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Read The Old Front Line Part 4

The Old Front Line is a web novel produced by John Masefield.
This lightnovel is currently completed.

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As the guns came into battery, they opened intermittent fire, so that, by the 20th of June, the fire along our front was heavier than it had been before. At the same time, the fire of the machine guns and trench mortars in our trenches became hotter and more constant. On the 24th of June this fire was increased, by system, along the front designed for the battle, and along the French front to the south of the Somme, until it reached the intensity of a fire of preparation. Knowing, as they did, that an attack was to come, the enemy made ready and kept on the alert. Throughout the front, they expected the attack for the next morning.

The fire was maintained throughout the night, but no attack was made in the morning, except by aeroplanes. These raided the enemy observation balloons, destroyed nine of them, and made it impossible for the others to keep in the air. The sh.e.l.ling continued all that day, searching the line and particular spots with intense fire and much asphyxiating gas. Again the enemy prepared for an attack in the morning, and again there was no attack, although the fire of preparation still went on. The enemy said, “To-morrow will make three whole days of preparation; the English will attack to-morrow.” But when the morning came, there was no attack, only the never-ceasing sh.e.l.ling, which seemed to increase as time pa.s.sed. It was now difficult and dangerous to move within the enemy lines. Relieving exhausted soldiers, carrying out the wounded, and bringing up food and water to the front, became terrible feats of war. The fire continued and increased, all that day and all the next day, and the day after that. It darkened the days with smoke and lit the nights with flashes. It covered the summer landscape with a kind of haze of h.e.l.l, earth-coloured above fields and reddish above villages, from the dust of blown mud and brick flung up into the air. The tumult of these days and nights cannot be described nor imagined. The air was without wind yet it seemed in a hurry with the pa.s.sing of death. Men knew not which they heard, a roaring that was behind and in front, like a presence, or a screaming that never ceased to shriek in the air. No thunder was ever so terrible as that tumult. It broke the drums of the ears when it came singly, but when it rose up along the front and gave tongue together in full cry it humbled the soul. With the roaring, crashing, and shrieking came a racket of hammers from the machine guns till men were dizzy and sick from the noise, which thrust between skull and brain, and beat out thought. With the noise came also a terror and an exultation, that one should hurry, and hurry, and hurry, like the shrieking, into the pits of fire opening on the hills.

Every night in all this week the enemy said, “The English will attack to-morrow,” and in the front lines prayed that the attack might come, that so an end, any end, might come to the sh.e.l.ling.

It was fine, cloudless, summer weather, not very clear, for there was a good deal of heat haze and of mist in the nights and early mornings.

It was hot yet brisk during the days. The roads were thick in dust.

Clouds and streamers of chalk dust floated and rolled over all the roads leading to the front, till men and beasts were grey with it.

At half-past six in the morning of the 1st of July all the guns on our front quickened their fire to a pitch of intensity never before attained. Intermittent darkness and flashing so played on the enemy line from Gommecourt to Maricourt that it looked like a reef on a loppy day. For one instant it could be seen as a white rim above the wire, then some comber of a big sh.e.l.l struck it fair and spouted it black aloft. Then another and another fell, and others of a new kind came and made a different darkness, through which now and then some fat white wreathing devil of explosion came out and danced. Then it would show out, with gaps in it, and with some of it level with the field, till another comber would fall and go up like a breaker and smash it out of sight again. Over all the villages on the field there floated a kind of b.l.o.o.d.y dust from the blasted bricks.

In our trenches after seven o’clock on that morning, our men waited under a heavy fire for the signal to attack. Just before half-past seven, the mines at half a dozen points went up with a roar that shook the earth and brought down the parapets in our lines. Before the blackness of their burst had thinned or fallen the hand of Time rested on the half-hour mark, and along all that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across the No Man’s Land to begin the Battle of the Somme.



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