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

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bombardment.

At 3 o'clock a tremendous barrage was flung down by the German gunners
from Ypres to Bailleul, and later they began the battle by launching
first an attack between Zillebeke Lake and Meteren. South of Ypres they
crossed the Yser Canal by Lock 8, near Voormezeele, which was their
direction of attack against the British, while they tried to drive up
past Locre against the French on the three hills.

The successful defense has made the day most bloody for many German
regiments.


Enemy's Attacks Futile

In order to turn them if frontal attacks failed against the French,
German storm troops - they are now called grosskampf, or great offensive
troops - were to break the British lines on the French left between Locre
and Voormezeele and on the French right near Merris and Meteren. That
obviously was the intention of the German High Command this morning,
judging from their direction of assault.

So far they have failed utterly. They failed to break or bend the
British wings on the French centre, and they failed to capture the
hills, or any one of them, defended by the French divisions.

They have attacked again and again since this morning's dawn, heavy
forces of German infantry being sent forward after their first waves
against Scherpenberg and Voormezeele, which lies to the east of
Dickebusch Lake, but these men have been slaughtered by the French and
British fire and made no important progress at any point.

For a time the situation seemed critical at one or two points, and it
was reported that the Germans had been storming the slopes of Mont Rouge
and Mont Noir, but one of the British airmen flew over these hills at
200 feet above their crests, and could see no German infantry near them.

Round about Voormezeele, North Country and other English battalions had
to sustain determined and furious efforts of Alpine and Bavarian troops
to drive through them by weight of numbers, after hours of intense
bombardment, but the men held their ground and inflicted severe
punishment upon the enemy.

All through the day the German losses have been heavy under field-gun
and machine-gun fire, and the British batteries, alongside the French
seventy-fives, swept down the enemy's advancing waves and his masses
assembled in support at short range.

There is no doubt that the French guarding the three hills have fought
with extreme valor and skill. For a brief period the Germans apparently
were able to draw near and take some of the ground near Locre, but an
immediate counterattack was organized by the French General, and the
line of French troops swung forward and swept the enemy back. Further
attacks by the Germans north of Ypres and on the Belgian front were
repulsed easily, and again the enemy lost many men.


French and British Valor

_On April 30 Mr. Gibbs confirmed the details of the disastrous German
defeats on the two preceding days and gave these further particulars:_

It was the valor of Frenchmen as well as Englishmen which yesterday
inflicted defeat upon many German divisions, and the Allies fought side
by side, and their batteries fired from the same fields and their
wounded came back along the same roads, and the khaki and blue lay out
upon the same brown earth.

I have already given an outline of yesterday's battle, how, after a
colossal bombardment, the German attack early in the morning from north
of Ypres to south of Voormezeele, where English battalions held the
lines, and from La Clytte past the three hills of Scherpenberg, Mont
Rouge, and Mont Noir, which French troops held to the north of Meteren,
where the English joined them; again, how the English Tommies held firm
against desperate assaults until late in the evening; how the enemy made
a great thrust against the French, driving in for a time between
Scherpenberg and Mont Noir until they were flung back by a French
counterattack.

In the night the French, who had now regained all the ground that had
been temporarily in the enemy's hands, made a general counterattack and
succeeded in advancing their line to a depth of about fifteen hundred
yards beyond the line of the three hills, which thereby was made more
secure against future assaults.


Deadly Machine-Gun Work

Meanwhile throughout the day the English battalions had been sustaining
heavy assaults, breaking the enemy against their front. The Leicesters,
especially, had fierce fighting about Voormezeele, where, as I told
yesterday, the enemy was in the centre of the village. German storm
troops advanced against our men here and along other parts of the line
with fixed bayonets, but in most places, except Voormezeele, where there
was close fighting, they were mowed down by Lewis-gun fire before they
could get near. Line after line of them came on, but lost heavily and
fell back.

Over the ground east of Dickebusch Lake some Yorkshire troops saw these
groups of field gray men advancing upon them, and the glint of their
bayonets, wet in the morning mist, and swept them with bullets from the
Lewis guns and rifles until heaps of bodies were lying out there on the
mud flats in the old Ypres salient. The most determined assaults were
concentrated upon the 25th Division, but it held firm and would not
budge, though the men had been under fearful fire in the night
bombardment, and their machine gunners kept their triggers pressed, and
bullets played upon the advancing Germans like a stream from a garden
hose.

The troops in the whole division yielded no yard of ground and they hold
that they killed as many Germans as any battalion in this battle. It was
a black day for Germany. More than ten German divisions, probably
thirteen, seem to have been engaged in this attempt to smash our lines
and encircle the three hills. They included some of the enemy's finest
divisions, so they lost quality as well as quantity in this futile
sacrifice of man-power - man-power which seems to mean nothing in flesh
and blood and heart and soul to men like Ludendorff, but is treated as a
material force like guns and ammunition and used as cannon fodder.


Brilliant French Fighters

_Referring to the French troops in this battle, Mr. Gibbs wrote:_

Today again I have been among the thousands of French soldiers. It is
splendid to see them because of their fine bearing. They are men in the
prime of life, not so young as some of the British and with a graver
look than one sees on British faces, when they have not yet reached the
zone of fire. They are men who have seen all that war means during these
years of agony and hope and boredom and death. They have no illusions.
They stare into the face of death unflinchingly and shrug their
shoulders at its worst menace and still have faith in victory.

So I read them, if any man may read the thoughts that lie behind those
bronzed faces with the dark eyes and upturned mustaches under the blue
painted helmets or the black Tam o' Shanters.

They are not gay or boisterous in their humor, and they do not sing like
the British as they march, but they seem to have been born to this war,
and its life is their life, and they are professionals.

The Tricolor passes along the roads of France and Flanders, and French
trumpets ring out across the flat fields below Scherpenberg, and all the
spirit of the French fighting men, who have proved themselves great
soldiers in this war, as for thousands of years of history, is mingled
with our own battalions. Together yesterday they gave the German Army a
hard knock.


The British Guards

_In his cable of May 1 Mr. Gibbs gave details of the extraordinary
heroism of the British Guards. He related incidents which had occurred
April 11 to 14, after the Germans had broken through the Portuguese in
their efforts to widen the gap between Armentières and Merville by
gaining the crossings of the Lys._

The Grenadier, Irish, and Coldstream Guards were sent forward along the
Hazebrouck-Estaires road when the situation was at its worst, when the
men of the 15th Division and other units had fought themselves out in
continual rearguard and holding actions, so that some of those still in
the line could hardly walk or stand, and when it was utterly necessary
to keep the Germans in check until a body of Australian troops had time
to arrive. The Guards were asked to hold back the enemy until those
Australians came and to fight at all costs for forty-eight hours against
the German tide of men and guns which was attempting to flow around the
other hard pressed men, and that is what the Guards did, fighting in
separate bodies with the enemy pressing in on both flanks.

Greatly outnumbered, they beat back attack after attack, and gained
precious hours, vital hours, by the most noble self-sacrifice. A party
of Grenadiers were so closely surrounded that their officer sent back a
message saying:

"My men are standing back to back and shooting on all sides."

The Germans swung around them, circling them with machine guns and
rifles and pouring a fire into them until only eighteen men were left.
Those eighteen, standing among their wounded and their dead, did not
surrender. The army wanted forty-eight hours. They fixed bayonets and
went out against the enemy and drove through him. A wounded Corporal of
Grenadiers, who afterward got back to the British lines, lay in a ditch,
and the last he saw of his comrades was when fourteen men of them were
still fighting in a swarm of Germans.


Fought Back to Back

The Coldstream Guards were surrounded in the same way and fought in the
same way. The army had asked for forty-eight hours until the Australians
could come, and many of the Coldstreamers eked out the time with their
lives. The enemy filtered in on their flanks, came crawling around them
with machine guns, sniped them from short range and raked them from
ditches and upheaved earth.

