von Knobelsdorf | Iringa | 21 Aug 1916

Nyasalanders in Tanzania

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Nyasalanders’ campaign in the south-west of Tanzania is proving to be rather a curate’s egg. In engagement after engagement they’ve forced the enemy Schutztruppe back, caused casualties, taken few in return. In theory they should now be well-placed to march hard to Iringa, and complete a grand encirclement. In theory. Unfortunately, that’s just slightly beyond their capabilities, especially as they’re now at the end of a 200-mile supply line, surviving on half rations, their numbers worn down by disease.

So what we’ve got here is just another load of men marching a very long way to very little practical effect. They’ll make Iringa in a week, and then General Smuts is going to have to seriously re-assess this campaign. There’ll be no quick six-month victory, and no grand pivot of resources to another theatre just yet.

German command structure

There is an important German command change today. As chief of staff of the German 5th Army (officially commanded by the Kaiser’s son), General von Knobelsdorf (no sniggering) has played a key role in the Battle of Verdun. He’s the poor sod who’s been trying to achieve General von Falkenhayn’s wishes, and also to figure out what they are, which is not an easy job. He’s been advocating for continuing attacks even despite the Battle of the Somme.

This is an unwelcome opinion, and today he’s been called away from the battle. There are two pieces of news. First, he’s been awarded the Pour le Merite, a major German decoration. Yay! Second, he’s been re-assigned to the Eastern Front as a corps commander, a clear demotion. Boo! The knives are well and truly out in Berlin at the moment. This will not be the last change of command before the end of the month. Every option is on the table, and the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, has now fully taken up lobbying for the supposed dream team of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Over the last couple of weeks, both the Chancellor and von Hindenburg himself have been bombarding Kaiser Wilhelm II with letters on the subject of von Falkenhayn’s many inadequacies. The Kaiser, however still appears to be listening to von Falkenhayn, who’s been firing back with both metaphorical barrels. So today Bethmann-Hollweg goes to Pless Castle, where the boss has his headquarters. He’s going to spend the next three days personally trying to browbeat the increasingly-indecisive monarch into actually taking a decision. More soon!

Procurement

The current arrangements in Britain for tank design and production have both advantages and disadvantages. We’ll hopefully recall that Bertie Stern is now in undisputed control of the Tank Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions. This gives him plenty of opportunity to drive things forward and use his own authority to drive design and procurement decisions. He doesn’t have to refer to the War Office or to GHQ in France before doing things. Today he uses that authority to do something both useful and unwise.

He’s convinced that when the tanks finally go into action, their potential will be obvious and there’s going to be an immediate request for as many machines as possible, as soon as possible. This can’t be done as simply as snapping one’s fingers, of course. Skilled workers have to be recruited. Supplies of steel, fuel, and other raw materials have to be earmarked. Guns, engines, caterpillar tracks, and all kinds of other components have to be manufactured. Factory space needs to be available for the manufacturing process.

Therefore, on his own authority, he today authorises the construction of an extra 1,000 machines of a similar type to the Mark I tank. (They won’t have to be identical, mind you, and two upgraded Marks are already being designed to improve on the Mark I design.) Unfortunately, he’s done so without informing anyone in the Army. He reasons that he has the support of David Lloyd George, now Minister of War; that should be more than enough support. This is deeply politically unwise. More soon, alas.

Robert Pelissier

The tone of Robert Pelissier’s correspondence has just taken a rather unhappy turn. On the Hartmannswillerkopf there was plenty of time to think and to describe daily life. Now he’s arrived in the Somme sector; and his latest letter to a friend in America, where he taught before the war, well…

We are not very far from your English cousins. They and we are bombarding with a continuity which quite beggars description. There is a canopy of steel over our heads just about day and night. We are so used to the constant reports and hisses that we don’t pay any attention to anything that falls not in our immediate neighborhood. You have had plenty of thunderstorms this year. Well, a barrage is like the most furious thunderstorm you ever heard, only it goes on and on by the hour and when it turns to ordinary bombardment it’s like an ordinary storm. (Living in New England is fine preparation for war.)

I cannot give you any details about important things because we do not know what is going on and the papers are stuffed with mere trifles. Will write you at length when we get back to some sane region.

No more lyrical descriptions, or meditations on American foreign policy. He was like this up in the Vosges when things got hot. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has not only shot an antelope big enough to feed all his mates for a week, he’s also survived his birthday without some near-death scrape. Maybe this is a sign that I can stop poking fun at him all the time?

Fooling about with Bibby. Put my foot on a tree stump and skinned it. Rather painful for a while.

Sad trombone. Sad, sad trombone.

Rather chilly wind sprang up so put on my overcoat and started a letter to Mother. Mossy Green came in to see me, but could not stay long as he is leaving for Kilossa this morning. Started on our rainy season house, getting the zinc from an old blockhouse started by the Motor Cycle Corps. My guard from 2pm to 4pm, after which went to town, but my foot was rather painful.

You don’t say, chief. You don’t say.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is censoring his men’s letters, and provides an excellent cautionary tale against reading too much into the contents of captured letters and diaries.

Some of the men’s letters are very amusing, their comments on the war, their food, the French people, etc. Yesterday a chap asserted positively that the war would be over by November. In a letter this morning another man said he was counting on being home for Christmas, 1925. One very funny letter was written by a man who was most indignant at having been transferred to a kilted battalion. He did not object to kilts per se, but he objected strenuously to “scrubbing his knees every day.” Not one letter that I have read has been anything but confident as to the outcome of the war, and all are cheerful.

I had the experience of wearing a gas helmet the other day and walking through gas ten times as powerful as one is likely to meet in the trenches. I could breathe without difficulty, but found the helmet hot and uncomfortable, which, of course, is unavoidable.

If ever there is a slow day again in this war, I’ll dig out some personal accounts from men who were posted into kilted regiments, and found they actually preferred wearing kilts in the trenches. It barely seems creditable, but I promise they exist.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still quietly ticking over, but I promise some first-rate fifth-gear outrage and sacrasm is on its way. In the meantime, he’s reading the evening paper, and makes a highly interesting observation.

The “Evening News” says: –
“That the Board of Trade is still liable to cling to its old traditions is made evident by the recent appointment of Mr Albert George Holzapfel to the position of British Consul at Rotterdam. We are well aware that Mr. Holzapfel’s father was naturalised in this country and that he himself was born and bred here. We have no word to say against his loyalty, but the fact remains that his name is not one which is calculated to inspire confidence.

A man with German connections, however devoted he may be to the cause of Britain and her Allies, is most emphatically not the man to supervise the blockade of Germany, and the choice of Mr Holzapfel shows not only want of vision but want of common sense.”

So that old oracle Shakespeare was all wrong. There is much more in a name than he dreamt of. If William Shakespeare had been born of German parents 1889 and lived during the War, he would not have said “What’s in a name?”

First, let us issue a hearty “fuck you” to the bloke who writes leaders for the Evening News. Now that’s out of the way, let us examine for a moment what exactly “What’s in a name?” means. It’s from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, part of the famous bit on the balcony where Juliet laments that she is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague and yet she still loves him. “What’s in a name?” is a key transition as she talks the predicament through and decides that his name is irrelevant to her.

There is a very popular interpretation of the play as the story of two bloody idiots, a pair of naive youngsters (Juliet is turning 14; Romeo is not too much older) who think that Love Can Conquer All and tragically find out that it does not. In particular, she thinks that ultimately his name is unimportant, but ends up wrong. I think Mugge has got the wrong end of the stick entirely. “What’s in a name?” is surely an acknowledgement that in fact there is a lot in a name.

But, you know, he’s still doing a hell of a lot better engaging with Shakespeare in English than I’d do with, say, Goethe in German.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Pozieres | Tabora | 3 Aug 1916

Pozieres

We have some fighting worth speaking of at the Battle of the Somme. The BEF’s 36th Brigade is aiding us in our attempt to remind people that it wasn’t just the ANZACs who fought up at Pozieres, where the artillery fire is still extremely unhealthy. The problem remains the same; capture trenches OG1 and OG2 so that Pozieres windmill, the highest point on the Somme, can be directly assaulted. First, the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 6th Buffs are launching a surprise attack on Fourth Avenue, another trench from which an attack on OG1 and OG2 can be supported.

It doesn’t seem like much, but the weight of artillery being thrown around at Pozieres is such that the Germans’ barbed wire has been almost completely destroyed and they’ve been unable to replace it. The men creep across No Man’s Land in the dark, and the defenders are so surprised when the Tommies suddenly appear in their trench in strength, they all surrender. It’s quite the stunt, although the war won’t be won by sneaking into a few hundred yards of trench at a time. Tomorrow the ANZACs take another pot at that dratted windmill.

Race to Tabora

Meanwhile, in Africa. At the western end of the Central Railway, there are seperate British Empire and Belgian Empire detachments now heading for Tabora, the only large settlement for hundreds of miles. The German commander General Wahle has a sizeable force at his disposal; there might just be a chance to isolate and capture it, which would be a much-needed coup. Wahle isn’t interested in leaving without a fight and has been sorting out some proper forward defences for the last little while. More to come when somebody wins the race.

Tanks

It has been said that the course of true love ne’er did run smooth. Neither too did the course of tank development, it seems. Albert Stern has just informed the new Minister of Munitions, Edwin Montagu, that tank production had been based on the assumption that all the initial order would be used in the field at once. Now it seems that General Haig wants to use a few as soon as possible. Problem! There are no spare parts yet. All the manufacturing capacity is being used on building machines, not spares. Only the engines have spare parts.

Mind you, this might not actually be a problem, depending on whose doctrinal views get the most traction. Stern himself, far from a tactical expert, thinks of a tank rather like a missile; extremely useful and destructive when pointed straight at the enemy and let loose, but useless after it’s arrived at its initial target and wreaked havoc. Missiles don’t need spare parts. He’s far from the only person thinking in this way. Opinions on the use of tanks are apparently like rear orifices; everybody’s got one.

Stern himself, incidentally, is unsatisfied with having to manage the Tank Supply Department through a committee. He’s used the wide-ranging powers which he granted himself back in February to dissolve the Tank Supply Committee entirely and reconstitute it as a powerless advisory talking shop. It is of course a reasonable principle of design to put all one’s eggs in one basket, having first made sure that one has built a really good basket. I suppose we’ll soon find out whether Stern is a good enough basket.

Oskar Teichman

It seems that Oskar Teichman’s men may finally be about to go into action at the Suez Canal. He’s discovered a major logistical concern, though.

Our General Headquarters at Ismailia was bombed during the morning. An advance guard of our composite regiment left at dawn to prepare a camp at Gilbaan. During the afternoon we received orders to march to Gilbaan at dawn on the next day. We heard that we were now in the Fifth Mounted Brigade again, under our own Brigadier. I realized that if we went into action on the morrow we should have no Field Ambulance with us, as ours would not be able to arrive in time, and that we had no claim on the New Zealand Field Ambulance, as we were no longer in that Brigade.

A reminder that a “field ambulance” is not a vehicle, although it is considered a mobile unit. The first line of medical support is the aid post. From the aid post casualties are taken to a field ambulance, which makes the decision whether the man can be quickly patched up and returned to unit, or passed back to the Casualty Clearing Station, an immobile large-scale facility.

Oswald Boelcke

German air ace Oswald Boelcke is in Bulgaria, inspecting their flying corps.

I went to the aviation field in Sofia; most of the machines were Ottos. In the afternoon, I went to the flying school. Our guide showed us as special attraction a Blériot, which he had. The school is still in the first stages of development. From there we went to the resort called Banje, which is nicely located. In the evening, I was at supper with a military attaché, and met Prince Kiril. He interested me very much, and talked quite intelligently about a number of things.

Like quite a few innovative thinkers, Boelcke’s writing only really comes alive when he’s describing his area of interest, aerial combat. Over the next few diary entries, we’re going to consider the principles he’s just outlined in his Dicta Boelcke, which will soon be required reading by all German pilots. Principle 1:

Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.

Of course, it’s harder to see anything when looking into the sun than when looking away from it. By “advantages”, he’s referring to a number of different factors (speed, height, surprise, and performance, among others). The more you have, the more likely you are to be successful. Boelcke was scrupulous about not attacking unless the situation was favourable.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is spending long days training at the Bull Ring, Etaples Base Camp. Evenings are his own, and the nearby seaside town, known either as Le Touquet or Paris-Plage, was a favourite haunt of artists in the quarter-century before the war.

We might be in England. Someone has had the good taste to open a tea-shop in Paris-Plage that, but for its military customers, puts the thought of camps and army routine a thousand miles away. The cretonnes about the windows are in strong simple colours, and the china might have come from a Cottage Tea Room. Half a dozen of us have walked and trammed to Paris-Plage solely for the luxury of feeling English civil ease again. What creatures of environment we are! We could buy the same food in the [Officers’ Mess] for half the money; yet no one would mistake us for dilettanti.

There is little attraction about Paris-Plage itself. The front is deserted: the normal life of the place is suffering war repression. Like every English seaside town during the war, Paris-Plage wears by daylight the fancy dress of last night’s dance. We wander round and the time hangs heavy on our hands. Nothing is more desolate than forsaken gaiety. Let’s jump on the little tram and go back to camp.

Cretonne is a heavy fabric often used in curtains. And, of course, Le Touquet has been reserved for officers. Other ranks are restricted to the other side of the river, in Etaples itself, which is rather less salubrious. Plowman won’t be here much longer.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson, you’ll be shocked and appalled to hear, is not only malingering, but also arsing around with his mates.

Pretended I was ‘indisposed’ so stayed in bed to miss roll call. Had breakfast in bed. Had a shave before parade which was a bathing one preceded by ‘surprise attack’ tactics. Had some naked races along the sands then a fine bath. ‘Baai’, a porter, got cuts for refusing to carry ammunition boxes. Heard the sergeant and colonel of the East African machine guns were shot for refusing duty and others given long terms of imprisonment. Got our orders for marching tomorrow.

Laid our waterproofs when Pintlebury came in and started a ‘rough and tumble’, making our blankets and ground sheets in a frightful mess. After he left we paid him a return visit and ruffled his tent, and 6 of them packed on to 4 of us.

Well, that was a quick swing from naked horseplay to reputed executions.

I say “reputed” because if there was an execution, the men do not appear in the official list of 346 executed men. (Of course, neither did Henry Pedris…) It’s also deeply, deeply unlikely that a colonel would be tried, never mind executed (of the official list, only three officers were shot, all of them second lieutenants; although Pedris was a captain). But who knows what lurks deep in the archives? It may be just another latrine rumour. Or it may not. And it’s almost entirely overshadowed the casual reference to what seems to be the brutal physical punishment of an African porter. What a cheery day.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge may not be a particularly good soldier, but he’s at least learned how to complain like one.

This morning a lynx-eyed officer discovered there were some weeds around his tent. At once a powerful fatigue-party of ten was detailed off to pull out the tares sewn by the Evil One. Must have been a [bloody] Hun, that “enemy!” We did the work most carefully. The first non-commissioned officer who had charge told us to pull out the weeds. When he grew tired of directing the complex and difficult operations and went to “see a man about a dog,” his successor ordered us to cut the weeds. The third NCO asked us to cut only the points.

Thereupon I used my scissors, whilst one of the men, a professional barber, instructed me in the gentle art of appearing busy. At intervals we asked the NCO, “What is a weed?” “Is this a weed?” Which cross-examination he did not like, but since there were some quaint flowers in the Officer’s garden, sown, not by the Evil One, but by a Captain with visions of Kew, the botanical lore of our NCO was sorely taxed. In the afternoon we had to scrub the officers’ tents.

As an aspiring literary type, Mugge is surely familiar with not doing much work. However, the concept of having to pretend to work to divert unwanted attention is a new one. The techniques have changed in the 21st century to meet the changing needs of the Army; the basic object, however, remains the same.

And we scrubbed! We swept and swabbed, we mopped and scoured. We scrubbed the wooden circular flooring of ever so many tents. It was hard work and aggravated by the total lack of utensils. You had to wait for the chaps in the next tent who used the one sound brush available whilst yet others bullied you for the one piece of soap and the hot water without which they could not start. There is a rumour about that tomorrow the sand will have to be dusted and that all the tents in the Division here, some three hundred, will have to be whitewashed. I am convinced it’s just an invention of the cooks.

The office people tell me that the War Office Practical Joke Department have not yet answered my application for a transfer to the Interpreters’ Corps. It is not fair to shut up like that. Hitherto each application, though not eliciting a real reply, has at least resulted in my transfer to another regiment. Now I seem to be a limpet.

Well, they’ve already thrown him into the Non-Combatant Corps and then pulled him out again. What else can they possibly do to him?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Taking stock | 31 July 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is one month old. It’s been a long bloody month. I think I’ve said about all that can possibly be said about July on the Somme. Let us just round it off with a couple of observations from the big bosses. Interestingly, both General Joffre and General Haig are doing the same thing; they’re hectoring a subordinate.

Joffre is primarily concerned for the prospects of future cooperation with the BEF. He’s been getting a lot of messages recently from Generals Foch and Fayolle, repeating the earlier themes of the English amateurs who simply don’t know what they’re doing. The men on the spot are both angling for an independent attack to capture Peronne and its road and rail junctions. In strict strategic terms it is probably the correct decision, but Joffre must also consider politics and the need not to offend allies who they will need next year

The fundamental intention of the Somme offensive must continue to be supporting the British attack in the north. Our offensive in the south must remain secondary or subordinate to the results obtained in the north.

It will, of course, be much easier for Joffre to organise another big push to coincide with Romania’s entry into the war and the next battle of the Isonzo (of course that’s coming) if it can be presented as “we all attack together!” rather than “you get on with it, and we’ll get on with it”. There’s a big conference being planned at a chateau near the Somme. King George V and President Poincare will be attending, and there will of course be a spectacularly gluttonous dinner, no small task when General Joffre’s appetite is in town.

Haig and Rawlinson

After a month of falling short of objectives, General Haig is writing an extensive position paper. It would probably be slightly unfair to call it an extended bollocking for General Rawlinson. That’s not all that’s there. But there is plenty of it there.

To enable us to bring the present operations (the existing phase of which may be regarded as a ‘wearing out’ battle) to a successful termination, we must practice such economy of men and material as will ensure our having the ‘last reserves’ at our disposal when the crisis of the fight is reached, which may—and probably will—not be sooner than the last half of September.

The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however—with due regard to economy of means available—without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success.

He also includes explicit instructions not to attack anywhere else…but they are allowed to conduct prepatory works for another offensive. I smell loophole. Watch that space. We’ve also got some instructions for Reserve Army, instructing them to attack only to capture Pozieres windmill.

The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for, not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view, but by a careful selection of objectives.

If only winning a battle were as simple as ordering the Army commander “Don’t fuck up” and leaving him to get on with it. These are not easy orders to follow. It’s like cooking for Goldilocks. Hurry up, but not too much. Prepare properly, but don’t dawdle. General Rawlinson is left to hold a conference to make some sense of these orders. I’ll not hold my breath.

Haig’s diary, meanwhile, is fabulously dull. There’s then a little space, and then an additional note, apparently added not too long afterwards.

OBJECTIVE
The war must be continued until Germany is vanquished to such an extent as to be obliged to accept whatever terms the Allies may dictate to her.

As far as we know, this has simply occurred to the Chief in his thoughts. As far as I know, this is the first time since 1914 that anyone has considered what “victory” might mean, and what it might look like. What a way to end one of the bloodiest months of the war.

Max Plowman

The engine of war continues ticking over. Max Plowman is training in the Bull Ring at Etaples, which by law I must refer to as the “notorious” Bull Ring.

We are on our way to the Bull Ring: two hundred of us, officers who have not been to the Front and are therefore due for a course of intensive training till some battalion of our regiments shall require us. Here we are, slogging along under the command of a captain, back in the ranks again, carrying rifles. This appears to be an indignity to some of these fellows; but it does not trouble me, for I have no gift for the assertion of authority, and find it easier to obey army orders than to give them. The responsibility of command is an effort which diverts thought from what are much more natural, if useless, channels.

These huts to our right and left are hospitals. And what is that, looking like an ungrown hopfield? A British cemetery, Lord! How many have died already! The ground is smothered with wooden crosses.

We march on in the heat till we come to a great open sandy arena. Out on to this plain we file, and now we are put through physical jerks by officers who have risen from the regular ranks; and now are drilled by sergeant-majors who have been chosen for this duty presumably by virtue of the harshness of their voices and the austerity of their manners. It is hot work, and there is a fierce, vindictive atmosphere about this place which makes its name of “Bull Ring” intelligible.

Later we climb up among the sand dunes on the other side of the road, and there practise firing rifle grenades and throwing those small egg-shaped cast-iron missiles known as Mills bombs. Here too we learn more of the methods of gas attack and defence, and practise the art of shoving our heads quickly into the clammy flannel bags that are dignified by the name of PH helmets. We finish the morning’s work by running obstacle races over a prepared course back on the arena.

In other times, all signs of our activity banishe’d, these sand dunes must make a place of delightful holiday. Even to-day one’s eyes wandered instinctively toward the blue estuary that lay below us, where the tiny white sail of a yacht moved slowly up-stream.

Yes, he actually wrote “banishe’d”. It’s funny; when he’s pleasing Columbo and giving us just the facts, he’s got a real talent for this “memoir” lark. Then he starts trying to write Literature and he sounds like a massive, massive berk, and I just want to poke fun at everything he says. He is right that in peacetime, Le Toquet is a well-to-do beach resort of considerable reputation, mind.

The PH helmet, by the way, has now of course been superceded by the Respirator Small Box. However, like the steel helmet, the modern respirator is issued as trench stores only, left up the line by units who are going back to rest for the next lot who are following them. There aren’t enough spare for people to train with them.

Neil Tennant at Basra

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Basra. On the way, he’s not been surprised to see a steady stream of hospital ships sailing the reverse route to India. He starts, of course, by whinging about the heat, and quickly moves on to whinging about everything else.

The place is famous at least for its climate; the humid heat hangs heavy on the lungs, everything is saturated, ink runs on the paper, and matches will barely strike. Endure the day, but the night brings no relief. There is no freshness in a Basra summer, and the ravages of prickly heat, mosquito, and sand-fly combine ‘to shrivel all impulse and desire. The town and its surroundings are intersected by canals and lagoons, and densely sown with date palms.

I had an interview with General Sir Percy Lake, and was generally busy learning the situation. The staff at GHQ looked tired and washed out, the result of long office hours in the hot weather. The strength of the RFC at this time in Mesopotamia was one skeleton squadron at the Front, and an Aircraft Park at the base. There was also a Kite Balloon section of the Royal Naval Air Service under Commander Wrottesly.

Here such arrears of work had accumulated that it was hard to know where to begin, and the men who were left had little life in them. It was only possible to work in the hours of dawn, for by nine o’clock the sun was getting up, and any remaining energy was necessary for bare existence. A large percentage of our staff were sick, the hospitals were overflowing, and very few reinforcements arriving in the country ever reached their units, but went sick at Basra, taking up valuable room in hospital that was needed for men evacuated from the front.

Lack of labour was seriously holding up the unlading of stores urgently required by the force up river; coolies were few and difficult, and troops were not to be spared from drafts for the fighting forces, fifty per cent, of whom had gone sick. The congestion of shipping in Basra harbour, as a result of this, was serious at a time when all the Empire’s resources in tonnage were necessary to fight the submarine menace. Some ships had been lying in harbour for months, and it was said that others had returned to India, having only cleared a portion of their cargo in order not to waste time when there was any space available.

Nine new aeroplanes which had been waiting a month to be unloaded were not got ashore till several weeks later. The base at Basra seemed to be congested with stores of every description, yet owing to lack of labour and shallow draft river transport, the fighting force were hard pressed to maintain themselves.

But it seems like he’s still justified in moaning. If things are like that now, imagine what it must have been like at the height of the Siege of Kut! Ye gods.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson still has no official orders to move, so takes himself off to find some entertainment, visiting an abandoned Schuztruppe position outside Kondoa Irangi. Of course, where one finds bored soldiers, one also finds bad life decisions…

Saw the observation post and the splendid look-out it held, also the well-dug trenches. Pieces of our shells were lying all over the place and there were many big holes which they had made. Saw the first howitzer shell that was fired and didn’t burst. Picked up a good many shrapnel balls then started back for home. Took some time to pick the black-jacks out of my puttees. … Hassett got hold of some kaffir beer and, after imbibing some, got very excited so we had a sing-song in his tent. In the middle of the proceedings the tent nearly caught alight amid great excitement.

This is beer is brewed from millet, known to the South Africans as kaffir corn because it’s what the black Africans grow. Oh, those loveable cheeky self-immolating racist chappies! If only all racists could be so obliging.

Incidentally, they haven’t heard the news, but after just about riding his horses and his men into the ground, General van Deventer is now at Dodoma on the Central Railway. They’re all horribly tired and unfit, and two men and a dachshund could probably have captured the entire South African Horse. However, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have been forced to scatter to avoid their advance, and they’re off in the middle of nowhere trying to get themselves back into some kind of order, having just been pushed off their railway. As long as the South Africans can get some supplies forward and they don’t all starve, which is far from guaranteed, this is a major coup.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Let us now have a last horror of war to see the month of July out. It starts well enough; they’re being relieved. Unlike the life of an infantryman, full of marching up the line and back from the line and up the line again, a gunner stays in his gun-pit in the same area of country for months or more at a time. In a hot sector like the Somme, Fraser-Tytler’s men have been working hard with very little respite since the New Year. Aside from the odd week’s leave, this will be the first time since January that they’ve had any real guaranteed rest.

I lunched with Peter Fraser-Tytler at his battery, and then went to see Victor Walrond, who commands a battery in the same division.

This will be the last time our correspondent sees his brother alive. On the 3rd of August, he’ll be killed by counter-battery fire near Montauban, somewhere close to the positions that our man is just quitting. He returns to his battery, but. Weak stomachs and large animal lovers should probably look away now.

Just as I reached the road behind my position, three passing gun teams were done in by a single big shell. I finished off as many of the horses as I could with a revolver, which I took from a very erratic-shooting subaltern. … An orderly bringing a message had come up with two horses and was holding them beside one of the gun-pits. I was just thinking of sending them away, when I heard a close shell coming and jumped for safety into the mess at the bottom of the 12-inch shell-crater. As soon as the shell had burst, I looked out just in time to see a red lump rising out of a red pool.

It was the horse-holder. I pulled him into one of the dugouts and got a party to clean him and then report damages. He was practically untouched, and he told them that he lay down with reins in hand when he heard the shell. It must have burst on the back of one of the horses, as there was no crater. As soon as the shelling stopped, we began to clean up, finding one head, three legs and one hindquarters at distances up to a hundred yards. The remainder of the two horses was in small fragments over the whole position. It was indeed indescribable.

The horse holder seemed quite unshaken, and having been fitted out with clean clothes, went back on foot. The rest of the afternoon did not pass with the same good luck. Captain Stevens, Officer Commanding the next battery, got knocked over by a big shell. Although apparently untouched, he died of shock an hour later. Then a few minutes later, Gibbs, commanding the battery in front of us, was fatally wounded while trying to get his teams out of the position.

I am the only battery commander left out of the five neighbouring batteries. I remember I always used to say jokingly that crawling about with a telephone in No Man’s Land was safer than staying at the guns.

And so ended July 1916. May we never see its like again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Africa | Longueval | 27 Jul 1916

Africa

The Prime Minister of South Africa, Louis Botha, has just arrived in German East Africa to find out first-hand why his crony Smuts’s grandiose predictions of victory have not, as yet, come to pass. On the face of it, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Mind you, Botha would probably be less than totally willing to give the proper credit to the Indian Railway Battalions in theatre. However, their role is by far the most important of any military unit right now. There’s a narrow-gauge railway that’s fast approaching Kondoa Irangi. Other men are working flat out to restore the Northern Railway to working order. Let’s have a map again.

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

So, on the face of it, all’s going well. Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to it. In theory, there are four separate forces converging on the Schutztruppe (including the Rhodesians coming up from off the south-western edge of the map. In practice, there are only two who are close enough to possibly worry Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. And they’re both operating at the end of grossly over-stretched supply lines, and facing an enemy who once more is demonstrating absolutely no willingness to stand and fight. His opposition may now be disdainfully calling him “von Lettow-Fallback”, but he’s just trying not to lose.

Once again, every battalion in service here is a battalion that can’t be used anywhere else. Right now, there are approximately 21,000 British Empire men in theatre, including sick and wounded (which is still, for most units, in the region of 50% to 70% of their strength). Many of them would have been needed to police the Empire in Africa, but they all need to eat, and they all need uniforms, and they all need ammunition, and so on. Anything short of a total defeat in this theatre is a net gain for the German Empire.

Battle of the Somme

Another day, another attack, another butcher’s bill. This time we’re at Delville Wood and Longueval, where, as we mentioned yesterday, we find the BEF’s artillery trying to turn everything into a glutinous paste, and mostly succeeding. By the time they’re done, the “wood” is a messy collection of mutilated stumps, and Longueval is a few stubborn piles of randomly-positioned bricks. There are still quite a few Germans still alive in there after they’re finished, but when the men go over the top at ten minutes past seven, almost none of them are in any position to resist.

But the bombardment has not gone unnoticed by the Germans. And here’s the problem with such gigantically overwhelming bombardments. They destroy everything. Including the enemy’s trenches. Which means that when your infantry advances, they have nowhere to hide from the enemy’s retaliatory bombardment. Neither do the men have anywhere to hide when trying to get back to the rear with messages, or forward with supplies. This is, ahem, a less than desirable state of affairs.

And so, when the inevitable counter-attacks arrive, they manage to shove back into a small part of the wrecked wood, again at horrendous loss of life, and they’re still disputing control over one of the piles of bricks that was once part of Longueval. Let’s have a word from a man described only as “Schulze”.

The shells plunged into the bodies of the British who were lying to our front. Together with the acrid fumes of the explosives, the stench formed a stinking cloud over the trenches and took your breath away.

When not under fire, the blokes take the chance to conduct an informal resupply exercise, courtesy of their dead opponents.

It was well known that the British have some pretty good kit. Also, it would have been a pity to leave their binoculars, razor blades, and other shaving gear to disappear in the mud.

Here we see further evidence of the Blockade of Germany tightening its grip. The best of everything that can be had is being strictly reserved for the use of the Army, but more and more items are becoming scarce even for them.

Oskar Teichman

At the Suez Canal, Oskar Teichman’s cavalrymen are still waiting for the order to advance, and they’re starting to get mildly peeved.

We were all now getting very impatient, as the Turks were steadily advancing and no orders were received to attack. A few weeks ago we had been told that the Katia waterbelt district must be held at any price, as it was considered a jumping-off place for the Turks before attacking the Canal; and now, directly the Turks advanced,all these places (with wells made by our engineers) were evacuated.

Intelligence. – The Turks are now at Hod Es Sagia, a point midway and well in front of the Oghratina-Mageibra lines.

Teichman is presenting anything marked “Intelligence” as an actual extract from the Comic Cuts daily intelligence briefing. Whether they’re what they claim to be, I don’t know, but the style sounds right. It’s certainly possible that he could have copied extracts, or kept the documents after the intelligence officer was finished with them.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC has now taken ship from India, alongside 1,600 sepoys, 40 British officers, and a large number of goats. He’s sailing for Basra.

We called at Muscat, a god-forsaken looking spot on the south-east coast of Arabia, and an old headquarters of piracy, slave traffic, and gun-running. It was an important Portuguese naval station early in the seventeenth century, but attained its greatest prosperity under Arab rule two hundred years later.

Abdul Rezak left on record here in 1442 that “the heat was so intense that it burned the marrow in the bones, the sword in its scabbard melted like wax, and the gems which adorned the hilt of the dagger were reduced to coal. In the plains the chase became a matter of perfect ease, for the desert was filled with roasted gazelles!” Muscat is picturesque and mediaeval, with its watch towers and large fort commanding the bay, but, as usual, no shade or vegetation to be seen anywhere.

Here we left a de’tachment of the 108th Native Infantry, as, although nominally independent, the Sultan had appealed to the British for protection against the Turk and hostile tribes, to whom his Hinterland was exposed. There had been fighting here in 1915, the Indian garrison having defeated and driven off three thousand Arabs. Little did the British public, more immediately affected by the greater wars, realise how forgotten British officers were dying in nameless fights, or rotting with fever in distant outposts, “unknown, uncared-for, and unsung.”

Muscat has risen again in the world since 1916 and is currently the capital of Oman. The size of Oman had contracted significantly after the mid-19th century, and when Tennant arrived, the British Empire was very much calling the shots at arm’s length. It does have some oil, but their economy is much more diverse than that of other modern Arab countries. What our friend neglects to mention is that Muscat sits right at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, one of the most strategically important locations in the world. It therefore pays to be on the right side of the Sultan, regardless of how oppressive (very) his regime is.

