Extract from "Experiences of Baden Soldiers at the Front, Volume 1: Machine-guns in the Iron Regiment (8th Baden Infantry Regiment No.169)" by Otto Lais (G. Braun, Karlsruhe 1935), courtesy of Verlag G.Braun GmbH.
In this account, Otto Lais vividly depicts the horror experienced by both sides in the battle for Serre. Lais himself fought at the southern end of the I.R. 169 sector, where he most likely faced the 15th West Yorkshires (Leeds Pals) and 18th Durham Light Infantry (Durham Pals).
"Trench warfare in the Artois", as it was referred to in the military despatches of the time, is seen today in extracts from the muster rolls and the active lists of old soldiers. On 22nd June the term "trench warfare in the Artois" disappeared from the military despatch from the Artois. The newspapers wrote in bold print:
"The Battle of the Somme."
There is an old Latin proverb: "Ora et labora"! In German it means "Bete und arbeite" [pray and work]. "Curse and work" was our trench-motto in the positions in front of Bapaume in the Artois! This motto was a reference to the "endless" digging, to the drawing of wire entanglements, and to the never-ending construction of dugouts. One swore, one grumbled, one groaned at the nightly hauling of the rolls of barbed wire, the barricades, the wooden frames and all the other "treasured" things in the life of an infantryman.
Particularly "popular" was the enjoyment we infantrymen had hauling the hundredweight mines. We have the feeling that nowhere on the whole Western Front is there as much graft, digging and tunnelling as here.
The divisional commander checks everything! In the opinion of us other ranks, His Excellency just has a "digging-mania".
The second, the third, the nth trench gets deeper and deeper dugouts. Thirty, forty and fifty steps go deep down. Hewed tree-trunks, beams and T-bars, sacks of angle irons and scaffolding clamps are hauled from the supply depots. The entrances to the shelters, the dugout recesses are strengthened and reinforced. Even some of the approach trenches, the L3, the L5 and the notorious and feared L6 get dugouts and depots in their backward areas. Our divisional commander, our beloved "little Excellency" (he is of small stature) often made daily inspections, coming in all weathers and at "worse" times! Usually unaccompanied, wearing a shabby windcheater, he went along the trenches, climbed down into the dugouts, clambered over the spoil, squeezed at night through the lanes of barbed wire, was here, was there, was everywhere. He had a particular liking for his machine-gunners and it always gave us special pleasure when we were allowed to show and demonstrate our spick-and-span weapon to him. Generalleutnant [Major-General] von Borries never made a big deal of himself or of the performance of his division, just as his favourite Regiment 169 never made a fuss of itself and its successes.
So it was that on the gentle hill of Serre, to left and to right of the Bapaume - Puisieux - Serre - Mailly - Albert road, an ingeniously organised infantry fortress came into being.
Our grumbling falls silent, as the enemy calmly finds its range, as we realise that "it starts" soon.
On 24th June, hell broke in upon us. The unimaginable fury of an uninterrupted week-long drumfire by all calibres over the infantry trenches and over the artillery emplacements.
Over more than a 50km breadth, the gentle hills of the Somme and of the Ancre river sink behind the brown curtain of millions of shell-bursts. Those of us whose dugouts had not been crushed, crouched below on the alert, took breaths, whether of smoke, dust or shell-bursts, gasping and with difficulty, believed by the third day that the unrelenting booming, rolling, cracking and bursting, on top of the shaking and trembling of the earth, would drive us mad. On the sixth and seventh days the fury seemed to increase, the dugout entrances were mostly blocked leaving, where it was going "well", space to crawl through; the nerves of the occupiers were dulled, a suppressed rage lay in the tortured minds and souls of the defenders, one thought dominating all: "when will they finally come?"
After a terrible night, after the inferno of dawn "they're coming". - Finally! - relief - that the enemy turns to the attack.
