Conscription | Gallipoli | 24 Jan 1916

Africa

Another quick note from Africa, where a British Empire brigade continues preparations for the attack on German East Africa by evicting the Schutztruppe from a camp near Mbyuni. This is no mean feat. The major challenge here is water; much of the land is arid desert, and an enormous water pipe has had to be laid from deep inside Kenya. Even that isn’t enough; that Indian Railway Corps has laid another narrow-gauge railway forward, and most of its time is being taken up in hauling vast water tanks to Mbyuni.

The camp, incidentally, also happened to be an important guerrilla base. Over the next couple of weeks, the number of raids on the Uganda Railway is going to fall sharply.

Military Service Act

Time to turn at last to Westminster, where after great political ructions both in the Cabinet (not least on the grounds of who’s supposed to pay the wages of all these new soldiers) and then in Parliament, a Military Service Bill is being rammed forcibly through the legislature. To a European observer, for whom conscription is a simple fact of life and rite of passage as a young man, this must have looked extremely odd. The silly English, having finally agreed to start conscripting all men of military age, are now tying themselves in knots over exemptions!

As far as the Army is concerned this is quite simple. Voluntary recruitment simply isn’t providing enough men to replace losses and expand the Army to a point where it can fight a war-winning battle. Therefore, the text of the Bill (just about to stumble drunkenly out of the House of Lords and off to see the King) says that every British man aged between 18 and 41 in March will have enlisted and therefore will be subject to military law. Sounds simple enough. The devil, as ever, is in the details, and the ways in which men can be exempted from the call-up.

The first exemption is for married men, as long as they were married before November (to prevent a stampede to the churches with any vaguely willing woman). For many politicians it is still a red line that families cannot be compulsorily deprived of their breadwinner, and this issue will not be going away any time soon. Then there are men doing work of national importance; a very large category. They’re munitions workers, coal-miners, railwaymen, and so on. It’s no good enlarging the Army if the Grand Fleet can’t leave Scapa Flow for lack of coal to fuel their engines. The French and Germans have been trying for a while to exempt men who could be better used elsewhere, but they’ve had considerable trouble getting the Army to give up men they already have. Perhaps it will be easier if the relevant men aren’t already on active service?

So far, so reasonable; and that continues with exemptions for men who have been rejected for voluntary service already on medical grounds, or who have been discharged with wounds. But then our Continental friend starts scratching his head again. There’s a rather nebulous category for men whose call-up would cause “serious hardship…owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations, or domestic postion.” This being legislation, no examples are given; defining “serious hardship” is someone else’s problem. Johnny Foreigner may well be further confused by a specific exemption for priests; as we’ve seen, priests such as Father Galaup fight in the ranks of the French Army with everyone else.

And then the European surely throws his hands up, mutters something about how the English are crazy, and stalks off in search of a decent cup of coffee. The final category for exemption is “on the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service”, something completely unknown to the rest of Europe. (If the option had been available, Louis Barthas would probably have written his memoirs about being an imprisoned dissident.) This is rather a big subject, and we’ll have to park it for now and come back later. Suffice it to say that we are coming back to it. Local tribunals will be set up to decide who qualifies for exemption.

Oh, there’s one more thing. Having looked at what’s in the Bill, there is one important thing that is not in the Bill. The Bill refers to “British subjects…ordinarily resident in Great Britain”. It quite deliberately says nothing about Ireland. There’s a lot of well-founded concern that conscripting Irishmen might prompt a full-scale rebellion. Things in Ireland aren’t exactly sweetness and light at the moment; again, that’s one for another day.

The fallout from Gallipoli

Now we’ve got a day with no new military developments, we can also have a quick look at the fallout from the end of the Gallipoli campaign. Most obviously, it’s had a lasting impact on British strategy. With Lord Kitchener sidelined and Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill exiling himself to the Western Front (in a few days he goes up the line with his battalion for the first time), there’s a lack of strong arguments in London for operations in any other theatre than the Western Front.

Reinforcements for Mesopotamia will come almost exclusively from India. The campaign in German East Africa will be mainly fought by white South Africans, more Indians, and black Africans from the rest of the Empire. Commitments to Salonika will be kept as small as possible. Nobody will be in a rush to argue for anything other than concentration on the Western Front. Unless, of course, some great disaster might occur. But what are the chances of that?

Australia and New Zealand now have reason to feel they’re in the war. They’ve learned many important lessons about the realities of war. Many of the blokes have also come away with a nasty little suspicion that perhaps the English don’t have their best interests at heart. Still, I’m sure that this can be dispelled, just as long as the next time they go into action (they’re currently recuperating in Egypt), some great disaster doesn’t occur.

There are of course plenty of lessons to learn for the British, but most of them are painfully obvious (it’s a good idea to have adequate supplies, don’t let General Hunter-Weston near a major battle, trying to land men on defended beaches should be avoided if possible), and of questionable relevance to the Western Front. As long as certain twerps don’t re-appear, there seems little chance of the fallout from Gallipoli prompting some major disaster to occur.

In Constantinople, as I mentioned a few days ago, the mood is distinctly chipper. They’ve just won a major military and propaganda victory and have been left with about the best problem possible. “Now that we’ve won in this theatre, where do we send the troops for best effect?” There are two obvious candidates in Baghdad and Erzurum, and plans to re-organise and dispatch them are now in hand. The irritating loss of Koprukoy aside, everything seems to be going rather well. (As long as some major disaster

The main problem now is, as ever, those damned logistics. The Ottoman railway “network” genuinely deserves to be written in inverted commas. It’s just about a railway, but it certainly isn’t a network (of which more later). Almost nothing’s been done since the start of the war to improve matters. Moving the Gallipoli men to other theatres of the war is going to take many, many months to complete. And many of those months will be spent marching.

There is one other interesting thing that I want to mention here. After this war finishes, one Mustafa Kemal, already fast becoming a national hero after Gallipoli, will lead a Turkish nationalist movement. By 1923 it have created the modern Republic of Turkey out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. This will, inevitably, require more armies, more fighting, more wars. It is no coincidence that, during the Turkish wars of independence, all but one of Kemal’s key generals (and many more besides) were men who had served with him on Gallipoli.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Erzurum Offensive | The end of Gallipoli | 9 Jan 1916

Erzurum Offensive

We open today in the Caucasus. You may recall that General Yudenich, the Russian commander, has been planning an audacious attack on eastern Anatolia. He’s taken Enver Pasha’s battle-plan for the Battle of Sarikamis, reasoned that it’s a good idea if only it were done properly, and decided to use it in reverse against the Ottomans. By advancing over the Cakir Baba and then the Top Yol, he can launch sneak attacks on the two chief towns in the area, Koprukoy and Erzurum. This will allow him to bypass the Lines of Koprukoy, strong defensive positions in the Ayas Valley, south of the Cakir Baba, that the Ottomans have spent the best part of a year digging out in front of Koprukoy itself.

Yudenich also has a rather cunning supplement to the plan. The Erzurum Offensive begins tomorrow on the Cakir Baba, but he’s not expecting immediate results. A couple of days after that, there will be an attack in the Aras Valley against the Lines of Koprukoy. Yudenich is hoping that his enemy will consider the Cakir Baba fighting a diversion and use his reserves in the Aras Valley. Only after a few more days of fighting will he then commit his full force to a heavy push all across the Cakir Baba, break through, and attempt to

And, for the last few days, his men have been on the march through the mountains. The weather conditions may be utterly miserable, but Yudenich and his staff have prepared for that. Food caches are waiting for the men as they go. They’ve been issued proper heavy clothing to allow them to survive the harsh conditions. We’ve seen more than enough awful, despicable, depressing mountain fighting so far in this war. Can Yudenich prove it can be done, as long as it’s done properly?

Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Our correspondent Robert Palmer and his mates have been torrentially rained on from midnight to 8am. The phrase “fed up, fucked up, and far from home” springs to mind. And then…

About 8.30 the mist cleared a little, and we looked in vain for our tormentors. Our cavalry reconnoitred and, to our joy, we saw them ride clean over the place where the enemy’s line had been the evening before. They had gone in the night. A cold but drying wind sprang up and the sun came out for a short time, and we managed to get our things dry.

Don’t worry, it rains again in the afternoon and everyone gets wet all over again. Yes, the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad is over; cause for relief more than celebration. One-third casualties is in no way a sustainable ratio, even if the relief force doesn’t have to fight again before reaching the Siege of Kut. (Spoilers: It does.)