“Abdul Rezak”, meanwhile, is almost certainly best-known in English today as Abd-al-Razzaq Samarquandi. (Transliteration is fun!) He was an ambassador for a Timurid ruler of Persia and journeyed from there to Calicut/Kozhikode in western India, via Muscat and many other places.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is away from his quiet sector and on the march, heading south, towards the Somme by way of Grand Rullecourt, where he’s been before.

We led on quickly by the north gate and out at once, so as to avoid dawn on the Open Road. But it was daylight when we got up and out, though the mist prevented any harm resulting from that. It was only about 5 miles, and as always, thank God, I recovered completely and gloriously with the dawn. So much so, that I had to embark on a needless and vehement row with K.P. over the breakfast question in the big billet. This was silly: but less so was the fact that I decided to get my own (and not make people cook) in the village.

A day of tremendous heat. It was always hot, hot; and strange thirst, for most of the men, caused a good deal of discomfort and a few fall-outs. We had a long halt for dinner somewhere near Hauteville in a field, and I dis covered again the merits of the Army stew on a hot day. But we were all very distinctly tired, I perhaps rather particularly, after pulling by his rifle an acting corporal, who had got rather done up by the heat.

And so the Big Push, as it rapidly diminishes into the Half-Arsed Push, captures him as it did his Man.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, on permanent base duty at Balinghem, is watching a lot of men going forward. Plenty of men in 1915 and 1916 went to the front with an entire battalion, an established unit, with all their mates. Now the profile is rather different. The Army is not increasing in size half as fast as it had been through 1915. More and more new men are not being sent to France with a battalion; they’re going to the base until they’re called forward as part of a reinforcement-draft. And they could be sent to any unit in the Army. Even wounded men aren’t guaranteed a return to their old battalion.

Thousands and thousands of boys are being rushed to the Somme. Many drafts are wanted for the “Great Push.” Despite our newspapers with their paraphrase of Caesar’s “pauci de nostris cadunt,” the long grey hospital trains move silently and slowly through our station, by day and by night, yet most of the boys who leave us go as to a dance, cheering and singing. Before they are put on a draft, they are grousing like the others, and nobody wants to go.

Once they are chosen, they bow to the inevitable, whether it is their first venture into the Unknown or a return to the Hell they left but a short while ago. The fine English bull-dog spirit asserts itself and with laughter and with riotous songs they march out. We, the old crocks, the “permanent base men” who cannot go, and others who are not yet chosen, are lining the roads and shout “Good-bye!” to the clamouring throng that passes out. Everybody shakes hands; “Good-bye, Billy!” ” So long, Jimmy!” Platoon after platoon passes. Here and there a grim set face, but the overwhelming majority make merry.

Caesar was fighting a campaign in Gaul at the time; the translation is “Few of us will die”. Hardy-har-har.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Kowel | Pozieres | 24 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is congealing again. Not that it moved very far on the 23rd, mind you. A satirical comedy once described General Haig’s tactics as “yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin”, a quotation that I may have referenced once or twice over the last two years. And, over the last two years, I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is indeed much more to the war than the Blackadder view.

Unfortunately, satire must be based in reality to be effective. We are now entering a period of the war when it really is going to be a whole lot of witlessly advancing on Berlin six inches at a time. There are a few more penny-packet attacks near Guillemont and High Wood, but the only area of the BEF’s front to still be seeing major action is Pozieres, where the Australians are consolidating. There’s been quite a bit of confusion and inaccurate reports filtering back to the German rear. Generals von Below and von Gallwitz have been squabbling about when they should counter-attack. Mid-level commanders are ordering pfennig-packet counter-attacks in the meantime.

There really are very few people indeed with some kind of responsibility for strategic decisions who come out of the Somme looking at all good. Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the sheer weight of artillery is increasing and increasing as both sides attempt to break up the other’s attempts to move reinforcements into the area. Pozieres is now just a mass of ruins and scattered bricks and trenches and shell-holes. One Private P Kinchington was right in the middle of it.

The heavy shells were falling, so it was estimated, at the rate of three a minute. It was not long before the area became unrecognisable, and as time went on even the unwounded felt sick. Food and water were not too plentiful, and we did not know when any more would be available. After our iron rations had gone we were compelled to fall back upon any that could be found on the dead.

You know, there’s part of me that wants to go “jeez, how horrible”, and then part of me that wants to go “yeah, and Henri Desagneaux survived two weeks under this kind of pressure, suck it up, rub some dirt on it”. Oh, and very few historians have seen fit to mention that the French launched their half of yesterday’s attack today (ahem). Another couple of hundred metres of dead, ruined, barren ground have been liberated for the glory of the Third Republic, but by and large it’s been just as much a failure as their allies’ attempts.

Madibira and Malangali

Time now to nip over to Africa to check on the progress of General Northey’s “ubiquitous Rhodesians”, who are driving north-east from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. The original thought was that they might be able to quickly encircle the Schutztruppe’s border garrison, but this has soon floundered. The conditions have proven far harder than anyone was expecting; the soldiers are struggling and their local porters are frequently and literally being walked to their deaths. Meanwhile, the enemy is showing a thoroughly unsporting disinclination to actually fight while brutally outnumbered.

Well, for the most part. There’s a particularly defensible position between Madibira and Malangali. The retreating Schutztruppe mean to make a stand here, and they’ve been supported by a small company of reinforcements, a hundred of them former naval men from the Konigsberg. There are even worrying rumours that those men might have brought one of their old ship’s guns with them. But, don’t worry, good news, those rumours will quickly turn out to be untrue.

