Chapter 8


The Rifle Brigade had gone so far and so fast that the first men who reached the other side of Neuve Chapelle were in serious risk of running into their own bombardment. They halted reluctantly and, more reluctantly still, returned to join the main body of the Battalion halted a little way in front of the village. But three men could dodge shells where hundreds could not, and Lieutenant Stacke of the Worcesters was not prepared to wait. His Battalion, the 1st Worcesters, was waiting at the old front line, ready to move forward and carry on the advance. His job was to reconnoitre the ground. He had picked two men to go with him, and they were the best scouts in the Battalion. They worked to their left, clear of the village and just clear of the bombardment, and made a dash for it up the remnants of a lane. Ahead there was nothing and no one to be seen, and peering at the Bois du Biez through binoculars, Stacke could detect not the slightest movement. A few stray bullets flew round as they worked their way back, but they were easily dodged and, if anything, they added spice to the adventure. They were in high spirits, hurrying now, for already the Battalion would be moving forward. They were to rendezvous at 9.30 in the village, and move instantly through the captured line to the attack. Stacke would have the satisfaction of reporting that it would be a piece of cake and, as the patrol went back through the captured line, he passed on the good news to the Rifle Brigade. Colonel Stephens could see as much for himself. The bombardment had stopped, there was no sign of the enemy on his front and already he had sent a message to Divisional Headquarters for permission to advance. He was astounded by the reply, but the order was unequivocal. The Battalion was to stand fast – and it was to dig in.

Lieutenant Stacke had reached the rendezvous, but there was no sign of the Worcesters. He moved on to the old line, expecting every moment to meet the Battalion on the way, but the Worcesters were still at the assembly point. They had been told to wait, and Stacke’s encouraging report did nothing to quell their impatience. They could not imagine where the difficulty lay.

It lay on their left where the attack had failed, and it had failed because the unfortunate 59th Siege Battery had been unable to destroy the defences in the German line.

Bdr. W. Kemp.

They’d worked in shifts all night, just taking turns for an hour’s sleep. You never saw men working like it – and all the light there was to work with was these old candle-lanterns we had, and the worst of them was that every time the guns fired the candle went out. Not that they did fire on that occasion! It was getting the blooming things stabilised that caused the trouble, and there were four of these big Howitzers to a battery. You can judge the size of them by the weight of the ammunition – these 6-inch shells came twenty-two to the ton, and of course they all had to be manhandled. When it came near daylight I was sent forward with some other signallers to the observation post. Well, it was no observation post! It was a straw stack! The officer got on top of it with his binoculars and we signallers were behind it with the telephones. As soon as it got daylight the guns were supposed to range on the target so the fire could be adjusted before the bombardment started at half past seven. But it was completely new country to us. How could the officer tell from the top of a haystack if the shells were dropping on the target on ground he’d never seen before? It wasn’t humanly possible. On top of that, our normal rate of fire should have been one shell every two minutes, but, not being solid enough on their platforms, they recoiled so far that they had to be run up by hand and re-positioned after every shot. Great heavy guns, remember. That first morning we were lucky if we fired two shots in ten minutes, and it was anybody’s guess where they were going. The upshot was that, when the infantry went over, the wire wasn’t cut at all.

The job should have been so easy that the Battalion Headquarters could hardly be blamed for thinking that it had been a brilliant success. The first wave of 2nd Middlesex went over and disappeared into the mist. A second followed quickly on its heels and, minutes later, a third. Two Battalions were assaulting a line held by only two companies of German Jaegers and it was hardly wishful thinking to assume that they had given up without a fight, for not a single wounded man returned. But the trenches had not been touched by the bombardment and neither had the Jaegers defending them. Few though they were they had plenty of machine-guns. The Middlesex had been mown down long before they reached the enemy trench and no wounded had returned because all of them were dead.

On their right the Scottish Rifles advancing alongside had at first been more fortunate but, while the right-hand companies got forward with comparative ease, one flank was ‘in the air’, for the companies on the left had been decimated by the same machine-guns that annihilated the Middlesex.

