Military history

BRIGADIER-GENERAL E. L. SPEARS

Prelude to Victory

Edward Spears was a regular officer of the British army who, because of his family background, spoke perfect French. At the outbreak in 1914 he was a lieutenant in the 11th Hussars, attached as a liaison officer to the French army. During the campaign of the Marne, he acted as an interpreter and intermediary between General Lanrezac, commanding the French Fifth Army, and Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, a passage in his life brilliantly described in his autobiographical account of the campaign, Liaison 1914. By 1917 he was a senior staff officer, still largely concerned with relations between the French and British commands. In the extracts from his second account of his war service, Preludeto Victory, that follow, he narrates first his observation of the successful British attack at the Battle of Arras in April 1917, then the disastrous French assault (‘the Nivelle Offensive’) on the Chemin des Dames the following month. So disastrous was the Nivelle Offensive that in the aftermath fifty divisions of the French army, half its strength, refused to return to the attack. These ‘mutinies’, akin to military strikes, were to throw the weight of the military effort on the Western Front on to the British for the rest of the year.

040

Two hours before zero, in the caves of Arras and the tunnels of Vimy an occasional flicker from a distant light showed faces grey and still against the inky distorted shadows. As the light went out again, the shadows jumped back into the uneven walls from which they had emerged, the faces disappeared into the rising tide of darkness on which they had seemed to float for a moment, and the great silence continued.

What were all these men thinking about now the hour that would be the last for so many was near? Doubtless just the ordinary thoughts that skim across the strange, thousand-faceted human mind. The very young were probably strained and excited, concealing with difficulty their nervousness, while the others, the older hands, grown fatalists by experience, thought little, fatigue playing pranks with fancy, conjuring up incongruous or pleasing memories, pictures flitting against a background of unreality. Some perhaps brooded as they evoked a future in which they would have no part. There may have been others who could have cried aloud as, wedged in between elbows and weapons, they conjured up pictures of open spaces, gardens, light, the sound of water and the breeze in English trees, small arms outstretched asking to be picked up, a face looking upwards with frightened eyes at the moment of parting; but the instinctive self-discipline of the race sealed all those lips, placed a mask on all those faces. The sudden flash of a torch, the light of a passing lantern revealed nothing; expressions of weariness or boredom, that was all.

There was almost complete silence save in some privileged corners where the reserves lay hidden, notably behind the Canadian lines where here and there tightly wedged groups round a candle played poker for unusually high stakes, the pessimists betting recklessly in paper chits.

In the assault trenches outside, the men, without greatcoats, huddled together for warmth, heads drooping under heavy steel helmets. Occasionally the rattle of equipment followed by the muffled call of a sergeant for ‘less noise’ disturbed the silence that hung like a curtain over the front lines in the short intervals of the bombardment.

A cold moon just past the full showed at moments between huge, black, fantastically shaped clouds racing each other to obscure it. Sometimes the desolate space of no-man’s-land would stand out much as a muddy lane must appear to an ant, a lane fringed by a forest whose trees were pickets and whose interlaced branches were strands of wire.

Everywhere glistening mud and the sparkling mirrors of thousands of water-filled shell-holes reflected the moon. The smoke of an explosion twirling in high convolutions over the enemy’s line would show amber edges, a high cloud would be outlined for a few seconds in blinding silver, then all was pitch darkness again.

The trench-mortars in the front line kept on their exasperating endless barking. Terriers of war, they yapped ceaselessly at the flitting moon. Machine-guns chattered intermittently like a man in a fever. Only very occasionally came the crash of an answering German shell.

The weather was getting colder. An icy drizzle was falling driven by a strong north-west wind. The shelling was not as heavy as it had been during the periods of intense bombardment, but nevertheless the impression of continuous pounding was frightful. A persistent bass formed a background of rumour to the cacophony nearer at hand.

To those standing on the Arras-St Pol road it seemed as if, far away, muffled drums were being beaten continuously. The constant sinister output of noise, pitched for long periods on one monotonous note, would sink periodically to an angry staccato muttering, then swell to a great onrushing volume of sound like a hurricane in a forest. To one advancing towards the assault trenches with the heavies behind him and the field guns near at hand, each individual salvo was perceptible, however rapid the succession of explosions. The gradation of sound ranged from that of distant trip-hammers to the crash of slamming doors, then swelled to the wild stridency of furiously beaten anvils, dominated and submerged every few moments by thunderclaps from nearby batteries, until close to the front line it ceased being a sound at all and became just a succession of sudden shattering blows of indescribable brutality.

