Battle of the Somme
Delville Wood has now been almost entirely recaptured by the Germans. A couple of hundred men of a single battalion are clinging to a tiny slice of the south-western corner of the wood. Their commanding officer, Lt-Col Thackeray, is still alive, just about.
Urgent. My men are on their last legs. I cannot keep some of them awake. They drop with their rifles in hand asleep in spite of heavy shelling. We are expecting an attack. Even that cannot keep some of them from dropping down. Food and water has not reached us for two days—though we have managed on rations of those killed, but must have water. I am alone with Phillips, who is wounded, and only a couple of sergeants. Please relieve these men today without fail as I fear they have come to the end of their endurance.
We are now at that point we’ve seen on a very few occasions before; men reaching the absolute end of their endurance and falling asleep even while under direct attack. As it happens, a brigade has been plucked out of the rear and ordered forward with two objectives; relieve the South Africans, and then push back into the wood. They’ve not been expecting to go to Delville Wood. Nobody knows the ground; officers have, if they’re lucky, had only the quickest glance at the map before setting off.
The result is absolute slaughter; first from the artillery, then from the machine guns, then from rifle fire, then from grenades and bayonets, and finally from the snipers. It’s hard enough for them to get forward to relieve the South Africans, never mind attacking anything.
Battle of Fromelles
And then there was Fromelles. Ordered by waffling commanders who didn’t want to take responsibility. Sanctioned by a corps commander who knew the men he proposed to use were either hopelessly green, or medically unfit, or both. Unchallenged by divisional commanders who should have known better. Planned by inexperienced staff officers who could barely plan their way out of a paper bag. Supported by a hopelessly inadequate prepatory barrage. Against one of the strongest German positions in France. Before the attack the Germans put a sign on their barbed wire. “ADVANCE AUSTRALIA, IF YOU CAN”.
The only thing it has going for it is the possibility that General von Falkenhayn has never quite shed his belief that perhaps the Somme is just a giant diversion and the real summer offensive is going to be somewhere near Loos or Aubers Ridge. Perhaps the hopeless slaughter of men who would not have achieved anything of importance even by capturing their objectives might have an argument in its favour if it had caused the Germans to hold back significant reserves from the Somme.
Within days, an entire German corps will be leaving this sector for the Somme. Early in the morning there are a few moments when it seems like the Australian 5th Division is getting somewhere. Turns out that the Sixth Army has been drilling its men in new defence-in-depth techniques as a direct reaction to this kind of bite-and-hold attack. They don’t fight tooth and nail right away, disputing every inch of ground; they roll with the punch and fall back. (General von Falkenhayn would, I’m sure, be outraged.) The 5th Division captures a few trenches, has a solid lodgement for an hour or two, and then takes a kicking as counter-attacks hit them from left and right.
At the same time, enemy companies pour out of bypassed dugouts and begin shooting them from behind. The Australians are too new to have a hope of “mopping up” a trench effectively. On they other hand, they are very willing to get stuck in with grenade and bayonet. At the end of the day, although most of the 61st Division has been shot down in No Man’s Land, the ANZACs are holding a lodgement in the German line. So of course we’re going to have to follow up this success tomorrow, based on the inevitable inaccurate reports being passed back to the Brains Trust. Thank God we’ve got a Navy.
Oh yeah, and there was that instruction from the Chief that somebody needs to attack Pozieres. There’s a preliminary bombardment already underway. If General Gough had had his way, the Australian 1st Division would already be attacking, but General Walker flatly refused to send his men into action without extensive artillery preparation. We’ll have the time and the space to consider the plan tomorrow. Gallipoli veterans are already marching up the hill towards the fortified village, on a road rapidly deteriorating from the wear of all the boots travelling along it, tens of thousands of men.
And that’s without considering the enemy shelling, and the rain, and the horse-carts, the buses, and the staff cars.
Battle of Erzincan
Once again, it’s a real blast of fresh air to look over to the Caucasus and seeing a proper job of work being carried out. The Russians are capturing embarrassing quantities of supplies as their guards simply disappear into the hills. Many of their men are tired after hard fighting, but it doesn’t take much strength to march forward along a road and then appropriate some food an abandoned depot. The final advance on Erzincan is now underway, but there is one spanner in the works; advancing from Kotur, the men will need to cross the River Euphrates.
Unhappily, the retreating enemy has destroyed a medieval bridge, the only bridge for miles around. The Russians do have some extremely resourceful engineers, though; they’re already hard at work bodging together a temporary wooden structure. To the north, their comrades are advancing on an important subsidiary objective, Kelkit. It guards both a bridge over the River Kelkit, and the eastern end of a good-quality track leading west into central Anatolia, which after many hundreds of miles finishes up near Samsun and Ankara…
Thirty minutes before dinner, a heavy shell landed near our kitchen, and the cook went “looney” from shell shock. After rushing wildly about, he went to ground in a covered-in sap. No-one could get him out. I tried to coax him out by crawling in with a biscuit, a sergeant grasping my legs to pull me out in case he bit me. Eventually we had to take the roof off, and he was tied up and sent off.