L/cpl. E. Hall, 2nd Bn., Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).

We’d taken our positions in the trenches the night before and we put up climbing ladders for jumping over the parapet. We were on tiptoe with excitement because we were fed up with trenches and living in a sea of mud and we just wanted to get the Germans out in the open. We’d seen them off at Messines Ridge when they attacked in November, but this was our offensive, the first our army had made since the trench warfare began.

I was company stretcher-bearer and so I had to follow the company as they advanced across No Man’s Land. They got up to the German trench, but the barbed wire wasn’t cut at all and the Germans were shooting like mad while our lads were crouching down in the mud trying to breach it with wire-cutters, and those that didn’t have wire-cutters hacking at it with bayonets. Eventually they did get through and over this high parapet of sandbags – it hadn’t been touched by the shells, mark you! – and in they went with the bayonet. They chased the Germans from traverse to traverse until they were all accounted for – at least in that part of the line.

But our losses were appalling during the few minutes it took to cut the wire. They went down like ninepins! Every single Company Commander went down leading the attack, and the Major, the Adjutant and the Colonel. They’d all been years in the Army, excellent soldiers, and we could ill-afford to lose such men! All the officers went, killed or wounded. By the end of three days we had just one subaltern left.

Far away on the right, at the extreme edge of the attack, a Battalion of the Indian Corps was also struggling with barriers of bristling barbed wire – but it was not the fault of the gunners. The l/39th Garhwalis had attacked the wrong objective. Perhaps the mist was to blame. Perhaps they had been misled by the line of the road swinging off at an angle towards la Bassée. Perhaps it was because their old reclaimed trenches did not directly face the line of their attack, or because, as some said, a tree which had been picked out as a landmark was blown to pieces in the bombardment. Whatever the reason, the Company lost direction and the others were propelled by sheer momentum to follow their lead.

Like the Scottish Rifles a mile away on their left, with no bombardment to prepare the way, with no cover on their flanks, and with no friendly guns to cover them as they advanced, they had hacked and clawed and battered their way through the Germans’ wire and captured a long length of their trench-line. It was a magnificent feat of arms, but it had scuppered the whole attack. It had also dislocated the plan of Sir Douglas Haig and, when they finally realised just what had happened, it placed both Corps Commanders in a dilemma. Now, where the attack had diverged, there was a gap in the line. On either side of it the troops had surged ahead and, between them, in the trenches that faced Port Arthur, the Germans were holding on, manning their machine-guns, and giving notice of their intention to hold out to the last man.

The battle orders had been precise:

As soon as the village of Neuve Chapelle has been captured and made good, the 7th and 8th Divisions, supported by the Indian Corps on their right, will be ordered by the Corps Commander to press forward to capture the high ground.

The village was undoubtedly secured. In the centre of the assault everything had gone according to plan. The ground in front was clear to the Aubers Ridge – but on either side, at two critical points, each on a separate corps front, the attack had failed and the enemy was still fighting back.

It was difficult for the two Corps Commanders to confer, for Sir Henry Rawlinson had his IV Corps headquarters at Marmuse, separated by eight kilometres of winding country road from Sir James Willcocks’ Indian Corps Headquarters at la Croix. For his own part, Rawlinson ordered a fresh attack on the trenches near the Moated Grange. It would be ushered in by a fresh bombardment and this time by guns familiar with the ground. A mile away on the right, Sir James Willcocks would also try again, and until the whole of the German front line had been captured the troops who were waiting to advance must continue to wait.

As the day wore on Colonel Stephens grew increasingly short-tempered, now gazing through binoculars at the tempting prospect ahead, now pacing up and down the length of the Battalion front where his Battalion was digging in. Wherever he turned he was met by a barrage of questions. ‘Why aren’t we getting a move on, sir?’ He fervently wished he knew the answer. The Battalion continued to dig in, as ordered.

