Brusilov Offensive | Sunny Subaltern | 6 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The scale and design of the Brusilov Offensive is such that it only needs one relatively small success, quickly reinforced, to put the enemy in a whole world of hurt. Yesterday we had the small success; one Austro-Hungarian division in front of Lutsk was rudely thrown out of its trenches. This is not the Western Front. The scale of the front is such that the German system on the Somme, of three completely independent trench systems, each a few hundred lines behind the last, is impractical. They could have carried on digging for years and not completed the work for that.

And, as we also mentioned yesterday, with the Austro-Hungarians badly short of reserves, for once an attacking side is in a better position to follow up success than the defenders. The Russians are feeding more men through the trenches and turning left and right to attack the surrounding enemy from the side. It’s the kind of success that everyone in trench warfare dreams about, and few get to actually carry out. Bungling attempts at organising a counter-attack follow, and succeed only in wasting precious Army-level reserves. Yesterday it was an Austro-Hungarian division in trouble. Today it’s a corps. Tomorrow, the army? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Battle of Mont Sorrel

The Sunny Subaltern and his mates are still in extreme difficulty at the Battle of Mont Sorrel. They aren’t even trying to attack. They’re just trying to get up to where the front-line trenches should be. In theory. Right now, they’ve got almost no idea about anything they can’t see.

Some few of us managed to crouch behind a hedgerow where, once a trench, was now a shambles. Here for the first time the really hell of the war came to me. That trench, or what was left of it, was con gested with dead and dying. Men crawled along, over dead bodies distorted beyond only the ken of one who has been there. We lifted wounded men a little to one side while from each turn of the trench came the heart-rending, throaty sob of dying. Ghastly! well, I don’t suppose there s a word been coined in English to describe it.

Meanwhile, shrapnel rained on its horrible hail, high explosive lifted sandbag and bodies house-high. Everywhere men lay half buried, gasping. Some, reason fled, climbed out only to be struck down a few yards away. And all this, kept up for what seemed aeons, but really was only about three hours. One chap, since dead, said to me, “I thought these devils were running short of shells. Well, I’d like to let some of those people at home feel this.”

Feel is the right word, for you “feel” a heavy bombardment. I care not how brave a man is, I say it reduces him to the consistency of a jelly fish.

The bombardment slackens, then intensifies, then goes somewhere else, then returns, then leaves. Planes go up, and soon flyers from both sides are fighting their own battle in the air, trying to get some observation and see where the enemy’s reinforcements are. The day wears on, far too slowly.

I sat and looked at a little triangular lake shimmering in the distance, and longed for some fish. I recollect resolving that when I got leave, the first meal in England would be fish. Looking back, I cannot remember that I ever doubted I would get leave, the idea never struck me that I might go on “The Long Leave”. So is the human brain constituted.

In mid-afternoon came word to proceed to counter-attack a certain part of the line. We gathered together the men and started off. It was a trip practically in the open as any trenches had been so battered as to be useless. From every direction came long files of men, all centralizing along a given line. I can’t remember the exact time the thing was planned for, but we started off.

Of course so did the artillery. Ours opened up, and if we got unutterable hell before so did the Germans now. However, they still had some ammunition, and the shells burst there! and there! and there!

And then-

And then, indeed. The Subaltern has been blown off his feet, knocked out, and badly wounded in the leg by a shrapnel shell. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he’s hauled away to the rear by some extremely brave stretcher-bearers. He has no memory of the next few days except a series of flashes, but he’s eventually alive and well and in hospital in London.

There was a further volume of his letters published, but their dates are extremely janky. From what I can make out, he recovered after about four months and went back to the front, but left again after about six weeks suffering from appendicitis, and never returned. Or possibly he did return, and then he died at Vimy Ridge or Passchendale. I don’t know either way, and I can’t find out at the moment. Believe what you’d rather. At any rate, his time in our story is very probably done.

And his battalion, at about three-quarter strength, eventually reaches where it’s going, and scrapes out another lot of holes to hide in. The war continues.

Battle of Verdun

The situation is now absolutely dire at Fort Vaux. Another relief attempt has gone in; another French battalion has gained valuable experience in what to do when shelled by Minenwerfers when crossing No Man’s Land (jump 200 yards in the air and scatter oneself over the surrounding countryside). With no water, the only thing Major Raynal and his men can do now is prepare for the end. Some of the men have now been reduced to drinking their own urine. Raynal’s memoir tells of other men licking condensation off the walls in their desperation for moisture.

There is a little comfort to be had; the sound of French guns, which spend most of the day attempting (with no little success) to blow the German attackers to bits. Battalions have lost more than half their men dead and wounded, and for the officers there’s no chance of another attack before they’re relieved. If only the French water tanks under Vaux had been full, there’s every chance they could have held out longer, at the very least. Maybe they could have stayed in the fort. Maybe not. Maybe it’s important whether they could have. Maybe not.

At any rate, a few parties of fit men will try to break out tomorrow, but for most of the defenders of Fort Vaux, the war is over.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is due at least another month of rest after leaving Verdun. He’s been given five days; most of today is spent travelling to Suippes in Champagne, and just before midnight they’re settling into a reserve trench. And there’s even cause for just a little optimism!

The sector was calm, and compared to Hill 304 it was a vacation spot. But what spoiled the pleasure of occupying this peaceful sector was that it had recently seen a poison-gas attack, which had claimed many victims, and we feared another attack. We were going to live or die with this nightmare. Our section being in reserve, we occupied deep shelters, with two entrances, which made us ecstatic. This was the first time we had seen anything like this. Inside them, nothing to fear from bombardments—but it wasn’t the same for that accursed gas.

Even the French Army can now dig proper deep dugouts and allow the common soldiers into them. Will wonders never cease?

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien has been deposited unceremoniously in France, and without any of his kit, which has disappeared somewhere in transit between Cannock Chase and Etaples. When last we heard of Etaples Base Camp, a very long time ago, I was describing it as the world’s worst music festival. Things have changed quite a bit since then, and not for the better. The accomodations are slightly less temporary now, and it’s much more than just a transit camp. Etaples, among many other things, is by far the most notorious of a series of training camps that the million-strong BEF has created for itself.

Every day for the next few weeks, Tolkien and friends will be thrown into infamous Bull Ring, of which much more later. A vast area, sweeping over hundreds of acres of sand dunes, men and officers alike are put through a punishing programme of drill, route marches, musketry, and bayonet fighting. The instructors all wear yellow bands on their arms; they’re called “canaries” and have acquired a troublesome reputation for never actually having been to the trenches themselves. Discipline is extremely harsh, with heaping helpings of Field Punishment Number One. Morale is terrible.

I could go on, and we’ll hear further reports from Etaples in the fullness of time. However, for now, I think that as good a description of any of the atmosphere at Etaples comes near the end of The Lord of the Rings. While in Mordor, the disguised hobbits are forced briefly to double-time with a band of orcs.

‘Come on, you slugs!’ [the orc] cried. ‘This is no time for slouching.’ He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognized the devices on their shields. ‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled. ‘Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udûn before yesterday evening. You know that. Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you.’

The offending orc then says “Don’t you know we’re at war?” Those are words right out of some horrible 1916-vintage drill sergeant’s mouth. The influence doesn’t end there, too. Remember how a few days ago we flagged up the problem of the Rifle Brigade quick-marching everywhere and causing traffic problems? The hobbits escape because their company gets caught up in a major traffic jam that quickly turns into a thousand-strong argument. If Tolkien never had something similar happen to him at some point, then I am a monkey’s uncle.

E.S. Thompson

News from Europe has reached Kondoa Irangi and E.S. Thompson, who is still in hospital after slopping boiling fat down himself.

Most agonizing having my leg dressed and it was painful for a long time following. The medical orderly said the leg was in much better condition than before. … During the afternoon 2 aeroplanes arrived. They could be heard a long while before coming into sight. No guns fired during the day but we could hear a Maxim going. Read all afternoon. Usual tea. Got a rotten stomach-ache during the night. … The night orderly brought me a lovely cup of warm milk which was very acceptable. Heard our fleet had smashed the main German fleet.

I’m still quietly amazed that it’s only taken about four or five days for word of the Battle of Jutland to reach them.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is still up the line, preparing for the Big Push. They’re getting intermittently strafed, and Adams is scuttling round the trenches, busy officering, when…

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump”. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench. As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features un-marred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.
“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.
“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

The same Lance-Corporal Allan who you might recall Lieutenant Adams briefly ogling yesterday. As you might expect, Adams doesn’t take it well. A long, pained series of observations comes to an end like so:

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

The junior officers sit in their dugout and try to come to terms with this. Straws are grasped at with reckless abandon.

“Thank God his mother never saw him as we saw him just now”, I said.
“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.
“I wonder,” said I.

As it happens, Flora Sandes says Adams is right and Edwards is wrong. Had he known it, it would surely be the smallest of small comforts. Nothing of importance has occurred.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

Further Reading

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