Bitlis | Romani | Verdun | 5 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

In the Caucasus we have rather a curate’s egg of a battle for the Ottomans. On paper, things are going quite well. They’ve retaken Bitlis and Mus unopposed. Even better, the Russians who recently gave them a bloody nose at Ognot have continued advancing and are now about to be hideously outnumbered. General Yudenich is trying to apply the brakes, but these things take time. There’s a brief window of opportunity here to counter-punch and put the Russians in this sector of the battle onto the back foot.

But it seems nobody is interested in taking advantage of the opportunity. While the Ottoman commanders dither, Russian commanders boldly push their men forward unopposed, occupying key strategic points. A regiment of Kuban Cossacks is undertaking the most ridiculous of tasks, setting out on a 170-mile march from Erzincan over trackless mountains towards Kigi. The scale of this redeployment is a truly massive feat of logistics and flexibility; it deserves far more space and attention that I’m entirely unable to give it.

Battle of Romani

Meanwhile, at the Suez Canal. Nobody’s in particularly good shape after a few days of marching and a solid day of fighting in the Egyptian summer. However, it’s the Ottomans who are suffering more; they’re the ones who have just marched across the Sinai desert for months. Smelling victory, their opponents order fresh counter-attacks today. Let’s go see what Oskar Teichman made of the day’s fighting.

It was known that the enemy had retired eastwards through Katia, where a very strong force had been left to cover the retreat of the main army. It was now the duty of all the Mounted Brigades to “make good” the country west, north-west and south-west of Katia before an attack was launched on that place.

Everywhere we came across Turkish equipment which had been thrown away during the retreat and large numbers of killed and wounded Turks. Many of the latter were lying under the little sun-shelters, which their comrades had presumably erected for them before retiring. It was a pleasing sight to see an Australian and a Turkish Field Ambulance working side by side amongst the wounded. As we advanced slowly, more cases of sunstroke developed, and these were sent into Bir Abu Hamra, where we had already collected some Turkish prisoners.

At about two o’clock the enemy opened fire on us with shrapnel and high explosive, and as we galloped forward we soon came under rifle fire. “Action dismoun” was given, and the Brigade proceeded to line a low ridge and to open fire on the enemy, who could now and then be seen in their trenches outside Katia. The ground, being uneven, afforded us a good deal of cover, as it abounded in small hummocks and ridges.

I established my dressing station, and had just attended to some casualties when a shell exploded in the middle of our little group. I was thrown to the ground after being struck by a fragment of the shell, and realized at once that my leg was broken. I was carried back a short distance, and my orderlies dressed the wound and fixed up the leg with improvised splints. It was extraordinarily lucky that the fragment did not strike my leg “full on,” otherwise the whole foot would certainly have disappeared.

Meanwhile the enemy’s big guns in Katia were very troublesome, and some Turkish infantry with machine guns and a field gun, who had moved out of Katia towards Abu Hamra, proceeded to enfilade us in a most uncomfortable manner. I was not quite aware what happened during the next two hours, as the morphia which I had taken to allay the pain had begun to make me drowsy.

Leg broken by shrapnel? Hopped up on morphine? Mustn’t grumble. Teichman is then put on his horse and sent back to the rear; no jokes about “physician, heal thyself”, please. It’s another excellent day, one of the most successful days that any British Empire force has seen since Edward Mousley and chums were pushing a different Ottoman force back towards Baghdad in late 1915. More to follow.

Battle of Verdun

Yes, this is still a going concern. General von Knobelsdorf’s push towards Fort Souville has withered on account of lack of men, but there’s still heavy scrapping going on. The front is still moving by a hundred yards here, and fifty yards there. We drop in now on the diary of one Charles Hartley, a British civilian with the Red Cross, who’s been driving the Voie Sacree for the last month. He’s now found an excuse to go into Verdun itself and play battlefield tourist, and luck has brought him there when the German gunners are all shooting at something more urgent.

The town was full of soldiers and whole streets were in a complete state of ruins. The Cathedral itself was practically intact. The bridge across the Meuse, the entrance to which is through a Norman Gateway, has escaped the bombardment. This being my first visit to a town under bombardment I was greatly impressed with everything I saw around me. Partridge and I went into a number of shattered houses and shops, in which furniture and valuables were lying about in confused heaps everywhere.

Looting is of course forbidden and the French soldier, at any rate, knows what to expect if he is caught. Sympathetic soldiers passing along nodded to us and asked us if we had found any little ‘souvenir’. I managed to secure some good snapshots with my camera which I always carefully carried with me and produce guardedly on suitable occasions. If one goes about it in a right way and does not show a camera under the very nose of the military police, one can do a great deal, and I have often succeeded in getting French officers to tactfully look away when photographing something of interest.

Cameras at the front are, of course, strictly forbidden. Like diaries, this means that every tenth man is wielding one.

The Chief

General Haig attempts to praise the Australians, and just ends up with innuendo.

The Australians gained all their objectives north of Pozieres and beat off 3 counter-attacks. A fine piece of work.

Chortle chortle chortle. Haig has some very approving comments about the artillery arrangements, which have been adapting Behaviour Modification principles to great effect. His real work is yet to begin, though; tomorrrow he’s going to be deluged in dignitaries. General Joffre, President Poincare, the King, the Prime Minister, anyone who’s anyone will be visiting Haig’s HQ for a big extended social affair. Meanwhile, General Rawlinson prepares to have another crack at Guillemont so the dignitaries can have a success to admire.

E.S. Thompson

Off your arse! Time for the 7th South Africans and E.S. Thompson to get moving up to Dodoma.

