Tommy, p.32Richard Holmes
Men peered across the parapet onto a strange and bewildering world. Huntley Gordon surveyed the Ypres salient from a front-line trench in 1917.
Then over to the left, more skeleton trees, identified as Glencorse Wood, Inverness Copse, and Black Watch Corner. Easy to see the Jocks had left their mark on this piece of Belgium. Other names too spoke of those who had passed this way. Tower Hamlets, Clapham Junction and Surbiton Villas told of the Cockney and suburban resident, Maple Lodge of the Canadians, Leinster Farm of the Irish. But don’t think that these places could be identified by anyone but an expert. All I could see was lines and lines of sandbags alternating with hedges of rusty barbed wire, brown earth and grey splintered tree-trunks.59
Most new arrivals were shocked by the sheer emptiness of the landscape. The writer Reginald Farrer, looking over a parapet during a visit to the front in 1916, admitted:
It seemed quite unthinkable that there was another trench over there a few yards away just like our own … Not even the shells made that brooding watchfulness more easy to grasp: they only made it more grotesque. For everything was so paralysed in calm, so unnaturally innocent and bland and balmy. You simply could not take it in.60
Second Lieutenant P.J. Campbell had a gunner’s eye for the ground.
I learnt the names of every wood and all the villages, I knew the contours of the hills and the shapes of the lakes in the valley. To see so much and to see nothing. We might have been the only men alive, my two signallers and I. And yet I knew there were thousands of hidden men in front of me … but no one moved, everyone was waiting for the safety of darkness.61
And for infantry officer Charles Carrington the wire defined hostility. ‘This side of our wire everything is familiar and every man a friend,’ he wrote:
Over there, beyond the wire, is the unknown, the uncanny, there are the people about whom you accumulate scraps of irrelevant information but whose real life you can never penetrate, the people who will shoot you dead.62
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE
At any given moment around half the total strength of British combat units on the Western Front consisted of infantry, though the losses incurred in particular battles and the slow arrival of reinforcements occasionally reduced this to around one-third – in July 1918 and during the last Hundred Days, for instance. From early 1916 onwards there were rarely fewer than 400,000 British infantrymen in France and Belgium. Artillery constituted the next most numerous combat arm, with around 150,000 men at any time.63 The strength of the non-combatant element of the army also fluctuated, but it was generally about half the size of the combat element, with the Army Service Corps as easily its most numerous component.
The army’s definition of combat and non-combatant was always somewhat artificial. For instance, entrenching battalions (renamed pioneer battalions in 1916) were part of the infantry, badged and organised as battalions of established regiments, but were generally exposed to less risk than infantry battalions proper, while regimental medical officers, officially part of the non-combatant RAMC, paid a very heavy price for their devotion to duty. And however often frontline soldiers linked the initials of the Army Service Corps with those of a popular music-hall artist to call it ‘Aly Sloper’s Cavalry’, it was no joke to be an ASC driver. Horse-drawn ASC units in divisional trains often operated well within the range of, and along routes all too familiar to, the German artillery. Nevertheless, the hard truth of trench warfare was that most of its actors were infantrymen, tiny figures in a landscape increasingly shaped by the power of the gun. They called themselves, in a blend of pride and self-deprecation, the Poor Bloody Infantry, the PBI, and sang of themselves as ‘Fred Karno’s army, the ragtime infantry’. They were the numberless and nameless chorus of trench warfare’s long-running drama, well aware that without their efforts there could be no show.
Trench warfare imposed its own pattern of life. Although major offensives, British or German, changed this pattern they did not alter its essential truth: for the infantrymen who constituted the bulk of the fighting element of the army, life was cyclical, with a repeated sequence of front-line service alternating with time spent in reserve, at rest and on the move. Gunners were less mobile, for while a line-holding division would rotate its infantry through the front line it left its gunners in situ and, moreover, sometimes handed them over (temporarily or permanently) to the division which replaced it.
The time a unit spent in the line was subject to wide variation. Divisions would be concentrated for major battles, withdrawn into rest to recover from them, or moved to garrison another sector of the front where operations were less active. In battles a division might be burned out and reconstituted repeatedly. For instance, 21st Division was so badly mauled at Loos in September 1915 that it did not fight again till 1916 when it attacked Fricourt on the first day of the Somme. After three days it was taken out of the line, partly reconstituted, and brought back again on 11 July. It fought during the remainder of the Somme, took part in the Arras attack in April 1917 and had been reconstituted sufficiently to fight at Third Ypres in September/October. It was moved down to Cambrai in the wake of the successful British attack, only to be badly clawed by the German counterattack. In March 1818 21st Division was directly in the path of the main German offensive. It was sent up to Flanders where it faced another attack and then, at the very nadir of its bad luck, it was sent down south to ‘rest’ in the Chemin des Dames, where it was caught by yet another German offensive in May. It nevertheless played its part in the Hundred Days, though when the armistice came into effect it was out of the line – reconstituting. During the whole war it suffered 55,581 casualties, making it the hardest-hit New Army Division. Similarly 38th Division had been put into the line to gain experience early in 1916 but its attack on Mametz Wood that July was its first proper battle – and its last for just over a year. On 31 July 1917 it was in the first wave in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. Withdrawn, topped up, and sent back into the line it fought around St Julien and Langemarck, and was then shifted to the quieter Armentières sector. It was in reserve in the spring of 1918, but fought during the Hundred Days and was up in the line, moving forwards, when the armistice came into force. Its 28,635 casualties reflected a shorter exposure to battle than 21st Division, but nonetheless represented almost twice the division’s established strength.
