Boirault machine | Battle of Festubert | May 18 1915

It’s the turn of the French to trial a ridiculous impractical machine, the Ottomans prepare to attack ANZAC Cove, and a British sergeant has a story about shell shock.

Boirault machine

The French have just finished trialling another in their series of prototype landships. This time it’s a truly ridiculous construction called a Boirault machine, which looks like nothing so much as a giant travelling bridge girder and would have been about as useful. The response from the Army is “non, merci”, but Monsieur Boirault quickly begins lobbying to be allowed to build another prototype.

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Battle of Festubert

The BEF’s activities today are aimed at straightening their lines and getting the best possible final jumping-off points for an attack to bite and hold Festubert itself. Sergeant Gordon Fisher of the 1st Hertfordshires has a rather harrowing story from the battle.

I went further along and looked into the next dug-out and there was a Guardsman in there. They talk about the psychology of fear. He was a perfect example. I can see that Guardsman now! His face was yellow, he was shaking all over, and I said to him, ‘What the hell are you doing back here? Your battalion is out in front. What are you doing back here?’ He said, ‘I can’t go. I can’t do it. I daren’t go!’

Now, I was pretty ruthless in those days and I said to him, ‘Look, I’m going up the line and when I come back if you’re still here I’ll bloody well shoot you!’ Of course I had plenty to do because you had to reconnoitre the line and reverse the defences, so it took quite a while to get that going, and when I came back, thank God, he’d gone.

He was a Coldstream. A big chap six foot tall. He’d got genuine shell shock. We didn’t realise that at the time. We used to think it was cowardice but we learned later on that there was such a thing as shell shock. Poor chap, he couldn’t help it. It could happen to anybody. But at that time you either did your job or you didn’t. There was no halfway house. I’ve seen chaps go, but I’ve never seen anybody go like that. It was horrible.

A day or two later we heard that a Guardsman had been shot for cowardice. I often wondered if it was that chap.

We can put this to bed very quickly; it wasn’t. Nobody from the Coldstream Guards was executed during the war. There are a number of possibilities here. It may simply have been what the ANZACs call a furphy, a baseless latrine rumour. It may have been that a man had had a death sentence commuted, and that important point got lost as the news circulated. Or it might just have been late-arriving news of Guardsman Isaac Reed of the Scots Guards, shot near St Omer on the 9th of April for desertion.

Gallipoli

With the threat to Constantinople now receding fast, the Ottomans on Gallipoli have received good reinforcements, experienced men from the Constantinople garrison. Colonel Mustafa Kemal’s staff have paid particular attention to intelligence reports from Second Krithia. They’ve noted the presence of ANZACs among the MEF’s dead.

It’s a simple deduction to guess that therefore there are now fewer men at ANZAC Cove. Additionally, they’ve noticed that the enemy’s transports have mysteriously disappeared in the last few days, hiding from torpedo-boats and submarines. The thought that this might be a good time to attack is shared by General Liman von Sanders, and today sees final preparations to launch a night attack early tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the ANZACs themselves have noticed that today’s artillery fire has been rather less intense than usual. Suspicious Antipodean minds begin whirring in the trenches, and not just there. Their superiors finally have support from a healthy quantity of RNAS and French Navy seaplanes. Although the Ottomans have tried to move up by night, they’ve been spotted while trying to hide during the day.

Kenneth Best

Meanwhile, at Cape Helles, Kenneth Best keeps on keeping on. He’s after some rather important supplies.

Go to see Hall re. Communion wine. Like a stupid old woman, he showed a bit of temper. Meet Chaplin, who is also after wine. We go together to a French hospital, where a dear old cure supplies us with two bottles of red. He fairly bustled around to find them. In afternoon, go to East Lancs Brigade HQ. Find man just killed by shell. Take corpse (R. Pinder) to W Beach Cemetery. Meet cart there and bring luggage from field ambulance. On what a thin thread life hangs!

Shells were getting near direct road. I still wanted to take that route, but gave way. Matter hardly settled before half a dozen shells burst on road just where we should have been. Got back to HQ, had a grilling from hot shrapnel.

It’s not just Best who’s finding it hot. Sir Ian Hamilton, on top of everything else, has had to deal with the wounding of two senior officers; General Birdwood only lightly, but General Bridges more seriously. This, incidentally, is an excellent example of why it’s wrong to simply knee-jerk condemn generals on the Western Front for setting up shop well clear of the trenches where they couldn’t easily go to see what was happening. On Gallipoli there isn’t room to do this, and even the brassiest of hats isn’t proof against a whizz-bang.

Louis Barthas

Having had a long, hard, cruel winter, Louis Barthas was hoping for a period of rest. Sadly, he’s now got something new to complain about.

We thought we might have merited a good month of rest, but that wasn’t the impression of our big bosses. The very day we were supposed to leave for rest, we made a half-turn back towards the front, and after an hour’s march we arrived at Mazingarbe-les-Brebis, welcomed at the entry to the village by a volley of flares.

This big village, very near the front lines, still had almost all its inhabitants, even though the shells sometimes claimed victims. We stayed there for about two weeks. Since we couldn’t do exercises or drills by daylight, they had us doing forced marches at night, to keep our legs from getting rusty. Furthermore, every other day we were on alert, packs hoisted, ready to leave for the trenches at the first signal.

It was at Mazingarbe that they took away our red trousers and dark-blue coats, and dressed us in new sky-blue uniforms.

The process of outfitting the Army in horizon blue is almost complete.

Actions in Progress

Defence of Van
Battle of Ypres (Second Ypres)
Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
May 14th Revolt
Shell Crisis
Battle of Festubert

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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