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Current History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 online

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and French combined lines. He thus describes the achievement of the
Belgians on April 17_:

The Germans on the 17th pressed the attack in force against the
Belgians. Besides three regiments of the 1st Landwehr Division usually
holding this sector, between the Ypres-Staden railway and Kippe, they
brought up from Dixmude - poor Dixmude, into whose flaming ruins I went
when it was first bombarded in October, 1914 - two regiments of the 6th
Bavarian Division, and from the coast the 5th Matrosen Regiment of the
2d Naval Division, with a regiment of the 58th Saxons. It was a heavy
force, and they hoped to surprise and annihilate the Belgian resistance
by their weight and quickness of attack.

The Belgians were waiting for them, standing, too, in those swampy
fields which they have held against the enemy for three and a half
years, always shelled, always paying daily a toll of life and limb, not
getting much glory or recognition because of the great battles
elsewhere, but patient and enduring as when I knew them on the Yser in
the first dreadful Winter of the war, and their little regular army
fought to a finish.

Even before the battle the German marines, Saxon troops, and Landwehr
suffered misery and lost many men. They lay out in the flat, wet fields
two nights previously, and were very cold, and scared by the Belgian
gunfire which burst among them. They had no great artillery behind them,
and the Saxons and German sailors now prisoners of the Belgians curse
bitterly because they were expected to get through easily in spite of
this.


Germans Cut Off

The enemy's intention was to take Bixschoote and advance across the Yser
Canal, driving south to Poperinghe. What they did by their massed
attacks was to penetrate to a point near Hoekske, southeast of Merckem,
the main weight of their pressure being directed along the Bixschoote
road. The Belgians delivered a quick counterattack, with wonderful
enthusiasm among officers and men. They had perfect knowledge of the
country, and used this fully by striking up from a place called Luyghem
in such a way that the enemy was driven toward the swamp, where any who
went in sank up to his neck in the ice-cold water.

The Germans were cut off from their own lines and trapped. Seven hundred
of them surrendered, men of all the regiments I have mentioned, and they
seemed to think themselves lucky at getting off so cheaply, though they
quailed when they were brought back through the towns behind the lines,
and the Belgian women, remembering many things, raised a cry as these
men passed. It was not a pleasant sound. I heard it once in France when
a German officer passed through with an escort. It was a cry which made
my blood run cold. But there is gladness among the Belgian troops, for
they had long waited for their chance of striking, and made good.


Heroism of the Doctors

As heroic a story as anything in all this history of the last four weeks
is that of the medical officers, nurses, orderlies, and ambulance men
belonging to these casualty clearing stations, who were not far behind
the fighting lines when the battle began on March 21.

And then in a few hours they were on the very edge of the enemy's
advancing tide, so that they were almost caught by it and had to make
brave efforts to rescue the wounded, save their equipment, and get away
to a place where for a little while again they could go on with their
noble work until the red edge of war swept up with its fire again and
they had to retreat still further.

I used to pass very often the outer ring of those casualty clearing
stations on the right of the British line beyond Bapaume, in the Cambrai
salient, and away toward St. Quentin.

They were almost caught on that day of March 21 when the infernal
bombardment was flung over a wide belt of the British lines, and the
enemy stormed the defenses and the British fought back in heroic
rearguard actions. It became a question of only a few hours, sometimes
of the last quarter of an hour, when these brave medical officers with
the nurses and orderlies could get away.

It is always the rule of patients first, and at Ham there were 1,200
wounded, and many others in other places. The railways were choked with
military transport or destroyed by shellfire. On the roads refugees were
mixed up with the transport and guns and troops. It was a frightful
problem, but the medical staffs did not lose their nerve, and set about
the business of removal with fine skill and discipline.


Caring for the Wounded

What wounded could walk were gathered together and sent on to the roads
to make their way back as far as their strength would carry them. The
badly wounded were packed into all the available ambulances and sent
away. The equipment had sometimes to be put on any train, regardless of
its destination. It was gathered in afterward from whatever place it
went to.