The Coldstream Guards had to fall back, but they fought back in small
groups, facing all ways and making gaps in the enemy's ranks, not firing
wildly, but using every round of small-arms ammunition to keep a German
back and gain a little more time.

Forty-eight hours is a long time in a war like this. For two days and
nights the Irish Guards, who had come up to support the Grenadiers and
Coldstreamers, tried to make a defensive flank, but the enemy worked
past their right and attacked them on two sides. The Irish Guards were
gaining time. They knew that was all they could do, just drag out the
hours by buying each minute with their blood. One man fell and then
another; but minutes were gained, and quarters of hours and hours.

Small parties of them lowered their bayonets and went out among the gray
wolves swarming around them, and killed a number of them until they also
fell. First one party and then another of these Irish Guards made those
bayonet charges against men with machine guns and volleys of rifle fire.
They bought time at a high price, but they did not stint themselves nor
stop their bidding because of its costliness.

The brigade of Guards here and near Vieux Berquin held out for those
forty-eight hours, and some of them were fighting still when the
Australians arrived, according to the timetable.


Carnage Near Locre

_Mr. Gibbs, in a dispatch dated May 3, gave these vivid descriptions of
the fighting in the Locre-Dranoutre-Kemmel region:_

On April 24 the German bombardment was intensified and spread over a
deep area, destroying villages, tearing up roads, and making a black
vomit of the harrowed fields. Dranoutre, Locre, Westoutre, and other
small towns were violently bombarded. That night the French discovered
that the Germans were preparing an attack for the next morning, to be
preceded by a gas bombardment. The officers warned all their men, and
they stood on the alert with gas masks when at 3:30 in the morning
thousands of gas shells fell over them, mixed with high explosives of
all calibres up to the monster twelve-inch, which burst like volcanic
eruptions.

In the intensity of bombardment several officers who fought at Fleury
said: "This is the most frightful thing we have seen. Verdun was nothing
to it."

All the French troops jammed on gas masks, and on one day put them on
fifty times, only removing them when the wind, which was fairly strong,
blew away the poison fumes until other storms of shells came. For nearly
a week they wore them constantly, sleeping in them, officers giving
orders in them, and the men fighting and dying in them and charging with
the bayonet in them. It was worth the trouble and suffering, for this
French regiment between Locre and Dranoutre had only twelve gas
casualties.

That morning the German attack fell first on Kemmel Hill, which they
turned from the north, and two hours later, the bombardment continuing
all along the line, they developed a strong attack against Dranoutre in
the south in order to take Locre and turn the French right. Until
evening the troops on Kemmel Hill, with a small body of British, still
held out with great devotion in isolated positions, but by 8 o'clock
that morning Kemmel Hill was entirely cut off.


Other British Units in Danger

This was a severe menace to their comrades at Locre and southward,
because both their flanks were threatened. They did heroic things to
safeguard their right and left, which again and again the enemy tried to
pass. I have already told in a previous message how a gallant French
officer and a small company of men made a counterattack at Dranoutre and
held the post there against all odds.

Up by Locre the commandant of the left battalion found machine-gun fire
sweeping his left flank, and his men had to face left to defend their
line. Small parties of Germans with machine guns kept filtering down
from the north and established themselves on the railway in order to
rake the French with an enfilade fire.

One French company, led by devoted officers, counterattacked there five
times with the bayonet into the sweep of those bullets, and by this
sacrifice saved their flank. Another company advanced to hold the
hospice. There was desperate fighting day after day, so that its ruins,
if any bits of wall are left, will be as historic as the château at
Vermelles, or other famous houses of the battlefields.

French and Germans took it turn and turn about, and although the enemy
sent great numbers of men to garrison this place they never were able to
hold it long, because always some young French Lieutenant and a handful
of men stormed it again and routed the enemy. When it was taken last on
April 29, the day of the enemy's severe defeat, the French captured 100
prisoners in the cellars there, and they belonged to fourteen battalions
of four regiments of three divisions, showing the amazing way in which
the enemy's divisions have been flung into confusion by the French fire.


