The Blacks Attack!
A Vivid Battle Scene by Rheinhold Eichacker, a German Officer on the Western Front
By Rhinehold Eichacker
[New York Times/Current History, April 1917]
"After a lengthy artillery preparation, and colored Frenchmen attacked our positions in heavy force. They succeeded in getting a foothold in some of our most advanced trenches. A furious counterattack drove them back again in a hand-to-hand encounter. Nothing else of importance."—German Army Report.
At 7:15 in the morning the French attacked. The black Senegal negroes, France's cattle for the shambles. After a seven-hour suffocating drumfire that, according to all human reckoning, should not have left a mortal man alive. But we still lived and waited. Six meters under the sod lay our "waiting rooms." Burrowed into the ground on a slant. "Courage bracers," they call them out there.
At 7:15 the enemy shifted his fire backward upon our reserves. Our pickets sounded the alarm. We sprang to arms, with our gas masks in place. For a few seconds the trenches resembled an antheap. There was feverish hurrying, running, shouting, and shoving. Just for seconds. Then everybody was at his post. Everybody who was alive. Every one a rock in the seething waves. Every one determined to hold his position against hell itself.
A gas attack! Several hundred pairs of wide-open warriors' eyes fixed their glances upon the ugly, smoking cloud that, lazy and impenetrable, rolled toward us. Hundreds of fighting eyes, fixed, threatening, deadly. Let them come, the blacks! And they came. First singly, at wide intervals. Feeling their way, like the arms of a horrible cuttlefish. Eager, grasping, like the claws of a mighty monster. Thus they rushed closer, flickering and sometimes disappearing in their cloud. Entire bodies and single limbs, now showing in the harsh glare, now sinking in the shadows, came nearer and nearer. Strong, wild fellows, their log-like, fat, black skulls wrapped in pieces of dirty rags. Showing their grinning teeth like panthers, with their bellies drawn in and their necks stretched forward.
Some with bayonets on their rifles. Many only armed with knives. Monsters all, in their confused hatred. Frightful their distorted, dark grimaces. Horrible their unnaturally wide-opened, burning, bloodshot eyes. Eyes that seem like terrible beings themselves. Like unearthly, hell-born beings. Eyes that seemed to run ahead of their owners, lashed, unchained, no longer to be restrained. On they came like dogs gone mad and cats spitting and yowling, with a burning lust for human blood, with a cruel dissemblance of their beastly malice. Behind them came the first wave of the attackers, in close order, a solid, rolling black wall, rising and falling, swaying and heaving, impenetrable, endless.
"Close range! Individual firing! Take careful aim!" My orders rang out sharp and clear and were correctly understood by all the men. They stood as if carved out of stone, their lips tightly pressed, the muscles of their cheeks swollen, and took aim. Just like rifle range work. The first blacks fell headlong in full course in our wire entanglements, turning somersaults like the clowns in a circus. Some of them half rose, remained hanging, jerked themselves further, crawling, gliding like snakes—cut wires—sprang over—tumbled—fell.
Nearer and nearer rolled the wall. Gaps opened and closed again. Lines halted and—rolled on again. Whrrr rratt—tenggg—sssstt—crack! Our artillery sent them its greeting! Whole groups melted away. Dismembered bodies, sticky earth, shattered rocks, were mixed in wild disorder. The black cloud halted, wavered, closed its ranks—and rolled nearer and nearer, irresistible, crushing, devastating! And the rifles were flashing all the time. A dissonant, voiceless rattle. The men still stood there and took aim. Calmly, surely, not wasting a single shot. The stamping and snorting of thousands of panting beasts ate up the ground between us.
Now the wave was only 300 paces from our defenses—from their remnants—now only 200—100—irresistible, seething and roaring—50 paces!—"Rapid fire!" I roared, I shrieked, through the swelling cracking of the rifles. A hurricane swallowed my voice! Hell seemed let loose at a single blow, raging, storming, obliterating all understanding! Shoving and stamping, shrieking and shouting, cracking and rattling, hissing and screeching. A heavy veil hung over the wall. In this cloud pieces of earth, smoke spirals, black, red, white, yellow flashes, quivered and flared. Rattling, rapping, pounding, hammering, crackling. And the shots fell unceasingly. Clear and shrill the rifles, heavy and roaring the shells.
And now came the gruesome, inconceivable horror! A wall of lead and iron suddenly hurled itself upon the attackers and the entanglements just in front of our trenches. A deafening hammering and clattering, cracking and pounding, rattling and crackling, beat everything to earth in ear-splitting, nerve-racking clamor. Our machine guns had flanked the blacks!
