Veterans Day Celebrates Warriors From Our Disastrous Wars, But the Day Was Established for Peace and the End of War's Destruction
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The week-long bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its noise. More than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer’s plow years or decades later. Two-thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, virtually useless in destroying machine gun emplacements made of steel and reinforced concrete or stone. Nor could shrapnel shells, which scattered light steel balls, destroy the dense belts of German barbed wire, many yards thick, unless they burst at just the right height. But their fuses were wildly unreliable, and usually they exploded only after they had already plummeted into the earth, destroying little and embedding so much metal in the ground that soldiers trying to navigate through darkness or smoke sometimes found their compasses had ceased to work.
The remaining British shells were high-explosive ones, which could indeed destroy a German machine gun bunker, but only if they hit it with pinpoint accuracy. When guns were firing from several miles away, this was almost impossible. German machine gun teams had waited out the bombardment in dugouts as deep as 40 feet below the surface and supplied with electricity, water, and ventilation. In one of the few places where British troops did reach the German front line on July 1, they found the electric light in a dugout still on.
Unaccountably, an underground mine had exploded beneath the German lines 10 minutes before zero hour, a clear signal that the attack was about to begin. Then, like a final warning, the remaining mines went off at 7:28 a.m., followed by a two-minute wait to allow the debris -- blown thousands of feet into the air -- to fall back to earth before British troops climbed out of their trenches to advance. Those two minutes gave German machine gunners time to run up the ladders and stairways from their dugouts and man their fortified posts, of which there were roughly a thousand in the sector of the line under attack. During the two minutes, the British could hear bugles summoning German riflemen and machine gunners to their positions.
“They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches,” recalled a German soldier of the British advance. “...When the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of [German] machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line... Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in [the] rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines.”
The Germans, like the British, had plenty of artillery pieces; these were under camouflage netting and had simply not been used during the preceding weeks, so as not to reveal their positions to British aircraft. Now they fired their deadly shrapnel, whose effects the Germans could see: “All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony... with... cries for help and the last screams of death.”
Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes. But there was no question of the hard-hit British troops turning back, for each battalion had soldiers designated as “battle police,” herding any stragglers forward. “When we got to the German wire I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told,” remembered one British private. “The colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately he was hit on the forehead by a single bullet.”