet blanket, I slipped away as soon as I decently could. As I walked back, the gaunt misshapen shell-shattered trees looked like grim tortured El Greco-like figures in the moonlight. I tried to shake off emotion, and though feeling impelled to pray, I deliberately refused myself the outlet, for to do so now, merely because I was frightened, seemed both unfair and unreasonable. Fortunately I could always sleep when the opportunity arose, and I slept normally well that night.
Though my company was not due to move up the communication trench until some time after zero hour, breakfasts were over and the men were all standing by before it was light. At dawn the huge, unbelievably huge, crescendo of the opening barrage began. Thousands and thousands of small calibre shells seemed to be whistling close above our heads to burst on the enemy front line. Larger calibre shells whined their way to seek out targets farther back, and shells from the heavies, like rumbling railway trains, could be heard almost rambling along high above us, to land with mighty detonations way back amongst the enemy strong-points and battery areas behind.
It was not long before the electrifying news came down the line that our assault battalions had overrun the enemy front line and had been seen still going strong close up behind the barrage. The men cheered up. The march to Berlin had begun! I was standing on the top of the bank, and at that moment I felt genuinely sorry for the unfortunate German infantry. I could picture in my mind the agony they were undergoing, for I could see the solid line of bursting shells throwing great clouds of earth high into the air. I thought of the horror of being in the midst of that great belt of explosion. where nothing. I thought, could live. The belt was so thick and deep that the wounded would be hit again and again.
Still there was no reply from the enemy. It looked as if our guns had silenced their batteries before they had got a shot off. I climbed down the bank anxious for more news. When our time came to advance we had to file some way along and under the embankment before turning up the communication trench. A company of the support battalion was to precede us and their men were already on the move gaily cracking ribald jokes as they passed by.
They had not long been gone when the enemy guns opened. This in itself was rather startling. How. I wondered, could any guns have survived? Only a few odd shells fell near us but the shelling farther up seemed very heavy. We were not, then, going to have it all our own way. Impatient, I slipped on ahead of the company to the entrance of the communication trench up which we were to go.
Some wounded were already being carried out and I wondered whether the stretchers would delay our advance. As I neared the trench, I saw the Brigade trench mortar officer, and went to get the latest news from him. To my disgust I found he was not only very drunk but in a terrible state of nerves. With tears running down his face, and smelling powerfully of brandy, he begged me not to take my company forward. The whole attack he shouted was a terrible failure, the trench ahead was a shambles, it was murder up there, he was on his way to tell the Brigadier so...
We found the short length of trench packed tight with wounded. Some begged for help, some to be left alone to die. I told the company sergeant major (CSM) to set about clearing the trench of wounded while I went to tell platoon commanders the alteration in our plan. When I got back the CSM was bending over a severely wounded young officer. He was very heavy and when an attempt was made to move him the pain was so acute that the men making the attempt drew back aghast. The trench was very narrow and as he lay full-length along it we had to move him. As long as I live I shall not forget the horror of lifting that poor boy. He died, a twitching mass of tautened muscles in our arms as we were carrying him. Even my own men looked at me as if I had been the monster I felt myself to be in attempting to move him. Sick with horror, I drove them on, forcing them to throw the dead bodies out of the trench.
At last the way was clear, and I called up the first platoon to go over the narrow end of the trench, two at a time. I was to go first with my two orderlies, and Bartlett, the officer commanding the first platoon, was to follow. I told the CSM to wait and see the company over but he flatly declined, saying his place was with company HO and that he was coming with me. I hadn't the heart to refuse him.
As I ran, wisps of dust seemed to be spitting up all round me, and I found myself trying to skip over them. Then it suddenly dawned on me that we were under fire, and the dust was caused by bullets. I saw someone standing up behind the bank ahead waving wildly. He was shouting something. I threw myself down. It was the second-in-command of the support battalion, an ex-regular regimental sergeant major of the Guards and a huge man. He was shouting. "Keep away, for God's sake, keep away!"
I shouted back, "What's up?"