It was less a case of digging in than of building up, for no digging was possible on the waterlogged ground and it had not even been feasible to occupy their original objective in Smith-Dorrien trench which had been the old British line before the battles of November. It was a long deep trench that ran clean across the front facing the Aubers Ridge, and the Command had believed that it would make an ideal jump-off for the second phase of the assault. But it was many months since Smith-Dorrien trench had been a trench at all. It was full of water, the Germans had long ago found it uninhabitable, and the bombardment that had been intended to pulverise its defences and cow its garrison had been so many shells wasted. There was nobody there. Fifty yards behind it, on the outskirts of Neuve Chapelle, chafing, fretting and frustrated, the Rifle Brigade was navvying, building a protective wall with bricks and rubble and broken masonry salvaged from the ruined houses and the brewery at their backs. They were working under difficulties. Earlier they had watched the Germans run away, abandoning field guns near the Bois du Biez. Now, seeing no signs of an advance, they had crept back again and were firing at point-blank range over open sights. Shells were bursting among the riflemen as they worked and a machine-gun travelling up and down the road in front of the wood raked them with vicious fire. They replied as best they could, but there were many casualties and the Battalion was dwindling away.

Later in the morning, as they worked, they were encouraged by the sound of British guns firing somewhere behind them to their left. It was the new bombardment on the trenches near the Moated Grange. When it stopped the troops advanced, running past the flung-out bodies of the Middlesex as they went. They could not help but trample on them because they lay in three distinct lines, shoulder to shoulder, just as they had advanced.

By mid morning the trenches had been taken. It was easy going. The new bombardment had been so devastatingly accurate that there was no fight left in the enemy soldiers who survived it. In the wake of the bombardment, as the first lines of Tommies came into view, they climbed out of the trenches behind the Moated Grange and surrendered in droves. The news was slow in reaching IV Corps Headquarters, but it was good when it came and, now that almost all the original objectives had been captured, it was the moment the army had been waiting for to advance on the Aubers Ridge. But the Corps Commander was hesitating. An orchard lay not two hundred yards beyond the captured line and Sir Henry Rawlinson believed that it was so fortified that, if it held out when the line moved forward, it might well be the stumbling block that would endanger the whole advance. When it began there must be no more gaps, no more hold- ups, and he could not afford to take risks. It would be better to wait and bring up reinforcements to attack the orchard in such force that resistance must crumble away. It was the last little bit of insurance that would guarantee success. Two companies of the Worcesters, still waiting at their assembly point, were ordered forward to help secure the orchard. They went off blithely, only too happy to be on the move at last.

General Capper, in command of the 7th Division, was far from happy, for he was equally impatient to get going, and his Division, spread along the line north of the Moated Grange, had been standing by all morning, anxious to get into the fight. There was no resistance in front of them, the church spire in the village of Aubers beckoned tantalisingly across the open ground, and by now they should have been – he believed they could have been – ensconced in the village itself. At noon, two and a half hours after the time originally fixed for the advance, in the absence of definite orders, he could restrain his impatience no longer. He managed, with difficulty, to telephone to IV Corps Headquarters and literally begged the Corps Commander for permission to press on. Sir Henry Rawlinson refused, but he took time to explain the situation and General Capper was obliged to be satisfied with a promise that, as soon as the orchard was secured, the advance would begin.

But, even as they spoke, the orchard had already been secured. The troops had strolled across without a shot being fired. The orchard was empty. There were no strongpoints, not even a trench among the tree stumps, and there was no sign that the enemy had ever thought of defending it.

Another hour had been lost. Communications were already slowing down, and it was more than an hour before the news reached corps headquarters. It took twenty more minutes for Rawlinson to prepare his report. At Merville, Sir Douglas Haig was at luncheon with his staff, but despite the excellent food, the well-appointed table, the discreet service of mess-waiters going imperturbably about their duties, it was an anxious meal and the Army Commander was glad to be interrupted when Rawlinson’s message arrived. He read his summary of the situation, noted that he proposed to issue orders for a general advance at 2 p.m. and dictated a message of approval. It reached Rawlinson’s Headquarters at twenty-five minutes to two. But now it was Rawlinson’s turn to champ at the bit. He had every reason to believe that the Indian Corps, by now, would have captured the segment of line – a mere two hundred yards – where the enemy was still holding out in front of Port Arthur, but a telephone call to Sir James Willcocks at Indian Corps Headquarters swiftly disabused him.

