Germans March to Their Death;
“Like a Scythe Had Mowed Them Down.”
Romania Joins the War.
Special to The Great War Project
(16-19 August) The Battle of the Somme in northern France rages on. The two sides are locked in mad fury. Neither the British nor the Germans are capable of mounting a knock-out blow to end the battle.
“Attrition rather than breakthrough,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “had become the grim pattern of fighting for the Anglo-French armies.”
“It was a war of woods, copses, valleys, ravines and villages taken and lost,” Gilbert continues, “then retaken and lost again.”
On August 18th precisely a century ago, the Germans mount one counter-attack, a tragic and deadly effort. The British war correspondent Philip Gibbs is present at the fight. He sees the German troops march to the British trenches, “shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar.”
For the Germans, it was “sheer suicide,” Gibbs writes.
“I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass.”
“Another line followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward, but it seems to me they walked like men conscious of going to death.”
Gibbs writes: “They died…It was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down.”
On the bodies of dead and living German soldiers, Gibbs discovers letters to family and home that are not yet put in the post. One is especially powerful for Gibbs, “one cry of agony and horror.”
“I stand on the brink of the most terrible days of life,” the German writes. “They were those of the battle of the Somme. It began with the night attack on August 13th. It lasted till the evening of the 18th, when English wrote on our bodies in letters of blood: ‘It is all over with you.’”
“A handful of half mad, wretched creatures,” the German continues, “worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of the whole battalion. We were that handful.”
Gibbs reports that the losses among many of the German battalions were “staggering, but not greater…than our own, and by the middle of August the morale of the troops was severely shaken.”
Despite all of this agony and horror, the war is about to spread into new territory, so far untouched by the fury of the past two years.
Since the beginning of the war in July 1914, Romania had remained steadfastly neutral. That is a great challenge given the fires that are raging all around it.
And given the government of Romania, which insists on permitting “German and Austrian military supplies and personnel through its territory on their way to sustain the Turkish war effort against the allies.”
Behind the scenes, reports historian Martin Gilbert, “the Romanian government decides to take advantage of what it hoped would be the continuing Russian success against Austria.”
“That day a secret treaty was signed between the Allies and Romania whereby Romania would acquire three long-sought-after pieces of territory” adjacent to Romania.
Much of the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania; a portion of the province of Bukovina [now divided between Romania and Ukraine] and the Banat region [now divided among Romania, Serbia, and Hungary.]
A few days later, “a new war zone opened. Romania, its dreams of expansion now gratified, at least on paper, declares war on Austria.”