When the sun arose that day on Picardy

60,000 were never to see it set



Henry Williamson




On July 1, forty-three years ago, the sun rose up out of the east across the thistly chalk fields of Picardy, known as No Man's Land.


A great battle was imminent. Over 250,000 English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Westcountry and Colonial troops, nearly all amateur soldiers, waited in white trenches along a 20-mile front for the final bombardment to open.


This, it had been declared, would annihilate the German redoubts and trenches opposite and prepare the way for a great advance to the high ground several miles into enemy-held territory. There along the Pozières–Bazentin–Longueval–Gillemont ridge they would dig in and prepare for the counter-attack. Then, the enemy having broken, the cavalry would go through 'the gap' and so the end of the war would come in sight. Such were the hopes of the new and proud Kitchener's Army.


The final bombardment started at 6.30 a.m. Across the hundreds of yards of No Man's Land rising smoke and dust turned the sunshine brown. At times the sun's disc was occluded. Surely no German could live in that inferno of shells bursting like waves on a distant reef? Roaring and screaming overhead, shells of all weights and sizes, from 13-pounder shrapnel to ton-weight 15-inch howitzer shells, and 12-inch armour-piercing stuff from naval guns on multiple bogies mounted on the railway behind the valley town of Albert, fell for an hour. The rising sun glinted on the Leaning Virgin holding the Babe in arms on the campanile of the shell-broken basilica, built of grey stone and red brick – the 'Golden Virgin of Albert Cathedral'.


For months this attack had been rehearsed in back areas. Every man knew his job. Coloured ribands were tied to shoulder-straps to distinguish bomber from bayonet man, Lewis gunner from rifle-grenadier. Patches of coloured cloth sewn upon tunic backs, and again in paint stencilled on steel helmets, distinguished battalions and brigades. Every division had its device of animal, shield, flower, butterfly, or other 'sign'.


Each infantry soldier carried about 66 lbs: Rifle and bandolier of ammunition, bayonet, shovels, bombs, extra water, food, barbed wire, sandbags, and so on. It was to be, as the phrase went in those days, a cakewalk – after an Edwardian dance.


The General commanding the Fourth Army, Sir Henry Rawlinson, whose banner was a wild boar (he had a tame boar at his H.Q. at Querrieu Chateau) based his plan on an overwhelming bombardment, which would destroy all 10 ft deep enemy trenches, bury what barbed wire obstacles were not torn to pieces, and smash in all German dugouts. 'All opposition will be overwhelmed in the preliminary bombardment,' ran part of the directive to his five Corps commanders.


So the troops were virtually carrying parties. They were to advance in six extended lines with 100 yards interval between the 'waves'. The first waves were to deal with any survivors of the bombardment, the second would supply escorts for prisoners; waves following would advance to the Pozières ridge, three miles to the east, dig in, put out wire, await the counter-attack.


A little over five years before this the 'unsinkable' Titanic had gone down because the officer coming on duty on the bridge in the late evening was not told by the officer he relieved of a signal sent from the wireless room that icebergs were ahead. The paper on which the signal was written lay under a glass paper-weight. The officer going off duty assumed that his relief would see and read the signal. Likewise, one tiny detail had escaped the attention of Fourth Army headquarters, flying the banner of the Boar beside the Albert–Amiens road.


After the many raids on the German lines before the big push of July 1 not one report mentioned that the German dugouts had as many as 40 wooden steps leading down into the tunnels below and that these were about 30 ft deep. In the battle of Loos in September, 1915, the enemy shelters had been more or less open, with timber baulks shoring up roofs of layers of sandbags filled with chalk. They were not more than 10 ft below ground level; many had been wrecked by our 6-inch howitzer shells.


The bombardment concentrated on that morning of July 1, 1916, lifted at zero hour, 7.30 a.m. The sun, low in the pale blue eastern sky into which larks were still singing, blazed into the eyes of the men of nearly 200 battalions of fresh troops, some now white-faced and trembling, others swearing and shouting to free themelves of fear as they climbed up the trench ladders. each soul to find itself as though naked and alone in the dreaded No Man's Land, to see, strangely, men dropping rifles and sinking slowly to their knees. While those upright advanced in line, monstrous black shells began to burst, and a noise like a hundred engines blowing off steam in a railway terminus filled the dusty air.


For the enemy dugouts, deep in the chalk, had not been smashed in. German machine-gunners sheltering below in comparative safety had come up, as they had rehearsed many times. They carried parts of their automatische pistolen into No Man's Land, in some places before the tumble of their own wire. Lying in shell-holes they awaited the order to fire.


In one place, opposite Ovillers, a downland village among shattered trees, there was a gentle declension south to the Albert road. Lined by poplars, its metalling weed-grown, this road led direct through what had been corn and sugar-beet fields to the distant ridge. Within a few minutes all officers of one battalion which had gone over – 25 – were casualties.


Mash Valley, as the declension was called, looked to be filled by a Wembley crowd lying down to rest in the sun after leaving a Cup-tie final. Among them were hundreds of the 2nd Devons. Farther south the 8th and 9th Battalions had better luck and took the fortified village of Mametz. But up by the straight Albert–Bapaume road and north across the Ancre valley to Gommecourt, along a dozen miles or so of front, the assault was shattered. By evening nearly 60,000 British soldiers, most of them of the new keen Kitchener divisions, had gone down under the mort blast of Spandau rifles and machine-guns. When the sun's rays were from the west the survivors were back again in their own trenches.


Opposite Mash Valley – north of Sausage Valley, where Tynesiders lay almost as thickly as their comrades in Mash – the Germans lost about 150 men. Most of them wounded, 12,000 of their opponents, belonging to the 8th and 34th divisions, lay outside the German wire. When the firing ceased enemy doctors and Red Cross orderlies came out and helped bind up some of our wounded; but there were so many; and for the next three days khaki figures were still crawling, or being carried, back to the dressing station below the Golden Virgin of Albert.


There have been many books about that old war; some will one day be reprinted, perhaps. One of the most moving passages of that time was written by an American soldier of genius who never got to Europe, and who was haunted ever afterwards by it. He was one of the 'lost generation' just too young to know battle action. I read his books again and again – the most famous is The Great Gatsby. But the passage about the Somme occurs in his Tender is the Night, wherein Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a couple of pages a summary which has hardly been surpassed. Here speaking is Dick Diver, a clinical psychologist, when he visited the battlefield in 1925 with Rosemary Hoyt, the young film star with whom he was guardedly in love.


'It took the British army a month to walk to that little stream – a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backwards a few inches every day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. . . . This [war] took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. . . . You had to have a whole-souled equipment going back further than you remembered. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in the Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather's whiskers . . . why, this was a love battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle. All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love!'


. . . Then, leaving infinitesimal sections of Wurttemburgers, Prussian Guards, Chasseurs Alpins, Manchester mill hands and Old Etonians to pursue their eternal dissolution under the warm rain, they took the train for Paris.







This article was first published in the Western Morning News on Friday, 7 August 1959.




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