Gallipoli

We left Gallipoli at midnight, with heavy rain, howling winds, and high seas; and some berk on W Beach trying to blow everyone up with a lit candle in an ammunition dump. The last few hours of the evacuation were, unsurprisingly, extremely tense. The Ottomans have spent the last nine months ranging their guns all over Cape Helles, including the beaches. Men there have absolutely no protection, and the beaches are completely exposed. Ordinarily, one regular shell that catches men in the open can kill ten, fifteen, twenty at a time. If the beaches were to take accurate fire tonight, they might take hundreds out at a time, and throw the entire evacuation into chaos…

And yet they don’t. There’s some desultory and inaccurate fire, but once again, and this time against absolutely all the odds, the last phase of the evacuation goes just about as well as could be expected. Pontoons and piers are constantly patched up through the night, and somehow they just about stay together long enough to get everyone out. As the last boat leaves from W Beach, the fire finally spreads to some heavy ordnance. Lieutenant Owen Steele:

A great volume of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, debris of all kinds went everywhere, and as we were only a hundred yards away from it some came our way. It did no damage beyond breaking one man’s arm in three places. The second explosion came when we were less than 50 yards off the wharf and flame, noise and everything was greater though nothing reached us. By now there were fires everywhere, and it was really a wonderful sight.

And then the enemy barrage finally comes, pouring into empty trenches, onto empty beaches, and fast-emptying seas. Several of the Navy’s ships give Achi Baba one last salvo on their way out; but nothing will wake the men strewn all over their decks. At dawn the Ottomans move up and confirm that the enemy is gone. I suppose we’re due one final analysis of the fallout from the campaign; that will come once things elsewhere quieten down a bit. For now: the Gallipoli Campaign is, at last, over.

Egypt

The war, of course, continues unabated. The Gallipoli evacuees are now, by and large, being taken to Egypt for rest and re-training. This will vastly swell the number of men in the theatre far beyond the existing military structure. In November it had been thought that this could be covered by General Monro and his staff, but now things have been caught up in the general command reshuffle coming from London. The former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Archibald Murray, needs a job. So now Monro will come home with his reputation very much enhanced, and Murray has just arrived in Alexandria with a new staff contingent.

In theory, Maxwell is to stay on and to maintain Egypt’s internal security, while Murray takes over responsibility for improving the defences of the Suez Canal. You may remember Maxwell from his early-1915 jockeying with Sir Ian Hamilton over how many men and munitions should go to Gallipoli (not many). I wonder how he will get on with having to share command with Murray?

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has spent the last few days at rest, being thoroughly trained and exercised. But now, for the first time since the war began, what’s this? Could it possibly be…good news???

One evening, coming back from the drill field, I learned that I was to depart on home leave that very night. This news, while long awaited, stunned me. I became completely pale, I couldn’t swallow a mouthful of supper, and I feverishly prepared my departure. Finally I was going to see my loved ones, my home, my village, after having given up this joyful prospect so many times as death brushed so close to me.

That’s exactly what it is. He’s been given a week of leave, for the first time since mobilisation, 14 months ago. And, speaking of leave…

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is returning to his unit, ears ringing and head stuffed full of all kinds of exciting new ways to do war better. And then, almost as soon as he gets back…

Leaving Lewis with my valise, we walked in the moonlight up to Montagne, where I got the transport officer to send a limber for my valise. “O’Brien on leave” was the first thing I grasped, as I tried to acclimatize myself to my surroundings. Leave! My three months was up, so I ought to get leave myself in a week or so; in a few days in fact. My first leave! The next week was rosy from the prospect.

Three whole months without leave? My heart bleeds.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Blowing up Cape Helles | Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad | 8 Jan 1916

Evacuation of Cape Helles

They’ve nearly done it. An odd last-day-of-term feeling washes about the men as they wait for nightfall. One way or another, this is the last day any of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force will spend on Gallipoli. Back to Sapper Wettern of the Engineers.

That last day was rather queer. One would feel very much the same sensation on being left behind alone in a house that had been one’s home after the family and the furniture had gone. Two French 75s near our camp were very successfully trying to pretend that they were a battery of four guns. Apart from them, there was hardly a soul to be seen. Having nothing to do, we wandered round the line to have a last look round and take some photos. Ate as much as we could possibly tackle, to use up the surplus grub and spent a happy evening opening bully and jam tins and chucking them down a well, also biffing holes in dixies and generally mucking up any serviceable articles.

