Attacks and Offensive

Military actions designed to take control of enemy trenches were called attacks or offensives. Whereas an attack usually involved a division (16,000 men), an offensive was much larger and would use at least one corps. The main objective of an attack was to break the enemy line but an offensive was an attempt to hold any positions that were taken during the operation. This meant sustained fighting in forward positions and raised serious problems of supplying soldiers with ammunition, food and water.

Before attacks and offensives took place, heavy artillery was used to soften up the enemy trenches. At the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 General Douglas Haig ordered an eight-day preliminary bombardment before sending 750,000 men (27 divisions) to attack the German trenches. The following year, Haig decided on a ten day bombardment during the offensive at Ypres (the Battle of Passchendaele). This barrage involved 3,000 guns firing 4,283,550 shells at the German defences.

John Nash, Over the Top (1918)
John Nash, Over the Top (1918)

Primary Sources

(1) General Douglas Haig, battle orders issued just before the Battle of the Somme (May 1916)

The First, Second, and Third Armies will take steps to deceive the enemy as to the real front of attack, to wear him out, and reduce his fighting efficiency both during the three days prior to the assault and during the subsequent operations. Preparations for deceiving the enemy should be made without delay. This will be effected by means of -

(a) Preliminary preparations such as advancing our trenches and saps, construction of dummy assembling trenches, gun emplacements, etc.

(b) Wire cutting at intervals along the entire front with a view to inducing the enemy to man his defences and causing fatigue.

(c) Gas discharges, where possible, at selected places along the whole British front, accompanied by a discharge of smoke, with a view to causing the enemy to wear his gas helmets and inducing fatigue and causing casualties.

(d) Artillery barrages on important communications with a view to rendering reinforcements, relief, and supply difficult.

(e) Bombardment of rest billets by night.

(f) Intermittent smoke discharges by day, accompanied by shrapnel fire on the enemy's front defences with a view to inflicting loss.

(g) Raids by night, of the strength of a company and upwards, on an extensive scale, into the enemy's front system of defences. These to be prepared by intense artillery and trench-mortar bombardments.

(2) Harold Mellersh was a young platoon commander who took part in the Somme offensive.

Nothing happened at first. We advanced at a slow double. I noticed that it had begun to rain. Then the enemy machine-gunning started, first one gun, then many. They traversed, and every now and then there came the swish of bullets.

It's a bloody death trap, someone said. I told him to shut up. But was he right? We struggled on through the mud and the rain and the shelling. Then came a terrific crack above my head, a jolt in my left shoulder, and at the same time I was watching in an amazed, detached sort of way my right forearm twist upwards of its own volition and then hang limp. I realised that I had been hit.

I was suddenly filled with a surge of happiness. It was a physical feeling almost, consciousness of a reprieve from the shadow of death, no less. That I had just taken part in a failure, that I had really done nothing to help win the war, these things were forgotten - if ever indeed they had entered my consciousness.

(3) Duff Copper, took part in his first attack on the German trenches on 20th August, 1918.

I pressed on alone with my platoon guiding myself roughly by the sound of our guns behind us. We were occasionally held up by machine-gun fire and we met one or two stray parties of Scots Guards without officers. Finally we met a fairly large party of the Shropshires, who I knew should be on our right. The officer with them did not know where he was, but we agreed to go on together.

We ran into a small party of the enemy, of whom we shot six and took two prisoners, including an officer. We then learnt that we were on the outskirts of Courcelles. We had gone a great deal too far to the right. I tried to get back by going up a road to the left but could not get on owing to a machine-gun firing straight down the road. There were several dead men lying about this road, one particularly unpleasant one with his face shot away. These were the first sights of the kind I had seen and I was glad to find that they did not affect me at all. I had often feared that they might have some physical effect on me, as in ordinary life I hate and always avoid disgusting sights.

I went back to the beginning of the road, where I found a tank which, like everyone else, had lost its way in the mist. It consented to go up the road in front of us, and we were not troubled further by the machine-gun. I got on to another road which led straight up to the Halte on the Arras-Albert railway. This was the right of the final objective of my Company. There was a ruined building there from which a few shots were fired. We lay down and returned their fire with rifles and Lewis guns. Six Germans ran out with their hands up. We took them prisoner. Almost at the same time a party of the Shropshires came round on the left of the building. There was a steep bank on the edge of the railway, along which I told my men to dig themselves fire-positions

So we obtained our objective. Not only were we the first to do so but we were the only platoon in the Company who succeeded in doing so at all. I sent a report to the Commanding Officer and later in the day I got his reply - only two words - "Well done."

