This cycle of six linked sonnets (embedded in the larger 55-sonnet
sequence, This Man's Army),
covers a period of about twelve hours,
from the late afternoon of August 8 to the dawn of August 9, 1918,
the day before the Battle of Amiens.
About 15 miles east of Amiens, the Somme River makes a
series of pronounced oxbow bends and it is along the north bank
of this stretch of the Somme (after first having driven some 25
kilometers from Molliens-au-Bois), following these winding bends,
from Corbie to Vaux-sur-Somme to Sailly-le-Sec to Sailly-Laurette,
with forays into the surrounding countryside, that Wyeth and his
companion, Lt Thomas J. Cochrane, pursue their course, first in an open staff car, and
then on foot, throughout the dangerous, chaotic night of August
Wyeth never identifies the purpose of their nightlong
journey into darkness, but as they will first report to
Regimental Headquarters, and then to the headquarters of
1st and 2nd Battalions, they appear to be conveying orders, or
crucial information of some kind, from Division Headquarters.
~~~ The Road to Corbie ~~~
Our staff car flies and trails a long-spun haze
over the looping road and the surge and fall
of the heaving plains ~~ quick dusty tree trunks throw
their flickering bars of shadow in our eyes.
A wood ~~ men leading horses out to graze ~~
a misty bridge, and past the lumbering crawl
of crowded lorries ~~ low hills all aglow
with tufts of trees against the evening skies
and long blond hill slopes catching level rays
along their quilted flanks ~~ and under all,
the deep earth breathing like a thing asleep.
And there, Corbie ~~ her brittle walls brought low ~~
a brick-choked wreck, in which her ruins rise
like gravestones planted in a rubbish heap.
Late afternoon to early evening, August 8. By the time
they set out late in the day, Wyeth and Cochrane,
speeding along in an open staff car, find the roads choked with
"lumbering . . . crowded lorries" (British trucks), and columns of
marching, pack-laden troops. There is only one outfit on the road
from Molliens-au-Bois to the front on August 8, and this is the 3rd
Battalion of the 131st. Both battalion and staff car are bound
for the same general destination, the north bank of the Somme,
where the rest of the 131st is scheduled to rendezvous. The
destination specified in the original orders was the village of
Heilly, where headquarters of the 58th British Division is
located, but by 10 p.m. the 131st has been ordered to an assembly
point on the Bray-Corbie road some three thousand yards to the
south of Heilly, in readiness to attack an hour after midnight.
Subsequently, however, given the exhausted state of the 1st and
2nd Battalions, and the fact that the terrain is not yet reconnoitered
and the troops without supplies, and given that the 3rd Battalion is
still in transit, the commanding general of the 58th decides to postpone
the attack until evening of the 9th. The 131st is sent onward to the
north bank of the Somme east of Corbie, to a "position in readiness"
in the valleys between Vaux-sur-Somme and Sailly-le-Sec. Corbie, the
ruined village through which Wyeth and Cochrane pass, is located
some fifteen kilometers east of Amiens, on the north bank of the Somme,
at the confluence of the Somme and the Ancre.
~~~ Corbie to Sailly-le-Sec ~~~
High staggering walls, and plank-spiked piles of brick
and plaster ~~ jagged gables wrenched apart,
and tall dolls' houses cleanly split in two ~~
Rooms gaping wide on every cloven floor,
pictures askew that made your throat go thick,
and humble furniture that tore your heart.
"By God let's get out of here!"
We motored through
to the poplar marsh along the river's shore.
Sailly-le-Sec ~~ her church one candlestick
on a broken altar, and beyond it, part
of a rounded apse ~~ a dusty village husk
of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, all blue,
and twinkling with the phosphorescent soar
of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk.
Dusk, August 8. The distance from Corbie, eastward along the north bank of the Somme,
following a large north-curving arc of the river, and passing through Vaux-sur-Somme (where a
gunner from the nearby 4th Australian Division brought down von Richthofen the previous April),
to the village of Sailly-le-Sec is about five kilometers. At this point they are only a few
kilometers from the front, and the skyline before them flashes with the storm of war.
~~~ Regimental Headquarters ~~~
Steep prickly slopes in shadow from the moon
sagging behind us down the strident sky.
Guns blaze and slam. The stars burn fever bright.
A low white ridge ahead, and the crumpled sound
"Jerry's out ~~"
A snarling croon
wheels over us ~~ quick glittering tracers fly
down a pale searchlight, and along the ground
bombs blast into smoky yellow shot with light
"Those runners will get you up there pretty soon.
~~ Take them up to the Second Battalion."
My tongue goes dry
and scrapy, and my lips begin to jerk ~~
~~ "Look out for the gas ~~ they been pumping it in all night."
"Let's go, Tommy."
"O God wait a minute ~~ I've found
something wrong with my mask ~~ the damn thing doesn't work."
After nightfall, August 8. The headquarters of the 131st
Regiment is located about a thousand yard northwest of Sailly-le-
Sec, in a small wood. Here they are so close to the front that the
guns "blaze and slam" and Wyeth can feel vestiges of gas on his
lips and throat. As they stand in headquarters, receiving
directions, a bomber flies overhead, firing tracers, and soon they
hear the explosion of bombs. From here, guided by runners, they
will set out on foot to locate 2nd Battalion headquarters. But
first, Cochrane must get his gas mask to work.
~~~ Through the Valley ~~~
"All right Tom?"
"Yup ~~ I got it fixed ~~ let's start."
A slipping crumbly path through scratching brush'
down to the river road. Along the shore
a clanging leap of fire behind black trees
and a streak of shrillness slit the sky apart.
A sand road ~~ horses, guns in a cloudy rush,
and men, teeth clenched on tubes, who lashed and tore
through silence. Black still slopes ~~ a distant sneeze.
"Hear that? I tell you ~~ my eyes are beginning to smart."
A vague black gulch ahead, and the secret hush
of evil creeping in the dark ~~ We passed
two soldiers, pain-white, and a man they bore
between, blind twisting head and drunken knees,
~~ like Christ.
"Come on, Bud ~~ There ~~ You just been gassed."
The night of August 8-9. Gas masks on, and led by runners, Wyeth and Cochrane
set out on foot, in search of 2nd Battalion headquarters, situated roughly six hundred
yards to the south, close to the river. Everywhere there are ominous signs of "evil
creeping in the dark," as the Valley of the sonnet's title evokes the biblical
Valley of Death. With steel helmets for laurel, Virgil and Dante
unholster their sidearms and wend their way through the Inferno of the Somme.
Horse-drawn artillery crashes by, and columns of rushing soldiers, with both man and beast
wearing alien masks in a futuristic nightmare, or a scene out of Bosch. A distant sneeze
and their own burning eyes tell them that they are venturing into an area of lethal gas,
and then they cross paths with their first gas victim, "... blind
twisting head and drunken knees, ~ like Christ." ~~ and with that final
image of Golgotha, the apocalyptic scene is complete.
~~~ Second Battalion Headquarters ~~~
"Where's the First Battalion? We haven't got any more
idea than you have ~~ they might be anywhere.
There's no front line. You'll just get caught in a raid."
Cool darkness after the foggy slobbering mask.
The long sky slashed with trundling swift uproar,
rumbling and husky in the whistling air,
and gas shells hustling into the valley made
a wobbling whisper like a hurtling flask.
We turned along the ridge to the river's shore.
"By God what's the matter with all those men?"
excuse me, sir ~~ you going by any chance
to the dressing station? I got twenty men ~~ I'm afraid
they're gassed pretty bad ~"
"What were you going to ask?"
"For God sake tell 'em to hurry up the ambulance."
The late hours of the night of August 8-9. Wyeth and
Cochrane have reached 2nd Battalion headquarters, located some six
hundred yards south of Regimental Headquarters, roughly eight
hundred yards west of Sailly-le-Sec and a little north, and some
six or seven hundred yards north of the river Somme. They
immediately inquire after the location of 2nd Battalion
headquarters, only to be told that no one knows. And so they
strike out again on foot, but this time without guides or
directions, once more heading south towards the river. Once
again, a scene from the Inferno, this time a line of twenty gas
victims in need of a savior, and by this chance meeting in the
pathless night, their mission is altered from military to
merciful, and they find themselves keeping a shepherd's watch over the
victims until the ambulance arrives.
~~~ Regimental Dressing Station ~~~
Squat walls of sandbags ~~ and above, a sky
all thin and cool with dawn and very far.
Black empty stretchers. On the parapet,
light out before the clangor of the gun.
The bliss of strong fatigue ~~ and where I lie
the canvas breathes between me and that star
a bitter steam of blood. The air feels wet,
and the stars go, forgotten one by one.
Time to start back ~~ and watch those towns go by!
"You ready to go? ~~ we got a lift in a car."
"Yeh, let's start, we got a long way
O God the ruins of Sailly-Laurette!
~~like dying men that wake and find the sun
and shut their eyes against another day.
Dawn, August 9. Exact location unknown, but somewhere in
the vicinity of Sailly-Laurette, a kilometer or two to the east of
Sailly-le-Sec, also on the Somme. They are now in territory which
only the day before had been in German hands. In this makeshift dressing
station, built of sandbags, and already full of wounded and dying
men, Wyeth and Cochrane find themselves on the very edge of the
combat zone, within three or four kilometers of where the
Australians are pinned down by German machine-gun and artillery
fire from Chipilly Ridge. At last their long, purgatorial night
is over and a car is waiting to whisk them away from the front,
back to the safety of Division Headquarters, but the dawn,
nonetheless, is full of foreboding, and the ruins of
Sailly-Laurette, the last thing they see as they drive away,
become for Wyeth an image of profound hopelessness, of men who
would rather die than face another day. And the men they are
leaving behind, American, Australian, British and German, before
this day is out, in the assault of Chipilly Ridge, will die by the
Note: an abbreviated version of these annotations to Wyeth's
Chipilly Ridge sonnets appeared in the University of South Carolina Press
edition of This Man's Army (Columbia, SC: 2008, pp xli-xliii). ~~ BJ Omanson
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~~~ Documents pertaining to the action at Gressaire Wood and Chipilly Ridge, August 8-10, 1918,
in Huidekoper, Frederic Louis, History of the 33rd Division, Volume II, pp 410-24.
~~~ Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Volume I, p 45.
~~~ Map of Operations, 131st Infantry, 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8.
Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #20.
~~~ Situation Map. 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8, 1918
(covering the stretch of the Somme, Amiens to Chipilly). Huidekoper, History of the 33rd
Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #22.
~~ The War Diary of the 33rd Division, in Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol II, pp 319-22.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~