Air superiority at Verdun | Samogneux | 23 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Germans continue relentlessly turning the screw at Verdun. Without their long autumn and winter of trench-digging, the French would now be completely up a tree without a paddle. As it is, they’re now in their second defensive position, three and a half miles behind the first one. This phase of the battle is going to tell us whether the Germans can actually seriously achieve something, or whether it’s just going to degenerate into a German Battle of Champagne, with initial success quickly stalling out and leaving the attackers no better off and badly mauled.

At the end of the day the cautious German advance is still mostly dealing with the second line, but they are well into it. Another thunderous barrage is pouring into its remnants, and moving on to the third line. And there are some places where the German stormtroopers are clean through and waiting for support before moving on to assault that third line. French army group reserves are beginning to arrive at the battle, but as we’ve seen, more grist for the mill is not necessarily a bad thing for the attackers. And the German penetrations of the second line, isolated though they may be, are now forcing the French artillery to leave their emplacements and make a quick exit to the rear. This is not a simple operation, and it’ll be many hours before the guns can come back into action.

On a strategic level, General de Langle is now deeply worried. Yesterday we mentioned the possibility that the Germans may be able to break into the French rear if they keep driving south and cut off the troops who are holding the line east of the German offensive. Well aware of the new “defence in depth” ideas that have been percolating through the French army, he spends most of today considering alternatives for a major withdrawal to more defensible positions. He’s even daring to think the unthinkable; that he might be forced to withdraw all his men from the east bank of the River Meuse and then force the Germans to cross it to continue fighting.

On roll the Germans. Today we have an excellent example of how confused the situation can be in the midst of battle. Early in the morning, the Germans capture Samogneux, a village by the side of the Meuse. News of this makes its way by separate routes to the local commander, General Bapst, and also to General Herr. Bapst, unable to make contact with his boss, orders an immediate counter-attack; and, taken by surprise, the Germans end up falling back out of the village.

At which point night falls. Herr has heard nothing of all this. He’s been gathering artillery on the west bank of the Meuse to give those dastardly Boche something to think about as they sit in Samogneux eating sausages and drinking looted wine. This sort of thing is tragically far too common during a major offensive. In the small hours the bombardment opens up; the poilus in Samogneux try to send up “cease fire” signal rockets, which are instead interpreted as a dastardly enemy trick using captured flares. By 3am tomorrow, everyone in Samogneux is dead or has made a swift exit, and before dawn the Germans will be back in possession.

At about 11pm, Joffre’s friend M. Etienne makes his customary telephone call to GQG. He receives the standard response; General Joffre is in bed asleep. His self-deception is so complete that even now, when it should have been obvious that there was a major crisis developing at Verdun, the Chief is not overly concerned by the situation. Can he possibly sleepwalk the Army into a major defeat?

The MSPaint map at the end of the day:

As ever, these are Tube maps, not Ordnance Survey maps.
As ever, these are Tube maps, not Ordnance Survey maps.

Air superiority

A major part of the early success at Verdun has been the Germans’ almost total air superiority. Their fighters have kept French recon planes from seeing anything useful, and kept outclassed French fighters from interfering with their own flying. Six flights of spotter aircraft are constantly out on missions, giving corrections to the artillery as they fire supporting barrage after supporting barrage, leapfrogging forward so that there’s always plenty of guns ready to fire.

And then there are the Zeppelins. Often I end up thinking of airship missions as a sideshow, something that can be sidelined in favour of more interesting stories. Here at Verdun they’re proving extremely effective in support of a major offensive, flying into the French rear to bomb French road and railway junctions, interfering with the arrival of reinforcements and supplies. The Germans are now dictating the progress of events on the Western Front in a way that they haven’t done since 1914.

Admiral Scheer and the Kaiser

And now we rejoin Admiral Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet, who could not have picked a better time to talk the Kaiser into seeking battle with the English in the North Sea. He spends the day aboard his flagship, laying out his plans to his volatile boss in great detail and with infinite care. Wilhelm II listens, eventually allows himself to be convinced, and approves Scheer’s request to play with his favourite toys. (Ironically and symbolically, today is the day that Scheer’s predecessor von Pohl dies of his cancer.)

The Ministry of Blockade

Meanwhile in London, the Admiralty is always looking for ways to tighten the net of the Blockade of Germany. Its importance to the British government and the entire war effort is thoroughly underlined today with the creation of a Ministry of Blockade, headed by Lord Cecil. This will be a full-time government department dedicated entirely to enforcing and tightening the blockade, and as far as possible choking off any kind of commercial imports to the Central Powers.

Out in the Atlantic, the necessity of tightening the blockade is being driven home today. The commerce raider Moewe is still at large, returning home from Brasil. Over the next couple of days she’ll trip over and sink a French merchant, and then a British one. Now all the ship has to do is slip the blockade once more, and it’ll be another one in the eye for the Royal Navy from the Germans.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

Finally, a quick interlude to go to Italy and check in with their chief gobshite D’Annunzio. I’m often quite rude about him, but it can’t be denied that he was capable of great personal bravery and has been flying many missions over the Isonzo as a pilot. Today it becomes obvious why being willing to fly at all is a sign of great bravery; as he comes in to land something goes wrong, and he’s pitched forward into the back of his own machine gun. The gun strikes him in the eyes, and he’s left blind. After months in a darkened room, he’ll begin regaining his sight, but in only one eye.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier is unhappy, high on the Hartmannswillerkopf. The cheveaux de frise are a simple anti-cavalry defence (the translation is “Frisian horses”, as Frisians generally did not have much cavalry of their own) consisting of a large bit of wood or metal on props with large spikes or spears sticking out of it. They’re commonly used to temporarily plug a gap in barbed-wire until it’s safe to send out a wiring party.

I spent over an hour with men on the parapet placing chevaux de frise and never was fired on once, though we must have been heard working in each case. The Germans talked so much and so loud that a fool corporal requisitioned the interpreter, a fine, brave Alsatian boy, twenty years old, who came up to listen. He heard, of course, nothing but futilities. “Schnell! Schnell!” by two who were placing wire, then the illuminating statement, “We were better off where we were last week than we are now.”

The boy, eager to hear more and to see more clearly, finally climbed on the ladder until his head and shoulders were in full view over the parapet. He then received a bullet in the cheek which killed him instantly. What a price to pay for such a result! That boy had run away at the time he ended his first year in the German army, and enlisted in the French army.

Ugh.

E.S. Thompson

The round of dull duties continues for E.S. Thompson and the South Africans, until…

Acting tent orderly. Spent the morning in the bush talking instead of parading as there was only one gun. Nos. 3 and 4 Guns returned from their march about 5.30 pm. They had marched to a hill about 12 miles north to try and establish a signalling post, but no result. A German patrol was seen by the companies marching out to the hill so we were told that we had to leave camp tomorrow to keep them on the move. Was put on mule guard, much to my disgust, and had 3rd guard.

This may well be a chance to redeem themselves after Salaita Hill. Or it could just be a chance to go on a long march and sleep outdoors for no reason.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is heading back up the line again. Still, he’s not at Verdun.

The next day the captain called us together, sergeants and corporals, to tell us that shortly we would be going to occupy a sector near the ill-famed Bois de la Folie. The division which was holding this sector considered itself an attack division, and hadn’t stooped to do fortification work. We therefore couldn’t expect to find any shelters in the trenches we would be occupying. This made us grimace, but the captain was all smiles, certain that he would have a fine shelter for his precious self.

Well, that’s no good. The Bois de la Folie is already thoroughly wrecked after 1915’s fighting in Artois. In good time, the Quebecois will eventually come to know it as well.

The temperature had dropped sharply. As we left Bethonsart on foot, the snow started falling heavy and thick, slowing down our march, stinging our faces, sticking to our clothes. It was whipped up by a violent wind, freezing and transforming into icy stalactites which hung from our beards and moustaches.

They finish up at Mont Saint-Eloi in close reserve; another battalion in the regiment has the honour of the first stint of trench duty.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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