'The Attack' by R. H. Tawney: A Soldier Turned Socialist


R. H. Tawney (1880–1962) was an English economic historian, social critic, ethical socialist, Christian socialist and an important proponent of adult education. In August 2015 Verso will be publishing Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, a classic of political economy that traces the influence of religious thought on capitalism. When Tawney was a young man, he was given a rifle and sent out to France to participate in the Battle of the Somme. He wrote about his experiences in an essay titled ‘The Attack’, originally published in the Westminster Gazette August 1916; where he describes the horrors of the battle as well as being shot through the chest in its early stages. Click below to read the essay.

Last month marked 100 years since Britain joined World War One, yet many recently published histories of Britain's Great War embrace the conflict as a good war—irresistible, righteous—and popular. It has become almost heretical to offer criticism of Britain's intervention. Douglas Newton’s The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain's Rush to War, 1914 presents a new critical examination of the government's choice for war, and weaves into the story an account of those "radicals" and other activists who urged neutral diplomacy in 1914.


The priest stood in the door of a wooden shanty. The communicants stood and knelt in ranks outside. One guessed at the familiar words through the rattling of rifle bolts, the bursts of song and occasional laughter from the other men, as they put their equipment together outside their little bivouacs, bushes bent till they met and covered with tarpaulins, or smoked happily in an unwonted freedom from fatigues. An hour later we fell in on the edge of the wood, and, after the roll was called by companies, moved off. It was a perfect evening, and the immense overwhelming tranquillity of sky and down, uniting us and millions of enemies and allies in its solemn, unavoidable embrace, dwarfed into insignificance the wrath of man and his feverish energy of destruction. One forgot the object for which we were marching to the trenches. One felt as though one were on the verge of some new and tremendous discovery; and the soft cheering of the knots of men who turned out to watch us pass seemed like the last faint hail of landsmen to explorers bound for unknown seas. Then the heat struck us, and at the first halt we flung ourselves down, panting like dogs.

It was a tiresome job getting up the trenches. I don't know anything more exasperating than walking one to two miles with a stoppage every ten or twenty yards, especially when you're one of a long string of tired men and have a rifle and other traps hitched on to you. It was some wretched machinegun section which inflicted this torture on us. Either because they hadn't learned how to carry their beastly instruments, or because they would go nosing up every wrong turning, they made us spend nearly two hours in getting through trenches that we'd known for five months as well as their native populations of rats -- fat old stagers to whom men meant grub -- and had been accustomed to man in forty minutes. And when we reached the front-line, it took us some time to settle down. Our company was to attack in two lines, my platoon and another in front, followed by the other two at a distance of about a hundred yards. So, of course, we had to pack two lines of men into the same fire-trench. It was what the lads called a "box-up". And, when it was done, it was only by main force that one could push along to see that everyone was in his right place and understood what he was to do. Luckily there was plenty of time, and my platoon officer, a charming boy who had been an N.C.O. himself and had joined us only a week or two before, had enough sense not to come fussing round. He was killed beside me an hour or two later. Gradually the men settled down to wait, snoozing in the bottom or against the sides of the trench. As for me, I crept into a little cubby-hole found by a friend and dozed. An officer put his head in, and said he was sleepy, and was there room? But I thought, "Not so, my son. This is a holiday, and out of school we're all equal. Go and find a hole for yourself." So I pretended to be fast asleep, and he went away. He was killed in the course of the day.

I didn't doze long, for, though the roof of the thing wouldn't have stopped a rifle-grenade, I was afraid the lads might think I was shirking. Beside, something wonderful was happening outside. Some evenings before, I had watched with some friends from a peaceful little butte some miles behind our front the opening hours of the great bombardment. We had seen it from above, beneath a slowly sinking sun, as a long white line of surf breaking without pause on a shore that faded at its extremities into horizons beyond our sight, and had marveled that, by some trick of the ground, not a whisper from that awe-inspiring racket reached us. Now, at the tremendous climax of the last hour of the inferno -- the last, I mean, before we went over the top -- another miracle was being worked.