It was then 9 a.m. Not long afterwards I saw No. 1 Company coming over the hill behind us. Fryer came on to see me. We heard that No 2 Company, which had come through No. 4, as No. 1 had through No. 3, was on our left, but there was a considerable gap between. Fryer and I started walking down the edge of the railway embankment towards No. 2. Suddenly we noticed an enemy machine-gun shooting through the hedge along which we were walking. It was just in front of us and we had almost walked into it. We hurried back and on the way were fired at by machine-guns from the other side of the railway cutting. Fryer told me to take a Lewis gun and a couple of sections and capture or knock out the machine-gun. It was rather an alarming thing to be told to do.

However, I got my Lewis gun up to within about eighty yards of it, creeping along the hedge. The Lewis gun fired away. When it stopped I rushed forward. Looking back I saw that I was not being followed. I learnt afterwards that the first two men behind me had been wounded and the third killed. The rest had not come on. One or two machine-guns from the other side of the railway were firing at us. I dropped a few yards away from the gun I was going for and crawled up to it. At first I saw no one there. Looking down I saw one man running away up the other side of the cutting. I had a shot at him with my revolver. Presently I saw two men moving cautiously below me. I called to them in what German I could at the moment remember to surrender and throw up their hands. They did so immediately. They obviously did not realise that I was alone. They came up the cutting with their hands up, followed, to my surprise, by others. There were eighteen or nineteen in all. If they had rushed me then they would have been perfectly safe, for I can never hit a haystack with a revolver and my own men were eighty yards away.

(4) Major Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (1st June, 1915)

There we were in the gallery and the open bit in front of us. A jamb: one or two shells very near us. Then my orderly and I rushed the little open bit but couldn't get far as the men in front were still jambed: the rest of the platoon were then about ten yards behind me, and my orderly and myself and another man were immediately in rear of the platoon in front. About five minutes after the Germans plumped ten shells all exactly at the mouth of the gallery trench and wiped out two of my sergeants (one was not much good, he was wounded severely all down the left side but will recover, the other, the best junior sergeant I had has since died) and the whole of one section. The men were all wounded and buried except two who dug the others out. One man is missing completely. A shell burst on him, I believe. After these ten perfectly placed shells they switched off a little to our right where they did no damage.

All this time I could see nothing of the progress of 2 and 3 Companies as the trench and a fold in the ground hid them from our view. Bullets continued to strike round us. The German trench hereabouts was made by bundles secured to poles and filled in with earth. I sat there smoking and fingering that hurdle and could see about ten men in front of me behind me a little open space with some old equipment - a black leather pouch and a haversack, and then the trench with my platoon sergeant smoking a pipe, his back against one side, his feet against the other.

Suddenly they began to move forward in front. Up we scrambled along a piece where the breastworks were very low. I saw a man fall about twenty yards in front and soon after stepped over him. He was shot through the head, which was lying in a puddle of blood. Next, moving quickly, came on a German lying right in the trench. He pointed to his feet imploringly. They were wrapped and bandaged with sandbags and showed signs of having been trodden in to the mud. I just avoided them and shouted to the men to do the same. Here the trench branched off into a dugout with wallpaper and what looked like a gas apparatus outside. An unarmed German was limping about on one leg, smoking. The cigarettes I learned subsequently had been given him by our men.

We jambed again. This time, however, by looking over the top which I did sparingly, I could see the attack. On the extreme left, perhaps 800 yards away, I could see British infantry pushing forward in rushes of about a platoon, extended to three or four paces. The Germans were bursting wooleys right on the parapet of the hastily thrown up trench: nearer to me I could see a platoon of Grenadiers doubling forward thirty yards at a time whilst two platoons kept up a hot fire from the trench to cover them. It was a stereotyped attack and as far as I could see perfectly executed. Another platoon followed the first. I don't think I saw any fall but some motionless forms were left behind each time. I could see very little more and so sat down in the trench and waited.

An hour later heard: "Attack is held up by machine-gun fire, the Irish are not getting on on the left, no sign of the Canadians on the right. One company (No. 3) has got forward 250 yards but have been badly cut up. Major Barrington Kennet is killed, Mr. Creed is wounded, Mr. Garey is missing." This was not gathered all at once but dribbled through in various messages sent to the C.O. Then the wounded began to come along. Perhaps a hundred of them. Mostly slight wounds, feet, thighs, shoulders, two with smashed wrists. Very pale like all wounded and mostly profane. One said that only eight men of his platoon were left for the last rush, and that two other platoons had suffered heavily. The wounded all gave remarkably accurate accounts of the attack as we pulled them or helped them along the very narrow trench.

(5) John Raws died at the Battle of the Somme. He wrote a letter to a friend just before he was killed (4th August 1916)

I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead, and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of it all.

My battalion has been in it for eight days, and one-third of it is left - all shattered at that. And they're sticking it still, incomparable heroes, all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we're back a bit we can't sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man's helmet, another dead man's gas protector, a dead man's bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men's blood, and partly splattered with a comrade's brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know?