How a Great Battle Is Planned and Fought
By Captain Jacques Rouvier
[Of the French Military Mission to the United States]
[Scribner's Magazine, June 1918]
In planning for the offensive battle the first question to be decided is the location of the sector where the offensive is to take place. This decision will be made by the general in command of the army. It is not as easy a question as would appear at first, for many considerations must enter into the choice of the sector, which must be one that will allow all branches of the service to participate in the battle, that is to say, the configuration of the ground should be favorable, so as to permit of the deployment of great masses of men. Some sectors, such as the Argonne, being very hilly and very abrupt, are not favorable ones for an attack. The sector must be one which is of importance to the enemy, so that its loss would place him in an awkward position. Often this sector will be chosen because it is a great centre of communication and thus forms a vital part of the enemy's lines.
The offensive sector having been chosen, the work of the staff will then begin and its task will be a very long and difficult one, for the most careful consideration must be given to the many details which are of the gravest importance. This war is a war of details. The side which has planned most accurately, without omitting anything, will have great chances of being victorious. The staff must also draw to the greatest extent on the imagination, in order to visualize what is likely to happen and to be able to realize what certain means will produce under certain circumstances. It must be able to realize what is humanly possible, and it must not count on superhuman achievements which, although sometimes accomplished by gallant troops, should not be reckoned with as a probability.
The preparatory work of the staff will be embodied in written orders called the "Plan of Operations." This plan is issued a long time before the actual offensive, generally about two months before the battle begins. In it are indicated all the means which will be used for the purpose of the offensive, and the results which are desired. The staff must calculate how many guns, how many men, and how much ammunition, both for artillery and infantry, will be necessary to attain the desired results. These calculations completed, the practical work begins and takes shape in the following way: first, the preparation of the offensive sector; and second, the relief and training of both troops and staffs which are to play a part in this battle.
The preparation of the ground can be divided into several parts: first, the making ready of means of communication; second, the digging of the works necessary for the troops who are to go over the top, which include jumping-off trenches, command posts, and so on; third, the creation of dumps, both at the rear and in the lines, for the storage of ammunition and material; fourth, the organization of the means of liaison.
The perfecting of the means of communication is a long task and has to be planned with especial care. These means of communication include the building of ordinary railroads, narrow-gauge (twenty-four inch) railroads, and those which will be used for the railroad artillery; wagon-roads, which must be put in good condition and often newly built; and trails for the infantry, which will be used only by the men and are not intended for vehicles. All of the above must be arranged according to a comprehensive plan in order that each unit may have quick means of transportation, so that the troops will not have to wait too long before reaching their emplacements for the fight. It is clear that, if the means of communication are insufficient for even one part of the front, there will be congestion in this particular place. This must be avoided, because it causes great fatigue to the men who march one behind the other, carrying full packs, and who, if obliged to wait for a long time, become very tired, which puts them in poor physical condition for the big drive. Should there be congestion as we near the zone of fire, these men, crammed together, make a certain amount of noise which might attract the enemy's attention and result in an immediate shelling which would cause great havoc.
The first thing to be started is the construction of railroads, for that is the work which will require the longest time. Often new stations and railroad yards have to be built and stations which already exist must be put in condition to handle the tremendous traffic which will soon follow. As you may realize, our railroads were constructed in peace time to meet the requirements of commerce and industry, and they are not adapted to the special uses of war; so great stations are built as depots for the big units and here the war material is unloaded and kept in special storehouses. From these stations there branch off narrow-gauge railroads, which run near the front and which bring war material to the dumps. From these dumps there are still other lines of narrow-gauge railroads, but the rolling-stock consists of trucks which use animal traction.
