The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 202nd installment in the series.
September 21, 1915: Huge Bombardment Opens Fall Offensive
After a year of war in which failed frontal assaults on entrenched defenders resulted in mind-boggling casualties, commanders on both sides understood that simple bravery wasn’t enough to win battles: they needed artillery, and lots of it.
Thus when the French and British began their ill-fated fall offensive on September 21, 1915, the attack was announced by one of the heaviest artillery bombardment in history, with almost continuous shelling of German positions over the next 72 hours – most of it by French artillery, due to the continuing British shell shortage (top, French artillery in action). After this unprecedented fusillade pulverized the German trenches, Allied troops were supposed to advance from Artois and Champagne in a giant pincer formation – but the French attack in the Second Battle Champagne was foiled by intact barbed wire protecting German reserve trenches, while the smaller British bombardment proved insufficient to break up the German frontline defenses in the Third Battle of Artois, better known as the Battle of Loos.
Although it ultimately failed the bombardment from September 21-24 was astonishing to onlookers who saw (and heard) thousands of guns open up almost simultaneously and fire almost nonstop for three full days. British junior officer Alexander Douglas Gillespie, in one of his last letters home, described the French bombardment in Artois (below, a view of the bombardment of Roclincourt, near Arras, from an observation balloon, on September 23, 1915):
… sometimes there was almost one continuous roar of shells leaving the guns and bursting far away, with a swish like a waterfall as they rushed overhead. I climbed up to a place where I could see the bursts of flame far and near over the level country, and long afterwards the deep ‘cr-rump’ of the shell came to my ears; a lot of houses had been set on fire, and were blazing fiercely, so that it was a weird and wonderful sight; and sometimes there would be a minute of complete silence – still moonlight and the mist rising form the hollows – and then with a flash and a roar the guns would open again.
Louis Barthas, a reservist from the south of France, left a similar description of the French bombardment in Artois: “We could hear a violent cannonade all along the front. You couldn’t make out individual cannons firing. It was more like an uninterrupted roar, like in a violent storm when the single claps of thunder, close together, form a continuous rumbling sound.” According to Barthas French officers were so confident of a breakthrough that, anticipating a return to the war of movement, they ordered the attacking troops to wear white cloth squares on their backs, so artillery spotters in airplanes could identify them as they advanced deep into enemy territory.
Meanwhile to the east Captain Henri de Lécluse, Comte de Trévoëdal, recalled witnessing the bombardment preceding the French attack in Champagne (below, German frontline trenches after the bombardment):
From on high, from one of the rare promontories which dominated the immense plain, we had contemplated the impressive spectacle of this cannonade of which, for nearly a week, we heard the stunning din, night and day, several kilometers away. On all the front, and everywhere you looked, explosions were occurring. Ones produced by the heavy shells of the 150-mm and 220-mm raised white chalk clouds which mixed with the black smoke of the powder climbing in the sky in spiral curls of thick smoke much as unchained volcanoes… the spectacle was fantastic, and the appearance of the terrain, after seventy-two hours of uninterrupted heavy shelling, which had literally pulverized the German trenches, escaped all description. Just picture an infinity of shell holes overlapping each other, strewn with the debris of stakes, pieces of iron wires, shell fragments, lumps of cast metal, parcels of equipment and fragments of arms, torpedoes [mortar shells] and unexploded grenades, all of that sprinkled with this whitish dust characteristic of the Chalkland.
As shells poured down on the German positions, the French and British soldiers prepared for the “big push” on September 25. They would be facing poison gas and a terrible new weapon deployed by the Germans that summer – the flamethrower. Shortly before the battle Edmond Genet, an American volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, described some of the countermeasures employed by Allied troops, and the terrifying appearance that resulted:
The Allies’ troops are frightful-looking creatures when they make a charge for the German lines,– respirators covering the mouth and nose, goggles over the eyes, grease covering the rest of the face and the hands and arms to prevent burning from petrol, etc., sometimes metal casques over the top of the head… We look more like the fiends of Satan himself than human men.
The increasing brutality of the war was also reflected in hardening attitudes towards prisoners of war. Although both sides officially forbade their troops from killing enemy soldiers who surrendered, in fact the practice was more common than anyone cared to admit. The British novelist Robert Graves later wrote:
Nearly every instructor in the Mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner’s trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job. In any of these cases the conductors would report on arrival at Headquarters that a German shell had killed the prisoners; and no questions would be asked.
But not everyone succumbed to these savage impulses. Before the attack Barthas, gripped by growing hatred for his commanding officers, strongly objected to an order to issue his men with cutlasses, which he said could serve only one purpose:
“These are arms for murderers, not for soldiers,” I exclaimed. “It matters little to me,” said the officer, pushing me out the door, “and keep your opinions to yourself.” No, I won’t keep these reflections to myself, and I’ll explain it to my comrades, the way it was clearly told elsewhere, that they were for finishing off the wounded and for killing prisoners. “Well, my cutlass won’t be used for such crimes,” I told them, and right in front of everybody I tossed mine up onto the roof of an adjacent house. Almost everybody got rid of theirs, and no one asked what happened to them.
Across France, as the big day approached, ordinary rank and file soldiers and officers were skeptical about their chances. Graves recorded one all-too-accurate prediction from a drunken staff colonel (apparently somewhat confused about who he was talking to) who pointed out, on the eve of battle, that their division commander had never actually been in combat before, while the troops of their “New Army” division were completely untested:
“Charley, see that silly old woman over there? Calls himself General Commanding! Doesn’t know where he is; doesn’t know where his division is; can’t even read a map properly. He’s marched the poor sods off their feet and left his supplies behind, God knows how far back… And tomorrow he’s going to fight a battle. Doesn’t know anything about battles; the men have never been in trenches before, and tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up, and the day after tomorrow he’ll be sent home… Really, Charley, it’s just as I say, no exaggeration. You mark my words!”