Battle of Latema Nek | Winning by accident | 12 Mar 1916

Battle of Latema Nek

How many times have I talked already about moments when tragedy turns to farce? Ye gods, how many times in the African fighting have I talked about tragedy to farce for British Empire forces? Right since the Battle of Tanga in 1914, being attacked by angry bees, General Tighe getting himself shot in the arse. And when we left the battle yesterday, everything seemed set to follow that pattern. The South African infantry was wrecked and scattered; the South African Horse was heading for an ambush.

Tragedy does indeed turn to farce as the sun rises in the morning. But, for once, the Union Flag will not be the butt of this particular joke. It seems that the incredibly heavy casualties suffered by the 5th and 7th South Africans, and their consequent disordered retreat, have been slightly but crucially exaggerated. Lt-Col Freeth of the 7th hasn’t disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

In fact, he’s on top of Latema Hill with eighteen of his own men, plus a small assortment of scattered Rhodesians and King’s African Rifles, who against all odds made it up there during daylight and survived long enough to join him. A major and 170 more men of the 7th are up close and personal with Schutztruppe on Reata Hill. The nek itself is still firmly under Major Kraut’s control, but he’s received reports of strong enemy formations fighting hard on top of both hills. With this information, the prudent thing to do is to retreat again, and that’s what he does. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t do it on purpose, but a few hairy-arsed squaddies and askari have managed it by accident.

Furthermore, when this news reaches Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander calls off the ambush against the South African Horse. Instead of inflicting yet more casualties on an exhausted and retreating enemy, the Schutztruppe is soon conducting a general retreat of its own towards Kahe. So it is that when men go forward to sweep up any stragglers at the foot of the hills and get them heading back to Taveta, they instead find Lt-Col Freeth on top of Laterna, watching the enemy retreating before him. Presumably he’s feeling rather smug.

There’s no serious attempt at pursuit today, presumably because most of the men who would have pursued and the officers who would have commanded them are too busy pissing themselves laughing. It’s not all wine and roses for General Smuts, mind, who today issues a spectacularly two-faced declaration that the “first phase” of his campaign is over. In private he’s still moaning about the slow progress of General Stewart to the east, who’s only just crossed the River Sanya, although Stewart’s men are now moving quite a bit faster. Here’s a map: X and Y are British Empire forces, S are Schutztruppe.

Very much a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map
Very much a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map

Meanwhile, it’s a trying day for E.S. Thompson as he finds out what he missed.

Just before daylight they woke us up and we marched back to Taveta very tired. Noticed the hospital was overflowing with wounded. I am still not in love with fighting and I suppose never will be. The Colonel came in and reported that he and Major Thompson with [inaccurate number of men] respectively had occupied the hills on either side of [Latema Nek]. He told us that our section had worked splendidly.

Mr Lowden, and Archie Cohen are amongst the dead, Douglas Waugh is missing and my second cousin Signaller Thompson is wounded. Went to Mennie’s funeral about 12 o’clock. The ‘Last Post’ was being sounded all day.

Thompson eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and commanded the 2nd Transvaal Scottish (don’t laugh) in the Second World War. One wonders if he ever discovered a love, or anything like it, for fighting.

Paris Conference

The great and the good of the Entente are descending on Paris today. British, Italian, Belgian, Serbian, and Russian representatives all attend to hear General Joffre’s latest ideas. General Haig apparently did not attend, though Lord Kitchener and Wully Robertson did. Perhaps he was too busy moving British GHQ 30 miles south-west, from St Omer to Montreuil-sur-Mer. Those boxes won’t pack themselves, you know!

The need for a massive, coordinated offensive to take the pressure off the Battle of Verdun is confirmed by the conference. Interestingly, the timescale has now been moved up considerably. The BEF has been working to a start date of July 1 or thereabouts. However, it seems that now the Russians will attack on the Eastern Front in mid-May, with everyone else following on the 30th, a full month before the dates agreed by Joffre and Haig for the Battle of the Somme. Hmm.

The conference also spends an inordinate amount of time blethering on about Salonika. The Russians are trying to sell Joffre and Robertson on the idea of attacking Bulgaria, which goes down like a cup of cold sick. Then everyone squabbles about the possibility of removing some men from the Birdcage. After much conversation they’ve decided, again, to do nothing until the Serbian Army is recovered and ready to fight again.

Eastern Front

Let’s now get back to the Eastern Front for a moment, shall we? On the 1st, we found Tsar Nicholas II ordering an immediate offensive to give the enemy something other than Verdun to think about, and the various army commanders all grasping frantically for excuses not to. Nevertheless, when the monarch says “Jump”, there will always be people ready to answer “How high, Sire?”

The situation is actually quite a bit better for Russia than the pronouncements of its commanders might have you believe. They’ve been gradually feeding in reinforcements for six months; not particularly well-trained ones, but reinforcements nonetheless. (And it’s not like Germany and Austria-Hungary have the time right now to extensively train any of their freshly-conscripted men before sending them off to war.) There’s now nearly enough rifles to go around and enough ammunition to fire them in anger.

There’s even a plan, of sorts, from the Tsar’s chief of staff General Alekseyev. The Russian Northwest and West army groups will each launch an offensive against the German Tenth Army, which is now significantly outnumbered. Since the advance into what they called Courland (in this context “Courland” generally refers to areas of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, far larger than the historic region), the front has got a great deal wider, and Tenth Army is now dangerously over-stretched.

The main attack will come from the West group, marching through the Lake Naroch region towards Vilnius. From the Northwest group will come a supporting attack southwest from Jekabpils towards Kaunas and Vilnius. The Southwest army group, opposing mostly Austro-Hungarians, has also been ordered to assist, although no reinforcements are being provided. After some wrangling they’ve all agreed to begin artillery preparation on the 16th and attack on the 18th.

I have but one observation. The initial battles for the West group are planned to come around Lake Naroch. The name given to this operation by history is “Lake Naroch Offensive”. I am not sure that this is a good sign, although I suppose it was for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has arrived in Boghazliyan, where he takes his leave of Captain Shukri, who now will return to Yozgat.

As we had asked, he entrusted the leadership of our caravan to a reliable [person], who would take us to Kayseri.

Barely had word gotten out that a caravan had arrived than some emaciated Armenian orphans came to linger around our building. For the first time since our departure from Cankiri, we were encountering survivors of the massacres. We spent an anxious night here, then at dawn departed for Kayseri. Everybody, Captain Shukri and all the Jandarma accompanying us, had said “If you can survive the trek to Kayseri, don’t be afraid from there on.”

They of course hold a document requiring the Jandarma to inform Constantinople of their arrival in Kayseri en route to Der Zor.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley’s heroic efforts to keep his morale up at the Siege of Kut continue.

Rain fell last night and again early this morning. This is bad for the river. Then we heard the sound of distant artillery, which increased to the subdued throb of gun-fire far away. But this was drowned in the grander music of a thunderstorm. I did my rounds and straightened up pay books, etc., in the office, and then played chess.

Last night we felt what we believed to be an earthquake, but which proved to be the sappers trying to dynamite fish in the river, which experiment was completely unproductive.

“Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot…”

Louis Barthas

Let’s finish on an encouraging note today. Private Louis Barthas discovered that he had his rank removed for “setting a bad example”, according to the commandant. This enrages him; by all means, take his rank for hating war and the military, or for being too Socialist in the trenches, but don’t take it from him for a lie about his personal character. And then he thinks again. He doesn’t want to be a corporal, after all. Nor does he want to give Cros-Mayrevielle or Quinze-Grammes the pleasure of knowing he’s been hurt by their actions. Maybe he should drop it after all.

And then…

All my comrades begged me to protest, to give a humiliating lesson to the captain. Corporals offered to turn in their stripes in an act of protest. Deeply moved, I dissuaded them from doing this. Finally, when I left, all hands were stretched out to me, and I saw tears welling up in the eyes of comrades. All these promises of support truly touched me, and this fortified me to resolve to ask for a hearing with Colonel Douce.

From victim I would turn accuser against Captain Cros, for having forced men to work in a trench exposed to machine gun fire, without it being absolutely necessary. … I had to postpone my request for a hearing. The regiment was dispersed, the colonel was still at the front lines (not at an outpost), and finally we were pulling up stakes and shifting back and forth to make room for the English.

A lot of marching follows, including one march through Crecy, some 550 years (give or take a few months) since the Anglo-French battle in the Hundred Years’ War.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is fast learning how to moan like a soldier, if nothing else. He’s now resting at Bouxieres and takes in his new command.

I have four sub-lieutenants; a former sergeant who is strong but simple; a wine-barrel of a butcher; a commercial traveller from Marseilles; and a steam-boat pilot who can’t say one word without swearing.

At mealtimes, two sergeants (why are they there?) come to join the group. The mess has a reputation for gambling and drunkenness. My comrades pity me; my superiors are counting on me to raise morale. So I start by sending the two sergeants to the NCOs’ mess. That will make two drunkards less with us.

Put your foot down, bro. We’re right behind you. (About 35 miles behind you.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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