Took our letters to the 9th Regiment’s orderly room and asked the Sergeant-Major to post our letters, which he did. Got back in time to get my kit ready and saddle up. Moved at 8.05am and did 7 miles having 2 surprise attacks on the way for practice. Lost our tent and very much fed up with the sergeant for not allowing us to use the water out of our red tins. Mean to have our own back one day. Very nice day for marching. Sky overcast. Kit inspection and a row made as the sergeants carry too many pots and pans on the motor.

The red tin contains what the quartermaster might call “water, cooling, Maxim guns, for the use of”. So no, you pillock, they’re not just going to let you drink it because you’re a bit thirsty. A few days’ uneventful marching follows.

Henri Desagneaux

Captain Henri Desagneaux is really not having much luck at all. Nancy is supposed to be a quiet bit of the line, but some gung-ho idiot has been stirring things up. Anyone know the French for “Am I as offensive as I might be?” Here is the result.

We relieve the “Marseilles” sector near Regneville. Heavy mortar fire. For the second time, my shelter, a fragile cellar, collapses. These mortar shells are causing huge damage, but the rats, bugs, and fleas are even more formidable. We live in filthy squalor. Every day the trenches are devastated. My command post is 10 metres below ground, with water streaming in from all sides. Every morning we have to bale out 10-15 bucketsful of water coming from a nearby cesspit. How damp and dark it is!

Yeah, mate. Water. From the cesspit. That’s what it is. Water. You tell yourselves that. The mental effort required to keep this up causes the captain’s diary to fall silent for a while.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has been plucked out of Etaples and sent up to the 10th Green Howards. The battalion is still recovering from a nasty kicking at Fricourt. B Company returned with one officer (who has been recommended for the Victoria Cross) and 27 men, and the rest weren’t much better off. Time to get rid of some of the silly romantic ideas about the Army that even a pacifist can pick up by cultural osmosis.

I had formed a mental picture of how a subaltern joined his regiment. First he met the adjutant, who took careful particulars of training and special qualifications. Then, with due ceremony, he was taken into another room and formally introduced to the colonel, who deigned to extend his hand and wish the young man luck. Then the colonel would follow this with some details of the battalion’s immediate history, a footnote on esprit de corps and the honour of the regiment, and finally give a few words of fatherly advice. The subaltern saluted and returned to the adjutant, who now gave the junior particulars of his company, told him how he could obtain an orderly, what were the regimental messing arrangements and any other local details.

But it does not happen like that.

As the draft reaches the top of the last hill, we are met by a sallow-faced cadaverous-looking young man on a horse, who in a Cockney accent shouts directions to the troops. He tells Hill and me we are for C Company and will report to Captain Rowley. We pick our way across the dungheap and enter a room that seems to be fulfilling nearly all the purposes of human habitation at once. Captain Rowley lies fully dressed on the sheets of one of the unmade beds, dozing. We tell him who we are and he replies in a mild friendly voice, but hardly takes a look at us; he is evidently very tired.

A moment later another subaltern, Mallow, the bombing-officer, comes in. He begins to hold a conversation with Rowley which is one of the frankest I have ever heard. It appears that on the previous evening they rode into a neighbouring town where they spent the night with women of easy affections, and now they proceed to recount the details of their adventures and discuss the possibilities of similar entertainment, with a coarseness which is without reserve. They drink big tots of whisky, but seem too dissipated to raise more than a mirthless laugh.

A British officer? Using the services of a prostitute??? Well, I’ll try to carry on with the blog. But I must confess, I’m shocked and appalled. Plowman excuses himself and goes for a walk with another new arrival, Lieutenant Hill. “We are neither of us prudes”, says our narrator, a claim so inaccurate it could be in the intelligence briefing.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is becoming downright fatalistic.

Since Wednesday last, when we were issued gas-helmets, a number of us have been expecting to go up into the firing line any moment. I wish they would send us on. I am sick of waiting. Apparently the Interpreters’ Corps or Intelligence Department are “off” and I may as well do what many better men had to do.

To fit up part of the “bull-ring” for some sports to be held, a large fatigue party of us proceeded this morning to that dreadful place. The “bull-ring” is a huge desert in the neighbourhood where the boys arriving from England get their final training, a kind of finishing school. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! Here the last remnant of individuality that may have held out hitherto is bludgeoned down and the perfect war-slave is manufactured.

Whilst I was carrying planks and tables, I marvelled at a group of Jocks that were driven around the immense ring like circus horses. Trenches barring their progress had to be taken. Each trench was supposed to be full of Huns. And the boys had to lower their bayonets and then charge the next trench “at the double.” Again and again they had to repeat the turn! If they did not shout madly enough a fat blood-curdling Sergeant Major instructed them in the real blood-curdling Red Indian War-Whoop.

Well, that sounds like the exact opposite of promising. The quotation is of course from Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the inscription over the gates of Hell. Mugge quoted it in the original Italian; once again I think it has a little more punch in this form. But, not to fret! I happen to have read ahead, and these are the last thoughts he will share with us from Tatinghem. His hopes will soon be fulfilled, and he’ll be on the move again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani

Further Reading

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2 thoughts on “Bitlis | Romani | Verdun | 5 Aug 1916

  1. Are there any of your correspondents you hold in quite as much contempt as E.S. Thompson? It seemed that for a while Neil Fraser-Tytler was heading that way, but he appears to be actually quite competent when he’s sober.

    • I will say this, I’ve never before seen a personal account from any war that so clearly comes from the company idiot, bane of his sergeants. Just wait until you see what he’s going to do on the 8th!

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