Chapter 5


If there were those who had serious doubts that it was the right moment to launch an offensive, in the opinion of Sir John French there could hardly have been a better one. Even without the cooperation of General Joffre, French and his staff were confident of success. The responsibility would be in the hands of the officer in command of the First Army, General Sir Douglas Haig. His troops were to fight the battle and he and his staff were now engaged in drawing up the detailed plans that would take them to victory. Lately there had been a marked change in the enemy’s tactics. The Germans seemed content to maintain their positions by standing on the defensive, and reliable intelligence reports confirmed that they had drastically reduced their manpower on the western front, and that their reserves were few. The German High Command had decided to pitch its strength at the east.

As far back as the early eighteen nineties the Germans had drawn up plans for a possible European war and had realised that, if it came, it would be necessary to fight in the east as well as the west. In 1894 France and Russia had extended their formal alliance by a military agreement that guaranteed assistance in the event of either being attacked. This meant that there were two potential enemies on the borders of the German Empire and Count von Schlieffen had drawn up a military plan to deal with them both. In August 1914 it had been put into effect.

The nub of the plan was the swift invasion of France, striking through neutral Belgium where she would least expect it, and to proceed with maximum strength in a vast encircling movement that would capture Paris, force France to sue for peace and put victorious Germany in such a position of advantage that she could safely remove her troops from France and turn her attention to defeating Russia. The peace terms would be stringent, and punitive war reparations imposed on France would fuel the German war machine at no cost to the German people. But everything hinged on speed.

Six weeks had been allowed for the defeat of France. The Germans had looked carefully at the probabilities and, calculating the vast distances that separated the regions of the sprawling Russian Empire and the difficulties of concentrating troops, taking into account the lack of roads, the scarcity of railways (which were not even of European gauge), they had concluded that at least six weeks must elapse after mobilisation before a Russian army would be able to enter the field. By that time, the German armies, fresh from victory in the west, could be moved east to join battle with Russia and win the war. So confident were the Germans of success, so anxious to commit the best of their resources to ensuring it, so sure of their assessment that Russia would be slow to take up arms, that they were equally sanguine in their conviction that the defence of the vulnerable border of East Prussia could safely be left to local Landsturm troops.

But the Russians were true to their obligation to support their French ally, and they took the Germans completely by surprise. On 17 August, before Russian mobilisation was halfway complete, two Russian armies had invaded East Prussia, broken the front, and advanced more than a hundred miles into German territory. This had come as a rude shock to the Germans and, long before France could be overwhelmed, they were forced to reduce the force dedicated to defeating her by three army corps which might have tipped the balance in the west, had they not been rushed back to save the situation in the east. They had arrived too late to cheat Russia of early victories which did much to hearten her allies, but a few days later they roundly defeated the Russians at Tannenberg. Russia had held her own, fighting against the Germans in East Prussia, against the Austrians to the south, against the Turks further east. But the Russians were struggling, and by January the situation was critical. There was no lack of men to fight, but they needed guns to fight with and ammunition for the guns to fire. Every day they were firing almost three times as much as the munitions factories could possibly produce and eating into reserve supplies that were now dangerously low. Above all, they needed weapons. Rifles were now so scarce that one man in four was being sent to the front without one and the Russians had to rely on retrieving the arms of men killed or wounded on the battlefield to equip the men who had come to take their place. If the Russians were defeated, and if the Germans were then able to take large numbers of troops from the east and mass them for an offensive in France, then the game would be up on the western front. It was for this reason that the War Council wished to relieve the pressure on Russia by opening an offensive in a new theatre of war where it would do Russia most good. It was also the reason behind Sir John French’s fervent desire to attack in the west.

In December, eight more divisions of German infantry and four of cavalry had left the western front to fight the Russians and, they hoped, to finish them off, and Sir John French was itching to take advantage of this thinning of the German line as soon as the ground and weather conditions improved. The British troops were fewer than the Commander-in-Chief could have wished for but, just for once, and possibly not for long, they substantially outnumbered their opponents. They must grasp the nettle and seize the moment to strike. The risks would be small; the rewards would be rich.

