Brusilov Overture | Fort Vaux | 4 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The great summer offensive plays its overture today. Today is given over entirely to artillery barrages. The Austro-Hungarian generals remain unconcerned; if this really is the prelude to an attack, the Russians will surely make like they did at Lake Naroch and precede it with a multiple-day bombardment. Surely. It stands to reason. Another drink? Why not, indeed. Nothing to be concerned about just yet!

As it happens, here’s another thing General Brusilov’s staff has figured out. Not only is there a point past which artillery barrages start bringing in sharply diminishing returns, they’ve also realised that it’s far more feasible to use these bombardments at least partly to suppress the enemy, then cross No Man’s Land and capture them in their dugouts and shelters before they can open fire. The battle proper opens tomorrow. Which is convenient, because today is seriously stacked with other news.

Battle of Verdun

Another French attempt at sending fresh men into Fort Vaux fails miserably. On the other side of the hill, the Germans have sent fresh flamethrowers forward to deal with the situation. Fire and smoke rips through the confined tunnels, and inevitably their defenders retreat. For a moment it seems as though the Germans will follow the fire right into the rest of the fort, but the French have access to the most unlikely of weapons. The fort has a few portable hand-operated fans, in case the natural air circulation breaks down. When the flamethrower attacks come in, someone keeps enough about them to crank up the fans.

And the fire blows right back on the Germans. More vicious fighting. More horrific deaths. One of the access tunnels has caught fire. The other is re-occupied in the nick of time. Some thinking follows, and that tunnel is then blocked and blown up and generally made completely inaccessible. They can’t get at the other tunnel, though, owing to the fire…

Then follows another blow, this one much more critical. The fort has run out of water. The meticulous records insist that they should still have enough water for a little while yet, but as it turns out, some of the men who previously occupied the fort did not care much for accurate paperwork. The records they handed over to Raynal were completely inaccurate. They’ve gone from being able to hold out for a long time to come, to being on the verge of dying of thirst. Anyone who isn’t still fit to fight is to leave, and Raynal is desperate to establish communication with Fort Souville by signalling lamp, the only means of communication left to him.

Mamahatun Offensive

Baack to the Mamahatun Offensive in the Caucasus, which we’ve unfortunately been short-changing due to sheer lack of information. The Ottoman Third Army has been attacking tired and disorganised Russians for the past week, with quite a bit of success. Had there been plentiful reinforcements to throw in, they might have kept up the successes and forced a major retreat towards Erzurum, possibly splitting General Yudenich’s main body apart from the men at Trebizond.

There were not plentiful reinforcements. The men who attacked were the plentiful reinforcements. They were supposed to be the core of the new Third Army, and now they’ve been fighting, taking casualties, tiring themselves out. They’ve now been mostly fought to the stop by equally plentiful Russian reinforcements. Another fresh division has dodged a lurking German U-boat and landed near Trebizond. This is deeply worrying; the offensive is called off, having mildly worried the Russian commander-in-chief. Vehip Pasha’s staff now begin trying to work out whether they can do anything to oppose Russian control of Erzurum.

General Yudenich, meanwhile, has already turned his opinion to “what do I do next?” The offensive caught him somewhat by surprise, but now the situation’s back under control. Planning begins for the next major offensive. It’s not particularly complicated; Yudenich intends to shove a lot of men down the Erzurum-Erzincan road and split Third Army in two. Annoyingly, he’s timetabling it to begin on about the 2nd of July, when something else a bit bigger might be going on.

Battle of Jutland

I like to imagine a large transparent box sitting in the Admiralty’s operations room. The assembled admirals, as they sit in their latest conference, are all trying very hard to ignore the box. Inside is Winston Churchill, returned from the trenches, snoozing quietly. There’s an IV drip in his arm, administering a careful flow of Pol Roger champagne to keep his blood alcohol level just so. There is a sign on the box. It reads “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS”. And this is not just an emergency; it’s an emergency that requires an exceptional public speaker.

There is, however, no hammer. A minion must be sent out to get one. But they’ve now broken the glass, given Churchill everyone’s reports, and instructed him to please do something about this damned German narrative. It doesn’t take him long to figure out the obvious interpretation. The Grand Fleet might have lost a few ships more, and considerably more men, than the Germans. But the battle ended with both fleets exchanging fire and the Germans running the fuck away very fast. That is not, traditionally, how the winning side marks a great victory.

Churchill’s analysis pushes that angle as hard as possible. However, it does offend the British newspapermen. They’re all horribly offended that a politician (and a failed First Lord of the Admiralty at that) has been given access to secret documents and they have not. They all remember the political machinations on the Western Front in 1915, the Shell Crisis, the wrangling over the Battle of Loos. If the Army can attempt to cover up the scale of a major loss, and the reasons for a loss, why shouldn’t the Navy? What the Admiralty needs now is a few clear days to push their angle hard and without distractions.

Lord Kitchener’s mission

Maybe now is a good time to be out of the country. In Russia, Lord Kitchener will surely have to field fewer damn fool questions about Jutland, if nothing else. With a little luck, he might even be able to see the Russians winning a major victory, and find out how it might be done. Maybe they can work out some deal to send the Russians more supplies, somehow. Nobody in the Cabinet seems to like him any more. So, very quietly, he leaves London today by sleeper train, heading for Thurso, and eventually for Scapa Flow. We’ll pick the mission up if anything ever comes of it.

