Voices from the Somme

The Somme Offensive, was a battle fought by the army of the British Empire against the German Empire. The first day of the offensive was the worst day in the history of the British Army, which had almost 60.000 casualties, mainly on the front section between the road from Albert to Bapaume and Gommecourt, where the attack was defeated and few British troops reached the German front line. The British Army on the Somme was a mixture of the remains of the pre-war regular army, the Territorial Force and the Kitchener Army, which was composed of Pals battalions, recruited from the same places and occupations. It was one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, presented at the Chantilly Conference on 15 November 1916, was 485,000 British and French casualties and 630,000 German. Friedrich Steinbrecher, a German officer, wrote: «Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.»

 

Entrapped in a dugout

Gefreiter Fritz Heinemann

2nd Company, 165th Infanterie Regiment

Mouquet Farm, 26 September 1916

Suddenly, at half past two, the enemy let loose with devastating drumfire on the position lying in front us. It was clear the English were preparing to attack. (...) We quickly prepared to the worst. The situation was not very favorable for we only had our rifles – and no machine-guns or hand grenades. Then came the anxious shouts, "They're coming!" As far as we could see the Tommies were moving forward at a trot. Our front line must have been completely turn up by frightful shelling for we had not heard any rifle or machine-gun fire. Facing the oncoming wave, we could not think of getting up to run to the rear. We would have been shot down like rabbits. And staying to defend the place was as good as committing suicide.

The Tommies soon bypassed our position on both flanks and it wasn't long before we received fire from behind, wounding one man. The English were close enough to throw hand grenades now. After several of them exploded nearby we jumped from our holes and headed for the two dugouts. We quickly scrounged some wood and two overcoats, hanging them in the dugout's entrance to help protect against the flying splinters. I peeked out through the overcoats to observe enemy troops carrying machine-guns and ammunition forward. Two Englishmen walked past within a few feet of the dugout doorway but did not attempt to enter.

Hours slowly passed in absolute uncertainty, Were we die or be taken prisoner? Still, all of us held on to the faint hope that we might be rescued if our own infantry counter-attacked. We had no water and the thirst was unbearable.

Suddenly a tremendous crash shook the dugout, knocking us down and extinguishing the few candles that served as light. A large caliber shell had fallen directly outside the entrance. We were buried alive! (…) The air was thick with fumes and difficult to breathe. Since we could no longer hope to escape, one man started yelling and pounding to attract attention. Leutnant Liebau stopped him, explaining that the racket would only start the English shooting.

The man who was wounded twice was the only one among us who could speak English well. He had not lost consciousness so we moved him to dugout's blocked entrance. Then we began banging on the steps, hoping someone would hear the noise and investigate. Suddenly we heard faint English voices. It was difficult at first for him to shout and hear through the earthen barrier, but he made those on the other side understand that we were completely exhausted and could not dig out by ourselves. With that we heard the sound of shovels hacking away at the ground. Thinking of the fresh air outside, I was flushed with a new found strength and tore at the earth with my hands.(...) At last, a plate-sized hole was punched through the entrance, letting in light and flooding the dugout with air. Soon the hole was enlarged sufficiently to for each of us to crawl out, one after the other. Two soldiers wearing khaki uniform stood waiting with their rifles levelled. Several of our men ignored the weapons upon seeing some grass growing from the wall of the trench. They ripped clumps out and immediately stuffed as much as possible into their mouths. Watching this, one of the enemy soldiers remove his water battle and passed it around. I will never forget this gesture as long as I live.

 

First taste of the Somme battlefield

Captain R.J. Trousdell,

1st Battalion, Princess Victoria's, Royal Irish Fusiliers

I have forgotten nothing of that first visit to the Somme battle area. In the open, no sign of vegetation was visible: shell craters literally overlapped over square miles – gashes in the torn surface, more or less continuous and deeper than the rest – indicated trenches, and in these our troops managed to exist, shelled day and night until they went forward to the attack or were replaced by other troops  – only less muddy and tired than themselves after a few days so called “rest”. Thickly timbered woods were reduced to a few gaunt and splintered trunks. Stripped of every leaf and twig  - without undergrowth -  almost without roots. Villages disappeared as though they had never been; what the bombardment left the Army removed – wood was taken for fuel or for making trench shelters; bricks and stones for repairing roads. As a result one could stand in the center of what had been Mametz or Fricourt, or many another village of perhaps three of four hundred of inhabitants and the only intimation of one's position was a noticeboard bearing the name of what had been.

