Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The Somme by Peter Hart
The Darkest Hour on The Western Front
'The infantry were to 'go over' at 3:40 a.m. It was a night of horror. The German's knew something was in the wind and shortly after midnight they opened up their artillery on the British batteries who were harassing them. Their fire, their counter-battery work, was better organized than ours. They would put four or five batteries- two 5.9-in, two 4.2 and a 77-mm all on the same target. High explosive, shrapnel and gas, all at once for ten minutes. Then they would move to a different target. Twice they came on to us that night. A gun was blown up, a small heap of ammunition went up, an NCO killed and several men wounded. We were lucky to get off so lightly.
With our three remaining guns we turned on the intensive stuff at 3:30 a.m. and from then on we lived in one screaming holocaust of light and sound. Sound! Deafening, screaming, shrieking sound, the whole range of the eardrum, like 50,000 express trains tearing through the air- colliding and tearing on again. Orders could only be passed by signals, no one could hear a verbal order however loudly shouted.
It was like daylight. The flickers and flashes as the shells left the guns, not only our guns, but every gun for miles, the yellow flash of bursting shells, the white glare of Very lights and star shells lit up the landscape as in one continuos lightening storm. Indeed man's efforts outdid the worst electric storm I have ever seen both in light and sound- rendering it a puny imitation- yet it is the only thing I know which gives any idea of the sensations of that night.
After only a few days the men's morale was rotting away in the mud, blood and gathering exhaustion. Our senses were become numbed. We only left our guns to go forward to our observation posts. We were never dry or clean, our food was always cold, gritty, out of tins, bread generally wet, nothing ever appetizing, the noise of gunfire continuous so that the nerves were constantly stretched, listening and assaying continuously or subconsciously the depth and nearness of shell bursts.
The Battle of the Somme seemed as if it might go on forever! Shells could not go on missing one forever- the time must come when one would be standing on an unlucky spot at the wrong time- and then? The ever-present unforgettable knowledge that, if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then some day later, but in any case eventually, your turn would come. That conviction would grow as the stalemate continued, week after week, month after month, world without end, Amen. This is what caused all your pals to get thin in the face, haggard and jumpy. They knew it too; that some day some beer-swilling Kraut would load a shell into a Krupp gun, and an invisible hand would write in invisible ink your name on that shell before the trigger was pulled. And what would it do to you? A clean 'blot out' or blinding insanity, incurable crippling- searing white-hot pain?"
Lieutenant Kenneth Mealing, A Battery, 308th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 61st Division.