Battle of Woevre | 30 Mar 1915

In a moment, let’s go to the Verdun area and get our map on. There’s been sporadic fighting there for months, mostly in conjunction with mining efforts at Les Eparges. Mines have been almost continuously blown underneath the hill, and life there is a constant chain of struggling to occupy and re-occupy craters.

Sir Ian Hamilton

But first, Sir Ian Hamilton’s doubts about the Gallipoli adventure are not going away. Yesterday he got an extremely worrying letter from General Hunter-Weston, commanding 29th Division (of whom more later). Hunter-Weston’s assessment of the situation, such as it is, is that the entire enterprise is highly impractical. Hamilton turns to his diary.

Have just dictated a long letter to Lord Kitchener, in the course of which I have forced myself to say something which may cause the great man annoyance. I feel it is up to me to risk that. One thing – he knows I am not one of those rotters who ask for more than they can possibly be given so that, if things go wrong, they may complain of their tools. I have promised K. to help him by keeping my demands down to bedrock necessities. I make no demand for ammunition on the France and Flanders scale but – we must have some!

These are not the words of a man confident in anything. He reproduces parts of his letter, and it’s the tone of a newly-hired junior clerk addressing the Managing Director. He politely requests. He gently queries. He hedges. He looks for the positive aspects of the situation. He works within the constraints placed on him. More soon…

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Battle of Woevre

Recently I answered the question “What’s a Woevre?” Let’s go to the MSPaint map for some geographic context.

These maps will get rather more detailed as 1915 gives way to 1916.
These maps will get rather more detailed as 1915 gives way to 1916.

Remember: Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map. Metz to Verdun is about 40 miles. St Mihiel to Verdun is about 22 miles. There’s some distortion going on because north/south is where I’m going to need the space to fill things in.

So, today the French open the Battle of Woevre with an offensive right at the southern base of the salient between Pont a Mousson and Flirey, striking towards Vandieres and Thiaucourt. The strategic intent is sound and obvious. Pinch out the base of the salient, surround the Germans, retake St Mihiel, re-open the road to Verdun. However, there’s been no time to properly absorb the lessons of First Champagne, and the Battle of Woevre proceeds much as previous offensives have. Small gains, dearly priced. Still, at least it means I have something to put down at the bottom of the post.

Football

Yesterday we had the results from the FA Cup semi-final. Today’s Telegraph (page 5) sees a letter from the colonel of the Sportsmen’s Battalion, complaining about the lack of football players willing to spread their innards all over France for their country. Apparently there’s a distinct lack of patriotism amongst the men. And you thought this was a newfangled complaint about modern footballers who don’t like international duty very much!

Officer training

As we’ve seen, most recently at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the war is killing an awful lot of junior officers, in their distinctive uniforms as they attempt to lead from the front. (All armies will begin putting measures in place to remove the differences in uniform and equipment over the next year or so, with varying results.) Let’s join 2nd Lt Cushing, late of the Cambridge Officer Training Corps, and now a newly-gazetted subaltern with the 9th Norfolks.

The Cambridge OTC had not fitted me in any way to be a commissioned officer, and this fact was sharply brought home to me in the following weeks. I got very little training that was of any value. True, I shouted words of command at an obedient line of strange faces under the eye of a dear old boy. He was a white-haired sergeant-major, and I suppose he had volunteered to come back to help with training, for he was far too old to fight. I can still hear him calling to the platoon in his thick Norfolk accent. “Give me your attention naow, while the orfcer ‘ere is a-larning of ‘is wark.”

By summer 1915, the Army will have formed special new officers’ companies, and attached them to reserve brigades so that the subalterns can be trained without buggering up the training of the blokes also.

I had no command of my own until I went to France. When I did eventually join the regiment, I was given a platoon and was expected not merely to bellow commands on parade, but to know how to feed, clothe and billet sixty men. I had to know their faces and character, keep a platoon roll, attend to their needs, be responsible for their efficiency. I had to ensure the good order of their arms and equipment, and lead them through the discomforts and dangers of trench warfare.

My training fitted me for none of those things.

There’s another story that I’d like to bring out at this point. This one is from a few months ago, but it caused my eyebrows to disappear into my hairline the first time I read it. It’s still one of the scariest things I’ve ever read about the war. Lieutenant Guy Chapman sits on an FGCM for the first time.

The accused was an elderly pioneer sergeant. The charge was “being drunk in the trenches”. He was duly found guilty. As he was marched out, I hurriedly turned the pages of the Manual of Military Law, and found to my horror that the punishment was death. When the Major, as president of the court, turned to me to demand my sentence, I replied, “Oh, death, sir, I suppose.” Major Keppel blenched and turned to my opposite number, Gwinnell. Gwinnell, who was was as young and unlearned in expedience as I, answered as I had, “Death, I suppose.” Our good president looked at us from the top of his six feet and groaned “But my boys, my boys, you can’t do it!” “But Sir, we protested…it says so here.”

It was only after a moving appeal by the president that we allowed ourselves to be overborne and to punish the old ruffian by reduction in rank to Corporal in the place of executing him; but we both felt that Major Keppel had somehow failed in his duty.

I have nothing to add to that. Except possibly a small, restrained huzzah for Major Keppel.

Actions in Progress

Battle of Woevre

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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