The Fifth Army in March 1918, by Walter Shaw Sparrow, John Lane Company (1921)
An officer of the Sixty-first writes: – “The night was extraordinarily quiet. … I turned in early, about 11 p.m., after telling my signallers to call me at 4 a.m. if nothing happened earlier. I slept well; and at 4 a.m. on the 21st not a sound was to be heard. The line reported all quiet. I went upstairs out of the dugout. A dense ground mist and a light north-west wind. I went back again to bed, and at 4.40 I was wakened by a terrific bombardment. Sir Hubert Gough, in his headquarters at Nesle, was awakened also by the same noise. Information was sought by telephone, and a few orders were given. Afterwards nothing more could be done till infantry fighting began. So the General went back to bed and slept, for there would be time for only short half-hours of sleep after the bombardment had passed into its creeping barrage, and it was important to keep as fresh and cool as possible.
Earthquake voices grew louder and louder as twenty or thirty batteries along each kilometre of German front poured shells by the thousand into our defences, particularly between the Rivers Scarpe and Oise, while high-velocity guns aimed at railways and roads far behind. Many communications were cut, many guns were knocked out; and let us try to make real to ourselves the fact that the twenty-one divisions in line on the fronts of our Fifth and Third Armies had each either two or three battalions under shell-fire in the forward zone.
As for the business of manning our battle zone, which began a few minutes after the bombardment started,* men groped through fog to their stations with shells screaming and bursting all around. A curt oath, followed by a hoarse cry through clenched teeth, came here and there from a wounded man; or some one fell with a peculiar, double-sounding thud, a rifle here, a body there, and no movement afterwards. Earth and stones and volcanic smoke fumes spouted into the fog as big new craters were scooped by explosions in and between many thousands of old ones.
* For some time this movement had been heralded by the ” Prepare for Attack” order. This was a piece of Staff work confined to the Fifth Army preparations, and it kept the whole defence alert, like the outposts constantly manned in all zones of defence. Quex writes of March 21, 1918 : ” Had not the ‘ Prepare for Attack ‘ warning come in, I should have been in pyjamas, and might possibly have lain in bed for two or three minutes, listening quietly and comfortably while estimating the extent and intensity of the barrage. But this occasion was different, and I was up and about a couple of minutes after waking. Opening my door, I encountered the not unpleasant smell of lacrymatory gas. . . .” Blackwood’s Magazine, October, 1918, p. 429.
One garrison, there is reason to believe, did not reach its battle station. It set out for Contescourt, but did not arrive there, according to a battery commander whose guns were in this sector. And at Contescourt the Germans got into our battle zone, and made their way by twos and threes down woody swamps of the Somme valley. Who knows how many of our men were either killed or wounded before breakfast by shell-fire ?
If either Nelson or Wellington could have been present, he would have been appalled by the unimaginable hellishness invented since his day by science in slaughter; but mankind being a creature of custom, routine, convention, all in war is right except the unfamiliar.
The Thirtieth, west of St. Quentin, at the usual hour, sent out a couple of patrols, each a platoon strong. One was a patrol from the Second Wiltshires. Out it went into the gathering white mist and disappeared: it was never seen again. The other patrol had men from the Sixteenth Manchesters; and at 4.40 a.m., when German shells began to seek for the lives of men, it was in no-man’s-land, and so cut off. Then our counter-bombardment started, and the patrol found itself between two fires. But it took its chance nonchalantly — or shall we say cigarettefully?—dodging from crater to crater; and after seven o’clock it made its way back into our forward zone, where it fought all day long; and then, with half of its men lost, it withdrew into and through the battle zone. Was it all that remained of the Sixteenth Manchesters? From eight battalions in the front zone of Maxse’s Corps, less than fifty men returned. All had fought to the very last.
The bombardment fell on many wide spans of front, striking broadly east and north-east of Reims, and also here and there between the Scarpe and Lens. Our positions from south of the La Bassee Canal to the River Lys were profusely shelled with gas, and battery areas between Messines and the Ypres-Comines Canal were actively engaged. Dunkirk was bombarded from the sea; and Ludendorf in his first bulletin made astute reference to the firing duel in Belgian Flanders, on both sides of Reims, in the Champagne, along the Lorraine front also, and at Verdun. “Our artillery,” he said, “continued its destruction of enemy infantry positions and batteries before Verdun.”