This shell shock is a funny business; no-one can quite explain why it affects some and not others. I would describe the feeling as a severe knock-out blow on both sides of the head at once. Having been twice during the last few days half-buried by shells bursting on the parapet, I can claim a practical knowledge of it.
The Army Medical Corps has been trying as hard as it possibly can to get a handle on why men are suffering mental breakdowns. The name “shell shock” comes from the not-unreasonable hypothesis that it is a mainly physical injury. The theory goes that the brain can be injured by being close to the shockwave from a bursting shell. However, shell shock casualties have been rising sharply over the last month; up to 40% of all BEF sick and wounded during the battle. And not all of them are from men who have been close to explosions. They can’t all be malingering. Perhaps this explanation will not do.
Hickey saved the remnants of our dinner and finished the cooking, though everything was covered in earth by the same shell which had done for the cook, or at least his nerves. … Towards evening, hostile gas-shelling increased and made observation almost impossible. None of our linesmen got hit, but there was a lot of trouble all round, and the Bantam Battalion in the front line had a bad time.
“…had a bad time” must surely be a candidate for understatement of the war. Coal-mining areas had been particularly full of short, powerful men ready to fight for King and Country, but who were slightly shorter than regulation height. Special Bantam battalions were formed, and there’s now so many of them that two divisions (the 35th and 40th) have been formed mostly from Bantam battalions. It’s the 35th who are now in the line in front of Fraser-Tytler, and they are now under the pressures of the Somme suffering a serious wave of indiscipline. There will be a lot of courts-martial over the next month or so, which I’ll pick up if space permits.
A “bantam”, by the way, is a small breed of chicken with a notoriously amusing aggressiveness display; the name is from Bantam, an Indonesian port, which had its own breed of comedy small chickens. This is also where the “bantamweight” weight class in combat sports comes from. And the Germans do seem to be on a good thing with this concept of using gas to annoy the enemy’s artillery, don’t they?
The Brigadier and General Commanding the Third Section dined with us at night. In the middle of dinner they both received urgent messages and were compelled to leave; intelligence had come through that a force of Turks had collected at El Abd and was advancing towards us. There were 8,000 at El Abd, and our patrols had also been engaged at Oghratina. Several infantry regiments reinforced us from the other side of the Canal during the night.
His services as a medical man may soon be required.
Bobby came to see me and told me Mac is starting on a 150 mile trek tomorrow. Melted some fat and made dough-boys. … Nos. 3 and 4 guns on headquarters guard tonight. Received a letter. Settled down and had a read. Paddy brought some poles for firewood and got some bread and dripping to take back to those of our mess on guard. I also had some. MacGregor came in with Bobby to say goodbye. His guns are leaving for Dodoma district tomorrow. After chatting some time he went and I read a bit then went to sleep.
Yesterday we mentioned that General van Deventer is ready to ride in pursuit of Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. If he can muster enough fit men, and that’s a very big if, he’s got the mobility to get something done. But of course, first the South Africans must find the enemy…
Yes, another new correspondent. Yes, another sodding subaltern. What’s new about this guy? Well, for one thing, in civilian life he was a journalist and poet who moved on the outskirts of the Bloomsbury set, whose members will be so very important in setting the tone of future British discussion of this war. He’s also from a rather unusual background for an officer; he grew up in Tottenham, attended some extremely obscure private schools, and didn’t go to university. Instead, he spent a decade in his father’s brick business before moving into journalism. Probably not the social background that would have got him a commission in 1914.
Max Plowman has also held pacifist views for most of his life. It was with great reluctance that he applied in 1914 to be a Territorial medic, like Oskar Teichman. Then the Army’s short of officers; he sticks his hand up like a good lad; he’s been commissioned into the 10th Green Howards (at the time, officially the “Yorkshire Regiment”). Now he’s at Charing Cross station, trying not to make an unauthorised deposit into the seat of his uniform. His battalion is part of XV Corps and has taken heavy losses on Bazentin Ridge. “Another load of death warrants” said the adjutant, handing out orders for France.
Beyond the barrier lie the trains: long black sleeping snakes. We disregard them, as if they were not. They are public servants that have be come our masters. We turn away from them because we know that in this scene they are the chief instruments of destiny. I am hideously self-conscious. One half of me is tunic, belt, puttees, badges, revolver, a figure hoping it presents an approved appearance in the public eye and faintly flattered by the sense of voluntary heroism; the other is a mind seething.
This mind has become like a cloud brooding above my body, so full of violence and revolt that constant effort is required to keep it suppressed.
And apparently Plowman wishes to paint a Great Literary Portrait. We’ll see how long that lasts once he gets up the line, shall we?
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