The Somme. Part 8

HERMIES, 19 August, 1917

I had my first real experience of a bombardment last night in an observation-post just opposite Havrincourt. “Minenwerfer”  and whizzbangs were dropping all round me, bursting redly in the long grass and crashing on the sunless road beneath. The characteristic of a whizzbang is its speed: the  victim has no time to estimate his chances before the shell is on him. It travels as swift as sound, with the result that the bang of the gun coincides with the explosion. I was wondering which one would get me next, but the enemy found it impossible to get anything like a direct hit. One, however, covered me with dirt and gave me a nice hour’s work shaking shirt and trousers clear.

If you are in a mood for fireworks and artificial illumination, the scene last night would have satisfied your wildest expectations. The brigade to the right of us put over liquid-fire and shell-gas. I was dreaming comfortably at my post, watching thistle heads bob up and down and rats trip lightly over the sandbags when a sudden fare on the opposite ridge wakened me to reality. A long, low bank of white smoke became visible in front of a yellow starlight thrown up from the enemy lines ; then it swelled out, rose on end, trailed off in long tails, and at last rolled across in an overwhelming wave, burning like slag fresh from the furnace. Meanwhile green lights were rising to the right and left, showers of stars trailed in a long arc and fell into the white wave, flying darts rose and flickered, and occasionally a red light showed that the enemy craved the help of artillery.

The volume of smoke increased and blotted out even the highest Vèry lights, so that the illumination appeared to come from behind instead of within : to the left a broad yellow flare shone dimly, like an October moon rising from mist on the fields. Rising and falling, the great wave swept over Cambrai and beyond, forming of sky, valley, hill, a strangely gradated monotone in every shade of green – green of the first leaf and green of the deepest pool. 

The noise was terrific: gas-shells, trench-mortars, “minenwerfers”, “flying-pigs”,  9’2’s, 18-pounders, whizzbangs – all crashing together; machine-guns kept rattling away from both lines. Strange to say, the German artillery did not reply until an hour afterwards, when the bombardment I have mentioned began. Even in the darkness the bank of gas gleamed obscurely for miles, like a cloud lying along the horizon.

The effect appeared the most magnificent I have ever seen, even in imagination : the idea that so many lives perished in the smoke added a certain solemnity to the picture, not perhaps in the wave itself, nor in the flash and flare of light, but in the colouring thought. Even the slightest thing that tells of human struggle or pain becomes ennobled in self, and perhaps more sublime. That is my idea of last night.

Above me German anti-aircraft shells are bursting in the azure. Some of our aeroplanes come past regularly every evening, and the same welcome meets them. The conies come forth from their holes and gaze heavenward, like the Wise Men following a star. The air seems full to satiety with humming, distant and near, as if thousands of bees had deserted the flowers and sought a new nectar in the clouds.

There is something wonderfully picturesque in the life. Two nights ago, while heaving up earth, I saw what resembled a piece of phosphorus lying at my feet. I stooped down and picked it up. When it began to squirm and wriggle over my hand, I knew it was a glow-worm, and digging took on interest. Henceforth my concern was to uncover glow-worms, not to pile up a parapet.

Apart from their beauty, association makes them precious. I remembered Shelley’s lines in the Skylark.

Like a glow-worm golden in a dell of dew.

The antiquarian imagination raised that humble creature lying quiescent on the ground into the scope of fine imagery and broad- winged thought, touching it to the angel and poising it above the sordid. For the moment I forgot I was in the war, and not in the grasp of romance centred in narrative, alive in fiction. Then some one ventured the humorous remark, the enemy had sent up a great number of Vèry lights that night. Of course, he meant the stars.