Another important day in the Brusilov Offensive. To this point I’ve been mostly focused on the fighting around Lutsk, at the very north of the offensive. Territorial gains elsewhere have, for the most part, been bloody and slow and hard-won, not nearly as dramatic as what’s been going on in the north. Today is a very important day. Down in the far south of the offensive, near the Carpathian foothills, the Russian 9th Army has been turning the screw on the Austro-Hungarian Seventh. With plentiful reserves, there’s every chance that the defenders could have held the line of the River Dniester and ground the attacks down into dust.
But plentiful reserves, as I’ve been mentioning on more than one occasion, simply don’t exist. The tiny general reserve is gone, long since committed to fighting elsewhere. So too now is the Seventh Army’s own strategic reserve. Their decision-making has already been compromised due to the lack of reserves. Now they’re going to give up the Dniester and fall back on Czernowitz, an important provincial capital (today it’s the western Ukrainian city Chernivitsi). This is a big, big problem for the Central Powers’ current situation.
We now have armies at both ends of the Austro-Hungarians’ part of the Eastern Front falling back. Now the two armies in the middle, who up until now haven’t been doing too badly for themselves, are going to have to start falling back as well to keep in touch. And they’re going in the general direction of Lvov, which has already been captured and liberated once. To brutally mangle a quotation: to lose Lvov once is unfortunate, to lose it twice is careless in the extreme. Admittedly, the war is about 75 miles away at the moment, but general retreats on the Eastern Front have proven rather harder to stop than to start.
Considerable consternation is now spreading through Vienna. Conrad von Hotzendorf has already removed one division from the Italian front. By the end of today’s discussions with General von Falkenhayn, he’ll be drawing up orders to remove at least one more and to begin winding down the Battle of Asiago. As for von Falkenhayn, his gruntle is now very firmly dis-ed. Yesterday his men on the Western Front began another incredibly bloody offensive at the Battle of Verdun, pushing forward towards Fort Souville. If this continues, he’ll have to send men east as well. He could even be forced to start winding Verdun down before he’s ready to do so.
Russian higher command isn’t too much better off, mind you. The northwestern army group under General Evert was supposed to be planning an attack to support the Brusilov Offensive. If they don’t attack, and soon, it’s quite possible that the Germans will conduct some clever re-organisation of their men and create a force that can attack Brusilov’s advance in its northern flank and bring them to a very quick and very undignified halt. Unfortunately, Evert and his subordinates are in the middle of a canine crime wave. Dogs, it seems, are eating everybody’s homework.
Amidst a flood of such terrible excuses, their attack must be delayed until the 17th. Soon enough it’ll be delayed again to early July. The target of the main thrust is being switched back and forward and side to side and then back again, making staff work all but impossible. The hoarding of artillery shells in ammunition dumps continues apace. No attention at all is being paid to the tactics General Brusilov is using to gain success, much less looking at areas where those methods have failed to continue learning.
They are at least giving up two corps from their general reserve to reinforce the south-west army group, but this is rather like if a mate asks to borrow £100 and you give him 50p. More to follow.
Meanwhile, we’ve got the latest in a never-ending series of Anglo-French conferences to cast our eyes over. This one is a political conference in London, concerning itself mostly with grand strategy. The French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has a new angle for advancing his pet project of an attack out of Salonika to liberate Serbia. There is also a fresh pair of ears at the conference, incidentally, and these might just be more receptive to Briand, for reasons which will become clear in the fullness of time. For now, suffice it to say that Lord Kitchener’s place as minister of war has been filled by David Lloyd George.
Anyway. Since the opening of the Brusilov Offensive, it’s become clear that the Romanian government is watching with interest. The possibility that the Romanian Army, some 650,000 men strong, might be convinced to join the war, is a highly promising one. So now Briand is arguing that an offensive this autumn out of Salonika is just the inducement the Romanians will need to get stuck in. Still committed to Wully Robertson’s France-first advice, the suggestion once again meets with a firm “no”.
General Joffre is also present, speaking with eloquence on the need to relieve the pressure at Verdun by attacks on all fronts. This, of course, is his attempt to undermine General Sarrail by cynically advocating an attack but without giving it any extra resources. (It is of course necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.) In his memoirs Lloyd George is happy to credit himself with immediately seeing through this ploy. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt on this. However, it would be easier to do that if the next passage didn’t go off on the rather odd theme of “what if we’d sent a thousand guns to Russia to join in the Brusilov Offensive?”, a hilariously impractical suggestion which is best answered with flatulence.