Under Constant Shellfire

On the morning of April 26 French companies made six attacks, and in the
afternoon two more, and though their losses were heavy, that evening
both the village and hospice of Locre stayed in their hands. That night,
their men being exhausted for a time after so many hours under fire,
they withdrew their line a little to the Locre-Bailleul road by the
Château of Locre and west of Dranoutre in order to reorganize a stronger
defense. The German bombardment slackened on the morning of April 28
owing to fog, and those few hours on that day and one other were the
only respite these French troops had from the incessant and infernal
gunfire when, owing to open warfare, "en rase campagne," as the French
call it, as in 1914, without a complete system of trenches or dugouts or
other artificial cover, they were much exposed.

"There were ten big shells a second," one of these officers told me,
"and that lasted, with only two short pauses, for six days all through
the battle, and other shells were uncountable."

The enemy had brought up light artillery and trench mortars almost to
his front lines in Dranoutre Wood and other places and attempted to take
the French in an enfilade fire from Kemmel, but by this time many French
guns were in position, reinforcing the British artillery, and on the
28th they opened up and killed great numbers of the enemy.

Allied aviators saw long columns of Germans on the roads by Neuve Eglise
and in Dranoutre Wood, and signaled to the guns to range on these human
targets. The guns answered. Masses of Germans were smashed by the fire
and panicstricken groups were seen running out of Dranoutre Wood.


Night of Horror for Germans

That night the Germans seemed to be relieving their troops, and again
the French and British guns flung shells into them, and for the enemy it
was a night of death and horror; but the next day, the 29th, the enemy
made reply by a prolonged bombardment, more intense even than before,
and then attacked with new troops all along the line. But the French
also had many fresh troops in line - not those I met yesterday - who at 2
o'clock in the morning went forward into attack and took back the
village. This defeated the enemy's plan of turning the French left.

All through that day the enemy's desperate efforts to break through
were shattered, and that night the French held exactly the same ground
as before and had caused enormous losses to the German divisions, at
least 40 per cent. of their strength, as it is reckoned on close
evidence.

That night even the German guns stopped their drumfire, as though Sixt
von Arnim's army was in mourning for its dead. It was a night of strange
and uncanny silence after the stupendous tumult, but for those French
regiments who had been holding the line for nearly a week it had been a
day of supreme ordeal.


Preparing for Another Advance

_There were no general engagements during the preceding five days nor up
to May 18, but incessant artillery fire was kept up and raids were
constantly made. On May 5 Mr. Gibbs described the difficulties
encountered by the Germans in preparing for a new advance:_

The enemy has many divisions, both up in the Flemish fields and on the
Somme, divisions in line and divisions in reserve - divisions crowded in
reserve - and there are few roads for them down which to march. There is
not much elbow room for such masses to assemble, and not much cover in
trenches or dugouts from high explosives or shrapnel. So we pound them
to death, many of them to death and many of them to stretcher cases, and
relief comes up, gets wildly mixed with the divisions coming down, and
at night there is mad confusion in the ranks of marching men and
transport columns, which gallop past dead horses and splintered wagons
and wrecks of transport columns, and among the regimental and divisional
staffs, trying to keep order in the German way when things are being
smashed into chaos, while the Red Cross convoys are over-loaded with
wounded and unable to cope with all the bodies that lie about.

This is what is happening behind the German lines - I have not overdrawn
the picture, believe me - and it is upsetting somewhat the plans of the
high German officers who are arranging things from afar through
telephones, down which they shout their orders.


"The Drums of Death"

_In his dispatch of May 9 the following was written to describe the
difficulties of the Germans in reorganizing their battered forces:_

From many points the British have complete observation of the enemy's
positions there, as he has of theirs from the other side of the way,
and, needless to say, they are making use of this direct view by
flinging over storms of shells whenever his transport is seen crawling
along the tracks of the old Somme battlefields or his troops are seen
massing among their shell craters.

The town of Albert itself, where once until recent history the golden
Virgin used to lean downward with her babe outstretched above the ruins,
is now a death trap for the German garrisons there and for any German
gunners who try to hide their batteries among the red brick houses. By
day and night their positions are pounded with high explosives and
soaked in asphyxiating gas.

I went within 2,000 yards of it yesterday, and saw the heaviest work of
the British upon it. It was a wonderful May day, as today is, and the
sun shone through a golden haze upon the town. As I looked into Albert
and saw the shells smashing through, and then away up the Albert-Bapaume
road, past the white rim of the great mine crater of La Boiselle to the
treeless slopes of Posières, and over all that ground of hills and
ditches to the high, wooded distant right, with its few dead stumps of
trees, it was hard to believe that all this was in the area of the
German Army, that the white, winding lines freshly marked upon this
bleak landscape were new German trenches, and that the enemy's outposts
were less than 2,000 yards from where I stood.


Fritz Having a "Thin Time"

Some siege gunners were lying on their stomachs and observing the
enemy's lines for some monsters I had seen on my way up, monsters that
raised their snouts slowly, like elephants' trunks, before bellowing out
with an earthquake roar, annihilating all one's senses for a second.
Some of the men passed the remark to me that "Albert isn't the town it
was" and that "Fritz must be having a thin time there." They also
expressed the opinion that the Albert-Bapaume road was not a pleasant
walk for Germans on a sunny afternoon.

I did not dispute these points with them, for they were beyond argument.
Big shells were smashing into Albert and its neighborhood from many
heavy batteries, raising volcanic explosions there, and shrapnel was
bursting over the tracks in white splashes.

_In describing the artillery fire which broke up a threatened assault on
May 5, Mr. Gibbs wrote:_

A new German division, the 52d Reserve, and the 56th German Division
prepared an assault on Ridge Wood. All these men were crowded into
narrow assembly grounds and did not have quiet hours before the moment
of attack. They had hours of carnage in the darkness. British and French
guns were answering back the German bombardment with their heaviest
fire. French howitzers, long-muzzled fellows, which during recent weeks
I had seen crawling through Flanders with the cornflowers, as the French
soldiers call themselves, crowded about them on the gun limbers and
transport wagons and muddy horses, and which had traveled long
kilometers, were now in action from their emplacements between the
ruined villages of the Flemish war zone, and with their little
brothers, the soixante-quinzes, their blood-thirsty little brothers,
were savage in their destruction and harassing fire.

I have seen the soixante-quinze at work and have heard the rafale des
tambours de la mort - the ruffle of the drums of death - as the sound of
their fire is described by all soldier writers of France. It was that
fire, that slashing and sweeping fire, which helped to break up any big
plan of attack against the French troops yesterday morning, and from
those assembly places a great part of the German infantry never moved
all day, but spent their time, it seems, in carrying back their wounded.


Tragic Desolation of Arras

_Mr. Gibbs on May 11 described a visit to Arras, as follows:_

Since the beginning of these great battles in bleak, cold weather Spring
has come, and almost Summer, changing all the aspect of the old
battlefields and of the woods behind craterland and of the cities under
fire.

I went into one of those cities the other day, Arras, which to me and to
many of us out here is a queerly enchanted place because of its beauty,
which survives even three years of bombardment, and because of the many
great memories which it holds in its old houses and streets and the
sense of romance which lurks in its courtyards and squares, reaching
back to ancient history before its death. For Arras is dead and but the
beautiful corpse of the city that was once very fair and noble.

During the recent weeks the enemy has flung many big explosive shells
into it, so that its ruins have become more ruined and many houses
hardly touched before have now been destroyed. It was sad to see this
change, the fresh mangling of stones that had already been scarred, the
heaps of masonry that lay piled about these streets that were utterly
deserted. I walked down many of them and saw no living soul, only a few
lean cats which prowled about, slinking close to the walls and crouching
when a German shell came over with a rending noise.

Bright sunlight shone down these streets, putting a lazy glamour upon
their broken frontages and flinging back shadows from high walls, except
where shell holes let in the light. The cathedral and the great Palace



Online LibraryVariousCurrent History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 → online text (page 5 of 30)