A Swede from Illinois and myself were sent to the headquarters of the 2nd 2nd South Midland Field Ambulance Company of the 61st Division in St.-Nicolas, a suburb of Anas. The headquarters of the and was in an old two-story brick house, about the only one there which had not been hit by a shell. Lieutenant Colonel Hurroughes, who was in command of that unit, Captain Robson, and another officer were having supper when we arrived. It was a bleak-looking place, with no furniture except an improvised table and boxes for chairs. We slept upstairs on army cots. I thought at the time it was pretty bad, but later experience taught me that we were living under elegant conditions compared to the usual tiling anywhere near the front.
My first trip to the trendies with Colonel Kurroughcs was very impressive to me. The front line must have been three or lotir miles cast of Arras. We went tip a little way in an ambulance, then got out and walked along a communication trench leading toward the front. I noted that the trenches here were deeper than a man’s height and about a yard wide at the bottom, a little more at the top. They were revetted along the sides, that is, the walls were reinforced by a kind of fence work made by interlacing the branches of trees. There were very good “duck boards” (a kind of sidewalk) along the bottom so that walking was easy. After a while we came to where an officer was standing at the entrance of a dugout. He and Colonel Burroughcs talked a lew minutes and then I asked the olliccr what kind of a dugout he had, being very anxious to see one. He took me down and showed me all throng!) it. After we left I asked Colonel Hurroughcs who that officer was and he replied that it was Brigadier General Spooner, the commanding officer of the 183rd Brigade. I had thought he was a second lieutenant, not knowing at all the insignia of rank of British officers. Wc went on a little further through the trench and came to the advanced dressing station which the Field Ambulance maintained and to which cases were evacuated by the four battalion medical officers in the brigade from their battalion aid stations further up in the line.
Arras was evidently a big headquarters, for there were many soldiers of various divisions in and around it. The Britishers were very joyful at that time: a few days before (on November 20) a part of General Julian Byng’s Third Army had made an attack a few miles southeast of Arras on the Cambrai front, taken several thousand prisoners, and used tanks for the first time with any degree of success.
It was intended that the division should entrain for Bapaume, a few miles south, and there rest foi a couple of weeks, the different units billeied in the various villages west of Bapaume. I remember that when we detrained that day, November 30, 1917, about noon, the Hoche was dropping shells in the Bapamnc railway slalion. Hapaumc must have been a city of several thousand, but there were no civilians in it, for it was the most badly destroyed town of its size that I ever saw in France. It was in the area on the Somme which was evacuated in the spring of 1917 by the Germans when they retreated back to the Hindenburg line a lew miles west of Cambrai. Bapaumc, and every city and village in the territory, was almost pulveri/ed, so thoroughly did the Germans dynamite and destroy everything in order to hinder the English advance.
The woods where we spent a part of that night of November 30-December I was the Havrincourt Wood. I was exhausted, not being used to marching, and remember that I lay down lor a few minutes in an ambulance and went to sleep. I dreamed of home and thought I was there in all its peace and quiet. Alter a lew minutes I awoke, shivering with the cold, and gradually came back to consciousness, hardly knowing at first how to interpret the bursting shells and the rattle of the machine guns against the background of my peaceful dream. Our ambulance company had not actually gone into action, but was only waiting there for orders.
Captain Robson, one of our medical officers (an Englishman), whom I met that first night at Arras, had taken the place of one of the battalion doctors who went on leave from Arras. The battalion he was with went into the line at La Vacquerie on the night of December i, and on the afternoon of December 2 we got a note back al ambulance headquarters saying that Captain Robson had been killed and that another medical olliccr would have to take his place. I was the only one available, so Colonel Rurroughcs sent me.
December 3, 1917: The Cambrai Front . I had had no experience with a battalion, and the situation at that time was a rather trying one, with the Germans still attacking heavily and the English counterattacking. Things were disorganized; for example, Colonel Burroughes did not know where the battalion was which I was to join, the 4th Gloucestershire (“Gloster”). nor did he know where the iSgrd Brigade headquarters was located. So he sent me in an ambulance to Metz to find out at divisional headquarters where the brigade was.
The moon had not yet come up, and il was very dark as we picked our way along the shell-lorn road to Metz. Cars were not allowed to carry a light ol any kind lest it draw the enemy fire. We got to Metz about 9 P.M. , and at the 61st Division headquarters, learned that brigade headquarters was at a place called VillersPlouich about lour miles, as the crow flies, in advance of us. We were told at Metz that the ambulance could go no further on account of shelling on the roads.
I sent the driver back, got the best directions I could, and started out alone with “me pack upon me back.” I had a local map but no compass, and the most direct road led toward an intersection a mile or so away known as the Queen’s Cross Roads. I was told at Metz to avoid this place by all means, since the Koche shelled it almost continually, and to take a track which ran oil across a field in another direction. I started out and soon found that there were tracks running in every direction and that it would be hopeless to Rnd one’s way alone without sticking to main roads marked on the map. So I went directly to the Queen’s Cross Roads, and all was serene. I passed a battery of artillery in a wood, and they told me that in a sunken road a few hundred yards from the Queen’s Cross Roads there was an ambulance station ol some kind and advised me to go there and get further directions. I found the plate all right, a rude shelter dug into the side of the road. The colonel of the ambulance company was very nice, and had some supper prepared for me. It was then after 10 P.M.
The colonel told me that it would be almost impossible to get up to Villers-Plouich at night without a guide and advised me to stay there with him and try to get there in the morning. But I was so inexperienced that I did not realize the folly of travelling about in the war zone alone and thought that as long as I had orders to join the battalion I must keep on. So he said that if I insisted on going he would give me a guide to a headquarters of some kind a mile or so further up in a trench. He sent two men with me and we finally came to a trench running across our path. Neither of the men knew where the place was, and though we met many men in the trench none of them seemed to know where it was either. We finally found it in a dugout. (Divisional headquarters for the 20th Division, I think it was.)
