Now It Can Be Told

Author: Philip Gibbs


At the beginning of March there was a little affair—costing a lot of lives—in the neighborhood of St.-Eloi, up in the Ypres salient. It was a struggle for a dirty hillock called the Bluff, which had been held for a long time by the 3d Division under General Haldane, whose men were at last relieved, after weary months in the salient, by the 17th Division commanded by General Pilcher. The Germans took advantage of the change in defense by a sudden attack after the explosion of a mine, and the men of the 17th Division, new to this ground, abandoned a position of some local importance.

General Haldane was annoyed. It was ground of which he knew every inch. It was ground which men of his had died to hold. It was very annoying—using a feeble word—to battalion officers and men of the 3d Division—Suffolks and King’s Own Liverpools, Gordons and Royal Scots- -who had first come out of the salient, out of its mud and snow and slush and shell-fire, to a pretty village far behind the lines, on the road to Calais, where they were getting back to a sense of normal life again. Sleeping in snug billets, warming their feet at wood fires, listening with enchantment to the silence about them, free from the noise of artillery. They were hugging themselves with the thought of a month of this. . . Then because they had been in the salient so long and had held this line so stubbornly, they were ordered back again to recapture the position lost by new men.

After a day of field sports they were having a boxing—match in an old barn, very merry and bright, before that news came to them. General Haldane had given me a quiet word about it, and I watched the boxing, and the faces of all those men, crowded round the ring, with pity for the frightful disappointment that was about to fall on them, like a sledge-hammer. I knew some of their officers—Colonel Dyson of the Royal Scots, and Captain Heathcote, who hated the war and all its ways with a deadly hatred, having seen much slaughter of men and of their own officers. Colonel Dyson was the seventeenth commanding officer of his battalion, which had been commanded by every officer down to second lieutenant, and had only thirty men left of the original crowd. They had been slain in large numbers in that "holding attack" by Hooge on September 25th, during the battle of Loos, as I have told. Now they were "going in" again, and were very sorry for themselves, but hid their feelings from their men. The men were tough and stalwart lads, tanned by the wind and rain of a foul winter, thinned down by the ordeal of those months in the line under daily bouts of fire. In a wooden gallery of the barn a mass of them lay in deep straw, exchanging caps, whistling, shouting, in high spirits. Not yet did they know the call-back to the salient. Then word was passed to them after the boxing finals. That night they had to march seven miles to entrain for the railroad nearest to Ypres. I saw them march away, silently, grimly, bravely, without many curses.

They were to recapture the Bluff, and early on the morning of March 2d, before dawn had risen, I went out to the salient and watched the bombardment which preceded the attack. There was an incessant tumult of guns, and the noise rolled in waves across the flat country of the salient and echoed back from Kemmel Hill and the Wytschaete Ridge. There was a white frost over the fields, and all the battle-front was veiled by a mist which clung round the villages and farmsteads behind the lines and made a dense bank of gray fog below the rising ground.

This curtain was rent with flashes of light and little glinting stars burst continually over one spot, where the Bluff was hidden beyond Zillebeke Lake. When daybreak came, with the rim of a red sun over a clump of trees in the east, the noise of guns increased in spasms of intensity like a rising storm. Many batteries of heavy artillery were firing salvos. Field-guns, widely scattered, concentrated their fire upon one area, where their shells were bursting with a twinkle of light. Somewhere a machine-gun was at work with sharp, staccato strokes, like an urgent knocking at the door. High overhead was the song of an airplane coming nearer, with a high, vibrant humming. It was an enemy searching through the mist down below him for any movement of troops or trains.

It was the 76th Brigade of the 3d Division which attacked at four thirty-two that morning, and they were the Suffolks, Gordons, and King’s Own Liverpools who led the assault, commanded by General Pratt. They flung themselves into the German lines in the wake of a heavy barrage fire, smashing through broken belts of wire and stumbling in and out of shell-craters. The Germans, in their front-lines, had gone to cover in deep dugouts which they had built with feverish haste on the Bluff and its neighborhood during the previous ten days and nights. At first only a few men, not more than a hundred or so, could be discovered alive. The dead were thick in the maze of trenches, and our men stumbled across them.

The living were in a worse state than the dead, dazed by the shellfire, and cold with terror when our men sprang upon them in the darkness before dawn. Small parties were collected and passed back as prisoners—marvelously lucky men if they kept their sanity as well as their lives after all that hell about them. Hours later, when our battalions had stormed their way up other trenches into a salient jutting out of the German line and beyond the boundary of the objective that had been given to them, other living men were found to be still hiding in the depths of other dugouts and could not be induced to come out. Terror kept them in those holes, and they were like wild beasts at bay, still dangerous because they had their bombs and rifles. An ultimatum was shouted down to them by men too busy for persuasive talk. "If you don’t come out you’ll be blown in." Some of them came out and others were blown to bits. After that the usual thing happened, the thing that inevitably happened in all these little murderous attacks and counter-attacks. The enemy concentrated all its power of artillery on that position captured by our men, and day after day hurled over storms of shrapnel and high explosives, under which our men cowered until many were killed and more wounded. The first attack on the Bluff and its recapture cost us three thousand casualties, and that was only the beginning of a daily toll of life and limbs in that neighborhood of hell. Through driving snowstorms shells went rushing across that battleground, ceaselessly in those first weeks of March, but the 3d Division repulsed the enemy’s repeated attacks in bombing fights which were very fierce on both sides.

I went to General Pilcher’s headquarters at Reninghelst on March 4th, and found the staff of the 17th Division frosty in their greeting, while General Pratt, the brigadier of the 3d Division, was conducting the attack in their new territory. General Pilcher himself was much shaken. The old gentleman had been at St.-Eloi when the bombardment had begun on his men. With Captain Rattnag his A. D. C. he lay for an hour in a ditch with shells screaming overhead and bursting close. More than once when I talked with him he raised his head and listened nervously and said: "Do you hear the guns? . . . They are terrible."

I was sorry for him, this general who had many theories on war and experimented in light-signals, as when one night I stood by his side in a dark field, and had a courteous old-fashioned dignity and gentleness of manner. He was a fine old English gentleman and a gallant soldier, but modern warfare was too brutal for him. Too brutal for all those who hated its slaughter.

Those men of the 3d Division—the "Iron Division," as it was called later in the war—remained in a hideous turmoil of wet earth up by the Bluff until other men came to relieve them and take over this corner of hell.

What remained of the trenches was deep in water and filthy mud, where the bodies of many dead Germans lay under a litter of broken sand-bags and in the holes of half-destroyed dugouts. Nothing could be done to make it less horrible. Then the weather changed and became icily cold, with snow and rain.

One dugout which had been taken for battalion headquarters was six feet long by four wide, and here in this waterlogged hole lived three officers of the Royal Scots to whom a day or two before I had wished "good luck."

The servants lived in the shaft alongside which was a place measuring four feet by four feet. There were no other dugouts where men could get any shelter from shells or storms, and the enemy’s guns were never silent.

But the men held on, as most of our men held on, with a resignation to fate and a stoic endurance beyond that ordinary human courage which we seemed to know before the war.

The chaplain of this battalion had spent all the long night behind the lines, stoking fires and going round the cook-houses and looking at his wrist-watch to see how the minutes were crawling past. He had tea, rum, socks, oil, and food all ready for those who were coming back, and the lighted braziers were glowing red.

At the appointed time the padre went out to meet his friends, pressing forward through the snow and listening for any sound of footsteps through the great hush.

But there was no sound except the soft flutter of snowflakes. He strained his eyes for any moving shadows of men. But there was only darkness and the falling snow.

Two hours passed, and they seemed endless to that young chaplain whose brain was full of frightful apprehensions, so that they were hours of anguish to him.

Then at last the first men appeared. "I’ve never seen anything so splendid and so pitiful," said the man who had been waiting for them.

They came along at about a mile an hour, sometimes in groups, sometimes by twos or threes, holding on to each other, often one by one. In this order they crept through the ruined villages in the falling snow, which lay thick upon the masses of fallen masonry. There was a profound silence about them, and these snow-covered men were like ghosts walking through cities of death.

No man spoke, for the sound of a human voice would have seemed a danger in this great white quietude. They were walking like old men, weak-kneed, and bent under the weight of their packs and rifles.

Yet when the young padre greeted them with a cheery voice that hid the water in his heart every one had a word and a smile in reply, and made little jests about their drunken footsteps, for they were like drunken men with utter weariness.

"What price Charlie Chaplin now, sir?" was one man’s joke.

The last of those who came back—and there were many who never came back—were some hours later than the first company, having found it hard to crawl along that Via Dolorosa which led to the good place where the braziers were glowing.

It was a heroic episode, for each one of these men was a hero, though his name will never be known in the history of that silent and hidden war. And yet it was an ordinary episode, no degree worse in its hardship than what happened all along the line when there was an attack or counter-attack in foul weather.

The marvel of it was that our men, who were very simple men, should have "stuck it out" with that grandeur of courage which endured all things without self-interest and without emotion. They were unconscious of the virtue that was in them.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Now It Can Be Told

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Now It Can Be Told

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Philip Gibbs, "XVI," Now It Can Be Told, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. James Legge in Now It Can Be Told Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023,

MLA: Gibbs, Philip. "XVI." Now It Can Be Told, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by James Legge, in Now It Can Be Told, Original Sources. 31 May. 2023.

Harvard: Gibbs, P, 'XVI' in Now It Can Be Told, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Now It Can Be Told. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from