Sixth Isonzo | Boselli | Bissolati | 17 Aug 1916

Romania

Negotiations for bringing Romania into the war have finally concluded, to the alleged satisfaction of all parties. I’m far from convinced. After a little subterfuge, everyone seems to think they’ve got either what they wanted or what they can easily renege on, and the papers have been officially signed. General Joffre’s somewhat exasperated verdict on the negotiations: “a web of Penelope”. In Greek myth she was the wife of Odysseus, and spent twenty years fending off the advances of other men while he was off doing his twenty years’ worth of mythical deeds.

The deeds done now will be, ahem, slightly less than mythical. At one point there was a hope that Romania could be attacking on or around the 1st of August. Now they’re looking at August 28th. General Sarrail at Salonika has been accordingly ordered to delay his pinning attack until the 20th. Gee, I sure do hope that no large-scale Bulgarian movement of troops is going to interfere with this plan! That would be an absolute tragedy, I tell you. Meanwhile, the Romanian government is drawing up a declaration of war, to be delivered to Austria-Hungary right as their army rolls over the border into Transylvania. More soon!

Sixth Isonzo

There had also been hopes that Sixth Isonzo could have been launched to coincide with the Romanian entry into the war, which really would have been a kick in the dick. Alas; after a week’s worth of fruitless uphill attacks across the Vallone Doberdo and east of Gorizia, General Cadorna calls a halt. But he’s in the best mood he’s been in since the start of the war. Two victories in the summer fighting, and he’s successfully deposed an energetic Prime Minister and installed an apparent non-entity instead. Of course he’s ordering a Seventh Isonzo, to begin as soon as possible to capitalise on the Romanian entry into the war.

As it turns out, “as soon as possible” will mean “in mid-September”. Which by lucky hap will also coincide with General Haig’s Flers-Courcelette offensive. I wonder who will have the most success? Or, should I say, the least failure? On which note, there’s just space to mention that the casualties for Sixth Isonzo are about equal; 51,000 Italian and 42,000 Austro-Hungarian.

Anyway. Cadorna’s position is not quite as rock-solid as he’d like to think. The new Prime Minister, Paolo Boselli, has formed a government of national unity. Bypassing the official minister of war, deputy Leonida Bissolati has been given a cabinet post without portfolio and responsibility for “relations with the military”. Bissolati is perhaps the closest thing Italy has to Winston Churchill; he argued to join the war, and then put his money where his mouth was, volunteering at age 58. He’s won two bravery medals, and is now back at his parliamentary duties.

For the last month or so he’s been touring the fronts to see what’s what. This has not gone down at all well with General Cadorna, of course, worried that his glorious victories might in fact be misinterpreted as bloody failures. Cadorna is now trying to get him banned from the front, but Bissolati has had plenty of time to travel around and find out who’s got the dirt. Chief among them is one Colonel Douhet, staff officer and aviation pioneer. Douhet has given him an uncompromising and highly accurate assessment of the commander-in-chief as a blithering idiot…

Central Railway

In German East Africa, General Smuts is trying to advance to Morogoro on the Central Railway, just over 100 miles west of the capital Dar-es-Salaam. It’s the same old story here, though. He greatly outnumbers the enemy, but they all rather rudely are refusing to just stand and fight, preferring instead to run a series of delaying operations as they retreat through the Nguru Mountains. Meanwhile, the Navy has landed a small detachment of men at Bagamoyo, just up the coast from Dar-es-Salaam.

Just pushing the enemy back, or capturing towns, isn’t going to do any good, though. What they need are encirclements and captures of large bodies of Schutztruppe. General van Deventer’s South African Horse is now back on the move, but Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is now well south of him. Spoilers; van Deventer won’t be able to link up at Morogoro in nearly enough time to trap the enemy forces out to the east. All the attackers appear to have achieved is marching an awfully long way, looting a number of small towns en route, and losing more than half their strength to disease.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of which. Edward Mousley is trying hard to make the best of a bad job.

The mornings continue fine and sunny, but in the afternoons a sharp, shadowy wind springs up, and the evenings are quite cold. We are anxiously awaiting the parcels waylaid in Stamboul. The fever has largely gone, but muscular rheumatism has taken its place. No one hears from or is allowed to write to Yozgat or Kara Hissa.

The Turks here seem to have already settled on their plan of campaign, which is to make us get into debt at huge prices, which already are increasing. I am, however, assuming a sublime indifference to money matters. The financial anxiety of the trek was enough, and I have a long score to pay off against the Turk in this respect, so once in his debt he will have to facilitate our getting our money from home, or else receive cheques.

What a quaint town this is! All water is drawn from springs or wells. There are no lights of any kind, except, possibly, some faint glimmer burning from a police station. There are no trams or much vehicular traffic, donkeys being the chief transit. In the early morning one hears the ancient Biblical solid-wheeled oxen cart groaning on its turning axle beneath the weight of a huge tree trunk brought in for firewood. At night the distant tinkling of bells sometimes reaches one as the goats come back.

And, later still, over the sheets of darkness in deep, pulsing waves, like the voice of a dark and mysteriously moving spirit, floats the muezzin, which is taken up from mosque to mosque until the whole town echoes with the cry.

“Stamboul” is a common pre-1923 rendering of “Istanbul”, for the city which at the time was still officially Constantinople. Sometimes the name was used by English speakers to differentiate the historic walled city from the general metropolis.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams is now finishing up his insane summer job driving ambulances on the Voie Sacree. He’s been rotated off to another unit at Juilly. and I’d like to believe that the casualties he’s been evacuating included men who were shelled by Herbert Sulzbach’s guns. Things are much quieter here than they were at the Battle of Verdun.

The fellows in this squad are all very nice, and but one older than I, being in the thirties. The sergeant is an Englishman exempt from service for some physical trouble. He is a circus in himself. Every minute of the day he is saying or doing some ridiculously funny thing, and he has a very fine bass voice, by which ordinarily he earns his living. One evening we came upon a piano in one of the empty recitation rooms. One of the fellows sat down and began to play, and I happened to find a violin in good condition in the cupboard. The sergeant brought out some songs, and we spent a very enjoyable evening.

Juilly is within a couple of miles of the farthest advance by the Germans on Paris in September, 1914, and the place where actual fighting took place is within easy walking distance. We hired a car the other day and went for quite a long ride, to and through the region of the Battle of the Marne, and it was very interesting. Hundreds of graves are lying in every direction according as the men fell, the Germans mixed in among the French, the former being marked only by a black stick, while the latter are marked by a wooden cross and a wreath or two.

You would never believe one of the greatest battles of the world had been fought here; for everywhere rich crops of grain are growing, and nothing is prettier than the golden oats, among which are scattered red poppies and blue bachelor buttons, like kale in our oats at Hilltop Farms.

And this is the last we’ll hear from him for an entire year. He’ll soon be on a boat back to America and Harvard University; but this is far from the last he’ll have to do with the war.

Actions in Progress

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

Joffre and Haig | Tanks | 10 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

The Italian Army is now, three days too late, pulling its collective finger out for a jolly good bash at the Austro-Hungarians’ reserve positions behind Gorizia. General Boroevic’s reserves have now finally arrived from their billets far behind the line; the defenders are firmly installed. After a brief period of excitement, we’re now back in exactly the same situation we’ve been in for the past year. The enemy is firmly dug into new positions, just as resistant to attack as the ones they’ve just left. There are half-arsed attacks without proper artillery support or observation. Rinse and repeat for a solid week.

All General Cadorna can do is bleat helplessly about his subordinates’ alleged slowness in following imaginary orders to capture Gorizia and push on. Well, in private, at least. He’s also made sure to invite all his pet newspapermen for personal briefings on the glorious victory he personally has just won. And so soon after repelling the perfidious enemy’s attack on the Asiago plateau, too! By the time the papers are done, the worst general of the war will also be its biggest hero. For a little while.

Battle of the Somme

Generals Joffre and Haig are total BFFs about now, visiting each other’s headquarters and writing letters to each other to propose grandiose combined offensives. For reasons that remain hard to explain, apparently a good thing to do is to launch a major all-out push from High Wood to the north bank of the River Somme. With seven days to prepare. Ugh. While relations between the two commanders-in-chief appear better than ever, they’re both having a rather unpleasant day.

General Haig is trying every measure possible (short of taking actual responsibility) to get 4th Army commander General Rawlinson to do his job properly. His latest wheeze is to send chief of staff General Kiggell round with a rude message to the effect of “please take personal control and responsibility for the next attack”. Meanwhile, those ANZACs at Pozieres are being given orders to push north-west tomorrow, downhill towards Mouquet Farm. The blokes, incidentally, prefer to call it “Mucky” or “Moo Cow” Farm.

Meanwhile meanwhile, General Joffre’s problem appears to be General Haig. Or so his liaison officer at Haig’s headquarters is saying, in an absolutely devastating report. Words like “disoriented” and “disarray” and “slow” have been used with worrying regularity. He’s extremely offended by the “small, distinct attacks” that the BEF is carrying out. “As far as the English are concerned, the Battle of the Somme is dead.” He concludes with the damning observation that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor his army commanders are actually commanding; real authority is only to be found at corps or division level.

Tanks

Meanwhile. Everyone and his dog, it seems, has a complaint about how the tank development programme is being managed. There’s the few short-sighted twerps, of course, who can’t see what they’re for in the first place. Then there are the military geniuses, who are convinced that having seen a tank run once for half an hour, they clearly know exactly how to use them. This is causing considerable friction between the Staff and Lt-Col Brough, Colonel Swinton’s liaison officer. Brough, unlike almost anyone else at GHQ, has read Swinton’s Notes on the Employment of Tanks, and he’s insisted on advocating loudly for its principles.

This is deeply unwelcome. Brough has now been officially deemed “difficult” after just three weeks in France and will soon be replaced by a fresh, hopefully more compliant man. And not one who will complain about plans to stage a punishing series of tank tests in France, or proposals to use tanks as individual infantry support weapons rather than as a solid mass of metal. On top of all this, General Haig has just been sent a deeply annoying letter stating that there can be no spare parts for the tanks until 1 September at the earliest. Insert disgruntled Scotch groans here.

First Doiran

The French attack near Doiran Lake.

Yeah, good luck trying to find out any more about it, I had the devil’s own time. In theory the French have the requisite three-to-one advantage that’s required to get anything done. In practice? Seems that the defending Bulgarians gave them a jolly good spanking and sent them back to their trenches to think again. Still, these attacks aren’t necessarily supposed to succeed, just happen. I’m sure it was a comfort to the families of the dead. No, sorry, “wasn’t”. Wasn’t a comfort. At all.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams continues his ridiculous summer job as an ambulance-driver on the Voie Sacree.

Any number of cars have been smashed, and fellows are getting nicked all the time, for they are more exposed than the men in the trenches. One fellow had a blow-out, so he got out to fix it. Just then a shell took off the seat he had left. Another driver was lying underneath his car fixing something. A shell hit it and knocked the car away and smashed it to bits, while he was left there lying on his back in the road with his hands reaching up holding a wrench, more surprised than you could imagine, and without a scratch.

Another fellow was famous for being the rottenest driver in that section. In one of the worst places he stalled his engine. While he was down cranking it, a shell went through his car killing one of the wounded fellows. The driver got his Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire! If he had been a decent driver he would have been out of the way and would not have got it.

Aeroplanes are as thick as flies about here. Just now I can see three playing tag, pretending one is a German and chasing it.

He’ll soon have to go back home and get on with his university studies at Harvard.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is moving forward, closer to the Somme, leading his platoon on the march. The 10th Green Howards have received another reinforcement-draft, but they’re still comfortably below full strength.

There is a boy from D Company doing Field Punishment No. 1. His outstretched arms are tied to the wheel of a travelling field-kitchen. The Regimental Sergeant-Major has just told me that the boy is there for falling out on the march. He defended himself before the Commanding Officer by saying that he had splinters of glass in his feet; but the Medical Officer decided against him. Quite possibly the boy is a liar; but wouldn’t the army do well to avoid punishments which remind men of the Crucifixion?

And these two men being marched up and down in the blazing heat, under the raucous voice of the provost-sergeant, they disturb all peace of mind. I do not know from what offences they are doing “pack-drill,” but it is depressing to see them, loaded with rifles and full packs, going to and fro over a piece of ground not more than twenty yards long, moving like automata under that awful voice.

Volunteers going into battle! I think with almost physical sickness of the legends that sustain our armchair patriots at home.

Field punishment is sometimes excused by people who take great pains to point out that the Manual of Military Law expressly prohibited tying men in a way that caused physical harm. And yet, it’s still happening; this is a stress position. Funny how that happens despite the regulation, isn’t it? I’m sure the fire-breathing colonel approved.

Oswin Creighton

Padre Oswin Creighton has switched camps and finds his new surroundings, at Witley Camp in Surrey, much more to his liking than Romsey.

I had such a warm welcome here. The officers are so friendly. No one knew I was coming, but they made me at home at once. They are all young fellows with very strong Manchester accents, analytical chemists and such like. Several of them were out at Gallipoli. One remembers me at the Depot. We talk a great deal about Gallipoli.

Later. – I am with the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers now. It is a quaint sort of job, but I am getting into the way of looking at all these jobs from an explorer’s point of view. Almost nothing of a religious nature seems to have been attempted among the men here, and there is the usual sense of the utter estrangement of the Church from them.

Creighton has his work cut out for him. Unfortunately, his mother didn’t think the details, if ever he wrote of them, to be of much public interest, so edited them out of the published collection of his letters. Thanks for that.

Maximilian Mugge

The full nature of Maximilian Mugge’s predicament has now become apparent. He’s washed up at Pease Pottage Camp outside Crawley, home of the 30th Middlesex Regiment. But his latest unit is even stranger than the Non-Combatant Corps.

When I had recovered from the first shock and regained my breath. I turned to the pale faced clerks in the Orderly Room Tent and said, ” Then I take it, this is not a Regiment at all! This is a political concentration camp!”

“Hush! hush! You mustn’t say such a thing”, exclaimed a horrified staff sergeant but the six feet of formidable and dirty picturesqueness of my appearance as an expeditionary soldier overawed these knights of the pens, and nothing happened to me.

One of my tent-mates who had arrived from a fighting unit a few hours before me was crying bitterly half the night. He was English bred and born, spoke no other tongue but that of Shakespeare, had volunteered in 1914, had been wounded in the Mons retreat and here he was, as he cried, “Treated like a bloody Hun!” It was heart-rending to listen to that boy’s agony, his sighs and curses and groans.

I doubt anyone wants to read six paragraphs’ worth of incoherent swearing in response to this concept, although I did type some of it out and then delete it again. This is exactly what Mugge says it is; a quarantine battalion for people considered too dangerously German to be allowed in the rest of the Army. More details will emerge in due course as our correspondent gets his righteous anger into high gear.

I really, really, really don’t want to nitpick the guy today, but. I do have to make the observation that it would be all but impossible for a man to volunteer in August 1914 and then end up on the retreat from Mons. I do hope someone hasn’t been, ahem, improving their story slightly. I suppose it’s possible that he joined the Army in the early months of 1914, but usually when people talk about volunteering “in 1914”, they mean they volunteered at the start of the war.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
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

Air bombing | First Doiran | 9 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

There is one area of war in which the Italians are unquestionably world leaders. This is in long-range bombing missions against the enemy’s road and rail infrastructure. Today they prove it by launching what I’m pretty sure is the largest ever single bombing raid to this point. 58 of their excellent Caproni heavy bombers take flight today, with an escort of Nieuport fighters that far outclass the Austro-Hungarian Aviatik opposition. The total payload dropped on enemy-held railway stations is some 4,000 kilograms’ worth of bombs. Some of them are even on target!

If only things were better at the front. Not only does the enemy on the Carso appear to have disappeared, there’s a distinct lack of urgency off to the north in front of Gorizia. There may be only one intact bridge and a lot of men to get across the Isonzo. However, in stories of great victories, this is where you hear about the heroic engineer unit which built six pontoon bridges in as many hours out of six rotten planks and a large roll of hairy string. Unfortunately, the Italian engineers appear to be fresh out of hairy string; there’s a distinct lack of urgency all round after a year of war.

First Battle of Doiran

So. Time to sweeten the pot by doing something at Salonika. We must do something, this is something, we must do this. General Sarrail isn’t best pleased by orders to launch a pinning attack to keep the Bulgarians from interfering with Romania’s entry into the war. Whenever that’s going to happen. (Spoilers: not in the next few days.) Sarrail’s decided that the best thing is to attack near Lake Doiran and push north from there, without much hope of achieving more than a few hundred yards’ worth of advance, useful only on a local tactical level.

I mean, I’m calling this First Doiran. That implies we’re going to have a second one. Spoilers; there’s not going to be some massive unexpected advance and subsequent dramatic reversal. By far the more interesting news is that our old friend Sergeant Flora Sandes, hero of the Serbian Army and one-woman propaganda triumph, has now almost finished sailing back to the war. We’ll be picking her story up in just a few days; her regiment is about to see some interesting times.

Battle of Verdun

A brief newsflash from the Battle of Verdun, which continues rumbling nastily with the military equivalent of indigestion. General Nivelle is displeased; he’s got standing orders to counter-attack and recover lost ground. His efforts have indeed retaken a couple of hundred metres outside Fort Souville and made the position very mildly more secure. Counter-attacks create casualties and exhaust men. Who am I supposed to attack with, he enquires of his army-group commander. General Petain immediately takes his point, and now commander-in-chief Joffre is receiving the benefit of his wisdom once more.

Sadly, General Joffre is more interested in the prospects for attacking on the Somme. Request denied. If Petain wants more men for Verdun, he’ll have to milk them from the other armies under his command.

Battle of Romani

Things are going well in the absence of the wounded Oskar Teichman. The defenders of the Suez Canal take a big risk today, with a large number of mounted troops going into action at Bir el Abd. It’s a heavy day’s fighting, and the Ottomans, aware that neither of the three enemy forces opposing them are particularly large, launch several dangerous counter-attacks that might, on a different day, have scattered or captured their opponents.

It’s rather an odd day. I’ve got two different books here. One of them describes an extremely difficult day’s fighting that nearly ended in a British disaster. The other describes a day that was all but a cakewalk for them. At any rate, both agree that by mid-afternoon the Ottomans were burning their stores to prevent capture. They’ve lost more than half their force in casualties; the defenders’ casualties are minimal. More to come in a few days.

Oskar Teichman

Speaking of whom. Oskar Teichman has now been got right out of it.

We were visited by several friends from Kantara, and heard that there had been more cases of cholera, and that the Turks had left a note in one of the Hods through which our force had passed, saying “Beware of cholera.” Some dead Turks were found in the same place who had died of the disease. The Turk was indeed a gentleman; not many enemies would have given this warning. … We were taken in motor-ambulances to Kantara West station, where we were transferred to a Red Crescent train. The latter was perfect luxury after what we had gone through. Before midnight our train arrived at Cairo and we were distributed amongst the various hospitals.

He’ll stay there for two and a half months, but he will be fit for service again at the end of his convalescence. We shan’t hear from him again until he’s discharged, and the war on the Suez Canal is politely going to wait for him to get back before developing further.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC is trying to make progress up the River Tigris to what passes for the front line these days in Mesopotamia. It’s not any easier than it was a year previously, when these boats were crewed by Royal Navy men. Oh yes, and it’s still really hot.

We grounded on a mud bank at 6am. The Arab crew and pilot were useless, but we managed to kedge her off ourselves after three hours, only to go aground again an hour later. In spite of many more arduous hours spent in the heat and wind, we failed to find a channel, merely moving from one shoal to another; but at last, after dark, another steamer came down-stream and hauled us into deeper water by a heavy wire. She had been on the mud herself for ten hours.

The river was at its lowest and the channels continually altering; we were told thatit was doubtful whether we should get above Ali Gharbi. The heat during the whole of the journey up-stream had been terrific; the two batmen who had started with us were both down, one with dysentery, the other with heat
stroke. One’s apparel consisted of shorts, shirt-sleeves and a topi, without shoes or stockings. In the evening one was glad to hang over the side of the ship on a rope and be towed slowly through the water, which, though thick and nasty to taste, was at least cool.

Can’t you just imagine these idiots very solemnly climbing overboard to be towed for a few minutes of an evening? A topi in this sense is the cork pith helmet that’s also part of the stereotypical British explorer’s uniform. To kedge is to move a boat by taking a light kedge anchor on a long warp off in the desired direction of travel, letting it grip a long way from the boat, and then hauling on the rope to bring the boat to the anchor.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman appears rather taken with Captain Rowley, even if he is on a one-man quest to discover the original Mademoiselle from Armentieres.

He is just a good-natured fellow, with any amount of pluck, whose morals have been damaged by the war and its whisky. The amount of whisky he and Mallow, the bombing-officer, can drink is astonishing. Every time Mallow reaches for the bottle he repeats the parrot phrase, “This war will be won on whisky or it won’t be won at all,” apparently intending to float home on whisky himself. Mallow is a pretty coarse-fibred creature; but Rowley is of different material. There’s been tragedy in this fellow’s life and it has knocked off his rudder.

His hair is prematurely grey; his complexion ashy; and although there is still a twinkle in his eye, it is fading, and in repose his face wears the expression of an injured animal. Crossed, he shows a streak of cruelty, but at heart he is full of kindliness. He carries out his duties as a company commander with a queer mixture of punctiliousness and slackness. I wish his conversation was not quite so filthy, for temperamentally I believe we are friends.

Rowley has done time at Hooge, the nastiest spot of the Ypres salient. He could have seen any number of things there.

Maximilian Mugge

Perennial piece of military jetsam Maximilian Mugge has finally washed up on solid ground. He’s back in Blighty in response to a summons from the War Office, and…

I had to report at the Headquarters of my unit, where I stayed a couple of days. “Mum” was the word and not a soul told me what was going to happen. I was still dreaming dreams waiting for a summons from Whitehall. Revelling in anticipation I still vowed to do my utmost to help and further England’s Cause. Yesterday they sent me here. Not to Whitehall henceforth to adorn the Intelligence Department or the Interpreters’ Corps. They sent me to the 33rd Midshire Regiment, an Infantry Works Battalion.