From far west of Montauban to Bernafay Corner was an endless line of transport – motor lorries, ammunition wagons, ration carts, RE materials and ambulances. The congestion of traffic on the few bad roads of this district was appalling. Ration limbers took anything up to sixteen hours to do a single trip from their lines to their unit’s HQ and back. The road were awful, a column might be halted a full hour before without making a yard of progress, liable to be shelled at any moment, and when they got back their billet was a muddy field, a wagon sheet the only cover for men and harness – horses standing in mud to their hocks – never dry, never clean – yet they never failed us.

 

"There is not a single tree, only craters"

Unteroffizier Paul Melber

1st Machine-gun Company,

28th Ersatz Infanterie Regiment, Bavarian Ersatz Division

We are in a chalk tunnel. It’s full of men – sleeping comrades lying everywhere. The air is horribly foul since most of the ventilation shafts are plugged. Nights falls, and I make preparations for the move forward. The sunken road behind the cemetery along the main road to Lesboufs is full of men and material.

There is not a single tree stump on the way to use as a guide in finding the forward line. Only craters. The line is where a helmeted head sticks up out of the ground. If one has bad luck and strays too far he ends up a guest of the English. Searching for the position I call out softly and finally am answered by a crater dweller in a hole next to the machine-gun. The crater is at least five metres across and full of slime and water at the bottom. The gun stands ready to shoot at the edge of the crater. A few feet away a hole has been dug in into the side of the crater and is covered with a groundsheet. Here is where one sleeps. If Tommy does not bother us, this will be our home for four days.

Our friends in their own craters across the way remain strangely silent. That is always suspicious. Around 10 p.m. a man of my post yells, “Corporal! The yellow flares” In an instant I am out of our sleeping hole and fire the flare pistol skyward. In another instant, even before the flare’s light burns out, Satan’s howling fury comes crashing down in the form of a German barrage, laid out only thirty to fifty metres in front of us. The English attack or scouting patrol dissolves. Rifle shots and exploding hand grenades continue for a time, but we do not fire the machine-gun for fear of betraying its position to the English.

At 10 p.m. the following night the English resume their bombardment on our rear areas. White flares shoot to and fro through the blackness. Then, pfff…yellow rockets, immediately to the left of us, freezing the blood in one’s veins. They’re coming! Instantly, our own barrage rips through the air and into the ground. The shells’ explosion silhouette the Tommies. Screams… The earth heaves from the furious fire of the guns. Everyone is shooting, throwing grenades. (…) We have already fired 500 rounds with the machine gun. My loader fumbles with a new box of ammunition, finally shoving the belt into the gun’s feed block. It’s firing again…tack-tack-tack…rrack! God in heaven, a jam! The gun is yanked down into a crater and carried quickly to our covered sleeping hole. In feverish haste the block and belt are examined. The belt is wet. Rip it out! Pushing in a new one, I notice that everyone’s face is covered with sweat. The machine-gun is thrown back up on the crater’s edge. Thank God, the new belt runs through freely.

The muddy earth out fronts spits fire. We must duck continuously as the shell’s from our artillery scream overhead and slam into the rows of Englishmen. Eventually the shooting stops. White flares still illuminate the shattered landscape, but no one can be seen. The attack is broken. We lay exhausted on the crater’s edge – hearts pounding, eyes burning and throats parched with thirst. But our bones are still sound.

 

"When the dead lie all around you, death becomes a very unimportant incident"

Captain Charles K. McKerrow

Medical Officer of 10th Battalion,

Northumberland Fusiliers

July 11th, 1916

I made my Aid Post a great success for the four days I held it, and I can say we have saved many lives. I daresay others could have done as well if not better that I did, but none could possibly have equaled my stretcher-bearers. As one hard-bitten chap said to me: “They are doing what Christ would do”. It really is very fine to see these chaps passing through storms of shell to help they comrades. I am very proud of them and hope they will get some rewards, apart from the inward ones of their conscience. After all there are no holocausts here as there were at Loos. The percentage of these wounded, only about one-third are serious at all. You are far more likely to have me home with a broken arm or a nice flesh wound than to have me not come back at all, while the vast probability is that I shall not even be scratched.

Poor Rix was killed bi a chance shell the other day, some way behind the front line. I am very sorry as he was a good chap. (…) Such accidents will occur, but, perhaps one such sacrifice will satisfy Moloch for time. (…).