Bad news: this is because it’s not a Konigsberg gun, it’s a 10.5cm howitzer that arrived on the supply ship Marie. One of Northey’s detachments discover its presence when they’re about 2,000 yards from Malangali. The biggest gun most people with the force will have seen (and heard) before is a small mountain piece; it must have been like spending your entire life in rowing boats and then getting up close to a supertanker in the fog. Somehow the men don’t immediately turn and flee en masse, and most of them continue fighting all day and through the night.

By tomorrow morning, the German commander Captain Braunschweig is retreating again, and thanks to a broken gun carriage, he’s had to leave the offending howitzer behind. Oops! Even better, during the height of the battle, he received a message telling him that the tribal chief whose lands stood right on his line of retreat had seen which way the wind was blowing and come out in support of the British Empire. Back on the road everyone goes, heading in the general direction of Iringa. More soon.

Battle of Kowel

Hi, this is your infrequent reminder that we’re still brutally short-changing the Brusilov Offensive, which has been going on all the while. For two months General Brusilov’s armies have been advancing west towards Lvov, targeting the Austro-Hungarian forces. They’ve lost a lot of men, and inflicted even more on the enemy. General von Linsingen is now ready to oppose the battle with a major counter-attack, which I’ll hopefully be able to make more sense of in time for the book of 1916, where it’ll have its proper weight. For now: it’s underway, it’s slowing the Russians down again, lots of people died.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman and his men get some good advice from the rear.

The Turks were said to be still entrenching, and Intelligence reported that large numbers of machine guns were being brought up. We received orders that while on the move no one was to touch his water-bottle between dawn and sunset, and that even then he was not to empty his bottle until he knew for certain that more water was to be issued.

Water discipline is an often-ignored part of soldiering during battle, but it’s absolutely critical. The Australian veterans at Pozieres would have learned about it the hard way on Gallipoli.

E.S. Thompson

With an advance on Dodoma now underway, there won’t be many more boring camp days in E.S. Thompson’s future, I think. Which is good, because the devil is making work for some of his men’s idle hands.

Attended my first parade this morning since coming out of hospital. Quite enjoyed it although we got some weird orders. Got orders to stand by for moving. Made 3 slices each of toast for lunch which we had with some lovely dripping melted from an ox hump. Started a letter to mother. Went for a most enjoyable bath and on the way back had a game of ‘Crown and Anchor’, coming out even. Nice stew cooked by Rose, the first he has made by himself. Smith and Sterling tried to ‘lift’ a bag of flour and mealie-meal but were found out and after biffing [an African], fled.

Should have stuck to masturbation, boys. Those square brackets aren’t mine, by the way. They’re from whoever edited and published the diary. Anyone want to bet a fiver on that originally being some flagrantly racist word?

Oswin Creighton

Padre and Gallipoli veteran Oswin Creighton is beginning to get indications that he might soon return to the war, this time to France. For now, he’s still at Romsey; he’s just attended a conference of the Student Christian Movement.

I hear from the Chaplain-General that he does not propose to send me out to the Front just yet, but will get me an exchange soon. Then came Bishop Bury’s letter,but I gather the way is not open yet to sending anyone to Germany. I took Captain Band and the boys to the Coliseum, and we had a good laugh. I liked some of the men I met so much. But when I read the casualty lists and accounts of the violent fighting going on, I feel that we all ought to be in it, and really envy the men who are having the worst times. They have no problems.

But I suppose problems will continue after death, and the efforts we make now for their solution will not be utterly in vain.

Here’s a real indication of Creighton’s character. The letter to Bishop Bury was an offer, and I am not making this up, to travel to Germany and be interned in a POW camp so he could minister to the captured men.

Yeah, this is one of those times when I simply cannot react to something. Moving on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is complaining once again about his book of Serbian folk songs, still not in print. After venting his feelings, he turns to an always-popular theme among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia: complaining that the working classes are not enjoying themselves in an approved fashion.

There is a total absence of real folk-songs everywhere; at any rate, with all the units with which I have come into contact. If the boys are not singing snatches from silly music-hall songs, they are gabbling some incoherent stuff with deadly monotony. Last night my tent-mates were singing for over half an hour, “Wee ahr heere,” “Wee ahr heere.” Nothing but that! Even a solipsist would have believed in their existence, had he listened. “We are here, we are here,” ad infinitum; why! this beautiful motive beats the mere “Here we are, here we are again”!

What a pity the boys were not taught pretty folk-songs when they were at school, or perhaps I rather should say, why don’t they ever sing those few charming ditties they were taught? What’s the remedy? It would be, of course, a gross libel on the men to say that they are singing nothing but monotonous parrotries. What I do complain of is the total absence of such songs as: “Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,” or “Hope the Hermit,” or “Come Lasses and Lads,” or “There was a jolly miller once.”

I wonder how he would like it if I moved to Germany and then complained that people were wearing jeans and T-shirts instead of lederhosen? Besides, Mugge would do well to do better research before starting the Campaign for Real Folk Music. “Tom Bowling” was written by the proto-music-hall songwriter Charles Dibden in 1788 about his brother, although it does sound convincingly like something that Rambling Syd Rumpo might play. In fact, I bet you’d even find a lot of academics today who’d argue that the soldiers’ songs he’s complaining about have just as much right to be called traditional folk songs as anything else…

By the way: Solipsists are philosophers who argue that any one person can only know for sure that their own mind exists, and “There was a jolly miller once” is more commonly known as “Miller of Dee”.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide