Attack, Chapter 01

Gathering for Attack

The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way. Ambulances hurried backwards and forwards between the line and the Casualty Clearing Station, for the days of June were hard days for the infantry who dug the "leaping-off" trenches, and manned them afterwards through rain and raid and bombardment. Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. "Caterpillars" rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line.

Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.

Then came days of terror for the enemy. Slowly our guns broke forth upon them in a tumult of rage. The Germans in retaliation sprayed our nearer batteries with shrapnel, and threw a barrage of whizz-bangs across the little white road leading into the village of Hébuterne. This feeble retaliation was swallowed up and overpowered by the torrent of metal that now poured incessantly into their territory. Shells from the 18-pounders and trench-mortars cut their wire and demoralised their sentries. Guns of all calibres pounded their system of trenches till it looked for all the world like nothing more than a ploughed field. The sky was filled with our aeroplanes wheeling about and directing the work of batteries, and with the black and white bursts of anti-aircraft shells. Shells from the 9.2 howitzers crashed into strong points and gun emplacements and hurled them skywards. Petrol shells licked up the few remaining green-leaved trees in Gommecourt Wood, where observers watched and snipers nested: 15-inch naval guns, under the vigilant guidance of observation balloons, wrought deadly havoc in Bapaume and other villages and billets behind their lines.

Thrice were the enemy enveloped in gas and smoke, and, as they stood-to in expectation of attack, were mown down by a torrent of shells.

The bombardment grew and swelled and brought down showers of rain. Yet the ground remained comparatively dry and columns of dust arose from the roads as hoof and wheel crushed their broken surfaces and battalions of infantry, with songs and jests, marched up to billets and bivouacs just behind the line, ready to give battle.