Bait Isa | Luxueil | 16 Apr 1916

Battle of Bait Isa

Good news from Mesopotamia! For one thing, the rain’s stopped for the moment. And, after some very confused, very wet, very muddy fighting, General Gorringe’s relief column has captured the Twin Pimples. These, let us remind ourselves, are two small hills outside Bait Isa. Tomorrow, the men can attack Bait Isa itself. And from there, there’s only a final fallback position at Es Sinn before the column can directly attack the Ottoman forces who are besieging Kut.

No, it doesn’t sound too promising. Still far too many conditionals. But it’s far from impossible. It has a far greater chance of success than, say, attacking Hanna did, ten days previously. And the Ottomans have just suffered a blow in the rear. Their German commander, General von der Goltz, has just fallen badly ill with typhoid fever. On top of that, defending the Bait Isa positions is also far from simple.

The positions were chosen because they straddle a large number of irrigation and transport canals. There is a lot of water about. And this works both ways. It’s very difficult to get men, supplies, and messages in and out of the defences. The Ottoman engineers have been working hard on a number of different water control efforts. Of course the works have been designed so that, if there is a retreat to Es Sinn, they can be quickly destroyed and the road to Es Sinn will disappear under the water.

However, from the Twin Pimples, a quick attack tomorrow might just be able to capture enough of the enemy positions to paralyse their command structure and capture Bait Isa before word can be passed down to flood the place. We may be in injury time, but they’re not finished yet.

Edward Mousley

Inside the siege of Kut there’s good news, but this time it doesn’t seem to be raising anyone’s spirits.

It is a beautiful summer day full of spiciness. It was impossible to lie in bed, so I got up, imagining I was leaving aches and pains in my sleeping-bag. After breakfast I crawled out with Tudway on board the Sumana, and saw the excellent repair our sappers had effected in the main stop-valve. I make myself walk. We discussed her defences and I worked out the number of gun shields that would be necessary if they were utilized to cover all her deck. The plan was partly adopted. Then we lazied an hour or two in her smashed cabin, getting a hot sniping on our return.

Afterwards, I played chess with Square-Peg and Father Tim. Parsnip came to tiffin. God has endowed him with two things: a perpetual appetite and a short memory, for he comes to tiffin very often without his bread. Moreover, on any subject under the sun Parsnip will dogmatize with all the splendid audacity of youth, with all youth’s magnificent indifference to authority. With the smallest amount of encouragement he has politically the makings of a magnificent catastrophe; otherwise he is normal.

We speculated on the treatment we should receive if captured. The Turk is said to be off the civilized map, but every one seems to think we should be done first rate, and some believe that he would be so bucked at capturing a whole army and five real live generals that we should be offered the Sultan’s Palace of Sweet Waters on the Bosphorus and a special seraglio.

An evening communiqué said that Gorringe had captured the enemy’s pickets and was ready for a further advance, the results of which are expected by the morning.

Hold that thought about the Sultan’s palace, won’t you?

Attack on Trebizond

After two days of hard pursuit, the Russians are now about eight miles from Trebizond. The men are getting tired, and more importantly, their supporting battleships are running out of shells. The fleet duly heads back to Batum to reload; it’ll be a couple of days before the infantry can hope to press on. This is all going extremely well indeed.

Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille’s progress towards flying for France continues apace. Today they get their orders to go to the aerodrome at Luxueil-les-Bains to begin its flying duty. This is intended as a shakedown period only; the aerodrome is near Belfort and the Swiss border, in about the quietest part of the Western Front. Before being pitched into the Battle of Verdun, they will need time to get used to combat flying under rather less stressful conditions. Said James McConnell:

The rush was breathless! Never were flying clothes and fur coats drawn from the quartermaster, belongings packed, and red tape in the various administrative bureaux unfurled, with such headlong haste. In a few hours we were aboard the train, panting, but happy. Our party consisted of Sergeant Prince, and Rockwell, Chapman, and myself, who were only corporals at that time. We were joined at Luxeuil by Lieutenant Thaw and Sergeants Hall and Cowdin.

For the veterans our arrival at the front was devoid of excitement; for the three neophytes–Rockwell, Chapman, and myself–it was the beginning of a new existence, the entry into an unknown world. Of course Rockwell and Chapman had seen plenty of warfare on the ground, but warfare in the air was as novel to them as to me. For us all it contained unlimited possibilities for initiative and service to France, and for them it must have meant, too, the restoration of personality lost during those months in the trenches with the Foreign Legion. Rockwell summed it up characteristically.

“Well, we’re off for the races,” he remarked.

It’s all very Boy’s Own stuff. At the moment. Wonder how their tune might change when there’s work to be done.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends, in transit by rail all day long, now know their destination.

