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From Bapaume to Passchendaele

1917


by Phillip Gibbs


Introduction




1917. ... I suppose that a century hence men and women will think of that date as one of the world's black years flinging its shadow forward to the future until gradually new generations escape from its dark spell. To us now, only a few months away from that year, above all to those of us who have seen something of the fighting which crowded every month of it except the last, the colour of 1917 is not black but red, because a river of blood flowed through its changing seasons and there was a great carnage of men. It was a year of unending battle on the Western Front, which matters most to us because of all our youth there. It was a year of monstrous and desperate conflict. Looking back upon it, remembering all its days of attack and counter-attack, all the roads of war crowded with troops and transport, all the battlefields upon which our armies moved under fire, the coming back of the prisoners by hundreds and thousands, the long trails of the wounded, the activity, the traffic, the roar and welter and fury of the year, one has a curious physical sensation of breathlessness and heart-beat because of the burden of so many memories. The heroism of men, the suffering of individuals, their personal adventures, their deaths or escape from death, are swallowed up in this wild drama of battle so that at times it seems impersonal and inhuman like some cosmic struggle in which man is but an atom of the world's convulsion. To me, and perhaps to others like me, who look on at all this from the outside edge of it, going into its fire and fury at times only to look again, closer, into the heart of it, staring at its scenes not as men who belong to them but as witnesses to give evidence at the bar of history—for if we are not that we are nothing— and to chronicle the things that have happened on those fields, this sense of impersonal forces is strong. We see all this in the mass. We see its movement as a tide watched from the bank and not from the point of view of a swimmer breasting each wave or going down in it. Regimental officers and men know more of the ground in which they live for a while before they go forward over the shell-craters to some barren slope where machine-guns are hidden below the clods of soil, or a line of concrete blockhouses heaped up with timber and sandbags on one of the ridges. They know with a particular intimacy the smallest landmarks there—the forked branch among some riven trees that are called a " wood," a dead body that lies outside their wire, the muzzle of a broken gun that pokes out of the slime, a hummock of earth that is a German strong point. They know the stench of these places. They know the filth of them, in their dug-outs and in their trenches, in their senses and in their souls. I and a few others have a view less intimate, and on a wider scale. We go to see how our men live in these places, but do not stay with them. We go from one battle to another as doctors from one case to another, feeling the pulse of it, watching its symptoms, diagnosing the prospects of life or death, recording its history, as observers and not as the patients of war, though we take a few of its risks, and its tragedy darkens our spirit sometimes, and the sight of all this struggle of men, the thought of all this slaughter and sacrifice of youth, becomes at times intolerable and agonizing. This broad view of war is almost as wearing to the spirit, though without the physical strain, as the closer view which soldiers have. The wounded man who comes down to the dressing-station after his fight sees only the men around him at the time, and it is a personal adventure of pain limited to his own suffering, and relieved by the joy of his escape. But we see the many wounded who stream down month after month from the battlefields—for three and a half years I have watched the tide of wounded flowing back, so many blind men, so many cripples, so many gassed and stricken men—and there is something staggering in the actual sight of the vastness and the unceasing drift of this wreckage of war. So we have seen the fighting in the year 1917 in the whole sweep of its bloody pageant; and the rapidity with which one battle followed another after an April day in Arras, the continued fury of gun-fire and infantry assaults, and the long heroic effort of our men to smash the enemy's strength before the year should end, left us, as chroniclers of this twelve months' strife, overwhelmed by the number of its historic episodes and by its human sacrifice.



The year began with the German retreat from the Somme battlefields. It was a withdrawal for strategical reasons — the shortening of the enemy's line and the saving of his man-power — but also a retreat because it was forced upon the enemy by the greatness of his losses in the Somme fighting. He would not have left the Bapaume Ridge and all his elaborate defences down to Peronne and Roye unless we had so smashed his divisions by incessant gun-fire and infantry assaults that he was bound to economize his power for adventures elsewhere. On the ground from which he drew back, more hurriedly than he desired because we followed quickly on his heels to Bapaume, he left some of his dead. Many of his dead. Below Loupart Wood I saw hundreds of them, strewn about their broken batteries, and lying in heaps of obscene flesh in the wild chaos of earth which had been their trenches. On one plot of earth a few hundred yards in length there were 800 dead, and over all this battlefield one had to pick one's way to avoid treading on the bits and bodies of men. From the mud, arms stretched out like those of men who had been drowned in bogs. Boots and legs were uncovered in the muck-heaps, and faces with eyeless sockets on which flies settled, clay-coloured faces with broken jaws, or without noses or scalps, stared up at the sky or lay half buried in the mud. I fell once and clutched a bit of earth and found that I had grasped a German hand. It belonged to a body in field-grey stuck into the side of a bank on the edge of all this filthy shambles. ... In the retreat the enemy laid waste the country behind him. I have described in this book the completeness of that destruction and its uncanny effect upon our senses as we travelled over the old No Man's Land through hedges of barbed wire and across the enemy's trenches into his abandoned strongholds like Gommecourt and Serre, and then into open country where German troops had lived beyond our gun-fire in French villages still inhabited by civilians. It was like wandering through a plague-stricken land abandoned after some fiendish orgy, of men drunk with the spirit of destruction. Every cottage in villages for miles around had been gutted by explosion. Every church in those villages had been blown up . . .         






          

From Bapaume to Passchendaele

1917


THE AUSTRALIANS AT MESSINES


June 17 The sun is fierce and hot over Flanders, giving great splendour to this June of war, but baking our troops brown and dry. Up in the battle-line thirst is a cruel demon in that shadowless land of craters, where the earth itself is parched and cracked, and where there is a white, blinding glare. On the day of the Messines battle water went up quickly, with two lemons for each man, " to help them through the barrage," according to a young staff officer with a bright sense of humour at the mess-table. But there was never too much, and in some places not enough for the wounded men, whose thirst was like a fire, and yet not greedy, poor chaps, if there was only a little to go round.




" Can you spare a drop," said a group of them—all Australian lads—to a friend of mine who was going up one day with a kerosene-tin full of water to the front line. " The fellows up in front want it badly," said my friend, " and I promised to get it there, but if you'll just take a sip------" Those Australians were all in a muck of wounds and sweat. But they just moistened their lips and passed the water on. One man shook his head and said, " Take it to the fellows in front." It was the old Philip Sidney touch by way of Australia, and it is not rare among all our fighting men—lawless chaps when they are on a loose end, but great-hearted children at times like this.




All this pageant of war in France and Flanders is on fire with sun, and it is wonderful to pass through the panorama of the war zone, as I do most days, and get a picture of it into one's eyes and soul—columns of men marching with wet, bronzed faces through clouds of white dust, or through fields where there is a patchwork tapestry of colour woven of great stretches of clover drenching the air with its scent, and of poppies which spill a scarlet flood down the slopes, and of green wheat and gold-brown earth. Gunners ride in their shirts with sleeves rolled up. About old barns men work in their billets stripped to the belt. Up in the " strafed " country of the old salient men sit about ruins between spells of work on roads and rails on the shady side of shell-broken walls, dreaming of bottled beer and rivers of cider, and the New-Zealanders are as brown as gipsies under their high felt hats.




Talk to any group of men, or go into any officers' mess, and one hears about new aspects and angles of the recent righting by our Second Army; episodes which throw new light on the enemy's losses and our men's valour, and sufferings—because it wasn't a " walk-over " all the way round—and incidents, which ought to be historic, but just come out in a casual way of gossip by men who happened to be there.




I only heard yesterday about twenty German officers who were dragged out of one dug-out near Wytschaete. They were all huddled down there in a black despair, knowing their game was up as far as the Messines Ridge was concerned. Their men had all gone to the devil, according to their view of the situation, abandoned by the guns, which might have protected them. The Second Division of East Prussians had been wiped out. Of a strength of 8600 we captured over 2000, whilst most of the remainder must be killed or wounded. In the counter-attack the Germans brought up a new division and flung them in, and the queer thing is that our men were not aware of this, but just marched through them to their final goal, believing they belonged to the original crowd on Messines Ridge, and not the counter-attacking troops who had just arrived.




The Australians had some great adventures in this battle, and not enough has been told about them, because they took a good share of the fighting, especially in the last phase of it, when they passed through some of our first-wave troops and held a broad stretch of new front under violent fire and against the enemy's endeavours to retake the ground. On the extreme right of our line, forming the pivot of the attack, was a body of Australian troops who had to get through the German barrage and fling duck-board bridges over the little Douve river, and-cross to the German support line under nr'ehine-gun fire from a beastly little ruin called Grey Farm. The enemy was sniping from shell-holes, and bullets were flying about rather badly. A young Australian officer dealt with Grey Farm, crawling through a hedge with a small party of men, and setting fire to the ruin, so that it should give no more cover. Meanwhile, farther to the north, the Germans were still about in gaps not yet linked up, and in strong points not yet cleared. A body of them gave trouble in Huns' Walk on the Messines road, where there was a belt of uncut wire when the Australians arrived. " Hell! " said the Australians. " What are we going to do about that ? " There was heavy shell-fire and machine-gun fire, and the sight of that wire was disgusting.


" Leave it to me," said a young Tank officer. " I guess old Rattle-belly can roll that down." He and other Tank officers were keen, even at the most deadly risks, to do good work with their queer beasts alongside the Australians for reasons that belong to another story. They did good work, and this Tank at Huns' Walk crawled along the hedge of wire and laid it flat, as its tracks there still show. Another Tank was slouching about under heavy shelling in search of strong posts, with the Australian boys close up to its flanks with their bayonets fixed. Suddenly, a burst of flame came from it, and it seemed a doomed thing. But out of the body of the beast came a very cool young man, who mounted high with bits of shell whistling by his head. He stamped out the fire, and did not hear the comments of the Australian lads, who said, " Gosh, that fellow is pretty, game. He's all right."




Much farther north another Tank came into action, with the Australians near. A few old remnants of charred wall and timber, where there was a strong post of Germans in concrete chambers, were causing our troops loss and worry. " Anything I can do to help you ? " asked a Tank officer very politely through the steel trap-door. " Your machine-guns would be jolly useful in our trench," said an Australian officer. " We are a bit under strength here."




The Tank officer was a friend in distress. He dismantled his machine-guns, took them into the trench and fought alongside the Australians until they were relieved. Just west of Van Hove Farm, in a gap between the Australians and the English, the Germans got into a place called Polka Estaminet—don't imagine it as a neat little inn with a penny-in-the-slot piano in the front parlour—and they had to be driven out by sharp rifle-fire. Next morning one of our men walked into a pocket of a hundred Germans, and a young Australian officer was told off with twenty men to bomb them out. There was a battle of bombs, which was very hot while it lasted, and then the Germans bolted off under machine-gun and rifle fire. Australian patrols went out and brought in forty wounded Germans and counted sixty to eighty dead.


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