Half an hour to go. The order to fix bayonets is now passed along. Much uneasy movement, shifting of position, a continuous clicking, miles of clicking, as thousands of bayonets are pressed home over rifle-barrels.

Ten minutes, five minutes, two minutes before zero. Every officer, head bent, gazes intently at his watch. Not a thought but of his job now.

Only a few seconds to go, then suddenly a complete silence, an absolute cessation of the immense roar, a stillness punctuated and emphasized by the barking of the trench-mortars up and down the lines; every gun had stopped firing.

That sudden silence was more terrifying than the most reverberating explosion. It had the effect of making men feel they were losing their balance on the edge of an abyss. No typhoon uprooting a tropical forest, no storm with the lightning crackling in the high mountains could give so complete an impression of all-embracing power. Only an earthquake with its sudden balance-wrecking movement underfoot could cause a comparable anguish.

It did not last long. At 5.30 to the second the earth shook as the mines exploded with a muffled roar and every gun on the fifteen-mile front of attack and beyond it opened fire with a clamour such as had probably never been heard in the world since mountains were raised from its molten surface. The air screamed as it was torn by a thousand shells. Miles up the great projectiles hummed their mighty drone. Lower down through each layer of air the shells flew according to their kind, until, quite low above the lines of men closing in behind the barrage, the missiles of the light mortars and the bullets of the machine-guns hissed.

Behind the infantry waves, hundreds of flashes a minute came from the supporting guns. In front the blinding many-coloured flames of explosions made the enemy’s line appear to be burning like a furnace. Out of a skeleton-like wood between our heavy batteries and the front line a great flight of rooks arose circling in wild panic. The light was dim. Just enough to see your way, not clear enough to aim a rifle or a machine-gun save at the closest range.

Within three minutes of the time it took our men to form up behind the barrage, a new kind of illumination was added to the fantastic scene. For miles upon miles, all along the German lines hundred of flares went up. Red, white, orange, the distress signals shot high, falling back in sprays of sparkling multi-coloured rain. The German infantry was begging for support. The British were upon them.

At the first lift in the barrage the advance began. Our infantry moved steadily forward. The ground was broken here and there by enormous, impassable mine-craters, everywhere pitted with shell-holes full of gluey mud and water, in places two or three feet deep. Nevertheless, wave after wave clambered out of the trenches and made their way in astonishingly good order. The Lewis gunners had a particularly hard time. Their heavy weapons on their shoulders, they fell frequently, many of their guns becoming choked with mud and useless for the time being.

In spite of difficulties and obstacles the men pressed on eagerly, squelching and splashing in the water, as fast as they could drag their mud-clogged feet. So keen were they that, it was ascertained later, many casualties were caused by the leading waves rushing into their own barrage.

Over a scene of desolation, of flame and smoke such as Doré never dreamt of, the red sun rose. The jagged silhouette of Arras appeared on the right, on the left was the vague outline of the Vimy Ridge. The drizzle changed to a heavy rainstorm mixed with snow. Wisps of icy mist trailed across the trenches on which they seemed to catch for a moment like a veil. Through this, flying low, the sudden noise of their engines so close overhead that men stopped and looked up, our planes appeared making straight for the enemy lines. In the bad light the special markings of the infantry contact planes were hardly discernible, but the long fluttering streamers could easily be seen.

Few casualties were suffered from enemy shells. The German barrage was late, from eight to fifteen minutes after ours, and what there was of it was ragged and desultory; also it came down in a zone vacated by the attackers. It was evident that the opposing artillery had been completely mastered. Except for the heavies, on many parts of the front the enemy guns presently ceased firing altogether.

We now know that our bombardment and gas had prevented ammunition coming up and that the German batteries were short of shells. One of the reasons for this was that the German Command had decided against having large dumps near the guns, for fear these might cause undue expenditure of ammunition. They paid for their mistaken parsimony in lives and in munitions too, since the helpless guns were unable to hinder our counter-battery work, which time after time blew up what stores of shells their guns had left. Moreover, in the rare cases when the hostile batteries were not overwhelmed by our fire and had some munitions available, the gunners had no idea what the situation was, owing to the destruction of [field-telephone] cables.

