Before an infantry advance during the First World War, it was a common strategy to bombard enemy defences with all available heavy artillery. It was believed that preliminary bombardment would enable soldiers to capture enemy trenches. On the Western Front this strategy was largely unsuccessful and so in 1916 both sides began to use what became known as a creeping barrage.
First used at the Battle of the Somme, a creeping barrage involved artillery fire moving forward in stages just ahead of the advancing infantry. By the autumn the Allied forces developed a system where the barrage moved forward at 50 metres per minute. To work, the strategy required precise timing by both the heavy artillery and the infantry. Failure to do this would result in the artillery killing their own soldiers.
On 14th April 1918 C. S. Lewis and the the Somerset Light Infantry was ordered to counter-attack at Riez du Vinage. At 6pm, the heavy artillery opened fire on the German-held village. At 6.30pm a creeping barrage began. The plan was that the men would follow behind the exploding shells, at the rate of 50 metres per minute. Sergeant Arthur Cook later pointed out: "One of the most extraordinary advertisements of look out we're coming I have witnessed in this war, in full view of the enemy; how they must have chuckled with glee." According to Cook, the "barrage moved too quick, leaving the enemy free to open up a devastating machine-gun fire on the target they had been waiting for."
Although creeping barrage was sometimes successful when the commander had limited objectives, it failed to provide the means to end the stalemate on the Western Front.
(1) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)
Suddenly the air is rent with deafening thunder; never has such man-made noise been heard before! The hour has struck! 7.30 a.m. has arrived. The first wave goes over, "carrying the creeping barrage on its back." We wait. Instantly the enemy replies, putting down a counter-barrage which misses us by inches. Thanks to the steep slope of Speyside we are immune, That half hour is the worst on record, or thoughts and forebodings; so we sing, but it is difficult to keep in tune or rhythm on account of the noise. At last our minute, our own minute arrives. I get up from the ground and whistle. The others rise. We move off, with steady pace. As we pass Gordon Castle we pick up coils of wire and iron posts. I feel sure in my innermost thoughts these things will never be carried all the way to the final objective; however, even if they get half way it will be a help. Then I glance to the right through a gap in the trees. I see the loth Rifles plodding on and then my eyes are riveted on a sight I shall never see again. It is the 32nd division at its best. I see rows upon rows of British soldiers lying dead, dying or wounded, in no man's land. Here and there I see an officer urging on his followers. Occasionally I can see the hands thrown up and then a body flops to the ground. The bursting shells and smoke make visibility poor, but I see enough to convince me Thiepval village is still held, for it is now 8 a.m. and by 7.45 a.m. it should have fallen to allow of our passage forward on its flank. Bernard was right. My upper lip is stiff, my jaws are set. We proceed. Again I look southward from a different angle and perceive heaped up masses of British corpses suspended on the German wire in front of the Thiepval stronghold, while live men rush forward in orderly procession to swell the weight of numbers in the spider's web. Will the last available and previously detailed man soon appear to do his futile duty unto death on the altar of sacrifice? We march on - I lose sight of the 10th Rifles and the human corn-stalks, falling before the Reaper. My pace unconsciously quickens, for I am less heavily burdened than the men behind me, and at last I see the light of day through the telescopic-like avenue which has been cut for our approach. We are nearing the fringe of the wood and the old fire trench. Shells burst at the rate of six a minute on this trench junction, for we have been marching above Elgin Avenue and alongside it. My adjutant, close behind me, tells me I am fifty yards in front of the head of the column. I slacken my pace and they close up to me. "Now for it," I say to Hine, "it's like sitting back for an enormous fence." My blood is up and I am literally seeing red. Still the shells burst at the head of Elgin, plomp, plomp - it is "good-bye," I think, as there is no way round. "This way to eternity," shouts a wag behind. Thirty yards ahead now, still a shell - plomp - a splinter flies past my shoulder, and embeds itself in the leg of a leading man behind. He falls and crawls out of the way, nothing must stop the forward march of the column. "Lucky bastard," says one of his pals, "you're well out of it, Jimmy, good luck to you, give them our love, see you later," and so the banter continues. It's the only way. The blood swells in my veins. God is merciful, and it almost seems as though he chloroforms us on these occasions. I cross the fire trench. The next shell and I should have absolutely synchrohised. It does not arrive! "What's up?" I think. Still once more too far ahead, I wait on the edge of the wood. They close up once more. I double out to see what's up on the right. Bernard, where is he? Machine guns open fire on us from Thiepval village; their range is wrong: "too high," I say to Hine. I survey the situation still; more machine-gun fire: they have lowered their sights: pit, pit, the bullets hit the dry earth all round. The shelling on to the wood edge has ceased. The men emerge. A miracle has happened. "Now's the chance," I think to myself, "they must quicken pace and get diagonally across to the sunken road, disengaging from each other quickly, company by company."