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Thursday, November 11, 2004

 

good-bye to all that


the account of the british assault at loos in september 1915, from the autobiography of the poet robert graves, titled "good-bye to all that":

on the morning of the 23rd, thomas came back from battalion headquarters carrying a notebook and six maps, one for each of us company officers. "listen," he said, "and copy out all this skite on the back of your maps. you'll have to explain it to your platoons this afternoon. tomorrow morning we go back to dump our blankets, packs and greatcoats in bethune. the next day, that's saturday the 25th, we attack." this being the first definitive news we had been given, we looked up half startled, half relieved. i still have the map, and these are the orders as i copied them down:

"first objective -- les briques farm -- the big house is plainly visible to our front, surrounded by trees. to reach this it is necessary to cross three lines of enemy trenches. the first is three hundred yards distant, the second four hundred, the third about six hundred. we then cross two railways. behind the second railway line is a german trench called the brick trench. then comes the farm, a strong place with moat and cellars and a kitchen garden strongly staked and wired.

"second objective -- the town of auchy -- this is also plainly visible from our trenches. it is four hundred yards beyond the farm and defended by a first line of trench half-way across, and a second line immediately in front of the town. when we have occupied the first line our direction is half-right, with the left of the battalion directed on tall chimney.

"third objective -- village of haisnes -- conspicuous by high-spired church. our eventual line will be taken up on the railway behind this village, where we will dig in and await reinforcements."


when thomas had reached this point, The Actor's shoulders were shaking with laughter.

"what's up?", thomas said irritably.

The Actor giggled: "who in god's name is responsible for this little effort?"

"don't know," thomas said. "probably paul the pimp, or someone like that." (paul the pimp was a captain on the divisional staff, young, inexperienced and much disliked. he wore red tabs upon his chest, and even on his undervest.) "between the six of us, but you youngsters must be careful not to let the men know, this is what they call a 'subsidiary attack'. there will be no troops in support. we've just got to go over and keep the enemy busy while the folk on our right do the real work. you notice that the bombardment is much heavier over there. they've knocked the hohenzollern redoubt to bits. personally, i don't give a damn either way. we'll get killed whatever happens."

we all laughed.

"all right, laugh now, but by god, on saturday we've got to carry out this funny scheme." i had never heard thomas so talkative before.

"sorry," The Actor apologized, "carry on with the dictation."

thomas went on:

"the attack will be preceded by forty minutes discharge of the accessory (gas cylinders), which will clear the path for a thousand yards, so that the two railway lines will be occupied without difficulty. our advance will follow closely behind the accessory. behind us are three fresh divisions and the cavalry corps. it is expected we shall have no difficulty in breaking through. all men will parade with their platoons; pioneers, servants, etc., to be warned. all platoons to be properly told off under NCO's. every NCO is to know exactly what is expected of him, and when to take over command in case of casualties. men who lose touch must join up with the nearest company or regiment and push on. owing to the strength of the accessory, men should be warned against remaining too long in captured trenches where the accessory is likely to collect, but to keep to the open and above all to push on. it is important that if smoke-helmets have to be pulled down they must be tucked in under the shirt."

The Actor interrupted again. "tell me, thomas, do you believe in this funny accessory?"

thomas said: "it's damnable. it's not soldiering to use stuff like that, even though the germans did start it. it's dirty, and it'll bring us bad luck. we're sure to bungle it. look at those new gas-companies -- sorry, excuse me this once, i mean accessory-companies -- their very look makes me tremble. chemistry-dons from london university, a few lads straight from school, one or two NCO's of the old-soldier type, trained together for three weeks, then given a job as responsible as this. of course they'll bungle it. how could they do anything else? but let's be merry. i'm going on again:...."

that afternoon i repeated the whole rigmarole to the platoon, and told them of the inevitable success attending our assault. they seemed to believe it. all except sergeant townsend. "do you say, sir, that we have three divisions and the cavalry corps behind us?" he asked.

"yes," i answered.

"well, excuse me, sir, i'm thinking it's only those chaps on the right that'll get reinforcements. if we get half a platoon of angels, that's about all we'll get."

"sergeant townsend," i said, "you're a well-known pessimist. this is going to be a really good show."
____

a grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the german lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. "why the devil don't they send them over quicker?" The Actor complained. "this isn't my idea of a bombardment. we're getting nothing opposite us. what little there seems to be is going into the hohenzollern."

"shell shortage. expected it," was thomas' laconic reply.

we were told afterwards that on the 23rd a german aeroplane had bombed the army reserve shell-dump and sent it up. the bombardment on the 24th, and on the day of the battle itself, compared very poorly with that of the previous days. thomas looked strained and ill. "it's time they were sending that damned accessory off. i wonder what's doing."

the events of the next few minutes are difficult for me now to sort out. i found it more difficult still at the time. all we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle-fire, yells, heavy shelling on our front line, more shouts and yells, and a continuous rattle of machine guns. after a few minutes, lightly wounded men of the middlesex came stumbling down maison rouge alley to the dressing station. i stood at the junction of the siding and the alley.

"what happened? what happened?" i asked.

"bloody balls-up," was the most detailed answer i could get.

among the wounded were a number of men yellow-faced and choking, their buttons tarnished green -- gas cases. then came the badly wounded. maison rouge alley being narrow, the stretchers had difficulty in getting down. the germans started shelling it with five-point-nines.

thomas went back to battalion headquarters through the shelling to ask for orders. it was the same place that i had visited on my first night in the trenches. this cluster of dugouts in the reserve line showed very plainly from the air as battalion headquarters, and never should have been occupied during a battle. just before thomas arrived, the germans put five shells into it. the adjutant jumped one way, the colonel the other, the RSM a third. one shell went into the signals dugout, killed some signallers and destroyed the telephone. the colonel, slightly cut on the hand, joined the stream of wounded and was carried back as far as the base with it. the adjutant took command.

meanwhile 'a' company had been waiting in the siding for the rum to arrive; the tradition being a double tot of rum beforehand. all the other companies got theirs. The Actor began cursing: "where the bloody hell's that storeman gone?" we fixed bayonets in readiness to go up and attack as soon as captain thomas returned with orders. hundreds of wounded streamed by. at last thomas' orderly appeared. "captain's orders, sir: 'a' company to move up to the front line." at that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum bottle, red-faced and retching. he staggered up to The Actor and said, "there you are, sir!", then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. the stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. this was a crime that deserved the death penalty. he put one foot on the storeman's neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. then he gave the order "company forward!" the company advanced with a clatter of steel, and this was the last i ever heard of the storeman.

it seems that at half-past four an RE captain commanding the gas-company in the front line phoned through to divisional headquarters: "dead calm. impossible discharge accessory." the answer he got was: "accessory to be discharged at all costs." thomas had not over-estimated the gas-company's efficiency. the spanners for unscrewing the cocks of the cylinders proved, with two or three exceptions, to be misfits. the gas-men rushed about shouting for the adjustable spanner. they managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards off in no man's land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. the germans, who had been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours. bundles of oily cotton-waste were strewn along the german parapet and set alight as a barrier to the gas. then their batteries opened on our lines. the confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas-company stampeded.


Thank you for posting these excerpts and poems.

 
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Compelling reading indeed, thanks for posting.

 
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