A LETTER from the Front would seem to be as indispensable a feature of the B.C.M. in these days as the usual letters from the ‘Varsities. What a pleasure it would be to your correspondent to go round and visit all O.B.’s in the fighting line, to gain some information as to their activities, and to exercise a little gentle wit at their expense, which is always so characteristic of your ‘Varsity letters. Unfortunately, this is impossible, so you must be content with a few personal experiences. The great difficulty is where to start, and where to end.
Perhaps a good starting point would be the great movement from the Aisne, when the whole of the British Army was transferred in a few days to Belgium with great secrecy and despatch, the movement which culminated in the advance on Ypres, and the defence of that portion of the line against the repeated attacks of the German troops. One individual is so small and unimportant a unit in a great army that his experiences must of necessity be purely local. We first came into contact with the German troops on October 24th, though there had been hard fighting in the neighbourhood for several days previously. A sudden order to advance just before dusk, after the men had just got comfortably settled in their trenches, caused some confusion in the initial stages, and I have really no very clear recollections of the events of that particular night, except a violent shell and rifle fire which burst on us after we had advanced some distance. The Germans did not wait for the final stage of the attack, and the position was eventually occupied, and some 70 to 80 prisoners taken. This position was along a road on some high ground, with a straggling village at the top, and round about that road we remained for three weeks, and heartily tired of it we were at the end. The general opinion was that we should shortly be advancing again through the weakened German lines, but enormous reinforcements came up to strengthen them, and from that time onwards it was merely a question of hanging on.
Sir John French’s despatch made it clear that the British Army was holding a very extended line against greatly superior forces, and naturally there came a time when we looked for and hoped for the reinforcements that seemed so long in arriving. On the Aisne, troops in the trenches were relieved every two or three days, but round Ypres relief was out of the question. I was extremely fortunate in the position I had to hold for the greater part of this period. The company was entrenched at the edge of a wood, with the German trenches some 75 yards away, and bending round into the wood, forming an angle, so that we had two sides to protect. With some fairly thick undergrowth, and strong barbed wire in front, we were safe enough from infantry attack, provided we kept awake. The infantry was at first very active, and some actually succeeded one night in cutting the barbed wire and setting fire to the brushwood in front of our trenches. On dark nights one has to trust entirely to the ears, and bursts of rapid fire, sweeping portions of ground which have to be passed, are the only means of checking attacks by night. This position we held till November 13th, when the Germans broke the line to our left, leaving us more or less in the air with the enemy on three sides, so that a withdrawal by night became necessary. This would have been almost impractical had the Germans only known our intentions, but fortunately it was carried out with success, and we retired to some trenches in the immediate neighbourhood of the road before mentioned. The Germans were of course through the wood the next day, and entrenched themselves at the edge some 300 yards from us. That day, November 15th, is best passed over in silence, for we were most abominably shelled in trenches that were continually caving in, while the slightest movement was made impossible by machine gun and rifle fire from the wood.
Fortunately we were so well supported by our artillery, that if an attack was contemplated, it was effectually checked, and in the evening we received the welcome news that we were to be relieved by the French that night. The promised reinforcements had at last arrived, and never was a rest most welcome. It is impossible not to admire the bravery and persistency of the German infantry, while the wonderful accuracy of their artillery fire has been one of the surprises of the war. At one time our guns were rather out-weighted by the Germans, but the balance has since been restored. One cannot over estimate the moral support which infantry in the firing line receives from good artillery behind, and the magnificent work of our guns was a leading factor in a successful defence. The cheerfulness of Thomas Atkins in trying circumstances was a little short of marvellous, while his steadiness under shell fire, and his readiness to do any job that his officers gave him to do, proved the value of his training and discipline. In fact, as far as the infantry soldier is concerned, almost all the necessary military qualities can be summed up in one word – discipline. The man who will stick to his trenches under the heaviest fire, who will hold his rifle steady, fire low, and obey his leaders implicitly, is the man who is wanted. Crack marksmen, though useful at times, are by no means essential, as so much of the fighting is at close quarters, where steadiness and rapid fire alone will tell. I have said nothing of the wonderful supply which makes our Army the best fed army that has ever taken the field, but that is a factor which makes for cheerfulness, and cheerfulness makes for success.
It is good news to hear that so many O.B.’s have joined the forces. Thoughts of a speedy conclusion to the war are beginning to vanish, and we know the stiff nature of the task that lies before us. The German offence has no doubt been broken, but we cannot yet lay claim to any decisive success. Apart from Russia, Great Britain is now the only country which has a vast reserve of men on whom to draw, and her power to bring these men into the field well equipped and trained must be the deciding factor on the Western front.
Yours truly, O.B. MILITARIS.