This Week in History

Little Big Horn (25th June)

The battle of Little Big Horn, known to many as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, was in the words of General Terry ‘a sad and terrible blunder.’ The operation’s aim was to force the Indians back on to the reservations and back under Federal control. The Americans planned to do this by encircling the Indians with three columns of troops, led by Generals Crook and Terry, and Colonel Gibbon. The campaign of Little Big Horn, however, went wrong from the beginning. The column led by General Crook was stopped almost immediately, and after a severe mauling fell back to its supply base. Custer, commanding the 7th US Cavalry Regiment under the leadership of Terry, disobeyed his orders and followed a trail left by a large number of ponies towards the Little Big Horn. On the morning of 25 June he encountered a large camp of Indians. Splitting split his command into three groups and failing to asses the strength of the Indian force Custer attacked; with disastrous consequences. By 6pm 210 troopers of the US 7th Cavalry regiments and Custer were dead. On 26 June the Sioux and their allies followed up their success by travelling upstream and attacking Reno, Custer’s second-in-command. Reno’s command, the remainder of the regiment, suffered a further 47 casualties. General Terry and Colonel Gibbon reached the remains of the camp the following day.

Further reading

Campaign 39: Little Big Horn 1876 Custer's Last Stand (extract below) details the entire campaign, focussing on Custer’s Last Stand, and aims to set aside the myths that have grown up around this famous incident, and retell the events accurately.

Men-at-Arms 63: The American Indian Wars 1860-1890 covers the participants on both sides of this war. For more information on the Indians, Men-at-Arms 163: The American Plains Indians (extract below) is about the plains Indians in general, and Men-at-Arms 344: Tribes of the Sioux Nation (extract below) details the Sioux Indians, who comprised the majority of the warriors who fought the US Cavalry at Little Big Horn. Warrior 4: US Cavalryman 1865-1890 and Men-at-Arms 168: US Cavalry on the Plains 1850-90 are studies of the US army during this period on the plains.

An extract from Campaign 39: Little Big Horn 1876 Custer's Last Stand

Custer’s last stand

 

Custer’s mission was to force the warriors to return to the reservation. His most effective method of achieving this was to destroy their homes and property, or capture the non-combatants and hold them hostage. The non-combatants were the primary targets. Lt. Godfrey understood Custer’s expected strategy as ‘ … attacks on the families and the capture of the pony herds were in that event counted upon to strike consternation into the hearts of the warriors, and were elements for success.’ According to Trumpeter Martin, Custer had expressed this intention to his subordinates before descending the Medicine Tail Coulee. With Benteen and the pack train present, he would have sufficient numbers to capture them.

Immediately after the two Custer battalion wings converged on Calhoun Hill, the left wing moved north along battle ridge to investigate any northern ford, and confirm the location of the non-combatants. Warriors attempting to interfere with Yates’ movement were suppressed, and Yates’ troopers eventually moved, with little resistance, north-west along the Cemetery Ridge. Custer and his staff probably accompanied Yates’ wing in this reconnaissance. They rode about a mile beyond Custer Hill, within sight of the north ford and Squaw Creek. Across the river, thousands of Indian non-combatants were seeking refuge. Custer would need the additional 300 men from Benteen and the pack train before he could do more. The left wing then retraced its steps, moving along the flats, back toward Cemetery Ridge.

While Custer and the left wing were beyond Cemetery Ridge, Crazy Horse and his mounted following crossed the Little Big Horn River at the mouth of the Deep Ravine, just north of the village. They ascended through the Deep Ravine and crossed the mile-long Battle Ridge far to the north of the right wing, then took a covered position in the ravines along the east side of the ridge and began to infiltrate towards the right wing. With Gall approaching Calhoun Hill from the south, the Cheyenne leader, Lame White Man, to the west, and Crazy Horse now to the east, the encirclement was complete.