The sun shines brightly. It is the 1st July 1916. In the splendour of this summer's day the English columns advance to the attack. They have the certainty, that their week-long drumfire, precisely calculated to the square metre, has destroyed every atom of life in our position.
The enemy's artillery fire suddenly transfers to our rear positions, onto the grounds of Serre village, onto the approach roads and the villages beyond.
250 to 400 Metres away from our destroyed trenches they advance to the attack!
They advance in columns, in thick, packed lines of attack, behind which are drawn up support troops, Indian lancers, ready to turn the English breakthrough on the wing of the attack front into a devastating defeat of our centre. The English infantry have their rifles at their necks, hanging from their shoulders, ready for the stroll to Bapaume, to Cambrai, to the Rhine!
The idea that there could still be life or any resistance in us (after this week) seems absurd to them!
But now men crawl out of half-crushed dugouts, now men squeeze through shot-through tunnels, through buried dugout entrances, through broken, shattered timber frames, now they rise up between the dead and dying and call and cry out: "get out! get out! its the attack!"
"They're coming". The sentries, who had to remain outside throughout the drumfire, rise out of the shell-holes. Dust and dirt lie a centimetre-thick on their faces and uniforms. Their cry of warning rings piercingly in the narrow gaps that form the dugout entrance. "Get out...get out...they're coming!" Now men rush to the surface and throw themselves into shell holes and craters; now they fling themselves in readiness at the crater's rim; now they rush forward under cover from the former second and third lines and place themselves in the first line of defence. Hand-grenades are being hauled by the box from shell-hole to shell-hole.
There's a choking in every throat, a pressure which is released in a wild yell, in the battle-cry "they're coming, they're coming!" Finally the battle! The nightmare of this week-long drumfire is about to end, finally we can free ourselves of this week-long inner torment, no longer must we crouch in a flattened dugout like a mouse in a trap.
No longer do we feel the dull impact of the shelter-breaker exploding downwards (an impact like a hammer-blow on the helmeted skull).
No longer must we calm, hold down, tie down those men whom almost lose their minds through this pounding, booming and splintering, through difficulty in breathing and through the jerking and swaying of the dugout walls, and whom with overtly trembling limbs want to get up away from this hole and this mousetrap, up into the open air, into a landscape of raging flames and iron - a landscape of insanity and death.
We call for a barrage!!
Red flares climb high then fade away as they fall to the ground. Destructive fire and barrage fire leave masses of green and red marks in the sky!
Dear God! The German barrage fire!
Behind us the guns lie destroyed in their emplacements, their wheels upwards, their barrels in the dirt.
An enormous crater left by the impact of the English heavy shells yawns at the site of the gun emplacements.
Most of the crews are dead, lying buried in tunnels and bunkers. On the waggon-tracks that led to the gun batteries lie shot-up ammunition waggons, shattered gun-limbers, spilled cartridges and shells, dead drivers, and the carcasses of horses torn apart by direct- and near-hits.
Our barrage is pitifully weak; there is no artillery in reserve.
The summer of 1916, the time of the great artillery shortage.
So it was that on 1st July 1916 almost everything depended on us - the infantry!1
Shots flew, whipped and cracked wildly into the enemy ranks, above us it hissed, whizzed and roared like a storm, like a hurricane; the path of the English shells which fell on what little artillery was left, on the support troops, on the rear-areas.
Amidst all the roar, the clatter, the rumble and the bursts, the lashing out and wild firing of the riflemen, the firm, regular beat of our machine-guns is solid and calm; -tack-tack-tack-tack....this one slower, the other faster in rhythm! - precision work in materials and construction! - a terrible melody to the enemy, it gives a greater degree of security and inner calm to our own friends in the infantry and to the other ranks.
The machine-gunners, who in quieter times were much mocked - and envied (excused from hauling ammunition!), are popular now!
One belt after another is raced through! 250 Shots - 1000 shots - 3000 shots.