The colonel had told me to get new guides there for Villers-Plouich or else to stay there all night and not to try to go up alone. Hut I guess these people had not seen many Americans around before and they seemed a little suspicious of me, thinking perhaps that I might be a German spy or an escaped prisoner. They were courteous enough in a way but said they could not give me a guide and did not ask me to stay until morning. I was independent enough not to ask a special favor of an Englishman, and so got directions as well as possible from them and started out again alone, sending the other men back to the colonel. They had told me to follow a certain trench named Lincoln Avenue until I came to a road dossing it, then to follow that road to the right into a ruined village which would be plainly visible from the trench. Jn that village, which was Villers-Plouich, in a dugout along a railroad culling, I would supposedly find the headquarters of the 183rd Brigade.
I found Lincoln Avenue trench and followed it for what seemed like miles but probably was only two or three. The moon had come up by that time and it was quite bright. I walked in the trench at first, for over my head I could hear the great shells screeching through the sky: English shells on their way to targets behind the German lines and German shells whizzing back to the neighborhood of Metz. None hit within miles of me, but I did not know enough to realize that at night when so far behind the line as I was, one could safely walk along the side of the trench. Here and there groups of men were bivouacked in the trench with a kind of canvas cover and perhaps a fire beneath it; every time I came to such a group it was necessary to get out of the trench to get by. All seemed to be new in the set tor, and nobody had ever heard ol Villers-Plouich. I finally got tired of walking in the trench and stayed above: the going was much easier.
I came to a road which crossed the trench and off to the right were the ruins of a good-sized village. The Germans were shelling the village heavily, and I learned afterward that Villers-Plouich was at that time one of the most uncomfortable spots on the western front, it being just at the southern point of the salient made toward Cambrai by the English on November ao. I went into the village and came to the railroad cutting, which presented a picture I had not seen before. The cutting was strewn with dead men, horses, and mules, many evidently dead lor many days. f saw sentries at the entrances to various dugouts, but none seemed to know, as usual, where the brigade headquarters was located. I finally found it and went down to report that I had come to replace Captain Robson and to find out where the battalion was that I was to join. I met my old friend Brigadier General Spooner there, and he called me into his little apartment, gave me something to cat, and told me to lie down a while and rest.
I was very tired and lay down on the floor with a blanket and slept for a couple of hours. I was then awakened and told that an officer and sonic men were going up to La Vacquerie. It was just aller dawn, and in a few minutes we got started. The road to La Vacquerie was sunken, so that our heads were lower than the sides, like a very wide trench. The road was being shelled quite heavily, and I could hear a peculiar whistling noise, like telegraph wires along a railroad track when a small boy hits them with a stone. But there were no wires, and I soon realized that they were machine-gun bullets whizzing over our heads. This road was well bedecked with dead men and horses, and as we neared La Vacquerie I stepped out of the track to avoid walking oxer the body of a man. When, I looked a little closer I saw that it was the body of my friend Robson, whose place I was coming to take.
At La Vacquerie the road gradually came up and became the village street. The Boche was shelling this village heavily. We hurried down the stairway of a very deep dugont. In this dugout I found the 4th Gloster Battalion headquarters, with Colonel Barnsley, the commanding officer, and four or five other officers just preparing to eat breakfast, which was sizzling on an oil stove in the corner.
Before I was in the place ten minutes, the Germans laid a heavy barrage on the village. We could hear the dull thud of the exploding shells above us, but were safe in our deep dugout. In a minute or two an officer came running down another entrance to the dugout and announced very excitedly that the Germans had come “over the top” behind the barrage, that our men had left their positions in the trenches out in front of the village and were retreating. This meant very little to me for I knew nothing of the lay of the land. The other officers grabbed their pistols and made their exit through one end of the dugout. I waited until all were gone except Colonel Barnsley, and he told me that I had better try to follow some of the officers.
The sun was shining brightly, and across the village road just a few feet away I could see dozens of English soldiers running back in my direction, dropping behind the fragments of a brick wall here and there to fire at the Germans who were advancing toward them, and then retreating again across an open field which seemed to me must lead toward Yillers-Plouich. I could see a couple of German machine guns smoking as they spit and sputtered their messages of singing lead in the direction of our retreating men. The barrage which had been falling on the village had now lilted, and off about 200 yards in the direction our men were running I could see and hear a hailstorm of shells exploding in a straight line across the field in I front of us.
To tarry at the mouth of that dugout meant death or capture, so I set out in the direction of the barrage, the same as the other men were doing. It did not seem possible that anyone could get through it, for so thick were the shells falling that the smoke and dirt thrown up made a black curtain through which one could not sec what lay beyond. Hut any tendency to delay was dispelled by the machine gun and ride bullets following from behind and picking oft many a poor fellow.
When I got almost to the line of the barrage, to my great surprise and wonder, it lifted all along the line and advanced about one hundred yards ahead. In spite of the extremely uncomfortable position we were all in, with the German artillery barrage in front of us and machine-gun fire behind, one could not help but admire the wonderful efficiency of modern artilleryhow these shells, coming from numerous guns lar behind the German trendies, fell in a line where directed and crept along at the required moment, almost as responsive as a stream of water in a hose.
In a few short moments I had reached again the line of the barrage, and this time it did not lift. I plunged wildly on, feeling that here indeed “he who hesitates is lost.” Although the shells were lighting pretty fast and thick along a strip two or three rods wide, I never got scratched. With the curtain of smoke behind me, I could see, a few rods further on, another system of trenches, but there seemed to be no one in them except the retreating men, who like myself dropped in from the open field in front. Many men of course were caught in the machine-gun fire and many no doubt in the artillery barrage, but many more got through, some wounded so badly that they had to crawl.
I dropped into the trench and leaned against the wall, exhausted. I helped to put emergency dressings on a few men, and then we all moved along that trench to the right and down a communicating trench running further back until we came to another trench parallel to the first and marked by a sign, “Hindenburg Line.” It was a trench which had been built by the Germans as a part of the Hindenburg line but had later been taken by the British.