The Aubers Ridge was a desirable objective in itself, but beyond it lay the promised land – a wide flat plateau, ideal for open warfare with little cover and none of those convenient ridges so easy for the enemy to defend. Beyond it lay the real prize, the German-occupied city of Lille, capital of French Flanders, with its satellite textile towns of Roubaix and Tourcoing. They could not be captured in a day but, given the success of the initial assault (and how could it fail?), given the assistance of the French in pushing forward (and they would surely join in!), and given the lack of large reserves of German soldiers to defend them, these important industrial towns could be captured in a campaign of two weeks. At a single blow their captive populations would be liberated and the wheels of their factories set turning to assist the allied war effort. Long before reinforcements could be brought from Germany the way would be opened to the great plain of Douai, Joffre’s army would advance, his grander design would succeed and, in the west at least, the war would be won.

For the French population of the occupied towns it was tantalising to be so close to the line, lying beneath the heel of the Germans within the sound of the guns little more than twenty miles away. For the people of Tourcoing the frustration was worst of all. Drawing an imaginary triangle on the map Tourcoing would lie at the apex, as near to Ypres as to Aubers Ridge at either end of its base. In those early days of the war, every local attack, every minor action, every exchange of gunfire heard so clearly in the streets, raised hopes that the allies were on the move and liberation was at hand. But there were a few who took a more realistic view and Henri Dewavrin was one:

M. Pierre Dewavrin.

My father was always a pessimist. He had gone to a military school, the College Ste Genevieve. He intended to make a career in the army but, when he was only seventeen, there was a slump in the wool trade and he had to leave and help his father restore his business as a wool broker. But he always kept his interest in military matters. I had just turned twelve when we were occupied by the Germans. I remember very well that every day they used to post up the official army communiqués on the door of the Hôtel de Ville – not just their own German one, but the French and British communiqués as well, which was remarkable when you think of it.

My father used to study them for hours at a time, trying to work out what was really happening, and he always took a very gloomy view, because he knew the country well, and he knew that the so-called advances that the French or the British were proclaiming were really nothing at all. He used to discuss the situation for hours at a time. He could think of nothing else. His friends and colleagues nicknamed him ‘Général’ Dewavrin because he spent his days at his club for businessmen, always talking about the war. Of course, he was naturally concerned because two of my elder brothers were with the French Army and there was no news of them. He just had to try to work out for himself what was happening and there was plenty of time to talk things over because there was no work and no business to be done.

Everything had come to a standstill. The factories were shut down because the Germans were short of war material and the first thing they had done was to strip the factories and take all the copper parts from the machines, right down to the smallest components. Even if they could have run the machines without them there were no raw materials to work with, and all the workers of military age had been mobilised and were fighting on the other side of the line. In any event, no one wanted to work for the Germans. They occupied Tourcoing on the 10th of October and on the Sunday we went to mass as usual at our church, St Christophe. Chanoine Leclercq gave the sermon and I shall never forget it. He was a saintly man, and a brave man, because he defied the Germans. He reviled them, and he didn’t mince his words. He said that the factories must close and that, whatever happened, no one must work for the Germans or do anything at all to help them if they could avoid it. We couldn’t fight, he said, but we could show that we were Frenchmen and defy them. A few days later he was arrested and sent to Germany. He was a prisoner there for exactly four years, from 18 October 1914 to 18 October 1918. Many people were arrested and sent as hostages or prisoners to Germany. It happened in my wife’s family, that is, in the family of the lady who became my wife ten years later.

Mme Germaine Dewavrin.

My father was a manufacturer of wool, in partnership with his brother. It was a huge enterprise. It was called ‘Usines Auguste et Louis Lepoutre’. They had twelve factories round Roubaix and Tourcoing and two more in America, near Providence in Massachusetts. Every day between them they used the wool of ten thousand sheep – thirty thousand kilos of wool. When we were occupied, naturally all that stopped. The Germans requisitioned everything, stripped the factories bare, but my father had large stocks of wool. The Germans had taken a certain amount, but he was determined that they should not have the rest. So he hid it.

The biggest factory was in Roubaix, and it was a huge place. In one building there was a long corridor with doors leading to the store-rooms. The wool used to be delivered on wooden pallets, so the store-rooms were packed to the ceilings with wool and then the pallets were propped up against the walls all along the corridor so that the doors were hidden. But my father was denounced. One of the workers who must have had some grievance, or who wanted money, gave him away to the Germans.