These were diversions to detain the Franco-British reserves. South of the Scarpe as far as La Fere, the shelling, carefully disciplined, was in deadly earnest. Byng’s Army grew taut and keen throughout its ten line divisions: and Gough’s Army, which started with about 66,000 infantry in first line, and about 16,500 in reserve, was ready. Owing to the fog, our airmen could not go out to attack all enemy batteries in action and troops on the move.*
* But since March 10, two hours before dawn every day, airplane patrols of the Fifth Army had reconnoitred the German front system as far back as a general line, about three miles east of our outposts. Flares were employed, but it was impossible to see German movements along roads.
While the artillery work continued, many German divisions trudged from anti-aircraft shelters to their places in the storming line, or from villages in the rear to their support stations. Now and then a British shell tore gaps in the marching ranks. Secret night marches to the battlefield must have tired a big percentage of men in each battalion. Divisions chosen to begin the battle were disposed variously for attack, but the formation most often used was this: two regiments in the front line (six battalions) and a regiment (three battalions) in divisional reserve. A regiment was echeloned in depth, having, as a rule, two battalions in first line. It was reinforced in numbers more or less strong with elements from the following units: companies of stormtroops, companies of pioneers, companies of flame-throwers, and mine-throwers, and cyclists ; also one and a half extra machine-gun companies. A brigade’s reserve seems to have had an independent detachment of two cyclist companies and an assault company. Half an hour after the attack began, and at arranged times through about three hours, a division’s artillery -— twelve field batteries and six heavy batteries—were to be moved forward.
During five hours of intensive bombardment every unit in these German forces moved in the white fog, learning from officers how the shelling advanced through its seven stages or periods. Every fixed target was known to the German gunners; its position had been accurately mapped and its range correctly measured; the errors of each German gun had been noted and tabulated, and allowed for when firing, like errors of the day caused by wind and atmospheric density. In this way it was possible to determine, by means of simple tables for any gun at any time, how much should be added to, or subtracted from, the normal elevation of any target. Of course, maps had to be faultless, and among the necessary preliminaries was the determination trigonometrical and topographical of all battery zero points on the ground. The most watchful care had to be shown in marking targets on maps, as determined by sound-ranging, flash-spotting and aerial photography. What in finite patience! Ludendorff says that this new artillery procedure set gunners by the ears, particularly the senior gunners, but that “it fulfilled all expectations.” He exaggerates, for a good many of our guns had been moved to alternative positions not yet discovered by the enemy.
At first, for two hours, the German gunners searched for our guns ; then for thirty minutes, going through three periods, one half of the bombardment tired gas and high explosive shells into our infantry positions, while the other half went on with its attack on our guns and mortars. Afterwards, through a hundred and forty-five minutes, special parts of our infantry defences were ransacked by every German gun that did not belong to the counter-battery groups ; and hundreds of mortars, heavy, medium, and light, took part in a crescendo of studied fire; light mortars beginning to bark thirty minutes before a creeping barrage started to travel from our outposts up the forward zone to our line of redoubts at the far end and farther west.
We must linger over this routine because it was the most important factor, in the foe’s opening assault. Ludendorff thought of it with great anxiety during his preparations, and his chosen storm troops practised with a barrage of live shells, in order that they might learn to keep close behind a creeping protection which exploded violently. They were trained to advance in a thin wave constantly renewed from behind. In all the German training loose formations, with infantry group tactics carefully worked out, were compulsory. Ludendorff said : “We must not copy the Allied mass tactics, which offer advantages only in the case of untrained troops.” As it was quite impossible for him to foresee what form the fighting would take when his infantry emerged from the protecting barrage, anxiety caused him to be present at various exercises and to converse with many regimental officers. discovered that it was not at all easy for his troops to adopt the open formation which he held up to them as essential. Right up to the middle of March every moment of time available for training was urgently needed for attack rehearsals, in which every infantry group was expected to act with swift initiative.
