Battle of Bitlis | Gratuitous horror | 16 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

Back to the Caucasus now for a quick update from the Battle of Bitlis. It is not good news at all for the Ottomans who recently established themselves in Bitlis, Mus, and the Endres and Ognot valleys. They’ve been having a little success over the last couple of days, advancing against a raw, untested Russian division. But now their mates are here, and although they’re quite tired after a series of long marches, morale is high but not over-confident. Now they’re coming into action, their opponents are halting and falling back, and we have a reversal at hand. Had Izzet Pasha concentrated all his men here…

Speaking of which! Hundreds of miles away to the west, that group has just arrived at Kigi. Their orders assumed they could simply walk into Kigi and establish a headquarters before pushing into the mountains and taking the fight to the enemy. Turns out that one Russian regiment’s got there first, though. And while they’re significantly outnumbered, they’ve had just enough time to emplace a healthy quantity of mountain artillery in the hills. Their opponents, meanwhile, have only field artillery pieces. They’re all too big and unwieldy to carry up into the mountains. No artillery support and no entrenchments means a miserable old time for the men.

Here’s another advantage of splitting your army in three; none of Izzet’s corps commanders have adequate local reinforcements available. In order to be available to everyone, the army-level reserve is so far behind the fighting that it’s all but useless. Casualties are mounting. More to come.

Battle of Verdun

After the last month on the Somme, the words “The General is planning some minor attacks…” are having a serious negative effect on my psyche. Now I’m running into those words at Verdun, too. And the General in question is the notoriously bloodthirsty General Mangin, just to make things even better. Most notably, he wants to pinch out the salient the Germans established a couple of weeks ago, jutting out from Fleury towards Fort Souville.

The attacks are planned to be small and efficient, with only battalion-sized forces attempting to capture a few trenches at a time with vast artillery support. Let’s see if the French Army, after all their doctrinal changes to emphasise bite-and-hold battle techniques, can do any better at this sort of thing. From a German perspective, this is exactly the kind of attack they need to repel with heavy enemy casualties if all this blethering about “bleeding the French Army white” is ever going to come true. I’ll be interested to see what’s going to happen.

Gratuitous horror

A few days ago we met one Lieutenant Gameson on the Somme, a medical officer in a shitty cellar in Contalmaison. He has some entirely disgusting and stomach-turning observations about the wounds he’s seeing.

Maggot invasion was common. One unconscious man arrived with part of a frontal lobe protruding from a hole in his skull. The protruding portion of his brain was moving with maggots. There was a man with a loop of gut sticking out of a gash in his uniform. It was a bayonet wound. The loop of gut had been lightly dressed with gauze, beneath which there was a wriggling mass of maggots. The man had been lying out [in No Man’s Land] wounded and the flies never missed a chance. His condition was deplorable.

One man I saw had been lying out because both legs were wounded. Prolonged pressure had caused necrosis of the skin over his buttocks and of the superficial portions of muscle beneath it. Maggots had invaded the deeper tissues, I had to pick them out with a long forceps. The man was unaware of his condition. Maggot invasion was always accompanied by a foul smell, since it flourished only in tissues undergoing some degree of decomposition. As a rule, the patient did not notice the stink, or did not know that it came from his own body, if sensitive enough to notice it.

A certain unhumorous Presbyterian priest haunted our cellars in those days. In addition to the usual armaments of cigarettes and field service postcards, he carried a concertina. An eeriness clung to him. His favourite pitch was at the distant end of the cellar floor, beneath the vaulted roof. Here he squatted. A figure not easily forgotten: long lugubrious face peering above the wheezing bellows, swaying from side to side in the flickering candlelight, playing dour tunes to those on the stretchers around him.

Most of our patients were Scotsmen; beyond question they valued highly the ministrations of this terrifying priest.

What are you more scared of? The maggots or the priest?

Flora Sandes

About now, Sergeant Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army is going into action on the Salonika front for the first time, at First Doiran. She has seen a little fighting before, but it was entirely on the defensive during the retreat through Serbia and Albania. Now she’s about to find out what it is to go on the attack.

We had been told to hold ourselves in readiness all day, and then suddenly, so suddenly that even Vukoje, our vodnik (platoon officer) was taken by surprise, at 5.30 pm, without any further warning, we got the order and said good-bye to kit-bag, blanket and everything except rifle, ammunition and knapsack. To my great surprise we suddenly marched off, as though we were going to stop the whole Bulgarian Army, though there were no signs of an enemy as far as I could see.

We dashed down a stony hillside, through a stream at the bottom, and up the other side. Just after we started, artillery fire broke out somewhere ahead of us, followed at once by the cracking of rifles and bursting of bombs, and we were apparently making a bee-line for the scrap; the noise and the flashes increasing every moment as we neared it. It was now quite dark, as there is no twilight in those parts, and we were all blown and streaming with perspiration from the gruelling pace at which our vodnik, a long-legged 2nd Lieutenant, was taking us.

I was in pretty good condition, but, just as I was beginning to wonder whether I could possibly stay the pace till we reached those flashes, our vodnik suddenly halted us at a little line of “funk holes” dug near the crest of the hill. As I ran, I had been picturing to myself a tremendous scrap. Hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, and our crowd arriving breathless and in the nick of time; covering ourselves with honour and glory by turning the tide, and helping to win a most important engagement.

I suppose many soldiers have pictured their first battle as something in the same way, and, probably for thousands, their dreams of glory and devilment have fizzled out as mine did, sitting in pouring rain, and up to the knees in wet slush, without hearing another shot fired all night. Presumably we had been sent up only as reserves, but we might amuse ourselves by surmising what we liked, for if our vodnik knew he did not tell us. The little “funk-holes” were just big enough for two people to sit in, and were already half full of water and mud.

” Where are we going to sleep ? ” I asked Vukoje.
“Sleep?” he echoed vaguely, “why, here of course.”
I looked at the squelchy, black mud, and sat down gingerly beside him, without further comment.

Carry on, sergeant.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is now on the final leg of his journey up the line; for now they’re going into a reserve line near Longueval, looking up towards High Wood.

“Death Valley,” it is nicknamed, and it has earned its title, for everywhere there are signs of death: an inverted bottle with a bit of paper in it: a forage-cap hung on a stick: a rough wooden cross bearing the pencilled inscription, “To an Unknown British Soldier.” These signs recur: pathetic, temporary memorials; will they outlast the war? In the bottom of the valley lie broken trucks and the shattered rails of a tramway. As we come to the end of the tram-line we have to pass the body of a dead horse, foul and distended, poisoning the air.

Suddenly, like a rat, a human figure comes out of the earth. Who would have thought there were dug-outs here? As quickly it disappears and we pass on. We march in silence, broken occasionally by a jest that fails to catch on, or by an irritable rebuke from one jogged by his companion. There is no singing now. … We have hardly entered the trench before we come on a stretcher lying on the ground. It bears the body of a boy: the face quite black. He has just been killed.

It appears there was an old German latrine close to the parapet of the trench; two boys had gone to it when a shell came over and killed them both. As we push along I find that this particular sector falls to my platoon. The shell has made a big breach. Tonight we shall have to repair it and clean up the mess which is beyond description. The men are posted and the relieved troops scuttle out. In this narrow gap between two deep walls of clay we shall spend the next four days. The air is tainted with the sickly-sweet odour of decaying bodies.

At certain corners this odour intensified by the heat, becomes a stench so foul the bay cannot be occupied. Just now I tripped over a lump in the floor of the trench. It was necessary to get a shovel and quickly cover the spot. Literally we are the living among the dead.

Every night of the war, all up and down every front, on both sides there are men making this journey in both directions. Coming out of the line, going back up the line.

Oswald Boelcke

German fighter ace Oswald Boelcke has been touring the Eastern Front on his way back to Berlin, meeting the great and the good all the while. Conrad von Hotzendorf, General von Linsingen, archdukes, politicians, and so on.

Reported to General Ludendorff. Before eating was presented to Field Marshal Hindenburg. At table, sat between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. In the afternoon, flew to Warsaw.

Yeah, he really doesn’t have time to be impressed by any of this. He’s a fighting man. Time now for principle 3 of the Dicta Boelcke, which will soon be distributed to all German pilots: “Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.” The machine-guns on WWI aeroplanes were not specially made; they were just standard models mounted on an aeroplane. They were usually only accurate from within about 100 yards; it was therefore vital for new pilots not to get carried away with seeing an enemy plane and opening fire from impractically long ranges, which also wasted scarce ammunition.

Maximilian Mugge

Having descended to just about the lowest point possible, Maximilian Mugge is going up in the world again, sort of.

In their wonderful kindness and wisdom the local Powers-that-be have made me a policeman. Said the terriers among themselves when they discussed that Rat Damis: “We cut his ears and dock his tail; And tell him he’s a terrier.”

Battalion reached full strength. A supernumerary Company formed.

Mugge is here referencing a collection of bitingly satirical poems by the now-forgotten comic writer Robert Barnabas Brough, “Songs of the Governing Classes”. The point should be obvious; the Authorities are using him to keep his mates in line.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

Further Reading

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