There were very few incidents in the attack on the Black Line and hardly any mistakes: it fell to us in the main at exactly the moment prescribed, although here and there nests of Germans held out.

The only major exception occurred on the Canadian left (4th Canadian Division) where the advance of the centre was held up. Here the first waves passed over their objectives probably without recognizing them. Supports in the centre lost direction: the Bavarians emerging from their dug-outs swarmed back into their trenches, pouring a murderous fire into the Canadians and indulging in frequent counter-attacks. Nevertheless the flanks of the division gained their objective. At some other points much the same thing occurred but with less serious results.

Whenever, owing to bad light or obliterated trenches, our moppers-up failed to locate the narrow entrances to the deep dug-outs which formed part of the German front-line system, the defenders were out in a flash firing into the backs of our advancing men. When this occurred our losses were always heavy, but in most cases our moppers-up located the entrances and dealt with the occupants who did not surrender. Very few of the Germans who showed resistance survived.

The Leinsters of the 24th Division on the extreme left met with the fiercest opposition. They had attacked earlier, under terribly difficult conditions. In sleet and snow the officers guided the men by compass over incredibly bad ground towards unrecognizable objectives. The Irish suffered some casualties from our own guns, and very severe losses from the enfilade fire coming from across the Souchez valley. A Homeric hand-to-hand struggle took place on the slippery ground of the bleak snow-covered hill. The Lewis gunners wielded their weapons, rendered useless by mud, as enormous clubs. It was a fight to the finish; few prisoners were taken, but at the end the Leinsters were masters of the German first line. A few men reached the second line which was obliterated, but the Germans were holding in strength the natural cover in rear. The position was untenable and our men in the second line were later withdrawn to the first line, which was consolidated. On the greater part of the front, the less bellicose, that is the majority, of the defenders were soon streaming back towards our lines, often unaccompanied, to be collected later in the waiting [prisoner-of-war] cages. On their way they passed the oncoming troops who, mildly curious but totally devoid of animosity, pestered the poor wretches as was their habit for ‘souvenirs’, though they themselves had their day’s work before them.

The small resistance encountered, save at some points, is not to be wondered at. The astonishing thing is that there were any men left to defend that first shattered system. The survivors, stunned and stupefied, surrendered freely. None can blame them. Rather must one wonder at the extraordinary pluck of those who showed fight. For days now in the front line even the most urgent work had had to be abandoned. Companies reduced to seventy or eighty men, holding fronts of three to four hundred yards, had spent the last six days, in most cases without relief, huddled in the bottom of insanitary dug-outs, every now and then called upon to make desperate efforts to relieve comrades trapped in shelters whose entrances had been blown in. The trenches were half full of water, the men were stiff with cold yet many were shaking with fever.

To the defenders it seemed as if the British shelling hardly- ever diminished in intensity during the preparation. There was never a moment’s rest nor a second’s respite. Prisoners from one battery said they had been unable to leave their dug-outs or fire their guns for four days. Food was short. In ordinary times from the sheltering eastern slope of Vimy it took ration parties only fifteen minutes to reach the front line. It had taken them six hours during the last few days, and very often they disappeared, never to be heard of again. In many cases none had come up for ninety-six hours. The roads leading to Vimy Ridge were impassable, and the defenders had been all but completely cut off for days by the iron curtain of our guns. In whole sectors the front-line garrison had to fall back on their iron rations which they ate in fear under the trembling earth. It took runners hours to reach their destinations, if they did so at all. Practically every other form of communication had broken down. The Germans speak of a symphony of hell, and so it must have appeared to them. In Douai, fifteen miles away, every pane of glass was shattered by the terrific reverberations of that distant storm. The villages behind Vimy Ridge, hitherto peaceful places, were drawn into the conflict. Great shells roared over or crashed into them without ceasing. The Germans could see at night the flash of our guns on the Lorette Ridge continuously lighting up the ruins of Mont St Éloi, Bouvigny Wood, Berthonval, Maison Blanche and the skeleton trees on the Arras road, with hardly an answering flash from their guns.