It was about this time, 4.50pm, that Capt. Weir departed Reno Hill with D Company. Custer’s left wing returned to Cemetery Ridge and deployed in skirmish formation, with E Company taking up a position near Custer Hill and F Company just below it. Indian aggressiveness intensified as their numbers rapidly increased. They began to close in from all directions. Cheyenne war chief Two Moons and Runs the Enemy attempted to stampede the grey horses (E Company) near Cemetery Ridge, but were deterred by carbine fire. The Custer battalion waited, looking south-east for Benteen. Calhoun and Keogh were on Calhoun Hill, Custer, Yates and Smith on Cemetery Ridge. The skirmishing continued for 20 or more minutes, as the hostiles continued to infiltrate.

Captain Keogh, Custer’s right wing commander, had deployed three companies (L, C and I) on Calhoun Hill in the standard US Cavalry textbook formation. As warriors continued to arrive from the Reno fight, L company became more heavily engaged from the west and south. The horses were in jeopardy, and their holders were taking fire from Calhoun Coulee. Keogh dispatched C Company, led by Lt. Harrington, to charge west into Calhoun Coulee and dislodge a small group of warriors who were threatening the horses and men. The charge failed because the troops were exposed to intense fire when they came into range of Greasy Grass Ridge and other positions. The survivors fled back to Calhoun Hill and were immediately pursued by mounted warriors led by the Cheyenne chief Lame White Man.

Warriors to the south, following Gall, seized the opportunity. They rushed up the southern approaches to Calhoun Hill in an intense blaze of rifle fire. This sudden shock triggered a collapse of the position, since a few troopers panicked and attempted to flee, encouraging many more warriors to surge forward. They charged in, mounted and on foot, from several directions, engaging in ferocious hand-to-hand combat. Some soldiers were cut down fleeing, others grouped together and made easy targets for the warriors with bows. Lt. Calhoun was killed in one of these small groups. Some of the soldiers on horseback fled the 600 yards towards Keogh’s position, but most of those on foot were ridden down.

As Calhoun’s company collapsed, engulfed by Sioux and Cheyenne Warriors, Keogh’s I Company deployed to engage the pursuing warriors. They were unable to react fast enough, and were shaken by the sudden turn of events. When the survivors fled towards I Company, tactical cohesion disintegrated there also. Crazy Horse and his following were encroaching from the ravine north-east of Keogh, in perfect position to attack. They swept in on all three companies from the east, as the other warriors pursued C and L Companies from the south and west. The entire element was surrounded and cut to pieces.

The left wing was also under some pressure as the hostiles closed in. Pinned, and out of supporting fire range, Custer must have watched in horror as events rapidly unfolded before him, less than a mile down the ridge. There was little opportunity to react, for within a matter of minutes the right wing had disintegrated.

Absolute chaos reigned as more frenzied warriors surged forward and terrified troopers tried to flee. More soldiers bunched together and resisted before being killed or forced to run away. Captain Keogh was killed with a small group of his men on the eastern slope of the ridge. The fight moved along the ridge from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. Over half the battalion was gone; the remainder were surrounded and outnumbered.

The left wing was able to maintain tactical cohesion as they deployed to receive about 20 left wing fugitives. A skirmish line from E Company opened fire on the pursuing Indians, checking the warriors’ advance along the ridge. With barely more than 100 soldiers left, E and F companies were surrounded near Cemetery Ridge and Custer Hill. They were now outnumbered by as many as 15 or 20 to one and there was no sign of Reno or Benteen.

Both companies made their way towards the top of the hill. It was a poor position, with thousands of warriors moving in for the final attack. Exposed troopers were picked off, while groups of mounted warriors stampeded many of the Army horses. The Sioux managed to concentrate on the weakest points. They continued to attack by fire, to pin and suppress. Other warriors remained mounted and mobile.

The surviving members of Custer’s command hunkered down behind dead horses as Indians further encroached on their position. Ammunition shortages could not have been a critical concern, for most Indian accounts testify that captured cartridge belts had ample rounds still on them. Custer may have been shot at this point, for a mounted foray was attempted without him. With the greater threat coming from the direction of Calhoun Hill to the south, E company mounted what horses were still available, and made a dash toward the west. The E Company commander was left behind, dead or wounded on the hill. Whether to escape or to drive off enfilading snipers, the manoeuvre failed. Thousands of warriors diverted their movements into the Deep ravine.

About 50 men (F Company and right wing survivors) remained on Custer Hill. The numbers dwindled as Indian firepower took its toll. Finally a group of 15-20 dismounted soldiers desperately attempted to flee toward E Company in the Deep Ravine. They were shot or ridden down, and their bodies lay scattered from the hill to the upper portions of the ravine.

The final event was an anti-climax to the battle. Those soldiers on Custer Hill who were wounded or did not attempt to flee were overrun by the victorious Sioux and Cheyenne. It is doubtful that any of Custer’s group were left standing as warriors closed in to finish them off. There was some resistance, as a few warriors were killed in the final hand-to-hand melee.

Custer was either dead or dying by this time. He was found on top of a soldier, and horse, shot in the chest, and then in the left temple. On the ground next to him were 17 shells from his Remmington sporting rifle. Nearby lay his brother Tom, shot full of arrows and his adjutant Lt. Cooke. Capt. Yates and 2nd Lt. Reily, the Company F executive officer, were on the hill with about 20 other F company troopers. Lt. Algernon Smith, E Company commander, was the only man from his company found on Custer Hill. There were 42 bodies on the hill and 39 dead horses. The 210 men of the Custer battalion were all killed. By 6pm the mounted warriors were beginning to attack Weir and Benteen. Custer’s troopers were stripped and mutilated by the warriors and women who stayed behind.

 

 

An extract from Men-at-Arms 344: Tribes of the Sioux Nation

The context of Custer’s Last Stand - The 1876 campaign

 

The US Army strategy for 1876 was to force these Sioux and their Cheyenne allies back to the agencies by encircling the Indians in south central Montana with three columns of troops: one under Col John Gibbon moving east from Fort Ellis at Bozeman, the second under Gen Alfred Terry (with Custer) moving west from Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, and the other under Gen George Crook moving north from Fort Fetterman on the North Platte. However, each column had only about 1,000 troops, some of dubious quality, who faced long marches to reach the area of the Rosebud, Tongue and Big Horn Rivers where the Indians were ranged. The plan received a major setback on 17 June on the Rosebud when Crook’s 1,300-strong column was defeated by Crazy Horse, forcing him to withdraw to his base near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming; Crook took no further part in the campaign.

Terry and Gibbon met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Powder on 8 June, and conferred again on 21 June on the steamer Far West near the mouth of the Rosebud. Custer was despatched thence on 22 June, south down the Rosebud, with orders to swing north-west to the forks of the Big Horn and Little Big Horn, where Terry and Gibbon would be waiting. Custer tracked the pony hoofprints of the Indians west to a point now known as the Crow’s Nest, a ridge about 15 miles from where a huge Indian village stretched along the Little Big Horn River. Custer’s Arikara and Crow scouts reported the village early on 25 June, but they underestimated the numbers of hostiles in the vicinity.

Custer attacked at once, dividing his 7th Cavalry into three parties. Captain Frederick Benteen, with Companies D, H and K, was sent south to scout and report Indian movements; Maj Marcus A.Reno led Cos. A, M and G against the southern edge of the village. Custer himself would advance northwards with Cos. C, E, F, L and I, some say following the line of a ridge running parallel to the village, which was scattered along the wooded valley to his left on the west bank of the Little Big Horn River. He then apparently swung west over the crest of the ridge, intending to cross the river and attack the northern end of the village. All we really know of the Custer attack is from Indian accounts recorded much later, and these are often confused. At what point he crossed the ridge or even if he ever reached the river remains in dispute. His column was certainly repulsed and cut to pieces, some succeeding in retreating to a rise since named Custer Hill, where a monument now stands. Custer was outnumbered and totally overwhelmed by fresh and probably better-armed warriors frantic to defend their women and children.

With him died 214 men, including his brothers Tom and Boston, a nephew and a brother-in-law. Mutilated corpses were found in four groups strewn on Calhoun Ridge, and another about half a mile north. Some 40 men had fallen with Custer on the hill which bears his name, and about 30 bodies were found near the river in a ravine. To the south, Maj Reno hit the village but halted his charge when confronted by an enormous number of warriors; he formed a skirmish line, from which he later retreated across the river, to be rejoined by Benteen’s battalion, ultimately on a site now known as Reno Hill. Here fighting continued until 26 June; no serious attempt was made to break out of this defensive position, although a few made brave dashes to reach water, and one of Benteen’s officers, Thomas B.Weir, moved to a vantage point from where his troops caught glimpses of the Indians through the smoke of battle to the north. After losing 47 killed, Reno was relieved by Terry on the 26th, shortly after the great Indian camp had broken up, setting fire to the grass – the Indians knew retribution was bound to follow.

During the high summer and autumn of 1876 Crook returned to the field, where his subordinates Col Wesley Merritt (5th Cavalry) and Capt Anson Mills (3rd Cavalry) gained victories over the Sioux at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska, and Slim Buttes, South Dakota, respectively; in the latter fight Chief American Horse was killed. In October Col Nelson Miles held a meeting with Sitting Bull which ended in a running battle. During the following winter Cols Miles and Mackenzie (4th Cavalry) harassed the Cheyennes and Sioux, until by May 1877 most had returned and surrendered to the agencies.

However, the flow of fortune-hunters into the Black Hills did not diminish despite the fighting. Another government commission was charged with the task of obtaining the Black Hills by a treaty change to the western boundary of The Great Sioux Reservation. Although the agency chiefs Red Cloud, Red Leaf, Spotted Tail and John Grass signed, many did not; but the articles of the agreement were passed by Congress in February 1877. Sitting Bull crossed into Canada with High Bear and Gall, but Crazy Horse and his Oglalas and Cheyennes were defeated by Col Mackenzie; Crazy Horse surrendered in the spring of 1877, and was imprisoned and murdered. Gall and Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in 1881.

The decade of the 1880s was a traumatic time for the Western Sioux. The Great Sioux Reservation – all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River – had been set aside for the seven western Sioux bands by the treaty of 1868. It was reduced in size by the Black Hills cession of 1877, and again in 1889 when the Sioux surrendered nine million acres and were forced to accept six separate reservations in place of the single large one. Using the control of rations the Indian agents sought to destroy the old Indian social and religious customs, including discouraging Indian dress and hairstyles. The nomadic warrior-hunter culture had gone, and the Sioux were to become farmers, ranchers and Christians; many were dependent upon agency rations for food, as the last of the buffalo had gone by 1884. The Sioux were no longer in control of their own destiny.

In 1889 the Sioux heard of a new cult which derived from earlier forms amongst the Paiute Indians of Nevada. Sioux pilgrims visited the cult leader Wovoka at Walker River, and on their return described him as Messiah, having returned from heaven with a message of peace and reconciliation. The Sioux, however, added their own interpretations: a new earth, the return of the buffalo, and the belief that wearing ritual clothes painted with symbols would protect the wearer if shot by white soldiers. The Ghost Dance rituals – so-called because it was claimed that the ghosts of ancestors would return – aroused great excitement on the Sioux agencies in 1890, both amongst the Indian converts and the military. The agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin, ordered the Indian police to restrict Sitting Bull, whose ardent followers had been Ghost Dancing for weeks. In the confrontation which followed outside Sitting Bull’s cabin on 15 December 1890 the chief was shot dead by Red Tomahawk, an Indian policeman.

A band of Ghost Dancers from Cheyenne River under Big Foot, heading south for the Bad Lands presumably to join Kicking Bear and Short Bull, was intercepted by Maj Whitside and escorted to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. By a twist of fate the troops who now held Big Foot’s band were from the 7th Cavalry, cut to pieces on the Little Big Horn 14 years earlier. On 29 December 1890 the soldiers, now under the command of Col Forsyth, surrounded the Indian camp; and during the confrontation that followed soldiers using rifles and howitzers killed 300 men, women and children. The dead were buried in a common grave, which remains today a memorial to the long sufferings of the Sioux people over the past three and a half centuries.

 

 An extract from Men-at-Arms 163: The American Plains Indians

The war costumes of the American Plains Indians

While a certain basic wardrobe was reserved simply for everyday comfort, the Plains warrior also wore highly decorative dress or war costume for ceremonies, parades, burial and battle, with embellishments which served various purposes. Firstly, display costume could denote society or tribal rank, or membership of a visionary cult. Secondly, designs reflected visionary experience and consequently invoked ‘medicine’, providing supernatural guidance and protection. Thirdly, war costume displayed achievement marks, retaining and proclaiming evidence of a warrior’s accomplishments.