The barrage caused the greatest worry: — “It was evident that the closer the infantry could keep to the barrage, the less time the English would have to leave their dugouts, and the more chance there was of surprising them in their dugouts. Consequently the barrage must not advance faster than the infantry could follow. This pace had to be fixed beforehand, for, in spite of hard thinking and experiments, it had been impossible to discover any means of controlling the barrage. The nature and state of the ground had also to be considered, as regards their effect on the infantry’s advance and the consequent pace of the barrage. Stronger lines required a more prolonged bombardment, and the barrage had to dwell on them longer. So it came about that an advance of one kilometre (eleven hundred yards) required as much as an hour. It was always a great misfortune if the barrage got ahead; the attack was then held up only too easily. It could not be brought back again without great loss of time, and the infantry suffered losses which it was the duty of all commanders to avoid.”*
* Ludendorff, vol, ii., p, 579,
In these time matters, happily, fog was a great help to our defence, impeding the attack when it passed over trench systems and over ground profusely cratered with shell-holes, while the routine barrage thundered onward. As the range increased shorter range guns dropped out, so the barrage grew thinner and thinner, till at last, beyond extreme range, it ceased, leaving the fog-bound attack unprotected. Some artillery was moved up as rapidly as possible to support a further advance, but hitch after hitch was inevitable, happily, in such a fog and across ground which in peace manoeuvres, aided by broad daylight, would have been indescribably difficult.
A regular scheme for bringing up a large force of artillery and even larger masses of ammunition had been prepared, but Ludendorff says that often too many guns were pushed up compared with the ammunition that could be brought in wheeled vehicles over shell-holes and the German and British systems of trenches and wire. Vast quantities of gear were needed to bridge the defensive belts. No one could see what was happening fifty yards away ; and, happily, few German divisions knew anything about the country ahead of them. They had been trained to show initiative anywhere except in a fog. Even our own men felt lost on ground that they knew perfectly. Thus, at 6.15 a.m. the commander of one battalion, the 2/Fourth Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, had a baffled adventure. He was in the forward zone of the Sixty-first, holding Enghien Redoubt with a company. He had orders to leave his redoubt if a great deal of gas collected there; and gas becoming worse and worse, he went out in the fog to see whether he could move his company to Champagne trench, a better spot. Though the Colonel knew by heart every nook and corner in his neighbourhood, he lost his way before he had gone fifty yards; and it took him about fifteen minutes to find his way back. He and his men remained in the dugout, with gas blankets put down, knowing that the Germans would not attack until they believed all gas had cleared away. But an officer went up frequently to put his ear on the bombardment.
At half-past seven gas shelling ceased, and Enghien Redoubt was pounded with high explosives from four batteries. Shell after shell exploded, above all in the quarry, a space about fifty yards by sixty.
Nearly two hours later there were barrage symptoms east-ward that an attack through the fog had begun to play at blind man’s buff with Destiny. How soon would it reach the line of eight redoubts ending the forward zone of Maxse’s Corps? Would the attacking troops have courage enough to keep close to this exploding barrier of projectiles? Every one under- ground in Enghien Redoubt made ready for a rush upstairs.*
The barrage passed over : and when our men came up they had to grope their way to their lonely posts.
To be unable to see more than a few yards was a great ordeal –sometimes too great — when a company of young troops in a redoubt was divided between many isolated posts, and attack came all at once from many (quarters, with the hiss and ping of bullets. A brave officer, Lieutenant Bassett, fell, shot in the head. Not a German could be seen and for several minutes the garrison groped with strained eyes into the fog, and breathed almost as swimmers do when tired and cold.
Near the quarry was a sunken road connecting Fayet on the east with Holnon on the south-west ; and suddenly, close by, some fifty Boches climbed out of this road. Bullets welcomed them; and about five-and-twenty went down. The rest sought seclusion in the roadway. But Fayet had fallen, and just before ten o’clock the foe entered a part of Enghien Redoubt, capturing the sandpit.
At once a bombing reprisal was arranged. It went briskly, led by Captain Rowbotham, and the sandpit was our own again. Only five posts now remained in the enemy’s hands ; the rest of Enghien was Oxford and Bucks.
