Arsiero | Decimation | Italy | 27 May 1916

Battle of Asiago

Picking up from yesterday. Arsiero has fallen, Asiago is about to go the same way. General Cadorna believes that the men are insufficiently terrified of “military” “justice”, so has just yesterday loudly exhorted his junior officers to show some backbone. “Backbone” in this case being defined as “summarily executing men who dare to run backwards”. I predicted rather gloomily that it surely wouldn’t be long before someone obliged the boss.

It’s not. Maybe 24 hours, maybe less. A battalion commander whose name I cannot easily find has had a problem. He’s trying to hold a position outside Asiago, but he’s missing pretty much an entire company. This is a problem, obviously. But the vast majority of them come skulking back during the morning. Problem solved, right? Not if you care about your career. The colonel is not happy with muttered apologies and “we’ll sort this out when the battle is over and we’re all still alive”.

Instead, in the true spirit of being a complete and total boil on the anus of humanity, the colonel selects 12 men from the company by drawing lots. Those men are then shot for desertion. A summary of events is soon heading back to the rear, almost as fast as the battalion will be going when they have to retreat again, not long afterwards. This is the first known use of decimation by the Italian Army in the war. Heavy, heavy emphasis on “known”.

Pedants everywhere rush to point out that this does not, strictly speaking, fit the definition of “decimation” as practised by the Romans. That was called “decimation” because of “deci” for ten. A unit that had committed some crime that was both unforgivable and collective, so that it might be impractical to punish the lot of them, would have to select one-tenth of its strength at random and execute them. The Italian Army will not strictly observe the one-tenth rule. But the important part, the part where men are randomly executed by their immediate commanding officers for offences that they might not even have been involved with. That’s what Cadorna has demanded the army do.

And that is what the army is going to do. Slowly at first, but then in greater and greater numbers, like a snowball rolling down a Dolomite. With not just official sanction, but official approval. Official urging. Entirely at the discretion of low and mid-ranking officers, with no oversight.

Those are the factors that make this unique. There are armies where there were summary executions. There are armies where, on extremely rare occasions, men were selected for executions by drawing lots. But it is only the Italian Army that made both of those things into official policy, and then pursued it with psychotic, homicidal vigour. With one decisive act, General Cadorna has moved smoothly from the list of the maliciously incompetent and into the ranks of the criminal and the evil. There is a direct line between his insane decrees and the crimes that were then committed in fulfilment of them.

This is evil that the more familiar boogeymen of the war never even contemplate approaching. We will be keeping an eye on this, as well as military executions in other armies, going forward. How can we not?

Battle of the Somme

And now we’re going to go see what General Haig is up to. (We will be exploring his opinion on executions later; but in short, he looks like a peace-loving tree-hugger next to Cadorna.) Having ironed some things out with the French yesterday, it’s time for a big conference with all his army commanders, which is actually far less Major and Important than you might think. The deception plan for the Battle of the Somme gets plenty of discussion. So do some of the finer points of 2nd Army’s effort, which will be a genuine minor push to improve the situation around Ypres a bit and sort out some of the more ludicrous parts of the line.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to the front, you may recall that two of our correspondents, Malcolm White and Evelyn Southwell, are part of The Rifle Brigade. Time for a long-winded story! The British Army was and is rather obsessed with traditions and quirks and giving various regiments or battalions the right to do certain things in an unusual way, because they’ve supposedly been doing it since 1733 or whatever. In the apocryphal words of the sergeant: “These traditions are old and well-worn. They don’t need much effort, son. You’ve just got to keep them and pass them on.”

The Rifle Brigade (yes, it’s a regiment which is called a brigade; welcome to the British Army) was founded in the days when being armed with rifles instead of muskets was noteworthy. One of their traditions happens to be that they do not march at the Army’s standard time of 120 paces per minute. They quick-march at 140 paces per minute. (They were originally supposed to be light, fast sharpshooters and skirmishers.) Tell you what. Just sit back, if you can, and have a think for five minutes. See if you can work out why a regiment that marches slightly faster than anyone else is becoming more and more of a problem as more and more battalions of Riflemen make their way to France.

Here it is. The logistics-wallahs of the BEF have now become, out of necessity, very good at planning everyone’s movements around France. There are in the region of 500 British infantry battalions in France at the moment (n.b. this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation). There are only so many roads that they can march down. Now add in supply trucks and all the other horses and motorised transport and artillery batteries and whatnot that has to use the roads.

Fortunately, the Army is good at marching. You march for 50 minutes in an hour and have ten minutes of rest. At 120 paces a minute, this means an infantry battalion marches at about one mile an hour as its standard pace, and can do so many miles a day. It goes some way to making the labyrinthine calculations and timetables a little easier. And then the quick-stepping Riflemen rock up, and they ruin everything.

More and more battalions are having their latest stroll through northern France very rudely interrupted as the front ranks of a Rifle battalion race up behind, and then get horribly tangled up with their own rear ranks. Both battalions then grind to a halt while the officers and sergeants have a frank exchange of views as to whose fault this is. It is said that the nickname “Black Buttoned Bastards” for Rifle regiments, in reference to their traditional black-buttoned kit, dates from this spring and early summer in 1916, as they roared around France tripping over everyone else.

Perhaps a couple of incidents like this are to blame for Malcolm White and Evelyn Southwell both having trouble marching their men places? They never do say exactly why it happened, you know.

E.S. Thompson

Things are steadily getting hairier for E.S. Thompson outside Kondoa Irangi. Mind you, some of it is his own bloody stupid fault.

The Germans must have brought up one of their big guns during the night, as they began hombarding the town as soon as it was light enough. They were shooting at a very long range and fired a good many shots. … After breakfast I cut up the fat and put it on the fire to melt. While pouring the fat from the dixie to the tin, I managed to spill half of it down my shin and into my boot. Alf thoughtfully rubbed flour over the burn at once, and the doctor put vaseline on and bandaged it up. All the morning it burnt and gave me particular ‘jip’. Later on the foot got swollen and a big blister formed on the leg.

The Germans began shelling again at noon. Heard that the Germans had shelled our hospital at Kondoa Irangi and that the hospital cook had been killed. The Germans shelled the trenches of the 10th Regiment at about 4 o’clock with shrapnel but could do no damage. Went to bed under my rock and was wakened by big black ants squeaking round my head. After some time they moved off and I slept well. The Regiment were awakened at 3am to build stone walls in front of the hill.

He’s had two separate opportunities to put himself in that hospital, and failed both times.

Oskar Teichman

Army medic Oskar Teichman continues observing life on the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Bathing in the Canal was most refreshing in the evening, but we were not allowed to swim across to the other side. A picket patrolled the opposite side of the Canal day and night to prevent native spies from placing mines in the fairway. Every night a detachment of the Bikaner Camel Corps dragged a sort of wooden sledge along the bank, so that footprints on the smooth track could be detected at once in the morning. By this means, at a later date, Turkish prisoners were caught after they had crossed the Canal.

After bathing, we usually remained a while and watched the evening steamers passing by. All neutral vessels had a guard of soldiers on board for the Canal passage; they were sent on board at Suez or Port Said in order to prevent the benevolent neutrals from sowing mines.

For the moment, things remain quiet. The Canal is supposed to be neutral to all vessels “in time of peace and war”, but the British Empire closing the canal is one of those breaches of international law that nobody really gets too annoyed about.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues waiting for something to happen, and achieves a moment of truly excellent insight.

Whilst my friends worry the Practical Joke Department at the War Office, trying to convince its supermen of the incongruity and deadly humour in their placing amongst the conscientious objectors a man to whom Heraclitus and Goethe seem to be nearer the truth, I am worrying about my publisher. I heard this morning from a member of the publishing house of Burns and Gates that a book like my Serbian Folk-Songs can be printed in a fortnight’s time; and three weeks would certainly be amply sufficient, taking into consideration all the difficulties of the present.

My publisher has had the manuscript since January. He also has drawn the subsidy fee from the Serbian Government, but he has not published the book yet.

He also reproduces another extremely lengthy statement from one of the absolutist COs in his company. You could probably today work out who he is from the biographical information given; in the 20s, Mugge (or the man himself, or both) thought it prudent to refer to him only as “Mr X, a greengrocer”. The statement goes on for about three pages; there’s some interesting stuff about how his tribunal allowed him to make arrangements to do agricultural work, which he then did, only for the police to then arrest him as a deserter and hand him over to the Army, and some more generic stuff about conscience, murder, and God.

It’s here where Mugge has his moment of insight.

Another conscientious objector has been kind enough to write down for me a statement of his case and his views. Though a rather lengthy document, and like the preceding one, not too clear, I append it here verbatim, as I did with the previous one, for I am convinced that as much interest will be attached later on to the opinions of the “common or garden” CO, [and not just] the few dozen leaders among them. These are gifted with powers of expression and will, I am sure, after the war, write books themselves or otherwise publish their views.

My NCCs represent the “mass,” they are small craftsmen and tradesmen, and most people are inclined to assume the “masses” to be dumb driven cattle, whipped into action by militarists or wheedled into it by intellectuals.

And he is absolutely right when he says this. Completely and totally. He gets it. The history books he wrote were all very much in the Great Man mode and had desperately little in the way of “insight”. Here, however, he shows a rare ability to think right outside the box. He’s foreseen the rise of social history 50 years ahead of time. I hereby promise not to make fun of him and his little quirks and pretensions in future. (Unless he does something truly and surpassingly stupid, or uses more than two obscure foreign-language phrases on the same day.)

And that’s not all. There is one more piece of news.

They collected our best boots this morning to be studded. We are going to France. The 3rd Eastern Company of the Non-Combatant Corps is going to France.

He’s going to beat Clifford Wells to France! Lordy and wow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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