Battle of Latema Nek | 11 Mar 1916

Battle of Latema Nek

Oooh boy. Here we go again. This time there’s no option but to launch a frontal attack. Time for General Malleson to show that it can be done! At noon the attack begins; Baluchis and King’s African Rifles men being sent forward to fight together. They’re being forced to advance across bare plains towards two hills, Latema and Reata, that are covered in thick bush. The result is predictable; very soon it’s all they can do not to die. Meanwhile, E.S. Thompson and the 7th South Africans are on the march again.

After lunch we got on the march again and reached Taveta at about 4 pm. Our Naval guns and howitzers were bombarding a range of hills about 4 miles off where the Germans were supposed to be. Rose and I went to fill our water bottles and walked through the village. The Germans had built forts on 3 little hills in front of the camp. They were thoroughly and strongly fortified and one had been badly knocked about by our guns.

During this march quite a lot of things have happened. For one, General Malleson has departed at his own request. Officially this is due to dysentry. I’ve seen various people suggest that this was a cover for his sacking, or possibly his chickening out, or possibly a Hunter-Weston-esque breakdown. In any case, he’s now leaving our story for a good long time. I’m sad to say that he will be back, eventually. Anyway. By the time Thompson reaches Taveta, General Tighe has taken command, made plans to commit his reserves to a second daylight push, and requested further reinforcement.

The second push fares no better than the first, and some urgent thinking follows. General Smuts has not only sent up two South African battalions, he’s also taking a huge risk. The South African Horse is heading off to attempt a flanking movement to the north, with orders to bypass the hills entirely and make for Moshi. It might be exactly the wrong terrain for mounted troops to operate, but there’s nothing else to be done. Either Tighe and the South Africans take the hills with a night attack, or perhaps General van Deventer’s horsemen can get into the Schutztruppe’s rear in a few days and cause a panicked withdrawal.

Meanwhile, from the German perspective, it’s all going very well. Major Kraut on the hills is confident of being able to repel any attack, and Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s scouts have spotted the South African Horse. The German commander quickly sends out as many men as he can assemble to meet them. Though they’ll be outnumbered, they know the area extremely well. If they can set up an ambush, the South African Horse may well be riding to disaster.

Night falls. E.S. Thompson marches forward. We’ll hand back to him as they fix bayonets, at some point between 6pm and 9pm.

We knew we were off for a scrap, and a night one at that, so were none too happy as we knew it was going to be heavy. We marched out and wounded men on stretchers kept on passing us on the road. The casualties must have been very heavy. We marched along when suddenly heavy firing began in the front so we extended in skirmishing order and advanced.

The bullets came awfully quick and uncomfortably near. Snipers and machine guns were very prominent. I kept my head behind the ammunition box as low as possible. Bullets whizzed around. After the moon went down the firing slackened so I slid back on my tummy for about 50 yds and found a little trench so got into it and began digging deeper with a bayonet. A bullet hit the side of the trench and knocked the sand over me.

After stopping for about a quarter of an hour I heard an officer say that the 5th and 7th had retired, so I decided to go back too as the firing had practically ceased.

That last sentence says it all. Coherent action, even on a moonlight night, is all but impossible. In short order it’s a matter of platoons pushing blindly up the hills, or else retreating when it gets too hot. At 1:30am, General Tighe is seeing a very bleak picture. He’s tried to send the Baluchis in, but they’ve met the remnants of the 5th South Africans and Lt-Col Byron coming back down Reata Hill and declined to attack. The casualty lists are enormous, killed, wounded, missing. Lt-Col Freeth and many of E.S. Thompson’s mates have simply disappeared into the night.

It seems that the South African Horse carry the only hope now left. And they may well be heading into an ambush. But we’re now well into tomorrow, so it’s time to go somewhere else. The thrilling conclusion follows after these messages.

Fifth Battle of the Isonzo

From that to this? Man. There is not-bad news, of a sort; bad weather has forced the Italians to postpone their attack at Fifth Isonzo for 48 hours. In the meantime, the guns continue firing and raiders go out with wire cutters and Bangalore torpedoes to directly attack the enemy barbed wire. More in a couple of days, I guess.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has another almost-quiet day. At one point the caravan meets some locals who tell them that a general pardon has been issued and they can return home. Before anyone can get their hopes up, Balakian finds Captain Shukri.

“The deputy mayor of Bogazliyan deliberately issued this false proclamation so that any Armenians who are hiding here and there will emerge, believing that a general pardon has been granted, and be easily apprehended.”

It’s time now to quickly consider the conversations between these two. In Balakian’s memoir it has an entire chapter. By his telling, the Jandarma captain spent many hours unburdening himself, describing every detail of the massacres. This is perhaps not so surprising. Have you ever tried to keep a secret? It’s surprising how strong the urge to tell all can be if the secret’s big enough. And now, here’s an educated man, a good conversationalist, he knows some of the Koran, and he asks a couple of questions. Surely it won’t hurt to answer one, and another, and another. He’ll be dead soon anyway.

Shukri spends a long time talking about death and robbery. Balakian steers him to the topic of the population of Yozgat. First how the men were deported and murdered, and then the women and children. As captain of the Jandarma, he would have been intimately involved in every stage of the process.

Before continuing, he closed his eyes. In the special manner of performing ablutions, he raised his hands to his face and ran them down to his white beard. And muttering a few prayers, he said to me, “May God not show such death as this to anybody.”
“Did you shoot them, or bayonet them to death?”
“It’s wartime. Bullets are expensive. People grabbed whatever they could from their villages. Axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels. And they did the killing accordingly.”

Our conversation finally reached a point where I was no longer able to restrain myself. “But Bey, you are an elderly Muslim. How did you have this many thousands of innocents massacred without feeling any remorse or guilt? Won’t you remain accountable for this before God, the Prophet, and your conscience?”
“Not at all. I carried out my sacred and holy obligation before God, my Prophet, and my caliph. Jihad was proclaimed. I, as a military officer, carried out the orders of my king. Killing people during war is not considered a crime, is it?”

One reading of the reported conversation is that it’s the words of a braggart glorying in his actions. Another is that these are the words of a man who’s trying desperately to convince himself that he’s going to be all right despite knowing he’s done great wrongs. If he’s so secure and remorseless about his actions, why did he start to talk? We’ll never know.

Edward Mousley

The Siege of Kut continues. Edward Mousley continues blethering to his diary about the general situation. Most of it is dull, but there are a few things worth examining in more detail.

We have all been made acquainted with Sir Percy Lake’s condolences on our misfortune, but also promising us relief; but the floods are gradually increasing, and we fear it will be a case of Lake v. Lake, and there will be no appeal.

As I write it rains, and with every drop of rain the time within which the garrison, and, more important still, the strategic position at Kut, can be relieved, shortens. When the whole country is under water reinforcements will be of no avail. And the time is short. It is the eleventh hour, and unless considerable forces are already on the way it is even now too late.

The position here is much as it was in the Dardanelles. Excepting for floods and natural conditions we can outgun and outfight the Turk every time here.

Has anyone told them that? Maybe you should go and tell them that. I’m not sure they know. Anyway, he does still have sufficient spirit to be funny.

A hospital acquaintance, “Square-Peg” of the Oxfords, came along this afternoon for a game of chess, and asked if he might join our mess, as he is convalescent. Square-Peg and we talked Varsity gossip by the pipe-dozen. He is at present doing light duty on patrol of the gardens, technically known as “Commanding Officer, Cabbages.” I managed to best Edmonds later. He conceded me a knight, but then he is a very good player.

[Yesterday was] the slaughtering day for numbers of [horses]. This is good-bye to any possibility of debouch, for there will be insufficient horses to move the guns. It will eke out our corn and barley that can be made into bread; but what is wanted is sugar or jam for the body, and tea for the spirit.
“You are,” says Townshend, “making a page of history.”
“I would rather,” thinks Tommy, “make some stew.”

Rations have been still further cut down. We get bread and meat, nothing else, and of the former merely four ounces per diem. The garrison is in a bad way. Men go staggering about, resting every now and then up against a wall. I hear that the number succumbing in the trenches is daily increasing. As for the native hospital, the sight is too appalling for words. Skin-covered skeletons crawl about or turn over to receive their scanty nourishment, but nothing else, not even shell fire, engages their attention.

A few rounds fell into the town. We did not reply.

Henri Desagneaux

Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux is leaving Arraye, and betrays his inexperience. It seems that they’re being moved to another sector, and they’re going to get an extended period out of the line.

We are beginning to get well organised in the sector and now have to hand over to others. That’s why our sectors are never organised.

Sorry, dude, the BEF is doing a pretty good job of keeping its shit together while rotating itself around to keep people rested and on their toes. Anyway, on to some more reasonable complaints.

Where are we going? We don’t know. I am changing company to the 21st. It’s the worst of the battalions. Its captain who has been made adjutant-major is a former regular NCO and a real boozer. The sub-lieutenants join in and spend their time drinking and gambling. Regretfully, I leave my 22nd Company. The relief takes place at 8:30pm without hindrance.

Speaking of people who moan a lot…

Louis Barthas

Private Louis Barthas, as he now is, is curious to know the exact official reasoning for the loss of his rank.

I expected to read a masterpiece of literature. After all, [Captain Cros-Mayrevielle] had a law degree! And had held a staff post at the ministry! The sergeant-major agreed to show me the register of punishments, and I read:

“Barthas, class of (etc). charged with carrying out an order, he said to his men, ‘Just look like you’re working.’” That seemed stupid to me, “neither fish nor fowl,” as they say. Surely Colonel Douce must have been curious for other explanations for my being broken in rank. But then colonels aren’t expected to have dealings with corporals; that might risk diminishing their standing.

Nevertheless, he seems content to accept this particular piece of military bullshit. But then…

I was just about to slam shut this libelous book where my name was forever inscribed for indiscipline, when I noticed that the charge was accompanied by the following amendments, signed by Commandant Leblanc:

“This corporal sets a bad example; he is unfit to serve as a non-com; there are a good number of candidates in his company who could replace him, to good effect. In consequence, I have the honor, colonel, to ask you to reduce him in rank.”

Leblanc is of course better-known to his men as “Quinze-Grammes”, or “half-pint”. Of course, readers, you realise that this means war.

These lines wounded and infuriated me. Take away my stripes because I lack military spirit, for my socialist and antimilitarist opinions — so be it. For me, that would be a badge of honor, just like the Croix de Guerre is for others. It would be evidence of fidelity to my principles, in a time when so many had denied theirs.

But the words “setting a bad example” were just too much.

You had better believe that there is more to come, folks.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Leave a Reply