The million British dead have left no books behind. What they felt as they died hour by hour in the mud, or were choked horribly with gas, or relinquished their reluctant lives on stretchers, no witness tells. But here is a book that almost tells it. . . . Mr. Gristwood has had the relentless simplicity to recall things as they were; he was as nearly dead as he could be without dying, and he has smelt the stench of his own corruption. This is the story of millions of men—of millions.” —H. G. Wells
In The Somme and its companion The Coward, first published in 1927, the heroics of war and noble self-sacrifice are completely absent, replaced by the gritty realism of life for the ordinary soldier in World War I and an unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war. Written under the guidance of master storyteller H. G. Wells, they are classics of the genre.
Based on A. D. Gristwood’s own wartime experiences, The Somme revolves around a futile attack during the 1916 Somme campaign. On the battlefront, Tom Everitt is wounded and must be moved back through a series of dressing stations to the General Hospital at Rouen. Few other accounts of the war give such an accurate picture of trench life, and The Spectator praised Gristwood’s “very effective writing,” calling The Somme “a book which anyone who was not in the War should read.”
The Coward concerns a man who shoots himself in the hand to escape the chaos during the March 1918 retreat—an offense punishable by death—and is haunted by fear of discovery and self-loathing. Together, these works offer a vivid, immersive view of the First World War and the suffering it inflicted on the men who fought it.
About the Author
The son of a professional cricketer and a lady’s maid, H. G. Wells (1866–1946) served apprenticeships as a draper and a chemist’s assistant before winning a scholarship to the prestigious Normal School of Science in London. While he is best remembered for his groundbreaking science fiction novels, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.
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The Somme and The Coward
By A. D. Gristwood
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 1927 A. D. Gristwood
All rights reserved.
It was a gloriously hot and sunny day in September. The Loamshires were in newly won trenches outside Combles. The town, or the battered husk that represented it, had fallen that morning, but the battalion was far from feeling any flush of victory. Even the unheard-of event of the French advancing past Combles in clearly visible columns of fours failed to rouse them. Every one was languid and weary and dispirited.
The trenches had been abandoned by the Germans only yesterday, and everywhere lay scattered their arms and clothing. And not only arms! Sprawling over the parapets were things in rags of grey and khaki that had once been men. As far as the clothing went nothing extraordinary was visible, but the dead men's faces were black with a multitude of flies. These indeed were the worst horror. Everywhere they found carrion and ordure, and, disturbed by the traffic of the trench, the buzzing cloud revealed raw festering flesh where once had been a happy human countenance. Fresh from such a feast, they settled on living men and shared their rations: sluggish, bloated creatures, blue and green and iridescent. Well was Beelzebub named the Prince of Flies!
Sometimes the Germans had buried their dead in the floor of the trench, where, baking in the sun, the earth had cracked into star-shaped fissures. A foot treading unwarily here sunk suddenly downwards, disturbing hundreds of white and wriggling maggots. In one place a hand with blue and swollen fingers projected helplessly from the ground. 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'
An order had been given that, in consolidating the trench, as soon as pick or shovel should disturb the dead, the hole should be filled in again and the earth beaten down. Often fragments of blanket or clothing gave warning, and sometimes the sudden gush of escaping gases. Not a hundred yards to the left lay Leuze Wood, captured by the battalion a fortnight ago. Little progress had been made since then, and, in so exposed a position, the dead could not always be buried. Moreover, fatigue and the indifference of desperation made their presence of little account, and thus there lay in the billows of tumbled earth a company of dead men half-buried, flung there like puppets thrown down by a child. Close to the trench a man of the Loamshires stood nearly upright, buried to the waist, his arms fast bound to his side, his glassy eyes wide open to the sky, his face stained livid yellow from the fumes of an explosion. Who he was no one knew: doubtless his dear ones were writing to him in hope and trust for his welfare: doubtless they had prayed that night for his safety. And all the time he stood there, glaring upwards as though mutely appealing from Earth to Heaven.
