Castelletto | Souville | 12 Jul 1916


For the past six months, the Italian army has been launching sporadic operations at the north-eastern end of the Dolomites. In theory, if they can capture a series of mountain passes, they can seize control of the Great Dolomite Road, and from there break into the Trentino and South Tyrol. These areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire contain significant numbers of ethnic Italians; making them part of Italy is just as important to the irredentist cause as Trieste is.

Problem; just as on the Isonzo front, the Italian army dawdled hopelessly after declaring war in 1915 and allowed their opponents enough time to garrison and fortify the mountains. The most important position is atop the Castelletto, nearly ten thousand feet above sea level. Mountain passes are of course ludicrously easy to defend with a good look-out and a couple of machine-guns, so here there has been some original thinking. Italian miners have tunnelled into the middle of the mountain; yesterday, they blew the mountain up real good.

It’s the centrepiece of several days’ worth of almost entirely fruitless infantry assaults. Yesterday almost everything went wrong; the explosion sent a large number of landslides careering downhill at the men attempting to push up towards the crater. Other men coming by another route ran straight into a vast cloud of afterdamp, carbon monoxide created by the explosion, and all keeled over from carbon monoxide poisoning. Despite all this, it seems that the defending garrison is too isolated to easily reinforce, especially when the Army in general is under extreme manpower pressures (more about them to come).

The Italians will, eventually, have control over one mountain position. There are dozens more behind them; the defenders will simply move a few hundred metres up the road and re-run the fun. It seems that the, ahem, best chance of anything happening on the Italian Front any time soon will come when General Cadorna finally gets to launch his long-delayed Sixth Isonzo. We’re looking at the start of August for that.

Souville and Tavannes

At the Battle of Verdun, it’s a very big day that pressures from elsewhere are forcing me to downplay somewhat. The attacks on Fort Souville and Fort Tavannes continue throughout the day. Once more they end in failure. We’ve got more shades of Gallipoli here. This time, it’s said that a platoon of Germans managed to fight their way up onto the roof of Fort Souville. This is the highest point for quite a way around. They must have felt like the small Gurkha party who, eleven months earlier, fought themselves to the top of Hill Q, looked around for a moment, and could see absolutely everything for miles around.

And, like that party, after only a few minutes looking out over Verdun and back down the Voie Sacree, they’re a rather obvious target. There is a counter-attack. Some of the men are captured; most of the rest die in a hopeless cause. Not too far away, a regimental adjutant by the name of Friedrich Paulus is trying to pick up the pieces after his regiment got shot to bits near Fleury. He is of course the same Paulus who, as a field marshal in 1943, will surrender at Stalingrad.

Battle of the Somme

Right then. I’ve been winding up for this for quite a while. Quick review: attacks south of the Albert to Bapaume road went well on Day 1. However, despite plenty of chances to push on to take up positions to attack the German Second Line, and frequent urging from General Haig to get on with it, they’ve seriously botched operations against Mametz Wood, Contalmaison, and Trones Wood. Attacks intended to be carried out by an entire division at once have fallen to the odd couple of battalions. Operations haven’t been synchronised; co-operation with the artillery has been poor; attacking battalions have been hung out to dry.

So, what gives? Well, this might take a minute, so bear with me. It starts, like so many other things, with the damn British Empire. Unlike pretty much every other belligerent in this war, the British Army is not doing what it was designed to do. Every other army in the war was established as a mass army to protect the homeland and to potentially fight a major land war somewhere in Europe. (They all have their problems, but at the moment, we’re on what’s wrong with the Brits.) The British Army’s purpose, pre-war, was entirely different. The Royal Navy protects Britain. The British Army was designed to police the Empire, operating mainly against rebels from within rather than invaders from outwith.

It was designed to operate in a very different context. A British battalion on duty in the Empire would very often see itself split up into its four constituent companies, and the companies then sent out to remote duty stations to operate independently. This is why even today, while most nations’ company commanders rank Captain, a British company commander is a Major. It’s all based on the principle that when you get to where you’re going, you will have irregular and unreliable contact with your boss, so you need an experienced man in charge who can interpret orders to fit a changing situation.

This has bred two competing and somewhat contradictory principles that any British general will have become used to balancing in his early career. On the one hand, he must do as he’s told. He will be given orders telling him what his mission is and he must carry it out. On the other hand, since it may well take a week or more to carry a message to his boss and get an answer, he must also be prepared to improvise according to the situation in front of him. The man on the spot, it is said, is king. If he decides that his orders are unachievable, then as long as he can later demonstrate a good cause, he can then act as he sees fit, and since he’s the only commander within 500 miles he’s not going to screw anyone else up too badly by doing so.

Now, it would seem that this might be an advantage in fighting on the Western Front, characterised by the extreme difficulty of getting accurate situation reports from the battlefield. However, remember Gallipoli? What we’re seeing in the days after 1st July is exactly the same failures of oversight as we saw from Sir Ian Hamilton, and they’re not just being perpetrated by Hunter-Weston and his merry band of wazzocks, either. The problem is all these underlying assumptions from a hundred colonial tours of duty.

Let’s take Trones Wood as a painful example. If we look at General Haig’s diary, he first instructed General Rawlinson to advance to the Second Line on the 2nd of July. On the 4th, he “impressed upon him [the] importance of getting Trones Wood”. On the 8th he “gave Rawlinson an order to consolidate his right flank strongly in the south end of Trones Wood”. On the 10th he reminded him that “Trones Wood must be held on our right”. Isolated British battalions began attacking on the 8th; a horrendous knife fight is still raging in the wood that won’t be resolved until the 14th. Had they gone in on the 4th or 5th, they could have walked in almost unopposed.

The problem is coming from the duelling doctrinal conflicts. Haig gave his Army commander clear orders, then left him to get on with it. Rawlinson gave his corps commander clear orders, then left him to get on with it. General Congreve (the same man whose corps did so well at Montauban on Day 1) gave his divisional commanders clear orders, and left them to get on with it. Can you see where this is going yet? The man on the spot being king is all very well when he’s a Major and his Lt-Col is 500 miles away, who in turn is 500 miles from the Brigadier. Not so useful when everyone’s shoulder-to-shoulder and everyone’s operations affect everyone else’s, though.

On an institutional level, the British Army has never truly prepared itself to cope with an environment where, by and large, individual commanders’ actions affect more than just themselves. Even when the Army first committed to forming a BEF to go to France in the event of a general war, it was supposed to be two or three corps who would fight six months of fast-moving mobile warfare. They’d be the X factor that would help the French Army win the war in grand style somewhere between Frankfurt and Stuttgart. They weren’t supposed to fight these vast, interconnected, attritional trench battles where you can’t fart without three other officers of your rank wrinkling their noses.

Old habits, of course, die hard. This is a major reason why we see so many British generals in the first two years of the war bleating helplessly and ineffectually as battles drift and swing out of their control. They’ve failed to realise that they must provide constant supervision, at least before an operation, to keep their subordinates all pulling on the same rope. As it is, each man on the spot has to have his say, and time after time, three or four layers of command are hopelessly watering down the orders that the Chief thinks he’s giving, with each man’s superior sitting back and not thinking it his job to intervene. And we are a very long, very bloody way from anyone even starting to put things right.

If the war had ended here, we could now nod in satisfied fashion, dust off our hands, and write off British generalship as a complete shambles. As it is? More tomorrow.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has heard the news about Malcolm White. Sometimes a boy needs to write to his mother.

White is killed, I suppose.

Anyhow, I’ve a letter from Bailey, of Shrewsbury and the New House, saying, “You will have heard by now” (I hadn’t) “that the thing … has happened”. He goes on to say [White] may be a prisoner, from which I infer he is reported missing, and do not hold any hopes of that kind, for we had heard that his Battalion was very badly cut up. He was my greatest friend, and loved Shrewsbury.

I dare say it shews terrible selfishness, but I have faced the casualty list daily without a tremor for two years now, and now, when I am hard hit myself, I cry out! Mum, he was such a dear. He was so keen on everything, and the most true ‘artist’, in the full sense, that I have ever known.

This month, or whatever it is (no, it’s a bare fortnight, isn’t it?), has opened my eyes to the lot of those who sit and wait, as I have been doing since the push started. For goodness’ sake, don’t let his one case make you think you have any more reason than before to be anxious about my miserable safety-what difference can one example, however near home, make to the probabilities of good or evil fortune in one more among millions?

Do please realise that one friend’s death does not increase my risk or chances, any more than it diminishes it; you must not let it make you worry about it. But I cannot be very happy, even though I did write, just before he died, to say “NOTHING matters to you or me; we’re both all right, in the right place, and we know it.” I still think I spoke the truth; or pray that I may really believe it.

He is going to spend a lot of time over the next few days trying to come to terms with this.

Actions in Progress

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

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