Meanwhile, the Navy and the few aeroplanes in theatre are busying themselves chucking plenty of ordnance at the heaviest Ottoman guns on the Canakkale side of the Dardanelles. Other sappers are marking out designated routes back to the beaches in flour and dropping copious quantities of barbed wire into all other pathways and communication trenches. Immediately nightfall comes, the men begin pulling back.

And not too soon after that, the calm weather begins to change. At W Beach it’s particularly bad; the makeshift harbour, so recently repaired after the November and December gales, is taking another pounding. Then, just before midnight, some twerp with a candle is wandering around the stores on the beach and sets fire to one of the many ammunition dumps scattered around the beach. Fortunately for the twerp concerned, this dump only contains flares, Very lights, fuses, and a few grenades. But, if the fire spreads, the entire beach could go up…

Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Speaking of bad weather! It’s not a good picture for the blokes at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad, in Mesopotamia. Casualties have been high over the last few days of fighting. It’s still damp and miserable, with no hope for getting the RFC into the air. But surely if General Kemball just pushes on a bit harder today, he can break the back of the Ottoman resistance?

Well, it turns out that it’s no easier to cross marshy, muddy ground criss-crossed by drainage ditches at midday than it is at midnight. General Younghusband on the left bank of the River Tigris has at least been ordered not to attack until Kemball gets somewhere (and therefore does not attack at all today), but there’s still more heavy casualties and no gains for Kemball. He has at least managed to get his cavalry out into something vaguely approximating decent ground, but from what they can make out there are still at least five thousand enemy troops in the reserve lines in front of Sheikh Sa’ad.

Night falls again. Of the British Empire battalions who have been in action at this battle, they’re running at an average of one-third casualties. Robert Palmer’s told us about how pathetic the medical provision is. Speaking of whom…

Robert Palmer

It is always a good thing to remember that for every man in a battle who is actually involved in an infantry assault, there are at least four or five more somewhere behind him, in reserve. They usually spend all day marching this way and that, following the ebb and flow of the battle. They’re expending energy, and if they’re close enough to the enemy they’re probably taking casualties from shellfire. Although they never go over the top, their experiences are just as much part of the battle as those who do actually go over. (Consider Louis Barthas a moment, of whom more tomorrow. He’s been in three major Western Front battles as part of the attacking force, but he’s not yet been called on to attack anything.)

So to Robert Palmer’s day. He spends most of the morning marching in support of General Kemball’s attack; first away from yesterday’s camp, then back to it. Then they go out again, come the afternoon, in the same direction as before, but to a different position.

Being general reserve is no sinecure with bluffing tactics prevailing. This last lap was extremely trying. We marched in artillery formation, all very lame and stiff. We passed behind our yesterday’s friend, the howitzer battery, but at a more respectful distance from the enemy’s battery. This latter showed no sign of life till we were nearly two miles from the river. Then it started its double deliveries and some of them came fairly close to some of our platoon, but not to mine.

It took us nearly two hours to drag ourselves three miles and the men had hardly a kick in them when we reached the place assigned for our post. We were ordered to entrench in echelon of companies facing North. I thought it would take till dark to get us dug in (it was 2pm); but luckily our men, lined up ready to begin digging, caught the eye of the enemy as a fine enfilade target (or else they saw our first line mules) and they started shelling us from 6,500 yards.

The effect on the men was magical. They woke up and dug so well that we had fair cover within half an hour and quite adequate trenches by 3. This bombardment was quite exciting. The first few pairs were exactly over “D” Company’s trench, but pitched about 100 yards beyond it. The next few were exactly right in range, but about forty yards right, i.e. behind us. Just as we were wondering where the third lot would be, our faithful howitzer battery and some heavy guns behind them, which opened all they knew on the enemy battery as soon as they opened on us, succeeded in attracting its fire to themselves.

This pattern repeats several times. If ever you need a good description of the colourful period soldier’s phrase “buggered around from arsehole to breakfast time”, there you go. Just before nightfall, the howitzers finally find the range after three days of trying and hammer accurate counter-battery fire into the Ottoman guns.

All the same, we were rather gloomy that night. Our line had made no progress that we could hear of; we had had heavy losses (none in our battalion), and there seemed no prospect of dislodging the enemy. Their front was so wide we could not get round them, and frontal attacks on trenches are desperate affairs here if your artillery is paralysed by mirages. The troops who have come from France say that in this respect this action has been more trying than either Neuve Chapelle or Ypres, because, as they say, it is like advancing over a billiard-table all the way.

The relief force has spent three days going fuck-all nowhere. Time for some more Good News/Bad News. The orders given the Ottoman blocking force were to delay the enemy, inflict casualties, but also to keep itself intact as far as possible. They’ve now decided that they’ve done as much as they can at Sheikh Sa’ad, and under cover of darkness they begin heading off up the river. That, for General Aylmer, is the good news. The bad news is that Sheikh Sa’ad was only an advance position, and not too far behind is a much stronger position, anchored on a wadi (“watercourse”) so large that it’s generally known to English speakers as “The Wadi”.

Battle of Verdun

Back to the Western Front for a moment! It’s not gone anywhere, and at General Joffre’s headquarters, GQG (for “Grand-Quartier-General”), the intelligence-wallahs have been busy working out what the enemy might do next. Unlike this time last year, there doesn’t appear to be any large attempt to transfer forces to the Eastern Front. If anything, they’re bringing more blokes in. This analysis has reached Joffre’s desk, who in turn is worried that the lack of any Entente winter offensive is allowing the Germans to plan an offensive.

And now Joffre’s critical flaw rears its head again. Way back in 1914, he’d allowed himself to be caught out by the German invasion plan because he made the error of assuming that the enemy thought in a similar way to himself. He didn’t see any advantage for Germany in attacking through Belgium, and so completely discounted the possibility. And now he’s doing exactly the same thing. His intelligence is warning him about an imminent attack in the south-west, perhaps at Verdun, perhaps at Nancy, perhaps in Champagne.

In the Germans’ place, Joffre would be seeking to do exactly what he’d prefer to do in his current job, given a free hand. He’s planning for a major offensive this spring, no earlier than April, when the ground will be favourable for advancing, so that is clearly what the Germans must be planning. He’d also like to launch at least one sizeable but minor attack before then, to deny the enemy the chance to re-organise and plan without any going concerns. So, he reasons, this is what the enemy is doing.

And, faced with that reasoning, he today has a conversation with one of his liaison officers, Emile Herbillion. By Herbillion’s account, the Chief was in fine form, assuring him “I ask only one thing: that the Germans attack me; and if they attack me, that it be at Verdun.” It’s critical to place this in the context of Joffre’s wider expectations. A major attack there in February is not what he would do, so he’s completely discounted that as a possibility. The Germans haven’t had to do anything in the way of deception operations. The enemy commander-in-chief has thoroughly deceived himself.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Cape Helles | Mother | 7 Jan 1916

Housekeeping note: I’m currently having trouble with my internet connection. Entries may be a bit spotty through Sunday.

Gallipoli

The intermediate phase of the evacuation from Cape Helles is nearly over. All they need to do now is hold out another day before the final dash for safety. However, unlike last time, they’re not going to be allowed to go quietly. The Ottomans have been preparing an attack for some time, and now, right at the most awkward moment possible, it’s launched. Most of the MEF’s artillery is gone. No Man’s Land is usually under 50 yards wide; in some areas it’s down to 10-15 yards, with barely enough space to put up barbed wire.

And then there’s the weight of fire coming the other way. Everything from the smallest field-gun to the largest (and rather difficult to find solid information on!) guns on the Canakkale side of the Dardanelles is being pointed at Cape Helles and let rip. It seems as though everything’s against the ~20,000 MEF men left on the peninsula. But, as it soon turns out, that’s everything except one thing; morale.

Life on the Ottoman side of the hill on Gallipoli in winter is no more a picnic than it’s been for the invaders. They’ve been suffering just as badly, and they’ve very little desire to give their lives to attack an enemy who seems to be leaving anyway. Which is why, against the odds, the attack is easily repelled with little more than rifle fire, grenades, and some heavy shells from the first naval support they’ve had in months. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of any battle or action so far from the Ottoman Army where they’ve been on the offensive and won anything approaching a major success. The only things I can think of are the poorly-reported battles in the Caucasus in the summer of 1915 around Van and Malazgirt. They’ve certainly proved themselves tenacious defenders and counter-attackers, but by and large, offensives don’t appear to be their strong suit.

Their officers don’t force the issue after the first few assault waves go over the top and don’t get far. It seems now that perhaps the remaining men at Cape Helles might get away after all.

Mother moves

Good news and bad news from the Foster’s works in England. The good news is that construction on the tank prototype, known to all as Mother, is now complete. A few people have come down to see today’s first, brief trial. Most notable is a staff officer, Major Hugh Elles, who’s been sent from GHQ with orders to watch the trial and inspect the prototype, before reporting back to General Haig in person as soon as possible. Today, the world’s first tank moves under its own power for the first time for a quick run around the yard.

There was bad news, though, wasn’t there? It turns out that the shoes on Mother’s caterpillar tracks aren’t tempered quite right, and several of them have fractured. Still, this is why we have prototypes and trials. Another test is quickly scheduled for as soon as the track shoes can be suitably modified.

Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

The weather still sucks as General Aylmer finally arrives at Sheikh Sa’ad to take General Younghusband’s report. A little head-scratching is done. Younghusband wants to try the same plan as yesterday, but using the extra men to push further to the right to find the Ottomans’ flank. Aylmer decides instead to switch things around and have Younghusband operate on the left bank of the river instead, with General Kemball fighting a holding battle on the right bank.

It’s another bad day at the office for Younghusband. They still haven’t had the chance to do any half-decent reconnaissance. When he rather hopefully sends the 19th Brigade off to find the Ottoman flank, it just finds a load of trenches. Worse, with visibility much better than yesterday, the Ottoman gunners are able to pour accurate fire on and many of the men are caught in the open. Two battalions of the reserve come up on the left and get nowhere; two more come up on their left, but still they can’t find a flank, and then night falls.

Meanwhile, on the right bank, a little luck and a little judgement has enabled Kemball’s “holding” battle to get close enough to the Ottoman trenches for a proper charge. The defenders decide that they don’t fancy it and fall back to a reserve line on the other side of some extremely wet drainage ditches. General Aylmer is, not unsurprisingly, most encouraged by this success and orders it followed up tomorrow.

Robert Palmer

Meanwhile, Robert Palmer begins the day with a front-row seat for the battle; he’s been marched up to close reserve and left to watch and wait.

Our artillery was clearly very superior to theirs, both in quantity (quite five to one it seemed) and in the possession of high explosive shell, of which the enemy had none: but we were cruelly handicapped by the fact that their men and guns were entrenched and ours exposed; and by the mirage, which made the location of their trenches and emplacements almost impossible. … Either they had a far larger force than we expected, or they were very skilfully spread out—for they covered an amazingly wide front, quite eight miles, I should say, or more.

And, as General Younghusband brings up the reserves mentioned earlier, up comes Palmer and his men to defend the guns in case of a sudden emergency. We find them lying in front of a howitzer battery with, apparently, no cover at all; hopefully some of them had the sense to scrape out a few small holes.

We had lain there about ten minutes when a hiss, crack, whizz, and shells began to arrive, invariably in pairs. The first notice we had of each shell was the sudden appearance of a white puff, about thirty feet above ground, then a spatter of dust about thirty yards to the right, then the hiss-crack-whizz. They were ranging on the battery, but after a minute or two they spotted the ammunition column. So the column retreated in a hurry, and the shells following them began to catch us in enfilade. So Foster made us rise and move to the left in file.

Just as we were up, a pair burst right over my platoon. I can’t conceive why nobody was hit. I noticed six bullets strike the ground in a semi-circle between me and the nearest man three paces away, and everyone else noticed the same kind of thing, but nobody was touched. I don’t suppose the enemy saw us at all: anyway, the next pair pitched 100 yards beyond us, following the mules, and wounded three men in C. Company: and the next got two men of B.—all flesh wounds and not severe. They never touched the ammunition column.

We lay down in a convenient ditch, and only one more pair came our way, as the enemy was ranging back to the battery. Of this pair, one hit the edge of the ditch and buried itself without exploding, and the other missed with its bullets, while the case bounced along and hit a sergeant on the backside, not even bruising it.

