Battle of the Somme
Posted 01 July 2006 - 10:20 AM
On leave in England, he bought footballs for each of his four platoons. One was inscribed: "The Great European Cup. The Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick-off at Zero." Nevill offered a prize to whoever first put a ball into a German trench when the "big push" came.
Sure enough, when the whistles blew on July 1 1916, and 150,000 English, Scots, Welsh and Scottish soldiers climbed ladders to offer themselves to the German machine-guns, Nevill's footballers kicked off.
One of the few eye-witnesses to survive described watching a ball arch high into the sky over no-man's-land, on its way to the German trenches near Montauban. No winner collected Nevill's prize, however. Within minutes the captain was dead, as were most of his men.
Here is one of the enduring images of the Somme, which even after 90 years retains its fascination for a generation reared on Blackadder. In whom does not the spectacle of a field of poppies inspire a surge of mingled pity and rage?
So it did, among those who were there in 1916. One of my great-uncles, like Nevill an officer in the East Surreys, described the wild flowers in front of the parapets in his unhappy letters home. I have them all, including one to my grandfather, begging him to use his supposed influence to get my great-uncle transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed before Nevill.
The Somme is perceived as the great betrayal of innocents - and of the old working class in khaki - by Britain's ruling caste in breeches and glossy riding boots. It is thought to exemplify the futility of the first world war, and to represent the apogee of suffering in its campaigns. Like most such national legends, it would not have survived this long if there were not some truth in it.
Revisionist historians, of whom John Terraine was the foremost in his 1961 biography Haig: The Educated Soldier, have tried to persuade us that its generals were not the unfeeling brutes which caricature suggested.
They have failed. Haig was not a fool, indeed he administered Britain's huge armies in France with notable competence. But his own diaries present an image of an aristocratic Border Scot on the make; not much troubled by losses except insofar as these frustrated his military purposes; and preoccupied with royal intrigue.
He often wrote privately to King George V, not least expressing disgust about politicians, the despised "frocks". No British general of the second world war dared to emulate Haig's practice of serving champagne in his chateau headquarters while his men were drinking mud out of shellholes. He shared with most of his subordinates a pathetic faith in the power of artillery bombardment, and an almost unlimited willingness to keep attacking, even when battle after battle demonstrated that his offensives were profiting only the manufacturers of headstones.
The Somme assault was the most spectacular of Haig's failures. It was launched at the urgent behest of the French, to relieve pressure on Verdun, where a million "poilus" and "fritzes" were slaughtering each other.
The July 1 assault was preceded by weeks of British bombardment, which failed to achieve most of its purpose: much German barbed wire remained uncut; sufficient German machine-gunners survived in deep dug-outs.
In some sectors, attackers reached the first and even second German lines. "While we were rounding up prisoners," wrote Captain Herbert Sadler of the Royal Sussex, one of the successful British units, "I came upon one of the Fusiliers being embraced round the knees by a trembling Hun who had a very nice wristwatch. After hearing the man's plea for mercy the Fusilier said, 'That's all right, mate, I accept your apology, but let's have that ticker.' "
Yet, before British commanders could exploit such local successes, the Germans were able to shore up their lines. Haig's armies lost almost 60,000 dead and wounded on the first day. They continued to suffer through the months that followed, in increasingly grotesque attempts to reinforce failure.
Some units, ordered to launch assaults from the second line, were slaughtered by the Germans even before reaching the British front. This was the sort of tactical folly for which posterity justly declines to forgive Haig and his "donkeys".
Yet, in some important respects, popular legend errs in its understanding of what happened in 1916, and indeed between 1914 and 1918. First, our idea of the mindset of British soldiers is wildly over-influenced by the writings of soldier-poets, men like Frederic Manning, who wrote:
These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery
Infinitely more characteristic was the view expressed by the veteran HEL Mellersh, writing in 1978. He deplored the delusion that most combatants thought the war "one vast, futile tragedy, worthy to be remembered only as a pitiable mistake. I and my like entered the war expecting a heroic adventure and believing implicitly in the rightness of our cause; we ended greatly disillusioned as to the nature of the adventure, but still believing that our cause was right and we had not fought in vain."
As to the merit of the cause, it is striking to perceive the number of modern historians, some of them German, who perceive the Kaiser's Germany as an aggressive military tyranny of the nastiest kind. They argue that its victory in the first world war would have been a catastrophe for the freedom of Europe.
I am aware of no responsible historian who believes there was a way to break the stalemate of the western front, even with tanks. The technologies of killing and destruction had advanced vastly faster than those of mobility and communication. In battle after battle, defenders proved able to reinforce a threatened place faster than the attackers could exploit success there.
The obvious answer was to stop attacking. The allies might have sat tight in their trenches, and waited for blockade, starvation and the Americans to force the Germans to quit. Because the Germans occupied a substantial part of France, an overwhelming political and strategic onus rested on the French and British to sustain the offensive.
And yes, there was also a stubborn belief on the part of Haig and his subordinates that to abandon a commitment to attack would be unsoldierly, unBritish, wet - what we might characterise as the spirit of Captain Nevill.
One further issue should be considered. The allied generals of the first world war have been damned by posterity for their faith in attrition.
In the second world war, British strategy and tactics were overwhelmingly influenced by a determination that there should never again be a battle as costly, and as repugnant to popular sensibility, as the Somme.
Yet such fastidiousness was made possible by the fact that between 1941 and 1945 the Red Army did the attriting on behalf of us all. During that war, British and American ground forces killed about 200,000 German soldiers. The Russians killed about four million. Stalin's armies experienced a hundred Sommes, and Russia lost 27 million lives. Somebody, somewhere had to suffer to wear down Hitler's Wehrmacht. It was Britain's good fortune that this time it was not us.
As the bugles sound at the ceremonies in northern France today, we can mourn the hundreds of thousands they recall, and cherish a bleak gratitude. The scale of sacrifice remains unique. But the great poppy fields of the second world war lay in Russia rather than France and Flanders.
Posted 01 July 2006 - 11:37 PM
The British Army were forced to promote many of the NCOs, so that by the time the pre-war officers were liberated from POW camps in Germany in 1945, the Colonel then had been the pre-war Colonel's batman (personal servant).
My dad was a Sergeant commanding a Churchill Crocodile tank. This was a heavy tank, which pulled a trailer full of napalm, designed to cause dug-in infantry (who lacked anti-tank weapons, since the trailer was a sitting target!) to surrender. He was sent over to Normandy a week after D-Day and his unit fought from there to Denmark.
The few times he went into action, it worked like clockwork. Two tanks would approach a German line advancing alternately until they were close enough to send out a burst of flame. The Germans promptly surrendered (who wants to be burnt to death?), and the infantry behind the tanks walked forward and collected their weapons.
Once they were being followed by a joint US-British force, and the Americans decided to show the British who was best, so they faced ahead of the tanks. The Germans promptly mowed them down with machine guns …
Most often, though, my dad and his unit waited 200 metres behind the advance, because the British officers commanding the infantry thought it was unsporting to use flame-throwers. He'd often hear a couple of public schoolboys betting that 'our chaps'll get there before your chaps'. A quarter of an hour later, he'd see the casualties being brought past.
BTW, when the 5/7 Lancers' pre-war officers *were* released, the British Army promptly transferred the successful military leaders and replaced them with the fools who were outsmarted by Rommel in 1941. Fortunately, the war had progressed so far by then that these clowns couldn't do too much damage.
My grandad, BTW, ended WW1 as a sergeant too, having fought in every major battle from Gallipoli to the German offensive of April 1918 (as Orwell said, who remembers the battles in which the Allies actually *beat* the Germans?). That was quite an achievement, since he was in an Irish regiment (and the Irish were always given front-row seats at any battle!). I'm not a pacifist as such, but I'm very glad that the UK doesn't have conscription. If it had, I'd have spent a lot of my twenties avoiding having anything to do with the clowns who run the British Army.
I'm far from sure that the Battle of the Somme was a historical aberration - it looks to me much more like the British Army norm.
Posted 07 October 2007 - 05:55 PM
During the battle Hudson was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Military Cross. He also took part in two other battles that cost large numbers of lives: Messines Ridge and Passchendaele. Amazingly, he survived these attacks and in 1917 Hudson was sent to Italy to help in the fight against the Austro-Hungarian Army. In February 1918, Hudson's battalion took over from an Italian regiment on the Asiago plateau in the mountains of northern Italy near Granezza.
Hudson and his battalion was sent to hold the front line on the San Sisto ridge. On 15th June 1918 he was involved in action that led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross. According to the London Gazette: "The shelling had been very heavy on the right, the trench destroyed, and considerable casualties had occurred, and all the officers on the spot had been killed or wounded. This enabled the enemy to penetrate our front line. The enemy pushed their advance as far as the support line which was the key to our right flank. The situation demanded immediate action. Lieutenant Colonel Hudson recognising its gravity at once collected various headquarter details, such as orderlies, servants, runners, etc., and together with some Allies, personally led them up the hill. Driving the enemy down the hill towards our front line, he again led a party of about five up the trench, where there were about 200 enemy, in order to attack them from the flank. He then with two men got out of the tranch and rushed the position, shouting to the enemy to surrender, some of whom did. He was then severely wounded by a bomb which exploded on his foot. Although in great pain, he gave directions for the counter-attack to be continued and this was done successfully, about 100 prisoners and six machine guns being taken."
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Hudson was part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by General John Gort that went to France. Once again he survived but on his return a dispute with a senior officer resulted in him losing his command. He was sent to Northern Ireland and later served in the Middle East before being appointed Aide-de-camp to the King George V in 1944.
Anyway, here is his account of the Somme offensive that appears in Soldier, Poet, Rebel (2007):
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.
Reply to this topic
0 user(s) are reading this topic
0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users