The 33rd Midshire Regiment is, in fact, the 30th (Works) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. Known variously as “works”, “labour”, or “pioneer” battalions, units composed solely of men fit only for labour (or with specialist skills) have been around for quite a while. The 30th Middlesex are, ahem, slightly different from your usual group of pioneers, though. Of which more tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
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

Sixth Isonzo | Gorizia | 8 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

Hopefully you’re not still chewing on your knuckles from yesterday. The irony here really is painful. The Italian Army has spent a long, painful year learning to be careful and cautious, to limit its objectives, to discourage junior officers from using their initiative. Now that’s exactly what they need to do. Junior officers feeling able to use their initiative today might just have dislodged the entire front. The message coming from high command early in the morning, is to do the exact opposite. Hard-learned caution reigns among the Brains Trust.

Meanwhile, at the sharp end, half a company of the Italian 28th Infantry has discovered a supply tunnel leading under Podgora towards the one intact bridge leading back to Gorizia. Here there is a rear-guard with the remaining machine-guns and ammunition; a particularly fearless lieutenant seizes a flag and uses its pole to steady himself as he fords the river, showing the men the safe way across. Some are washed away by the tide, but more follow him. The artillery’s observation posts watch the flag crossing the river and calls in fresh shelling to support it

By afternoon, the Austro-Hungarian rearguard is fleeing for the mountains, having done its job and bought the army time to fall back. To the south, on the Carso, opportunity is still knocking. General Cadorna has been told of the capture of Podgora, and quite reasonably he begins now to commit his reserves, pouring them in to follow up the success. In theory, they might just be able to turn south from Gorizia and get into that Austro-Hungarian second position before the defenders can get there.

They’ll be ready to attack in force tomorrow…but it’s going to be a day too late. On the other side of the hill, General Boroevic has already ordered the retreat to take place tonight, under cover of darkness. The western edge of the Carso is cut off from the main plateau by a deep, wide, dry valley, the Vallone Doberdo, often in this context simply called “Vallone”. Since time immemorial it’s been a natural boundary between Italians and Slovenes, and today it forms the border between modern Italy and modern Slovenia. (At one time there was a river there.)

By lucky hap, it’s also a first-class place to put some defensive works in a trench war. The positions are ready, and the artillery packs up and leaves by day. During the night, the infantry almost evaporates into thin air. It’s far from an easy march in pitch darkness over rough ground, but there’s nobody to interfere with them…

Battle of the Somme

Guillemont. Loud explosions. Men over the top, advancing nearly a mile just to reach the German trenches. Intact barbed wire. German advance posts out in shell-holes, lying concealed, waiting for men to advance past them before shooting them in the back with machine-guns. Strong German artillery fire, not enough BEF counter-battery fire. Horror, blood and death, and all of it of a kind we’ve seen before.

Still. Maybe something can be achieved somewhere else? With Pozieres in hand, some brave people have been right up to the top of the ridge, looking down towards Thiepval. Various HQs have been guilty over the last month or so of assuming rather blithely that to capture Pozieres is automatically to make Thiepval untenable. Let’s have the map again.

This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.

This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.

The problem here…the main problem here…one of many problems here, is that the Germans have put two large redoubts into the Second Line behind Thiepval. They’re linked into a large agricultural holding, Mouquet Farm, which has now been thoroughly fortified. It’s also sprouting a series of newly-dug trenches at right angles to the First and Second Lines. These now defend Thiepval against an attack from the direction of Pozieres. Hmm. This needs some serious thinking.

Meanwhile, General Haig is entertaining his King.

The King came into my writing room, and I explained the situation, etc, to him. He then spoke a great deal about a paper which Winston Churchill had written, criticising the operations in France, and arriving at the conclusion that nothing had been achieved! … [George V] also said that Sir John French had been very nasty and that he was “the most jealous man he had ever come across”. I said that these were trifles and we must not allow them to divert our thoughts from our main objective, beating the Germans. I also expect that Winston’s head is gone from taking drugs.

Miaow! Saucer of milk for the Commander-in-Chief! It’s also not entirely clear whether that was a private thought, or whether he actually said it to the King. Nobody should be surprised that in the typed version of his diary he altered this to the rather less bitchy phrasing “I expect that Winston’s judgement is impaired…”.

