This is part three of a four-part series. If you missed the first two parts, you can read them here:
As October advanced, there was little action there at Ypres with the exception of the typical skirmishes, each side trying to gain a measure of ground, sometimes winning a few yards only to be thrown back later the same day or a few days later. The seesaw of battle did nothing more than claim more lives of both English and German soldiers.
And there was no common soldier on either side who could make any sense of the cost of human life for a few yards of despoiled earth.
“Alright, men. We’re going to be going over the top at eight a.m.,” the captain was loudly informing the men along the trench as he paced back and forth in order to make his voice heard by as many as possible.
“Artillery will be firing beginning at six o’clock and will continue right up until the time we go over. Part of the barrage will consist of mustard gas, so we’ll have to wear our gas masks as we make the assault. I know it won’t be comfortable, but the Jerries will be hampered by the gas more than we will. You know the drill. Stay dispersed, find cover where you can, but keep moving. We won’t have much interval to reach the Hun trenches once the artillery stops. Good luck. I’ll see you on the other side.”
The captain’s speech ended abruptly and hushed conversations began amongst those who had just received the news of the next attack. Most of the men huddling there were sullen but reconciled to another — probably fruitless — attack against the dug-in Germans.
“Well, we’re in it again, Artie boy,” began Danny. “Looks like Haig wants some more blood on the battlefield. God, I hate having to attack with that bloody gas mask on. It makes it hard to breathe, especially while running and dodging Hun bullets.
“I got a bit of the gas back at Passchendaele. Nasty stuff, that. Causes some bad blistering when it hits bare skin. Lucky I was, though. I didn’t get any in me lungs. That’s God-awful worse.”
“If you don’t mind, Danno, I’ll stay close to you when we go over. I ain’t been through the gas before,” said Artie.
“Not too close, Artie boy. Not too close.”
It was not quite daylight when the British artillery began. The guns were far enough behind the front line trenches that the noise of their discharge couldn’t be heard by the men waiting to begin the infantry attack. But they could hear the explosions along the German lines only a few hundred yards to the front. And they could see the sky light up as the shells exploded. It was almost like lightning and thunder and it came in the same sequence, the flash of light and, seconds later, the sound of the explosions.
It was a comforting sound to those awaiting the charge, but the old-timers knew instinctively that the sound and fury of the artillery actually did very little to mitigate the ferocity of resistance that awaited them. Once the artillery was lifted, the enemy would immediately begin preparations to repel a ground assault, and the deadly machine guns would be ready and waiting to spew out their scythes to cut down the unlucky ones.
All along the trenches, whistles were being blown, precisely at eight o’clock as the leftenants and captains climbed the wooden ladders up to the trench parapets to lead their men into the land between the two armies and the carnage that awaited them.
Three hundred yards may not sound like a long distance, but frenzied running and dodging while wearing a gas mask and stopping occasionally to fire one’s rifle can take a toll on any man’s endurance. Gasping from the physical exertion makes breathing through the mask infinitely harder and the poor quality of the lenses of the masks makes visibility difficult.
Hardly had the attack begun when men all along the line began to fall, hit by a lucky German bullet or felled by the near burst of the answering German artillery.
Exploding enemy shells created instant holes into which some exhausted Tommie would stumble, only to catch his breath, stagger up again and continue the charge. They ran without thinking much of anything, certainly not the likelihood of receiving a mortal wound. Their thoughts ran to getting into the midst of the waiting Germans and of not letting their buddies down.
On and on they ran, weaving, dodging, some falling never to rise again, others stumbling and rising to go on.
The gap closed to the German lines, hand grenades were being thrown by both sides and the air was filled with the lofted projectiles. Screams and curses could be heard in English and German and occasional glints could be seen from the bayonets attached to the ends of Enfield rifles as the early morning sun shone down on the mêlée.
The Tommies were in the trenches! Their depleted numbers hurled themselves over the revetments and fanned out to their right and left, firing as they ran along the length of the trenches and encountered opposition from the Huns. There was confusion on both sides and the dun-colored uniforms of the British mingled with the gray of the Germans, as both lay dying in the confines there.
When it became apparent that the British troops had won the day, remaining German soldiers who were not wounded or dead scrambled out of the trenches and made their way back to their next line of resistance to regroup to either repel the next attack or to counter-attack and take back what they had just lost.
Many of the British soldiers, caught up in the bloodlust of the moment continued to fire at the retreating Germans, felling a good many as they frantically tried to reach their own lines. Even the Maxims were reversed and poured lead into the backs of the retiring troops.