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Veterans Day, 95 Years On
Posted on Nov 11, 2013
By Adam Hochschild; Illustrations by Joe Sacco, TomDispatch
British troops, the plan went, would move forward across no-man’s-land in successive waves. Everything was precise: each wave would advance in a continuous line 100 yards in front of the next, at a steady pace of 100 yards a minute. How were they to be safe from German machine gun fire? Simple: the pre-attack artillery bombardment would destroy not just the Germans’ barbed wire but the bunkers that sheltered their machine guns. How could this not be when there was one artillery piece for every 17 yards of front line, all of which would rain a total of a million and a half shells down on the German trenches? And if that weren’t enough, once British troops climbed out of their trenches, a final “creeping barrage” of bursting shells would precede them, a moving curtain of fire riddling with shrapnel any surviving Germans who emerged from underground shelters to try to fight.
The plan for the first day’s attack on July 1, 1916, was 31 pages long and its map included the British names with which the German trenches had already been rechristened. Preparations this thorough were hard to conceal, and there were occasional unnerving signs that the German troops knew almost as much about them as the British. When one unit moved into position, it found a sign held up from the German trenches: WELCOME TO THE 29TH DIVISION.
Several weeks before the attack, 168 officers who were graduates of Eton met for an Old Etonian dinner at the Hotel Godbert in Amiens, a French city behind the lines. In Latin, they toasted their alma mater—“Floreat Etona!”—and raised their voices in the school song, “Carmen Etonense.” Enlisted men entertained themselves in other ways. A haunting piece of documentary film footage from these months, taken from a Red Cross barge moving down a canal behind the lines, shows hundreds of Allied soldiers stripped completely bare, wading, bathing, or sunning themselves on the canal bank, smiling and waving at the camera. Without helmets and uniforms, it is impossible to tell their nationality; their naked bodies mark them only as human beings.
Riding a black horse and with his usual escort of lancers, General Haig inspected his divisions as they rehearsed their attacks on practice fields where white tapes on the ground stood for the German trenches. On June 20th, the commander in chief wrote to his wife, “The situation is becoming more favourable to us.” On June 22nd he added, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.” On June 30th, as the great artillery barrage had been thundering for five days, Haig wrote in his diary, “The men are in splendid spirits…. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough.” For good measure, the British released clouds of deadly chlorine gas toward the German lines.
As it grew close to zero hour, 7:30 a.m. on July 1st, men detonated 10 enormous mines planted by British miners tunneling deep beneath the German trenches. Near the village of La Boisselle, the crater from one remains, a stark, gaping indentation in the surrounding farmland; even partly filled in by a century of erosion, it is still 55 feet deep and 220 feet across.
When the artillery barrage reached its crescendo, 224,221 shells in the last sixty-five minutes, the rumble could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London. More shells were fired by the British this week than they had used in the entire first 12 months of the war; some gunners bled from the ears after seven days of nonstop firing. At a forest near Gommecourt, entire trees were uprooted and tossed in the air by the shelling and the forest itself set on fire.
Soldiers of the First Somerset Light Infantry sat on the parapet of their trench, cheering at the tremendous explosions. Officers issued a strong ration of rum to the men about to head into no-man’s-land. Captain W.P. Nevill of the Eighth East Surrey Battalion gave each of his four platoons a soccer ball and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick a ball into the German trench. One platoon painted its ball with the legend:
THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP
Throughout the British Isles, millions of people knew a great attack was to begin. “The hospital received orders to clear out all convalescents and prepare for a great rush of wounded,” remembered the writer Vera Brittain, working as a nurse’s aide in London. “We knew that already a tremendous bombardment had begun, for we could feel the vibration of the guns… Hour after hour, as the convalescents departed, we added to the long rows of waiting beds, so sinister in their white, expectant emptiness.”
“God, God, Where’s the Rest of the Boys?”
Haig waited anxiously in his forward headquarters at the Château de Beauquesne, 10 miles behind the battlefield. Then, after a full week of continual fire, the British guns abruptly fell silent.
When whistles blew at 7:30 a.m., the successive waves of troops began their planned 100-yards-a-minute advance. Each man moved slowly under more than 60 pounds of supplies—200 bullets, grenades, shovel, two days’ food and water, and more. But when those soldiers actually clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they quickly discovered something appalling. The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine gun emplacements were still largely intact.
Officers looking through binocular-periscopes had already suspected as much. Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. Whistles blew, men cheered, Captain Nevill’s company of East Surreys kicked off its four soccer balls. The soldiers hoped to stay alive—and sometimes for something more: troops of the First Newfoundland Regiment knew that a prominent young society woman back home had promised to marry the first man in the regiment to win the Empire’s highest medal, the Victoria Cross.
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