More orders soon arrive; first to go forward, then to go back, then to do a little twirl, and finally to return to camp. And then they’re marched out again to cross the river and cover Kemball’s right flank. As they leave, Palmer watches the wounded straggling in.

After we had gone, the Quartermaster made up a big fire and got in no fewer than fifty-two wounded, who were trying to struggle back to the field dressing station from the firing line four or five miles away.

The fire attracted them and parties went out to help them in. I think it is very unsatisfactory that beyond the regimental stretcher-bearers there is no ambulance to bring the wounded back: and how can a dozen stretchers convey 300 casualties five miles? It is a case of [every man for himself] for the wounded: and when they get to the dressing station the congestion is very bad, thirty men in a tent, and only three or four doctors to deal with 3,000 or 4,000 wounded. I mention this as confirming my previous criticism of the medical service here.

This really isn’t going very well at all. How are the wounded to get back to Basra, location of the nearest medical facility worth the name, if all the boats are busy taking men forward? Logistics! Do you speak it???

General Smith-Dorrien

Meanwhile, more bad news, this time from Africa. Well, I say “from Africa”. General Smith-Dorrien been working incredibly hard from the moment of his appointment on all manner of things. He’s an old African hand, a man with a taste for logistics (good lad) and attention to detail. And as we’ve seen, he’s an extremely garrulous letter-writer. The stream of telegrams and letters leaving his ship is absolutely stupendous. And then we have to consider that by this point, he’s become seriously ill.

First there was a serious attack of seasickness, almost as soon as his ship left port. Then he contracted pneumonia, at the time one of the leading killer diseases out there. He’s been valiantly buggering on as best he can, but someone else on the ship apparently described him at one point as having “hovered between life and death”. There’s some question over whether he’ll be fit enough even to reach Cape Town.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Evacuating Cape Helles | Sheikh Sa’ad | 5 Jan 1916

Evacuating Cape Helles

Liman von Sanders, the German commander of Ottoman forces on the Gallipoli peninsula, is deeply suspicious. The evacuation of Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove last year had rather caught him with his lederhosen down, and he’s now determined not to let his opponents pull another fast one at Cape Helles. Try as the MEF might to keep things secret again, at Helles the trenches are extremely close and almost immediately overlooked by towering high hills. It would have required some truly spectacular blindness on the part of the observers not to notice that artillery batteries are mysteriously disappearing.

Indeed, now they know what to look for, it seems as though those sneaky English are trying to push their remaining guns around the place so that one gun can simulate the work of a whole battery, or more. Now we have a double-headed race on. von Sanders has brought a fresh division from Suvla Bay down to Helles. Can it finish preparing and launch its attack before the enemy can escape, again?

Meanwhile, Sapper Eric Wettern of the Royal Engineers is stationed in the former French Empire sector on the far right at the Kereves Dere. The communication trenches on both sides seem almost completely exposed to the enemy, and yet…

Fortunately, however, our predecessors, jointly with Johnny, had devised a brilliant way out of the difficulty. On two trees between the lines, right down near the beach, were two flags – one French; one Turkish. As long as nobody, from either side, ventured beyond those flags, there was to be no rifle fire during daylight hours in this particular region. The agreement was strictly adhered to with the result that this portion of the line was an absolute rest-cure.

Wandering along the line, through an olive grove which it traversed, one found chaps placidly leaning over the parapet, or sitting on it. I succeeded in getting one or two photos of No Man’s Land by the simple method of strolling out in front of the line near the afore-mentioned trees. I there and then formed the resolve that if ever I should have occasion to run a private war of my own, I would organise it on similar lines!

Another excellent example here of how British-led fraternisation with the enemy tends to be very rare but also highly visible (the Christmas truce of 1914 being the obvious model), whereas the French hob-nobbing culture is to work out a sensible arrangement and then quietly stick to it without drawing attention to oneself. They won’t play football in No Man’s Land one day of the year, but they will play bridge in a dugout and exchange newspapers two nights in every five.

Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Right, for the benefit of anyone who prefers their war stories with a little more war in them, we’re heading back to Mesopotamia. The force that intends to relieve Kut, under the command of General Fenton Aylmer (not to be confused with last year’s bete noire, Aylmer Hunter-Weston), has spent all day marching and sailing up the River Tigris; half of it is still strung out between Sheikh Sa’ad and Ali Gharbi. The weather’s been rather foul for the last week or so, and Aylmer’s small ration of aeroplanes from the Royal Flying Corps’s 30 Squadron has barely been able to fly. (The ration is even smaller than usual right now; more on why in a moment.)