But offensives, common though they seem to us, were the exceptions rather than the rule. A division would spend more of its time in routine line-holding than attacking, and it was perfectly possible for an infantryman to spend two years on the Western Front without actually going over the top at all. He would, however, become very familiar with the routine stages of trench warfare. By mid-1915 a division would be responsible for perhaps 5–7,000 yards of front. It might hold its sector with its three brigades in line, or push two brigades forward and keep one back. Whichever method it followed, each of the forward brigades would be likely to have two battalions in line, one in reserve and one in brigade rest. If there was a rear brigade it would have a battalion or two in reserve and the others in divisional rest. During its time in the sector, possibly two or three months, the division would rotate its brigades between the line and rest/reserve, and brigadiers would rotate their battalions in the same way. Individual battalion commanders would generally have two of their four rifle companies in the front, support and reserve lines of the front trench system, all of them within a few hundred yards of the enemy. We shall soon see that neither ‘reserve’ nor ‘rest’ meant quite what we would expect, because most of the infantry in a line-holding division would find themselves providing working parties to repair trenches, construct new trench lines or hump an ever-increasing quantity of ‘trench stores’ up the communication trenches. However, rotation it was, and the whole process took on the characteristics of an eightsome reel, with muddy and heavily-laden dancers treading out their prescribed steps.
Once the rhythm of the dance was established, new arrivals were given an opportunity to step out
1st day: Officers and senior NCOs are attached. They are shown everything, and get a good idea of how to work.
2nd day: Company arrives. They are mixed in with the men actually holding the trenches and do lookout, etc., with the experienced men.
3rd and 4th day: The new troops are given a section of trench to hold. This is always done in the centre of the Bn holding the trenches. Here they have to do the ordinary trench routine, posting sentries, etc., and this is again supervised by the OC [of] the complete sector of trenches. On the 5th day they go out for rest, and, if considered sufficiently trained, two days later they are allotted a complete sector of trenches where they are fairly quiet in the centre of a Brigade. On this occasion they are working on their own, as a Bn, and they have officers attached to them from the Bns of the Brigade to assist and see that they understand and do what is expected of them. These officers remain for the time of holding the trenches (3 or 4 days). This completes the breaking in.64
Charles Carrington recalled how the dance seemed to him as a subaltern in 1/5th Royal Warwickshire, in 143rd Infantry Brigade of 48th (South Midland) Division in 1916.
The division held a front of about four miles as the bullet flies, much longer following the trace of the trenches. All three brigades were up in the line, side by side, each with two battalions ‘up’, one in close support and one back in reserve … which meant that six battalions out of thirteen [the thirteenth was the divisional pioneer battalion] in the division held the line. Each of these two front-line battalions would normally have two of its companies ‘up’ and two held back in supporting positions … In my battalion … each company had three platoons actually posted in the front trenches, and one standing to arms as an ‘inlying picket’ under cover, ready to act in any emergency at two or three minutes’ notice. If this may be taken as typical … the six front-line battalions in quiet times held the whole of the divisional front with about thirty-six platoon posts, and since a platoon could rarely put more than about thirty men on duty, we may conclude that the divisional front was held by 1,000 of its, say, 10,000 infantrymen.65
There was always debate over the density with which the front should be held. Sidney Rogerson was an experienced company commander whose books on 1916 and 1918 were firmly based on diaries. He rejected popular accounts of ‘the war of the sewers, in which no one ever laughed, those who were not melancholy were absolutely hysterical, and most of the action took place in or near the crude latrines of the period’. Yet, positive though he was about the conduct of the war, he could not forgive the staff for keeping troops ‘with no strategic or tactical advantage’ on ground that did not have to be held.66 David Jones commented on the fact that: ‘The German trench system as a whole was of greater depth from the front line to the rear defences, of greater complexity and better builded than our own …’.67 There was certainly a rough strategic logic to this, for it was not until the end of 1917, when it seemed likely that the Germans would launch a major offensive before the Americans arrived in strength, that the British took defensive preparations as seriously as the Germans did: after all, with a big push generally imminent, what was the point of elaborate defences?