A casualty clearing station of 1,000 beds needs 100 lorries to move it,
but nine lorries take a full kit for 200 beds, and always nine lorries
moved off first after the wounded to take up a new station further back
and carry on. The medical officers looked after the surgical instruments
and trundled them along the roads on wheeled stretchers. One officer
went twenty-five miles this way and another seventeen miles. The
sisters, after the wounded had left, were put on any vehicle going back
from the battleline.

During these days I saw them squeezed between drivers and men on motor
lorries, sitting among the Tommies in transport wagons, one at least on
a gun limber, and others perched on top of forage, still merry and
bright in spite of all the tragedy about them, because that is their
training and their faith.

In this retreat one poor sister was killed and another wounded. Many of
them, with the medical officers, lost their kits. At Achiet le Grand, on
March 21, a shell killed eight orderlies and blew out the back of the
operating theatre, and at another village on a second night, three
ambulances were smashed up by bombs. Two drivers, with some of their
patients, were killed, but all the wounded were brought away from the
outer ring of casualty clearing stations safely, and then from the
second ring through Roye and Marincourt, Dernacourt, and Aveluy.

At Roye there was no time to spare, owing to the enemy's rapid advance,
and seventy patients remained with a medical officer and twelve
orderlies until they could be rescued, if there was any possible
chance. There seemed at first no chance, but on the way back to
Villers-Bretonneux the medical officer in command of the first convoy
met some motor ambulances and begged the drivers to go into Roye and
rescue those who had been left behind. They went bravely and brought
away all the wounded and the staff, and had no time to spare, because
the last ambulance came under the German rifle fire.

It is a strange and wonderful thing that the patients do not seem to be
harmed in any way by this excitement and fatigue, and one of the chiefs
who made a tour of inspection of all his clearing stations at this time
tells us he found all the wounded in good condition and apparently no
worse for their experience.


Fall of Villers-Bretonneux

_ On April 24 the Germans attacked the important village of
Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens; it is on a hill above the Somme, and
was used as a corps headquarters and administrative office by the
British. The attack was in great force, including tanks, the first time
they had been used by the Germans._

_The initial assault was a success and the Germans took the village and
advanced nearly a mile beyond - but let Mr. Gibbs tell the rest:_

During the night they were driven out by Australian troops, who, by a
most skillful and daring piece of generalship, were sent forward in the
darkness without preliminary artillery preparation, and, relying
absolutely on the weapons they carried to regain this important portion,
which gave the enemy full observation of the British positions on both
sides of the Somme Valley beyond Amiens.

The splendid courage of the Australian troops, the cunning of their
machine gunners, and the fine leadership of their officers achieved
success, and, in conjunction with English battalions, they spent the
night clearing out the enemy from the village, where he made a desperate
resistance, and brought back altogether something like 700 or 800
prisoners.

It was a complete reversal of fortune for the enemy, and in this
twenty-four hours of fighting he has lost great numbers of men, whose
bodies lie in heaps between Villers-Bretonneux and Warfusee and all
about the ruins and fields in that neighborhood.


First German Tanks

The attack on Villers-Bretonneux was made by four divisions. They were
the 4th Guards, the 77th, quite new to this phase of the war, the 228th,
and the 243d. They were in the full strength of divisions, twelve
regiments in each, and a great weight of men on such a narrow front
against one British division, whose men had already been under frightful
fire and had been living in clouds of poison gas with masks on.

An officer of the Middlesex was in a bit of a trench when the first
German tank attacked his men on the east side of the village, and it
went right over him as he lay crouched, and traveled on, accompanied by
bodies of troops.

The Middlesex and West Yorks put up a great fight but had to give ground
to superior numbers. The East Lancashires, who were the garrison of
Villers-Bretonneux, were also attacked with great odds, and after a
brave resistance fell back with the general line, which took up a
position toward the end of this first phase of the battle west of
Villers-Bretonneux and in the edge of Bois Abbé to the left of it. Into
this wood in the course of the day a German patrol of one officer and
forty men made their way and stayed there out of touch with their own
men, and were taken prisoners last night.


The Night Battle

The attack by the Australians was made after 10 o'clock at night. It was
difficult to attack suddenly like this. There was no artillery
preparation. There should have been a moon, but by bad luck it was
veiled in a thick, wet mist.

It was decided by the Australian General that his men should go straight
into the attack with bayonet and machine gun, not waiting for artillery
protection which would tell the enemy what was coming.

The plan of attack was to push forward in two bodies and to encircle
Villers-Bretonneux, while some Northamptons and others were in the
centre with the order to fight through the village from the north. This
manoeuvre was carried out owing to the magnificent courage of each
Australian soldier and the gallantry of the officers.

The Germans fought desperately when they found themselves in danger of
being trapped. They had nests of machine guns along the railway
embankment below the village, and these fired fiercely, sweeping the
attackers who tried to advance upon them.

Those who worked around north and east of the village also came under a
burst of machine-gun fire from weapons hidden among the ruins and
trenches, but they rounded up the enemy and fought him from one bit of
ruin to another in streets which used to be filled with civilian life
only a few weeks ago and crowded with staff officers and staff cars, but
now were littered with dead bodies and raked by bullets.

The Australians captured two light field guns, which the enemy had
brought up in the morning, according to his present habit of advancing
guns behind his third wave of men, and several minenwerfer and many
machine guns.


Great Piles of Dead

During the night they and the English troops seized over 500 men as
prisoners and sent them back, and several hundred seem to have been
routed out. Today, [the 25th,] judging from these I saw myself, the
living were not so many as the dead.

It was fierce fighting in Villers-Bretonneux and around it last night
and this morning the enemy fought until put out by bayonet, rifle
bullet, or machine gun. The Australian officers say that they have never
seen such piles of dead, not even outside of Bullecourt or Lagnicourt
last year, as those who lie about this village of frightful strife.

The German tanks, which were first seen in this battle, though heavier
than the British, with bigger guns, have now beaten a retreat, leaving
one of their type in No Man's Land. The tank has a high turret and thick
armor plates, and is steered and worked on a different system from the
British. One of them was "killed" by a tank of the old British class,
and then the British put in some of the newer, faster, and smaller
types, which can steer almost as easily as a motor car, as I know,
because I have traveled in one at great pace over rough ground.

These set out to attack bodies of German infantry of the 77th Division
forming up near Cachy. It was a terrible encounter, and when they
returned this morning their flanks were red with blood. They slew
Germans not by dozens nor by scores, but by platoons and companies. They
got right among the masses of men and swept them with fire, and those
they did not kill with their guns they crushed beneath them, manoeuvring
about and trampling them down as they fell. It seems to have been as
bloody a slaughter as anything in this war.


Battle for Kemmel Hill

_The furious battle for the possession of Kemmel Hill, an eminence of
strategic importance in the Ypres region, occurred April 25, 26, and 27,
and was as sanguinary as any in Flanders. Although the Germans won the
hill, their victory involved such colossal sacrifices that this deadly
thrust ended their serious offensive for the time. Mr. Gibbs's
description of this battle in part follows:_

After several attempts against Kemmel had been frustrated the enemy all
went out, April 25, to capture this position. Four divisions at least,
including the Alpine Corps, the 11th Bavarians, and the 5th, 6th, and
107th, were moved against Kemmel in the early morning fog after a
tremendous bombardment of the Franco-British positions. It was a
bombardment that begun before the first glimmer of dawn, like one of
those which the British used to arrange in the days of their great
Flanders battles last year. It came down swamping Kemmel Hill so that it
was like a volcano, and stretched away on to the British lines on the
left of the French by Maedelstede Farm and Grand Bois down to
Vierstraat.

Then the German infantry attacked in depth, battalion behind battalion,
division behind division, and their mountain troops of Alpine Corps and
Jägers and Bavarians came on first in the assault of Kemmel Hill, which
was not much more than a hillock, though it looms large in Flanders, and
in this war. The French had suffered a terrible ordeal of fire, and the
main thrust of the German strength was against them.


Foe Strikes in Two Directions

The enemy struck in two directions to encircle the hill and village of
Kemmel, one arrowhead striking to Dranoutre and the other at the point
of junction between the French and British northward.

In each case they were favored by fog and the effect of their gunfire.
They were able to drive in a wedge which they pushed forward until they
had caused gaps. The French on Kemmel Hill became isolated and there was
a gulf between the British and the French and between the French left
and right.

On the hill the French garrison fought with splendid heroism. These men,
when quite surrounded, would not yield, but served their machine guns
and rifles for many hours, determined to hold their positions at all
costs, and to the death. Small parties of them on the west of the hill
held out until midday or beyond, according to the reports of the airmen,
who flew low over them, but by 9 o'clock this morning, owing to the gaps
made by the enemy, the French main line was compelled to draw back from
Kemmel.

They inflicted severe losses on the enemy as they fell back and thwarted
his efforts to break their line on the new defensive positions.
Meanwhile a body of Scottish troops were seriously involved. Some of
their officers whom I saw today tell me the fog was so thick, as on
March 21, that after a terrific bombardment the first thing known at
some points a little way behind the line was when the Germans were all
around them.


Germans Under Von Arnim

The German army of assault upon Kemmel and the surrounding country was
under command of General Sixt von Arnim, who was the leading opponent of
the Allies in the long struggle of the first Somme battles, and whose
clear and ruthless intelligence was revealed in the famous document
summing up the first phase of that fighting, when he frankly confessed
to many failures of organization and supply, but with acute criticism
which was not that of a weak or indecisive man.

Under his command as corps commanders were Generals Seiger and von
Eberhardt, and they had picked troops, including the Alpine Corps and
strong Bavarian and Prussian divisions specially trained for assault in
such country as that of Kemmel. Their plan of attack to strike at the
points of junction between the French and British east of Kemmel, and
also at the French troops south of it, near Dranoutre, proved for the
time successful, and by driving in wedges they were able to make the
Allies fall back on the flanks and encircle Kemmel Hill after furious
and heroic fighting by the French and British troops.

The British now were in weak numbers compared with the strength brought
against them. Their withdrawal to the new lines of defense by Vierstraat
and the furious attacks across the Ypres-Comines Canal gave the enemy
some ground in the region of St. Eloi and the bluff and the spoil bank
of the canal itself. It is villainous ground there, foul with wreckage
of the old fighting.

British troops and Canadian troops were put to the supreme test of
courage to take and hold these places. The glorious old 3d Division,
commanded in those days of 1915 and 1916 by General Haldane, fought from
St. Eloi to the bluff, month in and month out, and lost many gallant
officers and men there after acts of courage which belong to history.

German storm troops made three violent attacks on Locre, which were
flung back by the French, with heavy casualties among the enemy, and it
was only at the fourth attempt with fresh reserves that they were able
to enter the ruins of the village, from which the French then fell back
in order to reorganize for a counterattack. This they launched today at
an early hour, and now Locre is in their hands after close fighting, in
which they slew numbers of the enemy.

After their success on April 25, when they captured Kemmel, the Germans
have made little progress, and, though there was fierce fighting all day
yesterday, they failed to gain their objectives, and were raked by fire
hour after hour, so that large numbers of their dead lie on the field of
battle. At 4 in the afternoon they engaged in fresh assaults upon the
positions near Ridge Wood, to which the line had fallen back, but
English and Scottish troops repulsed them and scattered their waves. It
was a bad day for them because of their great losses. The British have
broken the fighting quality of some of the enemy's most renowned
regiments.


The Country Devastated

All the roads and camps around Ypres are under a heavy, harassing fire
once more, Ypres itself being savagely bombarded by high-explosive and
gas shells, so that after some months of respite those poor ruins are
again under that black spell which makes them the most sinister place in
the world. Suicide Corner has come into its own again, and the old
unhealthy plague spots up by the canal are under fire.

The enemy's guns are reaching out to fields and villages hitherto
untouched by fire, and these harassing shots, intended, perhaps, to
catch traffic on the roads or soldiers' camps, often serve the enemy no
more than by the death of innocent women and children. A day or two ago
a monstrous shell fell just outside a little Flemish cottage tucked away
in an angle of a road which I often pass. It scooped out a deep pit in
the garden without even scarring the cottage walls, but two children
were playing in the garden and were laid dead beside a flower bed.

Yesterday a small boy I know went grubbing about this plot of earth and
brought back a great chunk of shell bigger than his head. Those are the
games children play in this merry century of ours. They are astoundingly
indifferent to the perils about them, and sleep o' nights to the thunder
of gunfire not very far away, or slip their heads under the bedclothes
when bombs fall near.

But older folk find this gradual creeping up of the war a nervous strain
and a mental agony which keeps them on the rack. It is pitiful to watch
their doubts and perplexities and their clinging on to their homes and
property. Shells smash outlying cottages to dust with their people
inside them, but still the people in the village itself stay on, hoping
against hope that the Germans' guns have reached their furthest range.

"I shall not go till the first shell falls in the middle of the square,"
said a girl.

Another woman said:

"If I go I lose all I have in life, so I will risk another day."

They take extraordinary risks, and our officers and men find some of
them on the very battlefields and in farmyards where they unlimber their
guns.


Heavy German Losses

The enemy's losses in this continual fighting have been severe. We have
been able to get actual figures of some of their casualties, which are
typical of the more general effect of the British fire. Of one company
of the 7th German Division which fought at St. Eloi on Friday only 40
men remained out of its full strength of 120.

The 4th Ersatz Division lost most heavily, and a prisoner of the 279th
Pioneer Company, which relieved the 360th Regiment of that division,
says the average company strength was fifteen men.

The entire regimental staff was killed by a direct hit of a British
shell on their headquarters dugout near Cantieux. The same thing
happened to the battalion headquarters of the 223d Regiment, which is
now in a state of low morale, having been fearfully cut up.

The 1st Guards Reserve Regiment of the 1st Guards Division, which was
much weakened in the fighting on the Somme and afterward was sent to La
Bassée, lost thirty-six officers, including a regimental commander and
one battalion commander. These losses are affecting inevitably the
outlook of the German troops on the prospects of their continued
offensive.

Prisoners from divisions which suffered most confess they have no
further enthusiasm for fighting, and that their regiments can only be
made to attack by stern discipline and the knowledge that they must
fight on or be shot for desertion.

On the other hand, the best German troops, especially those now
attacking in Flanders, like the Alpine Corps and 11th Bavarian Division,
are elated and full of warlike spirit.

Even their prisoners profess to believe they are winning the war and
will have a German peace before the year is out.


Desperate Fighting for Ypres

_The Germans vainly launched desperate attacks of unexampled fury
against the British and French lines in the Ypres region on April 29.
Mr. Gibbs in his cable dispatch of that date thus refers to these
assaults:_

It becomes clearer every hour that the enemy suffered a disastrous
defeat today. Attack after attack was smashed up by the British
artillery and infantry, and he has not made a foot of ground on the
British front.

The Border Regiment this morning repulsed four heavy assaults on the
Kemmel-La Clytte road, where there was extremely hard fighting, and
destroyed the enemy each time.

One of the enemy's main thrusts was between Scherpenberg and Mont Rouge,
where they made a wedge for a time and captured the crossroads, and it
was here that a gallant French counterattack swept them back.

The British had no more than a post or two in Voormezeele this morning,
and the enemy was there in greater strength, and sent his storm troops
through this place, but was never able to advance against the fire of
the British battalions.

His losses began yesterday, when his troops were seen massing on the
road between Zillebeke and Ypres in a dense fog, through which he
attempted to make a surprise attack. This was observed by low-flying
planes, and his assembly was shattered by gunfire. After a fierce
shelling all night, so tremendous along the whole northern front that
the countryside was shaken by its tumult, German troops again assembled
in the early morning mist, but were caught once more in the British



Online LibraryVariousCurrent History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 → online text (page 4 of 30)