It was a glorious morning, and, as though there were some mysterious sympathy between the wonders of the ear and of the eye, the bewildering tumult seemed to grow more insistent with the growing brilliance of the atmosphere and the intenser blue of the July sky. The sound was different, not only in magnitude, but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar; I, at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise; it was a symphony. It did not move; it hung over us. It was as though the air were full of a vast and agonized passion, bursting now into groans and sighs, now into shrill screams and pitiful whimpers, shuddering beneath terrible blows, torn by unearthly whips, vibrating with the solemn pulse of enormous wings. And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or that. It did not begin, intensify, decline, and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man. It seemed that one had only to lift one's eyes to be appalled by the writhing of the tormented element above one, that a hand raised ever so little above the level of the trench would be sucked away into a whirlpool revolving with cruel and incredible velocity over infinite depths. And this feeling, while it filled one with awe, filled one also with triumphant exultation, the exultation of struggling against a storm in mountains, or watching the irresistible course of a swift and destructive river. Yet at the same time one was intent on practical details, wiping the trench dirt off the bolt of one's rifle, reminding the men of what each was to do, and when the message went round, "five minutes to go," seeing that all bayonets were fixed. My captain, a brave man and a good officer, came along and borrowed a spare watch off me. It was the last time I saw him. At 7:30 we went up the ladders, doubled through the gaps in the wire, and lay down, waiting for the line to form up on each side of us. When it was ready we went forward, not doubling, but at a walk. For we had nine hundred yards of rough ground to the trench which was our first objective, and about fifteen hundred to a further trench where we were to wait for orders. There was a bright light in the air, and the tufts of coarse grass were gray with dew.

I hadn't gone ten yards before I felt a load fall from me. There's a sentence at the end of The Pilgrim's Progress which has always struck me as one of the most awful things imagined by man: "Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction." To have gone so far and be rejected at last! Yet undoubtedly man walks between precipices, and no one knows the rottenness in him till he cracks, and then it's too late. I had been worried by the thought: "Suppose one should lose one's head and get other men cut up! Suppose one's legs should take fright and refuse to move!" Now I knew it was all right. I shouldn't be frightened and I shouldn't lose my head. Imagine the joy of that discovery! I felt quite happy and self-possessed. It wasn't courage. That, I imagine, is the quality of facing danger which one knows to be danger, of making one's spirit triumph over the bestial desire to live in this body. But I knew that I was in no danger. I knew I shouldn't be hurt; knew it positively, much more positively than I know most things I'm paid for knowing. I understood in a small way what Saint-Just meant when he told the soldiers who protested at his rashness that no bullet could touch the emissary of the Republic. And all the time, in spite of one's inner happiness, one was shouting the sort of thing that N.C.O.'s do shout and no one attends to: "Keep your extension"; "Don't bunch"; "Keep up on the left". I remember being cursed by an orderly for yelling the same things days after in the field-hospital.

Well, we crossed three lines that had once been trenches, and tumbled into the fourth, our first objective. "If it's all like this, it's a cake-walk," said a little man beside me, the kindest and bravest of friends, whom no weariness could discourage or danger daunt, a brick-layer by trade, but one who could turn his hand to anything, the man whom of all others I would choose to have beside me at a pinch; but he's dead. While the men dug furiously to make a fire-step, I looked about me. On the parados lay a wounded man of another battalion, shot, to judge by the blood on his tunic, through the loins or stomach. I went to him, and he grunted, as if to say, "I am in terrible pain; you must do something for me; you must do something for me; you much do something for me." I hate touching wounded men -- moral cowardice, I suppose. One hurts them so much and there's so little to be done. I tried, without much success, to ease his equipment, and then thought of getting him into the trench. But it was crowded with men and there was no place to put him. So I left him. He grunted again angrily, and looked at me with hatred as well as pain in his eyes. It was horrible. It was a though he cursed me for being alive and strong when he was in torture. I tried to forget him by snatching a spade from one of the men and working on the parapet. But one's mind wasn't in it; it was over "there", there where "they" were waiting for us. Far away, a thousand yards or so half-left, we could see tiny kilted figures running and leaping in front of a dazzlingly white Stonehenge, manikins moving jerkily on a bright green cloth. "The Jocks bombing them out of Mametz," said someone, whether rightly or not, I don't know. Then there was a sudden silence, and when I looked round I saw the men staring stupidly, like calves smelling blood, at two figures. One was doubled up over his stomach, hugging himself and frowning. The other was holding his hand out and looking at it with a puzzled expression. It was covered with blood -- the fingers, I fancy, were blown off -- and he seemed to be saying: "Well, this is a funny kind of thing to have for a hand." Both belonged to my platoon; but our orders not to be held up attending to the wounded were strict. So, I'm thankful to say, there was no question what to do for them. It was time to make for our next objective, and we scrambled out of the trench.

I said it was time for us to advance again. In fact, it was, perhaps, a little more. By my watch we were three minutes overdue, not altogether a trifle. The artillery were to lift from the next trench at the hour fixed for us to go forward. Our delay meant that the Germans had a change of reoccupying it, supposing them to have gone to earth under the bombardment. Anyway, when we'd topped a little fold in the ground, we walked straight into a zone of machine-gun fire. The whole line dropped like one man, some dead and wounded, the rest taking instinctively to such cover as the ground offered. On my immediate right three men lay in a shell-hole. With their heads and feet just showing, they looked like fish in a basket.

In crossing No Man's Land we must have lost many more men than I realized then. For the moment the sight of the Germans drove everything else out of my head. Most men, I suppose, have a Paleolithic savage somewhere in them, a beast that occasionally shouts to be given a change of showing his joyful cunning in destruction. I have, anyway, and from the age of catapults to that of shot-guns always enjoyed aiming at anything that moved, though since manhood the pleasure has been sneaking and shamefaced. Now it was a duty to shoot, and there was an easy target. For the Germans were brave men, as brave as lions. Some of them actually knelt -- one for a moment even stood -- on the top of their parapet, to shoot, within not much more than a hundred yards of us. It was insane. It seemed one couldn't miss them. Every man I fired at dropped, except one. Him, the boldest of the lost, I missed more than once. I was puzzled and angry. Three hundred years ago I should have tried a silver bullet. Not that I wanted to hurt him or anyone else. It was missing I hated. That's the beastliest thing in war, the damnable frivolity. One's like a merry, mischievous ape tearing up the image of God. When I read now the babble of journalists about the "sporting spirit of our soldiers", it makes me almost sick. God forgive us all! But then it was as I say.

When the remaining Germans got back into their trench I stopped firing and looked about me. Just in front of me lay a boy who had been my batman till I sacked him for slackness. I had cursed him the day before for being drunk. He lay quite flat, and might have been resting, except for a big ragged hole at the base of his skull where a bullet had come out. His closest friend, also a bit of a scalawag, was dead beside him. Next to me a man was trying with grimy hands to dab a field-dressing on to the back of a lance-corporal, shot, it seemed, through the chest, who was clutching his knees and rocking to and fro. He was one of two much-respected brothers, of whom the other had been badly wounded beside me some months before, partly, I fear, through imprudence on my part in taking him to explore a sap where we had no business in daytime to be. My platoon officer lay on his back. His face and hands were as white as marble. His lungs were laboring like a bellows worked by machinery. But his soul was gone. He was really dead already; in a minute or two he was what the doctors called "dead". "Is there any chance for us, sergeant?" a man whispered. I said it would be all right; the __'s would be coming though us in an hour, and we would go forward with them. All the same, it looked as if they wouldn't find much except corpses.

The worst of it was the confusion; one didn't know how many of us were living or where they were. I crawled along the line to see. A good many men were lying as they'd dropped, where they couldn't have hit anything but each other. Those able to move crawled up at once when spoken to, all except one, who buried his head in the ground and didn't move. I think he was crying. I told him I'd shoot him, and he came up like a lamb. Poor boy, he could have run from there to our billets before I'd have hurt him. I wriggled back, and told the only officer left that I'd seen some twenty men or so fit for something, and our right flank in the air. Then I realized that, like a fool, I'd forgotten to find out who, if anyone, from other units was beyond us on our right, one of the very things which I'd crawled down the line to see. So I told a man near me to take an order to establish contact, if there was anyone with whom to make it. Like a brave fellow he at once left the comparative safety of his shell-hole; but I'd hardly turned my head when a man said, "he's hit." That hurt me. It was as if I'd condemned him to death. Anyway, I'd see to the left flank, where our "A" Company should have been, myself.

The officer, a boy, was -- no blame to him -- at the end of his tether. He protested, but in the end let me go. If "A" Company had made a muddle and stuck half-way, it seemed a bright idea to get them into line with what was left of us. In five minutes, I thought, I shall be back, and with any luck we shall have part of another company on our left, and perhaps be able to rush the trench. Of course it was idiotic. If our company had lost half or more of its strength, why should "A" Company have fared any better? But, there! I suppose the idea of death in the mass takes a lot of hammering into one before one grasps it. Anyway, as I crawled back, first straight back, and then off to my right, everything seemed peaceful enough. One couldn't believe that the air a foot or two above one's head was deadly. The weather was so fine and bright that the thought of death, if it had occurred to me, which it didn't would have seemed absurd. Then I saw a know of men lying down away to the right. I didn't realize that they were dead or wounded, and waved to them, "Reinforce". When they didn't move, I knelt up and waved again.