He’s also just sacked one General Keir, a corps commander at Arras, whose general lack of offensiveness has thoroughly offended his army commander General Allenby. Not moved to a quiet sector, mind you, sacked outright. And he didn’t even get a chance to preside over any horrendously bloody slaughters like Hunter-Weston, who still has his job, chateau, gluttonous meals, etc. Interesting, that. No wonder Keir is making a massive row, and openly threatening to go home and join Sir John French’s bitching society.

Eastern Front

A quick note now from the still-neglected Eastern Front. The German-led counter-attack at the Battle of Kowel is now ending; it’s put a massive dent in the Russians’ manpower. Absent any other considerations, the Brusilov Offensive could easily have ended here. But of course, they’re about to bring Romania into the war. The Russian staff has just about given up on taking Lvov back, but a drive to the Carpathians still appeals. If they can get into position to push through into Hungary from the north, as the Romanians advance from the east, it’s not impossible that the Austro-Hungarian army could collapse entirely.

So the offensive continues, slowly and painfully, the combined casualty figures ratcheting relentlessly up past a million dead, wounded and captured. More than the Somme and Verdun put together, you know.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has been on the march for a good few days now, doing more than ten miles per day. Nevertheless, you’ll be pleased to know that he’s still just as much a plonker as he was back in camp.

Road awfully dusty and the country very hot and dry. Camped at 10.45am. Made some tea out of dirty yellow water which made nearly every one in the section feel queer for a while. The boys drew no water and were very dry. Had a rest and aired our feet. Saddled up and moved off at 1pm. A snake was found in one of our ammunition pack saddles and promptly despatched. Camped in an open plain, very dry and tired. Some of the men made a rush for the waterholes, but the colonel stopped them. Smikky, Dick, Bibby and I went for wood and a big branch of a thorn tree fell on me, tearing my shirt a bit.

Total for the day 12 miles. Colonel sick in the motor car as a result of the water, I suppose.

Chortle chortle, tea that makes you feel queer. On a more serious note, there’s enough disease going round at the moment (most units have now lost 60% or more of their men to disease) without this cretin trying to poison everyone.

Herbert Sulzbach

Germany’s laziest gunner-sergeant Herbert Sulzbach is being shuffled about. I wonder if this will mean him having to do any more work?

I move house to the Loermont site, a hillside position which is, if anything, even more idyllic than Evricourt. It is in a meadow at the edge of a wood; there is still a huge amount to be done, reinforcing dugouts and completing the concrete gun-pits. It’s beautiful up here as the late summer days pass. In the evenings we sit at the guns and entertain each other, and in addition we get entertained by our Very light lookout, who sits up a tree on and sings songs. This sentry is up there to keep track of the coloured lights the infantry fire off. The colour codes are often changed, of course, so the French don’t find out what each colour means.

Of course not. The trench mortars on each side get into semi-frequent scraps, but the field artillery remains mostly quiet, conserving ammunition. It’s a lovely war.

Louis Barthas

Let’s keep the mood up, shall we? Louis Barthas spends rather a lot of time describing a particular position where the French hold one part of an old communication trench, and the Germans another, with a small and rather weedy barricade in the middle. Then he wonders how scared some rear-echelon slacker might be if he were forced to garrison this most dangerous of outposts.

Calm and tranquility reigned in this area. Some smoked, others read, some wrote, a few squabbled, without lowering their voices one note. And if these patriots, these slackers, had lent an ear, they would have heard the Germans coughing, spitting, talking, singing, etc., with the same lack of ceremony. Their stupefaction would have changed to bewilderment if they had seen the French and German sentries seated tranquilly on their parapets, smoking pipes and exchanging bits of conversation from time to time, like good neighbors taking some fresh air at their doorsteps.

From relief to relief, we passed along the habits and customs of these outposts. The Germans did the same. Even if the whole Champagne burst into flames, not a single grenade would fall in this privileged corner. It’s certain that a clever command could have profited from this opportunity to gain specific intelligence about the sector: the likelihood of poison-gas attacks, the plans for blowing up mines, or attacks, or various positions. All that would be needed would be a few litres of pinard or a few quarts of eau-de-vie, which the Germans lacked, to loosen their tongues.

But no one would have dared suggest this to our bosses. This would have been admitting the start of fraternisation with the enemy. A firing squad could well have been the response to such a suggestion. It’s as if, in the time of the Inquisition, a poor fellow had confessed that he had just had a conversation with Satan.