The existing roads are improved and widened. They are generally six to eight yards wide and are so built that very intense traffic can run over them. Signboards are put up at many points, indicating the villages and places to which the roads lead. This last is important, because it saves time which otherwise would be lost in studying maps, and prevents possible errors. New roads have to be constructed because those built in times of peace were intended merely for ordinary traffic between towns and villages, and much of the time they do not meet the demands of the present conditions. Horsemen and infantry are forbidden to use the main road, as it is especially used by the heavy artillery, and by the cars and trucks which run from places at the rear to dumps and to headquarters. But there are paths on either side of this main road reserved for their use. For the use of infantry which has to take the nearest way to the lines, trails are built. On each trail are signboards indicating the names of the trenches to which it leads, and giving also the name of the place which can be reached by following it to the rear. Wire is stretched along the side of the trail, so that when you have to go to the lines at night, you don't get lost. On these signboards is also indicated which troops are to follow which trails. It will seem queer that such precautions are needed to prevent the troops from getting lost, but one can never take enough precautions, for it must be borne in mind that often the attacking troops have come into their sector only a few hours before the attack is to take place, and if they should get lost it would create a great disturbance in the plan of attack. Another reason for the signboards is to avoid useless tiring of the men.
Before we started the Aisne offensive my regiment left its rest billets at eight o'clock one night in order to take up its position that same night and to start the attack next morning. It was pitch-dark and a terrible storm came up, making it impossible to see a man at a distance of three yards. In order not to get lost each man had to put one hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him; the officers held the wire in their hands so as to be able to find their way. In one place the wire had been torn away by shells, the column could not go on, and we lost about half an hour endeavoring to find our way to the lines. You must realize that at night there is no perceptible difference between the trail and the ground around. It took us a very long time to reach our position, although we had a wire to guide us and guides to show the way.
All these various means of communication are built by groups, the men of which have specialized in this sort of work. One very important part of the task is the building of railroads for the railroad artillery. These lines branch from the main railroad lines and run to places selected as offering the greatest facilities for the firing of special guns. Of course several of these branch lines have to be built in order to use these guns in different places. There is very often a line of railroad which is connected with the main line in the rear, running parallel to the trench lines. On this parallel line the guns and railroad-cars are transported, and it provides means for the later transportation of stores and supplies.
The digging of the works necessary for the troops who are to go over the top is rather a difficult task. The location of such works is selected according to tactical requirements. They are situated so as to shelter the assaulting waves, being very deep yet affording them every facility for going over the top. They consist of jumping-off trenches. These differ from fire-trenches in that they have no fire-steps. They are only about six feet deep, and every now and then there are traverses. To allow of the men going over the top, the trenches have either "jumping-off" steps, which are staircases made of fascines, or individual steps which each man digs with his intrenching tool. The latter are perhaps better than the former, because the men debouch in skirmishing order, whereas, if jumping-off steps are used, the troops leave the trench in columns and are obliged to deploy as skirmishers afterward, which takes more time and is less satisfactory.
The jumping-off trenches must be echeloned in depth, just as their units will be when the attack takes place. They must also be provided with shelters and dugouts, in case the enemy during the bombardment feels inclined to answer our artillery fire by a fire of counter-preparation—that is to say, a destructive fire upon our jumping-off trenches and our first lines. There must be not only dugouts for the men but also command posts for the different staffs, for on the day of attack they are all pushed ahead, the regimental staffs being in the first-line trenches. There must also be shelters for the ammunition and for the supplies which are stored up in the lines, in order to avoid, as far as possible, their being blown up. Of course there must be communication-trenches to connect these new lines with the rear, as those already provided in the sector are insufficient for the number of troops to be found in the lines a few hours before an attack is made. If we should use them there would be such a congestion and such a mixture of different units that it would not be possible to have all the units in good order before the attack starts. Besides, the more communication-trenches we have the quicker the troops will be in position.
All these new works are carried on principally by troops other than those holding the sector, who will also labor in the offensive works but who are not sufficiently numerous to do all that is to be done. Generally the troops which are to attack are billeted at the rear close to the lines, and every night they go to the front and work at their jumping-off trenches. Before we started our offensive on the Aisne we worked in one sector, where we were to attack, from January to the middle of March. In having the work performed in this manner the attacking troops become familiar with all details of the ground on which they are to fight the offensive battle. Usually the infantry digs all the trenches and boyaux, and the pioneers and engineers construct the shelters. All these works are prepared in the daytime by the officers commanding the working parties. During daylight they are able to observe all the peculiarities of the ground. They mark the lines of the works with white tape, and at night the troops do the digging, the tape furnishing a guide which is visible in the darkness. Each man is assigned a certain task for the night, or a definite task is given to the unit, which stays at the work until this task is finished. For night work we generally calculate that one yard of trench entirely completed is to be done by each man ; so if we have a platoon of fifty men the platoon will not leave its work until the fifty yards of trenches are dug. The digging of these works is supervised by the staff-officers, who see that the task is properly performed.