Of course as children we knew nothing of all this until the Germans came to our house to arrest him. They took my father and my mother. We saw them go, surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets, they marched them on foot all the way to Tourcoing. It was terrible, terrible. I was ten years old, the youngest of the family, and we had an English nursery governess called Nellie Smale. She was absolutely distracted! Naturally, being English, she was terrified. She could have gone home when the war began, but she had been with our family for so many years she decided to stay. Of course, we never expected that things would go so fast and so badly. And the occupation, when it happened, came so quickly! Even so, many people were evacuated and Nellie could have gone too, but she chose not to. Then when she saw my father and mother being marched off she thought she would be taken next. She was terrified every day of the war!

My mother came home next day, but my father was taken as a hostage to Germany. Months afterwards they released him but after he had been home for a time they arrested him again and sent him back to Germany. Many, many prominent citizens and industrialists were taken hostage. I suppose it was to make an example of them and ensure the good behaviour of the people in the occupied towns. It was a very hard time. It was even harder for the people who had worked in our factories and were less well off. There was great hardship. Every municipality gave out vouchers so they could buy the food the Germans were supposed to provide, but there was very little of it.

M. Pierre Dewavrin.

In Tourcoing we had a large house, because we were a large family, and we could not avoid having Germans billeted from time to time. Of course, we had as little as possible to do with them, but they were in our house. Sometimes they were officers, who were very correct and polite, but when there were troop movements, we often got ordinary soldiers – sometimes as many as twenty or thirty of them sleeping on the floors and eating in our kitchen. In early 1915 they were very simple men, mostly Bavarian peasants, and their officers treated them like animals, with absolute contempt. Of course, being Bavarians, they were devout Catholics and it amazed us youngsters when we saw them cross themselves when they were handed their bread ration. We asked ourselves how the Boche could possibly be Christians!

In their communiqués the Germans had been trumpeting their successes on the eastern front. Studying them as he did, weighing up the evidence of his own ears that the sound of gunfire to the west was lessening every day as February drew to a close, ‘Général’ Henri Dewavrin could hardly be blamed for taking a gloomy view of the progress of the war. He would have been right in deducing that British ammunition was in short supply, but it might have heartened him to know that the British guns were silent because Sir John French was economising ammunition in order to build up a reserve for the battle that lay ahead. The field guns had been rationed to six rounds a day. The heavy Howitzers were forbidden to fire more than two.

The question of ammunition was a serious one, and for months past the sparseness of supplies reaching France had been causing Sir John French great anxiety. He was not interested in the trials and difficulties that faced the War Office, his sole concern was that supplies of guns and ammunition fell far short of the amounts that had been promised and that even if the promised supplies had been met in full they would still have fallen woefully short of the amount he required to prosecute the war with any hope of success.

It was all very well for the army to demand more guns and munitions, but it was by no means easy to supply them. For one thing, there was the question of premises. Even if empty factories were requisitioned and others turned over to the manufacture of munitions, who was to man them? In the infectious enthusiasm of early recruiting no one had stopped to reflect that the services of skilled men would be of more use to King and Country in engineering workshops than as raw recruits in the expanding ranks of theNew Armies where, for want of proper weapons, the infantry was drilling with wooden rifles and would-be gunners were learning their trade on ancient artillery pieces borrowed from museums. Some were actually obliged to practise gun-drill on a home-made contrivance, the barrel represented by a tree trunk balanced on a trestle, with two cross-sections lopped from it to imitate the wheels.

Even if all the engineers who had disappeared into the army were combed out and brought back it would not be enough, or nearly enough. Rifles were needed. Guns were needed – machine-guns, fuses, shells by the thousands, bullets by the million. Large orders had been placed at the start of the war, and there was no shortage of raw materials, but even if the existing factories had been working flat out it would have been impossible to fulfil more than a fraction of them. But they were not working flat out and, worse, there was an upsurge of industrial troubles and disputes.

Many of the jobs involved in the manufacture of munitions could have been carried out by unskilled labour, but the Amalgamated Society of Engineers had absolutely vetoed this suggestion and, in the face of such union opposition, employers were forced to turn down countless volunteers. Even within the skilled workforce itself there were restrictive practices. One man per machine was the rule, even where output could have been increased by working shifts, and no doubling up of jobs would be accepted. Nor was there any question of a single-union agreement that would allow an engineer to mend a fuse, if need be, or an electrician to loosen a bolt or tighten a screw.