When they have, they’ve reported that they’re facing a small Ottoman picket force of about 2,000 at Sheikh Sa’ad. Aylmer and his subordinates, Generals Younghusband and Kemball, have made their plans accordingly. It seems a simple job to Younghusband (who, incidentally, was married at age 32 and is now 57), for which the ~7,000 men he has at his disposal. Arab tribesmen have told him roughly where the enemy is; they appear to have done him a big favour by deploying on both banks of the river and splitting their small force even further.

On the left bank he will fight a holding action while he pushes his main strength forward on the right bank and leave it the choice of retreating or being pocketed in Sheikh Sa’ad itself, in a convenient bend of the Tigris. The enemy, outnumbered three to one, will likely go scuttling off back to Kut with dire warnings that the English are coming, and that’ll be job done. Except of course there are rather more Ottomans at Sheikh Sa’ad than he supposes, about 10,000. His planes are grounded and horrible wet, muddy, misty weather is impeding his cavalry. Without Younghusband has no reason to suppose that his supposition is in fact fit only to be a suppository (ahem).

Sanity briefly threatens to break out in the evening. General Aylmer is still overseeing the prolonged departure from Ali Gharbi (there’s a severe shortage of shipping), and signals forward to Younghusband not to do anything more than a reconnaissance by fire until he, Aylmer, arrives. So, here’s the first gigantic irony of the year. 1915 has been absolutely stuffed full of situations where hesitant generals failed to use their initiative, not knowing that they were passing up golden opportunities to win a serious victory. Now we’re going to kick off 1916 with a British general deciding that his plan is close enough to Aylmer’s order to pass muster (“I ordered the men forward and the enemy almost immediately turned and fled the field, Sir…”).

So he’s going to use his initiative and order that major attack tomorrow. Great.

Siege of Kut

Right, about those imaginative RFC nutters in BE2c planes from yesterday? Some bright spark from 30 Squadron has realised that you can drop other things than bombs out of a plane. If, for instance, some blokes find themselves cut off from their supply lines, perhaps you could load a plane with food or ammunition, fly it over the fighting, and drop the supplies for your blokes to pick up. If they can pull it off, it would be the first operation of its kind.

Their base isn’t that far from the Siege of Kut, and when there’s a siege on, anyone with a slightly crackpot idea and a persuasive manner can get a fair hearing from the General. They’ve been trying to do some preliminary experiments, but the awful weather (of course the British have brought rain to the desert) has been scotching any chance they might have of proving the idea. More soon.

By the way, 30 Squadron still exists in the modern RAF under the same name. Appropriately, they now fly the comedically enormous C-130J Hercules air transport. And yes, they’ve recently flown them into modern-day Iraq.

Robert Palmer

Lieutenant Robert Palmer of the 1/4th Hampshires is, of course, blissfully unaware of all this. Nor is he trying to find any of it out. He’s more concerned with the strength, or otherwise, of a reinforcement draft that arrived at Amarah a few days previously.

…The new draft arrived, headed by Jack Stillwell and Lester Garland. They arrived only 45 strong, having reached Basra over 100. Basra is a nest of military harpies who seize men for obscure duties and make them local sergeants Only 68 escaped from it; and of these 23 fell out on the march—another specimen of [Royal Army Medical Corps] efficiency. The Medical Officer at Quetta had merely passed down the line asking each man “Are you fit?” and taking his answer.

Palmer finished 1915 by injuring his leg at football and then being given completely contradictory instructions by two seperate RAMC doctors. He’s also received a highly interesting titbit via a friend and a news agency.

A mysterious Reuter has come through about conscription. As it quotes the Westminster as saying Asquith has decided on it, I’m inclined to believe it: but it goes on to talk obscurely of possible resignations and a general election.

The debate about whether Britain should for the first time introduce general conscription of all military-aged men has been going since it became known at the start of the war that a BEF was being sent to France, from the quietest rural pub to the Cabinet room. Now, after a year and a half of war, the Government has indeed just introduced a Military Service Bill. More about it, and the conscription debate, as it wends its way through Parliament.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)