Battle of the Somme
There are eight days to go until the Battle of the Somme. Today sees Lieutenant Malcolm White’s final day of hard work near Beaumont Hamel. His 1st Rifle Brigade, and all the other battalions who are due to attack on Day 1, are about to be given a short period of total rest.
A real June day; but I seem to see nothing at present but a feverish and tired phantasmagoria of wagons, sand-bags, ‘materiel’, copies of orders, men and horses.
Let us now take a moment and consider what’s going to happen when White goes over the top. VIII Corps and General Hunter-Weston is responsible for the very north of the battle front. Let’s have a look at the map.
Their job is, on paper, simple enough. First they advance across No Man’s Land and capture the initial German trenches, which no doubt will be child’s play. Then the corps must push on and capture the two fortified villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre that anchor the German First Line positions in this area. With a little luck, their central division will then be able to move out of the First Line to have a pop at Munich Trench. This is a last-resort fullback line that runs out of Serre to cut the road between Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel, and prevents an attacking enemy force from quickly marching on the Second Line.
The BEF’s Brains Trust is very much aware that Serre and Beaumont Hamel are among the strongest positions on the battlefield. But that’s no reason to be pessimistic. They’ve thought of that. There is, after all, more artillery than ever before, firing a longer and more intense bombardment than ever before. They’ve also quite deliberately sent VIII Corps here; two out of their three divisions are old Regular Army divisions, still with plenty of old Regular Army men despite the casualties they’ve taken. Those two divisions will be thrown against Beaumont Hamel, the stronger of the two positions. (31st Division, which will attack Serre, is not only a Kitchener’s Army division, it also has a very large proportion of Pals battalions compared to other divisions.)
There’s another complication around Beaumont Hamel; right in the middle of the First Line in front of it is the Hawthorn Redoubt. This is a large trench fortress, laid out similarly to the Hohenzollern Redoubt near Loos which caused such problems there. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. The Engineers have been digging a gigantic mine underneath the redoubt. And, just to cap off all the reasons to be cheerful, VIII Corps has heard of these new French “rolling barrage” ideas, and all their artillerymen are keen to have a go at it.
Even better, Malcolm White and the 1st Rifle Brigade have, through the luck of the draw, managed to avoid attacking either of the two fortified villages directly. Instead, their battalion’s job will be to attack the trenches at a point pretty much halfway between the two villages, and set up a platform from which someone else can hopefully move on to Munich Trench. He’s in a nasty old spot here; but he has managed to find the least dangerous part of it.
Hunter-Weston: from Krithia to Beaumont Hamel
Now then. General Hunter-Weston has had a lot of time to think about his experiences on Gallipoli, and he’s learned a number of things. A while ago, we checked in with him and he appeared to be a born-again convert to General Rawlinson’s church of bite and hold. That, however was a long time ago. In the meantime, he’s been subsisting on a steady diet of extremely optimistic intelligence reports. He’s of course going to have access to a lot more artillery than they could ever have dreamed of on Gallipoli. The terrain here is far kinder and allows for far simpler plans for the advance. He’s even been rather taken by this new “rolling barrage” idea, and all his divisions will be using it in some form. All of this stuff appears to have convinced him that his Gallipoli experiences are irrelevant; the situations are just too different to be compared.
In fact, just about the only lesson he appears to truly have learned from Gallipoli is the attitude practiced by Sir Ian Hamilton. “If my boss says it can be done, then it can be done.” Having committed to this, he appears to have internalised every single positive attitude going. And he’s also allowing for considerable fiddling with details. That rolling barrage, for instance. The French have now standardised them for best effect; the guns begin firing about 50 yards into No Man’s Land, in front of the German trenches, and then advance at a rate of about 50 yards per minute. The men are then encouraged to “lean” on the barrage as much as possible, following close behind to ensure that the Germans can’t get up and out of their trenches before the attack is upon them.
There is a lot of skepticism about this in British circles, particularly the concept of firing into No Man’s Land, where we know that there are no Germans. It is a rather counter-intuitive idea. Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are very worried, and not without reason, that if their men take friendly fire from the barrage, they’ll simply stop advancing. They also think that 50 yards per minute is far too slow. (I imagine a few red tabs strolling slowly over a measured 100-yard distance and finding they can do it quite comfortably in less than a minute.) 100 yards per minute is a much better, and more optimistic, figure. This, I think, is fair enough; nobody in the British artillery has done rolling barrages before, so you can kind of understand the desire to experiment.
Less understandable is Hunter-Weston’s attitude towards the Hawthorn Redoubt mine. He wants it blown in the dark, at 3:30am, so the crater can be seized and used as a jumping-off point to feed men into the remains of the redoubt. Fair enough, except for the part where most BEF experience on the Western Front has shown that it’s hard enough to capture mine craters when there’s daylight to see by. There’s been squabbling over the timing for the last little while, as most everyone else in this attack who’s got a supporting mine is content for it to go off at the exact minute of the attack.
But Hunter-Weston will not be told. In the end, they’ll come to a ludicrous compromise. Hunter-Weston won’t get his 3:30am detonation. But he will get a slight delay; the mine will go 10 minutes before the men go over the top. Which defeats the entire point of detonating the mine early. Nobody now attempts to defend this utterly ridiculous idea. Few try to explain it. One last note before we move on; not all Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are happy with the plan. But we’ve talked about this man enough, for now. That’s a story for another day.
We have been bombarded by 210s for exactly 24 hours. The Germans have been attacking on our right since 6pm. We crouch there, packs on our backs, waiting, scanning the top of the ridge to see what is happening, and this lasts until nightfall. In some companies there have been cases of madness. How much longer are we going to stay in this situation? Night comes and the guns still fire. Our trenches have collapsed. It’s a tangle of equipment and guns left by the wounded. There’s nothing human about it. Why don’t they send the deputies, senators, and generals here?
Our nerves can’t take much more. Can’t move or sleep. There are no more shelters. The front-line troops are so fatigued and jumpy that at every moment they believe they are being attacked and ask for artillery support. Red flares follow, our artillery does its best, it’s hellish.
And yet they’re still alive. As long as they can dig for themselves, as long as there are craters to hide in, some of the men will stay alive, and perhaps some of them will be able to fight at the end of it. It seems that the Germans have found and then flown right past the point of diminishing returns. Hoping for total destruction of the enemy via artillery fire could well be a fool’s errand.
Louis Barthas today proves that even he can say things that set my teeth on edge against him. As we join them somewhere near Chenilles in Champagne, his squad has got lost in the dark for the 3,219th time.
I was at the front of the line, which doesn’t have any particular merit, but which explains my great surprise and terror when two harsh and ominous voices roared out “[French equivalent of ‘Halt! Who goes there?’] And as lightning flashed I saw the points of two menacing bayonets advancing toward my chest. At a second flash I saw two faces as black as the finest ebony, but hardly reassuring. So, there were man-eaters, cannibals, in the Bois de Chenilles, right in the middle of Champagne!
“Comrades!” I cried out. “We aren’t Boches! Please, let us pass!” Ah, yes. Let us pass. That’s all we needed to say to not be skewered on bayonets. But we had to take the long way around. After some discussion among themselves, these blacks who spoke French so well told us that they were from Martinique. There were quite a number of them in the regiment next to ours, and they were able to give us helpful directions for getting back to our shelters.
Our shelters, where each of us had a wire-mesh bunk, an innovation which seemed to us an unaccustomed luxury. The supplier of that wire mesh—yet another one who will make his fortune! The war is not an equally cruel scourge to everyone.
Cor blimey, black people who know what they’re about, slap me vitals, and other such unconvincing expressions of disbelief. I wonder if they’d have let you pass if they knew what you were thinking? Martinique is part of the French Empire, a small island out in the Caribbean, in the Lesser Antilles.
Oskar Teichman has a lot to say about today’s desert march. I’ve cut it way down.
At 1 am our little party left the camp, accompanied by the Padre. Our way lay through Hill 40, and passing through this post in the dark was quite jumpy work, as the sentries were very much on the alert and suddenly leapt out of obscurity into the middle of the track with bayonet fixed and gruff challenge. By 2.30 am it was getting light as we arrived at the last fortified camp, known as Hill 70. Here we watered our horses as the sun rose behind the great sand mountain Katib Abu Asab, a landmark for miles around. Up till now we had been following a desert track by the side of our narrow-gauge railway, laid down by the Royal Engineers, but now we struck across the open.
A wonderful mirage appeared in the Bay of Tina, rows of white houses being seen apparently standing in the water; this was evidently caused by a reflection of Port Said, some 25 miles to the west. We now followed a field-telephone wire which would eventually lead us to Romani. … The landscape altered and we had begun to enter the great Katia waterbelt, or the land of Hods. A Hod is usually a depression in the desert, studded with palm-trees and containing water, of a varying degree of brackishness, just below the surface of the ground.
This water can sometimes be drunk by human beings, and horses will generally drink it unless the degree of salinity is very high. When drunk by the former, intestinal catarrhs are apt to follow. The water is usually obtained by sinking a shaft four to six feet deep, revetting the sides with sandbags, and then letting in a cylinder of corrugated iron. It was considered essential that the Katia waterbelt should be held by our troops, as it was the last district the Turks could obtain water from, and thus constituted a jumping-off place for an attack on the Canal.
The first camp was that occupied by the Bikaner and Egyptian Camel Corps. Here we saw thousands of camels, which carried out all the transport of supplies and water to the isolated posts. Romani was, at this time, both railhead and pipe-head. We rode on a mile or two through the various camps, which were very much spread out on account of recent enemy bombing, until we reached Brigade HQ of the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade, situated in a little Hod by itself.
The Brigade was out on reconnaissance, but we found the Staff Captain and Supply Officer, from whom we drew three days’ rations for our men and horses. We also procured the regulation amount of water and a certain number of camels.
They’ve come about 30 miles in 10 hours, and now settle down to attempt sleep.
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