Let’s try to break out from the Western Front a little, shall we? The other theatres of the war have obligingly kept quiet these past few days so we could sweat and bleed and toil with the blokes in Northern France. Now it’s time to expand our field of view once more.
Battle of Es Sinn
Quick recap; in Mesopotamia, General Nixon has launched a rather rash expedition up the River Tigris towards Kut-al-Amara and then, if his subordinate General Townshend feels like it, on to Baghdad. Kut is defended by an extensive prepared Ottoman position a few miles downriver at Es Sinn, and after the better part of a month the British Empire force is now ready to attack.
Technically speaking, the battle started yesterday, with skirmishes and demonstrations to disguise Townshend’s intention to spread out and flank the prepared defences. He also intends to exploit a lack of care when preparing positions that run right up to marshland, launching several pin-point thrusts against the edges of the defences. It’s a fine line between getting at the dodgy sections and sinking in the marsh, and heavy fighting rumbles for most of the day. It’s certainly been a better day for Townshend than any commander on the Western Front who you’d care to name, but when night falls the Ottomans are still in possession of several key parts of their line. The battle continues tomorrow.
Attack on Luvungi
The elderly General Wahle has managed to convince the military commander of German East Africa (today Tanzania), Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, to let him go on another adventure, the failure of the Siege of Saisi notwithstanding. This time it’s a much better bet, aimed at pre-empting any Anglo-Belgian attempt to regain control of the enormous and critical Lake Tanganyika, currently ruled over with an iron fist by SMS Goetzen, the famous flat-pack warship. (Goetzen has, incidentally, just had her armament greatly increased with the arrival of a comedically large gun that’s been hauled clear across the colony by the survivors of the Konigsberg.)
Wahle has rounded up a force of 1,500 men and now intends to use them to drive a wedge between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Kivu. This would effectively split the Belgian Congo’s brutal gendarmerie, the Force Publique, in two. The key Belgian holding in the area is at Luvungi, but due to the manpower problem inherent in defending lands as vast as the Belgian Congo (bigger than France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Spain put together) with about 20,000 men, the current garrison is one FP company of 150.
It should have worked, and on military merits it probably deserved to work. However, by a colossal stroke of good fortune, a battalion-strength unit is currently located only two hours’ march away. When it arrives in the afternoon General Wahle suddenly finds himself facing a force of approximately equal size and battle soon turns to stalemate. He’ll keep ineffectually poking at Luvungi for a few more days before being forced to withdraw due to lack of supplies.
Mimi & Toutou
British and Belgian attempts to regain the balance of power on Lake Tanganyika continue. The Belgians are now attempting to assemble their own flat-pack steamer, the Baron Dhanis, as a direct response to Goetzen. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simson’s entirely ridiculous scheme to man-haul two small motor-boats, Mimi and Toutou, from Cape Town to the lake has reached an important waypoint. This is Sankisia, which happens to have a railway station.
The man-hauling element of the journey is now mostly at an end. The ships are now loaded onto another train for the short journey to Bukama, from where they can be launched into the River Lualaba and given an African seaworthiness trial. They’re reckoning on a two-week sail to Kabalo, and then one final railway journey to Lake Tanganyika itself. About 2,400 of the 3,000 miles of travelling have now been successfully completed.
Battle of Loos
And after all that, it’s back to the Battle of Loos. The chief area of concern for the BEF is now the Dump and the Hohenzollern Redoubt. There’s heavy fighting here, with both sides launching attacks and counter-attacks; and by the end of the day the BEF has once again come off second best, having now been forced all the way back to the Redoubt itself.
We followed Private Harry Fellows and Captain David Pole of C Company, 12th Northumberlands (a Kitchener’s Army battalion) as they went up (and back down) Hill 70 on the 26th. They’ve since been relieved by the Guards, and the battalion’s survivors have been straggling back to the rear, to their assigned re-assembly point at Vermelles. This is the town that Louis Barthas watched his comrades liberating from the Germans back at the start of the year.
By evening there are enough men to make it worth holding a parade for roll call. There are about 60 men of C Company left. All the platoon commanders are absent from their regular places. The other three companies are barely in a better way. Among the missing from C Company’s parade position is David Pole. However, in his case, this because all but six of the Battalion’s officers have been killed or wounded. Someone has checked the Army List, and passed on the news that he is now acting Lieutenant-Colonel Pole.
After the parade, Private Fellows catches up with him for the first time since before they went into battle. And he hands over the message he’s been carrying all this time, the message that didn’t quite reach Pole before he went over the top.
“The C.O. wishes the attack to be carried out with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion.”
I said to him again, “I’m very sorry, sir, I did try to find you.” It was some moments before he looked up and spoke. “It doesn’t matter, sonny, now.”
I never forgot his words, nor the tears that were coursing down his face.
Artois & Champagne
General Petain declines to attack at Second Champagne, and is rewarded by a surprise visit from General Joffre with a “please explain”. Petain subsequently issues a terse and irritable order that his army’s offensive is to continue tomorrow.
Meanwhile, at Third Artois, something odd happens. In the confusion of the night so lovingly described by Louis Barthas (more from him in a moment), the Germans have for reasons known only to themselves decided to retreat up Vimy Ridge. With a fine disregard for the opinions of his superiors, General d’Urbal orders a general offensive, which chases the Germans all the way up the ridge. By nightfall they’ve captured the crest. War, it’s a funny old game. A couple of days ago Joffre and Foch were firmly agreed that Vimy Ridge should be let alone, and now it’s in French hands.
Somewhere at the arse end of that offensive we find Louis Barthas. Most of his squad’s day is spent amusing themselves by making friends with the first German prisoners to have been captured (or, more accurately, tripped over) by them. Alas, come the evening they’re ordered forward once more.
Had there been hand-to-hand combat here? Had wounded and dying men dragged themselves to this spot? Whatever had happened, there were numerous bodies of Frenchmen and Germans, whom death had surprised in every conceivable pose: lying, kneeling, crouched down; the boyau was narrow, and we were forced to step on corpses. What a horror that was!
As the men try to process it they’re met by a German counter-attack spewing grenades everywhere, and beat a hasty and panicked retreat in the pitch dark.
After ten minutes, I arrived at the entrance to the boyau. At this point the trench was quite wide, like a sunken road. Our cowardly captain, Cros-Mayrevieille, was there. “It’s shameful, what happened out there,” he cried, “Get back out into the trench.” But nobody budged. If Captain Cros-Mayrevieille had put himself in front of us, we all would have followed him.
You can accuse BEF junior officers of many things, but in the main, you can’t accuse them of failing to lead the attacks that they order.
At this moment, Agussol, an epileptic who for some time had shown signs of mental weakness but whom we had kept with us all the same, lost his mind. Hearing that we were being ordered back into the trench where we had had such a frightful time, he advanced on the captain and swung an empty musette bag at him, by the straps, smacking him in the face and knocking his spectacles off. Then he charged off into the trench, shouting and singing the verses of a battle song:
“The air is pure, the road is wide/The bugler sounds the charge . . .”
He disappeared into the falling night, and then all was silent. The next day we found his body, riddled with bullets, along the trench.
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