Extract from the diary of Oberleutnant Günter Freudenberger 110th regiment

July 1st 1916

2am – The start of a new month and still the Trommelfeuer continues. For seven days now the air has constantly groaned under a rain of splintering steel whilst the earth quivers as if in some continual involuntary spasm.

11pm – Such glorious, terrible and inspiring events have unfolded in the intervening hours. It appears the day is ours. I do not know how much more we can endure, I must record today’s events, for I am fearful each day may be my last.

Early this morning, as darkness surrendered to light, I observed a mist gently floating over the ground before us, rising up from the damp earth and lying heavily on the ridges – the sun slowly infusing more warmth into the air and the bombardment easing. There was a freshness, and the splendour of a fine summer’s morning over everything. As the mist slowly dissipated, I momentarily caught sight of the tall, imposing tower of Albert Basilica delicately Illuminated by the dull orange sun and saw the half-fallen statue of the Golden Virgin and, in her arms, the Christ child, which she held outwards in supplication as if an impassioned and imploring peace offering to men in the midst of this horror and destruction.

I can remember the exact time. Twenty-eight minutes past eight* when the ground to our left gave a mighty convulsion causing it to rock and sway. From the bowels of the earth – perhaps from Hell itself – came what I can only describe as an enormous spouting geyser of chalk, soil, iron and flame. A threatening black conical silhouette – a most phantasmagorical and brooding shape – carried the ground hundreds of metres into the sky rising, higher and higher with a grinding roar before pieces of earth as big as locomotive tenders began to hurtle back towards us with an intense supernatural keening sound. The ground-up chalk fell delicately upon the ground; It was as if it had been snowing. The lip of the newly formed crater was garlanded by a ring of our own dead. Scraps of bloodied cloth, severed limbs and the dismembered trunks of our men covered the ground and hung from black skeletal wire – a dreadful nauseating sight that reminded me of how shrikes deftly skewer their prey on acacia bushes. The birds however, are part of nature’s glory and wonder, whereas the mine was the work of the raging human manifestation of Satan.

I realise now that the explosion was a signal for the Tommies to start their attack. Wave after wave of them left their trenches and came steadily forwards, advancing on our position – their bayonets glinting in the morning sunshine.

No man’s land was thronged with attackers, advancing towards our curtain of fire. They didn’t run or even take cover when explosion after explosion rose between them. This intense, unwavering line of khaki advanced on our lines. It was almost as if they felt nothing could hurt them anymore – that they were invincible. When the English started pressing towards us, I was very worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches. After a while I was very surprised to see them continue to walk at a steady pace rather than charge our position – we had never seen that before. It was a surreal scene; one of the officers in front was walking calmly carrying a swagger stick.

The line did not last for long. Opening fire with our machine guns, we scythed them down; men fell like skittles bowled over. Some would crumple down in a heap, others would shout and throw their hands up, stagger forward a pace or two then fall face downwards never to rise again – their souls bound for a higher place. Wave after wave was being cut down by our guns firing with geometric precision to create intersecting arcs like a spider spinning a lethal web in which to entrap its prey. Where the wire had been cut the men were funneled together and it was there that our criss-cross streams of bullets caught them again and again and again. A wall of British dead was steadily growing in front of our positions.

Hissing steam noises filled the air – machine gun bullets, each faster than sound, with their hiss and air crack arriving almost simultaneously, many scores of thousands of bullets in the air together at the same time and coming from all directions. It was arduous, uncompromising work manning the guns – constantly having to change the scalding barrels. My hands are blistered and burned and skin hangs in shreds from my fingers. Constant pressure from my thumbs on the trigger has turned them into swollen shapeless lumps of pulp.

I distinctly recall a British officer who practically had both legs sheared but nonetheless, with unbelievable philosophical calm, kept his pipe firmly clenched between his teeth to the end. This incident, like all my other encounters with the Britishers, left me greatly impressed by their tenacity, bulldog determination and gallantry. Those that died today died the noblest death a man may die.

A most splendid sunset lit up the desolation of no man’s land this evening. Scarlet, then amethyst, emblazoned the sky, before it darkened to obsidian. The attack had died with the light; the landscape a chaotic sea of mud, mortality and mutilation with the British mown down in their battalions. The air vibrated with the pitiful groans of the wounded and the last screams and gasps of the dying; first aid parties tended to them and even our stretcher bearers impulsively helped. There is some humanity left – a spontaneous truce – a rare and most humbling, virtuous sight. I wonder, will our nations ever be reconciled?

• German time – one hour ahead of the times used by the British

Aalish Watts (12)
Castle Rushen High School, Arbory Road, Castletown , Isle of Man, IM9 1RE