The Somme, 1916: a war correspondent's view in The Daily Mail overseas edition September 9th 1916 p.520
Mr Beach Thomas on the new battle
From W. Beach Thomas with the British Army in the field Sunday September 3rd.
At set intervals from dark to full moon this morning British troops who had crept up day and night nearer and nearer the walls leapt to scale the German ramparts. They reached the barriers, and entered the bastions, they won some great successes and suffered some repulses. But the measure of the magnitude of the achievement was the expectancy of the enemy.
From the two ridges above the Ancre marshes to Falfemont Farm, south of Guillemont, the enemy was everywhere alert and ready. He filled No Man's Land with snipers, he lifted his machine guns from the caves; and not a minute intervened between the rival thunderclaps. Our trenches, our alleys, the woods and buildings and open spaces within our lines, instantly received showers of meteorites dense beyond belief. But the first wounded man I met this morning - he was a "walking case", who was going astray into the French lines - had only one clear impression, that "our artillery fire was something terrible".
It was a lusty sentiment for a man who had just been knocked out by their artillery fire. It is useless to attempt to give an impression of the clamour of our guns. In the Guillemont area it began at midnight. One tiny selected spot received a "bouquet" made up of the following varieties: -15 in, 12 in, 8 in, a number of 6 in, with a general setting of smaller guns. This mixed "bouquet" was thrown at full speed for more than an hour. As the biggest flower in the bunch weighs about 14 hundred pounds, the weight of the metal and explosive lavished there may be imagined.
This variety of carnival continued over five or six miles of front for at least eight hours.
Our storming parties directed at widely separated parts of the battlefront, left their trenches at various hours of the morning. On both sides of the Ancre our English troops, working simultaneously with the Australians on the hill, reached the German trenches at 5:12a.m.
South of Guillemont the spring was made at 9 o'clock. North of it the appointed hour was noon. The result of the two attacks - one in the north round Thiepval, the other round Guillemont - was that in the north the Australians took a large section of ground east of Mouquet Farm, and on the east other troops, chiefly English, stormed Guillemont, with the northern ground running into Ginchy, the last real point of observation possessed by the enemy on the ridge we set out to conquer.
Let me begin, as the battle began, from the north. We attacked frontally the German front line trenches on either side of the Ancre. On the previous night patrols had gone forward. One of these, consisting of two men and an officer who was fighting for the first time, entered the German trench; and it seemed for a moment that it had been left empty. But soon the officer caught sight of Germans emerging from dugouts, which in this old original system, dug two years or so ago, are large and deep. He proceeded to shoot three of them and was advancing to further investigations when supports were heard coming up the trench. Finally he and his party return to their own lines without a casualty.
The main attack opened before dawn after a bombardment of great accuracy and intensity. All along the line, extending for some distance both east and west of the river, we reached the first and second German lines. In both many dead bodies were found and others killed, and we suffered very little, on the whole, from machine guns. But the Germans were as ready. Artillery fire was focused on the spot from a great ark on the other side of the river. Some of our men successfully organised their new trenches, but the concentration of fire was too great.
The Germans counter-attacked quickly and in strength; and though they were checked and punished we were soon forced to withdraw to our original line. The withdrawal was well managed; and I have been struck by nothing in the war more than the sense of victory I found there.
The most stirring individual fighting of the day was seen up the hill on the other side of Thiepval. There too the enemy was ready. The lift of our curtain of fire was answered instantly by largesse of shells on our trenches. When the men, quite undeterred by the tempest, crossed the parapet they found the honeycomb of No Man's Land full of stinging creatures.
But one after one, by individual promptitude and pluck, the vagabond machine guns were knocked out, the advance pushed forward, and Moquet Farm (which now consists of nothing above ground, but two enormous caverns below it) was occupied and posts well beyond it taken and fortified. In one of these excavations a party of our men made themselves at home. They were taking coffee with one another when a group of the Prussian Guard came back to call and commanded them to surrender.
Prussian Guard Prisoners
The answer was the counter pass, "surrender yourselves", and this was the signal for a dual of bombs. Our men won it and took prisoners. The total number was considerable.
In spite of continued artillery fire of the highest intensity, directed especially against the Farm, the position here is, for the time, well and strongly held. A so-called calm separated the bitter fighting west and south and north-east of Thiepval - which was never itself attacked - from the equally stern fighting extending from Delville Wood to our point of junction with the French.
On our right, near the French, are a farm and a little wood which are connected by a strongly organised system of earth defences. Our advance was stopped abruptly at this point, or, rather, we were forced to settle down to a slow bombing attack up and along trenches on either side. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting was engaged here from 9 o'clock, when the attack was first delivered until late in the afternoon, when we were gradually pushing forward past the wood and up the sunken road beyond.
