No regular reader of the newspapers and their lists of casualties can be in any doubt that the fighting on the Somme continues to be fierce and costly. (How grateful we are that we have suffered no fatalities since August).
Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), who joined the Push on August 13th, tells me that he “has no great tale to tell.” I beg to disagree, as his description of the advances made from Ovillers towards Thiepval is most illuminating.
“We struck north for Ovillers… it was my first sight of the front and I shall never forget it. Less than three hours march had carried us from corn-fields and unruined villages to an obscure desert which looked like nothing but the surface of the moon. We marched through Ovillers, passing streams of wounded and weary men who were returning from the front line.
Then we turned sharp to the left up a narrow, freshly dug, communications trench. In it I felt quite safe, though enemy 5.9 shells began to fall pretty thickly round us. We went on and on very slowly, and with many halts for half-an-hour, and then at last turned into the third line trench, which we were to occupy as company in reserve.”
Here Jack and his men had to endure some fairly heavy shelling, but were pulled back the following day for a brief period.
“We returned three days afterwards, and this time my Company took over the front line. We were heavily shelled from the first. One man in my platoon was killed by a shell, within three yards of me, just as we had taken up our position.”
Again, the shelling was constant but there were no infantry attacks and Jack returned safely.
“A week later we were back again, further to the left, and in full sight of Thiepval, which looks so harmless and so near in the strong sunlight of a hot morning.
In all this part of the line, the trenches were really not trenches at all. They had been blown to bits weeks before and gave scarcely any shelter to my men, several of whom were under fire for the first time.
On the afternoon of our first day up (August 23rd), an attack was to be made by the Bucks battalion on our left against the enemy line some 200 yards in front. I was in charge of a bombing section, with orders to push on to the enemy trench at Point *** as soon as the Bucks went over, and to join up with them.
From a shell-hole I watched our wonderful preliminary bombardment of the enemy’s lines. It was terrifying, but extraordinarily interesting. I say ‘terrifying,’ because some of our shells burst very close to us; far too close to be pleasant. Then the barrage suddenly stopped, and the Bucks went over, alas, only to come back (what was left of them) in a very few minutes, for they were mown down by machine-gun fire which started the moment our own barrage lifted.
I now sent back for further orders, and was told to push on to Point *** if I could. So I organised my bombing party, and sent two men up the communicator, where I already held a ‘bomb-stop,’ (a barricade in the trench dividing Br/Ger troops) to see how near the enemy was. They came back at once and reported about 20 of the enemy behind the next traverse but one. I didn’t believe them, so went myself, and found about 10 of them behind the next traverse but two. We looked at each other and I came back quickly. The attitude of the enemy was expectant, but not very menacing.
I waited for about half an hour, in order to allow the Huns to recover from the sight of me, and then advanced with my whole party. We all expected death, but there was no time to think about it.
When we reached the point at which I had sighted the enemy, I found a German, three yards in front of me, who was just about to descend into a dug-out. His head was already out of sight. I had a beautiful revolver shot at him, and his body and legs followed his head. It was a good moment.
Immediately afterwards the enemy woke up, and there was bombing at close quarters. We conjugated the verb “to bomb” in all its moods and tenses, and my party had wonderful escapes and only two slight casualties. The enemy then retired round the corner of the communicator into their own trench, and as I did not feel equal to attacking their whole first line with one section, I ‘consolidated my position,’ and remained where I was until I was relieved…
This is all I will tell you this time. The Somme trenches are very horrible; shells are very horrible; and fighting is tiring beyond anything which can be conceived at home.
What most impresses me is the speed with which one forgets the horrors as soon as one leaves them behind.”