We must not only create depots for ammunition but also depots for material and water supply. It is very important that the enemy does not become aware of the location of the jumping-off trenches, because should he know it he would get the proper range and might be able to concentrate artillery fire upon our jumping-off trenches; therefore all works should in every case be concealed from his view by means of camouflage. Sometimes there is no way of preventing the trenches from being seen as soon as the daylight appears; so very often jumping-off trenches of the first line are dug the night before the attack. The troops forming the first wave are brought there a few hours before the attack, and they have to dig in before the day breaks; and, as each man knows that it is for himself that he digs, I assure you that they are very keen on their task. They know very well that if at dawn they have not dug a trench they will be shot down by the enemy. This was done by my battalion for one attack which was carried out on the Somme. We were to attack the Epine de Malassise near Péronne on the morning of the 15th of October, 1915. The battalion arrived at 9 o'clock in the evening of the 14th of October, and the men were told that next morning they would storm the German position. They were halted at a place that was in front of our line and which was nothing but shell-holes, and consequently were obliged to dig jumping-off trenches that very night.
The organization of the means of liaison is carried out according to a "plan of liaison." This includes instructions concerning all the means of liaison we have at our disposal, the principal work being for the protection of the telephone lines, which will have to be buried to a depth of two yards, and this must be done from the very first lines to well back in the rear, so as to avoid the enemy's shelling, which would cut the lines. Observation-points have to be selected with particular care, for during the offensive battle the commanding officers must be able to watch and see for themselves what is going on. These observation-points must, of course, be well protected. They are usually built of concrete or are steel observatories, brought to the lines in sections. The principal means of protection is always the camouflage, which prevents their being seen by the enemy. All these observation-points are connected by telephone with headquarters and, besides, each command post is provided with an observatory close at hand. All the other means of liaison are studied very closely, but do not require special works. The officers in charge of them will often visit the offensive section to select the best places for their purpose.
Thus by continuous work the preparation of the ground proceeds, but it really is very difficult to make clear what an enormous amount of work is required for a big drive. For the Aisne offensive the work began four months before the attack, and great numbers of troops were employed.
Another part of the preparation which must be worked out with particular care is the training of the units that are to play a part in the offensive battle. The very first thing is to select the troops who are to make the attack, have them relieved and brought in to rest billets. These rest billets should be chosen so as to offer all necessary facilities for the training, including large open spaces which are not ploughed and where there are no crops. The units should not be too much scattered, for if they were the supervision of the instruction would be very difficult and it would not be convenient to assemble the larger units, such as battalions or divisions, which must be done, for the battle will be fought by large units.
The rest billets ought to be pleasant and the troops at ease, for we wish them to forget all the hardships they have endured; we want, in short, a moral, a physical, and a technical training. But one of these cannot take the place of the other —they all depend upon one another. A well-trained organization will prove useless on the battle-field if it has not a fine morale: that is to say, if it does not desire to prove its efficiency, and if it is not animated with a stubborn will to secure victory at any cost. On the other hand, if the troops have the most splendid morale, but are not well trained, they will not be able to accomplish results, for, being ignorant of the correct methods of combat, their high morale will only bring appalling losses upon them, and they will be mown down before being able to reach the enemy. Again, let us assume that a unit is well acquainted with actual methods of fighting, but the men composing it are in bad physical condition; they will not be able to endure the fatigue which they will have to undergo. So we must take measures to insure that our attacking troops attain a high morale, that their technical training is satisfactory, and that they are in good health—strong, sound, and vigorous.
Good rest billets must be selected, where the men have sufficient room, with plenty of straw to sleep on. If possible, beds are to be provided for them. They should have all facilities for personal cleanliness and for the cleaning of their uniforms. The food ought to be plentiful and well prepared, so that the men will like it and eat heartily. Plenty of sleep, agreeable temperature, and good food will soon restore the men to good physical condition, while games and gymnastics improve their form.
