March 17th 1917

Having read in the newspapers over the past few days of the Germans’ “strategic retreat,” from the battlefields of the Somme, we are most fortunate to have another letter from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) and discover he was there to witness the event. His description of the land that is now in the hands of the Allies is, I am sure you find, of considerable interest.

14/3/17 “So it has happened at last! What a hopeless wish it seemed a year ago that in twelve months the Hun would be deliberately retreating, and that after shooting on a point one day at a range of 8000 or 9000 yards, we could go on the morrow and examine the very spot, and see the craters made by our own shells…

The newly captured ground resembles, more than anything I’ve seen, imaginative pictures by artists entitled ‘The Battlefield’ or ‘After the Fight.’

Dead men, dead horses, shattered gun emplacements, broken limbers and wagons, rifles, bombs, equipment, and all the ghastly filth of carnage. How the Hun has stood the hammering so long is a marvel. He says he goes willingly and I don’t doubt it.

There is a valley leading down to a famous ravine, which is enough to make one sick, if one hadn’t become hardened gradually to such things. In one spot evidently our guns caught a Boche battery taking in ammunition. The teams and their drivers had been blown to pieces, the wagons are pitiable wrecks, and the whole place stinks of death. It is gratifying and interesting to see shrapnel heads of your own calibre right in the middle of a gun emplacement at which you had been firing a few days before.”

The retreat took all by surprise and Humphrey’s account describes how the Hun took advantage of the weather conditions to put it into effect.

“During days of thick fog when all observation was impossible, he took the advantage of a couple of days of frost to get his guns away and destroy most – though not all – of his dug-outs, and retire behind the next line of barbed-wire with machine-guns to hold us up. Our infantry followed close on his heels as far as they could, and pounced on some patrols that came out to see if we were following.

But for the moment, of course, a halt had to be called to save useless sacrifice. Barbed wire cannot be dealt with except by guns, and guns cannot move up without roads, and roads there were none.

Oh yes, they are marked on the map all right, but it would puzzle you to pick out any but the two principal ones from the desert of shell holes; and even the principal roads are swimming in mud, pitted with craters, and at vital points ruined and blown up by the Hun.

Advance is a wonderful feat in this place. Light railways follow up to within a quarter of a mile of the infantry in two days… and armies of men set to work making new roads and repairing the faintest traces of old ones.

Soon our guns were ready to deal with the next line of barbed-wire, and having shattered it to bits and cleaned up the enemy garrison, the same thing occurred again. This time the Hun did not wait for the attack but bolted as soon as our shower of shells showed him it was imminent.

And so, I suppose, it will go on till the vaunted concrete line or ‘Hindenburg Stellung’ is reached.”

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