The gap was still open. The trenches had not been captured – but it was not for want of trying. The Leicesters had bombed their way into a section of the trench, at a cost of many men, and had even succeeded in building a barricade before they were forced back. The 3rd Londons had helped too. It was Harry Pulman’s company that had dashed through machine-gun fire and struggled in the wire to get at the enemy holding out behind it. Now Pulman was dead, as were Stevens and Bertie Mathieson, and Captain Reeves and ‘Evie’ Noël had been brought back badly wounded. The Germans still held out.

Now the two remaining companies were to try again. They waited all morning, and half the afternoon for orders.

Capt. G. Hawes, DSO, MC, Adjutant (City of London) Bn., London Regt., Royal Fusiliers (TF).

I went forward to a circular breastwork with Captain Livingston and Captain Moore and their companies on the right and the Colonel went with Captain Pulman and Captain Reeves on the left. Here in this circular breastwork we remained until about 4.30 p.m. I can’t describe what the breastwork was like, a mass of blackened, ruined walls of some old farm, built round with walls of earth and sandbags with machine-guns mounted on them, bodies lying about everywhere, dirt and squalor and misery on all sides. By this time the battle was in full blast. The shells were flying overhead, the noise was deafening and the sky was full of our aeroplanes. About 2 p.m. we got word that poor Captain Pulman, Mr Mathieson and Mr Stevens had been killed and Captain Noël wounded in an attack on the left.

Four hours had passed since the Indian Corps Commander had issued orders for a fresh attack. They had reached Brigade and later Division, but they had not reached the 1st Seaforths, already moving up from their support position to Neuve Chapelle, and it was the 1st Seaforths who were to repeat the action of the Leicesters, to attack the trenches from the flank and bear the brunt of the assault. Colonel Ritchie had done his best when instructions finally reached him at mid-day, but it took time to clarify them, to sum up the situation and to brief his Company Commanders. It took even longer to move his Battalion through the shell-fire, across open country, and into position for the attack. The fire was fearsome now and the signallers were having the worst of it. All along the line, and well behind it, the network of telephone wires was being cut to shreds. There was no communication between Battalions and Brigade Headquarters a mile or more away, and little between Brigade Headquarters and Division, who were even further off. Worst of all, there was no communication between the infantry and the guns. News and messages starting from the front line and carried back by relays of breathless runners were inevitably long out of date before they reached the anxious staff at Headquarters in the rear. They were working in the dark, trying to guess the situation as best they could, piecing together scant information and confused reports, hoping – although it was almost too much to hope – that circumstances had not changed by the time they reached them.

General Anderson, in command of the Meerut Division, had guessed wrong. It was well past two o’clock and at that hour, according to his latest information, the Seaforths had intended to attack. No word had reached him of the long delay and he did not know that, once again, the attack had been postponed. The only snippet of news that filtered through (and it was easy to misinterpret) was that the Seaforths had been ‘held up’. He ordered the guns to open up to help them forward. It was sixteen minutes to three o’clock. By the revised time-table the Seaforths were due to attack at 2.45 and they were already waiting, concealed by ruined houses on the flank of their objective, ready to charge. As the shells began to explode around the uncaptured trench, Colonel Ritchie could only assume that there had been a change of plan, and could only feel thankful that the bombardment had not begun a minute later. It was a violent bombardment and it was extraordinarily accurate. The enemy guns were swift to reply. All Ritchie could do in such a maelstrom was to wait for further orders and, meanwhile, suspend his attack until they came. A hundred yards or so away crouching behind their breastwork at right angles to the Seaforths, the bewildered 3rd Londons were waiting too.

Capt. G. Hawes, DSO, MC.

