There is one area of war in which the Italians are unquestionably world leaders. This is in long-range bombing missions against the enemy’s road and rail infrastructure. Today they prove it by launching what I’m pretty sure is the largest ever single bombing raid to this point. 58 of their excellent Caproni heavy bombers take flight today, with an escort of Nieuport fighters that far outclass the Austro-Hungarian Aviatik opposition. The total payload dropped on enemy-held railway stations is some 4,000 kilograms’ worth of bombs. Some of them are even on target!
If only things were better at the front. Not only does the enemy on the Carso appear to have disappeared, there’s a distinct lack of urgency off to the north in front of Gorizia. There may be only one intact bridge and a lot of men to get across the Isonzo. However, in stories of great victories, this is where you hear about the heroic engineer unit which built six pontoon bridges in as many hours out of six rotten planks and a large roll of hairy string. Unfortunately, the Italian engineers appear to be fresh out of hairy string; there’s a distinct lack of urgency all round after a year of war.
First Battle of Doiran
So. Time to sweeten the pot by doing something at Salonika. We must do something, this is something, we must do this. General Sarrail isn’t best pleased by orders to launch a pinning attack to keep the Bulgarians from interfering with Romania’s entry into the war. Whenever that’s going to happen. (Spoilers: not in the next few days.) Sarrail’s decided that the best thing is to attack near Lake Doiran and push north from there, without much hope of achieving more than a few hundred yards’ worth of advance, useful only on a local tactical level.
I mean, I’m calling this First Doiran. That implies we’re going to have a second one. Spoilers; there’s not going to be some massive unexpected advance and subsequent dramatic reversal. By far the more interesting news is that our old friend Sergeant Flora Sandes, hero of the Serbian Army and one-woman propaganda triumph, has now almost finished sailing back to the war. We’ll be picking her story up in just a few days; her regiment is about to see some interesting times.
Battle of Verdun
A brief newsflash from the Battle of Verdun, which continues rumbling nastily with the military equivalent of indigestion. General Nivelle is displeased; he’s got standing orders to counter-attack and recover lost ground. His efforts have indeed retaken a couple of hundred metres outside Fort Souville and made the position very mildly more secure. Counter-attacks create casualties and exhaust men. Who am I supposed to attack with, he enquires of his army-group commander. General Petain immediately takes his point, and now commander-in-chief Joffre is receiving the benefit of his wisdom once more.
Sadly, General Joffre is more interested in the prospects for attacking on the Somme. Request denied. If Petain wants more men for Verdun, he’ll have to milk them from the other armies under his command.
Battle of Romani
Things are going well in the absence of the wounded Oskar Teichman. The defenders of the Suez Canal take a big risk today, with a large number of mounted troops going into action at Bir el Abd. It’s a heavy day’s fighting, and the Ottomans, aware that neither of the three enemy forces opposing them are particularly large, launch several dangerous counter-attacks that might, on a different day, have scattered or captured their opponents.
It’s rather an odd day. I’ve got two different books here. One of them describes an extremely difficult day’s fighting that nearly ended in a British disaster. The other describes a day that was all but a cakewalk for them. At any rate, both agree that by mid-afternoon the Ottomans were burning their stores to prevent capture. They’ve lost more than half their force in casualties; the defenders’ casualties are minimal. More to come in a few days.
Speaking of whom. Oskar Teichman has now been got right out of it.
We were visited by several friends from Kantara, and heard that there had been more cases of cholera, and that the Turks had left a note in one of the Hods through which our force had passed, saying “Beware of cholera.” Some dead Turks were found in the same place who had died of the disease. The Turk was indeed a gentleman; not many enemies would have given this warning. … We were taken in motor-ambulances to Kantara West station, where we were transferred to a Red Crescent train. The latter was perfect luxury after what we had gone through. Before midnight our train arrived at Cairo and we were distributed amongst the various hospitals.
He’ll stay there for two and a half months, but he will be fit for service again at the end of his convalescence. We shan’t hear from him again until he’s discharged, and the war on the Suez Canal is politely going to wait for him to get back before developing further.
Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC is trying to make progress up the River Tigris to what passes for the front line these days in Mesopotamia. It’s not any easier than it was a year previously, when these boats were crewed by Royal Navy men. Oh yes, and it’s still really hot.
We grounded on a mud bank at 6am. The Arab crew and pilot were useless, but we managed to kedge her off ourselves after three hours, only to go aground again an hour later. In spite of many more arduous hours spent in the heat and wind, we failed to find a channel, merely moving from one shoal to another; but at last, after dark, another steamer came down-stream and hauled us into deeper water by a heavy wire. She had been on the mud herself for ten hours.
The river was at its lowest and the channels continually altering; we were told thatit was doubtful whether we should get above Ali Gharbi. The heat during the whole of the journey up-stream had been terrific; the two batmen who had started with us were both down, one with dysentery, the other with heat
stroke. One’s apparel consisted of shorts, shirt-sleeves and a topi, without shoes or stockings. In the evening one was glad to hang over the side of the ship on a rope and be towed slowly through the water, which, though thick and nasty to taste, was at least cool.
Can’t you just imagine these idiots very solemnly climbing overboard to be towed for a few minutes of an evening? A topi in this sense is the cork pith helmet that’s also part of the stereotypical British explorer’s uniform. To kedge is to move a boat by taking a light kedge anchor on a long warp off in the desired direction of travel, letting it grip a long way from the boat, and then hauling on the rope to bring the boat to the anchor.
He is just a good-natured fellow, with any amount of pluck, whose morals have been damaged by the war and its whisky. The amount of whisky he and Mallow, the bombing-officer, can drink is astonishing. Every time Mallow reaches for the bottle he repeats the parrot phrase, “This war will be won on whisky or it won’t be won at all,” apparently intending to float home on whisky himself. Mallow is a pretty coarse-fibred creature; but Rowley is of different material. There’s been tragedy in this fellow’s life and it has knocked off his rudder.
His hair is prematurely grey; his complexion ashy; and although there is still a twinkle in his eye, it is fading, and in repose his face wears the expression of an injured animal. Crossed, he shows a streak of cruelty, but at heart he is full of kindliness. He carries out his duties as a company commander with a queer mixture of punctiliousness and slackness. I wish his conversation was not quite so filthy, for temperamentally I believe we are friends.
I had to report at the Headquarters of my unit, where I stayed a couple of days. “Mum” was the word and not a soul told me what was going to happen. I was still dreaming dreams waiting for a summons from Whitehall. Revelling in anticipation I still vowed to do my utmost to help and further England’s Cause. Yesterday they sent me here. Not to Whitehall henceforth to adorn the Intelligence Department or the Interpreters’ Corps. They sent me to the 33rd Midshire Regiment, an Infantry Works Battalion.
The 33rd Midshire Regiment is, in fact, the 30th (Works) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. Known variously as “works”, “labour”, or “pioneer” battalions, units composed solely of men fit only for labour (or with specialist skills) have been around for quite a while. The 30th Middlesex are, ahem, slightly different from your usual group of pioneers, though. Of which more tomorrow.
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