To these men zero hour came almost as a relief. It had been long awaited. Few can have expected to survive. ‘When the English attack tomorrow,’ wrote Lieutenant Runge of the 79th Reserve Division to a brother officer on the evening of the 8th, ‘dear Hoinicke, you will see me no more.’...

Almost at once, or so it seemed, the immense mass of troops within sight began to move. Long thin columns were swarming towards the Aisne. Suddenly some 75S [French 75-mm field guns] appeared from nowhere, galloping forward, horses stretched out, drivers looking as if they were riding a finish. ‘The Germans are on the run, the guns are advancing,’ shouted the infantry jubilantly. Then it started to rain and it became impossible to tell how the assault was progressing.

I advanced farther, trying to see. I had reached a broken-down wall when there was a deafening explosion. Stones and earth flew in every direction as I flung myself or was flung down. Getting up I peered round the wall. An officer was standing there, men were running towards him, several bodies horribly mutilated lay about. The officer began to speak. He was very white and trembling. He had been talking to those others, he named them, when suddenly they had been felled like oxen. He spoke fast in a staccato voice. Suddenly blood began to drip from his sleeve and a large red stain widened on his side. His eyes all at once showed white. Two of his men caught him. I walked on, only to find that I had lost my field-glasses (the strap had been broken probably by a flying stone) and had to come back to the horrible spot and the maculated wall to look for them.

I only knew later, in some cases much later, what was happening in front and to either side of me. I never saw the heart-breaking spectacle of the Senegalese attack. We had been taught to believe theirs would be a headlong assault, a wild savage onrush. Instead, paralysed with cold, their chocolate faces tinged with grey, they reached the assault trenches with the utmost difficulty. Most of them were too exhausted even to eat the rations they carried, and their hands were too cold to fix bayonets. They advanced when ordered to do so, carrying their rifles under their arms like umbrellas, finding what protection they could for their frozen fingers in the folds of their cloaks. They got quite a long way before the German machine-guns mowed them down.

Only slowly was it possible to get some idea of what was happening. In a dug-out in which were some preoccupied senior gunners, I unfolded my map showing the lines the attack was to reach at given hours. It was obvious that the troops were far behind their timetables. Evidently they had not been able to keep up with the insane pace of the barrage.

My map showed the ten-kilometre bound the French Armies were expected to make beyond the German defensive system. An arrow showed the line of advance of the Fifth Army towards Sissonne, another that of the Sixth Army on Laon. The Tenth Army, whose troops I had seen filling every nook and cranny of the country I had left behind me, was represented by a big blob on the map. A third arrow between the two others showed the direction in which it was to advance. Attacking through and with these, it was to carry them forward by the impetus of its immense weight, so that pressure should not be relaxed for a moment, nor the enemy given time to recover owing to a halt of the first-line troops on the conquered positions. The whole plan of the attack was staring at me from the map crudely lit by the smelly and flickering flare of a naked acetylene lamp. Brimont Fort dominating Reims was marked as falling within four hours, captured by a turning movement from the north. But the point which fixed attention unconsciously, for it had gripped the imagination of both the public and the army, was that portion of the Chemin des Dames which extended from the historic farm of Heurtebise to Craonne, along the plateau on the northern slopes of which the Forest of Vauclerc spread its thick undergrowth. It was to the I Corps, which had a magnificent fighting reputation, that the honour fell of attacking Craonne, while the II Colonial Corps, largely composed of [General] Mangin’s blacks, the Senegalese, was to carry Vauclerc.

The delay reported by the gunners was disturbing as well as disappointing. All the first accounts agreed that the attack had started well, and that in all cases the French troops had raced for the enemy. No trumpets or drums cheered them on with martial blare and urgent beat as at Charleroi. Instead, the infantry dashed forward to the explosive tune of the 75s, whose lashing shells seemed like whips compelling forward waves that needed no urging. The field guns were firing in such a frenzy of speed that madness and noise appeared to have become synonymous terms, and to their insane tempo the French infantry advanced, seemingly irresistible, gaining ground at great speed, save at some points where German machine-guns mowed them down to a man. This was the case of the splendid ist Division of the I Corps, so long our neighbour on the Somme, which was stopped dead by machine-gun fire opposite Craonne. As they left their trenches, the first waves were felled on the parapets.

When every unit displayed such magnificent qualities of courage and determination, it seems invidious to pick out any division as having specially distinguished itself; nevertheless even amongst so much gallantry it would seem that by common consent the 40th Division, which literally hurled itself at the German defences in front of Mont Sapigneul, and the 14th Division, which rushed forward in a way that caused all beholders to wonder, are worthy of special mention.

The headlong pace of the advance was nowhere long maintained. There was a perceptible slowing down, followed by a general halt of the supporting troops which had been pressing steadily forward since zero hour. German machine-guns, scattered in shell-holes, concentrated in nests, or appearing suddenly at the mouths of deep dug-outs and creutes [chalk caves], took fearful toll of the troops now labouring up the rugged slopes of the hills.

In a very short time after the attack was launched, the I Colonial Corps on the left, facing the woods west of Anizy-le-Château, found its waves broken, thinned and delayed, as it progressed through the forest. It was impossible to keep up with the barrage. When the attacking infantry came up to the German trenches, it found them protected by felled trees intermingled with barbed wire. The French heavies had turned these obstacles into impassable obstructions. As everywhere else, the barrage was timed to move forward at far too fast a rate, and the men were handicapped in their movements by the three-days’ rations with which they were loaded to sustain them in the territory to be captured beyond the hills.

Everywhere the story was the same. The attack gained ground at most points, then slowed down, unable to follow the barrage which, progressing at the rate of a hundred yards in three minutes, was in many cases soon out of sight. As soon as the infantry and the barrage became dissociated, German machine-guns were conjured as if by magic from the most unlikely places and opened fire, in many cases from both front and flanks, and sometimes from the rear as well, filling the air with a whistling sound as if of scythes cutting hay. On the steep slopes of the Aisne, the troops, even unopposed, could only progress very slowly. The ground, churned up by the shelling, was a series of slimy slides with little or no foothold. The men, pulling themselves up by clinging to the stumps of trees, were impeded by wire obstacles of every conceivable kind.

‘We were faced’, ran one report, ‘not by barbed-wire entanglements but by a forest of wire... Machine-guns appeared everywhere from the hidden mouths of concealed caves, there were traps of every description, the ground was apparently impassable.’

Meanwhile the supporting troops were accumulating in the assault trenches at the rate of a fresh battalion every quarter of an hour. As the leading waves were held up, in some cases a few hundred yards and seldom as much as half to three quarters of a mile ahead, this led to congestion and in some cases to the greatest confusion. Had the German guns been as active as their machine-guns, the massacre which was going on in the front line would have been duplicated upon the helpless men in the crowded trenches and on the tracks in rear.

General Mangin, inevitably unaware of the exact situation but informed that the attack was not progressing according to plan, was using every endeavour to press the troops on. At 8.10 a.m., he ordered the guns to move forward to make up for lost time. A little later, when the VI Corps facing the Chemin des Dames had been brought to a standstill, and the Corps Commander ordered the artillery preparation to be resumed, General Mangin issued the following order: ‘The resumption of the preparation is a bad solution. It proves that the troops hesitate to advance. Our artillery preparation cannot have allowed the enemy to establish a continuous line of machine-guns. You must take advantage of the gaps and pass beyond the islands of resistance.’ This the doomed troops attempted to do, the survivors courageously pressing on where they could, all unconscious that their Commander thought they were ‘hesitating to advance’. The General issued another order that ‘where the wire is not cut by the artillery it must be cut by the infantry. Ground must be gained,’ but this order did not reach the soldiers whose bodies now hung grotesquely on the German wire.

The I Colonial Corps was ordered on in the same way by the imperious Army Commander, only in the end, after reaching Laffaux Mill, to be swept back into its assault trenches.

Only one piece of good news was received from this sector: the Corps artillery commander reported that the one local success obtained, the occupation of a hill called the Mont des Singes, lost later, had been achieved thanks to the heavy and accurate fire of British guns lent to the French. This result was all the more satisfactory as, according to this report, the British batteries had been subjected to very violent shelling. At the end of the day they had only two hundred rounds left.

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