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Veterans Day, 95 Years On
Posted on Nov 11, 2013
By Adam Hochschild; Illustrations by Joe Sacco, TomDispatch
The week-long bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its noise. More than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer’s plow years or decades later. Two-thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, virtually useless in destroying machine gun emplacements made of steel and reinforced concrete or stone. Nor could shrapnel shells, which scattered light steel balls, destroy the dense belts of German barbed wire, many yards thick, unless they burst at just the right height. But their fuses were wildly unreliable, and usually they exploded only after they had already plummeted into the earth, destroying little and embedding so much metal in the ground that soldiers trying to navigate through darkness or smoke sometimes found their compasses had ceased to work.
The remaining British shells were high-explosive ones, which could indeed destroy a German machine gun bunker, but only if they hit it with pinpoint accuracy. When guns were firing from several miles away, this was almost impossible. German machine gun teams had waited out the bombardment in dugouts as deep as 40 feet below the surface and supplied with electricity, water, and ventilation. In one of the few places where British troops did reach the German front line on July 1, they found the electric light in a dugout still on.
Unaccountably, an underground mine had exploded beneath the German lines 10 minutes before zero hour, a clear signal that the attack was about to begin. Then, like a final warning, the remaining mines went off at 7:28 a.m., followed by a two-minute wait to allow the debris—blown thousands of feet into the air—to fall back to earth before British troops climbed out of their trenches to advance. Those two minutes gave German machine gunners time to run up the ladders and stairways from their dugouts and man their fortified posts, of which there were roughly a thousand in the sector of the line under attack. During the two minutes, the British could hear bugles summoning German riflemen and machine gunners to their positions.
“They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches,” recalled a German soldier of the British advance. “...When the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of [German] machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line… Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in [the] rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines.”
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Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes. But there was no question of the hard-hit British troops turning back, for each battalion had soldiers designated as “battle police,” herding any stragglers forward. “When we got to the German wire I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told,” remembered one British private. “The colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately he was hit on the forehead by a single bullet.”
Because the artillery bombardment had destroyed so little of the barbed wire, British soldiers had to bunch up to get through the few gaps they could find—making themselves an even more conspicuous target. Many soldiers died when their clothing, especially the loose kilts of the Scotsmen, caught on the wire. “Only three out of our company got past there,” recalled a private of the Fourth Tyneside Scottish Battalion. “There was my lieutenant, a sergeant and myself…. The officer said, ‘God, God, where’s the rest of the boys?’”
The vaunted “creeping barrage” crept forward according to the timetable—and then continued to creep off uselessly into the far distance long after British troops who were supposed to be following behind its protective cover had been pinned down by the tangles of uncut German wire. The cavalry waited behind the British lines, but in vain. Some of those who had survived in no-man’s-land tried, after dark, to crawl back to their own trenches, but even then the continual traversing of German machine gun fire sent up showers of sparks as bullets hit the British barbed wire.
Of the 120,000 British troops who went into battle on July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded before the day was over—nearly two casualties for every yard of the front; 19,000 were killed, most of them within the first disastrous hour, and some 2,000 more would die in aid stations or hospitals later. There were an estimated 8,000 German casualties. Because they led their troops out of the trenches, the toll was heaviest among the officers who took part in the attack, three-quarters of whom were killed or wounded. These included many who had attended the Old Etonian dinner a few weeks before: more than 30 Eton men lost their lives on July 1st. Captain Nevill of the East Surreys, who had distributed the soccer balls, was fatally shot through the head in the first few minutes.
The First Newfoundland Regiment, awaiting its Victoria Cross winner and the young woman who had promised herself as his reward, was virtually wiped out. There were 752 men who climbed out of their trenches to advance toward the skeletal ruins of an apple orchard covered by German machine gun fire; by the day’s end 684 were dead, wounded, or missing, including every single officer. The German troops the Newfoundlanders attacked did not suffer a single casualty.
Attacking soldiers had been ordered not to tend injured comrades, but to leave them for stretcher bearers who would follow. The dead and wounded, however, included hundreds of stretcher bearers themselves, and there were nowhere near enough men to carry the critically injured to first aid posts in time. Stretchers ran out; some wounded were carried off two to a stretcher or on sheets of corrugated iron whose edges ravaged the bearers’ fingers. Many wounded who lived through the first day never made it off the battlefield. For weeks afterward their fellow soldiers came upon them in shell holes, where they had crawled for shelter, taken out their pocket Bibles, and wrapped themselves in their waterproof groundsheets to die, in pain and alone.
In other ways as well, the terrible day took its toll after the fact. One battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel E.T.F. Sandys, having seen more than 500 of his men killed or wounded during that day, wrote to a fellow officer two months later, “I have never had a moment’s peace since July 1st.” Then, in a London hotel room, he shot himself.
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