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Four Epic Weeks of Carnage
By Philip Gibbs
Special Correspondent with the British Armies
[Copyrighted in U. S. A.] The first phase of the battle of Picardy, which began March 21, 1918, was a vain attempt of the German forces to drive a wedge between the French and British Armies at their point of juncture; the second was an equally unsuccessful attempt to wrest Arras and Vimy Ridge from the British; the third sought to annihilate the British armies in Flanders and break through to the English Channel. The last-named phase was still undecided when this magazine went to press, (April 19.) All three phases were vividly described from day to day by Philip Gibbs. The following narrative is compiled from his dispatches to The New York Times, which are available for Current History Magazine as an affiliated publication of the Times:
HURSDAY, March 21.-A German stinacy of the resistance of the troops offensive against the British front is wonderful. Nine German divisions has begun. At about 5 o'clock this were hurled against three British at one
morning the enemy began an in- part of the line, and eight against two tense bombardment of the lines and bat at another. All the storm troops, interies on a very wide front—something cluding the guards, were in brand-new like sixty miles, from the country south. uniforms. They advanced in dense of the Scarpe and to the west of Bulle masses, and never faltered until shatcourt in the neighborhood of Croisilles, tered by the machine-gun fire. as far south as the positions between St. The enemy introduced no new frightQuentin and the British right flank.
fulness, no tanks and no specially inAfter several hours of this hurricane vented gas, but relied on the power of shelling, in which a great deal of gas his artillery and the weight of the inwas used, the German infantry ad fantry assault. The supporting waves vanced and developed attacks against a advanced over the bodies of the dead number of strategical points on a very and wounded. The German commandwide front.
ers were ruthless in the sacrifice of life, Among the places against which they in the hope of overwhelming the defense have directed their chief efforts are by the sheer weight of numbers. Bullecourt, Lagnecourt, and Noreuil, They had exceeding power in guns. both west of Cambrai, where they once Opposite three of the British divisions before penetrated the British lines and they had a thousand, and at most parts were slaughtered in great numbers; the of the line one to every twelve or fif. St. Quentin Ridge, which was on the teen yards. They had brought a numright of the Cambrai fighting, and the ber of long-range guns, probably naval, villages of Ronssoy and Hargicourt, and their shellfire was scattered as far south of the Cambrai salient.
back as twenty-eight miles behind the Friday, March 22.—The enemy flung lines. During the last hour of the bomthe full weight of his great army against bardment they poured out gas shells, the British yesterday. Nearly forty and continued to send concentrated gas divisions are identified, and it is certain about the British batteries and reserve that as many as fifty must be engaged. trenches. The atmosphere was filled In proportions of men, the British are with poisonous clouds. much outnumbered, therefore the ob- Saturday, March 23.—The enemy has
been continuing his attacks all day along the whole battlefront and has made further progress at various points in spite of the heroic resistance of the British troops, greatly outnumbered owing to the enormous concentration of the enemy divisions, which are constantly reinforced and passing through one another, so that fresh regiments may pursue the assaults.
ATTACK AT ST. QUENTIN
The St. Quentin attack began along the whole sweep of the front with six hours' bombardment and intense gas shelling of the British batteries, and afterward an attack was launched by overwhelming numbers of German storm troops. The British battleline was held by some three divisions, from a point south of Pontruet to Itancourt, south of the St. Quentin Canal. Along this sector the enemy line had been held before the attack by three divisions also, but the night before the battle they were reinforced until eight German divisions [upward of 100,000 men] were massed for assault on a front of some 2,000 yards. I believe this is a greater strength than has ever been brought into battle on such a narrow front during the whole of this war.
On this sector, the front north and south of St. Quentin, and opposite the British line further south, the enemy's intention, as is known from prisoners, was to reach the line of the St. Quentin Canal—or the Crozat Canal, as it is sometimes called—on the first day, and then advance in quick stages westward. The rate of progress was to be eight miles on the first day, twelve on the second, and twenty on the third.
In spite of their intense gunfire of massed batteries, supported by Austrian howitzers and large numbers of heavy trench mortars, the Germans' plans were thwarted so far as this rapidity of progress was concerned.
The heavy fog of the early morning on Thursday threw their assault troops at some points into wild confusion. The first line of assault, each division apparently advancing with two regiments in line, with two battalions in line, with the other strength of the divisions following in depth, with light machine-gun com
panies at intervals of 100 yards, and then heavy machine guns and field artillery, sometimes became hopelessly mixed up with the third and fourth lines, while right battalions were confused with left battalions. This fog and the British machine-gun fire, which caught the German waves, checked the pace of their onslaught and caused heavy losses. The German high command relied entirely on weight of guns and man power to break the British resistance, and the driving power of the whole monstrous machine was set in movement. The British line was not strong enough to hold all the old positions against such a tide of brute force. The men served their guns and rifles, but as attack followed attack and column followed column, and their own losses increased as the hours passed, they were ordered at certain points to give ground and fall back, fighting heroic rearguard actions from one position to another.
BRITISH LINE BENDS
The main attack, just south of St. Quentin, was directed against Urvillers and Essigny, and the enemy forced his way through these places by great drives. The British garrison there was partly destroyed by his stupendous gunfire. He gained possession of Essigny before midday, March 21, and captured Contescourt, on the edge of the canal. This gave him important high ground, of which he made full use.
He succeeded by this movement in bending in the British line at the right flank of the Ulster division, north of the canal, which he crossed hereabout, and by advancing his field artillery was able to bombard the line to which the main body of the British troops had been withdrawn. Down from Maissemy and Holnon Wood to Savy and Roupy he pressed forward against this line.
The enemy was so densely massed that there was a division on about a kilometer of front. None of them spread out on more than two kilometers for a division, with a battalion for every 500 yards.
German storm troops were able to force their way to Vendeuil, Lyfontaine, and Benay, south of Essigny, and to strike against Jussy and Tergnier, on the St. Quentin Canal, on the evening of the first day.
They brought up two more divisions, and that night, owing to the pressure of their attacks, it was decided that the British withdraw to a prepared line further west, which was the best defense. This was done during the darkness, the retirement being covered by gallant rearguards.
This morning the Germans followed up our withdrawal by clearing up all the ground in the bend formed by the acute angle of the St. Quentin Canal, which has its apex at Ugny, six kilometers east of Ham, and it was reported that their patrols had entered the town of Ham itself.
CROSSING THE SOMME
Monday, March 25.—The enemy fought fiercely yesterday to gain a crossing over the Somme south of Péronne. He flung across a pontoon bridge and rafts, and his men tried to cross, but the British field artillery, firing at short range, smashed up many of these bridges and killed his engineers and infantry. Gallant counterattacks by some of the British flung him back across the river at several points, but elsewhere he held his crossing long enough to put over some of his forces.
All the fighting in this part of the country since March 21 has been a continuous battle, in which the British divisions holding the front line below Gouzeaucourt to Maissemy have shown magnificent powers of endurance, as indeed have all the others engaged, and have only yielded ground under pressure of overwhelming numbers and great gunfire.
There was a bloody struggle in some old chalk quarries, where many German dead now lie, and after the enemy had come some way forward ten British tanks drove into him and shattered some of his battalions with their machine-gun fire, dispersing groups of his advancing units. The tanks manoeuvred about, firing continually on each
flank and causing terror among the enemy's foremost assault troops. The British fought a number of rearguard actions and made many counterattacks in the neighborhood of Roisel, and fell back to the line of the Somme only when new masses of Germans passed through those battalions which they had met and beaten.
SLAUGHTER OF GERMANS
The British gunners were firing hour after hour at large bodies of Germans moving so close to them that the guns were laid directly on to their targets, and caused deadly losses in these ranks of field-gray men who never ceased to come forward in a living tide at whatever cost of life and bore down on the defensive lines. Under this ceaseless tide some of the British guns had to be abandoned, but many of them were withdrawn to the other side of the Somme, and the gunners were wonderful in the skill and courage with which they made this passage, took up new positions, and went into action again like exhibition batteries at Earls Court.
By Saturday morning the German troops were exhausted and spent, and in some parts of the line made no further effort for a time, but halted to gain some sleep and await fresh rations. On Saturday and Sunday the British, who had had no rest from fighting, were reinforced and given some relief, though many of them were again engaged, and, weary as they were, put up gallant fights against the enemy, who also had been reinforced by great numbers and came on again in an unending onslaught.
FIGHTING AGAINST ODDS
Tuesday, March 26.-Since yesterday morning the enemy has continued his violent thrusts against the British line westward from Bapaume and Péronne, and his massed troops, mostly Brandenburgers and picked troops, are now advancing in the direction of Roye and Nesle, where French troops are heavily engaged.
At the same time he is passing on over the old Somme battlefields down from Delville Wood, High Wood, and Maurepas toward the old lines the British held before the beginning of the Somme battles in 1916. The enemy has paused since he began the great offensive, on Thursday last, only to bring up new divisions and pass them through and beyond those divisions exhausted by attack or shattered under the British fire while they reform and rest and then come on again, relieved once more by reserves and continually crowding over the captured ground. By this means, and owing to the enormous forces at the disposal of the German command, they are able to pursue any advantage gained with fresh troops against the hard-pressed British, who have been fighting without respite since the beginning of the battle, six days ago, except where on the right some of them have now been replaced in the front line by French battalions.
In spite of the gravity of these hours and the progress made by the enemy, there never has been a more glorious spirit shown by British troops throughout history, and when one day all the details of this battle may be written it will be an epic of heroism more wonderful than the world now realizes, for the British troops and their officers have withstood an onslaught of enormous forces which have never been less than two to one, and in most parts of the line have been four to one and six to one and eight to one, nine divisions against three around Croisilles, eight divisions against two from the Cambrai sector westward, and in many places one division against one battalion.
WEARIED BY ENDLESS BATTLE
Our men have been fighting for six days and nights like this, after the first storm of shells and gas, until their beards have grown long and their faces haggard and worn for lack of sleep, and their clothes have become torn on wire and covered with dust of mud and chalk. I saw a small party of them today so weary with this endless battle they could hardly walk, and they were holding hands like tired children and leaning against each other like drunken men, but
for the most part they hold their heads up gamely, because so far luck has been against them. The whole movement of the army under the necessity of withdrawal from fixed positions is as orderly as though Cn manoeuvres in England. I can say honestly I have seen no officer show sign of being flurried. It is all an amazing drama, because this open warfare is a new thing to the army, and the menace of the enemy is strong and serious, and retirement under the terrific pressure of the human avalanche now hurled against the defenders is by no means pleasant. But in the inevitable turmoil of this situation, in roads crowded with traffic of men and guns, in villages seething with troops rushed up toward the battle line, on the field of battle itself, the British Army retains its self-control, its will power, and its supreme, inspired courage.
THE ATTACK AT ALBERT
Wednesday, March 27.-The enemy has not made further advances on a big scale between the Arras-Bapaume road on the left of the battlefront and the village of Bray, on the Somme, but has paused in his massed attacks in order to reorganize his line and bring up artillery.
There are heavy concentrations of German storm troops behind Maurepas, Ginchy, and Beugnatre, and the roads around Bapaume have been crowded with men and guns and transport passing down through Le Sars, with German cavalry along the Bapaume-Gudecourt road and a steady drift downward to the town of Albert.
That poor, stricken city of the golden Virgin, head downward, with her babe in her outstretched arms, which I described so often in accounts of the battles of the Somme in 1916, when that falling statue was lit up by shellfire, was yesterday in the centre of the fighting north of the Somme. [The golden Virgin and tower were destroyed later.] The night before their assault yesterday they bombed it heavily from the air, using the brilliant moonlight, which lay white over all the battlefields and these roofs, to fly low and pick their targets wherever they saw men moving or horses tethered. In several cases it was not men they hit, but women and children who, when the war seemed to have passed from this place a year ago, crept back to their homes and built little wooden booths in which they sold papers and picture postcards to the troops. Now suddenly the war has flamed over them again and they were caught, before they could escape, by thunderbolts out of the shining moonlight, terribly clear and revealing dead horses about the ruined streets.
TRYING TO TAKE ARRAS
Friday, March 29.—The enemy's pressure has for the time being relaxed a little across the Somme, east of Corbie, and whatever effort he has made during the last day and night has been repulsed with the most heavy losses.
Yesterday the most exciting situation and the fiercest struggle was on the left of the British battleline, from Gavrelle southward to below the Scarpe. It was a deliberate, resolute effort by the enemy to capture Arras. Three divisions of special storm troops, the 184th, 12th, and 27th Reserve, had been brought up for this purpose, though one of them had been engaged before and roughly handled. They were ordered to take Arras yesterday at all costs, and before their advance very heavy bombardment was flung over the British lines from about 5 o'clock in the morning for several hours.
Their main thrust was toward Roeux, that frightful little village, with its chemical works, which I used to write about so much in April and May last. Once again yesterday it became a shambles. The British had machine guns well placed with a wide field of fire, and as the Germans came down the slopes they were swept with streams of bullets, which cut swaths in their formations, but once again, as on March 21, the enemy was reckless of life, theirs as well as the British, and always his tide of men flowed forward, passing over dead and wounded, and creeping forward like flowing water. The British field guns raked
them while the heavies pulled further back to avoid being blown up or captured.
FIGHT FOR ORANGE HILL
On and about Orange Hill and Telegraph Hill British battalions who know this ground of old fought tenaciously under murderous machine-gun fire, the enemy's screen of infantry covering machine-gun batteries which were rushed forward very quickly and took up positions in shell holes and behind bits of broken wall and any kind of cover, in ditches and sunken roads.
A footing gained by the enemy on part of Orange Hill and Infantry Hill rendered it necessary to fall back yesterday toward the old German support lines before that battle in April, 1917. The British fought like tigers, and would not retire until the pressure on them made it impossible to resist the continual thrust of new attacks by fresh troops. There were heroic actions by small groups of men struggling to hold up the front line, and some of them stayed so long after the enemy had broken beyond them that they were cut off.
Frightful fighting was happening not far from Neuville, Vitasse, and Mercatel and in this neighborhood the British held out with wonderful determination until exhausted by battle and until only a poor remnant of men had strength to stand against these massed attacks.
By the end of the day the enemy's assaults weakened, and then died out because his losses were enormous and the spirit of his attack was broken by such stubborn resistance.
ENEMY FAILS AT ARRAS
Sunday, March 31. – We now have knowledge that the attack on Arras was prepared on a scale of enormous strength by divisions arranged in depth, preceded by a bombardment as great as that which fell upon any part of the British line on the morning of March 21, and that the enemy had determined to capture not only Arras itself but Vimy Ridge.
It was the heroic resistance of the British troops that defeated this furi