I can’t tell you what it’s like to have these shells whistling over one’s head and bursting nearer and nearer. The noise is terrific and the shock of the explosions is terrible. At last it calmed down and about 4.30 we received orders to send Captain Moore and Captain Livingston out of our breastwork to attack.

The Germans had to be dislodged from their trench, so our companies climbed over the breastwork in full view of the enemy. They opened a murderous fire, but no one hesitated for a second – everyone went straight on across that awful open country with bayonets at the charge. It was appalling – and it was splendid! No troops in the world could have done better. Crichton was first up. As soon as I gave the order to advance he stepped out in front of his platoon and shouted, ‘Follow me!’ Before many yards a bullet struck his leg, and he stumbled. One or two of the men following made as if to go over to help him, but he was too quick for them. He struggled to his feet and managed to stumble on. But he got no distance before another bullet caught him. He fell and didn’t rise again. Later the stretcher-bearers brought him in, but he only lived for a minute. Many, many men went down on the way across, but the others reached the trench and the Germans surrendered. Mr Sorley was wounded and I can’t tell how many of the men were killed or wounded.

After the charge the Colonel and I sat inside that breastwork and helped to tend the wounded as the stretcher-bearers brought them in. It was heart-rending – our first time in action. Those dear lads! I’m not ashamed to say it made the tears run down my face to see them. But they made so light of it! One boy, in great pain, was even smiling. He said to me, ‘They can’t call us Saturday night soldiers now, can they, sir?’ They were simply astonishing. No Battalion could have done better and many, I’m quite sure, wouldn’t have done nearly so well.

The Colonel and I stayed in that hell until 8 p.m. and then we went forward to a ruined house that had been captured from the Germans. There we tried to collect our companies together, and there we stayed, in reserve.

Like all adjutants of Territorial Battalions George Hawes was a Regular Army officer.* Praise from him was praise indeed. It was well deserved, for they had won a small but vital victory. It was not their fault that it came many hours too late.

A mile away on the left, misconceptions and misunderstandings had also dogged the fortunes of the IV Corps. At 2.45, confident of General Willcocks’s assurance that the ‘gap’ on the Indian Corps front was on the point of being captured and filled in, Rawlinson had, at last, felt able to send out the order for a general advance. They were complicated orders, and they were not entirely the orders that had been anticipated by the Battalion Commanders who had to carry them out on the ground. Instead of advancing straight ahead to the Aubers Ridge the leading Brigades of the 7th and 8th Division were to advance north-east, diagonally to their left. It was a sound plan. Although the enemy guns were busy, there had been few German troops behind their immediate front and those who were facing the 7th Division and had not yet been attacked had been keeping their heads well down. One Brigade of the 7th Division would remain opposite the enemy, while the others advanced across the ground behind the hostile trenches. General Capper ordered that, as soon as there were signs that the Germans in it were ‘unsettled’, the remainder of the 7th Division would swing out, capture their trenches, and join in the advance.

It was a complicated manoeuvre, for it meant that the 8th Division would advance behind the German line and across the 7th Division’s front. But it might have worked. It might have worked at three o’clock when Rawlinson had sent orders for the advance. It might even have worked in the daylight that remained after 3.30, the hour at which Rawlinson had directed the infantry to cross the old Smith-Dorrien line and move to the attack. But he had underestimated the time his orders would take to pass through Divisional and Brigade Headquarters to the Battalions waiting at the front. It was almost four o’clock before they reached them. Low clouds had been thickening all afternoon. The light was dull now, and threatening early dusk. Even so, it was not too late – but still the infantry waited. The 8th Division was to begin to move forward as soon as the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division came into line on its left. Time passed. There was no sign of movement in the 7th Division and it was hardly surprising, because the 21st Brigade had already moved forward to its position beyond the orchard, and there, a quarter of a mile away, the infantry had been marking time in accordance with their own Divisional Orders. These were that they were to advance as soon as the 8th Division moved into line beside them. It took many runners stumbling and slithering over the ditches and sodden ground, many exchanges of messages, much fuming and puzzlement, and precious time wasted before they could make sense of the situation. It was half past five before the leading Battalions of the 8th Division moved forward and into position to the right of the orchard. It was fully five hours since it had been captured and the enemy had made good use of the time.

Sir Henry Rawlinson had been right in suspecting the existence of a German redoubt, but it was not in the orchard and there was not one, but three. In the weeks before the battle the Germans had been tracing out a second defensive line behind their front. Most of it was still on paper, but they had made a beginning by constructing scattered strongholds and later, when the ground dried out, a new trench system would link them up. They had placed them with care. Houses in the hamlet of Mauquissart, sandbagged and loopholed, were encircled with breastworks, strongly wired, with machine-gun emplacements that commanded a wide field of fire. A little way south, and just east of the orchard, another group of cottages had been fortified in the same way, and there was a third redoubt where a bridge – a mere culvert – crossed the Layes between these nameless cottages and the Bois du Biez.* The nearby reserves had been swiftly brought forward. They only amounted to two companies of Jaegers but during the lull in the afternoon they had ample time to bring up more machine-guns and to filter into the line to reinforce the strongholds. They were ready, and they were waiting.

The redoubt at Mauquissart and the stronghold at ‘Nameless Cottages’ were directly in the line of the 8th Division advance. During the afternoon, after the capture of the first German trench-line, they were spotted and the guns were instructed to deal with them before the troops advanced. The gunners had done their best, but these important strongpoints, undiscovered until now, had not been registered, and in the deepening gloom they were not easy to pinpoint from the old observation posts. It was almost six o’clock before they finally set off, and it was very nearly dark. Even in daylight it would have been difficult for eight Battalions to keep direction, to pick their way over the sullen ground, floundering through water-ditches, clambering through hedges, wading, sliding and, where there was a foothold, twisting and wrenching ankles on the rotting remains of unhar-vested turnips and beets. It was hardly a charge. It was a disaster. They barely advanced five hundred yards, and it was a miracle that they had got as far as that in the face of a hail of fire from the redoubts. The German machine-gunners had little light to aim by, but they hardly needed to aim. They were traversing the guns, spraying fire non-stop, small orange jets from the muzzles of eight Maxims jabbed into the gloom, bullets flew into the massed, disorganised ranks, and the attack ground to a halt.

It began to rain. No orders came. Advancing blind, and at an angle, across unfamiliar ground the formations had become hopelessly mixed up. After a time, the machine-guns stopped, but intermittent bursts of warning fire kept the attackers at bay. Even that was hardly necessary. They were finished. The survivors could only stop where they were, huddling down as best they could to pass the long hours of the night, hoping for better luck in the morning. It was half past six. It took runners three hours to crawl back to report the position.

Beyond the Layes Bridge, in front of the Bois du Biez there were no redoubts, no defences. The Indian Corps had advanced with ease and the Gurkhas were lining the road along the near edge of the wood, cheerfully digging in by the light of a burning cottage on the edge of the wood. As they did so the first of the German reserves, under cover of darkness, were starting to file into the wood from the opposite side. They sent scouts ahead of them, and one of them had the misfortune to run into a Gurkha patrol. They captured him with glee, and sent him back to be interrogated. The information was disquieting, for the prisoner declared (or so the interpreter understood) that two German regiments were in the Bois du Biez.*

It was past seven o’clock when this information reached Brigadier General Jacob, and it faced him with a dilemma. His troops were on the right-hand extremity of the battle, his left had been held up by long-range fire from the Layes Bridge and, since there was no sign of the 2nd Rifle Brigade advancing to assist them, both his flanks were ‘in the air’. His men at the Bois du Biez were well ahead of their comrades on either side and with what seemed to be a significant force of Germans immediately in front of them. General Jacob was forced to a hard decision. His Brigade had waited all day to advance but, for safety’s sake, he had no choice but to order them back again. Shortly after nine o’clock, as the German reserves began to consolidate their position in the wood, the Gurkhas moved back across the Layes and began to dig in thirty yards behind it.