This line was being manned by other troops and was evidently a support position. The Boche were laying a murderous shellfire along the line of this trench too, and their machine guns were sweeping the parapets. I found a dugout leading oil this trench and started an aid post there with what little there was to work with. Kadi wounded man had an emergent) dressing of his own. and (his dugoui had evidently been used as an aid post at some earlier time, lor there were a considerable number of dressings in it, including some German ones. We could hear a German machine gun which seemed to be making its way up the trench toward us not many yards away. Our men hollered down to get out, that “Jerry” was in the trench and coming up that way.
We got out of the dugout and made our way in the direction of our retreating soldiers. The shellfire here was extremely heavy, and for the first time I saw what I had so often read about—men killed and buried in a trench with perhaps a head or an arm and leg sticking otit. A few hundred yards on another trench ran out of this one, and here the English were making a stand again.
I went on a little further and came to a very big dugout which a doctor of a Warwickshire battalion was using as an aid post. As long as our men were scattered with his in the trench above, he advised me to stay there for the time being and work with him. It was probably then about noon, and I stayed with him until tlic evening of the following day. There was room in this dugout for a couple of hundred men, but casualties were so heavy and means ol getting men back so poor that the place was jammed all the time. It was a difficult place to get men in and out of, and often through the day and night when several cases would be brought to the entrance of the dugout, we would go up and look at the men in the trench and decide Which should be brought down and which were so badly wounded that they could not live anyway. It seemed like a brutal thing to turn away and leave a man in the trench to die, but circumstances were such that at times it was necessary. My impression from the scenes of that day and night was that the whole thing was not worth the price men were paying in blood and anguish: that there must be some other way of settling disputes; and that if the men at the heads of all the warring governments had to spend a lew hours in the hell-on-earth that was going on around there, the war would be over in short order. I had not then been in the battle zone long enough to realize that human life is the cheapest thing in war.
The advanced dressing station was a mile or more behind us. To get there cases had to be carried on a stretcher along the trench several hundred yards. Provision had evidently not been made for any such heavy attack or for the proper (are of so many wounded men, for there was very little water and nothing at all to eat. Men were crying madly for something to chink and often had to wait for hours until returning stretcher-bearers brought water from the dressing station. Then the quantity was only sullicient Io allow each wounded man a swallow or two, and only those who looked like they had some chance of surviving. Men lay on the floor with the most frightful wounds and sullered the agonies of a living death, and while we wei’c able to give some of them a certain amount of relief, conditions were such that one’s heart ached at the hopelessness of it all.
By afternoon of ihe next day things had begun to quiet down a little, though the shellfire was still heavy. Tivo or three stretcher-bearers and myself got back to brigade headquarters at Villcrs-Plouich and learned that the remains of the 4ih Gloster Battalion were assembling and that a new battalion headquarters had been opened in a dugoui in a trench called Pope Avenue. We were directed how to get there and readied the place before dark. Most of the officers I had met the morning before at La Vacquerie were there and greeted me very cordially, for they did not know what had become of me.
December, 1917: Respite . Our men were holding a bit of line, and during the next two or three days many who were “missing” came straggling in. I felt quite at home with this battalion now, having received my baptism of Ore with them, and I liked the colonel and other officers in battalion headquarters. We had lost three hundred men and everything we had except what was on our backs. [This German counterattack had just about wiped out the fruits of the British victory of November 20.]
We had tents in the Havrincourt Wood. There was a layer ol soft snow which incited and made the ground a slough of mud, but we got oui blankets and bedding rolls up there from our transport lines behind and so were able to keep reasonably warm at night. The lioche did his little part to keep the woods warm too, and shelled it every day and night and dropped a few bombs from planes just Io lei us know he knew we were there. I remember one day a toupie of German planes were going over noi much higher than the treeiops, and our fellows turned machine guns on them. It did not seem 10 scare them a bit, for they immediately turned their machine guns on us, the same as to say, “If you want to be funny we’ll play a little too. We all jumped for our tents and laughed a minute later at the folly of seeking protection from a machine-gun bullet behind the folds of a canvas tent.
After four days in “reserve” in Havrincourt Wood, we went up a couple ol miles and manned a trench in a support position—not a front-line trench but about a mile back. The early part of December was (juitc (old that year, and the men suffered a great deal during the next few days. There were no dugouts back in l he trench, which was evidently a new one, and the men were not allowed to bring their blankets up. Pieces of canvas were stretched across the ircnch in various places, and the men in groups of a half do/en or so would dig a little shelter in the side and huddle up together the best they could 10 keep warm. For a battalion headquarters we had a sheet-iron shelter about eight feet wide and twelve feet long.
After four days in support we went up again through Villers-Plouich for a few days’ tour in the front line. As we went into the line (hat night I saw the prettiest fireworks that I had ever seen—a shrapnel barrage a mile or two off, the shells bursting with a Hare about a hundred feet above the ground, in a straight line for several hundred yards.
Gallagher spent Christmas, 1917, in the little French village of Sailly-le-Sec, on the Somme, about ten miles east of Amiens. Then on December 29 he received thai fillip hoped for by every Yank who ever went to France—a four-day leave to Paris. He had dinner fit Maxim’s, attended the OpéraComique, and found his way to that old shrine of soldiers and tourists, the Folies-Bergère. He somehow also found time to glance at the Arc de Triomphe, cross the Pont Neuf, and bow his head at Napoleon’s tomb in the Invalides. (The Louvre was closed for the duration.) And like millions front-line soldiers before and since, he was disgusted by the officers he saw in cushy jobs.
On the second of January, 1918, Gallagher returned to the Somme front and was assigned to the 2nd,5th Gloucestershire Battalion. He spent the cold months of January and February there. This was one of the most critical periods of the war for the Allies. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution had led to Russia’s withdrawal from the war in the East, while in October. 1917. Germany’s ally. Austria, had routed the Italians at Caporetto. thus relieving pressure on that front as well. With these factors in their favor, the Germans decided that they must win in the West before the Americans could arrive in France in force.
