(By Philip Gibbs, with the British Armies in the Field)
At Ovillers there has been fierce fighting today which has gained for us several important bits of trench and ground. Linking up with other separate points already won, so that this German stronghold is closely besieged. Nearer to Thiepval it was strangely quiet after the great fighting a week and more ago. The village of Thiepval itself was deadly quiet in the German lines of brown, bombarded earth, beyond our whiter trenches. What was once a wood there, about red-roofed barns and houses and old church tower, is now only a number of charred stumps sticking up for the brickdust and ruin of these buildings.
The Second Line
Behind Thiepval, captured and lost by our soldiers after heroic fighting and great sacrifice on July 1, could be seen the places, which the enemy is holding in his second line of defence, the next line of village fortresses. They were marked by the tall chimney of Courcelette, the woods of Grandcourt, and the church spire of Irles. And there, standing high and clear above the ridge, was one landmark which has been famous before the war, and will be again before the war is ended. It was the clock tower of Bapaume, and if the sun had been shining on it we could have read the time of day. On the ridge above Thiepval were little moving figures. “Germans,” said a sergeant with one eye to his glass. There was a lot of them, crawling about like ants, but none of our shells fell among them. All guns were busy on other work further to the right, where the smoke of great shells rose like smouldering fires over all the ground from Ovillers to Montauban.
Streets of Adventure
The fighting for Ovillers has been hard, bloody and close. Many of our men have died to gain a yard or two of earth-work. There have been great adventures in the capturing of some bits of broken brick or the working around a ditch below the remnants of a wall. Under a steady drive of machine-gun bullets sweeping all around, men of ours from Cheshire and another English county in the north have crept forward at night have crept forward at night with a few hand-grenades and flung themselves against the enemy’s bombing-posts and barricades and fought fiercely to smash down the sandbags or brickwork and get a few more yards of clear ground. They have sapped their way underground and blown up the roofs of vaults where Germans lay in hiding with machine-guns. They have fought in small parties, gaining isolated points in the southern part of the village, and holding on to them under heavy fire until only a few men remained alive, still holding on.
War Below Ground
War Below Ground
There have been fights to the death between a handful of English or Irish soldiers and a dozen or more Germans, meeting each other in the darkness of deep cellars quarried out from the chalk subsoil, and the German gunners peering out of slits in concrete emplacements below-ground and firing bursts of bullets down the roadway have found themselves suddenly in the grasp of men covered with white clay rising out of holes in the earth with no weapons but their picks. Ovillers is a place of abominable ruin. “Do you know Neuville St. Vaast?” asked an officer this morning, and when I nodded (because I had a near call there), he said, “Ovillers beats it hollow, for sheer annihilation.” There is nothing left of it except dust. There is not a wall standing 2ft high, or a bit of a wall. The guns have swept it flat.
But underground there are still great cellars quarried out by inhabitants who have now fled; and in these the Germans are holding out against our attacks and our bombardments. Heavy shells have opened up some of them, and filled them with dead and wounded, but many still stand strong, and out of them come the enemy’s machine-guns and bombers to make counter-attacks against the ditches and debris from which our men turn working forward. The ground is pitted with enormous shell holes, in which men lie buried. Ovillers is perhaps more ghastly than any ruined ground along the front. It was at 8 o’clock on the morning of July 7 that the south-eastern part of the village was taken by assault. The North Country men advanced from a line to the north of La Boisselle after a great bombardment, and went over the open ground to the labyrinth of trenches which defend the village. These had been smashed into a tumult of earth and sandbags, but, as usual, some of the German machine-gunners had been untouched in their dug-outs, and they came up to serve their machines as soon as our barrage lifted.
Straight at the Gun
Other Germans defended themselves with bombs. There was savage fighting between the broken traverse, in shell craters, and in ditches. Many of our men fell but others came up and pushed further forward. One officer and a man or two ran straight towards a German machine gun which was doing deadly work and knocked it out with a well-aimed bomb. But higher up on this maze of broken trenches was a German redoubt, from which machine gun fire came in streams. Some Irish soldiers tried to storm the place, but suffered heavy casualties in front of the redoubt. It was decided to fall back a little, and reform the line for the night, and all through the night the men worked to build up barricades to cut off the enemy form the southern end of the village. That end was being ”cleaned out” of Germans, who were routed out of cellars. Many of them were glad to surrender.