 

July 10th, 1916

I am so penitent for I have only sent you a field post card during many days. We have been right in the midst of things and I am safe. (…) The Division has done well and scuppered many Huns, but has been rather knocked about. We were about the most fortunate, losing only two officers and 180 men or thereabouts. This was due to our being by chance less opposed. The 11th had less luck. Their MO was wounded and several officers wounded and killed. Poor Tullock was killed. You may tell Mrs Carrick that his death was quite sudden and painless as the bullet went right through his heart. This may be some consolation to his people.

I had one stretcher-bearer killed and five wounded. I am glad to say that Kirtly and Coulson were untouched. They where both lucky as they worked unsparingly. We had about 1000 men through our Dressing Post in 3 days. They come from all sorts of regiments: Welshmen, Englishmen, and a few Scots. The fighting, so far, has been very Northumbrian. I believe we are doing fairly well. I had a Red Cross sergeant major (a prisoner) working with me for a day. He had been caught in the Aid Post. He comes from Karlsruhe. Was that not a strange coincidence? We wept with joy when I spoke to him in German. There were about 15 wounded Huns in the Aid Post also. They were very thin and smelly. I got them away as soon as possible. (…)

July 19th, 1916

We have under shell-fire (…) for a fortnight and are becoming hardened. As a battalion we have had amazing luck. Two or three officers wounded, and, so far, none killed. We have not yet, however, had to make an unsuccessful attack, which is where the losses occur. The other Battalion in our Brigade have lost much more heavily. Twice we were to have stormed strong points, and both times the battalion ahead of us was cut up, and we had to dig in and wait. No doubt, our turn will come.

This will not affect me except that I shall lose some friends, and be very busy. Where I am, and where we are likely to be, the cover is not at all bad, and I do not neglect it. I have a strong feeling of Kismet, but nevertheless, do not go out trying to be hit. The weather is perfect, and all our airplanes are up, noising round to see what they can discover. Between you and me, the Hun is having a rotten time. We fairly smother him with shells. In spite of that, he puts up a plucky fight though his methods are abominable. Of them I shall talk later. Never ask me to know or to write to or think of anyone who is a German, in a future. They are – one and all - the most vile, loathsome, crawling reptiles that Kultur could produce. As a matter of fact, they are all brain and little soul. They talk much of the latter and of their various virtues. They have only one virtue and that is courage. After all, the stoat and the rat are about the bravest animals.

I have an idea that we are going into rest very soon now. (...) How long the rest none knows. The last rest was 3 days, and we were shelled constantly. The Hun resistance is undoubtedly nothing to what it was, and in these one sees a happy omen. Many consider the war nearly won. Certainly, this offensive of ours, though slow, is very complete, and must be worrying the Huns quite a lot. Haig seems to have found the way to deal with him.

Poor we Jake. I am very sorry for John. (…) Death is a very dreadful thing to those who are not flung into slaughter. (…) When the dead lie all around you, and the men next to you, or oneself, may puff out, death becomes a very unimportant incident. (…) Like other things, man has ignored death and treated it as something to talk of with pale cheek and bated breath. Two chaps go out for water and one returns. Says a pal to him: “Well! Where’s Bill?” “A bloody whizzbang took his head off” may not appear sympathetic, but is the only way of looking at the thing and remaining sane. You may be certain, however, that the same man would carry Bill ten miles if there was any chance of fixing his head on again.

 

A posthumous letter

Dear Mr Leather,

In answer to your enquiry about Lance Corporal Leather, which I received today, I can only say that your son met his end in the wood of July 20th almost in the forefront of the battle.

He was the first wounded in the legs, and more than one of his comrades was killed in trying to bring him in, and a little while later he was killed outright by a shell. This is all that I have been able to gather, but everyone tells me that your son bore himself, as always, like a man and a soldier.

We were all of us exceedingly sorry to hear his death, as we appreciated his good fighting qualities, whilst his through knowledge of German, made him a more than ordinarily useful man to have in the company. (…)

 

Bibliography:

Lyn Macdonald, 1914-1918: Voices & Images of the Great War, Michael Joseph, London, 1988 Andrew Roberts, Love, Tommy: Letters Home, from the Great War to the Present Day, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2012

Andrew Roberts, Letters from the Front: From the First World War to the Present Day, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2014