Soon after eleven o’clock the Germans tried their luck with bombs, assailing from three sides, and with a skill that looked menacing. But our men had warmed to their work their hearts were in it, for now they were freed from the cold, clammy demon that rules over most young soldiers when the blood is iced before battle by lonely waiting and a troubled consciousness of past joys and present dangers. Set firmly in a proper fighting vein, cool, firm, and fierce, they stopped the attack, then drove it back.
Foiled, the enemy persisted, surrounding the whole ground included in Enghien Redoubt and its posts. A rear post, No.12, only about three hundred yards from Holnon village, was in the thick of it, till a Vickers gun shot more than fifty attackers. They could be seen through the fog, these dead or wounded men, huddled into wire entanglements. No wonder a German war correspondent wrote of the blasts of death that blew around the Holnon district. Twelve hours later, when the war correspondent of the Berlin Gazette visited the scene, wounded men were still there in long lines, Germans on one side, our own men on the other and near by, in the
sunk road, was a terrible wreckage of guns, and horses, and dead soldiers. For both sides had fought their best, each in its own way. German platoons and companies came on as blurred targets through the fog, and hour after hour handfuls of British troops held them at bay. Self was lost in duty and this fact was equally active all along our firm line of redoubts. Tommy had no time to cry : “Outnumbered again ! Why? Isn’t the war nearly four years old?”
Towards midday the fog began to shred upwards, uncovering Enghien. At any moment enfilade fire might commence from the rear. What was happening to the Fifth Gordons in Fresnoy Redoubt, two thousand yards northward? And to the 2/Eighth Worcesters in Ellis Redoubt, about a thousand yards due south. Germans had passed between these strongholds; but had they settled themselves in Holnon village? If so, nothing but a barrage from our eighteen- pounders could save the quarry garrison at Enghien from shots in the back.
Some one must visit Holnon before the fog dispersed. Some one—but who? The only other officer at Battalion H.Q. in Enghien, Lieutenant Cunningham, had been so busy, with a bravery all of a piece with Chinese Gordon’s, that Colonel Wetherall thought it would be unfair if he did not go himself. So he chose two men and stole across the strip of land separating No. 12 post from Holnon. The village was empty.
On their way back one of our men was shot, while the Colonel was captured, with his other companion. Captors and captives made their way to a shell-hole; and there they sat peaceably until a quarter to five in the afternoon. The Germans chose many things from their prisoners’ pockets, but found no use for the Colonel’s watch.
Cigarettes they liked very much, yet were willing to share them with their owner; and Tommy also might have one if his Colonel did not mind. There was no unkindness, but just a compulsive communism in a shell-hole while a vast battle raged. Many bullets were flying about,and the Boches were glad to regard two prisoners as quite enough for a day’s peril. At a quarter to five one German went away, while the others took their prisoners to the rear, passing between Enghien and Ellis Redoubts towards the Faubourg St. Jean at St. Quentin. All at once, about fifty yards off, a British 6-inch shell exploded, and another was heard coming.
The Germans ran forward to a shell-hole. Their prisoners ran back to an old trench, there to begin new adventures. They were surrounded by Boches, who moved here and there by companies and platoons. Yet all went well until they reached our old line between Holnon and Round Hill, where many Germans were busy on the toil named “consolidating “;
and busy so close together that it was impossible to pass between them. An hour toiled through its long seconds. It seemed an eternity. At last a platoon finished its work and moved oft”, leaving a gap through which an escape could be made into other hazards.
Near midnight the Colonel reached Attilly, his brigade headquarters, where he got his first drink since daybreak, and where he learnt that Enghien Redoubt had made a big name under Cunningham. Not till half-past four in the afternoon did the position there become hopeless. Then Cunningham, completely surrounded with overwhelming numbers, sent a telephone message to his Brigadier, seeking final orders. On the chateau side his quarry was enfiladed. What was he to do?
The Brigadier, Robert White, having praised a great defence, told Cunningham to cut his way out after destroying the telephone gear. Parts of the redoubt were strewn with German dead, and its garrison, in proportion to its number of men, had suffered as heavily. Game to the last, it began to cut its way through, and just a few machine-gunners, with Lieutenant Richards, had fortune for their friend, reaching our battle zone more than a mile westward. And Cunningham? He was captured and, I fear, wounded.