Friday, 2 November 2012


A barrage, even if it is not one's first, is a difficult thing to write about. It cannot be taken apart and described in detail, ands in the mass it is so overwhelming that no broad picture of it can possibly be convincing. The noise is unbelievable. Of one shell be fired from one twenty-five-pounder gun at night, the infantryman first sees a flash far behind him and a few seconds later hears the sound of the gun. Again there is a slight pause; and far overhead a shrill sound, somewhere between a whistle and a sigh and a small wind blowing across the strings of a harp, grows in volume and deepens in tone until the shell roars into the ground ahead of him. There is a red flash, and an explosion which has a distinct metallic clang in it. If the shell falls at some distance, the clang has an almost bell-like quality. Most of the fragments travel forward, and raise long scuffs of dust which are distinct from the dust of the explosion itself. The noise of the explosion is very great.

When some hundreds of guns are firing at once, the high shrill sound grows until the whole sky is screaming; and when the first shells land the earth shakes, clouds of dust and smoke arise, and the immense crash drowns the approach of the shells which follow. The infantryman is a fly inside a drum; and only occasionally, when for a few seconds the guns seem to draw breath, can he hear the  twanging of harps which heralds the next salvo. The uproar swells and fades and swells again, deafeningly, numbing the brain; and through it comes the enemy's reply. That night, for the first time. we heard the crump of mortars around us; and, ripping through everything, the crack of bredas and the vicious pup-turr, pup-turr of the spandau, the German light machine gun.

Clouds of dust and smoke arose, blotting out the desert which so short a time ago had seemed so vast. Each man found himself in a diminished world inhabited by himself and at most three or four others. Somewhere near him was an officer or sergeant with a compass, trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on the map. Inevitably groups divided and subdivided. Some companies remained intact, moving on their appointed courses. Others lost a section or two. Some lost a platoon. But there was a compass in nearly every group, and most of those who survived the barrage did reach the objective.It was, unfortunately, a question of surviving the barrage. Through inexperience, the forward companies took too literally the injunction which had been drilled into them, and kept so close that until they reached the half-way line they were under our barrage instead of behind it. German shells and mortar bombs were landing too, and casualties were heavy. Therefore of the battalion as a whole it can be said only that we reached our objectives without meeting a great deal of opposition, and dug in. The real story of the battle can only be told through the small groups which fought it, each in its own small dusty world, and each with its own adventures.

Borthwick, Battalion (London, 1994) pp.34-37

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