In order to raise the morale of the men, it is desirable to make them forget all the hardships they have endured, to help them forget the horrors of war. Being in good physical condition, their morale will soon become very good, and then we try to amuse them, all officers striving to discover something new for their units. Some have plays, others challenge their comrades to football games or to grenade-throwing matches—all of which has also a very good effect in developing that esprit de corps which is so important. The esprit de corps makes every man feel proud to belong to his unit, for he proclaims that this unit is the best of all in the French armies and that all men of this unit are a fine lot. That esprit de corps will make them perform wonderful achievements in order to outdo neighboring units. But the exaltation of the morale is really the work of the officers; they are in close touch with the men and have their confidence. They will point out to them the reasons why they fight, they will tell them why they must be confident of success, they will give them some indications as to how the next battle will be fought and the reasons why a success is expected—namely, the great superiority in guns, in ammunition, in infantry, and in morale that we shall have in this particular sector. Then, as the training goes on, the men will feel and realize their superiority over the enemy.
Another sentiment which must be inculcated into, every fighter is a strong hate for the Boche, a strong desire to meet him, to fight him, and to beat him. They become familiar with the thought that they will fight the enemy at a certain time under certain conditions. All this will not form a very formal part of the instruction, but daily the officers will talk with their men, read to them articles from newspapers and books, and tell them of the high deeds accomplished by their organization. In this way they will make their men feel as they do, and all of the unit from the leader to the private will form one body, one soul, animated with one single, almighty desire to kill the Boche and drive him back to his country. All this training for the strengthening of the morale takes place daily, on every possible occasion, and its results are proven on the battle-field. To see the men fight more gallantly than, they ever did is, for the officers, the greatest of all rewards, and such moments cannot be forgotten. As an example, on the 25th of September, 1916, on the Somme, my battalion, in going over the top, had to cross a barrage of machine-gun fire, and they marched forward in the most splendid style, singing the "Marseillaise."
Let us now see how the technical instruction is carried on before the attack. We must at first train the number of specialists we want, then drill the group of specialists, and afterward have all the specialists work together. The specialists who have been selected are thoroughly taught all details of the specialty which they go in for. Next the specialist teams will work out, the bombers' team being taught how to fight in trenches and in shell-holes, either in defensive or in offensive, and the automatic-rifle team being taught the tactical use of their weapon in offensive and defensive. At last the use of all specialties, the fight of the whole platoon, is practised. From time to time the individual training will have to be resumed, but daily the whole platoon works together. This is done in order to co-ordinate the training of the different specialists, which would not be possible were they always left to work by themselves. The men are trained and practised in the use of all their weapons, including hand and rifle grenades, machine guns, and automatic rifles. They must become good bayonet fighters and marksmen. Other men than those qualified are also taught the use of the specialties in order to be able to replace the specialists in case of emergency.
Not only the men have to work out, but the officers and non-commissioned officers also, for many of them have been recently commissioned or promoted, and the conditions of each battle are different from those of the previous battle. In every battle we use new material, new methods: our tactics are not like dogmas, unchangeable, and we take advantage of all that has been learned in previous encounters. It is but fair that the living should learn the lesson of the dead and secure greater success with fewer losses, so that the sacrifice of dead comrades will not have been useless, their sacrifice will not have been in vain. The officers and non-commissioned officers need to become thoroughly acquainted with all improvements which have taken place, and they are required to practise all new methods, not only on the map but also on the ground, and must learn to solve tactical problems. They should become thoroughly familiar with all of the methods which have been found to be successful in offensive battles, and with the handling of units in close connection with each other.
The staffs which are to participate in this battle meanwhile practise on tactical problems, analogous to those they will actually have to solve, and in manoeuvring with the troops, putting them in positions which are, as nearly as possible, identical with those they will occupy during the attack. Then the troops will go over this attack on a selected ground which closely resembles the one on which they are going to fight, the German positions being very carefully reproduced. The end in view is to have every man, every officer, know exactly what he has to do on the day the battle will be fought. This is extremely important, in order that confusion and disorder on the battle-field may be avoided. The men must be prepared for many deadly tricks, and great dangers will await them at a turning of a traverse or at the entry of some dugout, which can only be avoided if each one knows exactly where he is to go and what he is to do. The mechanism of the attack and the liaison with the artillery require a very close study and will not be learned in a short time. All this can be compared to a play which before being presented requires much rehearsal in all the details by its actors, each one of whom will go over his own role individually and then rehearse with his associates.