The war shirt or ‘scalp’ shirt provides a good example of all three functions. In early years it was almost exclusively worn as a badge of office; this is most clearly illustrated by the leaders of the Sioux, who were called Shirt-Wearers, each being presented with a pained shirt fringed with hair symbolising the people they were responsible for. Prominent warriors, when they wore scalp-shirts as marks of distinction, fringed the neck and sleeves either with hair taken from an enemy or – particularly among the Blackfoot and Crow – with ermine pendants. Bands of beadwork or quillwork along the arms and over the shoulders, or in the form of rosettes, also denoted military excellence; among the Crow, for example, four such bands symbolised a holder of the four main coups.

War shirts were also decorated with painted representations of exploits, the symbols for different coups varying from tribe to tribe. Some commonly used designs were a hand, representing success in hand-to-hand combat; stripes, which could symbolise wounds or coups; pipes, numbering the war-parties led; and hoofmarks, indicating numbers of horses captured.

While a war shirt could therefore provide a pictographic record of the wearer’s coups, it also offered him supernatural protection through other designs and trimmings. Such shirts, which might form a vital part of a man’s war medicine, sometimes offered protection by association with the danger: for example, by depicting black dots or ‘tadpoles’ which supposedly made the wearer immune to bullets. Alternatively, shirts were painted with designs seen by the wearer in a vision, such as the bear or the eagle, which could impart protection from the Sacred Powers.

 

Battle of the Somme (1 July)

Intended to relieve the pressure on the front at Verdun, the Somme offensive proved catastrophic from the onset. On the first day alone 20,000 British soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 injured in what remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. After nearly five months of brutal trench warfare, total casualties on both sides topped one million, with only six miles of ground taken. By all accounts, the battle was disastrous. Prime Minister Lloyd George considered it ‘the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.’

 


An extract from Essential Histories Specials 2: The First World War - The war to end all wars

The bloody first day

 

 

At 7.30 am on 1 July 1916 the British barrage lifted from the enemy front trenches. Along a 14-mile stretch, Rawlinson’s infantry moved forward - many in long lines. In most places on that hot morning the attackers lost the ‘race to the parapet’, failing to get through the enemy’s wire and into the front trenches before the Germans came up from their deep dug-outs to man their machine guns. This time Rawlinson had misjudged the difficulties in seizing the German front line in a set-piece assault. Thanks to their dug-outs and the British artillery’s inability to destroy the wire, many Germans survived the bombardment to mow down the attackers in rows as the latter tried to cross No Man’s Land at a steady pace. To add to the Fourth Army’s problems, British counter-battery work was largely ineffective and hitherto unlocated German guns now opened fire, increasing the scale of slaughter.

The explosion of huge mines under the German trenches at La Boisselle, in the British 34th Division’s area, and at Hawthorn Redoubt, on the front of VIII Corps, did not materially assist the attack. In fact, the ill-conceived decision by VIII Corps to lift its barrage when the Hawthorn Redoubt mine was detonated at 7.20 am merely gave the defenders an additional ten minutes to line their parapets and contribute to the British disaster between Serre and Beaumont Hamel. Elsewhere along the British front, over-optimistic and rigid fire plans - with the artillery lifting from one objective to another in accordance with an inflexible timetable - not only carried the barrage too far ahead of the infantry but also meant that it was well-nigh impossible to bring it back.

Even on that bloody morning the story was not one of unrelieved misery. On the southern flank of Fourth Army, where the attackers were much helped by the presence of French heavy guns on their right, the 30th and 18th Divisions, using more imaginative tactics, captured all their objectives in the Carnoy-Montauban sector. Next to them, the 7th Division took Mametz. The percipient Major-General Ivor Maxse, commanding the 18th (Eastern) Division, moved his assaulting infantry into No Man’s Land before zero hour, giving them a head start in the ‘race to the parapet’. He also employed an early form of creeping barrage, as did the 7th Division at Mametz. These limited British successes on 1 July were overshadowed by the progress of Fayolle’s French Sixth Army on the right. As well as possessing a preponderance of heavy guns, the French demonstrated that they were digesting the lessons of Verdun, sending their infantry forward in small groups rather than long lines and making better use of available cover.

At other isolated spots on the British front there were tantalising early gains. The battalions of the 36th (Ulster) Division, some of which were also deployed in No Man’s Land before the assault, attacked the fearsome defences at Thiepval and, displaying splendid zest and courage, took the Schwaben Redoubt. The comparative lack of movement by neighbouring divisions, however, compelled the Ulstermen to pull back by nightfall. In the north, at Gommecourt, Territorial troops of the 56th (London) Division also captured their objectives but they too were forced to withdraw when the 46th Division was repulsed.

For a shallow penetration - just a mile – on a length of front less than four miles wide the BEF lost 19,240 officers and men killed and 35,493 wounded. The frightful total of 57,470 casualties made 1 July 1916 the bloodiest day ever in British military history. The 34th Division alone -containing four Tyneside Scottish and four Tyneside Irish battalions - incurred 6,380 casualties, and 32 battalions suffered losses of more than 500, or over half their battle strength.

The death or maiming of such a large number of Britain’s citizen-soldiers in a single day had a massive effect on the national psyche. Moreover, after the first day of the Somme offensive, the dilution of the highly localised BEF of mid-1916 was inevitable. Partly to lessen the concentrated and dramatic impact of battle losses on particular communities, it became deliberate policy - under a reorganised reserve and drafting system from the summer of 1916 onwards - to draw casualty replacements from a common pool rather than from their parent regiments. In any case, within a few months, conscripts were entering the ranks of the BEF.

 



An extract from Warrior 16: British Tommy 1914-18

Combat and Tactics

 

The tactics of the Great War were based on experience of colonial wars of the late-19th century, and the general feeling amongst the general staff that any European war would be short and sharp. The trench system that developed was anathema to the High Command, who tried the most obvious methods of overcoming it. In practical terms, this meant extended artillery bombardment, to destroy wire and emplacements, which it conspicuously failed to do. By the time the attacking force had left their trenches the opposing lines were bristling with rifles and machine-guns. Advancing British soldiers were forbidden to fire at the enemy, but were required to hold their rifles at the port (across their chests), and tackle the enemy with grenades and bayonets. These tactics failed again and again, and many units adopted more flexible methods of attack to try to reduce casualties. It was not until 1917 that tactical doctrine began to change, with creeping barrages that moved with the infantry, tank support to deal with strongpoints, and fire and movement tactics within infantry platoons to enable them to get forward in the attack.

Despite the dangers, there was a familiarity about trench life that afforded the ordinary soldier a degree of comforting routine. All of this vanished once it became common knowledge that a ‘big show’ was in the offing. The illusion of security was soon shattered with the prospect of going ‘over the top’ as most experienced soldiers knew how slim their chances of survival could be. Probably the worst affected were those who had never before experienced battle, as their imaginations ran riot with the terrors of the unknown that lay ahead of them. It was the waiting beforehand that was the hardest thing to come to terms with, and it affected men in different ways. Some became quiet and withdrawn, others cracked jokes to cheer their chums up. A few had premonitions about their futures, taking a friend into confidence.

Having been told his battalion of the Manchester Regiment, would be attacking the following morning, 19-year-old Pvt. Wells could not sleep. ‘I crawled out of my dugout and stood staring at the stars, thinking I may never see them again. We had a man in our company called Charlie, who I had become very friendly with. He’d been over since Loos, and was very experienced. Well, he came up to me and stood puffing on his pipe. He asked me if I was frightened, and I said yes. He told me about his first battle, and how he never once fired his rifle, and by the time he finished I was feeling better. He then said an odd thing, that he was sorry he hadn’t got to know me earlier and it was a pity it was too late. Then he shook my hand and went.’

At the appointed hour, officers would blow their whistles, and the men would file quietly forwards, using scaling ladders to negotiate the steep parapet, usually into a hurricane of retaliatory small arms fire. Progress was slow, as the men were heavily laden: Pvt. Jarman carried 250 rounds of ammunition, Mills bombs in a bandoleer, and a shovel, as well as webbing, rifle and bayonet. Once they were clear of the trench, the men theoretically would hold formation around their officers, and keep extended line, whilst walking steadily towards the enemy. In practice, no man’s land was an inferno of noise and smoke, with machine-gun bullets, shellfire and screams. Few men could concentrate on the task in hand, and Will Wells’s experience was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

‘We got into no man’s land, and I followed the first line into the smoke. Everything seemed unreal – the noise was so great that it just became a constant sound, and I could see men dropping, like puppets with no strings. I wondered why they didn’t keep up. I didn’t recognise it then as a sign they had been shot dead. I kept close to old Charlie, and soon we were up to the wire. We were told not to bunch up, but men did which made them easier targets. A group of men were running along, trying to find a way through the wire, and just folded up as a machine-gun caught them. Charlie jumped into a shellhole and I followed. When the fire slackened I asked him if we should go back, but he was dead, hit in the head by a bullet. At dusk I crawled back to our lines. It all seemed like a bad dream, but I didn’t realise until next day how close I had been to dying.’

Not all attacks were such dismal failures. Even the General Staff learned eventually that frontal assaults on heavily defended positions were doomed to failure, and by 1917 a more flexible approach was being taken to fighting. For the battle of Messines, soldiers were taken to see scale models of the areas to be attacked, as well as being briefed on tactics and objectives. This was a far cry from previous years, and was appreciated by many rank and file. Harry Wood, by then a corporal, was impressed by the planning, and more so by the execution of it.

‘Before zero hour, we crawled into dead ground in front of our trenches and lay there. When the barrage started, we got up and were in the trenches before Jerry knew what was happening. Most were too dazed by the mines to put up a fight. We left our mopping-up party behind and followed the barrage over the next [trench] and took their second line with little trouble. I had the Lewis gun and got great satisfaction from shutting up a German machine-gun post that had been bothering our flank. My officer told me that I’d get an award for it, but he was killed later, and I never did.

‘The worst bit was holding the trench and waiting for reinforcements. Jerry tried counter-attacking, but we beat them off. They got so close that I had to use my pistol when the Lewis was empty. I wasn’t frightened at all then, but got a bit shaky when we were relieved. I was glad to come out alive.’ Generally, men were too keyed up after battle to feel much except relief at their own survival. It was only after they were sent back to reserve lines or billets that their experiences began to prey on their minds. The loss of friends was particularly hard to bear, and small groups of silent men would be found wandering listlessly around. ‘After roll call, I went around to see if any men I knew had come out (alive). There were almost no faces I recognised. I was really fed up and sat on my own. It seemed that the spirit of the battalion had gone with all the old faces, and I didn’t think it would ever be the same. Six months later though, I was one of the “old sweats”, and I realised that you can’t dwell on the past, you just keep going.’ (W. Wells) The lucky ones were those able to walk out after combat. For the others, it was a different story.

 



 

 


Further Reading

Our website provides a full listing of our extensive selection of First World War titles. Essential Histories Specials 2: The First World War - The war to end all wars (extract below) details the Great War that raged for over four years across the tortured landscapes of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, changing the face of warfare forever.

Men-at-Arms 391: The British Army in World War I (1) The Western Front 1914-16, Men-at-Arms 402: The British Army in World War I (2) 1915-17, Warrior 16: British Tommy 1914-18 (extract below) and Men at Arms 286: The French Army 1914-18 detail the experiences, uniforms and equipment of the Allied forces who fought in the trenches of the Somme.

Men-at-Arms 407: The German Army in World War I (2) 1915-17 and Elite 97: The Kaiser’s Warlords - German Commanders of World War I (extract below) profiles some of the German Army’s most memorable commanders, including General Falkenhayn, Chief of the General Staff at the start of the Somme conflict.

Elite 84: World War I Trench Warfare (2) 1916-18, Fortress 24: Fortifications of the Western Front 1914-18 and New Vanguard 100: British Mark I Tank 1916 give a glimpse into the horrors of trench warfare and the armoured fighting vehicles developed to manoeuvre across the harsh terrain.