"Bring up the spare gun-barrels" shouts the gun commander. The gun barrel's changed - carry on shooting! - 5000 shots - the gun-barrel has to be changed again. The barrel's scorching hot, the coolant's boiling - the gunners' hands are nearly scorched, scalded.
"Carry on shooting" urges the gun commander "or be shot yourself!"
The coolant in the gun jacket boils, vaporized by the furious shooting. In the heat of battle, the steam hose comes away from the opening of the water can into which the steam's meant to re-condense. A tall jet of steam sprays upwards, a fine target for the enemy. Its lucky for us that the sun's shining in their eyes and that it's behind us.
Had the enemy used close-in covering fire in 1916 as became customary for both sides in 1917 and 1918, the situation would have been highly critical for us.2
The enemy's getting closer; we keep up our continuous fire! The steam dies away, again the barrel needs changing! The coolant's nearly all vaporized. "Where's there water?" shouts the gunlayer. There's soda water (iron rations from the dugout) down below. "There's none there, Corporal!" The iron rations were all used up in the week-long bombardment.
Still the English attack; even though they already lie shot down in their hundreds in front of our lines, fresh waves continue to pour over from their jumping-off positions.
We have to shoot!
A gunner grabs the water can, jumps down into the shell-hole and relieves himself. A second then also pisses into the water can - its quickly filled!
The English are already in hand-grenade range; grenades fly to and fro. The barrel's been changed, the gun jacket filled - load! Hand-grenades and rifle-grenades explode violently in front of the gun - its not just unsettling, the loading gets into a tangle! You recite loudly, slowly and clearly saying to yourself: "forward - feed - back!" (knock the cocking handle forward - feed in the belt - throw back the cocking handle) - the same again! Safety catch to the right! - "feed through!"....tack-tack-tack-tack....a furious sustained fire once more strikes the "khakis" in front of us!
Tall columns of steam rise from almost all the machine guns. The steam hoses of most guns are torn off or shot away.
The skin of the gunners, of the gun commanders, hangs in shreds from their fingers, their hands are scalded! The left thumb's reduced to a swollen, shapeless piece of meat from continually pressing the safety catch. The hands grip the lightweight, thin gun handles as if locked in a seizure.
Eighteen thousand shots!
The platoon's other machine-gun jams. Gunner Schw. is shot in the head and falls over the belt that he feeds in. The belt's displaced, taking the cartridges at an angle into the feeder where they become stuck!
Another gunner takes over! The dead man's laid to one side.
The gunlayer takes out the feeder, removes the cartridges and reloads.
Shooting, nothing but shooting, barrel changing, hauling ammunition and laying out the dead and wounded in the bottom of the trench, such is the harsh and furious pace of the morning of 1st July 1916.
The harsh, clear report of the machine-guns is heard on every Division front.
England's youth, Scotland's best regiments, bled to death in front of Serre.
Our machine-gun, right by the Serre-Mailly road, commanded by the brave Unteroffizier [Corporal] Koch from Pforzheim, shoots through the last belt! It's driven twenty thousand shots into the English!
After the initial confusion and panic caused by our unexpected resistance, after the horrific loss of life in their closely-packed attack formations, the English re-form. For two hours and more, wave upon wave breaks against us.
With incredible tenacity, they run towards our trenches. In an exemplary show of courage and self-sacrifice, they climb from the safety of their jumping-off position only to be felled, barely having reached our shot-up barbed wire.
Twenty, thirty meters in front of our guns, the brave ones fall, the first and the last attack waves together.
Those following behind take cover behind their dead, groaning and moaning comrades. Many hang, mortally wounded, whimpering in the remains of the barbed wire and upon the hidden iron stakes of the barbed wire barricade. The survivors occupy the slight slope around and behind the remains of the barbed wire and shoot at us like things possessed, without much to aim at. They make cover for themselves from the bodies of their dead comrades and many of us fall in the fire. We shoot into the wire shreds, into the belt of barbed wire that winds to the earth. The hail of bullets breaks up at the wire and strikes downwards as an unpredictable crossfire into the protective slope. Soon the enemy fire dies out here as well.
