Beaumont | Woevre | Verdun | 24 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Germans continue rolling carefully but slowly forwards, now beginning to nuzzle up against what a week ago had been the third French defensive position. Here and there the French Army organises determined stands, most particularly at Beaumont, where concentrated machine-gun fire holds the enemy off for hours. But by and large it’s a fourth straight day of retreating. The MSPaint map…

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

And, at last, the centime has finally dropped back at GQG. Perhaps it was a good night’s sleep, or a good afternoon’s lunch, that helped General Joffre finally accept that his assumptions were completely wrong and that the Battle of Verdun is no preliminary poke. Or perhaps it’s a string of messages sent by General de Langle as the situation continues to deteriorate today. They finish with a telephone call at 7pm. de Langle informs his boss that on his own authority he’s ordering the men east of Verdun to abandon the Woevre plain and fall back on Verdun and the Meuse Heights. He also mentions that he’s considering abandoning the east bank of the river altogether.

There’s some divergence here when discussing what Joffre made of all this. Quite a few times I’ve seen the Chief described as being somewhat ambivalent towards the fate of Verdun, prepared to abandon it altogether if he thinks he could survive the political fallout. This does not accord with an order he gave to de Langle tonight. While approving of a withdrawal from the Woevre, he makes it quite clear that the forts on the east bank are still highly defensible positions, now that they’re part of a modern trench network, and are to be defended.

Late tonight, General Joffre is in bed; but Paris and M. Etienne will have no reassurance today. General Castelnau has woken his boss with an urgent message. Exactly what was said and how it was said is disputed, and boringly disputed at that. Suffice it to say that in short order, the Chief is back in dreamland. However, he’s taken two important decisions. Castelnau will go to Verdun with full authority to take the situation in hand himself. And, to stiffen the defences, General Petain and his spare Second Army is to be taken off training duty and immediately sent to Verdun. Of course, first Petain must be located, of which more tomorrow.

Africa

General Smuts has now completed his quick tour of the front, and officially reports that he’s confident of being able to implement Smith-Dorrien’s plan for twin attacks on Kilimanjaro and Taveta. War Office approval soon arrives and he’s only waiting for the last of his South Africans to arrive in theatre before launching his offensive.

Meanwhile, one of his subordinates has committed the dastardly crime of not agreeing wholeheartedly with Smuts’s optimism. General Stewart commands what’s left of Indian Expeditionary Force “C”; an experienced and respected man, he’s worried about a number of things. For one, he’s worried about how the South Africans are going to co-exist with Indian and African allies when they’re being loudly and openly racist about them. (Apparently the Baluchis’ zinger with the machine gun at Salaita Hill, if it happened, hasn’t had the desired effect.)

Currently at Longido, the Indians’ job will be to conduct a long and exhausting south-east march to Moshi, just to the south of Mount Kilimanjaro and due east of Taveta, and then proceed to Kahe to cut the Northern Railway and destroy the Schutztruppe’s mobility. Stewart is deeply concerned that Smuts hasn’t allowed nearly enough time for his men to complete their march, over incredibly inhospitable country and with no chance of having a reliable supply line back to Longido.

However, all that Stewart has achieved by expressing his reasonable concerns is to offend his boss. I for one am shocked and appalled that Smuts, a man who’s going to spend the next 30 years liberally fertilising the soil in which apartheid grew, isn’t overly concerned about Indians and black Africans under his command…

E.S. Thompson

While the generals squabble amongst themselves, E.S. Thompson is going out into the bush to give an apparent enemy patrol something to worry about.

Left camp 7am and marched about 3 miles into the bush. When we had our first halt we heard 2 shots so halted for some time to see what was happening, but nothing did, so we got on the march again and reached the hill (to the north) at 9.45 and off-saddled till 12. I found a German cigarette tin and a few pages from a German book…we zig-zagged through the bush and got home about 2.30. Went on perimeter guard with No 4 Gun.

A whole lot of nothing, but better for the adrenaline than going on a simple route march.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler of the artillery has a new gig. He’s still near Frise, but they’ve recently re-organised the sector divisions so that Anglo-French communication isn’t being done by shouting over the River Somme any more, so everyone’s shuffled up a bit. And guess who’s been put in charge of liaison now?

I at once determined to have a private telephone line to the French headquarters, as the old method was too cumbersome. In the morning I crossed the river and found Commandant Lotte. I already knew his aide-de-camp and we soon had the details of the proposed new line fixed up. They gave me a first-class lunch of five courses in a cellar, and we then went over to visit a 75mm battery. By dark my army of telephonists had got the new line established, nearly 5,000 yards but clear as a bell.

Our correspondent now has a chance to be exposed to the French way of doing things.

The French seem very fond of using the phone. They constantly ring me up at odd hours of the night and day, often merely for a chat. My telephonists are busy learning French. Nominally I am attached to a new British group, but they do not worry about me or my doings. I just go my own sweet way and report after action.

Nice work if you can get it.

Edward Mousley

From one artillery officer to another. The brief outbreak of hope for a relief expedition at the Siege of Kut has died away now. Edward Mousley reports.

We are to remain in a state of diminishing expectancy and increasing disappointment. We acknowledge the colossal difficulties that beset our friends downstream, nor do we forget one division there has been previously decimated in France, and has many recruits. The fighting is against the pick of Turkish troops entrenched behind seas of mud.

The Mussulman soldiers here will not eat horseflesh.

“Mussulman” is like “Mohammedan”, a no-longer-used term for a Muslim.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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