"We are under fire here," he yelled, "You'll only draw more fire."
I realised that the fire came not only from in front of us but from across the valley to our left and behind us. My plan was hopeless. The young orderly who had had hysterics was hit. He cried out and was almost immediately hit again. I crept close up against his dead body, wondering if a man's body gave any protection. Would that machine gunner never stop blazing at us? In an extremity of fear I pulled a derelict trench mortar barrel between me and the bullets. Suddenly the fire was switched off to some other target.
The CSM had been hit as he had been crawling towards me. I had shouted to him to keep down but he crawled on, his nose close to the ground, his immense behind clearly visible, and a tempting target! It is extraordinary how in action one can be one moment almost gibbering with fright, and the next, when released from immediate physical danger, almost gay. When the CSM let out a loud yell, I shouted: "Are you hit"
"Yes, Sir," he shouted back. "But not badly."
"That will teach you to keep your bottom down," I shouted back, upon which there was a ribald cheer from the men nearby. When I reached the CSM he was quite cheerful and wanted to carry on, but was soon persuaded to return and stop more men leaving the trench.
Bartlett had taken cover in a shell hole and I rolled in to join him as the firing swept over us again. Besides us, the hole was occupied by an elderly private of one of the leading battalions. He was unwounded, quite resigned, and entirely philosophic about the situation. He said no one but a fool would attempt to go forward, as it was obvious that the attack had failed. He pointed out that we were quite safe where we were, and all we had to do was to wait until dark to get back. I asked him what he was doing unwounded in a hole so far behind his battalion. He said he was a regular soldier who had been wounded early in the war, and that he was not going to be wounded again in the sort of fool attacks that the officers sitting in comfortable offices behind the lines planned! (I give of course a paraphrase of his actual discourse.) He said he certainly would not be alive now if he had not had the sense to take cover as soon as possible after going over the top, as he had done at Festubert. Loos, and a series of other battles in which he said he had been engaged. He reckoned that this was the only hope an infantryman had of surviving the war. When the High Command had learned how to conduct a battle which had a reasonable chance of success, he would willingly take part! I told him if he went on in this way, I would put him under arrest for cowardice.
It was a strange interlude in battle, and I realised that my own uncertainty as to what should be done gave rise to it. I was agitated, feeling that inactivity was unforgivable, particularly when the leading battalions must be fighting for their lives, and sorely needing reinforcements. It seemed Useless to attempt to get forward from where we were, even if we could collect enough men to make the attempt. In the end I forced myself to get out of the shell hole and walk along parallel with the enemy line and away from the valley on our left, calling on men of all battalions who were scattered about in shell holes, to be ready to advance when I blew mv whistle.
This effort, in which I was supported by Bartlett, was shortlived. Bullets were flying all round us both from front and flank. One hit my revolver out of my hand, another drove a hole through my water bottle, and more and more fire was being concentrated upon us. Ignominiously I threw myself down. We were no better off.
It was up to me to make a decision. Bartlett quietly but firmly refused to offer any suggestion. I took the only course that seemed open to me, other than giving in altogether as the defeatist private soldier had so phlegmatically advocated, and I so vehemently condemned. We returned to our own front line, crawling all the way and calling on any men we saw to follow us, though few in fact did.
There was no movement in no man's land, though one apparently cheerful man of my own company, a wag, was crawling forward on all fours, a belt of machine gun ammunition swinging under his stomach, shouting. Anyone know the way to Mouquet Farm?
A soldier I did not know was running back screaming at the top of his voice. He was entirely naked and had presumably gone mad, or perhaps he thought he was so clearly disarmed that he would not be shot at! Bartlett and I reached our trench without mishap and began working down it, trying to collect any men we could. The shelling on the front line trench had stopped. At one trench shelter I came on a sergeant who had once been in my company, and at my summons he lurched to the narrow entrance of the tiny shelter. I thought at first he was drunk.
"Come on, Sergeant," I said, "Get your men together and follow me down the trench."
"I'd like to come with you, Sir," he said, "But I can't with this lot."