The area that the German General Staff chose for the offensive was a forty-five-mile front between Croisilles, ten miles southeast of Arras, and Vendeuil on the Oise River, with the brunt of the blow falling on the British Fifth and Third armies. The German plan was to break through the Allied line, drive the British to the coast, and then turn and defeat the French army and take Paris. The locale was the Somme, the same one where, in July. August, and September, 1916, in order to relieve the pressure on Verdun, the British and French had taken 120 square miles from the Germans at a cost of 1,250,000 lives on both sides. That, had been the first Battle of the Somme; this was Io be the second.
General Ludendorff’s plan was to hurl seventy-one divisions against twenty-six British divisions thinly spread out along the front. The attack was set for March 21, and Gallagher and the Glosters were to be in the thick of it.
Spring, 1918: On the Somme . On March 17 or 18, we moved forward to support positions in the Holnon (sometimes called St.-Ouenlin) Wood. The Oxford Battalion was then ahead of us in the front line, and the Berkshire Battalion (the “Bucks”) were back at Ugny in support.
On about the nineteenth of March, notice was received at the battalion headquarters that a German attack was imminent on our front and that it would begin early on the morning of March 21. Everyone was confident that if an attack was made on that front the Germans would be repulsed. On the afternoon of March 20 Lieutenant Munday (our signal officer) and I were walking around our positions to get more familiar with the land and we met General White, in command of our brigade. He was all alone—a strange thing to meet a high staff officer near the line alone. He was very cheery and said, “Well, boys, the Boche is going to attack here in the morning and I hope he does, too, for he will get an awful drubbing.” The next time I saw General White again was forty-eight hours later and he was en route to the field ambulance dressing station, his face bathed in blood from a shrapnel wound.
March 21, 1918: The Somme Retreat . On the night of March 20, we talked a good deal about the impending attack, but I for one could not realize that it was to happen and what it would all be like. Everything was quiet and serene on our front that night—like the hush before the storm. I did not undress, mostly because no one else did, for it was known that there would be no time for dressing in the morning. I never slept better than up to the time we were awakened at 4:30 or 5 A.M. by a tremendous din that seemed to shake the earth from its foundations.
We knew that the “fight was on.” Everyone knew his job, for instructions had been given the night before. The greater part of the battalion was to go forward at once to our “battle zone” positions. It would be impossible to give any adequate description of the scene there in the wood that morning. The crash of guns on both sides up and down the line for miles was so great that it was fused into one tremendous roar. It was still quite dark, but a few minutes later when daylight began to break it was impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction on account of the heaviest fog I have ever seen outside of London. German shells were crashing all about, and in the fog the smell of powder seemed to stick closer to the ground. I was fairly busy for several minutes and did not put on a gas mask. I thought it was only the burnt powder that I smelled, and a mask is a nuisance to work in. While running between a couple of sheds I must have inhaled a lot of gas: I suddenly found myself on my back, gasping for breath, unable to get any air into my lungs, and deathly sick at my stomach. I had then the sense of impending death but was able to get my gas mask on, and a few whiffs of air through that put me right again.
Our medical personnel—myself as medical officer and a couple of British soldiers trained as assistantsmade our way to a little sheet-iron shelter dug into the side of the road. It was an odd situation, for our aid post was out in front of our defensive positions.
It was fortunate that we were located where we were on the first day, March si, for most of the casualties were in the ranks ahead of us—the Oxford Battalion —so that as wounded men streamed backward they came naturally by our place on the road. The ambulance company had an advanced dressing station a mile further down the road at Marteville, and all day long they sent cars up this very heavily shelled road to our little place to bring back wounded. The top was blown off one ambulance out in front of our shelter, and later another ambulance was demolished and the driver killed a little further down the road. After that no more cars came up until after 10 P.M. when all was quiet.
The battalions on the front line were nearly wiped out that day. All day long they put up a wonderful fight, until the number killed and wounded almost equalled the number of men still in the respective battalions in the front line. Our battalion, in support in the battle zone area, was very little touched, for we were subject only to shellfire, but the “Bucks,” in reserve at Ugny, were ordered up in the afternoon to counterattack and help take back front-line positions lost in the morning. They came up through us, a fine body of men, with Colonel Dimmer, their commanding officer, riding at their head. Most of the ones that got back an hour or so later got back wounded. Colonel Dimmer himself was shot dead off his horse. His men just made that much more gun fodder for the superior number of German men and guns. Much of our artillery had been silenced by then.
By nightfall what stragglers were left had dropped back through our line, which was then the front line, and the Germans ended the first day by stopping on the crest a few hundred yards in front of us. Our line must bear the brunt of holding them the next morning, with no support from behind other than the remnants of the units who were in the front line the day before. The heavy shelling kept up until about 10 P.M. ; then “all was quiet on the Potomac.” Forty or fifty stretcher-bearers were sent up to me from the advanced dressing station, and we evacuated wounded men whom we found in the woods to the shelter on the road; and then, under cover of darkness, the ambulances came up and took them away. By 2 A.M. we were clear and lay down for a little rest.
March 22: The Sunken Road . Very early in the morning, about 5 A.M. , March 22, the artillery opened fire again, nearly as heavy as the preceding morning. Just where the Germans were we did not know. A heavy fog was present again and did not clear until nearly noon. The two medical assistants and I were in our shelter on the road about 100 yards in front of the shallow trench which was then the front line—and in fact also the “back line,” for it was the only line. I think we did not quite realize our position at first, for we were out in no man’s land where we could not possibly help any of our men if they were injured.
In a few minutes (it was not long after dawn) the men in our trenches began shooting over our heads toward the crest above, and we knew that the Germans were attacking. We ran across the shell-torn field to the shallow trench. I went to battalion headquarters, which was in a little sheet-iron shelter built from the west side of the trench; that is, the opening to the shelter faced the enemy. Colonel Lawson and other battalion headquarters officers were there, as well as several battalion messengers crowded in the doorway. I was only in there a few moments when German rifles and machine guns began to rattle, and four men in the doorway fell back into the shelter—two of them dead and two badly wounded.
Captain Gray, the adjutant, burned all official papers and we prepared to move the battalion headquarters and aid post to the back of the woods. The air sounded like the neighborhood of a beehive by then, with the German machine-gun bullets whistling by and our men returning the fire. The morale of our men was not good; they seemed to feel that we were in a hopeless position, and I saw many of them drop their guns and start to run back through the woods in the direction that Colonel Lawson and other battalion headquarters officers were walking. Colonel Lawson turned around, drew his pistol, walked back as cool as a cucumber, and out in front of the trench in full view of the enemy ordered his men to stick to their positions. His own fearlessness seemed to imbue them with new courage and they did stick—most of them, poor fellows, never to get away.
We proceeded to the back of the woods. The fog had lifted by now, and the sun was bright. It was soon apparent that while our men were still holding the enemy in front of the woods, the Germans had broken through on either side and soon the woods would be surrounded. Colonel Lawson sent word forward for our men to drop back, and he sent me and a few men back about three quarters of a mile to a large railroad embankment which had several old artillery shelters dug into the banks. I was to use one for an aid post, and he would use one for battalion headquarters.
A kind of sunken road led from the back of the wood across the open space almost to the railroad embankment. As three men and I were walking back along this sunken road, three Boche planes came over and spied us. They were flying low and turned their machine guns on us as they flew over, but after a few bursts they were gone, I thought. I looked back over my shoulder and was thunderstruck to see one of them circling down toward the sunken road like an immense eagle. Another glance backward and he was coming toward us, only a few rods away, flying so low along the line of the sunken road that the wings of his plane were only a few feet above the banks. His machine gun was spitting lead all around us, and I did not know what was best to do. There was not so much as a weed to hide behind. Was it best to lie flat on the ground or to stand up straight or to run or what? During the few tense moments that followed I think I tried all of those things, and as the singing lead tore up the dirt inches from one’s head or feet, the particular procedure was changed. The roar of the engine by then was almost upon us and, strange to say, I forgot any fear of getting hit by a bullet in my certainty that one of the propeller blades would hit me in the head. But suddenly the plane swerved to the right and disappeared for a few moments from view, but I could still hear his machine gun sputtering and wondered what had happened. This is apparently what did happen. He had descended so low that he feared his wings would strike the parapets of the road and he turned to avoid this and rise again, but when he turned out of the road his wheels were on the ground and he was landing. Before he could rise again, our men were upon him and took him prisoner. There was not time to get the machine away; ten minutes later all that ground was in the hands of the Germans. I think the machine was burned.
We reached the railroad embankment without further trouble and from there could see that the enemy a mile or so on either side of us had advanced a great deal further than they had immediately in front of us: in other words, the woods that our men were holding were being squeezed off. In a few minutes, Colonel Lawson and Captain Gray, our adjutant, arrived. A few hundred yards away, at the edge of the ruined village of Attilly, a machine gun was sputtering and the bullets were singing over our heads and across the railroad embankment. Inasmuch as our men were presumably holding the line a mile or more ahead of where we were, it seemed certain that this gun must be one of our own. Colonel Lawson sent my orderly to “tell that darn fool to quit firing at us.” It was two days later when I saw the boy again. When he had got back near the machine-gun nest, he had found it was a German one and had had his troubles getting away.
Meanwhile, I could see that Colonel Lawson was a little worried about that machine gun. He walked back himself along a winding ravine in which he was out of sight. In a few moments the runner who had accompanied him came running to our shelter, shot through the arm. He was breathless and pale as he handed me a note from Colonel Lawson which read, “For God’s sake, get out of there right away, the place is surrounded.” The note gave instructions as to the only direction of escape: backward across the open for 250 to 300 yards toward a little clump of trees, beyond which the ground sloped away again. The runner had been hit getting forward to me with the note, but was a stout fellow and went on anyway. Meanwhile, our men were leaving their positions at the front of the wood and were trying to get out of the trap that was rapidly closing about them.
During the next hour or two, those of our men who were able wandered back toward Beauvois, a village in front of which shallow defensive trenches were being rapidly dug. There our straggling units were again assembled, and as the Germans continued their advance, Scots and others on a crest fell back to this line, which was just at the edge of the village and was a line in name more than in fact. It was getting dusk now, and we had no more than reached Beauvois when the enemy began breaking shrapnel overhead.
By this time, all was chaos and confusion with the British. After two days of fighting they were back five miles, out of the trenches entirely, only open country behind for defense, a great deal of artillery destroyed, our divisional loss 75-80 per cent, and apparently few if any reserves to come up to help. The road leading west from Beauvois was packed with straggling men who were separated from their units. Officers were attempting to get them into the defensive positions before Beauvois, but the enthusiasm of the men was mighty low and any pretext was enough to keep them moving westward. As wounded men wandered down the road from Beauvois I collected them at Ugny, where we had been billeted while in reserve, and did what I could.
After a while Captain Gray came along and said that orders had been given for the whole British army to drop back, under cover of darkness, behind the Somme. It was still several miles back to the Somme, and it seemed impossible that all that area was to be given up without a struggle, but apparently struggle on that ground was hopeless. Gray said our unit was to cross the Somme at Voyennes, about ten miles away, blow up the bridge, and dig in for defense on the other side.
We crossed the Somme at Béthencourt, north of Voyennes. Troops had been crossing all night long and Captain Gray and I were about the last, for they were ready to blow up the bridge when we got there and did so a few minutes after we had crossed. In trying to get to Voyennes from Béthencourt, we got lost again. We were so exhausted that at one little ruined village we lay down on the floor of a roofless house to rest, but the night air of March was chilly and we would huddle together for a few minutes’ sleep only to wake in a shiver.
