The Grimsby Chums in The Mad Game

This is an extract from The Mad Game by Chris Cherry. The extract, taken from the scenes of the fighting on 1 July 1916, features The Grimsby Chums, soldiers of 10th Btn The Lincolnshire Regiment, who attacked the Lochnagar Crater as part of the 34th Division in the first wave. The Chapter was written at the roadside, at the spot where the Chums left their trenches.

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Roll Call 1 July 1916

Zero Hour, La Boisselle British Sector, South-East Line

We were huddled together in the assembly trench, just a few yards behind the front-line trenches. We had planned to go at 0800, or just as the first wave reached and attacked the German positions. The timings were different up and down the line, based on the distance across the trenches and the type of assault being made. The trench ladders were now firmly in place and the platoons were set at the foot of the ladders. The sight of ladders going up looked like the erecting of a scaffold, escorting the condemned to eternal silence. This was to be our lot. Death was really amongst us, seeking his grisly billet. At the trench wall, some of the boys were shaking and trembling as the nerves took hold of them. They would be brave when the time came, it was the damned intolerable waiting that was the worst, gnawing at you, filled with terrible imaginings of what was to happen; the real fear perhaps not of dying but of being dead, forgotten or not counting at all, in the balance of life.

As a major, I was able to move into the front-line trench very briefly to watch the soldiers forming up at the bottom of the ladders. Several, at this point, were openly vomiting, but since there was nowhere to move, it just poured over the poor chap in front, or to the side. The intensity of the shelling continued to its enormous crescendo, battering the living souls of the sons of Glasgow, Cardiff, Grimsby, Chatham, Newcastle and Belfast. With each series of bursts, the ground vibrated and rumbled, almost turning to liquid the dirt and dust on the ground. My mining experience told me that very soon the mines, wherever they were, were going to go off, adding to the collective misery.

I was alongside the Grimsby Chums, one of Kitchener’s Battalions, who were going in the first wave. These soldiers were due to move forward to occupy the crater that would result from the enormous mine due to go off in front of us. They were excited at this, because it would be something different and, most likely, the enemy would be destroyed in front of them. The boys had seen some action already, although nothing that would compare to this day. They had been told to expect the mine, but quite late, putting the wind up one or two. They had to be ready to rush the crater before the enemy could clear their heads and defend the position.

We were now finally located out on the right, along the old road from Albert to Bapaume. Some of the soldiers joked that we should just walk along to Bapaume for tea. I could not help thinking about being so close to Odile and so close to home. It felt almost unreal to be in this position, unable to just walk over the road – how dare the bloody Germans think they could do this and get away with it?

At 0715, I took a moment to think about Odile and her family, my mother and father, and England. I wanted to make peace with my thoughts, as this was sure to be a war-defining day. The scale and enormity was now clear to me – the first day of July in 1916 would be the day of glory, perhaps the day we broke through to the borders. But if this did not work, then it could well be the start of the end of the war for the Allies.

The track that had been visible through the periscope, we had cycled many times. The field I would be moving across used to grow wheat for bread and was mown for hay. My mother came into my thoughts and shame flooded me for neglecting my parents through a sense of false maturity driving my need for independence. I told them all I was so very sorry for being here and taking lives in an effort to shorten this ghastly excess of suffering.

‘Odile, my love, wherever you are, I love you always and forever. Whenever and wherever we meet again, find me your loving friend, ever hopeful to be your husband.’

I hoped the words could carry on the breeze, across the clouds of smoke and dust and not be cut down by the bombs and shells.

On a scrap of coded paper in my breast pocket, I wrote a short sentence or two, so that if I were hit, Odile would know my true feelings, always.

Mother, father, love to you eternally. I hope that I will have done my duty and made you proud. To my darling Odile. With love. My last and everlasting thought was of you. William

It was now 0720. To my left was the booming sound of an enormous eruption and explosion, which felt like thunder clapping over the distant hills. Although not directly visible, we all heard it and felt the vibrations. It was too early for our planned attack (we later learned it was the mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt, right in the middle of our attack line). This could allow the Germans time to recover – they knew we were coming and they would man their gun positions. Well, they would be dead, I supposed. Now was not the time to worry about that, it was all too late anyway.

As the clock ticked agonisingly towards 0730, other explosions went off as each mine detonated. At each blast, I thought about the mining team, their hard and unseen work and the fighting underground that happened all too often. And I also felt for the poor Germans under the mines as they went off. An unimaginable, if quick death, and death was the best outcome – I had seen survivors of mines and they weren’t the lucky ones.

British_plan_Somme_1_July_1916

At 0728, mines went off all around us, it really was time to jump off. In front of us, the most enormous explosion lifted huge amounts of earth into the air. The force was so strong, it rattled the bones in my chest and the vibration caused my throat to shout loudly. My eyes hurt from the pressure and we were all thrown backwards by the shock. It was a terrible and unnerving moment, and for the first time my courage seemed to fail me. The cloud of earth rose what seemed like thousands of feet into the air and started to rain debris onto our lines with lumps of unspeakable sludge – that a few seconds ago were living German soldiers – among the stones and earth clods falling on us. It was an awful moment that almost drained the will to move on, especially in those who had placed themselves nearer the enemy trenches, out in No Man’s Land.

The next two minutes felt like an eternity and my breathing quickened sharply. All around, soldiers were vomiting and trying to control their breathing. Gripping rifles and tools close for comfort, laden with packs of unnecessary equipment, every soldier was trembling more or less – but to a man, they only wanted now to get up, over and away. The waiting in that two minutes seared an impression for always, of grim soldiering and fates in the lap of fortune. Small voices, trembling prayers, cries of anguish and questions of why were we here, huddled to die in this terrible place. The shouts grew louder and it took all the efforts of the NCOs to keep everyone calm and focused. It was agony and it had not even started.

On this beautiful morning, in full daylight, at exactly 0730, shouts from the company commanders signalled the first assault troops to leave the trenches and begin their slow march across No Man’s Land. It was happening.

Bodies freed from the bonds of the trenches scrambled up the ladders and over the parapet accompanied by waves and shouts and swearing, loud guttural cries, releasing the tension in one lungful, as they climbed the ladder. To the left of me, a piper struck up a tune to steel the nerve and it seemed a wonderful and terrible moment, in equal measure. Some expressionless faces climbed the ladders and walked off, blindly following the directions of others. Others carefully picked their way ahead. The older hands were double checking equipment as they reached the top, urging others across, ‘Quick lads, off the ladder, you are third lighters, and they know where you’ll be’ and, ‘Better in the open moving about, come on.’

Those that reached the top composed themselves and trudged off over the disputed ground towards the enemy trench, determined to do their duty, however brief. From our positions, the lads cheered the first wave on and wished them all luck. This was really it and the British Allies, all of them, had played the ace card of their collective youth, here and now. There was no going back.

The Grimsby Chums and the Scottish lads poured up and over the parapet and out into No Man’s Land, shouting and cursing as they went. The shouts of a thousand voices, every bit as loud as the shells. Flesh and blood was to be pitted against machine gun and bomb, by the tens of thousands. It would be a loud and tribal moment for all soldiers on the Somme.

They walked off. The artillery guns behind were dropping occasional shells on the German wire and it seemed that the barrage had been successful. The Grimsby lads were running through the smoke, dust and dirt to the crater and some of them made it across the gap in just a few minutes. There had been some random return fire, but for those who were posted close, it would not get them just yet.

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La Boisselle – Tara/Usna Aspect. Jumping off point for The Grimsby Chums

Then, to the horror of all and to soul-splitting shouts of disbelief, anguish and pain, came the devastating realisation from our lines. The Germans were not all dead. We started to hear the murderous rattle of machine gun fire. Bullets came at us in dense patterns. We lived and now died, with the terrible knowledge that the German positions were not destroyed and could resist our soldiers’ slow advance. I clasped my hand to my face, to stifle a shocked cry. My God, they were going to be slaughtered. Call them back, get them to duck, move faster, anything, but not this slow trudge across the deadly gap.

To the left, the soldiers were still walking towards the German positions along an area known as Sausage Valley. I saw them advance in their ranks and thought they were going well, when the guns opened up on them. The sight was utterly terrible. Several soldiers in line, crumpled and fell, as if they had suddenly lost their bones. Many were blown backwards as the bullets passed right through them. They fell onto their backs, with terrible injuries to their chests. One soldier to the left, hit by raking machine gunfire, had been cut cleanly into two pieces, the legs separated from the torso, which carried on forwards and then fell with a slap to the ground. Soldiers were being spun around, bullets, shrapnel and shell fragments bouncing off their helmets. Still, it seemed that some were advancing and getting on, none faltered unless and until they were hit, which was most of them. On all sides, the splatter marks of bullets on the ground made an impenetrable floor of lead. Within just a few moments, the German artillery was adding to the misery. The shells dropped in among the advancing troops, swallowing them in a pall of smoke and searingly hot metal. Chance was the only ally to the poor buggers left still moving over the ground. The close ordered five-yard ranks were now broken up and men were separated from their comrades and pals. The stretcher-bearers poured out from the support trench and set off to find the casualties, but there were simply too many of them. The bearers were as likely to be hit, but they went anyway. The padre, nearby, was shouting skywards a piercing, shrill cry that cut to the bone. He moved up the ladder and stumbled about trying to find a living soul to comfort. He found his first body, only about ten yards in front of the trench, not even having cleared our wire. The second wave saw this and it struck me that their bravery would have to be greater still, to go up and over, knowing that the fate of the first wave would be their fate too.

I knew now that the hospital provision, the small tent lines, would be stretched beyond all comprehension within an hour. The day seemed already to be a disaster. Perhaps some had made it to the German trench – we could now not see through the smoke and the confusion. The machine gun rattle was almost continuous. Who could possibly live through that, and then fight a battle on the other side?

The time came for the second wave to move off and I went with them. Around me were more lads from the battalion, who had witnessed the death of their school friends, workmates or the lads they met in training just a few months ago. Their anguish was visible – if you swept your hand in the air between them, it would be wet with the living pain of the moment, as if you had swept a hand through a pond. You had to be living though, to feel pain.

‘Bloody hell, Joe, get that bloody webbing strapped up here. No, not like that, here let me check. There, you bloody fool. Leave the tools, no buggers are needed yet to reverse the trenches. Take more ammunition boys, load up with a few more bombs. Come on let’s give our mates a hand.’

‘Sarge, please, do we still go, even with all this shit here?’

‘Yes, them’s our orders and they haven’t bleeding changed. Get ready lads. Good luck everyone.’

‘Bloody hell, we are really going aren’t we? Oh dear God! No! Please don’t make us go into this. We are going to die.’

‘Shut it up, right bloody now. We are going. There’s no one else, only us. We have to go. There’s six other waves due after us. We have a chance and we have to take it. Get it now?’

‘Sod it, Sarge, let us bloody go then. I can’t stand this any longer, please!’

‘Sarge, there’s bodies on our wire, we can’t get through. What shall we do?’

‘Damn it. Look, you will have to cut them down first. Quick off to it, I will give you one minute to get them down. If they are alive, leave them be. If they are dead, just push them away, so we can get out. Their guns know there’s a gap there, so don’t mess about.’

‘Oh my eye, Sarge, please be alive lads, please.’

Then he was up and gone. He made it to the wire but was struck by a shell that sent him ten yards sideways, falling into a heap of hot flesh. At least he did not suffer, like the lads screaming on the wire, who saw everything. The shell burst, adding to their injuries and anguish.

It took all of our courage, having seen what had happened, to climb out of the trenches. The machine guns had found their range and were targeting the ladders. The first to go took deep breaths and let out the same soul-splitting cries as they emerged above the sandbags. We left the trench as quickly as possible and started out towards the German line, through our wire, through fresh shell-holes and the terrible moans of dying comrades, calling to us, God, their wives and mothers. We could do nothing to help them here.

Somewhere, off to my right and over the hill ahead, was my treasured French home. I was nearly there again, and had to make it onwards. Thoughts of Odile filled my whirling mind, to shut out the guns and noise and death all around me. But I could not let these thoughts last, and had to concentrate. As an officer, even one that was not assigned to this unit, I was at the front of the lines. We set off in good order, at least for a few steps. Some of the boys had seen the first wave cut down, but pressed on with clenched teeth and vice grips on their rifles, knuckles proud and chins up. Within just a few seconds, the heat and unseen mass of bullets whizzed past me on both sides. None of us could count on living through this. I expected nothing but searing agony or blackness at any moment. At least then I would know nothing of my own falling. Shells were landing right in amongst us, squarely aimed by some accursed enemy observer just like our own calling in the guns on us.

Two lads on my left simply disappeared in a red mist with not a trace of flesh on the ground, without warning and blessedly without them knowing anything. The wind from the shell took my breath away and when I did breathe in, the wetness of the explosion revolted and nauseated me. To my right, two soldiers embraced for support, as they were both hit at the same time. They encouraged each other to move on, out of this horror. As they fell to the floor, one was hit again in the stomach. The shrapnel slashed his abdomen, spilling his intestines, which fell to the floor, steaming, in an appalling splash of grisly stew. He looked down, amazed and terrified at the sight of his naked guts dropping to the floor. Mercifully, he died from this wound on that spot. The attending stretcher-bearer vomited on the corpse, was then shot cleanly through the helmet and fell forwards onto the growing pile of human remains. It was sheer murder and at this rate, no one was going to make it to the German trench, never mind Bapaume.

Nomansland looking up to Lochnagar Crater - dense casualties

No Mans Land towards the Lochnagar Crater

I felt a new, but familiar, hot pain in my side and realised that I had been hit. Damn, no, please not a wound that will leave me alive and motionless out here, unable to shelter. But it was not too bad, and I could continue, even if at a stumble. At the rim of the enormous crater, a ghastly slaughterhouse revealed itself. It must have been two-hundred feet across, an almost perfect circle, and fifty feet deep. There were lumps of concrete and trench debris and human remains everywhere. Many of the bodies were completely naked as the blast had blown off their uniforms. This sight unnerved me most of all – probably because this was no way to die for a soldier, whatever country he came from. I did not know that this could happen. There were no survivors of this mine to interrogate. There was nothing left alive. Even the grass was burnt.

Inside the crater, the Grimsby Chums, some Irish lads and a number of tough-talking Geordie buggers were preparing a defensive position to hold the crater. They had gathered their courage and were looking to keep the ground already bitterly won. It seemed that the British guns were still firing on the crater, perhaps not knowing that it was, at least for now, in British hands. The smell of burning would have sickened me on any other day, but on this day, it was the least of the horrors confronting our men. The burnt explosive smell was comfortingly familiar and the mine blast had most certainly saved some lives, even in this brutal carnage. But the pile of smashed humanity below was a reminder that this was no place to hang about, and we had to press on.

The first and second waves were now totally mixed up, but those left were still grimly advancing towards the German positions. Within a few minutes, the smoke cleared enough to see that some of the soldiers were approaching the German wire – too few to take it, even with pulverised German defenders. It was also clear that the damage inflicted on the enemy front line was light. There were channels cut in the wire, but this only meant that machine gun fire could be aimed at the gaps where soldiers went to go through. It became a mad scramble for life. Many British uniforms were present right in front of the wire and trench wall. They survived the horror of No Man’s Land only to die in the uncut wire of the enemy positions. They must have cursed the artillery, safer in the rear, and cursed the army for sending them out to prove this lie of intact wire.

Behind me and to my left now came the third wave. They were early – perhaps pressed into battle by worried officers as the day unfolded and the casualties mounted. At least this time, the men were advancing faster, as they were carrying less equipment and the barrage had long since lifted well over the German first line. In fact, the barrage was moving back and forth, but not ever troubling or defeating the rattle of the cursed machine guns. The third wave came up and around the crater and moved off towards Contalmaison, which was the major objective for this part of the line. Pressing on, with almost no prospect of reaching it today, if at all.

The lines were now in poor order. Many of the officers were dead or wounded and few were left to direct the remaining soldiers. The fourth and fifth waves were due out soon and this could and must not continue to be a ceaseless slaughter. I found two sergeants from the Grimsby and Tyneside waves. I knelt down to them, gripping my helmet onto my head as shells thumped around me. Some ghastly flesh-soaked soil was thrown up into my face and a clod of earth hit the back of my head. I shouted loudly at them, doubting they would hear me.

‘Sergeant, get your men to that ridge on the right. See that shell hole? Get in there and set up some return fire, aim at the muzzles of the machine guns.’

‘Sir, are we not going on at the trenches?’

‘We can’t here. Their firing is too much. Look at the casualties. The dead are lying on this line from the left, that gun is going to kill us all in this section. Get some control over their guns and we can have a go later. Quick, before we are blown to pieces.’

‘Right sir. You three lads come on, up and away over there. Find the hole and get in. Where is the Lewis gun team?’

‘Knackered. Copper and Ellis are alive, but they ain’t going nowhere today and the gun is bent to hell. I got two magazines here, look. Shall I bite on the bullets to fire at them, or just throw them at them?’

I would try and get the Irish boys off and forwards towards the Germans, to pin them down and give the fresh waves a chance of getting through. Still, all around, the bodies continued to fall. Many cut down at the knees, because of the shape of the ridgeline. Not killed outright, but destined to bleed to death or linger in agony until thirst got them, surrounded by delirious images of their mothers here to rescue them and take them onward and out of pain.

Now I was moving right to the ridgeline shell hole, through a clump of tallish grass, still standing in defiance of the bombs and bullets, when I tripped over a poor Tynesider, who had been hit in the legs. He had lost both calves and feet and was bleeding to death. There was nothing to give him and my dressings could do nothing for him. I kept them on me, to use on someone who could at least be saved. It was an agonising decision. He had blood all over him. He had been wiping his hands on his legs, to see where they were. He was delirious and hopefully in a different place to here. Unfortunately, he was still in France, and he knew it.

‘Am I to die, sir? Please tell me, is it bad?’

‘Stay calm, Private. What is your name?’

‘Thomas Albert Taylor, sir. From Cullercoats.’

‘Well Thomas Taylor from Cullercoats. You just stay here and stay calm. Someone will come for you.’

‘Will they sir, it doesn’t look like much is getting up this far? It’s cold here. I just ran at them, I did not know what else to do.’

‘Well you did the right thing, Taylor, you did all that was asked of you. Your father and mother can be proud. You did your bit, now rest easy.’

A smile took over his face. He had done his duty alright, all that was asked of him. I left him and the clump of grass and made it to the shell hole.

‘My God sir, are you alright? Here, let me dress that wound!’

‘No, no it isn’t my blood, it’s one of your lads, a Thomas Taylor from Cullercoats.’

‘Aye, Tinker! Dozy Geordie ran off straight at the enemy. Is he alive sir?’

‘Yes, he is in that tall grass sod all else getting this far. We’re dead, the lot of us.’

We ducked for a shell that we knew to be coming close and we looked back over the shell hole to see it land. The clump of grass was gone.

The lines had now fully broken and we were fixed in, hopping from shell crater to shell crater, to get out of the continuous fire. We were pinned down on all sides and being fired upon from both directions. This was futile madness. Although given few orders for this operation, and not supposed to take part in the battle proper, I had been ordered to bloody well survive, to report back and amend the plans for our little operation. The information from today would be used to improve our tactics, ready for the next time. Maybe Cowling knew how much was committed to today, but I certainly hadn’t appreciated the scale of this offensive. If we were going to make anything of our work, then it was to support this action today. It was bloody clear to me that the German positions were intact and although they had suffered, it was not nearly enough to prove decisive. Today was going to be a bloody disaster and all we were doing was counting their remaining guns with the lives of our poor pals.

Lochnagar Crater looking back towards La Boiselle

The Chums hold the crater still…

The regimented rows of the fifth and sixth waves gave way to groups of three and four advancing through the smoke, all crouched down. Still taking incredible courage, they seemed to survive better and have more chance of advancing. Some of the first waves left alive had now made it into shell holes, just outside the German wire. They were only able to exist there unsupported, they could not advance and they were too few to launch an assault on the trench itself. Just ahead, the trench cut across the road from Albert to Contalmaison and that became the focus for my next movement. We had to get up and away, or risk being trapped and cut off. I had to get back to the start lines today. Around me landed a few of the fifth wave troops, seeming fresher and attuned to the sights of slaughter, grimly accepting their fate, whatever it was to be. They were ready to move forward in what was now a smoky and dusty landscape. We were all blood streaked, having been splashed by the dying all around us. Now was not the time to think about any of this, now was just for survival and moving onwards.

At the junction in the smashed up road we saw a natural break in the German wire and crawled for it. The earth continued to convulse as if wild animals were trying to escape from just below the surface. It was no time to stay here and wait to be blown to pieces. About fifteen of us moved sharply off towards the gap, keeping low and using the ground where possible. I felt another searing pain in my leg. A piece of burning hot shrapnel had lodged in my trousers, but with no damage to me. I would keep that piece of metal in my pocket as a souvenir.

Five of the boys ran into the gap and through towards the first German trench. The machine gunner was firing slightly to the right, but he had seen these troops and was frantically engaged in turning his gun around the fifty degrees or so needed to bring the gun to bear down on us. We saw for the first time, the faces of the German soldiers. They were not fully dressed, and looked dirty, tired and shocked. But they were alive and pointing machine guns at us.

The gun in front, guarding the approach to the trench, was aimed towards the left, along the main road. That meant we could sneak up and drop on top of them, which two of the Irish lads did. With cries of ‘Hello Fritzy’, they lobbed a bomb into the position and it exploded, destroying the position and killing the defenders. The two of them dropped into the trench, but were not seen anymore. They must have been killed and I hoped that they died quickly. These brave lads, as far as I could see, were the only boys to make it into the enemy trench so far in this part of the line.

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The Bench at the Lochnagar Crater

The machine gun swinging round to us had completed its move and was now firing just above our heads. As a result, the shell hole was pinned down and ten soldiers would be unable to move unless the gun moved on, or was silenced. Only when some lads from the final two waves got to us, could we make an advance. These Scottish lads were fresh into France and it was their first action. They came into our holes and had the sense to bring bombs with them, rather than their equipment packs and trench tools. I ordered them out left and right. Perhaps they could draw the fire from the machine gun. The gun could not get to both groups at once, so perhaps we had a chance. One or other would be the target – it just had to be so. The group on the left climbed out first and was immediately subjected to machine gun and rifle fire, but it was not well aimed and they all got out alive, without wounds. The lads on the right crept out, on hands and knees, making it to the rim. The rest of us put our heads up and fired towards the trench, trying to pin down the enemy. Four of the lads made it to the brim of the gun position and dropped their bombs in, with little fuse time left. The Germans saw the bombs come in and they all piled up and over the rim in front of the trench as the bomb went off. The last two over were blasted up and over the position, dead, and the two in front were killed at the bayonet. It was an extraordinary act of bravery and later I made sure their officers were aware of the action in front of the enemy position. They moved up and over the rim and beckoned us into the trench. About six of them made it to the edge of the trench and down into the enemy positions, with much shouting and firing of rifles.

My group was relieved and overtaken by advancing soldiers from the last two waves. They reached the German trench and some further fighting took place. I know, from later reports of intercepted German messages, that some of them made it almost to Contalmaison, but I also know that none of them came back. None at all. My job today was not to lead a trench assault, but I did wait to see the 103rd Brigade go by. They advanced down the valley towards Contalmaison and it looked like some of them might make it as well. That cleared a path for me to return to the start lines, to get back and report.

My little wound, which was bleeding and open, would need to be dressed. It wasn’t too bad though and certainly would not need a trip beyond a casualty-clearing station. I hopped back from shell hole to shell hole. Some occupied by the living, but many by our dead. As I made my way back to the start line, I was shocked again by the sheer number of dead bodies and dying men littering the ground very close to our lines. These poor buggers had been recruited, had left their home towns to cheers and tears, spent a year training, imagining glory and a victorious homecoming. They had been sent overseas on an adventure, only to die within a few seconds of going over the top for the first time. They suffered horrendous, undignified damage to their bodies that their families would never know. At least these bodies would have a burial. There are bodies here that have simply disappeared, without trace. Nothing. All over were pockets of dead and wounded, those still living moaning softly, calling out for dead comrades to come to them. Calling out for their mothers, their mind softening their suffering with images and visions of home to help them to their death. I certainly could not help them, the wounds to their bodies were just too great and in any case, stretcher-bearers were now mercifully moving between them, issuing morphine to anyone that could take it. Those with flesh wounds were encouraged to crawl back, where possible. Only those who could respond to their questions really stood any chance of help. Those with large open wounds that were bleeding were most likely to bleed to death. Many were left where they fell to die overnight. There was simply nothing else that could be done. Haunting screams, calls for help from the wounded, would echo around the battlefield only ceasing as each one succumbed to the indignities inflicted on their bodies.

We were still under heavy machine gun fire, but less was now directed at the start lines. Soldiers advancing drew the attention away from the opening positions. The barrage was now more concentrated, but still ineffective, still led with shrapnel which pinned down infantry, but did nothing to destroy the trench lines.

I reached the patch of ground just outside our wire where we had started and saw dead and dying soldiers draped over the entanglements, in full kit, with rifles in hand. Most had been hit by machine gun fire or shrapnel and some had been hit after death by shellfire as well, an extra and undeserved insult to their bodies. Soldiers were still jumping off and going through this grisly gate to move forwards. These were the last of the eight waves and many of them were either reserves or reinforcements, or communication teams, detailed to establish forward positions for messages, which would make grim reading.

At last, I carefully jumped down into our front-line trench and sought an update on the battle as a whole. The exasperated voice of an infantry captain came from the door of a small dugout.

‘You say that all one-hundred-and-fifty are down? Are you quite sure? Look, let me say it again. I sent out one-hundred-and-fifty from the 101st Brigade over on the left of this, yes, that’s right. I sent instructions for an update over two hours ago and all that comes back is a single runner telling me that they are all bloody dead. They can’t all be dead?’

The poor lieutenant at the end of the statement bowed his head and solemnly replied,

‘Yes, sir. They are all dead. The first wave was cut down completely, barely a dozen made it more than a hundred yards. The rest, in the second wave, were hit by artillery ranging on the first wave. There are none left alive, sir.’

The Captain, filthy and covered in a pink haze of blood, like the rest of us, had a shocked expression. He had already seen too much.

‘Bloody hell, this is a damned disaster, a complete royal balls up of the first bloody magnitude. Any news from the Grimsby and Tyneside lads, Lieutenant?’

I was able to offer a reply.

‘Captain, I was with the Grimsby lads. Many of them are dead, that’s for sure, but some are defending the German side of the mine crater ahead. They are in there and putting up a show. They need more support, though. More bombs and some reinforcement. The Tynesiders are also advancing slowly along Sausage Valley, I don’t know if they have reached the German lines yet, they were close, but not very many of them are there together. Some have taken out the machine gun positions, up there on the left.’

‘Who the bloody hell are you? Ah a major, sir? What the devil is happening to my infantry operation – sir?’

‘How many lads do you have left?’

‘I’m taking a roll call. Information is scattered all about this place. What is clear is that I’m taking eighty per cent casualties – that’s eighty per cent dead.’

‘I’m sorry? Did you say eighty per cent?’

‘Yes, sir. It’s a bloody shambles.’

It was clear that the attacks along the valley, south of Contalmaison, were not at all successful. The Grimsby Chums taking on the mine crater had not broken through, despite unbelievable courage. The German defenders are fine soldiers and had done for our lads today. Reports from further south showed some success, but to the west and north our soldiers were cut down, too. My nerve slid away and I wanted tea, oddly, to stiffen my back again. Right from the start, I had promised Odile that I would not give up. Not that she heard, of course. Perhaps she was the only thing preventing me from becoming the poor bugger wobbling down the steps at Folkestone, being gently but firmly moved into a lorry, to goodness knows where.

Tea arrived and the roll call was taken, as planned, after the reinforcements were sent out. Of over four-hundred soldiers, in the waves near my action, only eleven were accounted for and a further fifteen were known to be alive, but still out in No Man’s Land. The casualty rates were appalling. Troops were arriving for the evening garrison. Their orders were to move off from Contalmaison and consolidate the captured German front lines and convert them into British positions. I explained to their officers that the objectives set were not going to be achieved today, or any day soon. They would be better off attacking the forward trenches in support of the Geordies and the rush along Sausage Valley.

Back down in the trench, for the first time since coming to France in uniform, I gave in to the war and wept. It was unstoppable, an outpouring of emotion pent up over the last year, focused on the battle today. Wave after wave of tears came over me. Pink tears slipped off my chin, tasting of sweet blood and dirty salt water, stinging my parched lips.

I could still see the dead and dying in my head. I could still see the boy with his guts spilled and the Irish lads turned to dust in an instant. I could still see the frightened faces of the poor kids at zero hour moving up over the ladders, hardly looking like they knew what they were doing, with uniforms too big for them and rifles gripped with trembling hands, full of unfailing courage to do their bit. It was a pity that their bit today was to die on the parapet, barely yards from where they started. The poor buggers’ faces came to me and I needed to let them go, or it would get me too. An hour of sleep, kept shallow by the constant flow of soldiers jumping off, left me without refreshment. I thought of Thomas Taylor from Cullercoats and the letters of sympathy his mother would receive. Well done, poor dead Taylor. Your idea for the battle, thought up in the field, was a damned sight better than the one the generals had thought up for this day, months in advance. Rest now, lad. Your duty was done. It was up to us now, to make your sacrifice worthwhile.


Please leave Chris a Comment…

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Photo: Courtesy of The Grimsby Chums Heritage Project 2014

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