Offensives in Anatolia
We begin today with a return to the Russo-Ottoman fighting on the Caucasus front. Quick recap: the Ottomans have sent significant reinforcements to this front to oppose General Yudenich’s Army of the Caucasus. When the process is complete, they’ll then have two separate armies on this front (Second and Third) and be able to launch an offensive to push the Russians back towards Sarikamis. Indeed, Third Army recently gave the Russians a bloody nose and is now looking to follow it up with another firm punch.
It’s an adroit plan, with only three minor drawbacks. First, minister of war Enver Pasha has not seen fit to appoint an army group commander to ensure that Vehip Pasha and Izzet Pasha, the two commanding generals, are pulling on the same rope. Second, while Third Army is back to something vaguely near its strength before the Erzurum Offensive, Second Army currently has only two out of a planned four corps in theatre. Third, and most importantly, General Yudenich has no intention of allowing his enemy time to get themselves sorted out.
He’s spent the last little while planning a fresh offensive. Facing a weakened enemy, he now doesn’t need to do anything sneaky or risky like advancing through almost-impassable mountains during winter. The basic strategic concept here is simple and very resistant to contact with the opposition. This time he’s looking to thrust out of Erzurum towards Bayburt and then to the Third Army’s new headquarters at Erzincan. This new offensive is due to go in at the start of July. Which is annoying, because we’ll be just slightly distracted with the Western Front in early July, but I’ll try to check back in here as soon as possible.
Battle of the Somme
In preparation for the French contribution to the Battle of the Somme, General Foch is now writing a long doctrinal memo for general distribution. He’s still one of the French Army’s most respected tactical thinkers, and there are a number of interesting thoughts here when compared to how the BEF will be attacking. He begins by insisting that no infantry assault take place without proper artillery preparation.
The infantry, having no shock action, cannot attack in a mass formation. The number [of men attacking] is no indication of the power of its action. Real combat is a struggle of long duration. To conduct it to the decisive result, the infantry must be able to endure. Commanders must conduct battles with a strict economy, and ask soldiers to do only what they are capable of doing.
Yes, this is the same Ferdinand Foch who as commandant of the French Ecole Superieure de la Guerre wrote a stack of books and monographs on the need for aggressive infantry attacks and the critical value of elan and the bayonet. His memo also includes considerable battlefield advice; come 1917, the BEF will be enthusiastically adopting these ideas.
Put simply (possibly over-simply), in 1915 attacking infantry generally acted as a large group of riflemen who had a few mates tagging along to help, and they were armed with grenades or machine-guns. This is now changing. On the Somme, the French infantry is now built around its grenadier squads. The hand grenade has been recognised as a crucial weapon when fighting in the trenches, because it can be thrown over the lip of the trench and then back down on the other side of a zig-zag. (This negates some of the advantage of digging zig-zag trenches, which are built that way so that one infantryman can’t fire one rifle bullet down 300 yards of trench and shoot multiple men.) Grenades can also be thrown into dugouts and other such points of resistance to encourage the enemy to surrender.
So now the French infantry’s platoon and squad-level tactics are entirely based around protecting their grenadiers. Riflemen defend them at short range, fighting hand-to-hand or with short-range rifle fire. Machine-gunners defend them at medium range, and then called-in fire from one’s own trench mortars and field guns defend them at long range.
Now, quite a few individual BEF low-ranking officers have noticed how valuable
grenades bombs are, especially when they find themselves under attack without any. Quite a few battalions will go into battle on the Somme with orders for rifle and machine-gun squads to deliver the grenadiers bombers onto the enemy. However, thesee thoughts are not quite obvious enough yet for any red-tabbed generals to have noticed them. Don’t worry, in a month or two they’ll have it good and figured out! Mostly. Sort of.
Use of tanks
You might recall that there are two schools of thought about when tanks should first be used by the BEF. General Haig approves, but he appears to be almost too enthusiastic, determined to see the new weapon in action as soon as possible, regardless of their numbers. The latest forecast for completion of the initial order of 150 Mark I tanks is 50 by 1st August and the rest by “early September”. Quite a lot of people, including Colonel Swinton (one of the chief minds behind the tank concept) and Colonel Hankey (secretary to the War Committee), are convinced that throwing small numbers in as soon as possible would be a huge mistake. Tanks should instead be kept back and used all at once in a large surprise attack.
About now, the Tank Supply Committee’s training area at Elveden is hosting a Frenchman usually known as Colonel Estienne, who is to French tanks as Colonel Swinton is to British ones. He’s come with the intent of getting some kind of agreement on synchronised tank production. The Schneider CA1, France’s first tank, is shaping up to be (relatively speaking) somewhat faster and lighter than the British Mark I. Estienne is proposing that this division be maintained; the Tank Supply Committee should focus on developing heavy tanks, while the French develop lighter ones.
