Subaltern's Human Letter to His Auntby 2nd-Lieut. Arthur Conway Young
We are privileged from time to time to reprint the private letters of serving soldiers, written on the field to their relatives at home, which, despite strict censorship, often contain the most vivid and human descriptions of life at the Front and during battle. This is abundantly true of the following account of the Irish attack on Ginchy, on September 9, 1916, written by 2nd-Lieut. A. C. Young, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Mr. Young, who was educated at the City of London School, and had been a journalist on the "Japan Chronicle" at Kobe, survived this action but was killed on August 16, 1917, at the age of 27.
MY dear Auntie Maggie,
As I told you in my last brief note, I took part in the battle of Ginchy, and I promised you when I had time that I would give you an account of it . . .
Try and picture in your mind's eye a fairly broad valley running more or less north and south. You must imagine that the Germans are somewhere over the farther, or eastern, crest. You are looking across the valley from the ruins of Guillemont. About half-right the farther crest rises to a height crowned by a mass of wreckage and tangled trees. Well, that is Ginchy . . . It was like being near the foot of Parliament Hill, with the village on top. Our right flank was down near the bottom of the valley; our left extended up to the higher ground towards the ruins of Waterlot Farm.
The trench was very shallow in places, where it had been knocked in by shell-fire. I had chosen it as the only one suitable in the neighbourhood, but it was a horrible place. British dead were lying round everywhere. Our men had to give up digging in some places, because they came down to bodies which were lying in the bottom, having been buried there when the parapet blew in. The smell turned us sick. At last, in desperation I went out to look for another trench, for I felt sure the Germans must have the range of the trench we were in, and that they would give us hell when dawn broke. To my joy I found that a very deep trench some distance back had just been vacated by another regiment, so we went in there.
The night was bitterly cold. I have felt hunger and thirst and fatigue out here to a degree I have never experienced them before, but those are torments I can endure far better than I thought I could. But the cold – my word ! it is dreadful . . .
However, dawn broke at last. It was very misty. All night we had been trying to get into touch with the unit on our left, but without success. So the Captain sent me out with an orderly to see whether I could manage it. We two stumbled along, but the mist was so dense we could see nothing.
We came to one trench after another, but not a living thing could we see – nothing but dead, British and German, some of them mangled beyond recognition. Bombs and rifles and equipments were lying all over the place, with here and there a greatcoat, khaki or grey according to the nationality of their one-time owners, but of living beings we could see no sign whatsoever.
There was a horrible stench in places which nearly turned our stomachs. To make matters more wretched we could not make sure of our direction, and were afraid of running into a German patrol, or even into a German trench, for such accidents are by no means uncommon in this region. However, we managed to find our way back, and report that up to such and such a point there was no one on our left.
WE WERE NOT ALONE
THE Captain was not content with this, so I went out again, this time with another officer. Having a compass on this second occasion I felt far more self-confidence, and to our mutual satisfaction we discovered that the unit on our left was the right flank of an English Division. Captain Edwards was very bucked when we brought back this information. As the mist continued for some time afterwards we were able to light fires and make breakfast . . .
It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when we first learned that we should have to take part in the attack on Ginchy. Now, Auntie, you expect me to say at this point in my narrative that my heart leapt with joy at the news and that the men gave three rousing cheers, for that's the sort of thing you read in the papers. Well, even at the risk of making you feel ashamed of me, I will confess that my heart sank within me when I heard the news.
I had been over the top once already that week, and knew what it was to see men dropping dead all round me, to see men blown to bits, to see men writhing in pain, to see men running round and round, gibbering, raving mad. Can you wonder therefore that I felt a sort of sickening dread of the horrors which I knew we should all have to go through? Frankly, I was dismayed.
But, Auntie, I know that you will think the more of me when I tell you, on my conscience, that I went into action that afternoon, not with any hope of glory, but with the absolute certainty of death. How the others felt I don't exactly know, but I don't think their emotions were far different from mine.
You read no end of twaddle in the papers at home about the spirit in which men go into action. You might almost think they revelled in the horror and the agony of it all. I saw one account of the battle of Ginchy, in which the correspondent spoke of the men of a certain regiment in reserve as almost crying with rage because they couldn't take part in the show. All I can say is that I should like to see such superhuman beings. It is rubbish like this which makes people in England think that war is great sport. As a famous American general said, "War is Hell," and you have only got to be in the Somme one single day to know it.
WE CANT LIVE THROUGH IT!
BUT to get on with the story. We were ordered to move up into the front line to reinforce the Royal Irish Rifles. The bombardment was now intense. Our shells bursting in the village of Ginchy made it belch forth smoke like a volcano. The Hun shells were bursting on the slope in front of us. The noise was deafening. I turned to my servant O'Brien, who has always been a cheery, optimistic soul, and said, "Well, O'Brien, how do you think we'll fare?" and his answer for once was not encouraging.
"We'll never come out alive, sir!" was his answer. Happily we both came out alive, but I never thought we should at the time.
