Blunden's War - Part 12B: Bombs in buckets and a Spy (3 September 1916)
Blunden is waiting for the attack on Beaucourt Ridge, sitting in a trench in Hamel main street. The night air is cold, and the scent of the river mist marks the start of morning; he speaks to a fine strong soldier in charge of a party carrying trench mortars. CSM Coleman bore no ill will towards a schoolboy officer. He was posthumously recommended for a Victoria Cross for his actions a few hours later.
As light comes, Blunden sees a stranger, a white faced visitor, in a soft cap, wearing a mackintosh. He asks the way to the German lines. 'I thought it well to direct him to the communication trench'. Was he a spy?
The barrage opens. Blunden and his carrying party wait in a cellar for the order to move. Blunden gives it, as shells, the ruins of Hamel and jags of iron whizz past the cellar mouth. He is forced to shout and swear at the men who dully pick up their bomb buckets and go ahead through the burning wreckage and the stench of high explosive. He leads them along the river road, and into No Man's Land. The river mist and smoke obscure the German line. 'Good men of ours, staring like men in a trance, their powers of action apparently suspended.' Having handed over his men to their own officer, Blunden returns to Colonel Harrison in that fantastic underground cave system known as Kentish Caves.
The next hours are chaos; some of the attacking men were dug into the German trenches and could not be communicated with; Harrison repeatedly phoning the guns, and the General. Wounded men and messengers crowd the small passages. Then the German guns find their mark on the Caves. Harrison goes outside into the top trenches. He returns. 'Rabbit! They're short of ammunition...get round and do what you can.' Blunden collects people and stores to go over to the German lines. But that project has to be cancelled as the message comes that the Germans were almost at the entrance to the Caves. 'We were prepared with our revolvers to try our luck'.
However, time passed and no Germans came. 'The bronze noon was more quiet but no less deadly than the morning. I went round the scarcely passable hillside trenches, but they were amazingly lonely: suddenly a sergeant major and half a dozen men bounded superhumanly, gasping and excited over the parapets.' They had been lying in No Man's Land and dodged the machine guns to get back. From them, Blunden understood that the supposedly derelict German front trench was well connected to the others behind, the Germans had come up against our men's backs, using their bayonets then 'used the whole dam lot, minnies snipers rifle grenades artillery'.
'Don't seem that the 49th Div got any further'.
Among the 300 dead were Blunden's old company commanders Penruddock and Northcote, French and Hood 'and many more.'
Conjecture recalls the Spy.