At 4 in the afternoon, the train entered the station at Vitry-le-François. At this point we still didn’t know our destination, but we would soon find out. If the train took the direction of Chalons, we’d be going to Champagne, which was very calm at that moment. If we continued on toward the east, there could be no more doubt—we were going to Verdun. Alas, that’s exactly where we were headed, and at nightfall we disembarked at the station in Revigny.

Revigny was a pretty little town, now half-destroyed. Three months earlier a Zeppelin had been shot down there. No doubt to stretch our legs after twenty-four hours of immobility, they sent us off to encamp twelve kilometers from Revigny. It was a moonless night, but starry, and the North Star told us that we were turning our backs on Verdun. What did that mean?

While passing through one village, a brief order ran along the column: “Attention! The general!”
In the village square, beside his automobile, General P– . watched the regiment parading by. When I passed near him, he called out as he stomped his foot, “But these men are sleeping! Will you look at that!” The general was right. All the men were dozing off. But he was wrong to reproach us, because he had traveled first class, then in an automobile, while we, jumbled together like a herd of animals, were obliged to pace off the kilometers heavily weighted down.

Barthas does not usually censor or substitute names, but he does occasionally decline to name certain people. This is one of them. I’m certain that it isn’t Petain himself, since this general has been travelling with Barthas, and Petain has been at Verdun all the while. Beyond that, I’d need a decent order of battle to identify the man, but as it is I’m not even sure which army, corps, division, or brigade the 296th Regiment is supposed to be in at the moment. Whoever they are, they get under cover in just enough time to avoid being rained on.

E.S. Thompson

With the South African Horse closing in on Kondoa, the rainy season has well and truly begun in east Africa. E.S. Thompson has been stuck with a nasty old job.

Woke up at 7 to find it damp and drizzly. Sergeant Snow of Mechanical Transport asked us to cut down a few trees and stumps so as to make a road for the cars to the workshops. Legg and I got on a Reo about 11 am and went down to the first river on Himo road to help tow some other cars out of the mud. The road was in a hopeless state, the car slipping all over the place. Mud and water lay on the road inches thick, and consequently bottom gear had to be used so that when we arrived the water in the radiator was boiling.

I took a walk down to the river to see the bridge which had been pushed into a curve by the force of the water but was still strong. Just then it began to rain, making things sloppier than ever. We got about 5 Reos out of the mud and sent them on their way, then returned to camp slipping about worse than ever. Once or twice I thought the car would turn right over but bar sticking on a hill for about 5 minutes everything went well. When we got back to camp we found that one of the Reos we had pulled out of the mud before had sunk her back wheels in the mud down to the differentials.

The Reo Motor Car Company has sold a large number of cars and trucks to Canada and South Africa in recent years. In the modern British army, any large vehicle is often called a “Bedford”, as in days gone by they were exclusively manufactured by the Bedford company. Reo trucks are similarly ubiquitous among these South Africans. And it’s far from certain, but I would like to think that E.S. Thompson was today riding in their latest model: the Reo Speedwagon. Whose name I certainly do not intend to sprinkle widely over my blog for callous SEO purposes. Perish the thought.

(By the way, when he finally gets back to camp, Sergeant Snow grabs him again and puts him on latrine-digging duty. I do hope he hasn’t done something to offend the sergeant, else this man’s story could just become a litany of all the really crappy jobs, ahahaha.)

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is out of the line at the moment, but due to go back tomorrow, and he’s writing to his friend Evelyn Southwell. Southwell has just had a book of poetry published; but not his own poetry, interestingly. The poems are from the 16-year-old boys who he used to teach at Shrewsbury School. This is the “V.B.” of which White now speaks.

I suppose you have your copy of “V.B.”? I have two copies out here, owing to a mistaken order to a bookseller. I have given it quite a vulgar puff among booksellers, and I am supposing that it occupies a large position in a Trinity Street Book Shop window at Cambridge. Have you got a Press-cutting agency to send you all notices and reviews of it? (‘ The practical man’-yes; but you ought to, really, oughtn’t you ?)

Anyone will find you a newspaper-cutting agency. I want the names of the authors of ‘The weather has thrown off its weeds’-it’s very good that, almost as French as the original-and ‘The Fairy’s Story’, please.

I came up to the trenches ten days ago, alone. We’ve had a few days in billets, and we go up again to-night. I expect I shall discover the real nature of War before long.

What, you mean he isn’t a star-spangled old wizard? Criminy.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

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  1. Trinity Street in Cambridge is a rather short street, since King’s, Trinity and St. John’s colleges are all on the same road and sufficiently vain to rename it after themselves in turn, so the road that is called Trumpington Street for most of its length becomes King’s Parade, Trinity Street and St. John’s Street in turn. I do not know how many bookshops it contained in 1916, but in 2016 there is only one left (admittedly, one very large one), with the majority of the road taken up by very expensive clothes shops…