Bleriot | Clemenceau | 5 Feb 1916

Louis Bleriot

Louis Bleriot is a French national hero. Most famous as the first man to fly an aeroplane across the English Channel, he’s divided his time between running the SPAD aeroplane manufacturer and expanding his business ventures in Britain. (SPAD, incidentally, is currently designing a new fighter, the SPAD S.VII, as a platform for the Hispano-Suiza engine.) When he says things, people sit up and take notice.

They especially sit up and take notice when he writes for L’homme enchaine (“The Chained Man”), which is run by the French Radical Party politician Georges Clemenceau. Clemenceau has spent the war setting himself up as a patriotic critic of the French government (he refused his invitation to join a government of national unity) and shooting frequent spitballs at them in his newspaper. The theme of Bleriot’s writing should therefore be apparent.

If I might be permitted a quick digression? The organ was originally called L’homme libre (“The Free Man”) and Clemenceau changed its name in response to wartime censorship regulations. This in turn provoked the cellist Maurice Maurechal, drafted into the French infantry, to start the most famous of all trench newspapers, the viciously satirical Le Canard enchaine (literally “The Chained Duck”; but idiomatically “the inside rumour”). Clemenceau’s newspaper is long dead; the Canard, on the other hand, is still being published today, filling the same role in French media as El Jueves in Spain and Private Eye in Britain.

Anyway. As we saw when I had a look recently at the ridiculous squabble over what should be done with that Hispano-Suiza engine, the French aircraft industry isn’t exactly in a good way at the moment. They’re being technically outclassed by the Germans, and if the Nieuport 11 (soon to go into full production) doesn’t live up to expectations, bang goes any hope of contesting German aerial superiority until at least mid-year. Bleriot’s letter is aimed squarely at the government, criticising almost everything. He pays particular attention to the exclusion of aircraft engineers and pilots from the important committees that decide aviation policy in favour of bureaucrats without hands-on experience.

A re-organisation of sorts is coming down the pipe, but it’s not too much more than re-arranging some deckchairs. There’s still no attempt to take procurement in hand, and the “experts” at GQG are still pushing their entirely misguided concept for a gigantic jack-of-all-trades plane to carry the Hispano-Suiza. More to come, but don’t expect anything too encouraging on this front for a little while.

Trebizond

In English histories, the Caucasus is a deeply neglected front of the war, and the fighting on the Black Sea coast is definitely in the overall running for “most neglected part of the war”. Quick recap; the Battle of Sarikamis around New Year 1915 was accompanied by an attack on Ardahan by a corps-sized detachment under the command of a German, usually known only as “Major Stange” or “Stange Bey”. It was repelled, presumably with heavy losses, and the front went quiet again as both sides turned their attention to fighting in Armenia.

Now the Russians are gathering a mixed army and navy force at Batum. The idea here is that they’ll advance up the Black Sea coast and generally take advantage of the Erzurum Offensive’s battles to capture several important locations on the coast. The eventual goal is Trebizond, a vital Black Sea port which sits on the ancient Silk Road. It’s also being used as an end-point for Armenian genocide victims; survivors of the gruelling death marches (of which more soon) are being drowned in the Black Sea.

The lack of information available about this part of the war is especially galling because it involves a considerable amphibious component. The image of amphibious operations in this war is of course dominated by Gallipoli, and it’s extremely annoying that we can’t properly compare it with the landings that the Russians will soon be carrying out here on the coast.

What we can figure out, just about, is that the Russians sent a force to capture Arhavi at the same time as there was fighting around Koprukoy, after which the Ottoman defenders withdrew west, across a nearby river. The Russians have sailed the pre-dreadnought battleship Rostislav, two gunboats, and a number of support ships up to the river mouth, and the flotilla spends all day giving them the beans. By tomorrow morning the Ottomans will be withdrawing again.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is still theoretically at rest, but Captain Cros-Mayrevielle isn’t having any of that nonsense.

Never was the mean, narrow-minded, hateful spirit of the captain more in evidence than during our stay at Bailleul-les-Cornailles. In the 21st Company, the number of those being punished for such infractions became so great that the field police station couldn’t hold them all, and those guarding them were so vexed that they had to complain.

Our captain was authorized to set up a special billet for those being punished. Numbering around thirty, they were parked in a kind of hangar, under the eyes of a guard detail. They came out only for exercise and various work details. There were also general measures of repression which, being of a generous mind, I won’t call acts of cowardly harassment.

Because when I think of Louis Barthas, I think “by golly, that chap certainly is of a generous mind”.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Colonel Fraser-Tytler is trying to keep morale up, but after the German capture of Frise it’s got a lot harder. He does make a quality entry in the Understatement Stakes for 1916, marked in bold.

We are in an extraordinary position. Rat-Trap Valley, as kind friends outside the trap call it. The bridges are practically made, so that things do not look quite so hopeless as they did. … We enfilade and backfilade the Hun, and judging by the replies, it seems to annoy him.

The valley is ridiculously crowded with guns, twelve being sited only eight to ten yards apart, forming two sides of a square. When we all fire together, it is pretty noisy. At night the scene is even stranger, twelve aiming lamps mixed up together, twelve guns lit up, three megaphones bellowing orders, and a real fine Dante’s Inferno of gun flashes.

Unfortunately one cannot break the gunnery law about the danger angle without suffering. We are all firing HE shells into each other’s faces, and prematures have been rather frequent. We had one particularly unlucky one; the shell exploded at the muzzle, three splinters came back through the shield and wounded fatally [three men].

They’re keeping Frise under heavy pressure, waiting for the French to counter-attack.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams describes the bit of line in which he now finds himself, at the Bois Francais. It’s almost immediately opposite a major German strong-point in front of the village of Fricourt.

if you are at Bois Francais, and look north, you have an uninterrupted view not only of both front lines running down into Fricourt valley, but of both lines running up on to the high ground north of Fricourt, and a very fine view indeed of Fricourt itself, and Fricourt Wood. From their front lines north of Fricourt the Germans had a good view of our front lines and communications in the valley. But of Bois Francais and our trenches east of it, they had no enfilade view, as all our communications were on the reverse slope of this shoulder of high ground. So as regards observation we were best off.

I’ve just turned up “Fricourt” in the index of one of my books on the Battle of the Somme. There are, um, there are a lot of references. It may be nicely bucolic right now, but this story may not end well.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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