At the proper time the troops and different services will be placed in position—first the aviation service and artillery, then the infantry. The aviation service and the artillery work in close connection, for one cannot conceive nowadays an artillery force operating without the help of the aviation service, which is the eye of artillery. The first object to be attained is to gain the mastery of the air in this offensive sector. To accomplish this the chasers will try to bring down the German planes in order that the observation planes may fly for the purpose of helping the artillery in registering. Aerial raids are carried on to destroy the principal centres of communications at the enemy's disposal. The railroad stations are visited by planes which hurl tons of explosives, while bridges, viaducts, important dugouts, cantonments, and barracks are also attacked.
After having prepared the emplacements for the batteries, the artillery will begin registering, and then the artillery preparation will commence. The first position of the enemy will be destroyed by the guns which have a shorter range, more especially by the trench mortars. The very big guns take under their fire the Germans' deep dugouts, such as the tunnels of Mont Cornillet in Champagne or on the Chemin des Dames, which are to be destroyed because there the enemy has sheltered the very important reserves. The means of communication of the enemy are kept under the fire of guns and machine guns. Every minute tons of explosives are hurled upon the German lines. In one of our latest offensives we fired over four tons of steel upon each yard of the German trenches. In that same offensive the British and French fired over fourteen million shells in fifteen days. This terrific shelling destroys everything, and the enemy's lines simply melt away. All defenses are blown away, the trenches no longer exist, and many dugouts are either ruined or have the entrances destroyed, so that the garrison is blockaded and will usually be buried alive. You may imagine what the feelings of the Boche must be. They were in a sector which was well organized, which possessed strong defenses, and which seemed impregnable, the defense being carefully arranged after two or three years of hard and constant labor. In so short a time by this appalling bombardment everything is destroyed, and in place of the well-planned trenches there remain but a few dugouts amidst a field of craters. Add to this the terrible noise which goes on by day and night, the smoke, the heavy losses sustained by the garrison, and you will clearly understand that the enemy must possess very strong nerves not to have a shaken morale. Every minute an attack is feared; the constant strain wears the men down very quickly and most of the time no supply, no relief, no transportation of the wounded is possible. From time to time the violence of the artillery fire increases into a drum fire. The enemy's artillery is constantly kept under heavy fire and is especially subjected to gas-shells. Thus the first act of the battle rages on.
The artillery preparation being well under way, the infantry which is to deliver the assault is brought up to the positions from which it will deliver the assault. The placing of the units in position is not an easy task, and caution must be observed not to be lost, as has been pointed out. Officers and non-commissioned officers make reconnoissances; then guides taken from units holding the line are sent to show the way to the incoming troops and bring them to the places they are to occupy. Of course these guides do not go back very far; they generally wait for the arriving units at the outskirts of the first position, and up to that point the troops have to find their own way. The infantry which is to take part in the offensive battle, having been brought to the first line, occupies all the jumping-off trenches. Very often this relief is effected during the night before the attack, but this is only the case for the troops which form the first waves of the attack. Before this relief took place the troops occupying the offensive section will have made several raids in order to capture prisoners and get better information as to the morale and the strength of the Germans. Reconnoitring parties will also be sent to ascertain if the work of the artillery has been sufficient. The day before the attack on the Chemin des Dames a platoon of my regiment entered into the German first line and carried away forty-seven prisoners and a machine gun. This was done in daylight, but our shelling was so terrific that the Germans were quite unable to do anything to prevent us from carrying out this successful raid.
On the night before the attack the artillery will finish its work and the fire will increase in violence and prevent all movements of the enemy from the rear. During that same night our machine guns will be most active, and all night long machine-gun companies will keep under fire all the rear of the enemy's lines and all the means of communication in order to isolate them. Our troops and our officers know that the attack will take place the next day, but they don't know at what hour. Some time in the night or early in the morning the staffs send to the lines an order stating that the attack will take place at a given hour and all the watches are synchronized. In the operation orders the day of the attack is called day "D" and the hour is called hour "H," so the staff at the proper time informs all the troops that day "D" means, for instance, the 5th of May, and hour "H" is 9 o'clock. During the hours just before the attack our artillery makes a supreme effort and the shell fire is frightful, the enemy's batteries being under the most violent fire.