March 23–24: Billancourt and Breuil . At daybreak we came to a little village and found civilians there. We got our bearings again for Voyennes and started, but part way we met other troops and learned that our people had been sent elsewhere. Finally about noon of the third day, March 23, 1918, we found our men along the road at Billancourt, which is not on the Somme River but a few miles west of it.
Our transport line, which had kept moving back out of touch with the enemy, got us up some food here and in the sun by the roadside in the early afternoon we had a fairly good feed, the first “fairly good feed” for three days. No one seemed to know what move would be next, and the footsore and weary officers and men who were left hoped that we might be allowed to stay there for the night to get some rest. But in the late afternoon, orders came that we were to march forward to a canal south of the Somme at Breuil. We arrived there about 10 P.M. All was quiet, for the enemy had not yet drawn up that far. We slept that night in barns and sheds in Breuil, making ourselves as comfortable as possible and sleeping, I think, the sleep of the just.
The following morning, March 24, we looked around and got the lay of the land. The canal was only a few yards wide, with a bridge at Breuil and at various other places. On the opposite side of the canal, only a stone’s throw away, was another village, called Bacquencourt. During that morning, our men dug in on the Breuil side, between the canal and a big railway embankment only a few yards away that ran parallel to it. British troops were still on the opposite side of the canal, out in front of Bacquencourt, and all day long the tired and battered remnants, with the wounded who were able to navigate, kept filing back across the bridge at Breuil and through our unit to the rear. We established outposts of a few men at the far end of Bacquencourt, and toward late afternoon all troops on the opposite side of the canal except our outposts had withdrawn.
French civilians in Breuil were getting out as rapidly as they could and taking what they could with them on wheelbarrows and carts. It was a pitiful sight. They were mostly women and children trying to carry more than they were able. While walking down a road leading westward from the village, I met an old lady and a couple of small children. The old lady was pushing a wheelbarrow that was piled high with all the earthly belongings they were able to take with them. I pushed it for a ways down the road, and it was so heavy that I knew she would have to leave most of it by the roadside before she got much further.
The wine cellars at Breuil seemed to be well supplied with champagne, and some of the French soldiers seemed chiefly interested in removing as large a supply as possible. I passed one on the street with his arms full of bottles, and he tossed one to me. I was famished for a drink and pulled the cork and drank about half of it right down. Nothing ever tasted so good before or since. In a few minutes I began to feel like a fighting cock, and for a while had the idea that I might go out and attack a couple of German armies myself.
During the afternoon the German uhlans (cavalry) could be seen as they maneuvered about, feeling their way forward toward our positions. After dark our outposts were withdrawn across the bridge to the Breuil side of the canal and the bridge was blown up. A poor job was done, for while artillery and horses could not be moved across without repairs, men in single file could march across easily. We knew that in the morning the German troops would be ready to renew the attack with vigor.
March 25: Breuil and Cressy . We were not disappointed. The following day, March 25, was one of the most trying I have ever known.
In the morning, the Germans made their presence in Bacquencourt plainly evident. Our troops, dug in along the canal bank, were now occupying the front line again. German snipers were stationed in the houses and trees in Bacquencourt, and all day long they snapped away at anyone who appeared for a moment in an open place. Colonel Lawson had battalion headquarters in the basement of a little church, and my aid post was in a cellar under an old shed just across the street. With the exception of a couple of men with me and a few runners attached to battalion headquarters, our men, perhaps 250 in all, were in positions along the canal bank at the edge of the village. [Three days earlier the battalion had numbered 1,000 men.] From the shellfire that was laid down on Breuil that day one might have thought that the whole British Army must have been there. Our men along the canal were sitting under a murderous fire, but casualties were few, for it took almost a direct hit to lay men out and they were protected pretty well from machine guns and snipers. Ambulances could not come up to our aid post but had to stay in a concealed place well out of the village. The field ambulance dressing station was back a mile or two at Cressy, but toward evening it became so warm there that they pulled up and left.
The bombardment that day at Breuil was a nerveracking ordeal to sit through: the incessant song of shells in the air and the crash as they exploded and threw debris all around. The morale of officers and men was badly shattered. The protection was scanty, the opportunity to “fight back” was not present, for the enemy carefully avoided making any attempt to cross the canal in front of us. While casualties were low, impending death was present for every man all day long. I think it is sitting under such fire, with no opportunity for action, that wears on men’s nerves and tends to induce shell shock. By dusk everyone was “shot to pieces,” and officers and men alike were anxious to get out of a position which they felt was helpless and hopeless.
At Nesle, two miles to our left, the canal ended, and it was plain that the enemy had advanced well beyond Nesle—in other words that we were flanked on that side. Where the enemy was to our right no one knew, but it appeared that he had not yet crossed the canal for a mile or two in that direction. Late in the afternoon a sudden rumor ran among the men that the Boche had crossed the canal at Moyencourt, about a mile to our right, and the men stampeded from their positions and began to retreat. Colonel Lawson had been called earlier in the day to take command of the brigade in the absence of the acting brigadier general, who was wounded. The brigade major happened to be up there at the time, and he stopped the stampede and induced the men to return to their positions. He enlisted me to help him, and I can remember his words of desperation: “For God’s sake, Doctor, help me to get these men back. If we must leave these positions, let us leave them in order and not like a mob.” He tried to assure the men that our positions were safe, that the enemy had not crossed at Moyencourt. A few minutes later, as dusk was coming on, it became apparent, however, that the Boche were across. We were now flanked on the right as well as the left, and the order was given to get out at once in the only possible direction of retreat—toward the village of Cressy directly behind us. We cleared the mile or more between Breuil and Cressy in a hurry. The machine guns on the right were sweeping the open field we had to cross, and we lost some men.
Cressy was being held by the French, with outposts out in front. The French had an aid station of some kind there with a couple of doctors and many stretcher-bearers. The Germans crossed the canal at Breuil as soon as we left, pulled up toward the French outposts in front of Cressy, and dug in for the night.
I went to the French aid station. The Frenchmen and I could communicate only in German, but I learned that they expected to be captured by the Germans the next day, were perfectly resigned to their fate, and were making no preparation to retreat. They knew that their weak line in front of the village would crumble before the German attack in the morning, that they would have many wounded, and it seemed to be their policy to stay and take care of them rather than leave them to the tender mercies of a none-too-tender enemy. That this was not the policy of the English was evidenced by the absence of ambulances on those days when danger of capture or destruction was great, and the speed with which field ambulance dressing stations moved to the rear, even when the battalion units were still trying to stick a mile or two ahead of them. About 10 P.M. that night (March 25) we got orders to march back to Roye.
By March 26 the situation was desperate for the Allies. They had been driven back almost nine miles and it looked as though the German plan to split the British and French forces around Roye and then finish them off separately might succeed. Between March 21 and March 28, the British had 163,000 casualties, the French had 72,000, and, in addition, the Germans took some 90,000 prisoners. One good did come out of this rout. The Allies forgot their bickering long enough to place General Ferdinand Foch in command of both the British and French armies on the Somme. He was eventually appointed generalissimo of all the French, British, and American forces on the western front and was to prove to be the greatest military leader of the war.
March 26: Roye-Amiens Road . The distance from Cressy to Roye, as the crow flies, is about six miles southwest, but the road is not direct, making the march nine or ten miles. We arrived at Roye about 3 A.M. I can never remember being as tired as on this march; the fatigue and sleepiness was so great that one could hardly drag along. On one occasion when we had stopped for a few moments’ rest, I went to sleep standing up. When the troops marched off, I still stood in the road asleep until an officer came back and woke me up.
We hung around Roye from about 3 A.M. to 5 A.M. No one seemed to know why we were there or what the next move would be; there was nothing to do but wait and shiver in the cold night air. About 5 A.M. (March 26) we got orders to march back on the road leading northwesterly toward Amiens. Progress along this road was extremely slow, for congestion was so great that when one thing stopped, then everything stopped. The civilian refugees were the most pitiable sight. They had left their homes closer to the front several days before and had thought they would surely be safe back there. But as things looked, there would be no stopping till we all got back to the Bay of Biscay.
By that afternoon we had reached Mezières, thirteen miles northwest of Roye, and nearly halfway between Roye and Amiens. We rested in the sunshine by the roadside there and again got in touch with our transport for something to eat. The men were extremely weary and footsore, they had blisters and sores on their feet which under ordinary circumstances would have incapacitated them, but no one complained and I do not recall seeing a man who asked to be sent back, even though we were in touch with ambulances for a while. Battalion headquarters was established in an old factory on the outskirts of Hangest; posts were assigned to the men stretching along the road and we settled down to a quiet night, for the enemy was apparently miles away and other troops were still fighting a rear guard retreat in front of us.
March 27: Hangest . March 27 was a quiet day. Our men continued to man their crude positions around Hangest, and no enemy was in sight. But the everapproaching sound of artillery told us that he was getting closer. It seemed impossible to get any authentic reports from corps or army headquarters. No doubt they were working hard, but the feeling up front was that we were just about abandoned to our own resources.
That night about 10 P.M. , to our great surprise and joy, we were relieved in our positions by the French, supposedly to go back somewhere near Amiens for rest and reorganization. We had then about two hundred men in our battalion, the strongest in the division, which now numbered only about one thousand men distributed throughout the nine battalions. The Oxfords, who were in the line in front of us on March 21, had only eighty men left.
Upon being relieved by the French on the night of March 27 we marched back again to Mezières, reaching there at midnight, and again shivered by the roadside for what seemed like hours waiting to find out “where do we go from here.” After a while a lot of motor lorries or trucks came up and we all piled aboard, bound, it was rumored, for Villers-Bretonneux for a little rest.
March 28: Marcelcave . It was not yet dawn when we pulled up in the square of a little village and unloaded. When daylight came on March 28, we learned that the name of the village was Marcelcave. It was apparently entirely abandoned, the civilians having left it hurriedly the day before. No one seemed to know why we were there or what we were to do. Colonel Lawson had not yet arrived. The men went into the houses. Potatoes and meat and stores of every kind were plentiful, and before long there was warm and appetizing food for everyone.
At the eastern end of the village was the railway station, and a double-tracked railway passed through a wide, deep cutting. About 10 A.M. the Gist Division and some stragglers who had been picked up were strung along this railway cutting for perhaps a mile or two. About noon the Germans began to shell the village and the cutting very heavily, and their machine guns raked the parapet of the cutting and the village behind it. Off a mile or so to the northeast, with an open, rising slope between, was another village, Warfusée-Abancourt, occupied by the Germans. Early in the afternoon, it was learned that the Gist Division had orders to go “over the top” of the railway cutting, drive the Germans out of this village, and occupy it that night.
We were not in touch with any ambulances that day. Where they were I did not know. One thousand men, all that was left of the Gist Division, were sent to the attack without any provision for evacuating wounded. I worked in the railway cutting first and sent one of my men back into the village, where cellars were available in which heavily wounded men might be placed for shelter from shellfire until ambulances could come up in the evening, we hoped, to evacuate them.
Promptly at three o’clock in the afternoon, the men advanced out of the railway cutting and across the open slope in a northeasterly direction toward the village occupied by the Germans. The Germans were evidently quietly waiting, for they made no attempt to attack the railway cutting, and were content throughout the early afternoon to lay a heavy shellfire on it and on the village. Our men advanced slowly, keeping as close to the ground as possible and stopping every hundred yards or so for a little rest. Our artillery support from behind was very feeble, a few shells being dropped out in front, which presented a sorry picture of a barrage. Our men had not proceeded far when the wounded began to come back, for the Germans opened on them down the slope with their machine guns, besides turning a lot of artillery on the advancing troops. Wounded who could walk were sent back toward the west down the railway cutting; those who could not walk, or only a little, were sent back to the shelter in Marcelcave.
In a few minutes it was apparent that the attack was to be a failure and that our casualties were heavy. All afternoon Colonel Lawson, as well as other battalion commanders, had headquarters simply in the open in the railway cutting. After the failure of the attack, our men fell back to the cutting about 4 P.M. Colonel Lawson and Captain Gray went back into the village and took over a cellar for battalion headquarters about a block away from the aid post. I went back with them, and it was apparent even then that the Germans were not content with merely repulsing the British but that they were attacking on either side of us. Colonel Lawson seemed not a bit disturbed and assured me that we would hold the railway cutting and the village for the night anyway.
I went to the aid post and found that a large number of wounded had accumulated there. Earlier in the afternoon I had sent our English padre back along the road leading west to see if he could get in touch with an ambulance company and tell them of our dire straits in Marcelcave. He had returned when I got to the aid post and told me that back about four miles he had met the chief medical officer for the division in a car, serenely watching the battle from a distance, and this officer had told him that the ambulances had got out of touch with us on the trip north and were not available.
I could hardly share the optimism of Colonel Lawson that we would hold the cutting and the village all night. The shellfire on the village was very heavy, and off to the right and left I could hear the rattle of German machine guns getting behind us. I resolved that no time could be lost in getting away as many wounded as possible. We had no supplies except what we carried on our backs, but luckily I found an abandoned dressing station which some field ambulance company had left the day before, and in it were large quantities of dressings, etc. Every man who could possibly walk was made to walk off down the road leading to the westward. Many were weak from loss of blood and severe injuries and said they could not walk, but I called their attention to the machine guns of the enemy and told them that before long the place would probably be in his hands. I had no idea at the time that this would come to pass so soon, but it served to stimulate the men, and many who thought they could not walk were able to drag themselves along. Their hope was that somewhere back along the road they would meet ambulances coming up which would carry them to hospitals.
A lot of men simply could not walk, for they had fractured limbs, gunshot wounds of the abdomen, and mutilating wounds which hardly allowed a man to turn from a given position. For these men we collected carts and wheelbarrows. Lightly wounded men going back along the road dragged these carts with them. Naturally I was rather busy, and by the time we got off all the wounded we could move, it was getting dusk. The ominous rattle of the German machine guns behind us on either side was present somewhere in my subconscious, but other things were too pressing to pay much attention to it. There were still eighteen or twenty badly wounded men in the cellars—some of them I had not yet seen—and transportation for them was not available.
No word of “how goes the battle” had come from Colonel Lawson. We were still holding out in front of the village, though it was apparent that the Germans must have gotten through on either side. I was about to descend into a cellar to see the men there who were crying for help, when the German shellfire on the village suddenly stopped. This was of considerable significance, for why should their artillery fire be raised unless they were about to enter the village? Just at that time, off to the west behind us, German Very lights (rockets) began to go up, and I saw at once that they had the village cut off. Our men had retreated westward down the railroad cutting.
It is said that “once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.” That surely was my moment, and like a flash from a clear sky it was upon me. Could I get away in the gathering darkness and get in touch again with our troops before being entirely cut off by the enemy? Should I run away to save myself from capture or worse and leave the men who were crying to me for help? The decision came fast and easy. I had never made a decision that I was so sure was right.
I went into the cellars and calmly did what I could for the men. I say calmly because I was perfectly serene in my own mind. The moment for a great decision had arrived, a decision which might mean life or death, freedom or captivity. I had decided in the only way possible which would allow me to retain the selfrespect to look my friends in the face, if indeed I ever should see them again. Whether I might have gotten away from there that afternoon, I do not know—perhaps the chances were fifty-fifty. Whether I was right or wrong, it was as impossible for me to go as it would have been to cut off my hand. From a military point of view I imagine now the thing to have done was to try to get away. But I had had no military training, and from a doctor’s viewpoint the idea of running in that situation was impossible.
I went into the cellar and lit a candle for light.
In a few minutes a German mopping-up squad came into the village, and Gallagher and his wounded men were taken prisoner. He was treated with courtesy by the Germans, but also as something of a curiosity, for he was one of the first Americans they had captured, and they wondered what the Doctor was doing with the British. The Germans inevitably asked him why America had come into the war, and when he replied that it was due to unrestricted submarine warfare and German intrigue in Mexico, the Germans told him that it was really because the United States had loaned vast sums of money to the Allies and was afraid of losing it if Britain and France were beaten. As for the Lusitania, the Germans said they had sunk the liner because it was carrying a new gas from America against which German masks were useless.
Though Lieutenant Gallagher did not know it, the day he had been captured, March 28, proved to be the critical one all along the Somme front. The Germans attacked everywhere, but with particular fierceness in front of Arras. The attack was repulsed by the British Third Army under General Byng. In early April, after a comparative lull, the Germans again attempted to break through the Allies’ lines, but again were repulsed. By April 6, the Second Battle of the Somme was over and with it Germany’s last chance to win the war.
On May 22, after having been kept in various towns in northern France and Germany, Gallagher was sent to a prison camp for officers in Villingen, Baden, in the Black Forest. There, with British, French, and Russian officers, he remained in comparative comfort until the Armistice, November 11, 1918. Finally, on November 26, he was put on a train bound for Switzerland and freedom. After passing through France and England, he arrived back in the United States and reached Waseca, Minnesota, on February 26, 1919. We can believe him when he writes at the end of his memoirs: “That the joy of being home again compensated entirely for the weeks and months that were gone, and soon to be forgotten, I hoped, goes without saying.”
After the war, Lieutenant Gallagher was awarded the Military Cross by the British government. He studied for a time at the Mayo Clinic, then married and settled down to practice medicine in Waseca. He wrote this memoir in 1919–20 with the help of a diary he had kept during the war. The manuscript was forgotten until its discovery after his death in 1962 by two of his children, Dr. William B. Gallagher of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Mrs. George L. Spoo of Rochester, Minnesota. The manuscript reflects extensive editing by A MERICAN H ERITAGE .