Combat and tactics

Martin Pegler

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 Some became quiet and withdrawn, others cracked jokes to cheer their chums up.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.

© 2006 Osprey Publishing Ltd, British Tommy 191418 (Warrior 16)