I bring this up because (spoilers) this will not be the highest office achieved by Lloyd George during the war, and this will not be the last time we’ll have cause to look at his memoirs. Anyway.
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Up at the front, General Currie has finished a plan of attack to retake the heights at Mont Sorrel and Hill 61 with considerable cunning. It’s heavily based on the “Behaviour Modification” artillery techniques first used on Gallipoli, and then refined on the Western Front at The Bluff. Today, and for the next four days, the Canadian guns will fire at various times a short, heavy bombardment about 25 minutes long (and never exactly the same). The men will then wave their rifles in view with bayonets fixed, cheer loudly, and hit the enemy trenches with indirect machine-gun fire. Just as they would if they were actually attacking.
The idea, of course, is to get the Germans used to the idea that the Canadians are going to do this from time to time, and then catch them with their lederhosen lowered. We’ll be back.
E.S. Thompson has plenty to entertain himself with as he waits in hospital for his leg to get better.
Saw an aeroplane out scouting and dropping smoke bombs over the enemy position. On its return, was greeted with heavy fire from rifles and machine guns, but it continued flying unpeturbed. When the aeroplane descended the Germans put 2 shells into the aerodrome.
Had a shave and changed my shirt. Leg getting better, did not hurt so much when getting it dressed. Read ‘Illustrated Star’ of May 6th about Dublin Rebellion. Lunch of boiled meat and sweet potatoes. Short ration. Afternoon passed uneventfully. Tea as usual. Spent a fair night. Several wounded of the 7th and 8th Regiments brought in.
Once again I am astounded by the feats of logistics needed to get mail and news out to the people here in such a timely fashion. I wonder if he also knows that all but one of the leaders of the Easter Rising have since been tried by court-martial, without defence counsel, sentenced to death, and shot. (Shooting is apparently not good enough for Roger Casement, who is in prison under suicide watch pending trial for high treason.)
Emilio Lussu has now arrived on the Asiago plateau, and eventually washed up on Mount Spill. Just getting there has been an adventure, complete with changes of orders and and encounters with bloodthirsty colonels from other regiments. Attached to a knot of Alpini who are stubbornly holding a series of positions here, he’s once more bumped into the lieutenant-colonel he met a few days ago, who was so astounded to meet a teetotal officer that he made a note of it. They fall into conversation; the colonel speaks first.
“I defend myself by drinking. It’s more than a year now that I’ve been fighting in this war, and I’ve yet to look a single Austrian in the face. Yet we go on killing each other every day. Killing without even knowing each other, without even seeing each other! It’s horrible. That’s why we’re all drunk all the time. Have you ever killed anyone? You, personally, I mean.”
“I hope not.”
“Me, nobody. I mean, not anyone I’ve seen. But if we all, by common agreement, a solemn promise, stopped drinking, maybe the war would end. … Quite often our own artillery pounds us into the ground, shelling us instead of the enemy.”
“The Austrian artillery fires on its infantry all the time, too.”
“Naturally. The technique is the same. Abolish the artillery and the war goes on. But try to abolish wine and liquor. Just try it. Try it.”
“I’ve already tried it.”
“An insignificant and deplorable personal matter. …”
He stood up. He pulled out a book from under a pile of papers. He shook it in front of my face and asked me, “What book is this? Guess. What book?”
[Lussu fails with several guesses.]
The colonel shoved the title page under my eyes. I read it. ‘The Art of Making Your Own Liquor’.
“You see what I mean. With this damn mountain war we can’t even carry two bottles with us. This way I can make as much as I want. There’s a big difference between distilled alcohol and the powdered stuff. But this is better than nothing.
“A rare art”, I said.
“Rare”, he repeated. “Believe me, it’s worth every bit as much as the art of war.”
Through their binoculars, they can watch the fighting on the next mountain over.
Roussel was killed yesterday with ten others. One shell did it. Day spent in getting straightened out. The sector is a maze with German lines above and below. Mean sandy ground, saps not very safe, can be shelled from all directions.
We have pioneers with us who direct the work. A great improvement over past conditions when school teachers, business men, watchmakers tried their hands at the mining job and were the laughing-stock of the farmers and laborers. This place is all sand on rotten granite. The trenches are braced with planks all along the front. In the rear there are constant slides, bags filled with dirt tumbling down at the least provocation. A fine view down the valley, except for the three villages riddled with shots. Patrols are possible in places.
They came to our wires a few days ago and placed a poster telling about the great German naval victory. We placed another in their wires, telling them what is what and more in French and German.
It is a bad time to be a correspondent on this blog, apparently.
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