Chapter 6: The Somme
1: First sight of the front line
On July 5th the battalion was at Dernancourt. The Somme offensive had started, and all sorts of rumours were flying about: we had got no farther than the parapet of our own trenches; we were taking prisoners by the thousand and villages with ease. Both reports were true for particular sectors. But at the best there was no break through, and the weeks’ training of the division in open warfare had gone into the limbo of lost and useless efforts. Indeed, Guy’s brigade were already under orders to enter the fighting and to capture Contalmaison.
Guy stood watching a long range gun mounted on the railway. It fired with an ear-splitting noise and then ran along the line. Guy at length grew tired and turned to the Company Mess. A large number of new officers had arrived, and the edict had gone out that some were to remain behind. The reason was not mentioned—it was too obvious they might prove useful and have plenty to do when the battalion came out again. Guy found on his return that he was one who would go into the attack. His reaction to the news was not unalloyed pleasure. He was ashamed that it wasn’t. He would have hated to be left behind—but still!… It made your heart beat a bit faster.
Guy received orders an hour later to go up the line with an officer from each of the other companies to ‘view the position’. They were to go some of the way on horseback. Guy hoisted himself up clumsily therefore on to the company charger. Dix had taught him more or less to ride; but he had only fallen off once so far, and even himself hardly considered that he had reached proficiency. Further, when the horse started to trot, his new steel helmet crashed down on his head with recurring and excruciating jars at each step. Guy tried adjusting the strap very tight and sticking his chin out. But it didn’t help much, so he took the damned thing off.
They passed half-ruined houses along the white road. And then British guns behind their camouflage netting. Guy saw on the rolling slopes ahead a row of blasted and stunted trees and a long, whitish gash which was a trench system. Observation balloons, silvered in the sun, dotted the sky above the wide landscape. There was the lazy stillness of summer afternoon about—only accentuated by the occasional firing of guns and landing of shells. The battlefield, between attacks, was quiet.
A shell landed about a hundred yards away with a black spout of earth, and Guy’s horse shied. Guy, with his heart in his mouth, tugged at the curb—on such a serious mission as this it would be most undignified to have one’s horse run away. . . .
Guy was glad when they left their horses and proceeded on foot. He put on his ‘tin hat’ again. They passed through broken trenches, with red poppies and yellow charlock growing in between. And then they were walking through the tumbled wreckage of Fricourt, and up along a wide, straight sunken road with sloping banks. Ambulances were coming down this road. And on each side there was confusion—there was mud and shell-holes and battered trenches with their woodwork thrown askew, and all the ruin and the rubbish of a demolished village. Our field-guns were firing a little. But otherwise everything was still very quiet. Then their guide asked a question of a ‘walking wounded’ coming down the road. “Turn to the right by the dead major!” he told them.
They went on, and the road became narrower, and less distinguishable as a road. Dead men began to appear. Guy had never seen dead men before. But then he expected them here. . . . He noticed, however, that mostly their faces were a livid white-green. He hadn’t expected that… He wondered why it was—was it gas, or was it the fumes from the explosions?
They came to the dead major. He lay carelessly against a bank of earth. Guy saw on his tunic the ribbon of the V.C. The major’s arm was flung out, and on it showed prominently the crown and three stripes—it was this that had made him a signpost. Guy and the others turned to the right by him, as directed.
They made their way along a low trench and came to what was at the moment the front line. Nobody was troubling to keep in cover below the parapet—apparently it wasn’t necessary. Guy saw ahead stretches of wide meadow. Beyond—about two-thirds of a mile away, Guy judged— stood the village of Contalmaison. Its house roofs shone bright amongst its trees, and, though we were shelling it, the place looked remarkably intact. Guy and his companions stared in silence at the ground over which they were to attack—and tried to think of something to report about it. None of them possessed sufficient tactical knowledge to appreciate how very hard would be a frontal attack over that ground.
As they watched, a file of Germans suddenly ran back from trenches in front of the village. They appeared, insignificant and terrified little creatures, very minute but clear in the bright sunshine. “Get a machine-gun on to them!” yelled someone. But instead, as they watched, a shell with a white puff seemed to burst right amongst them. They bent and scattered and then disappeared. Guy was surprised and disappointed that none, so far as he could see, had been killed. But he was thrilled because he had seen his first Germans!…
They went back after staring a little longer, and trudged in silence down the long road.