I looked down and saw to my horror that the lower part of his left leg had been practically severed. He was standing on one leg, holding himself upright by gripping the frame of the entrance.
At the junction of the front line with a communication trench further down the line, I found the staff captain (not the one with the broken nerves). I told him I was collecting the remnants of our men, and asked him if he thought I ought to make another effort to advance. I knew in my heart that I only asked because I hoped he would authorise no further effort, but he said that the last message he had had from Brigade HO was that attempts to break through to the leading battalions must continue to be made at all costs. He told me our colonel and second-in-command had gone over the top to try and carry the men forward, and both had been wounded. I must judge for myself, he said, but there had been no orders to abandon the attack.
I discovered from the staff captain what had happened. The leading battalions had swept over the enemy trenches without opposition, but had not delayed to search the deep dugouts, as this was the job of the supporting battalion. As the supporting battalion had been held up by shellfire, the German machine gunners in the deep dugouts had had time to emerge from their cover and open fire. It seemed clear that, unpleasant as the prospect was, a further effort to advance must be made. There was a slight depression in no man's land further to the right, which would give a narrow column of men, crawling, cover from fire from both flanks and front. I determined to try this, and the staff captain wished me luck.
Bartlett had by now collected about forty men, and standing on the fire step, I told them what had happened. There could not be many enemy in the front line, I said. If we could once penetrate into the enemy trench it would not be difficult to bomb our way along it; then we could call forward many of our own men who were pinned to the ground in no man's land. I painted a very rosy picture. One more effort and victory was ours. Hundreds of battles had. I said, been lost for the lack of that one last effort.
We had got a good many men over the parapet when a machine gun opened up. I do not think the fire was actually directed at us but I was just giving a man a hand up when a bullet went straight through the lobe of his ear, splashing blood over both of us. The men in the trench below were very shaken, though not more than I was! The man hit wasted no time in diving into cover, but there was nothing I could do except stay where I was, as the men would never have come on if I were to disappear into the cover I was longing to take. Luckily the enemy machine gunner did not swing his gun back as I had feared.
When all the men were over the parapet, Bartlett and I started to crawl past them up to the top of the column. Not a shot was being fired at us and I told Bartlett to pass the men as they came up, down a line parallel to the enemy trench, while I crawled on a bit to see if the wire opposite us was destroyed. I heard a few enemy talking well away to our left, a machine gun opened up, but it was firing away from us. The wire seemed fairly well destroyed. I slipped back to Bartlett to find that only eight men had reached him, and that no one else seemed to be coming. Eight men were enough to surprise and capture the machine gun or never. I jumped up and feeling rather absurdly dramatic, I ran along our short line of men shouting "Charge!" Bartlett was at my heels and as I turned towards the enemy line some men rose to their feet.
I remember trying to jump some twisted wire, being tripped up and falling headlong into a deep shell hole right on top of a dead man and an astonished corporal. Soon a shower of hand bombs were bursting all round us and the corporal and myself pressed ourselves into the side of the shell hole. When I had recovered my breath I shouted for Bartlett and was relieved to hear a muffled reply from a nearby shell hole.
It was now about eleven o'clock on a very hot day. Bartlett and I managed to dig our way towards each other with bayonets, but we failed to get in touch with any of our men, who had apparently not come as far. The corporal turned out to be badly wounded and in spite of our efforts to help him his pain increased as the day wore on. Whenever we showed any sign of life the enemy lobbed a bomb at us and we soon learned to keep quiet.
That night, except for an occasional flare and a little desultory shelling, was absolutely quiet. In the light of a flare it seemed as if the whole of no man's land was one moving mass of men crawling and dragging themselves or their wounded comrades back to our trenches. Bartlett and I tried to carry the corporal but he was very heavy and in such pain that he begged me to be put down at frequent intervals. There were some stretcher bearers about and I sent Bartlett to find one but he lost his way and I did not see him again until next day.
In the end I crawled under the corporal and managed to get him onto my shoulders. He died in my arms soon after we reached our own front line.