Like an invisible hand they swept over the men and hurled them to earth, mangling and tearing them to pieces! As an Autumn storm roars over the fields they swept in full flood over the ranks and snuffed out life! Like hail among the ears of grain, their missiles flew and rattled and broke down the enemy's will! Singly, in files, in rows and heaps, the blacks fell. Next to each other, behind each other, on top of each other. Hurled in heaps, in mounds, in hillocks. Fresh masses charged and fell back, charged and stumbled, charged and fell. And there were always fresh forces! They seemed to spring from the very earth!
We had losses; heavy losses. Here a man suddenly put his hand to his forehead and swayed. There another sprang gurgling to one side and fell, as flat and heavy as a block of stone. S-s-s-t—it went above our heads. The French were throwing shrapnel against our trenches, hissing, cracking, and in volleys.
Hell still rages. The blacks get reinforcements. Finally the whites themselves charge, a jerky, rolling, bluish-green mass! In a powerful drive they get over the first rise in the ground. Now they have disappeared. Now they bob up, as out of a trap door. Here and there the ranks shoot forward in great leaps, the officers ahead of all, with their swords swinging high in the air, just as in the pictures! A splendid sight. Now they reach the bodies of the blacks. They halt for a few seconds, as if in horror, then on they roll over the dead, jumping, wallowing, dozens falling.
We still stand firmly in the breach. Our nerves are strained to the snapping point, gasping, bleeding, feverish! We dare not waver. "Steady, men! Steady!" We must calmly let them come as far as the wire entanglements, as the blacks did. The blacks? Where are they? Disappeared! Only they left their dead behind. The same thing will happen to the whites. We are waiting for them. The death-spewing machine guns are lying over there. They lie there and wait until their time comes. Steady, steady! They lie there and wait impatiently—but yet they are silent—Now!—No—I am raving! "Rapid fire!"—I hiss—My neighbor staggers—I only listen and wait, wait and listen, for only one thing. Something that has to come, must finally come, has to come! Great God, otherwise we are lost! Be calm, be calm! Now they will begin reaping! Now they must begin to rattle, our machine guns, our faithful rescuers—now—at once! What can they be waiting for? Why, they are there in the wires already. Hell and Satan! No man can endure that! They are hesitating too long—the enemy is almost in the trenches! Ah! At last! A rattling—a hoarse crackling—Heaven help us, what is that?
A devilish howling rises hoarsely from over there, lacerating, bestial, shrieking! The blacks, the devils! How did they reach our flank over there? That's where our machine guns are. It cannot be. There! Hell! They are carrying hand grenades, are in their rear! Heaven help us! And the whites! They are at our breastworks. Already they are in the trenches, fighting like wild beasts. Horror makes them crazy. Help is coming to us from the left. The second company has fallen upon their flank. The French run like hunted animals. A shell bursts in their midst, catches twenty or thirty of them and throws them in the air like toys. They run still further, through the air, bowling along on their heads, gruesomely—and fall in heaps to the ground. Heads, legs, twitching bodies! The French run until back of the bodies. The rest of them are cut to pieces, or made prisoners. But now our men must come back.
We struggle for breath. Wounded men writhe around and moan and groan heavily. The trench is bathed in blood. Far more than half of the company has been slain. We are only a handful. I assemble the valiant men and distribute them among the trenches. They stand resolutely, breathing hard and gasping.
A furious rattling and buzzing and hissing calls us again to our posts. They are charging anew. Now the whites again, in front, on the side. They are on our flank! Back of them the blacks in frightful clusters. "Bring the sandbags!" The sandbags fly from hand to hand. A wall rises in the midst of the trench. The other half was overrun long ago and is a knot of struggling men. A piece of wood hits me on the shoulder—crack—I cry out! A shot lands in the midst of our ammunition—it was our last. This way with the hand grenades! We have got to smoke them out!
A roaring hurrah! Heaven help us, aid is at hand! The Fourth, and the Fifth—I know the men and some of the First, too—all mixed up—dispersed troops rallied again. Now, up and at them! The French defend themselves furiously. They hold the trench. The dead are heaped up before their ramparts—but keep it up! A wild passion takes possession of me. My revolver and my dagger have been lost in the fighting. I seize a bottle. Hell sends it to me at the right moment! Like an animal mad with hate I rush forward. My bottle lands, crashing and splintering, on a woolly skull, with a distorted grimace.
A hot shock rushes through my shoulder—a shock—a wrench—I grasp at the air—grasp something convulsively—throw myself in the air—and fall in a heap. A confused mist dances before my eyes.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald