Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Battle of the Somme

A piece from "A History of the Battle of the Somme", by John Masefield, published in 1917

The Battle of the Somme
by John Masefield, written in 1917

The Battle

A MOMENT before the whistles blew, in the morning of July 1, 1916, when the Battle of the Somme began, the No Man's Land, into which our men advanced, was a strip of earth without life, made smoky, dusty, and dim by explosions which came out of the air upon it, and left black, curling, slowly fading, dust and smoke-devils behind them. Into this smoke and dust and dimness, made intenser by the stillness of the blue summer morning, came suddenly the run of many thousands of men at the point of death.

Not less than twenty thousand men clambered up the parapet at that instant. They tripped and tore through the wire, already in lanes, and went on to their fronts, into the darkness of death, cheering each other with cries that could be heard above the roaring and the crashing of the battle. On the instant, before all the men were out of the trenches, the roaring lifted up its voice as the fire doubled and the enemy machine guns opened.

Many men among those thousands were hit as they showed above the parapet, many others never cleared the wire; but the rest drew clear and went forward, some walking, some running, most of them in a kind of jog-trot, some aligned in a slow advance, or in rushes of platoons, till the green river of the No Man's Land was dotted with their moving bodies throughout the sector. Perhaps not many of all those thousands knew what was happening even quite close at hand, for in those times all souls are shaken, and the air was dim, and the tumult terrible. Watchers in our old lines saw only a multitude of men-crossing a dimness which kept glittering.

They saw many of the runners falling as they ran, some getting up and going on, others moving a little, others lying still. They saw as it were dead lines, where all the runners fell, even the strongest.

They saw promising swarms of men dropping in twos or threes, till the rush was only a few men, who went on until they fell like the others and lay in little heaps in their tracks. There was nothing to show why they fell. Men looked for them to rise and go on with the few little leading figures who were drawing near to the enemy wire. They could see no enemy. They could not even see the jets of smoke, hardly bigger than the puffs blown from a kettle at the instant of boiling, which spurted from enemy machine guns along the whole line.

Within a few minutes, the second and third waves were following on the first, not knowing, in that darkness of dust and tumult, what success had been won, if any.

Our attack was made on a front of sixteen miles. To the south of this, at the same moment, the French attacked on a front of nine miles. Let the reader imagine any narrow strip of twenty-five miles known to him -- the course of the Thames, say, from London to Maidenhead, or from Pangbourne to Oxford -- suddenly rushed by many thousands of men, many of them falling dead or maimed upon the way. 

For the look of the charge let him remember some gust of wind on a road in autumn when the leaves are lying. The gust sweeps some array of leaves into the road and flings them forward in a rush strangely like the rush of men as seen from a distance. As in the rush of men, many leaves drop out, crawl again forward, cease, quiver, and lie still; many others lose touch of direction, the impulse may falter, the course swerve, but some are whirled across the road into the gutters at the other side.

The Weather

In modern war wet weather favors the defense. It is especially harassing to the attacker when it falls, as it so often has fallen in this war, at the moment of a first success, when so much depends on the roads being hard enough to bear the advancing cannon which secure a conquered strip.

Our success between Maricourt and Ovillers had made it necessary to advance our guns along a front of six miles, which means that we had to put suddenly, upon little country roads, only one of which was reasonably good, and none of which had been used for wheeled traffic for the best part of two years, while all had been shelled, trenched across, and mined, at intervals, in all that time, a great traffic of horses, guns, caissons, and mechanical transport. When the weather broke, as it broke on the 4th of July, 1916, the holes and trenches to be filled in became canals and pools, and the surface of the earth a rottenness. The work was multiplied fifty-fold and precious time was lost.

The rain hindered our advance during the next three days, though our attacks on the approaches to Contalmaison and Mametz Wood proceeded. On the west side of the Contalmaison spur our men carried the fortified copses and won the Horseshoe, after three days of most bloody and determined fighting in a little field. On the east side of the Contalmaison spur our men attacked the Quadrangle, got three sides of it, and attacked the fourth. This fourth side, known as the Quadrangle Support, could be reinforced from Contalmaison and from Mametz Wood, and could be observed and fired into from both places, so that though our men got into it and took it in a night attack, they could not hold it.

On the western side of the village beyond the hedges which once closed the gardens at the backs of the houses on that side, the ground slopes into the head of Mash Valley in a slope so mild that it is almost perfect as a field of fire. If you turn your back upon the village, walk for half a mile across the Mash Valley-head, and then to k at the village, it appears as a skyline or ridge, with a few tree stumps upon it, and those other heaps or marks: the windmill, the school, and Gibraltar. 

Looking round, from that point, one sees only a markless wilderness of shell-holes, full of water or ice in the winter, and of dryish mud at other times, between which, in the summer, a coarse grass full of weeds thrives knee-deep. From the west through the north to the east the land is all this wilderness as far as the skyline. It is a desert of destruction, with no mark to guide upon it. Up those slopes, all looking alike, on to those plateaux all looking alike, our men advanced upon trenches all looking alike. 

In that, desert they had to advance upon objectives which were indeed points on a map, but in the landscape were like every other place in sight. The sea has more natural features than that battlefield. The difficulties of the battle were not wholly those of shells and machine guns, but of keeping touch and direction during an advance.


Now that it is out of cultivation, one can find wild flowers all over that battlefield. In July, when the fighting began, it grew the flowers common in cultivated chalk soils at that time of the year: the purple hardhead, pale purple scabious, pale blue chicory; and the common weeds of cultivation: yellow ragwort, red poppies, and blue cornflowers. In the spring and earlier summer it is thickly set with dandelions.

On both sides of the road, but especially near the windmill, there are patches of strongly growing henbit. To the east of the road, on the plateau, and in and near the quarry and middle gullies, there are patches of speedwell, ground-ivy, dead-nettle of two kinds, one with pink, one with yellow flowers (which also grows freely in Mametz Wood). 

Among the grass one can also find dock, milfoil, starwort, stitchwort, "a white, small, starry, Guppy flower", Venus needle, daisy, field madder, Lamb's lettuce, a cut-leaved wild geranium, a veronica, and the little heart's-ease pansy. Perhaps some day, when Australia makes a Campo Santo of the earth of Pozières these plants may be set there. In their place at Pozières, they will grow in Australian dust for ever.

The area of the advance of this first month of the fight is not large. One could walk round the area; visiting all its famous places, in one summer day, for the distance can only be twenty miles all told. Spring and summer have laid their healing hands upon those places since the fighting. The covering of the grass has come to hide the evidence that those slight slopes and tumbles of brick were once terrible both to take and to hold.

Men standing in what is left of Delville Wood, or in the wilderness which was once Pozières, will find it hard to believe that for days together fire rained upon those places, and that men by the hundred and the thousand were buried there, and unburied, and killed, and maimed, and blown into little fragments. 

Our men lie everywhere in that twenty miles circle, sometimes very thickly, in platoons and companies of the recognized and the unknown. They were our men. Men of our race will never walk that field without the thought that the wind blowing there took the last breath of many of our people, and that the dust under foot is our flesh.

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