Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Face of Battle: Spring 1917

German Field Gun Firing, Western Front, 1917

The face of battle, as the historian John Keegan famously called it, is well known, hence three diary entries—,one Canadian, one French and one German—might well serve our purpose [of showing what the fighting was like during the Nivelle/Arras offensive of spring 1917.] 

Private Adelbert F. Brayman, 50th Battalion (Calgary) of the 4th Canadian
Division, was wounded storming Hill 145 at Vimy. He remembered the ferocity of the battle:

From the very first minute of the attack we came under murderous and hellish fire from the machine guns . . . we lost about 30 per cent of the fighting forces before we got into [the enemy’s] green line of trenches and went into hand-to-hand fighting. . . . As we looked back up that ridge in the early dawn we witnessed a scene never to be forgotten. The entire face of the hill was covered with German green and Canadian khaki. Men lay out there in that blood-soaked field, some dead, some dying.

A young French baker from Burgundy named René Jacob wrote his parents from the battlefield near Soissons as follows:

How can one describe it? What words to use? Corpses everywhere. Black and green corpses. Corpses in strange positions: a knee jutting up into the air, or an arm resting against a trench wall. Corpses that one has to cover with chalk or straw, or dirt and sand. The ground covered with their entrails. Corpses that one buries or burns. A terrible smell, a smell as from a charnel house, rises up and chokes us. . . . I spoke to you earlier of a battlefield; no, it is more like a slaughter yard. Not even the wind that blows across the Ridge can disperse the stench of death.

A Lone Poilu atop Plateau de Californie, East of Soissons

On the German side of [Vimy]  Ridge at Giessler Heights, Hermann Bauer with 14th Bavarian Infantry Regiment wrote home in much the same vein:

Has all hell broke loose? An ear-splitting din and roar goes on unabated, and already the first 15mm shell bursts into the south wall of the [sand] pit. A trench wall collapses, but there is no time to think. . . . And the [snow] flakes fall much like shell splinters. They tear all life into shreds. We all suck in our breaths. . . . The Tommys have broken through. 

Now, come on you Canadians! Suddenly they burst forth from Sand Pit 2; they disdain any ground cover, these Canadian storm troops. They seem to believe that their hellish [artillery] fire has demoralized and buried us.

From: Herwig, Holger (2016) "“The Battle-Fortune of Marshal Hindenburg Is Not Bound Up with the Possession of a Hill: The Germans and Vimy Ridge, April 1917," Canadian Military History: Vol. 25


  1. "They tear all life to shreds." How horribly descriptive.

  2. 'And the (snow) flakes fall much like shell splinters'. I may be missing an important way of reading this but it appears back to front? A mis-translation perhaps?