It was at this moment, just as we were debouching on to the scragged front line of trench, that we beheld a scene which stirred and thrilled us to the bottommost depths of our souls. The great charge of the Irish Division had begun, and we had come up in the nick of time . . .
BETWEEN the outer fringe of Ginchy and the front line of our own trenches is No Man's Land – a wilderness of pits, so close together that you could ride astraddle the partitions between any two of them. As you look half-right, obliquely along No Man's Land, you behold a great host of yellow-coated men rise out of the earth and surge forward and upward in a torrent – not in extended order, as you might expect, but in one mass – I almost said a compact mass. The only way I can describe the scene is to ask you to picture five or six columns of men marching uphill in fours, with about a hundred yards between each column. Now conceive those columns being gradually disorganized, some men going off to the right, and others to the left to avoid shell-holes. There seems to be no end to them. Just when you think the flood is subsiding, another wave comes surging up the beach towards Ginchy.
WE joined in on the left. There was no time for us anymore than the others to get into extended order. We formed another stream, converging on the others at the summit. By this time we were all wildly excited. Our shouts and yells alone must have struck terror into the Huns, who were firing their machine-guns down the slope. But there was no wavering in the Irish host. We couldn't run. We advanced at a steady walking pace, stumbling here and there, but going ever onward and upward.
That numbing dread had now left me completely. Like the others, I was intoxicated with the glory of it all. I can remember shouting and bawling to the men of my platoon, who were only too eager to go on.
IT WAS NOW -- OR NEVER
The Hun barrage had now been opened in earnest, and shells were falling here, there, and everywhere in No Man's Land. They were mostly dropping on our right, but they were coming nearer and nearer, as if a screen were being drawn across our front. I knew that it was a case of "now or never," and stumbled on feverishly. We managed to get through the barrage in the nick of time, for it closed behind us, and after that we had no shells to fear in front of us.
I mention, merely as an interesting fact in psychology, how in a crisis of this sort one's mental faculties are sharpened. Instinct told us, when the shells were coming gradually closer, to crouch down in the holes until they had passed. Acquired knowledge, on the other hand – the knowledge instilled into one by lectures and books (of which I have only read one, namely Haking's "Company Training") – told us that it was safer in the long run to push ahead before the enemy got our range, and it was acquired knowledge that won.
And here's another observation I should like to make by the way : The din must have been deafening (I learned afterwards that it could be heard miles away), yet I have only a confused remembrance of it. Shells which at any other time would have scared me out of my wits, I never so much as heard and not even when they were bursting quite close to me.
One landed in the midst of a bunch of men about seventy yards away on my right : I have a most vivid recollection of seeing a tremendous burst of clay and earth go shooting up into the air – yes, and even parts of human bodies – and that when the smoke cleared away there was nothing left.
I shall never forget that horrible spectacle as long as I live, but I shall remember it as a sight only, for I can associate no sound with it . . .
We were now well up to the Boche. We had to clamber over all manner of obstacles – fallen trees, beams, great mounds of brick and rubble – in fact, over the ruins of Ginchy. It seems like a nightmare to me now. I remember seeing comrades falling round me.
MY sense of hearing returned to me, for I became conscious of a new sound, namely, the continuous crackling of rifle-fire. I remember men lying in shell-holes holding out their arms and beseeching water. I remember men crawling about and coughing up blood, as they searched round for some place in which they could shelter until help could reach them. By this time all units were mixed up : but they were all Irishmen. They were cheering and cheering and cheering like mad.
It was Hell let loose. There was a machine-gun playing on us near by, and we all made for it. At this moment we caught our first sight of the Huns. They were in a trench of sorts, which ran in and out among the ruins. Some of them had their hands up. Others were kneeling and holding their arms out to us. Still others were running up and down the trench distractedly as if they didn't know which way to go, but as we got closer they went down on their knees, too.
To the everlasting good name of the Irish soldiery, not one of these Huns, some of whom had been engaged in slaughtering our men up to the very last moment, was killed. I did not see a single instance of a prisoner being shot or bayoneted. When you remember that our men were now worked up to a frenzy of excitement, this crowning act of mercy to their foes is surely to their eternal credit. They could feel pity even in their rage.
By this time we had penetrated the German front line, and were on the flat ground where the village once stood surrounded by a wood of fairly high trees . . . As I was clambering out of the front trench, I felt a sudden stab in my right thigh. I thought I had got a "Blighty," but found it was only a graze from a bullet, and so went on . . .
HOPPING LIKE RABBITS
McGARRY and I were the only two officers left in the company, so it was up to us to take charge. We could see the Huns hopping over the distant ridge like rabbits, and we had some difficulty in preventing our men from chasing them, for we had orders not to go too far. We got them – Irish Fusiliers, Inniskillings and Dublins – to dig in by linking up the shell-craters, and though the men were tired (some wanted to smoke and others to make tea) they worked with a will, and before long we had got a pretty decent trench outlined.
While we were at work, a number of Huns who had stopped behind and were hiding in shell-holes commenced a bombing attack on our right. But they did not keep it up for long, for they hoisted a white flag (a handkerchief tied to a rifle) as a sign of surrender. I should think we must have made about twenty prisoners. They were very frightened. Some of them bunked into a sunken road or cutting which ran straight out from the wood in an easterly direction, and huddled together with hands upraised. They began to empty their pockets and hand out souvenirs – watches, compasses, cigars, penknives – to their captors, and even wanted to shake hands with us!
THERE was no other officer about at the moment, so I had to find an escort to take the prisoners down. Among the prisoners was a tall, distinguished looking man, and I asked him in my broken German whether he was an officer. "Ja! Mein Herr!" was the answer I got. "Sprechen sie English?" "Ja!" "Good," I said, thankful that I didn't have to rack my brains for any more German words. "Please tell your men that no harm will come to them if they follow you quietly." He turned round and addressed his men, who seemed to be very gratified that we were not going to kill them.
I must say the officer behaved with real soldierly dignity, and not to be outdone in politeness by a Hun, I treated him with the same respect that he showed me. I gave him an escort for himself and told off three or four men for the remainder. I could not but rather admire his bearing, for he did not show anything like the terror that his men did.
I HEARD afterwards that when Captain O'Donnell's company rushed a trench more to our right, round the corner of the wood, a German officer surrendered in great style. He stood to attention, gave a clinking salute, and said in perfect English, "Sir, myself, this other officer, and ten men are your prisoners." Captain O'Donnell said "Right you are, old chap!" and they shook hands, the prisoners being led away.
There were a great many German dead and wounded in the sunken road. One of them was an officer. He was lying at the entrance to the dug-out. He was waving his arms about. I went over and spoke to him. He could talk a little English. All he could say was "Comrade, I die, I die." I asked him where he was hit, and he said in the stomach. It was impossible to move him, for our stretcher-bearers had not yet come up, so I got my servant to look for an overcoat to throw over him, as he was suffering terribly from the cold. Whether or not he survived the night I don't know.
WE EAT ENEMY RATIONS
AFTER the counter-attack had subsided I was ordered to take my men and join up with the rest of the battalion on our right. There we spent the night in a trench. We must have been facing south. It was a miserable night we passed, for we were all very cold and thirsty. We had to keep digging. When morning broke it was very misty. We expected to be relieved at two in the morning, but the relief did not come till noon.
Never shall I forgot these hours of suspense. We were all hungry. The only food we could get was Hun black bread, which we picked up all over the place; also Hun tinned sausages and bully beef. We had to lift up some of the dead to get at these things. Some of them had water-bottles full of cold coffee, which we drank. We all craved a smoke. Fortunately, the Hun haversacks were pretty well stocked with cigarettes and cigars.
I got a handful of cigars off a dead Boche, and smoked them all morning. Also a tin of cigarettes. His chocolates also came in handy. Poor devil, he must have been a cheery soul when living, for he had a photograph of himself in his pocket, in a group with his wife and two children, and the picture made him look a jolly old sport, and here he was, dead, with both legs missing! The trench (between ours and the wood) was stacked with dead. It was full of debris – bombs, shovels and whatnot – and torn books, magazines, and newspapers. I came across a copy of Schiller's "Wallenstein."
Hearing moans as I went along the trench, I looked into a shelter or hole dug in the side and found a young German. He could not move as his legs were broken. He begged me to get him some water, so I hunted round and found a flask of cold coffee, which I held to his lips. He kept saying, "Danke, Kamerad, danke, danke." However much you may hate the Huns when you are fighting them, you can only feel pity for them when you see them lying helpless and wounded on the ground . . .
THE ONLY DECENT THING IN WAR
ABOUT ten yards farther on was another German minus a leg. He, too, craved water, but I could get him none, though I looked everywhere. Our men were very good to the German wounded. An Irishman's heart melts very soon. In fact, kindness and compassion for the wounded, our own and the enemy's, is about the only decent thing I have seen in war. It is not at all uncommon to see a British and German soldier side by side in the same shell-hole nursing each other as best they can and placidly smoking cigarettes.
A poor wounded Hun who hobbled into our trench in the morning, his face badly mutilated by a bullet – he whimpered and moaned piteously as a child – was bound up by one of our officers, who took off his coat and set to work in earnest. Another Boche, whose legs were hit, was carried in by our men and put into a shell-hole for safety, where he lay awaiting the stretcher-bearers when we left. It is with a sense of pride that I can write this of our soldiers.
WELL now, that's the story of the great Irish charge at Ginchy so far as I can tell it. I suppose by this time the great event has been forgotten by the English public. But it will never be forgotten by those who took part in it, for it is an event we shall remember with pride to the end of our days. Need I tell you how proud we officers and men are of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who played as big a part as any in the storming of that stronghold, and who went into action shouting their old battle-cry of "Faugh-a-Ballagh," which means "Clear the way!"
Will write again soon.
With fondest love,
Ever your affectionate nephew,
Original source unknown.