In the half darkness they looked twice as big as they really were. They lurched forward, slow, clumsy but irresistible, nosing down into shell holes and out, crushing the unburied dead, sliding over mere trenches as though they did not exist.
There were five in all. One passed directly over us. We scuttled out of the way, and the men let go a cheer. For we knew that here was something that could and would win battles.
The tanks were an absolutely new thing to us. Their secret had been guarded so carefully even in our own army that our battalion had heard nothing of them.
But we didn’t need to be told that they would be effective. One look was enough to convince us. Later it convinced Fritzie.
FOLLOWING THE TANKS INTO BATTLE
The tanks passed beyond us and half-way up to the first line and stopped. Trapdoors in the decks opened, and the crews poured out and began to pile sandbags in front of the machines so that when day broke fully and the mists lifted, the enemy could not see what had been brought up in the night.
Day dawned, and a frisky little breeze from the west scattered the fog and swept the sky clean. There wasn’t a cloud by eight o’clock. The sun shone bright, and we cursed it, for if it had been rainy the attack would not have been made.
We made the usual last preparations that morning, such as writing letters and delivering farewell messages; and the latest rooks made their wills in the little blanks provided for the purpose in the back of the pay books. We judged from the number of dead and the evident punishment other divisions had taken there that the chances of coming back would be slim. Around nine o’clock Captain Green gave us a little talk that confirmed our suspicions that the day was to be a hard one.
He said, as nearly as I can remember:
“Lads, I want to tell you that there is to be a most important battle—one of the most important in the whole war. High Wood out there commands a view of the whole of this part of the Somme and is most valuable. There are estimated to be about ten thousand Germans in that wood and in the surrounding supports. The positions are mostly of concrete with hundreds of machine guns and field artillery. Our heavies have for some reason made no impression on them, and regiment after regiment has attempted to take the woods and failed with heavy losses. Now it is up to the 47th Division to do the seemingly impossible. Zero is at eleven. We go over then. The best of luck and God bless you.”
We were all feeling pretty sour on the world when the sky pilot came along and cheered us up.
He was a good little man, that chaplain, brave as they make ’em. He always went over the top with us and was in the thick of the fighting, and he had the military cross for bravery. He passed down the line, giving us a slap on the back or a hand grip and started us singing. No gospel hymns either, but any old rollicking, good-natured song that he happened to think of that would loosen things up and relieve the tension.