The carrion reek of putrefaction filled the wind. For twenty-four hours drum-fire had deafened all the world, and sleep had been a matter of dozes between hours of horror. Hostile shelling, occasional casualties, the dead weight of fatigue, the grim barrenness of what was called a 'victory,' the vista of months ahead – fear ever lying in wait to grow to panic – small wonder if these things had damped men's spirits! There had indeed been current that morning rumours of relief, promptly discountenanced by experienced cynics. (And every one who had been in France for a month was a cynic.) There were even tales of a Divisional Rest for a month, laughed to scorn even more readily.
Hence the glittering wonder of the event. To a party of men carrying petrol-tins on a water-fatigue appeared an immaculate being in red tabs. He seemed strangely out of place in that Golgotha – and yet not so out of place. 'Who are you men?' 'Tenth Loamshires, sir.' 'What are you doing?' 'Water party, sir.' 'You don't want any water. You're relieved to-night. Go down to the "Cookers" and wait orders there. Don't take those things back – the less movement we have the better.' Thus the beneficent decree of the Dynast. Soulless plodding changed to eager haste; tongues were unloosed. A sergeant was heard to say: 'That ends the bloody Somme for us,' and in less than a minute every one was repeating the words like a hope of salvation.
The 'Cookers' lay in a deep hollow a mile to the rear of the line. The place was known as 'Death Valley,' by no means without reason. There were the foremost batteries, and the fatigue party waited until dusk in a whirlpool of hurry. The 'Big Push,' to use the euphemistic cant of the day, was in full cry. Always new guns were arriving, and ammunition-limbers, ration-wagons, water-carts, field-kitchens, mules, stores of the Royal Engineers, camouflage materials, corrugated iron, timber, barbed wire, sandbags in thousands. No lorries or ambulances could reach Death Valley, however, which lay far from paved roads among the uplands of the Somme. The hill-side tracks had been utterly obliterated by the weeks of shell-fire since the bloodstained 1st July, and all the countryside was a wilderness. To write 'a wilderness' is easy, but to realize the appearance of the landscape you must have seen it. Thereabouts the country is open downland, after the manner of Sussex, largely grass-covered, and sprinkled capriciously with rare patches of woodland. From the crests of the ridges mile upon mile of country was visible, and everywhere the land lay utterly waste and desolate. Not a green thing survived the harrowing of the shells. Constant barrages had churned the land into a vast desert of shell-craters, one intersecting another like the foul pock-markings of disease. To look over these miles of blasted country, thus scarified to utter nakedness, was to see a lunar landscape, lifeless, arid and accursed.
At night this sense of other-worldliness was stronger than ever. In the dense darkness, where to show a light was probably suicide, the dismal sea of craters was lit only by the flash of guns and the noiseless ghastly glare of Verey lights. In the white radiance of the magnesium flares all things seemed to await judgment, and the ensuing utter darkness came with the suddenness of doom. From dusk to dawn they traced in the sky their graceful parabolas, hanging long in the air as though unwilling to cease their brooding over it. Always they seemed cold, revealing, pitiless, illuminating with passionless completeness this foul chaos of man's making, unutterably sad and desolate beneath the stars. From far behind the line you could trace the course of the trenches by their waxing and waning, and the veriest child at home knew the danger of their all-revealing splendour.
By day the hills were deserted, and only in the valleys and hollows was movement visible. In daylight those open ridges might only be crossed in safety by small parties of perhaps twenty men – lost in the vastness of the landscape. Larger parties drew gun-fire, and road traffic could by no means face the wilderness. It was in such small parties that the Loamshires had first found their way to Combles from the flesh-pots of Amiens: their first sight of the Somme battlefield was gained from the Crucifix above Death Valley. This ancient iron cross, rusty, bent, and ominous, yet remained as a notorious landmark on the hill-side, and from the shattered trenches near by they looked forward across the valley to a hideous welter of dust and smoke and intolerable noise. A heavy bombardment was in progress, and great spouts of flying earth sprang skywards unceasingly. Not a yard of the tortured earth appeared immune from these volcanoes, and it seemed impossible that a man could live five minutes within the zone of their tumult. And yet they knew that men were facing their utmost shock and horror not a mile from where they were standing, and it was all too obvious that their turn awaited them Tiny dust-coloured figures could be seen moving amid the welter, surviving by a miracle. The continuous hullabaloo of guns smote their ears with a vicious perseverance of shock. There, across the valley, lay the reeking core of this desolation, smoking, flaming, forcing itself with hideous toil and confusion towards an unknown decision. For miles to north and south stretched this artificial Hell, and the reek of it darkened the autumn sky.
Within the region of desolation the rare woods were matchwood only, shattered stumps of trees, bristles of timber splintered and torn to fantastic shreds and Patches. Each wood was a maze of ruined trenches, obstructed by the fallen riven trunks of trees, dotted with half-obliterated dugouts, littered with torn fragments of barbed wire. This, indeed, was largely twisted and broken by shell-fire, but in rusted malignancy it yet remained fiercely hindering. Immediately after their final capture (for commonly they changed hands half a dozen times in a week) these woodlands of the Somme represented the apotheosis of Mars. There lay the miscellaneous débris of war – men living, dying and dead, friend and foe broken and shattered beyond imagination, rifles, clothing, cartridges, fragments of men, photographs of Amy and Gretchen, letters, rations, and the last parcel from home. Shells hurling more trees upon the general ruin, the dazing concussion of their explosion, the sickly sweet smell of 'gas,' the acrid fumes of 'H.E.,' hot sunshine mingling with spouts of flying earth and smoke, the grim portent of bodies buried a week ago and now suffering untimely resurrection, the chatter of machine-guns, and the shouts and groans of men – such were the woods of the Somme, where once primroses bloomed and wild rabbits scampered through the bushes.
Rarely are there many men visible, and the few are hot, grimy and exhausted beneath their ludicrous shrapnel helmets shaped like pie-dishes. They move slowly because they can by no means move otherwise. The mud from recent rains has caked on the skirts of their great-coats, and their boots and puttees are coated white and yellow with soil. Probably they last shaved a week ago, and have since washed in shell-holes. They are irritable, quarrelsome, restless even in their fatigue, with dark shadows beneath their eyes and drawn, set faces. That little group carrying a stretcher, plodding slowly, with eyes fixed on the ground and faces of a strange dead, yellowish hue, is leaving the front line. For perhaps forty-eight hours the men have been lying in holes and ditches, 'being shelled to hell.' They passed the time as best they might – smoking, dozing, eating, quarrelling, drinking, cleaning rifles that were instantly fouled again by the drifting dust. They dared not leave their holes even to relieve the demands of nature. Vermin maddened them and only ceased their ravages in the cool of the night. Occasionally a shell struck home and they saw their friends mangled to red tatters. Sometimes men were numbed to idiocy by concussion; sometimes they were buried alive in the earthquake of a collapsing trench; sometimes a lucky man secured an arm wound and 'packed up' for hospital before their envying eyes. Perhaps an exposed position involved digging. Chalk is tough to handle, and the spur of shell-fire, if it goads to exertion, does little to invigorate. And this is why they seem dazed, with the haggard beaten air of suffering children. But at least their faces are set towards the old familiar world of trees and fields and farm-yards; of women and children; of red-roofed estaminets where vin rouge restores the hearts of men, of straw barns where lives oblivion.
It will be said that here is no trace of the 'jovial Tommy' of legend, gay, careless, facetious, facing all his troubles with a grin and daunting the enemy by his light-heartedness. We all know the typical Tommy of the War Correspondents – those ineffable exponents of cheap optimism and bad jokes. "Alf a mo', Kaiser,' is the type in a nutshell. A favourite gambit is the tale of the wounded man who was smoking a Woodbine. Invariably he professes regret at 'missing the fun,' and seeks to convey the impression that bayonet fighting is much like a football match, and even more gloriously exciting. It was such trash that drugged men's minds to the reality of war. Every one actively concerned in it hated it, and the actual business of fighting can never be made anything but devilish. It is even divested of the old hypocritical glories of music and gay colours (and so far, indeed, the change is for the better). The patriots at home urged that 'it was necessary to keep up the nation's spirit; nothing would have been gained by unnecessary gloom,' but a people that must be doped to perseverance with lies is in an evil case, and the event of these Bairnsfather romances was a gigantic scheme of falsehood. How bitterly it was resented the nation never knew.