Guy, trying not to see the dead faces, endeavoured to decide what he could report. But then his thoughts turned back to the dead major. And held there for the rest of the return journey. Guy had been affected by the dead major—he saw him now very clearly in his mind’s eye.
He had had his eyes open, that major. And they were very blue. And he was very handsome and fine-looking, and infinitely pitiable. Somehow that single figure brought home to Guy more than all the number of other corpses the great tragedy of death. He was young, that major— rather he had been young… Cut off in his prime. And he had won the V.C.! Guy wondered when and how he had won the V.C. Perhaps he had earned it once again… when he died… But still, it didn’t matter much now. It didn’t matter. He just lay there. Lay there, and acted as a signpost. “Turn to the right,” they said, “by the dead major!”
2: Marching the platoon to the front
The next day Guy was traversing again the road he had covered on horseback. But this time he marched, in column of fours, with his battalion. It seemed much farther marching. Staff cars and A.S.C. lorries and ambulances and phut-phutting despatch riders passed them and powdered them with dust.
After a time they marched into a field at the side of the road and piled arms and fell out to eat a meal.
Guy ate little. He wondered whether anyone had much of an appetite. Sententiously perhaps, or perhaps only naturally, he wondered which of the company’s officers would come alive out of this. Green, the over-religious second-lieutenant whom Guy had left behind at Plymouth and who had now joined ‘A’ company, said that he felt within him he would never be killed. And then Mason apparently felt no qualms. He wanted to go into the attack —he had a brother to avenge. But what about the others?
The battalion had another rest in the sunken road at Fricourt. Guy had more time to notice things now. It seemed to Guy that here were no house walls in Fricourt more than three feet high. It was no longer a village it was a place of strewn debris. Trees, too, were splintered down to their base. It was not so much desolation as decomposition—a mass of tossed and tumbled rubble and litter. Guy left Betty Dix’s side and wandered around the chaos. He came across a big-mouthed German mortar, its emplacement smashed across. But there he ceased to poke about lest he should come across German dead.
He came back to Dix at the edge of the road, and sat silent. Twilight was coming. The sector was not so quiet as in the afternoon. A number of ambulances were bumping and swaying down the road. Groans came from most of the ambulances.
“They ought to give everybody a packet of morphia before they go into a battle!” said Dix, and Guy did his best not to visualize the kind of eventualities Dix was seeking to guard against.
‘A’ company was housed for the night finally in old German trenches, very deep, immediately each side of the road. Our field howitzers, stationed about here, were making such an immense noise, each explosion something stabbing and staccato and separate and yet merging into one great roar, as Guy most certainly had never heard the like of before. The Germans were shelling too.
This was the first serious shell-fire Guy had been under. Guy, after seeing his platoon into dugouts, reported to Dix, standing above the trench. The shells seemed to be sending up spouts of earth all around them, and Guy had to shout. He didn’t feel particularly afraid. He felt optimistic about it all. Nothing very serious had happened to him in his life yet—he didn’t think therefore that these shells would hit him now. He felt even more than that: he felt proud that they didn’t hit him, proud that he was so calm; elated. He stood his ground nonchalantly and with some curiosity, and let Dix suggest first that it might be healthier down below.
Guy had a bully beef supper and then explored the dug-out. He found some German overcoats and industriously cut off the shoulder-straps and buttons for souvenirs. Then he lay down upon the hard mud floor and put some of the overcoats over him—that is to say, he went to bed. There was nothing else to do. And, as Dix said, they ought to get a good night—if they could.
Guy’s excitement and elation had gone. He began thinking about the attack tomorrow.
But then the mail came up, and Guy was given a letter from his mother, and opened it and read it, propped upon his elbow. His mother wrote in a simple, direct sort of way, putting down what came into her head without any effort at connection.
‘MY DARLING GUY,’ she wrote, “ I do hope you’re still out of those horrid trenches. I got your last letter to-day, but it took a long time coming. Cecil has got home on leave at last. He says there’s going to be what he calls a ‘Push’. I do hope he is not right. We don’t see much of him at present. He goes up to London nearly every day. He says he must have a bit of a gay time, and I suppose he deserves it, poor boy. I think there’s some girl he goes to see, but he will tell me nothing about it.’
Guy read into the lines disappointment and a mild complaint there. He could see Cecil’s point of view—and his mother’s too, only very much less clearly. It struck him how little he had thought about Cecil during the last months. Guy had a younger-brother admiration for Cecil. Cecil had sometimes bullied him, yet had often been kind to him and taken an interest in him. But now, Guy felt, he and his brother had lost touch.
‘I told you,’ the letter continued, ‘about Kathleen’s wedding, didn’t I? It was a very grand affair. And now she is staying with her husband’s people a few days before he goes out to France. She says it’s a most lovely house. I think they find it rather quiet at your Uncle Charles’s without her. Your uncle doesn’t seem to get on like your father does. Though it does seem awful to be making more money because there’s a war. Anne says Uncle Charles is rather miserable and does his best to forget all about the War. I wish we could! Anne has been receiving a lot of congratulations now she’s private secretary to a Sea Lord, or whatever it is. I’m not quite sure of the correct title.
‘I wish Molly were as happy. She doesn’t like helping at your father’s office much. Your school friend, White, took her out to a theatre the other night. He’s with some training battalion. I don’t quite understand what. I didn’t think it quite right, Molly going out, I mean, but Anne said it was quite all right nowadays.
‘Well, darling, I don’t think there’s any more news. I wish I could see you just a minute, darling. I do wish this horrid war would end. Cecil makes me feel horrid talking about his ‘Push’. The papers talk about a lot of bombardment, too. Do take care of yourself, darling. We all send our love. I’m getting your father to pack up a parcel to-morrow. I shall put in some of that chocolate for you. God bless you, my darling.
‘Your loving mother,
Guy turned the letter over. There was a ‘P.S.’ scribbled in minute writing on the top of the first sheet above the embossed address:
‘I’ve just seen the evening paper. The ‘Push’ has started. Oh, I do hope you’re not in it. Pray to God, and He will keep you safe. I read of a soldier, darling, who was saved from a bit of shrapnel by having his Bible in his breast pocket.”
There was no room for any more.
Guy was not very moved by this letter. He was sorry for his mother—genuinely sorry. But he had no means of understanding her feelings with any depth. And the end of her letter was too like the ending of a dozen other letters he had received lately. Nor, for that matter, was he exactly in the mood to make an effort at understanding other people’s points of view.
For this was, after all, the supreme hour of Guy’s life so far. It was indeed the ‘eve of the battle’, ‘the night before the attack’. And by sentimental standards Guy should have been thinking of his home and his village with yearning and longing and regret. As a matter of fact, he did so think for a few moments. But it was entirely unemotionally. He just saw pictures of the dark dining-room with its heavy green tablecloth, of their garden, of the village street. And he saw them in a completely detached manner. He felt detached. Those things were of another world—so unlike that blown-up chaos outside, those scattered dead, this dim candle-light in the mud-walled German dug-out, that quite simply they could not be connected. The present and the immediate future were too strong for Guy to be able long to think of anything else.
Guy began, therefore, to think once more of the attack tomorrow. And here again his thoughts ought to have been heroic. But they were not. He thought simply that he had got to go through with all this and that on the whole he wished he hadn’t. Perhaps if he could have felt a hero he would have been considerably happier. But his surroundings did not conduce to that feeling.
He thought instead of the responsibilities and possibilities of the morrow. He had heard enough during the last four days to know that ‘going over the top’ in this Somme offensive was not, especially for an officer, an amusing or an enviable occupation. He thought soberly, therefore. He looked around him. Mason was asleep; Green was reading a Bible; Dix stared back without smiling. Guy felt no help nor any comradeship anywhere. He felt now unhappy and coldly miserable. It became gradually a physical feeling.
An unpleasant feeling—inside him. A feeling called expressively ‘wind up’…
Guy turned over and tried to get to sleep.
He slept only rather little that night. As he put it to himself, the bare ground was hard, and it was cold without your own trench-coat.
3: They go over the top
They had breakfast at five-thirty the next morning. Crumb, the cook, did wonders and produced fried bacon. Guy didn’t feel very much like fried bacon.
Then they were told that their attack was to be delayed for half an hour. Guy had no idea of the reason of this—that an attack the night before which they were to depend upon had failed, that, it being too late to alter the artillery programme, they would lose half the advantage of their own barrage. He only knew that he hated the delay.
When it was nearly time to start and he stood at the head of his men, Guy saw an old schoolfellow coming down the sunken road. The two met and talked. “I’ve just,” said the other, “come out of a stunt,”.and Guy envied him with all his heart. “It’s pretty hot up there,” said the other, and passed cheerfully on…
Guy looked at his watch, and made the necessary effort to force himself to carry on. He had a last glance at his map, on which was marked in indelible pencil his jumping-off‘ point and his objective, and felt, for reassurance, for his revolver in its holster and the extra ammunition in his breeches pocket. Then he said: “ Platoon, shun! By the right, at ease, quick march! ” They walked up the road, mostly in silence. A few wounded, coming down, greeted them. They came to the field-guns, barking each side of the road. They came to the dead major and turned to the right by him—he was still there.
And now they were in the narrow trench, waist high. They came to the spot where Guy had first surveyed the ground over which they were to attack, and they bore to the right and went on. There were many more dead strewn about here. They had greenish-white faces again. They lay in grotesque, crumpled attitudes. Guy and his men came to one who had died of haemorrhage. His face was dead white and he stared up to the sky, and he had wide, red, frothy lips. He looked like a clown. Exactly like a clown. Guy was always to remember that face.
But Guy was not afraid now. He had got past that. It was as if his courage had been wound up, reluctantly, against resistance, and was now being kept in position as a ratchet is kept by a pawl. He didn’t have to worry any more. He was ‘for it’—he could view the future with comparative equanimity.
Guy’s platoon was to move forward at eight o’clock from a little grass-grown gully running off straight from the trench. Guy found the gully and filed his men into it and extended them down it. Then he climbed the bank and looked over its brim. He re-noted the little green copse which stood on his left front. Contalmaison seemed to him a long way away. Guy slipped down again and looked at his synchronized watch. It was seven minutes to eight.
Nobody talked much in that seven minutes. Twice someone said: “How much longer, sir?” Everyone was keyed up artificially, as Guy was keyed up. It was an unnatural condition. It was not an exaltation, rather a self-drugging. The brain didn’t work quickly, it was sluggish—waiting.
Guy drew out his revolver, snapped open the breach to see that it was loaded. Then he fished out his whistle. They were all lying flat on the grassy bank, just below its lip. Guy began following round the second hand of his watch. He could hear his heart thumping. And he felt slightly sick. Then he was standing up. He blew his whistle and gave the correct under-arm-bowling signal to advance. He scrambled up into the open. At that moment he felt rather proud.
They didn’t meet any machine-gun fire at first. They met nothing. Guy led his men over the green field at a slow double. He noticed that it had started to rain. And then they came to a low, muddy trench, which was a continuation of the one they had left to go into their gully.
The men jumped into it. Guy found that another platoon of his company were in it already. Shortt, the company second-in-command, was near to him. “Hello!” he said. “What are you doing here? You’ve gone too much to your left.” Guy agreed. And then Shortt chaffed him for having his revolver out already. “What’re you going to do with that?” he asked. “Kill Germans?” “Some time!” Guy answered, feeling rather a fool; and put the revolver back in its holster. Everybody around laughed.
“Bear out to your right when you move,” said Shortt.
“We’ll go on.”
The two platoons spread into a reasonably good line when they started again. It all seemed rather like a field day. And then a machine-gun started from somewhere to their left front. Guy heard its knock-knock grow louder and then fainter as it traversed round. Then another started and then another. Guy heard the swish of the bullets. He thought he saw someone on his extreme left fall.
Suddenly Shortt gave the signal to lie down. Guy's men took it as a signal for them too. Guy followed suit.
The rain was coming down steadily now. Guy lay very flat with his heels pressed down. What ought he to do now? He ought to make a ‘sectional rush’. He would do it with his own platoon. He didn’t want to do it—it needed an effort. “Pass it down,” he said to the men each side of him: “My platoon is going to do a short rush.” He waited, tried to seize a moment when the machine-guns were firing to his left, and then sprang up and blew his whistle.
The men rose stragglingly and ran slowly. Guy heard the bullets come hissing by once. With their return he signalled the ‘lie down’. Again the lying fiat. Guy tried to make out the German trenches. But he could not distinguish them. It was no use telling his men to fire—best let them lie as flat as possible.
Shortt brought his men up to Guy’s. Then just as Guy was summoning courage for another rush, Dix, coming from behind, suddenly threw himself down at Guy’s side. “I’m not going to try and get any farther,” he said. “It’s simply chucking the men away. We could never get all that way against this machine-gun fire!” “What are you going to do then?” asked Guy.
“Wait. ‘B’ company are on the right. And the Worcesters. They haven’t got so far to go. They may get in on the flank.”
“All right!” said Guy. Dix had disappeared.
“Pass the word,” Guy ordered, “to stay where you are at present. And keep flat!” Guy realized that his clothes were becoming sodden with the rain. The machine-gunning was continuing—Guy flinched every time he heard it soughing round towards him.
He thought he heard somewhere a cry. Our guns were shelling Contalmaison and the big shells were whining overhead…
“You’d better all get into the shelter of the wood.” It was Dix by his side again.
Guy passed down the order, and the men, running with their knees and backs bent, made for the wood.
And almost immediately German shelling began there. “Whizz-bangs” came with a quick shriek and exploded before you had time to realize the warning. Everyone lay along the outskirts of the little wood, or just inside, and said nothing. The shelling seemed to grow heavier. Somewhere there was a repeated groan.
Guy looked round. There was no sign of Dix. Or Shortt. The men were no longer treating Guy as a precious baby now. The position was reversed. Guy was really in command. The men round him began to grumble. “This is a bloody death trap!” they said. “Let's get out of it!” “Shut up and keep down!” yelled Guy. He considered whether they were right—and came to the conclusion that to stay in the wood was the lesser of two evils.
But what was going to happen? A shell with a vicious sudden roar came just in front of Guy’s head—and failed to explode. It knocked down a young sapling and the sapling fell across Guy’s legs. Guy extricated himself and looked at the shell not more than a yard away from him. His escape made him feel temporarily exultant.
But again, what was going to happen? It seemed to Guy on looking round that there were less men about. Had Dix given the order to retire and it hadn’t reached him? Well, he wouldn’t retire without orders.
Guy stayed where he was, with his men. And the rain and the shelling continued. But the men didn’t grouse any more. They just lay quiet. More men were getting wounded. Some of them were crawling back. And Guy was quite certain now that some at least of the men other than his own platoon had retired. But still, he had no orders…
And then at last the assistant adjutant, a young Australian whom Guy had known at Plymouth, was beside him. Guy was very glad to see him.
“Where’s Dix?” he was asked.
Guy said he didn’t know.
The assistant adjutant said: “Everybody seems to have retired.”
They discussed the matter.
“I think you’d better go back,” Guy was told. “ ‘B’ company have reached the German trenches, I believe. But this is a bloody fiasco here. As far as I can make out, we’re the only ones who haven’t retired.” The men needed no encouragement to retire. Stooping, they ran back.
Guy followed them. They came to the trench where earlier the two platoons had met. It was full of men. Guy didn’t know where they had all come from. And it was full of mud, too. The rain had done that—mud up to the knees, the consistency of stuff men bale out from street gratings.
The shelling was much worse now: big stuff, and shrapnel bursting overhead. The men were getting back as best they could, wading through, intent only on getting out of it. It was everybody for himself; it was something near to panic.
“Get back to our jumping off place—pass it along!” yelled Guy.
There were wounded in the trench. One lay with his leg smashed raw. “Water!” he kept on crying.
“Water!” Everybody stepped over him and waded on.
Guy lugged out his water-bottle. The man thanked him with his eyes, and sank back. Ought he to carry him, Guy asked himself. Or was he safer where he was, at the bottom of the trench, until the stretcher-bearers came? And wasn’t it his own job to keep control of his men? Not feeling very happy about it, Guy passed on. Other wounded huddled themselves into the sides of the trench.
The trench began to get deeper. But no less muddy. The shelling was no less—the Huns had the trench ‘taped’. Guy began to pass some now who were sheltering under the sides of the trench in places where these had been dug out to overhang. But to Guy it seemed better to go on and get back to something like formation and order. “Come on!” he yelled. But he doubted whether anyone heard him… would they ever get out of this? My God! He passed a sergeant of his company. He, too, was sheltering under the trench wall. The sergeant was calm but quite aware that things were serious. “Worse than the 9th of May, sir!” he said.
Guy waded on, with men in front and behind him… And then there was a terrific crack above Guy’s head.
Guy felt a kick in the left shoulder-blade and a numb sensation in his right arm—as if a giant had hit his funny-bone. Suddenly he noticed with amazement that his right forearm, entirely without his volition, was twisting round upwards and outwards away from him. Then as suddenly it stopped and fell limp by his side. It came to Guy that he had been wounded.