Extract from the memoirs of Charles George Alexander Parke, 7th Divisions Gordon Highlanders.
An article written by one of the Old Contemptibles
Early in the morning of the 16th October, as the strafing intensified to a new level of carnage, the British front line troops knew their time of reckoning was at hand; their country needed them now more than ever before, they sensed it and were ready.
Their trusted Lee-Enfield Mark 2 rifles, each primed with a clip of 5 cartridges or rounds, were in the firing position; in dry weather, as it was at that time, 15 more rounds lay on the parapet top in front of each man. Each brass bodied cartridge, with a copper fuse at one end and a lignite-powered nickel-plated steel bullet the other, were precious; wild cat strikes in the British munitions industry had made it even more imperative that every single cartridge must count, a statement to which the hordes of German infantry, shortly to appear and reappear, added even more emphasis. The waiting Tommy had 5 pouches on each side of his equipment, each pouch holding 3 clips, giving a total of 30 rounds of fire power held on the body; in addition the bulk ammunition was brought in Amnol boxes, comprising a sealed container within a wooden box, by men from the reserve trench. The ammunition inside the box was neatly arranged in disposable bandoleers, which took the form of a sash, having 10 pouches each holding a clip of 5 rounds. The thin, khaki lightweight cotton bandoleer was a convenient method for a soldier to carry an extra 200 rounds over his shoulder when moving positions.
They could see some movement in the trees some 800-1000 yards away: there were many trees in that area at the outset of war. Nature's camouflage prevented the British from obtaining a clear picture of exactly how many Germans were there. Time was meaningless in those pre-battle nervous moments but it would be about 8 o'clock in the morning when the enemy came from out of the tree to show itself for the first time, packed shoulder to shoulder. They'd experienced the fear of the search by enemy artillery but this new fear of some overwhelming numbers was possibly even worse at that early stage.
The Germans wore grey uniforms which, when massed, gave a suggestion of a blue hue, with matching circular hats, in shape not unlike those worn by the British Navy; the hats exhibited a red band together with the Regimental badge and officers were readily distinguishable by additional red markings on the lapel. Their packed formation were four rows deep, each row barely a foot behind the one in front; it was a stunning sight for the first time to the men of the 7th, knowing that they had no hopes of reinforcements and that the future of dear old Blighty depended at that moment on them and them alone. The Germans started advancing at a fast march pace firing their rifles into the air whilst at the post position, an approximately 45 degree angle trajectory, an exercise that killed nobody but was just another of the Hun's frightening tactics. At 800 yards the British started intermittent firing, approximately six rounds per minute; it was like shelling peas from a pod, the Germans were so closely massed, it was difficult to miss. At 400 yards the enemy increased the speed of charge to a slow double but at the same time the 7th Division switched to rapid fire with that magical 15 rounds per minute minimum. It was bloody murder, the grey masses fell like nine pins, the man behind climbing over his dead comrade and continuing the advance. It was as though those brave men had been told by their ruthless, ambitious Kaiser that they could walk through bullets. That first day the Hun made 7 charges, always literally shoulder to shoulder in 4 rows, and always with the same result, the wholesale slaughter of the cream of German manhood.
After rapid fire for approximately 15 minutes the wooden casing over the barrel of the Lee Enfield became too hot to hold so the men would either use the webbing sling to protect their left hand or scoop soil and grass from the top of the parapet as a heat shield. Charlie gave the orders to his men regarding the rate of fire and if, per chance, the Brigadier General himself was present in the trench during an enemy assault, Charlie would still be in command of his men and would be the only one to give the intermittent or rapid fire orders. When the man in charge was killed, the next in rank seniority would take over immediately: should the survivors be all of equal rank, the eldest man would assume overall responsibility. Every man knew his limit of authority and this discipline, driven and drilled into the cursing common soldier of the British Army over countless years, stood them in good stead in this, their greatest-ever test.
That first day drew to its close the same way it had started, with constant strafing of the British lines; mounds of dead, wax-moustached Germans littered No-mans land with the sharp incline towards Charlie's trench ensuring there were no enemy corpses within 100 yards of their section of front line; on the flatter land to their left, however, Fritz had made greater in-roads. After only one day they were hardened soldiers to whom time meant little and survival was the only subject uppermost in their minds.
One of his men had a shrapnel wound in the hip and was obviously in pain, whilst the stock of ammunition had become alarmingly depleted. Since no communication trenches had been dug at that early stage, men from the support trench had to bring ammunition up over the top under the cover of darkness whilst still under shell fire. The only brought ammunition, no food nor liquid that night of the 16th October; they took back the injured man with great difficulty, leaving Charlie now with just seven extremely hungry men.
They had emergency rations on their persons consisting of 2 rock hard currant biscuits and a small tin of bully beef, which they wouldn't eat until absolutely necessary since they had no idea just how long rations would be in getting through. That night they afforded themselves but a sip of water from their army issue water bottle, curved to sit on the hip. Through the nocturnal hours they could hear the enemy moving their wounded from No-man's land but they never fired at the enemy they couldn't see since to waste bullets was sacrilege.
The 17th October saw slightly fewer German attacks, five in actual fact, but the closely knit rows had been increased to 6; the 3 year old proficiency pay deal linked to rifle range performance was paying handsome dividends. The British couldn't believe the enemy would persist with this massed formation which fell easy prey that murderous firepower. Yet still they came relentlessly and suicidedly forward with sometimes one bullet, providing it missed the bone structure, killing three or even four men.
That night those tired, ravenous men eagerly looked forward to their nightly visit from their Regimental comrades from the support positions, anticipating rations. Once again the ammunition came, but there again the ammunition always came, it taking priority over food. They did however bring tea brought in a cooking can with a lid; they used the lukewarm tea, so stewed you could stand a spoon up in it, to soften their rock hard emergency biscuit ration in order to protect their teeth. For how long could they stand this endurance test.
"In many a month I've seen many more dinner times than dinners." Charlie started singing the old war song made famous by 'The Dumbells', a group of nine regular soldiers, who eventually were taken from the front line to entertain the British troops in France and Belgium. It was a number certainly born out of truth because, with respect to supplies to the front line, ammunition came 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with food a distant 4th.
One appreciation of which many are not aware is the monumental task of keeping a front line army supplied with all their needs: it is said that for every man firing at Fritz you needed seven to keep him supplied. This huge burden fell on the broad shoulders of the Army Service Corps whose responsibility it was to ship every single requirement from the railhead to the reserve trenches. As the months dragged on and trench warfare became more and more sophisticated, so that list of requirements became increasingly longer.By the third day, October 18th, in the British front line by day there was a man stationed at only 14 yard intervals, whereas at night there was only 7 .yards between consecutive soldiers. The reason for this was that parties of men were removed and taken to different adjacent areas, usually under cover of a clump of trees, from whence they fired on the advancing enemy. The express purpose of these diversions was to make the enemy believe there were far more men in the 7th that what they'd been led to believe, but the movements had two other beneficial effects: it gave the men exercise and possibly the opportunity to grab some rations. It produced thinner firing power from the front line trench areas on which the enemy was advancing but the firepower was so rapid and accurate that they still held the line.