Attack, Chapter 02
Eve of Attack
Boom! Absolute silence for a minute. Boom! followed quickly by a more distant report from a fellow-gun. At each bellowing roar from the 9.2 near by, bits of the ceiling clattered on to the floor of the billet and the wall-plaster trickled down on to one's valise, making a sound like soot coming down a chimney.
It was about three o'clock in the morning. I did not look at my watch, as its luminous facings had faded away months before and I did not wish to disturb my companions by lighting a match. A sigh or a groan came from one part of the room or another, showing that our bombardment was troublesome even to the sleepers, and a rasping noise occasionally occurred when W——k, my Company Commander, turned round uneasily on his bed of wood and rabbit-wire.
I plunged farther down into the recesses of my flea-bag, though its linings had broken down and my feet stuck out at the bottom. Then I pulled my British Warm over me and muffled my head and ears in it to escape the regularly-repeated roar of the 9.2. Though the whole house seemed to be shaking to bits at every minute, the noise was muffled to a less ear-splitting fury and I gradually sank into a semi-sleep.
About six o'clock I awoke finally, and after an interval the battery stopped its work. At half-past seven I hauled myself out of my valise and sallied forth into the courtyard, clad in a British Warm, pyjamas, and gum-boots, to make my toilet. I blinked as I came into the light and felt very sleepy. The next moment I was on my hands and knees, with every nerve of my brain working like a mill-stone. A vicious "swish" had sounded over my head, and knowing its meaning I had turned for the nearest door and slipped upon the cobbled stones of the yard. I picked myself up and fled for that door just as the inevitable "crash" came. This happened to be the door to the servants' quarters, and they were vastly amused. We looked out of the window at the débris which was rising into the air. Two more "crumps" came whirling over the house, and with shattering explosions lifted more débris into the air beyond the farther side of the courtyard. Followed a burst of shrapnel and one more "crump," and the enemy's retaliation on the 9.2 and its crew had ceased. The latter, however, had descended into their dug-out, while the gun remained unscathed. Not so some of our own men.
We were examining the nose-cap of a shell which had hit the wall of our billet, when a corporal came up, who said hurriedly to W——k, "Corporal G——'s been killed and four men wounded."
The whole tragedy had happened so swiftly, and this sudden announcement of the death of one of our best N.C.O.s had come as such a shock, that all we did was to stare at each other with the words:
"My God! Corporal G—— gone! It's impossible."
One expects shells and death in the line, but three or four miles behind it one grows accustomed, so to speak, to live in a fool's paradise. We went round to see our casualties, and I found two of my platoon, bandaged in the leg and arm, sitting in a group of their pals, who were congratulating them on having got "soft Blighty ones." The Company Quartermaster-Sergeant showed me a helmet, which was lying outside the billet when the shells came over, with a triangular gash in it, into which one could almost place one's fist. At the body of Corporal G—— I could not bring myself to look. The poor fellow had been terribly hit in the back and neck, and, I confess it openly, I had not the courage, and felt that it would be a sacrilege, to gaze on the mangled remains of one whom I had valued so much as an N.C.O. and grown to like so much as a man during the last ten months.
Dark clouds were blowing over in an easterly direction; a cheerless day added to the general gloom. We had a Company Officers' final consultation on the plans for the morrow, after which I held an inspection of my platoon, and gave out some further orders. On my return to the billet W——k told me that the attack had been postponed for two days owing to bad weather. Putting aside all thought of orders for the time being, we issued out rum to the men, indulged in a few "tots" ourselves, and settled down to a pleasant evening.
* * * * *
In a little courtyard on the evening of June 30 I called the old platoon to attention for the last time, shook hands with the officers left in reserve, marched off into the road, and made up a turning to the left on to the Blue Track. We had done about a quarter of the ground between Bayencourt and Sailly-au-Bois when a messenger hurried up to tell me to halt, as several of the platoons of the L—— S—— had to pass us. We sat down by a large shell-hole, and the men lit up their pipes and cigarettes and shouted jokes to the men of the other regiment as they passed by.
It was a very peaceful evening—remarkably peaceful, now that the guns were at rest. A light breeze played eastward. I sat with my face towards the sunset, wondering a little if this was the last time that I should see it. One often reads of this sensation in second-rate novels. I must say that I had always thought it greatly "overdone"; but a great zest in the splendour of life swept over me as I sat there in the glow of that setting sun, and also a great calmness that gave me heart to do my uttermost on the morrow. My father had enclosed a little card in his last letter to me with the words upon it of the prayer of an old cavalier of the seventeenth century—Sir Jacob Astley—before the battle of Newbury:—"Lord, I shall be very busy this day. I may forget Thee, but do not Thou forget me." A peculiar old prayer, but I kept on repeating it to myself with great comfort that evening. My men were rather quiet. Perhaps the general calmness was affecting them with kindred thoughts, though an Englishman never shows them. On the left stood the stumpy spire of Bayencourt Church just left by us. On the right lay Sailly-au-Bois in its girdle of trees. Along the side of the valley which ran out from behind Sailly-au-Bois, arose numerous lazy pillars of smoke from the wood fires and kitchens of an artillery encampment. An English aeroplane, with a swarm of black puffs around it betokening German shells, was gleaming in the setting sun. It purred monotonously, almost drowning the screech of occasional shells which were dropping by a distant château. The calm before the storm sat brooding over everything.