The attitude of the skilled men was understandable. It took seven years of hard-grafting apprenticeship, working for a pittance, to qualify as a tradesman, and even a skilled journeyman’s wage could be as little as £2 a week. The minimum wage agreement had been won only after years of struggle, and decades of exploitation in Victorian workshops were still fresh in the minds of the men who had fought for the rights and conditions they now enjoyed. Was it all to be sacrificed now? If cheap unskilled labour was swept up by the national emergency to fill the factories, might not their own jobs be swept away when the emergency was over and employers – whom they had good reason not to trust – were tempted to use the precedent to undermine the hard-won rights of skilled workers?

Employers were at the nub of the industrial trouble that came to a head in February, for the men believed that they were making huge profits from the war, and making them at the men’s expense. Prices were rising, but wages were not and while employers on the one hand were urging the workforce to greater effort and ever-rising output, they were refusing, on the other, to meet even reasonable pay claims. Workers threatening to strike were vilified wholesale by the press, whipping up a frenzy of patriotic indignation. Few people stopped to consider the problems faced by the War Office or the culpability of manufacturers who, through greed or over-optimism and not least by reason of self-interest led by fear of competition, were probably most to blame. The workforce was a useful scapegoat and not many took the trouble to look at things from the workers’ point of view – least of all Sir John French. And least of all the gunners standing idly by their guns in Flanders while the Commander-in-Chief gathered up a supply of precious shells for his offensive.

He was gathering men too.

During their five-day stay at Ham the 3rd Londons had been mildly surprised to be inspected by General Willcocks and welcomed ‘to the Indian Army’ and to find that they were to form part of the Meerut Division. ‘Army’ was a forgivable conceit on the part of the general, who had good reason to be proud of his troops, but it was something of an exaggeration for it comprised a corps of two infantry divisions and one of cavalry. In addition to native Indian troops each infantry brigade contained one battalion of British Regulars (as it had done in India) and each was now to be augmented by a battalion of Territorials or Special Reservists.

If wintry Flanders came as a rude shock to the 3rd Londons fresh from the mild climate of Malta, it had been considerably worse for the Indians and most of them had been there for months. The Indian troops had played an active part and proved their worth in spite of the dreary conditions, the icy chill of the northern marshes, the water-logged trenches where, vaselined and oiled to the waist, the men on outpost duty had to stand for hours with barely a glimpse of the pallid disc that masqueraded as the sun in those alien northern skies. Many had fallen in action and some in the trench-raids at which the Indians were so expert; frostbite, influenza and pneumonia had all taken their toll and recently measles and mumps, encountered in Europe for the first time, had swept through the ranks. But the cold was the worst, and the Indians could hardly remember the sensation of being warm, still less the fierce heat of the Indian plains burning under the sun they called ‘the Bengal blanket’. The British public were sympathetic to the plight of the men plucked so cruelly out of their element. Tons of warm comforts had been sent and it was no unusual sight to see turbanned Indian troops hunched over tiny cooking fires, cocooned in a dozen or more khaki scarves and shawls plaited and knotted across khaki overcoats. Their khaki service dress was a far cry from the colourful silken glamour of the regimental uniforms that were the joy of the Indian Army, but the names of the regiments still rang like a litany that celebrated all the pomp and panoply of Empire – the Dogras, the Baluchis, Garhwalis, the Deccan Horse, the Secunderabad Cavalry, Pathans, Sikhs, Punjabis, the Jodhpur Lancers.

They came from every corner of the Indian sub-continent and represented every caste and creed, and this presented the military authorities with certain problems. At the base camps in Marseilles and later in Orleans and Rouen it required six separate kitchens to cater for the different dietary and religious needs and although the problem had been tackled in the field by issuing rations and allowing the Indians to cook them for themselves, this system brought other difficulties. One officer, walking past such a group cooking food on the roadside, was amazed to see them tip out the contents of their cooking pot as he passed. The ‘shadow of the infidel’ had fallen across their food and they would rather go hungry than eat it. Even the basic army rations were unacceptable to Indian troops. To the exasperation of Captain Maurice Mascall, who was an officer in a mountain gun battery, his drivers refused to eat the biscuits he was forced to issue in lieu of scarce chapatti flour. But the drivers seemed unconcerned. They politely pointed out, when called to account, that they did not expect to survive anyway and might as well die of starvation in a state of grace than be consigned to damnation by a German bullet with a stomach defiled by impure food. ‘This argument,’ remarked Mascall, ‘rather took the wind out of the Major’s sails as he had hoped that the pangs of hunger would prove stronger than caste prejudice.’

It seldom did, and provisioning the Indians was a headache. Beef was not acceptable to many and, since pork was absolutely taboo, all France as far afield as the island of Corsica was scoured for goats, as old and tough as possible, to supply the Indians’ needs. Such was their horror of anything connected with pork that exhausted Sikhs newly out of the line even refused to enter the pigsties they were allocated as temporary billets. The officers who had served with the Indian Army in peacetime understood these shibboleths but as casualties mounted and they were replaced by others with no experience of Indian troops, difficulties and misunderstandings increased.

But in Britain the Indian soldiers were hugely popular. Public imagination had been caught by the munificence of the maharajas who had offered troops, money, even lakhs of rubies, to assist the war effort, and also by the loyalty of these soldiers of the Empire who had obeyed the Empire’s call to come and fight. Everyone approved when the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was turned into a hospital for Indian wounded, for what could be more appropriate and more likely to make them feel at home than its sparkling minarets and oriental decor? Money poured into the Indian Soldiers’ Fund. Speakers of Indian languages – many of them retired from the Indian Civil Service – visited them in hospital. There were outings, even sight-seeing trips to London for the convalescents (including a visit to Lord Roberts’ grave in the crypt of St Paul’s). Everything Indian was fashionable and an oriental matinee at the Shaftesbury Theatre raised a large sum of money for the benefit of Indian troops. It featured oriental dances, songs, recitations, and tableaux, including ‘an Indian Garden scene with characters represented by Indian ladies and gentlemen’. The performance was attended by several royal ladies, including the Queen Mother, Queen Alexandra, and it was voted a resounding success.

The sturdy little Gurkhas from the hill country of Nepal were just as popular. They were tough fighters, proud of their prowess and their skill with their kukris, those lethal weapons whose curved blades were honed razor sharp and which, in the opinion of the Gurkhas, were miles better than any rifle. They had been mobbed at Marseilles by girls demanding to have their fingers scratched ‘for luck’, and the Gurkhas had obliged, grinning with delight. It was the first time they had drawn blood, although so little had they known about the war that they had spent the last two hours of the train journey to Calcutta sharpening kukris in the belief that they would be meeting the enemy the instant they arrived.

When they finally did meet the enemy in the alien land of Flanders they had quickly adapted and shown their mettle. Killing Germans was what they were there for, and killing Germans was what they intended to do. The Gurkhas were particularly adept at scouting and patrolling, and delighted in creeping undetected to a German outpost and dispatching some unsuspecting enemy with a silent swipe of the deadly kukri.

Lt. Col. D. H. Drake-Brockman, 2nd Bn., Garhwal Rifles, Garhwal Brig., Meerut Div.

We organised a raid on the German trenches opposite our right flank where it ran into what we called ‘the gap’. This was a portion of ditch which ran along our front at this place. Our right and the 1st Battalion’s left ran into it.

Fifty men from each battalion were lined up in the ditch on the right flank and the signal to advance was given. The special feature of a night attack is the imperative necessity for absolute silence till you are actually ready to charge and close up to your objective – otherwise cheering too soon only gives the enemy notice of your intention and time to prepare to meet your attack. Our men crawled right up to the German parapet in silence and lay under it without being noticed. Major Taylor lay there too, watching, and when he considered the psychological moment had arrived he gave the signal to charge into the trench by firing his revolver at some grey-coated Germans he could just see walking by below him and immediately they all jumped into the German trench with an almighty yell.

I don’t suppose men were ever scared so much as these Germans were, for they bolted down every handy communication trench as if all the demons in Asia were after them. I think it must have been this incident that gave rise to the yarns and pictures which one saw in the illustrated papers of men dressed like Gurkhas with drawn kukris in their mouths crawling up to the German trenches. We took six live prisoners, one of whom was wounded, and we know that two were killed. But the great thing was the moral effect which it must have produced on the enemy.

Stories of the Gurkhas abounded. One favourite told of a German soldier looking over the parapet just as a Gurkha crawled up. The kukri swished and the German sneered and shook his head. ‘You missed, Gurkha!’ The Gurkha replied, ‘You wait, German, wait until you try to nod head.’ Apocryphal though it was, it precisely summed up the spirit and character of the tough little hillmen. Outlandish rumours of blood-chilling deeds spread like wildfire among the Germans who soon developed a healthy respect for Asian soldiers. In some cases it amounted to outright fear and one unfortunate German who had been captured by a patrol and brought into the British line was so overcome by terror on being patted and stroked by a smiling Indian soldier that he actually fainted. The Indian was extremely put out. His intention had been to reassure the prisoner by demonstrating sympathy and friendship. But the German’s imagination had been fired by lurid rumours of cannibalism and he assumed that his captor was exploring his person with a view to identifying the plumpest, juiciest cuts.

On the night of 21 February detachments of the 3rd Londons went into the trenches for the first time with the front-line battalions of the Meerut Division. Some were attached to the Gurkhas who gave them a friendly welcome. It was only possible to communicate in sign language but in quiet spells there was much displaying of kukris, which the British men were anxious to examine, and the Gurkhas were equally anxious to show off, as well as the trophies and souvenirs that were proof of the number of Germans they had bagged. Among the caps and helmets and tunic-buttons were a number of desiccated objects which on closer examination were shown to be human ears, and grinning dumbshows of throat-cutting gestures left no doubt in the mind as to how the Gurkhas had come by them.

They were treated occasionally to a short unpleasant fusillade of pip-squeaks, which the Gurkhas called ‘Swee-thak’s’ and appeared to shrug off with a certain derision that was heartening to men coming under fire for the first time. But for once it was a bright day and the blue sky buzzed with aeroplanes, wheeling and climbing and dodging the shell-bursts as the guns sought to bring them down. It was fascinating to watch the white puff of an explosion appearing as if by magic against the blue of the sky, followed a moment later by the crack of the explosion and the whirr of the shell travelling through the air. They were British aeroplanes, and it was fortunate that the German shells failed to hit them because they were engaged on an important task. The first air cameras had just been delivered and the planes were taking advantage of the clear fog-free weather to photograph the German trenches and the fortifications behind their front line. These first aerial photographs would be flat affairs compared with the finely detailed shots that would later prove so invaluable, but they were infinitely better than nothing. The map-makers were working overtime and for the first time since the stalemate had set in the Army would have eyes, would be able to see beyond ridges and round corners, and the troops preparing for the coming battle would know precisely where they were going and what they would be up against.

There was another new innovation which the Army had been slow to accept. It was the idea that guns could be accurately ranged by aeroplanes observing their fire and sending back instant corrections by wireless, and it was the brainchild of Lieutenant Donald Lewis, a signals specialist of the Royal Engineers on secondment to the Royal Flying Corps. Had it depended on official channels it would never have got off the ground at all, but Donald Lewis had friends, and Lieutenant James, a fellow sapper, was equally enthusiastic. Together they installed a prototype wireless in Lewis’s aircraft and that was the easy bit. Neither officer was an expert in speedily sending morse and it took them weeks to work up their speed and efficiency, Lewis in the air and James on the ground. Then they approached another friend, the commander of a 9.2 Howitzer battery, and invited him to join in the experiment. It was a startling success. An aircraft observing a shoot firing blind ‘by the map’ at a specified target could instantly signal back the result and the correction that would lay the gun accurately on the target. They had worked out a code using an imaginary clock face divided into segments superimposed on the map. It was simple and it was fool-proof. The War Office gave Lewis and James their blessing and sent them with their new system to France where they kicked their heels for a month before they were allowed to try it out.

Lt. D. S. Lewis, Royal Engineers, Att. RFC.

We went out with three machines, fitted with 300-watt Rouget sets, run off the crankshaft, and receiving sets with Brown relays. For a month they wouldn’t use us, having a very British distrust of things new! At last we got our chance and made about the biggest success of the war. We do nothing but range artillery, sending down the position of new targets and observing the shorts. The results are really magnificent. In this flat country all heavy artillery shooting is utterly blind without aeroplane observation. As it is, during a battle, every enemy battery that opens fire can be promptly dealt with and accurately ranged on. With ‘Mother’, the 9.2-inch ‘How’, one can generally hit a target with the first three shots. We signal the shots by a clock method, direction by figures, distances by letters, i.e. C9 means 200 yards at nine o’clock to the true north.

The problem was that in the run-up to the offensive there were precious few shells to spare, not even for the task of ensuring the accuracy of the guns in the all-important bombardment. But not all the guns had yet arrived and the Battery Commanders of those that were in place were none too keen to send precious rationed shells flying into the blue without good reason. Sir John French had calculated that by economising on ammunition he would store up enough for three days’ fighting. And a three-day fight would put him on top of the Aubers Ridge.

He was sure of it. It had to, it must succeed.

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