Capture of Ovillers | 16 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

Good news, everybody! One more pink name on our map of the Somme turns black today! After 16 days of on-and-off penny packet Woolworths slaughter, the BEF has captured Ovillers. One less German observation post into the rear, I suppose. Just before sunset the remaining German garriison raises the white flag. For the last little while, this stubborn post has been holding out against the combined forces of two British divisions with 124 men and two officers. And lashings of grenades and machine-guns, of course.

Meanwhile, the Chief is considering where we go from here. Let’s see what he thinks, then take a look at the map.

I discussed our future plans with [staff officers] Kiggell, Butler, and Davidson. I stated as our several objects:

1. Consolidate the Longueval-Bazentin position so as to make it absolutely safe against counter-attack.
2. Establish our right flank in Ginchy and Guillemont.
3. Take Pozieres village.

Kiggell then went to HQ 4th Army to arrange details.

For clarity; only the first two things will be done by 4th Army; it will be the job of fresh men from Reserve Army to take Pozieres. Let’s go to the map and draw some arrows on it. Maybe then this will make a bit more sense.

This map is cut down to just the relevant area for the new attacks.

This map is cut down to just the relevant area for the new attacks.

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but there’s a question right now that’s seriously bugging me. What are we trying to achieve here? General Haig is not making a great deal of coherent sense. I’m trying very hard to analyse this decision, and every time I try to logically work through a particular proposition, I quickly find myself wanting to give up and just scream incoherent foul abuse instead. Why can he not see that this is nothing more than the recipe and invitations for an extended and horrific cake and arse party?

Let’s just cover all the bases here. I am not saying that Haig could have just said “let’s just stop here for a while and have a little think”. Clearly that’s politically inexpedient. This is, after all, the grand summer offensive. And if 4th Army just stops dead, that invites counter-attack at Bazentin or fresh attacks at Verdun. Haig must do something, and this is indeed something. And of course he’s eager to keep following his theories, keeping the enemy engaged in a wearing-out battle. And of course he’s getting over-optimistic intelligence from Charteris.

But those points 2 and 3 up there are not a general re-statement of aims, to be carried out by fresh divisions with proper artillery preparation in a week or two’s time, as current French methodical battle doctrine would suggest. These are instructions for General Rawlinson to be carried out as soon as possible as a logical extension of the Bazentin Ridge offensive. And that means being inevitably re-introduced to our old friends Penny Packet and Barb Wire. I can think of nothing at this moment but the modern Army’s maxim the 7 Ps. These correctly remind us that Proper Planning & Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

What did they think was going to happen? The next month or so is going to resemble nothing so much as the Battle of Loos all over again; early success followed by pointless grinding slaughter to no great object. Say, who was the commander of 1st Army during that battle? Why, it was the same man who was in command during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and the Battle of Aubers Ridge. That would be Sir Douglas Haig. He has, apparently, learned precisely fuck-all nothing about strategy from presiding over those battles.

Oh, and while we’re speaking of Aubers Ridge

Fromelles

A few days ago I made mention of a major imminent diversionary attack by that same 1st Army on that same Aubers Ridge. The original thought was that it should have gone in yesterday, but there’s no real rush. Weather’s been bad, and it’s only now that the BEF’s artillery begins assaulting the particularly evil barbed wire defences in front of the German trenches. About 14 months ago, I observed that the Germans had about 30 yards of wire, and that much of it was deployed in weaponised hahas. Yeah, it turns out that they’ve had 14 months of mostly peace and quiet to improve the defences here.

The newly-raised 5th Australian Division is going to raise the curtain for ANZAC troops in combat, alongside the British 61st Division. This should never have happened at all; they’d only arrived in France at the start of the month. Standard practice for acclimatising ANZAC troops at the time was, after a period of rear-area duty near Maximilian Mugge at Balinghem, to send them to Armentieres to meet Mademoiselle. The 5th Division arrived in France at the start of July; then losses on the Somme have resulted in four ANZAC divisions being hoiked out of the line and sent up as reinforcements.

So the 5th Division went to Armentieres, the perfect place to then be dragged into this diversionary battle at Fromelles that it was never intended to go to. Most of the Kitchener’s Army men who went into battle at Loos and on the Somme had a year of training behind them, and plenty of trench duty before going over the top, for all the good it did them. These ANZACs have only had about four days of trench life, and now they’re being asked to do something other than just hold the line. Of course they are.

Delville Wood

Meanwhile, in Delville Wood, the South Africans are taking a hell of a thumping as they try to defend Delville Wood, much smaller than Trones Wood or Mametz Wood, and getting gradually smaller by the hour as German shelling continues ripping up the trees. Private Frank Marillier:

Absolute hell turned inside out. I never expected to get out whole. Shells dropping everywhere. We get orders to return in the afternoon late. I think, in fact I am almost sure, that our lives were saved when a very brave officer, Captain Hoptroff, made his way to our position. He wasted no time, ‘Get out!’ he said, and was almost immediately hit by a bullet and killed outright. It is strange how, in the most urgent and tragic circumstances, one notices things of minor importance.

For as Captain Hoptroff dropped, my eye caught sight of his very beautiful gold wristlet watch; and I have never ceased to regret that I did not take it off, and send it to his family. I am sure that they would have appreciated it.

Marillier and friends begin retreating through the wood, fighting as best they can. But they’re not retreating in the face of enemy bayonet charges. They’re retreating in the face of the only thing at this point of the war that can truly get anything done; massed artillery fire.

Renault

It’s been a miserable day. Let’s now spare a moment to plant a seed and look towards better times. In 100 years plenty has changed in the world; one thing that has not is that Renault is one of French industry’s most important companies and a major manufacturer of motor cars. At the time, of course, the company was still under the stewardship of founder Louis Renault. The company has already done extremely well out of the war. Not only are Renault trucks helping motorise more and more links in the French Army’s logistics train, the company has branched out into manufacturing ammunition and aircraft engines.

They’ve been so busy, in fact, that although the company was approached by Colonel Estienne late last year to design and build the first French tanks, Renault declined. That project has since gone to Schneider-Creusot; the Schneider CA1’s development has run into significant problems and is yet to produce a prototype. And so, rather despondent, Estienne and Renault bump into each other in Paris. Estienne unburdens himself of his frustrations and asks Renault for help. For his part, it’s very probable that Louis Renault had never stopped thinking about designing a tank.

The development of the Renault FT has begun. It is hard to overstate how important this chance meeting will be to the eventual end of the war. More to follow.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler’s opinions about war, when he’s not having jolly rear-area adventures with the French, can often be rather hair-raising. However, he’s no chicken-hawk, as today’s adventures bear out. He’s shooting at targets east of Trones Wood, near Guillemont, and he described this as “one of the most amusing 24 hours I have ever spent”. Not just during the war, mind you – ever, in his life to that point.

When hunting, one sometimes feels there will be a good run, so this day I felt we were going to have good luck. My first act was to locate a new enemy trench, very shallow and full of Huns. I sent down the map reference to the battery, telling them to engage it and if possible not to hit me. I was lying out in a shell-hole in front of our line, and the target was barely 150 yards further on.

Let’s remember here that brand-new guns are only expected to be accurate to within 100 yards, and Fraser-Tytler’s guns are hardly new. “Sang-froid” doesn’t begin to describe the quality needed to crawl out of the trenches, into a shell-hole, and from there direct artillery fire through a telephone to within 150 yards of the said shell-hole. Before we continue, a quick reminder that British understatement is a thing, and when someone says something was “quite difficult”, he often means “it was bloody impossible”.

In order not to alarm the Hun, I registered the trench with the minimum number of shells, and then I also registered the [field gun] batteries of our brigade. It was a rather ticklish job shooting other people’s batteries so close to our lines. That done, I phoned to arrange a zero hour in five minutes, and then speedily crawled off into a safer hole to watch the last act of the drama.

Down came the curtain. It was glorious to hear the shells of four batteries all at gun-fire, swooping down close over one’s head and to see the havoc they were making in the trench. … While all this was going on, the news of my shoot appeared to have caused a mild panic at Divisional HQ, as according to their information my target was in British hands. Endless questions began to come down the phone as to whether I was quite certain they were Germans. I replied that as their principal pastime had been sniping at my head (until I pasted them), I had strong reasons for believing them to be the enemy.

[In late afternoon] I was able to move about and examine the country. How different it all is from the neat, orderly manner of fighting in pukka trench warfare. During one of my explorations, I spotted some Huns in a trench leading directly into our front line. No-one had noticed, as the entrance was blocked with debris. The Hun also seemed unaware that his front door was open, and I joined the infantry in a most successful and amusing bombing stunt up the trench, establishing a blocking post halfway along it.

During another tour I met a most energetic infantry brigadier, and we spent an enjoyable hour crawling round together. Towards evening the rain came down in torrents, but I managed to borrow an overcoat from the body of a fairly clean-looking Hun officer who was lying near. The sunken road, our front line, leading below Maltz Horn Farm to the southeast corner of Trones Wood is literally paved with dead Huns.