Tanks

Colonel Swinton of the Tank Supply Committee currently has the unenviable job of trying to train the first tank crews with precisely one machine; the prototype, Mother. The good news is that Mother’s engine is working fine and crews can now start learning how to move a tank about a battlefield. The bad news, a minor flaw I’m sure, is that Mother has no sponsons (she had them at the trials; they were probably removed to be used as templates for the manufacturers) and no guns to fire from them. By the end of the month they will have five whole tanks, but still no hint of sponsons…

Georges Connes

A long way from all this, Georges Connes has just been ordered to march about 25 miles to Stenay. Fortunately, Connes’s group includes one Commandant Mercier. Mercier may not have much left after being captured, but he still has his dignity, and he evidently is an accomplished bullshitter.

Speaking firmly, he states to the German officer that we are too tired to walk. He further argues that the French transport German officer-prisoners by car (how does he know this?) and demands the same treatment. His request is immediately fulfilled. Five or six peasant carts arrive, each one led by a soldier, and we board as we like. Personally, I believe that the German officer from whom we requested something reasonable and easy didn’t see any reason to refuse. As for the privates, they will walk. No carts for them.

[In Stenay] I spent dismal days, the most sinister of my captivity. The joy of knowing we won’t be killed doesn’t sustain us for very long. One soon gets used to no longer dying. Already I can forsee where our main suffering will come from. We will suffer more because of one another, being crowded and without privacy, than from our guards, who we rarely see. German authority seems to be represented by a vociferous officer who walks about the courtyard yelling all the time. He is typical of those barking officers who constitute the major strength of all the armies of the world.

Damn, I really wish now that he’d written memoirs about the first part of his war.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has finished moving to wherever it is in France he’s going. It has a town and some docks. I’ll let you know where it is once I work it out.

After a long and weary railway journey lasting several days we have arrived in a “hutted” camp. Why a journey which in peace-time would have taken not more than eight hours should require four days, passes my understanding. I am glad the journey is ended. Last night, for the first time since Tuesday morning, I put off my clothes. What a relief ! And no more climbing of hills with that kit-bag on one’s back. After half-an-hour of it I always feel like Sinbad the Sailor must have felt when he carried the Old Man of the Sea. The THING grows heavier and heavier.

To-day is a rest-day. To-morrow I presume will see us hard at work. Loading, unloading, road-making? Went with John and Fair into the town. Found it awfully hard to walk on cobbled pavements or on flag-stones. Whenever we encountered a slope in the rather undulating streets of the older town, we began to move about in all directions like a crowd of drunken roller-skaters.

The trouble is his brand new boots with hob-nailed soles. I’ll lay very good odds that he’s never worn hob-nailed boots before in his life.

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance is happening for Bernard Adams at the Bois Francais. He continues going in and out of the line, preparing for the Battle of the Somme. They’ve recently thrown a very good concert party for the men in Amiens, and been visited for the occasion by the music-hall star Basil Hallam. They’re due back up the line tomorrow, but now is the time to eat, drink, and make merry. They’ve even invited the grizzled old sweat Captain Jim Potter of the quartermaster’s department round. Captain Potter, in the tradition of senior Army quartermasters, was commissioned from the ranks after winning two medals in the Boer War, and therefore is a most entertaining dinner guest. After dinner, they sit around talking about this and that.

“A good entry tonight in Comic Cuts”, I remarked. “‘A dog was heard barking in Fricourt ad 11pm.’ Someone must have been hard up for intelligence to put that in.
“A dog barking in Fricourt”, said old Jim, marked. “What’s that, Corps stuff? I never read the thing. That’s what it is to have a Staff. A dog barking in Fricourt!”
“The Corps officer didn’t hear it. It was some battalion intelligence officer that was such a fool to report it.”
“I’d like to meet the fellow. The first fellow I’ve ever met yet who has a just appreciation of the brain capacity of the Staff. You or I might have thought of reporting a dog’s mew, or roar, or bellow. But a dog’s bark we should have thought of no interest whatever to the, er, fellows up there, you know, who plan our destinies.” And he gave an obsequious flick of his hand, to an imaginary person too high up to see him at all. “The Staff”, he went on, with the greatest contempt. “I saw three of them in a car today. I stood to attention. Saluted. A young fellow waved his hand, graciously accepted my salute, and passed on, leaning back in his limousine. The Brains of the British Army, I thought. Pah!”

This is the best entertainment that Jim Potter can offer, so Adams and his chums continue winding him up. Do you think there might be a push soon, Jim?

“Of course there will be a push. The Staff must have something to show for themselves. ‘Shove ’em in!’, they say, ‘rather a bigger front than last time. Strategy? Oh no, that’s out of date, you know. Five-mile front. Frontal attack. Get a few hundred thousand mown down, and then discover the Boche has got a second line. The Staff. Pah!” And no more would he say.

More drink is taken. The young men round the table begin arsing around and engaging in small doses of High Spirits until the wee hours. At great length, the drink runs out, and they eventually retire to bed.

As I opened the door of my billet, I heard a strafe getting up. “In” tomorrow, I thought. I lost no time in getting into bed, and yet I could not sleep. I could not help thinking of the jollity of the last few hours, the humour. Most of all I thought of old Jim, the mainspring somehow of it all. And again I saw the picture of the concert a few nights ago, the bright lights of the stage, the crowds of our fellows, all their bodies and spirits for the moment relaxed.

And lastly I thought of Private Benjamin [one of his snipers], that refined eager face, that rather delicate body, and that warm hand as I placed mine over his, squeezing the trigger. He was no more than a child, really, a simple-minded child of Wales. Somehow it was more terrible that these young boys should see the war, than for the older men. Yet were we not all children wondering, wondering, wondering? Yes, we were like children faced by a wild beast. “Sometimes I dislike you almost,” I thought. “Your dullness, your coarseness, your lack of romance, your unattractiveness. Yet that is only physical. You, I love really.”

And in the darkness, I buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed.

And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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