He too is extremely concerned by the idea of the BEF throwing them in as soon as possible. His idea is to keep them secret until 1917, when the French Army will have 400 Schneiders, and then launch a combined offensive to achieve maximum surprise with the new weapon. It’s a very, very seductive idea, and we shall examine it later in more detail. For now, suffice it to say that everyone is perfectly polite to the amusing foreigner.
By day, the heat is overpowering. We are surrounded by flies and corpses which give off a nauseating smell. On the alert the whole night. Our position is critical. The ravine cannot be occupied because of the shelling. The Thiaumont works are being bombarded continuously. On the left, Bras and Mort Homme are being shelled. The morning is calmer, but at 1pm the firing starts up again. It’s a battle of extermination, Man against the Cannon.
10pm: Great commotion, red and white flares, chatter of machine-guns, thunder of artillery. 400 metres from us, a new attack is unleashed upon our lines. Every man is at his post waiting, the whole night through. Will the Boches rush us from the top of the ridge? Shells explode, all around men fall wounded. We are blinded by the shells, by the earth they throw up. It’s an inferno, one could write about such a day minute by minute. Orders to stand by arrive.
And still the main German hammer is yet to fall.
It was decided that two of us, accompanied by two sergeants and twelve men, should march to Katia, in order to re-bury and identify some of our dead. A few days after the battle these had been buried by the Australian Light Horse, but news had reached us that the wind had uncovered the graves in the exposed position.
At 10.30 pm, a message came through from Ismailia stating that a cyclone was approaching the Canal area at 90 miles an hour, and that our tents and huts would be blown away unless strengthened. A few minutes later every tent-peg in Kantara was being driven deeper into the sand, and the tapping of the mallets resounded throughout the camp. Everyone stood by for the expected cyclone; this, however, never arrived. It is supposed that it must have taken a different course, as, with the exception of a stiff breeze, nothing occurred.
For transport we were shown a set of a dozen untrained, wild and unharnessed camels, altogether the most savage and nasty brutes I have ever seen. They were unapproachable and snapped and gyrated and then trotted away. If a kit were fixed on they proceeded to brush it off. One or two had a rotten saddletree without any girths, bridles or head-straps there were none, only a piece of rotten rag or rope being around the animals’ heads. We had, however, already laid in a stock of the best rope we could get, and having first fitted this into the jaws of the brutes, proceeded to fix on our kit.
I was very amused at the efforts of the Turks to help us. They tied the kit actually on one camel’s neck, and our Indian bearers went one better by tying it on to his legs. However, finally we got most of our kit on board, and then the fun started. First one and then another got loose, as the servants were too weak to hold them. Soon the road was a procession of fleeing camels dropping bundle after bundle in their headlong flight. This pantomime went on for hours.
It was awfully hot. An hour later, blinded with perspiration and dust and in the last stage of exhaustion, we set out again, having done only about four miles of this terrible trek of which we had heard so much and which was now said to be worse than the other we had just finished. We plodded on … then went on in two columns, one of which got lost and did several miles too much, joining us before the dawn in time to start again. The camel pantomime continued.
This is how it was if you were an officer, and therefore merited improved treatment. I can hardly bear to think about how this march must have been for the men.
We were marched up to the trenches to carry out some work upon which an impenetrable mystery hung. They split us up as we got close to the front lines, in the middle of a pine forest called the “Bois des Chenilles” [Woods of the Caterpillars]. I don’t know why, because I never saw one specimen of this creature there. I was ordered to put myself at the disposal of the railway station at Chenilles. This station, in a clearing eight hundred meters from the front line, was filled with all sorts of entrenching materials brought up every night by the narrow-gauge Decauville trains.
But the locomotive prudently stayed at one station farther up the line, and the freight cars were hauled up at great effort by some thin and skeletal horses. The Chenilles station chief, a big-bellied slacker who never left his lair, had plenty to say to everyone, in full voice, gesticulating with an air of importance no way inferior to that of station chiefs in the biggest stations in Paris. He chewed me out because I was late, and didn’t let us go until around midnight without paying us a simple thank-you.
Ah, a mystery. J’aime a good mystery.
Evelyn Southwell is about to leave the divisional school and go back to his battalion. He’s still mourning the loss of his friend and fellow Shrewsbury School master Leslie Woodroffe in this letter to another Shrewsbury man.
He was of course, as you say, a man with a vast number of friends. One meets them constantly and unexpectedly out here, in many Battalions. He gave me very valuable help in several ways both before and after joining, and I have always felt under rather a special debt to him. Can you not imagine how gloriously placid he would be in a big bombardment?
We were all distressed at the news here, in this very composite crowd (one officer per Battalion throughout the Division), and what his loss will be to the Regiment I cannot imagine. And to Shrewsbury no less, I fear. Somehow it seems always the best that are the first to go, even if only by a miserable stroke of luck such as this.
And the war goes on.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!