FOLLOWING THE TANKS INTO BATTLE
The tanks passed beyond us and half-way up to the first line and stopped. Trapdoors in the decks opened, and the crews poured out and began to pile sandbags in front of the machines so that when day broke fully and the mists lifted, the enemy could not see what had been brought up in the night.
Day dawned, and a frisky little breeze from the west scattered the fog and swept the sky clean. There wasn't a cloud by eight o'clock. The sun shone bright, and we cursed it, for if it had been rainy the attack would not have been made.
We made the usual last preparations that morning, such as writing letters and delivering farewell messages; and the latest rooks made their wills in the little blanks provided for the purpose in the back of the pay books. We judged from the number of dead and the evident punishment other divisions had taken there that the chances of coming back would be slim. Around nine o'clock Captain Green gave us a little talk that confirmed our suspicions that the day was to be a hard one.
He said, as nearly as I can remember:
"Lads, I want to tell you that there is to be a most important battle--one of the most important in the whole war. High Wood out there commands a view of the whole of this part of the Somme and is most valuable. There are estimated to be about ten thousand Germans in that wood and in the surrounding supports. The positions are mostly of concrete with hundreds of machine guns and field artillery. Our heavies have for some reason made no impression on them, and regiment after regiment has attempted to take the woods and failed with heavy losses. Now it is up to the 47th Division to do the seemingly impossible. Zero is at eleven. We go over then. The best of luck and God bless you."
We were all feeling pretty sour on the world when the sky pilot came along and cheered us up.
He was a good little man, that chaplain, brave as they make 'em. He always went over the top with us and was in the thick of the fighting, and he had the military cross for bravery. He passed down the line, giving us a slap on the back or a hand grip and started us singing. No gospel hymns either, but any old rollicking, good-natured song that he happened to think of that would loosen things up and relieve the tension.
Somehow he made you feel that you wouldn't mind going to hell if he was along, and you knew that he'd be willing to come if he could do any good. A good little man! Peace to his ashes.
At ten o'clock things busted loose, and the most intense bombardment ever known in warfare up to that time began. Thousands of guns, both French and English, in fact every available gun within a radius of fifteen miles, poured it in. In the Bedlamitish din and roar it was impossible to hear the next man unless he put his mouth up close to your ear and yelled.
My ear drums ached, and I thought I should go insane if the racket didn't stop. I was frightfully nervous and scared, but tried not to show it. An officer or a non-com must conceal his nervousness, though he be dying with fright.
The faces of the men were hard-set and pale. Some of them looked positively green. They smoked fag after fag, lighting the new ones on the butts.
All through the bombardment Fritz was comparatively quiet. He was saving all his for the time when we should come over. Probably, too, he was holed up to a large extent in his concrete dug-outs. I looked over the top once or twice and wondered if I, too, would be lying there unburied with the rats and maggots gnawing me into an unrecognizable mass. There were moments in that hour from ten to eleven when I was distinctly sorry for myself.
The time, strangely enough, went fast--as it probably does with a condemned man in his last hour. At zero minus ten the word went down the line "Ten to go" and we got to the better positions of the trench and secured our footing on the side of the parapet to make our climb over when the signal came. Some of the men gave their bayonets a last fond rub, and I looked to my bolt action to see that it worked well. I had ten rounds in the magazine, and I didn't intend to rely too much on the bayonet. At a few seconds of eleven I looked at my wrist watch and was afflicted again with that empty feeling in the solar plexus. Then the whistles shrilled; I blew mine, and over we went.
To a disinterested spectator who was far enough up in the air to be out of range it must have been a wonderful spectacle to see those thousands of men go over, wave after wave.
The terrain was level out to the point where the little hill of High Wood rose covered with the splintered poles of what had once been a forest. This position and the supports to the left and rear of it began to fairly belch machine-gun and shell fire. If Fritz had been quiet before, he gave us all he had now.
Our battalion went over from the second trench, and we got the cream of it.
The tanks were just ahead of us and lumbered along in an imposing row. They lurched down into deep craters and out again, tipped and reeled and listed, and sometimes seemed as though they must upset; but they came up each time and went on and on. And how slow they did seem to move! Lord, I thought we should never cover that five or six hundred yards.
The tank machine guns were spitting fire over the heads of our first wave, and their Hotchkiss guns were rattling. A beautiful creeping barrage preceded us. Row after row of shells burst at just the right distance ahead, spewing gobs of smoke and flashes of flame, made thin by the bright sunlight. Half a dozen airplanes circled like dragonflies up there in the blue.
There was a tank just ahead of me. I got behind it. And marched there. Slow! God, how slow! Anyhow, it kept off the machine-gun bullets, but not, the shrapnel. It was breaking over us in clouds. I felt the stunning patter of the fragments on my tin hat, cringed under it, and wondered vaguely why it didn't do me in.
Men in the front wave were going down like tenpins. Off there diagonally to the right and forward I glimpsed a blinding burst, and as much as a whole platoon went down.
Around me men were dropping all the time--men I knew. I saw Dolbsie clawing at his throat as he reeled forward, falling. I saw Vickers double up, drop his rifle, and somersault, hanging on to his abdomen.
A hundred yards away, to the right, an officer walked backwards with an automatic pistol balanced on his finger, smiling, pulling his men along like a drum major. A shell or something hit him. He disappeared in a welter of blood and half a dozen of the front file fell with him.
I thought we must be nearly there and sneaked a look around the edge of the tank. A traversing machine gun raked the mud, throwing up handfuls, and I heard the gruff "row, row" of flattened bullets as they ricocheted off the steel armor. I ducked back, and on we went.
Slow! Slow! I found myself planning what I would do when I got to the front trenches--if we ever did. There would be a grand rumpus, and I would click a dozen or more.
And then we arrived.
I don't suppose that trip across No Man's Land behind the tanks took over five minutes, but it seemed like an hour.
At the end of it my participation in the battle of High Wood ended. No, I wasn't wounded. But when we reached the Boche front trenches a strange thing happened. There was no fight worth mentioning. The tanks stopped over the trenches and blazed away right and left with their all-around traverse.
A few Boches ran out and threw silly little bombs at the monsters. The tanks, noses in air, moved slowly on. And then the Graybacks swarmed up out of shelters and dug-outs, literally in hundreds, and held up their hands, whining "Mercy, kamarad."
We took prisoners by platoons. Blofeld grabbed me and turned over a gang of thirty to me. We searched them rapidly, cut their suspenders and belts, and I started to the rear with them. They seemed glad to go. So was I.
As we hurried back over the five hundred yards that had been No Man's Land and was now British ground, I looked back and saw the irresistible tanks smashing their way through the tree stumps of High Wood, still spitting death and destruction in three directions.
Going back we were under almost as heavy fire as we had been coming up. When we were about half-way across, shrapnel burst directly over our party and seven of the prisoners were killed and half a dozen wounded. I myself was unscratched. I stuck my hand inside my tunic and patted Dinky on the back, sent up a prayer for some more luck like that, and carried on.
After getting my prisoners back to the rear, I came up again but couldn't find my battalion. I threw in with a battalion of Australians and was with them for twenty-four hours.
When I found my chaps again, the battle of High Wood was pretty well over. Our company for some reason had suffered very few casualties, less than twenty-nine. Company B, however, had been practically wiped out, losing all but thirteen men out of two hundred. The other two companies had less than one hundred casualties. We had lost about a third of our strength. It is a living wonder to me that any of us came through.
I don't believe any of us would have if it hadn't been for the tanks.
The net result of the battle of High Wood was that our troops carried on for nearly two miles beyond the position to be taken. They had to fall back but held the wood and the heights. Three of the tanks were stalled in the farther edge of the woods--out of fuel--and remained there for three days unharmed under the fire of the German guns.
Eventually some one ventured out and got some juice into them, and they returned to our lines. The tanks had proved themselves, not only as effective fighting machines, but as destroyers of German morale.