The kilted platoons having gone on their way, we resumed our journey, dipping into the valley behind Sailly-au-Bois, and climbing the farther side, as I passed the officers' mess hut belonging to an anti-aircraft battery, which had taken up a position at the foot of the valley, and whence came a pleasant sound of clinking glass, a wild desire for permanent comfort affected me.
Bounding the outskirts of Sailly-au-Bois, we arrived in the midst of the battery positions nesting by the score in the level plain behind Hébuterne. The batteries soon let us know of their presence. Red flashes broke out in the gathering darkness, followed by quick reports.
To the right one could discern the dim outlines of platoons moving up steadily and at equal distances like ourselves. One could just catch the distant noise of spade clinking on rifle. When I turned my gaze to the front of these troops, I saw yellow-red flashes licking upon the horizon, where our shells were finding their mark. Straight in front, whither we were bound, the girdle of trees round Hébuterne shut out these flashes from view, but by the noise that came from beyond those trees one knew that the German trenches were receiving exactly the same intensity of fire there. Every now and then this belt of trees was being thrown into sharp relief by German star-shells, which rocketed into the sky one after the other like a display of fireworks, while at times a burst of hostile shrapnel would throw a weird, red light on the twinkling poplars which surrounded the cemetery.
As we marched on towards the village (I do not mind saying it) I experienced that unpleasant sensation of wondering whether I should be lying out this time to-morrow—stiff and cold in that land beyond the trees, where the red shrapnel burst and the star-shells flickered. I remember hoping that, if the fates so decreed, I should not leave too great a gap in my family, and, best hope of all, that I should instead be speeding home in an ambulance on the road that stretched along to our left. I do not think that I am far wrong when I say that those thoughts were occurring to every man in the silent platoon behind me. Not that we were downhearted. If you had asked the question, you would have been greeted by a cheery "No!" We were all full of determination to do our best next day, but one cannot help enduring rather an unusual "party feeling" before going into an attack.
Suddenly a German shell came screaming towards us. It hurtled overhead and fell behind us with muffled detonation in Sailly-au-Bois. Several more screamed over us as we went along, and it was peculiar to hear the shells of both sides echoing backwards and forwards in the sky at the same time.
We were about four hundred yards from the outskirts of Hébuterne, when I was made aware of the fact that the platoon in front of me had stopped. I immediately stopped my platoon. I sat the men down along a bank, and we waited—a wait which was whiled away by various incidents. I could hear a dog barking, and just see two gunner officers who were walking unconcernedly about the battery positions and whistling for it. The next thing that happened was a red flash in the air about two hundred yards away, and a pinging noise as bits of shrapnel shot into the ground round about. One of my men, S—— (the poor chap was killed next day), called to me: "Look at that fire in Sailly, sir!" I turned round and saw a great yellow flare illuminating the sky in the direction of Sailly, the fiery end of some barn or farm-building, where a high explosive had found its billet.
We remained in this spot for nearly a quarter of an hour, after which R——d's platoon began to move on, and I followed at a good distance with mine. We made our way to the clump of trees over which the shrapnel had burst a few minutes before. Suddenly we found ourselves floundering in a sunken road flooded with water knee-deep. This was not exactly pleasant, especially when my guide informed me that he was not quite certain as to our whereabouts. Luckily, we soon gained dry ground again, turned off into a bit of trench which brought us into the village, and made for the dump by the church, where we were to pick up our materials. When we reached the church—or, rather, its ruins—the road was so filled with parties and platoons, and it was becoming so dark, that it took us some time before we found the dump. Fortunately, the first person whom I spotted was the Regimental Sergeant-Major, and I handed over to him the carrying-party which I had to detail, also despatching the rum and soup parties—the latter to the company cooker.
Leaving the platoon in charge of Sergeant S——l, I went with my guide in search of the dump. In the general mêlée I bumped into W——k. We found the rabbit wire, barbed wire, and other material in a shell-broken outhouse, and, grabbing hold of it, handed the stuff out to the platoon.
As we filed through the village the reflections of star-shells threw weird lights on half-ruined houses; an occasional shell screamed overhead, to burst with a dull, echoing sound within the shattered walls of former cottages; and one could hear the rat-tat-tat of machine-guns. These had a nasty habit of spraying the village with indirect fire, and it was, as always, a relief to enter the recesses of Wood Street without having any one hit. This communication trench dipped into the earth at right angles to the "Boulevard" Street. We clattered along the brick-floored trench, whose walls were overhung with the dewy grass and flowers of the orchard—that wonderful orchard whose aroma had survived the horror and desolation of a two years' warfare, and seemed now only to be intensified to a softer fragrance by the night air.
Arriving at the belt of trees and hedge which marked the confines of the orchard, we turned to the right into Cross Street, which cut along behind the belt of trees into Woman Street.
Turning to the left up Woman Street, and leaving the belt of trees behind, we wound into the slightly undulating ground between Hébuterne and Gommecourt Wood. "Crumps" were bursting round about the communication trench, but at a distance, judging by their report, of at least fifty yards. As we were passing Brigade Headquarters' Dug-out, the Brigade-Major appeared and asked me the number of my platoon. "Number 5," I replied; and he answered "Good," with a touch of relief in his voice—for we had been held up for some time on the way, and my platoon was the first or second platoon of the company to get into the line.
It was shortly after this that "crumps" began to burst dangerously near. There was suddenly a blinding flash and terrific report just to our left. We kept on, with heads aching intolerably. Winding round a curve, we came upon the effects of the shells. The sides of the trench had been blown in, while in the middle of the débris lay a dead or unconscious man, and farther on a man groaning faintly upon a stretcher. We scrambled over them, passed a few more wounded and stretcher-bearers, and arrived at the Reserve Line.
Captain W——t was standing at the juncture of Woman Street and the Reserve Line, cool and calm as usual. I asked him if New Woman Street was blocked, but there was no need for a reply. A confused noise of groans and stertorous breathing, and of some one sobbing, came to my ears, and above it all, M—— W——'s voice saying to one of his men: "It's all right, old chap. It's all over now." He told me afterwards that a shell had landed practically in the trench, killing two men in front of him and one behind, and wounding several others, but not touching himself.
It was quite obvious to me that it was impossible to proceed to the support trench via New Woman Street, and at any rate my Company Commander had given me orders to go over the top from the reserve to the support line, so, shells or no shells, and leaving Sergeant S——l to bring up the rear of the platoon, I scaled a ladder leaning on the side of the trench and walked over the open for about two hundred yards. My guide and I jumped into New Woman Street just before it touched the support line, and we were soon joined by several other men of the platoon. We had already suffered three casualties, and going over the top in the darkness, the men had lost touch. The ration party also had not arrived yet. I despatched the guide to bring up the remainder, and proceeded to my destination with about six men. About fifteen yards farther up the trench I found a series of shell-holes threading their way off to the left. By the light of some German star-shells I discerned an officer groping about these holes, and I stumbled over mounds and hollows towards him.
"Is this the support line?" I asked, rather foolishly.
"Yes," he replied, "but there isn't much room in it." I saw that he was an officer of the Royal Engineers.
"I'm putting my smoke-bombers down here," he continued, "but you'll find more room over towards the sunken road."
He showed me along the trench—or the remains of it—and went off to carry out his own plans. I stumbled along till I could just distinguish the outlines of the sunken road. The trench in this direction was blown in level with the ground. I returned to W——k, whose headquarters were at the juncture of New Woman Street and the support line, telling him that the trench by the sunken road was untenable, and that I proposed placing my platoon in a smaller length of trench, and spreading them out fanwise when we started to advance. To this he agreed, and putting his hand on my shoulder in his characteristic fashion, informed me in a whisper that the attack was to start at 7.30 A.M. As far as I can remember it was about one o'clock by now, and more of my men had come up. I ensconced them by sections. No. 1 section on the left and No. 4 on the right in shell-holes and the remains of the trench along a distance of about forty yards, roughly half the length of the trench that they were to have occupied. At the same time I gave orders to my right-and left-hand guides to incline off to the right and left respectively when the advance started. I was walking back to my headquarters, a bit of trench behind a traverse, when a German searchlight, operating from the direction of Serre Wood, turned itself almost dead on me. I was in my trench in a second.
Shortly afterwards Sergeant S——r arrived with No. 8 platoon. I showed him one or two available portions of trench, but most of his men had to crowd in with mine. The Lewis-gunners, who arrived last, found only a ruined bit of trench next to my "headquarters," while they deposited their guns and equipment in a shell-hole behind.
It was somewhere about four or half-past when I made my last inspection. I clambered over the back of the trench and stood still for a moment or so. Everything was uncannily silent. There was just a suspicion of whiteness creeping into the sky beyond the rising ground opposite. Over towards the left rose the remains of Gommecourt Wood. Half its trees had gone since the last time that I had seen it, and the few that remained stood, looking like so many masts in a harbour, gaunt and charred by our petrol shells.
The men in the left fire-bay seemed quite comfortable. But, standing and looking down the trench, it suddenly dawned upon me that I was gazing right into a line of chalky German trenches, and consequently that the enemy in those trenches could look straight into this trench. I left instructions with the corporal in charge of that section to build up a barricade in the gap before daybreak. As I went along the rest of our frontage, Sergeant S——l doled out the rum.
I retired to my "headquarters," but not so Sergeant S——l, who seemed not to bother a bit about the increasing light and the bullets which came phitting into the ground in rather an unpleasant quantity. I was glad when I had finally got him down into the trench. W——k had also told him to get in, for he remarked—
"Captain W——k, 'e says to me, 'Get into the trench, S——l, you b—— fool!' so I've got in."
He was just in time. A prelude of shrapnel screamed along, bursting overhead, and there followed an hour's nerve-racking bombardment.