I don't know what most men feel like when they're wounded. What I felt was that I had been hit by a tremendous iron hammer, swung by a giant of inconceivable strength, and then twisted with a sickening sort of wrench so that my head and back banged on the ground, and my feet struggled as though they didn't belong to me. For a second or two my breath wouldn't come. I thought -- if that's the right word -- "This is death", and hoped it wouldn't take long. By-and-by, as nothing happened, it seemed I couldn't be dying. When I felt the ground beside me, my fingers closed on the nose-cap of a shell. It was still hot, and I thought absurdly, in a muddled way, "this is what has got me". I tried to turn on my side, but the pain, when I moved, was like a knife, and stopped me dead. There was nothing to do but lie on my back. After a few minutes two men in my platoon crawled back past me at a few yards' distance. They saw me and seemed to be laughing, though of course they weren't, but they didn't stop. Probably they were wounded. I could have cried at their being so cruel. It's being cut off from human beings that's as bad as anything when one's copped it badly, and, when a lad wriggled up to me and asked, "what's up, sergeant?" I loved him. I said, "Not dying, I think, but pretty bad," and he wriggled on. What else could he do.

I raised my knees to ease the pain in my stomach, and at once bullets came over; so I put them down. Not that I much minded dying now or thought about it. By a merciful arrangement, when one's half-dead the extra plunge doesn't seem very terrible. One's lost part of one's interest in life. The roots are loosened, and seem ready to come away without any very agonizing wrench. Tolstoy's account of the death of Prince Andrew is true, though I can't imagine how he knew unless he'd been to the edge of things himself. Anyway, though the rational part of me told me to lie flat, my stomach insisted on my knees going up again, in spite of the snipers, and it didn't bother me much when they began shelling the trench about sixty to eighty yards behind me, with heavies. One heard them starting a long way off, and sweeping towards one with a glorious rush, like the swift rustling of enormous and incredibly powerful pinions. Then there was a thump, and I was covered with earth. After about the thirtieth thumb something hit me in the stomach and took my wind. I thought, "thank heaven, it's over this time," but it was only an extra heavy sod of earth. So the waiting began again. It was very hot. To save what was left of my water, I tried one of the acid-drops issued the night before, the gift, I suppose, of some amiable lunatic in England. It tasted sweet, and made me feel sick. I drank the rest of my water at a gulp. How I longed for the evening! I'd lost my watch, so I tried to tell the time by the sun, cautiously shifting my tin hat off my eyes to have a peep. It stood straight overhead in an enormous arch of blue. After an age I looked again. It still stood in the same place, as though performing a miracle to plague me. I began to shout feebly for stretcher-bearers, calling out the name of my battalion and division, as though that would bring men running from all points of the compass. Of course it was imbecile and cowardly. They couldn't hear me, and, if they could, they oughtn't to have come. It was asking them to commit suicide. But I'd lost my self-respect. I hoped I should faint, but couldn't.

It was a lovely evening, and a man stood beside me. I caught him by the ankle, in terror lest he should vanish. In answer to his shouts -- he was an R.A.M.C. corporal -- a doctor came and looked at me. Then, promising to return in a minute, they went off to attend to someone else. That was the worst moment I had. I thought they were deceiving me -- that they were leaving me for good. A man badly knocked out feels as though the world had spun him off into a desert of unpeopled space. Combined with pain and helplessness, the sense of abandonment goes near to break his heart. I did so want to be spoken kindly to, and I began to whimper, partly to myself, partly aloud. But they came back, and, directly the doctor spoke to his orderly, I knew he was one of the best men I had ever met. He can't have been more than twenty-six or twenty-seven; but his face seemed to shine with love and comprehension, not of one's body only, but of one's soul, and with the joy of spending freely a wisdom and goodness drawn from inexhaustible sources. He listened like an angel while I told him a confused, nonsensical yarn about being hit in the back by a nose-cap. Then he said I had been shot with a rifle-bullet through the chest and abdomen, put a stiff bandage round me, and gave me morphia. Later, though not then, remembering the change in his voice when he told me what was amiss, I realized that he thought I was done for. Anyway, there was nothing more he could do. No stretcher-bearers were to hand, so it was out of the question to get me in that night. But, after I had felt that divine compassion flow over me. I didn't care. I was like a dog kicked and bullied by everyone that's at last found a kind master, and in a groveling kind of way I worshipped him. He made his orderly get into a trench when I told him they were sniping, but he wouldn't keep down or go away himself. Perhaps he knew that he couldn't be hit or that it would be well with him if he were.

We attacked, I think, about 820 strong. I've no official figures of casualties. A friend, an officer in "C" Company, which was in support and shelled to pieces before it could start, told me in hospital that we lost 450 men that day, and that, after being put in again a day or two later, we had 54 left. I suppose it's worth it.

This essay was taken from the Battle of the Somme web resource page.