Ye gods. Can you imagine preparing for being in bombing party, and then this lunatic suddenly appears in your trench wanting to join in?

Also, I don’t have much of an idea who the brigadier might have been. My best guess is that he belonged either to 18th or 30th Division, but finding out any more is far too much work for too little reward.

E.S. Thompson

Hopefully, E.S. Thompson is being a bit more boring. I don’t think we can hope for a funny story, but after that hair-raising piece of insanity, I’ll take “dull camp life” with gratitude.

Shortened my slacks into shorts making a fair job of it. Went to the river for a bathe and washed my handkerchief and socks. Put Zambuk on my leg. This is the first time I have washed my leg since leaving [hospital]. Coming back through the town saw Legg in his new Reo motor, who gave me a cup of tea with milk and lots of sugar, the most enjoyable for a long time. He also gave me a little comforts tin of acid drops and some cigarettes for Dick, Hersett, Smikky and Rose. He walked back to the camp with me to see Mr Parsons.

Found Dick had bought in some dripping, 2 loaves of bread, some tinned beef and vegetables. Minced meat for tea with nice soup and coffee. Divided out the acid drops and gave Leo some. Put on the badges which Legg’s friend had given me for my belt, I gave him a Union button in exchange. Saw the aeroplane loop-the-loop again. Had a chat with Lonsdale about the naval battle at Alexandria in 1882 in which he took part.

Ah, thank you. Not only did he have a mostly boring day, he’s given me an excuse to remind everyone once more that “the new Reo motor” may well have been an honest-to-God genuine Reo Speedwagon. That’s really improved my mood! What’s next?

Emilio Lussu

Heavy, long-suffering sigh. But it may not be all bad; for now, Emilio Lussu is not being ordered to attack anything or play with explosives. (There is, of course, another attack being planned; but that’s a problem for tomorrow to worry about.) Today, reinforcement drafts have arrived; his job is to show the new officers around and get them acquainted with the position. They go up to the highest point in the sector.

It was the location of loophole 14, the best loophole in the entire sector. It had been built on a rock that stuck straight out at an angle, facing the enemy. … You could make out, in several points, even the movements of the Austrian soldiers in their trenches and passageways. I had been there almost every day and I had also been able to make some relief drawings for the command.

[They meet a local subaltern.] I asked him to take us to loophole 14. “During the day it’s closed”, he replied. “It’s not usable any more. The Austrians have spotted it and they keep a mounted rifle trained on it. Yesterday we had a lookout killed, this morning one was wounded. The company commander ordered that it be closed with a rock during the day.

A new captain has already been told how great loophole 14 is. Lussu apologises, offers to show the man his sketches instead.

“What do you mean, sketches? I want to look through loophole 14.”
“The company commander has expressly forbidden it.”
“I’m going to look anyway.” He walked off on his own, looking for the loophole.

“Send someone to tell the company commander”, I said. “Otherwise this guy, who’s been drinking, is going to do something crazy.” We rushed ahead to catch up to the captain. We got to loophole 14 just as he did. The captain approached it. He reached out to move the rock.
“If [this company’s] captain has given an order”, I said, holding his arm back, “we have to respect it.”
“And me, what am I? Aren’t I a captain?” he rebuffed me in a tone of command.

It was a matter of a few seconds. The captain was standing in front of the loophole. With a swift move he removed the rock and looked. A rifle shot rang out and the captain fell to the ground. A bullet had snapped his right jawbone in two, destroying most of it.

This is not the last we shall hear of loophole 14. Somehow, the idiot is still alive, and is removed to clog up the casualty clearing station.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues to have a miserable time of things in the rear at Balinghem.

Army-life puts the individual into his proper place. What is one man amongst a hundred-thousand?

Ona big fatigue party to draw daily rations for our Division. A huge concourse of men and vehicles. Dust and scorching sun. Had to load waggon after waggon. Harried and harrassed, we worked like driven beasts; another Division was waiting for us. The sacks of bread and coal were really too heavy for me, and my heart was beating violently. To fill the cup of suffering, a young fat NCO was sneering at me when I struggled along with a hundredweight of bacon from the stores to the waggons.

In the evening we were all grousing, and some were holding forth about the cartloads of vegetables we had seen leaving the stores for the officers’ quarters, the boxes of wine and cigars.

Reminder that a hundredweight is variously eight stone, 112 pounds, 50 kilograms, or a skinny man about 5 feet 6 inches tall. Mugge is supposed to be on light duties. This must be some new definition of “light duties” that previously had escaped me.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan