This arti­cle is part 3 of 4 in the series Death in the Trenches

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.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.

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