“Bags” of Prisoners
“We took bags of ‘em,” said an officer in charge of this work. Next day the men worked their way forward above ground and below ground. Some crept out of a ditch and worked up to a bombing post made by others on the left of the village. Another body of troops made a sudden forward movement, and, taking the enemy by surprise, marched round the left and took up a line right across the south-west end of Ovillers without loss. That was a great gain which enabled our men to link up from separate points. The fighting today has been a further process of fitting up this jig-saw puzzle of isolated groups who have been burrowing into the German stronghold. A great adventure, or what the officers call a fine “stunt,” was carried out by some Lancashire men on the right of the village. They were told to send out a patrol overland in the direction of Pozieres. I think to the young officers in charge it must have seemed rather like a pleasant suggestion to go and discover the North Pole or the Magnetic North. However, the idea appealed to them; they would see some new country, and there was quite a chance of individual fighting, which is so much better than being killed in a ditch by shell fire. With them went a young machine-gun officer, who is justly proud of having gone out with 16 machine guns and, as you shall hear, of coming back with 20. I know that he was pleased with himself, as he ought to be, because he had a laughing light In his eyes when I gave him a lift in a car on the way back to a good dinner, and, having escaped without a scratch (and four extra guns) it is no wonder that he thought this adventure “a topping bit of work.” It was gallant work, and as far as the first day went, without loss. The little company of men struck northeastwards towards up an old bit of communication trench, and part of the way in the open, in the twilight and the darkness that followed. They were going steadily into German territory, to the high ground which slopes down to Pozieres. There were lots of Germans about – thousands of them not enormously far away – but they did not expect a visit life this, and were not watchful of this piece of ground. After working forward for something like a mile they came to a redoubt inhabited by German bombers.
|Print Published With Gibbs' Story on Ovillers|
Men Who Got There
What happened then is not very clear to me, and was certainly not very clear to the Germans. But this place was passed successfully, and it was further on that my machine gun friend (the fellow with the sparkle in his eyes) increased his number of guns. This part of the adventure is also somewhat confused, as most fighting is. He tells me that he “pinched” the guns. Also he made “a bag of them.” Anyhow, he captured them, and has brought them back which is very good proof that they were taken. So far all went well. The night was spent in consolidating this extraordinary position right in the heart of German territory, and all next day our men stayed there. They had a wonderful view of the country below them, saw many things worth noting for future use, and sent bursts of machine gun fire at the enemy’s infantry moving down to attack our troops. But it was too good to last. The enemy became aware that they were being hit from a position where none of our troops could possible, according to logic of things.
|British Machine Gunners in Gas Helmets - Ovillers July 1916|
Heroes Who Stayed
There must have been some frightful words used by German officers before they ordered an infantry attack to clear these Englishmen out. The infantry came down a trench from Pozieres, but as they came they were met by a stream of machine-gun fire directed by the young officer who had had “pinched” four more guns than he had taken out. They suffered heavy casualties and the attack broke down. But then the enemy put this guns to work, as he always does when his infantry fails, and what had been a great adventure, with a sporting chance, became a deadly business, with all the odds against our men. The enemy’s shell-fire was concentrated heavily upon this one bit of trench away out in the open, and the ground was ploughed up with high explosives. The machine guns were taken back, but the British held until at last only one officer and six men were left. Those who came back unwounded numbered in the end only one officer and one man – with the exception of a sergeant who stayed behind with a wounded Irishman. He would not leave his comrade, and for 36 hours stayed out in his exposed position with heavy shells falling on every side of him. The Irishman was delirious, and making such a noise that his friend knocked him on the head to keep him quiet. Every time a shell burst near him he shouted out, “You’ve missed me again, Fritz.” But the sergeant himself kept his wits. He is a Lancashire man and with all the dogged pluck of Lancashire. When the bombardment quietened down he brought back his friend, and then went out to No Man’s Land to search for another one.
Germans Not Cripples
But let us not forget that our men have not the monopoly of courage in this war. We have against us a brave enemy, and again and again during this battle our officers and men have paid a tribute to the stubborn fighting qualities of the German soldiers. “For goodness sake,” said the officer, “get rid of that strange idea I the minds of many people at home that we are fighting old men and boys and cripples.” “All the Germans we have met and captured have been big, hefty fellows well-fed until our bombardment stopped their food, and with plenty of pluck in them.” As far as food goes the watchword of the German people is “soldiers first.” That they are suffering themselves seems certain from the letters found in great numbers in their captured dug out. It seems to me incredible that these should be fictitious. Here is a letter form Cologne: - “Hunger is making itself felt here. During the week none of the families received any potatoes. The allowance now is one egg per head per week and ½ lb of bread and 30 grammes of butter per head per day. “England is not so wrong about starving us out. If the war lasts three months longer we shall be done. It is a terrible time for Germany. God is punishing us too severely.”