At the hour "H" the creeping barrage is put on the enemy's territory, moving along at a slow rate. On the rear of the enemy's lines a very heavy barrage is placed and the hostile batteries are subjected to a still more violent fire. The enemy's second line is heavily shelled, all the guns which do not take part in forming the creeping barrage concentrating their fire upon those lines so as to permit our advance and to crush every tentative counter-attack. An "incaging" curtain fire is put on both wings of the attack, so that the enemy cannot flee either to the rear or to the flank, and can only await the French bayonets advancing steadily toward him. On the other hand, the creeping barrage prevents the enemy from getting out of its dugouts, and when the last shells have fallen the front line infantrymen are there.
At the same hour "H," along miles of the front, waves of horizon blue come out of the trenches and advance at a uniform pace toward the enemy, while batteries of machine guns pour forth a shower of bullets, forming a curtain fire in front of the troops. From all the jumping-off trenches lines of French soldiers march on in good order. Behind the waves are the moppers-up, who have the special duty of seizing the entrances of the dugouts and making prisoners of the Germans who occupy them. Over the heads of the assaulting waves swarms of planes fly at a very low altitude, firing with their machine guns at every German who tries to make a stand. High in the air squadrons of planes prevent any enemy plane from crossing the line, in this way rendering the enemy's artillery blind. Other squadrons have passed over the enemy's lines to the rear and attacked the reserves, which are hurried up by the German staff to try to check our advance.
The assaulting waves protected by the barrage advance steadily, marching as closely as possible to this barrage. They go on to a designated point but no farther, and then immediately begin to organize the conquered ground—that is to say, they dig themselves in and form a line of trenches out of the shell-holes in which they are. Next they endeavor to build communication-trenches. Immediately after they have stopped, the planes fly over them and ask them to mark the line. At this signal the infantry spreads its panels on the ground, the plane takes a photograph and flies back to division headquarters, where the photograph is developed, and in less than two hours after the photograph has been taken the general knows exactly where the men of his division are. During that time other planes fly over the line and pay great attention to all signals which may be sent by the infantry, which asks for everything it is in need of—for instance, artillery fire, longer range, etc. The planes also warn the infantry of any counter-attack which the enemy may plan.
Of course most of the time the attack doesn't succeed in taking all the positions without a fight, as there remain some parts of the enemy's lines which resist, either because the artillery has not quite demolished them or because the garrison hasn't been sufficiently shaken by the shelling. Infantry then has to conquer these strongholds. They will do it by besieging them very closely, and if the infantry by its own means doesn't succeed in carrying them, the artillery has to resume the work. Often tanks (a type of armored cars which are able to progress on any ground and which are armed with guns and machine guns) are in front of the infantry and protect it by fire-power. They also prove very useful in reducing, the strongholds which may prevent the infantry's advance. They cannot take the place of the artillery barrage, but as an addition to it they are of great assistance.
The great difficulty is not in conquering the ground but in holding it. To go over the top is nothing, for in a well-prepared attack the losses are but very slight during the assault. In the Aisne offensive, on the 5th of May, in my battalion there was only one officer slightly wounded, one man killed, and twelve men wounded. Three battalions of chasseurs à pieds carried the important position of the Croix Sans Tête-with only three wounded and one killed, and there they took eighteen German guns. The assault in itself is not costly in human lives, but the holding of the ground results in many casualties.