C. E. Montague was a leader writer on the Liberal Manchester Guardian who dyed his greying hair black so as to enlist in 1914, and served in the infantry before being commissioned and appointed assistant press censor. His influential book, Disenchantment, was based on a very short period of front-line service. It contains the familiar criticism of generals – ‘two or three were killed’ – and British conduct of the war, though it is often very telling (and surprisingly romantic) in its assessment of infantry soldiers. Montague was especially critical of the British preference for holding the front trench system so strongly, which he saw as in sharp contrast to both French and German practice. The Germans, certainly, profited from the experience of Loos and the Somme to defend in ever-increasing depth, reducing the garrison of their front-trench system because of its vulnerability to the growing power of British artillery. The French, in contrast, sometimes packed their forward trenches, even in 1918. The chief reason for the success of the German attack on the French 6th Army (with its ‘resting’ attached British corps) on the Chemin des Dames in May 1918 was that too many Allied soldiers had been pushed forward where they were at the mercy of the German barrage.
The reduction of brigades from four battalions to three in the winter of 1917–18 had a marked effect on the choreography of line-holding. Divisional frontages were not generally reduced, and so the infantry had to do more with less. The British had also made a significant change in tactical theory. They had decided to imitate the German system of a lightly-held Forward Zone, with machine guns and artillery observers in well-wired redoubts to break up the initial attack; a more heavily held Battle Zone, where the bulk of field guns and infantry would be found; and a Rearward Zone to provide a final measure of security. There was, however, a significant gap between theory and practice. One experienced NCO warned that: ‘The British Army fights in line, and won’t do any good in these bird cages.’ On 5th Army’s front, where the main blow was to fall, there was too little manpower available to dig the Rearward Zone, and there was a widely-held feeling amongst infantry officers that it was asking a lot of the garrison of the Forward Zone to hold until relief came.
When Hanway Cumming came up to take command of 110th Brigade of 21st Division on 18 March 1918 he found the division with two of its brigades forward and one in reserve. His own brigade sector was 2,100 yards wide, and he held it with two of his Leicester battalions, one up and one back. It took him two days to get round his front line. It was essential for him to visit it as he did not know the ground, but experienced infantry officers recognised that brigadiers who spent a lot of time visiting were away from their headquarters too often. Sidney Rogerson, in a forward company of 2/West Yorkshire in late 1916, was pleased to see James Jack, his commanding officer, arrive with the brigadier in tow, but it had taken Jack four hours to get there, and Brigadier General Fagan even longer: ‘The very fact that he would be absent from his headquarters for many hours should be some answer to those who demand to know why general officers did not put in more frequent appearances in the front line.’68
Cumming knew at once that his front was too thinly held, and wrote just after the war that the success of the German March offensive of 1918 sprang largely from this fact. Rowland Feilding, recovering in hospital from an injury received during the battle, blamed the ‘tired and untrained condition of the infantry’, the failure of the machine-gun barrage, deployment in too much depth, the fog and the lack of reserves, for British failure on 21 March. The reduction from four to three battalions was not fundamentally wrong, he thought, for it was better to have up-to-strength battalions than weak ones. However, the reduction of the division’s strength by three full battalions meant that there was simply too much work to do. There was ‘neither time nor opportunity’ for training, and his men had become ‘tired, overstrained, undertrained trench-diggers and cable-buriers’.69
In the first autumn of the war the British Expeditionary Force was under very heavy pressure at Ypres and its front was paper-thin. There were almost no reserves, and the British front could not have been held at all had the Cavalry Corps not fought as infantry, using its rifles with a skill which testifies to the thoroughness of their pre-war training. At the crux of the battle on 31 October, when Sir John French announced that he proposed to bring up his headquarter guard – 1/Cameron Highlanders – lead them to where the line was broken and die fighting, he was only indulging in mild hyperbole: he had no other units in reserve. During that first winter there were simply too few troops available for proper rotation to be introduced, and battalions spent week after week in the line. On 6 November Aidan Liddell of 1/Argyll and Sutherland Highlander
On 15 November Arthur Smith observed that his Coldstream battalion had so far spent nineteen days in the line: ‘One man has gone off his head and committed suicide, & one officer has completely broken down with nerves.’71
The example of a single battalion sets the pattern for this early period. The 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers went into the line at La Cordonnerie near Fromelles on the night of 22 October 1914 and came out again on the night of 14 November, rested for seventy-two hours, and went back into the line again, this time for eleven days in freezing weather. After another short rest, during which it furnished a guard of honour for a visit by the king, it spent another twenty-four days in the line. These stints of front-line duty would have been regarded as unreasonably long later in the war, and speak powerfully for the Old Army’s powers of endurance. However, snipers and trench mortars, which were to impose a growing toll on front-line troops, were still in their infancy, and ‘trench wastage’ was still relatively low: 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers lost only eight killed and ten wounded in its last twenty-four days in the line.
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