This right flank of the advance was the only section arrested at the start. Guillemont village was rushed and posts advanced beyond it in the midst of the storm of German shells, which concentrated more and more as the day advanced on the village itself. The left wing, who moved eastwards at a slight angle to the troops storming Guillemont was not released till noon. Their initial spring carried forward our line right up to the edge of Ginchy.
The impossibility of charting this country, of disengaging any geometric pattern from the galaxy of pits and ruins, altogether prevents any precise knowledge of the present position. It was a feature of the fighting both south and north of Guillemont that both artillery's left oases in the battle because neither knew whether these patches were held by themselves or by the enemy.
The fighting is intense and continuous. Some of the enemy's best troops are condensed into very narrow spaces of the front. The particular regiments engaged south of Ginchy are the 73rd, 76th, 164th, and a small unit of the guards. In and beyond Guillemont as many as 2000 men were holding a very short reach.
Prisoners were coming back in considerable groups; but artillery fire made their journey at least slow. Early in the afternoon one cage contained 126 men and 8 officers. Others could be seen waiting at stages on the journey, and other large groups were visible behind the French line southward.
A message from Mr Teech Bomas
By our special correspondent Mr Teech Bomas
Mr Teech Bomas speaks
No Man's Land, 20/July/16
I write from the middle of the battlefield. There are a lot of bullets but I don't mind that. Also the air is thick with shells. That also I don't mind. Let me tell you all about it while I can think clearly. Before the battle commenced I took up a favourable position in No Man's Land, the little larks were larking and the morning was fine. Then Hell broke loose and as things got really hot I climbed up the rope of a sausage and joined two A.S.C.'s who were also watching the proceedings. Let me tell you of the gallant dash of the Umpshires: - into the thick of the Prussian Guard they dashed. The few of the guard who remained cried "Kamerad" and surrendered. That rush was epic. I then walked over the German lines to have a look at them. There were a lot more bullets but what would you? Now I thrill with an ecstasy. Here they come, the wood is ours. Strange associations, here we see the submarine co-operating with the cavalry and shells falling thickly. Then - the peasants - I witnessed the thrilling scenes of the last peasants leaving their happy farms in No Man's Land, harnessing their mongrel dogs into their little carts and driving off when the battle got a bit hot. It was epic. Taking a place is one thing but putting it back is another. Profound but true, and so the wood was won. A correspondent must always see to write. This may appear unnecessary to the cognoscenti, but it is so. Tomorrow I will tell you more. I return now to the battle.
[From The Somme-Times with which are incorporated The Wipers Times, The "Newchurch" Times, and the Kemmel Times, No 1, Vol. 1, Monday 31st July 1916, price 1 franc.]
The domain of crime was the prison which, with its ancillary buildings, was as big as a village, whole streets of warders' houses and big houses with gardens for the Governor, chaplain, doctor. There was a cordon sanitaire of open ground around it, leased off to bowls and tennis clubs. Opposite our house was a rough field with a footpath leading away into the prison hinterland, whence sallied forth at times a hooligan family of red-haired boys, warders' children, to terrorise clean little prep school boys in their grey flannels. Neighbours tut-tutted about these boys, who seemed ripe for imprisonment themselves. Occasionally an active prep school father would catch and beat one of the redheads, as could be lightly undertaken in those days without fear of a suit for assault. Bad boys were not easy to catch, but once taught, they could be beaten-that was the way of it then.
The façade of the prison was sombrely impressive, a fortress. It had a huge main gate like the gate of a mediaeval castle, with a small door let into it. Onto the main gate was posted the notice of execution when a murderer was hanged. When she was young, my mother said, they would run up a black flag which could be seen at a distance when a hanging had been done, but now there was only the notice, posted up by a warder. I was told that when the notice was posted a great sigh, a communal collective exhalation, would go up from the crowd that had assembled in front of the prison at the time of execution. I thought of this enormous sigh as the last breath of the hanged murderer, all the breath that had ever been in his lungs going out into the world without him.
On winter mornings before it was light on the day of an execution there would be a clippety-shuffle noise on the pavements outside our house. It was the sound of the leather-shod or hobnailed booted people from the bottom of the hill coming up to watch outside the prison in time for the execution at eight o'clock. They walked without a word. They would stand in silence waiting for the deed to be done on the hour, and from them would go up the great sigh. Whether that sigh was of pity or of grief, satisfaction at justice done or fear of the wrath of God, it went up into the raw air as a single sigh such as a man might heave before taking up again his burden.
At home, no impairment of appetite was felt at breakfast on execution mornings. That was how things were. You took a life, they took your life. It was a simple trade-off. We had been warned.
The Somme, 1916
a war correspondent's view: W. Beach Thomas writing in The Daily Mail Overseas Edition, 9 Sept 1916
a soldier's view: Mr. Teech Bomas, writing in The Somme-Times 31st July 1916
Betts P.Y. People Who Say Goodbye: description of Wandsworth Prison circa WW I