Fresh waves appear over there, half-emerge from cover then sink again behind the parapets. Officers jump onto the thrown-up earth and try to encourage their men by their example. Flat-helmets emerge in numbers once more only to disappear again immediately. The hail of bullets from our infantry and machine-guns sprays over their defences.
The English officers no longer leave the trench. The sight of the field of attack takes the breath away from the attacker.
The attack is dead.
Our losses are very heavy. The enemy's losses are inconceivable. In front of our division's sector, the English lie in rows by company and by battalion, mowed-down, swept-away.
The "No Man's Land", the in-between ground separating the two positions, is one great scene of misery. The battle falls silent, it seems to have frozen through so much misery and misfortune. Medical orderlies hurry into the battlefield, an English medical team appears from somewhere with many stretchers and unfolded Red Cross flags, a rare and shattering sight in trench warfare.
Where to start!? Whimpering confronts them in almost every square meter. Our own medical orderlies, those who can be spared, join forces on the battlefield and place the enemy just as carefully into the hands of his people.3
Meanwhile the English support troops fared badly. Closely packed, caught between their jumping-off positions and advanced units of all kinds, they were unable to move forwards, backwards or sideways once the catastrophe began. Machine-guns mounted on sleds, elevated from the front line, with sights set at 500 to 700, shot an accurate line of fire into the English support troops. The deliberate destructive fire of the few German guns had a devastating effect on their ranks. Still shooting somewhere in the sector are two "Minenwerfer" [trench mortars] and a makeshift mortar put together by sappers, a so-called Albrecht-mortar (a wooden tube wrapped-around with thick coils of wire or steel bands). With a low rate of fire but with all the more terrible effect, this sent its shaky "jam-bucket", filled with a highly explosive charge, iron and thick glass, swaying through the air in the direction of Hebuterne. Wherever such a monster exploded 3 to 4 metres above the ground, the result was terrible to see.
At the adjacent regiment on our left, situated in front of Beaumont, the enemy succeeds in breaking through to the third line.
Our flank is threatened.
If the enemy occupies the Heidenkopf, it looks bad for us in the valley.
The 169 Regiment, that included the north- and northeastern sides of the Heidenkopf within its battle-sector, sends help to the Landwehrsmen. The slight, dashing Leutnant [2nd Lieutenant] Hoppe from Magdeburg throws the English out from the breach with a single infantry platoon from the third battalion in dazzling close combat. The English reserves, pushing from behind, that try to penetrate the gap, are caught in the flanking fire of one of our machine-guns that sees the opportunity and makes a positional change uphill - the Death Reaper!
Here too the English soldiers fall to the ground in rows.
Evening is drawing in.
In front of the sector of the 52nd Infantry Division, the enemy's attack is defeated.
Some kilometres further left, at Ovillers-Contalmaison, at la Boiselle, the enemy succeeds in breaking through the less-well consolidated position to a depth of one to two kilometres. The French succeed in breaking through at Peronne to a depth of 3 to 4 kilometres. Local successes, which they were able to extend to some two to four kilometres in a six-month long struggle - this loss of material, this sacrifice of life for that!
The English-French dream of a bright and cheerful war of movement, a march to the Rhine, is over by the evening of 1st July.
What happened on the part of the allied military command over the course of the further six months of the Battle of the Somme is the cruelest and the most incompetent bungling ever indulged in by an army command.
The bases of Serre, Gommecourt, Beaumont-Hamel, which dominated the open-country towards Bapaume, remain in our hands.
The 8th Baden Infantry Regiment 169 has the fame to be one of the few regiments which did not allow the English to gain a foothold in their sector on 1st July 1916.
Translation by Andrew C Jackson 1998