After a few hours the enemy's artillery reaction becomes more violent and accurate, and intense shell fire is directed upon our new line. As the men have no dugouts and the trenches are not well made, losses are more severe than in an organized sector. There is no general rule as to when the enemy will begin to direct its fire against our infantry. During the Aisne offensive we attacked at 9 o'clock and the first German shell was fired at 9.35 upon the rear of our line. During an attack we made on the Somme on the 15th of October the enemy's artillery began, shelling a few minutes before we started the attack. So the important occupation of all will be the organization and consolidation of the conquered ground. Before the attack is launched orders will have been issued explaining to every one how the conquered ground is to be organized, and all try to realize this organization as quickly as possible and in accordance with the written orders. The organization of the ground is made in depth, and reserves are immediately brought up, so that they may be able to counter-attack should the enemy succeed in reaching our line. Several lines of trenches will be provided for and in each of these lines dumps-for ammunition will be located. Fatigue parties will bring up on the new lines the matériel and supplies for the organization of the position, including ammunition, rations, and water. The assaulting troops will try to have good liaison with the rear, so that they can report what is going on and to indicate what they need. Artillery will get the proper range for the new position, and be ready to let the curtain fire loose in a few seconds. Fatigue parties and territorials (troops composed of older men) will follow the assaulting waves at a specified distance to establish, means of communication, to make trails, and to lay bridges made of fascines. The roads which are close to the former front lines are immediately repaired, for now they can be used by the wagons, the lines being farther away.
At this stage of the attack the infantry works more with the pick and shovel than it fights, and while some local encounter is going on for the reduction of strongholds or centres of resistance still capable of putting up a fight, fatigue parties and most of the assaulting troops, under the protection of strong outposts, dig and work without losing a minute. There one sees the truth of the statement "Time is blood." Crowds of prisoners stream toward the rear. By every staff they are questioned—only briefly by the staffs of the attacking troops, but more in detail at the division and the army-corps headquarters. Very often the prisoners are immediately used for work in the repairing of roads at the rear. When it can ' be done the wounded are transported to the rear, but often this is an impossible task during the day, and we have to wait till the night falls for our stretcher-bearers to bring out the wounded, because the enemy fires every time he sees a human being move over the conquered crater field. You will easily imagine what a difficult task it is for the stretcher-bearers to move in this upturned ground, amidst exploding shells and whizzing bullets—searching for their wounded comrades, putting them on the stretchers, and then, under the same conditions, carrying them several miles to the rear. Quite often the bearers sustain severe casualties. The wounded are carried to the first-aid stations, where their wounds are dressed, and they are sent farther to the rear, where ambulances wait to transport them to the field-hospitals. The wounded who can do so walk back to the dressing-stations, often in groups of two or three, helping each other to get out of the danger zone. This evacuation is more or less difficult, according to the enemy's actions.
If the attack succeeded very well, and it is noted that the enemy's lines are shattered, the success will be exploited and other objectives stormed, but this will only be done by order of the staff. Most of the time the staff keeps in hand the reserve troops, which will be engaged in carrying other objectives and pursuing the retreating enemy. This can only be done should the enemy's line be pierced on a sufficient front and should the troops give way. The pursuit must then be very quick, so that the enemy can have no time to recover, and so that his reserves will be carried away in a wild panic and be unable to fulfill their role—that is, to hold the ground and counter-attack in order to regain the lost positions. As soon as the assaulting infantry gets out of the crater zone the cavalry passes the infantry and speeds on, forcing the enemy to a hasty retreat. The defeat may then turn into a disaster for him. The guns are moved on, pursuing the enemy with their shells. The roads are quickly repaired, trucks carry infantry ahead so as to be at the heels of the enemy, which will have no time to save or even to destroy its matériel, its guns, or its ammunition. Hundreds of guns, thousands of prisoners will be the booty of the victory. A sufficient number of troops and guns brought into action will force the enemy to retreat over large spaces of country. The enemy will have but one chance to recover and that will be to occupy new lines far back to the rear, to occupy them with fresh troops who have not been under the influence of the defeat, well supplied with guns and ammunition and having at their head an energetic leader. During this time the retreating armies will have to fight in order to gain time and to allow the concentration and the organization of these new forces. The role of the pursuer will be to crush down rapidly every resistance, keeping at the heels of the enemy's main forces, so that they can make no stop at the lines which they intend to defend. On great areas of country open warfare will be resumed, and a big battle must be fought if the pursuer is to be stopped. During this pursuit the air service will not be inactive. Squadrons will fly over the retreating columns in order to locate them and also for the purpose of attacking them, obliging them to scatter themselves or to take cover and delaying them in their retreat. They will be able to give the proper range to the pursuing artillery, and the object of the beaten enemy will be to gain time at any cost. The pursuer will have but one idea, one sole aim to crush every resistance, to get at the main force and give the enemy no time to rest or to recover.
© 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