From Death Valley the Loamshires marched over the hills to Meaulte. At the tail-end of the march they were dog-weary, but twelve hours' sleep on straw went far to restore them. For twenty-four hours the joy of release was undimmed. With clean, vermin-free underclothing, and after a long night's rest and a hot shower-bath, once more it was possible to think sanely; the lowering cloud of urgent danger was lifted for a season. Perhaps it was a cynical enjoyment, but the bands that played in the square, the cosy, crazy little shops where wrinkled old women sold delicious coffee, the roaring tide of khaki, drunk and sober, in the streets, made them forget altogether those thousands suffering and dying in the furnace not half a dozen miles away. Meaulte lies on the edge of the 'old front line' and, to normal eyes, was hideous enough. The houses had been shelled to greater or less dilapidation, and dust lay thick on every road and yard. The shops, even when intact, were blighted with a hopeless dirt and squalor. Hardly a house remained in occupation, and the few inhabitants, lost in the crowd of troops, sold coffee, vin rouge, biscuits, chocolate, tinned fruits and cigarettes as the last resource against ruin. Every garden had run wild, and the autumn flowers were dusty and stunted among the weeds. It was a foul-mouthed, jostling throng that filled the streets, their pockets temporarily full and hearts light by reason of a week's respite. Small wonder drunkenness and debauchery ran riot in the place. They were the only means of forgetting.
From this grey pandemonium the men of the Loamshires hoped to march westwards again to the real France beyond the battle zone. 'Divisional Rest' was due, and already that month the brigade had lost more than half its strength at Leuze Wood. New drafts had restored their numbers, but some weeks of work together would be required to restore the battalions to efficiency. But, quenching the sergeant's pious hope, came on the second morning the order to 'parade for pay and stand by ready to move off in an hour's time.' The news came like a blow, and the delayed pay an hour before departure seemed a refinement of exasperation. Of what use was money if the creditors were to be moved away from all chance of spending it? During pay-parade the company commanders, haranguing their men, told them that they were to return to the 'forward area' (blessed euphemism) for ten days, and that the battalion's sole duty lay in the construction of a forward-trench as close as might be to the German lines. They were assured, with a particularity that seemed almost suspicious, that during this 'tour in the line' they were to be used only as pioneers. Certainly they had done Yeomen's service on the Somme, both on the 1st July at Gommecourt and on the 9th September at Leuze Wood, and undoubtedly the new drafts were inexperienced and unassimilated. But already the rumoured Divisional Rest had been cut down from a month to a day, and dark suspicions grew like the rank weeds of Meaulte.
Trones Wood of ill memory was their destination, and the march there filled the greater part of two days. After a night in old German dugouts, the official Reserve position were found to be nothing more than a series of shelter trenches midway between Trones Wood and Guillemont. These were the merest slots in the ground, none more than five feet deep. Wrapping themselves in blankets and ground-sheets, and covering the tops of the trenches with pilfered timber and sheets of corrugated iron, they made themselves as comfortable as might be. These narrow ditches resembled the drainage-trenches of a London suburb in the heyday of its development towards villadom, but the grimly humorous found a resemblance to graves. By good management it was just possible to curl up head to head in the slots, and the impedimenta of equipment were jammed haphazard into holes and corners. After dark no lights were allowed above ground, but, by shutting in a section of trench with ground-sheets, the feeble illumination of candles was available to those who had the good fortune to possess any. Crawling along these narrow alley-ways at night, dodging beneath ingenious erections of blankets, stumbling over a long litter of men and equipment, you would imagine yourself in an overcrowded coal-mine, where fools performed the simplest tasks with incredible toil. To turn, you must stand up, and to venture out of the trench was to invite the immediate disaster of falling headlong into a shell-hole. Once you had lost your bivouac it might take you half an hour to recover it.
Excerpted from The Somme and The Coward by A. D. Gristwood. Copyright © 1927 A. D. Gristwood. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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About the Author,