The 4th Seaforths, who had at last been able to move forward, were obliged reluctantly to move back in their wake.

Lt. C. Tennant.

We moved forward to the River Layes – a ditch about three or four feet deep and just too wide to jump in the dark. Some wading, some jumping (or trying to!) and some crossing by a small planked bridge we got across and advanced another hundred and fifty yards towards the Bois du Biez, when we received orders to stand fast and allow the Gurkhas who were in front of us to retire through us. While this was going on we lay down flat and watched a large house burning brilliantly a hundred yards away on our right front. To the left and right of us firing was still going on and a great many German flares were going up. We could see by their position that the attack on our flanks had not got nearly so far forward as where we were. Our position was so precarious that we were sent orders to retire after the Gurkhas and to dig in fifty yards behind the old Smith-Dorrien trench.

My own feeling is that if we and the 9th Gurkhas had been allowed to go on and take the risk of being cut off we would have carried the wood. The shelling of the morning had so demoralised the Germans that I am fairly confident that a determined advance at the Bois du Biez, which would have threatened the German rear on the right and the left, would have demoralised them even more and made it possible to advance along the whole front. As it was we reached the new position about 9 p.m. We sent a party back for rations which only arrived at 2 a.m. After getting the men to work I borrowed an entrenching tool and dug a scrape, where I lay down and slept for half an hour at a time from 3 a.m. until 5 a.m.

During the hours of darkness long-delayed messages and orders began to trickle through bottlenecks in the chain of communication and finally reached Battalions in the line. One order had been a long time on the way. It had gone out from Sir Douglas Haig’s Head-quarters the previous evening, just too late to inspire the assaulting troops whose morale it was intended to boost. They were already on the move, it would be days before it could be posted up to be read by the rank and file and, by that time, the words rang painfully hollow. Most Battalion Commanders, obliged even so belatedly to make it public, only had the heart to display it in an obscure corner of the orderly room.


To the 1st Army

We are about to engage the enemy under very favourable conditions. Until now in the present campaign, the British Army has, by its pluck and determination, gained victories against an enemy greatly superior both in men and guns. Reinforcements have made us stronger than the enemy on our front. Our guns are now both more numerous than the enemy’s are and also larger than any hitherto used by any army in the field. In front of us we have only one German Corps, spread out on a front as large as that occupied by the whole of our Army (the First). We are now about to attack with about 48 Battalions a locality in that front which is held by some three German Battalions. It seems probable also that for the first day of the operations the Germans will not have more than four Battalions available as reinforcements for the counter attack. Quickness of movement is therefore of first importance to enable us to forestall the enemy and thereby gain success without severe loss. At no time in this war has there been a more favourable moment for us, and I feel confident of success. The extent of that success must depend on the rapidity and determination with which we advance…

(Signed) D. HAIG (General)
Commanding 1st Army.

9th March, 1915.

But the fact was that everyone had spent the day waiting for a move – and waiting for someone else to make it. By midnight, almost all the infantry were back on the line which had been captured in the first rush of the battle fifteen hours before. Sir Douglas Haig’s special order had accurately summed up the situation of the morning but while the troops rested and cat-napped as best they could in the hours of darkness, the Germans were gathering their resources and the situation was changing. The bulk of their reserves were still on the way, but two Battalions which had been reasonably close at hand had moved into position as darkness fell – and there were no cat-naps for them. They were labouring through the night to stiffen their defences, to haul up more guns, to set up machine-guns, to dig a snaking line that would link up the redoubts and create an unbroken front. Every man was working flat out and in front of the Bois du Biez, where there was no stronghold nearer than the Layes Bridge, they took particular pains. Creeping stealthily from the wood across the ground the Gurkhas had given up, the German soldiers began to dig fifty yards in front of it. Long before dawn they were lining the new trench just half-way between the wood and the Layes Brook, thankful for the chance to ease aching muscles as they waited wearily for reinforcements and the chance to get their own back in the morning.

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