Barthas, unsurprisingly, likes this sort of thing, and continues his loving exposition for several pages. I do like to hear about sensible chaps getting along with each other, but I can only do so much writing per day…

Clifford Wells

Lieutenant Clifford Wells is still training at Le Havre, with enough time to make friends with attractive chaps, cough cough, and still write home to his dear mother.

It has been, and is, extremely warm and dusty, and the swim in the sea, which I manage to get in nearly every day, is very refreshing. I can really float in the salt water, so you no longer have the family monopoly of that accomplishment. I am beginning to like salt water for swimming, although I always used to prefer the fresh. What kind of a time did you have in Knowlton this year? I was glad to receive the picture post card of the place.

It seems more than a year since I was there. I am enjoying life here. I have many nice friends among the officers, and am continually running across men whom I have met in one capacity or another since I enlisted. When I first joined up, I knew scarcely anyone in the whole Expeditionary Force. Now I have many acquaintances and friends from all parts of Canada. One of my best friends is a boy named Ford, who recently received his commission. He was at McGill University when war broke out, and is an exceptionally attractive chap.

He is commonly called “Henry” after his famous peace-making namesake, who, as he is very careful to state on every possible occasion, is no relative of his.

Knowlton is a small village on the banks of Brome Lake in Quebec, which has long been a favourite haunt of the wealthiest Montreal millionaires (and their idiot sons). When Princess Anne competed in the Olympics in 1976 and her family all came to Canada to support her, including the Queen, they stayed in a large country house on Brome Lake.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Gorizia | Sixth Isonzo | 7 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

Yesterday we had a rather odd concept to digest; there’s been a battle on the Isonzo and there is good news for the Italians. Here’s another odd concept; it’s day 2 of Sixth Isonzo, and things are still going well! The defenders of Gorizia don’t have enough of anything; not enough men, not enough artillery shells, not enough barbed wire, and not enough morale. The situation continues deteriorating through the afternoon, and the evening. The local commander, General Zeidler, has been both promoted and ennobled over the last year for his efforts leading the defence.

As the witching hour ticks round, he’s decided that the position is no longer tenable, and it’s time to leave before they’re forced. This will mean letting the Italians cross the upper Isonzo without much opposition; but with little artillery ammunition and not much more for the machine-guns, it’s not worth it. Behind Gorizia is a fresh line of mountains, and they’ve been excavating a second line anchored on three peaks: Monte Santo, San Gabriele, and San Marco. There’s more high ground behind. Holding Gorizia is great for propaganda purposes, but they can hold the mountains almost indefinitely.

Off to the south, the defenders have given up the summit of Mount San Michele, and they’re now trying to sidle off to the rear without being noticed. Now it’s irony time. Just as Zeidler is making his decision, General Cadorna is reminding us how much he’s learned from 1915 by drawing up an order reminding subordinates that they should be careful and their job is to establish bridgeheads over the Isonzo only. For a few hours, there’s going to be a chance to inflict some serious damage on the defenders as they retreat across miles of open ground to their new positions.

And, thanks to the Italian army quite correctly learning from 1915 and not trying to do anything rash, they’re going to entirely miss the opportunity. If you’re not biting massive grooves in your knuckles right now, you’re better than me. Irony!

Battle of the Somme

After another extended round of fruitless counter-attacks on Pozieres, the Germans are giving the hilltop up as a bad job. Try as they might, they just can’t stop themselves being forced backwards, losing position after position after position. The attention of the BEF now switches back to Guillemont, where they’re going to have another push, on almost exactly the same lines as last time, and likely doomed to exactly the same failure. It’s been arranged with at least one eye on the jolly that’s beginning today. King George V is at the front; so too is President Poincare and plenty of other members of both governments.

General Joffre has used this as a chance to drop in on General Haig, and he’s in rather a better mood than he was last month. From Haig’s diary:

Extremely pleased at everything we had done, and full of compliments. He was also greatly delighted at the remarks which I had made about him in my message to the French on the third anniversary of the war. “As long as [you] get on well with [me], there is nothing to be feared from the politicians”, he said. My message appeared in Le Matin of 2 August. [Joffre] brought me a box of 50 Croix de Guerre for me to distribute as I thought right…a sort of “peace offering” after the previous interview between us here! I managed to get together 10 officers who had rendered “good service under fire” and he presented the crosses himself.

The Croix de Guerre is the standard French military decoration for bravery; it looks rather like a Victoria Cross but should not be mistaken for having the same rank. Le Matin was a popular daily newspaper that fell into collaborationism in a later war and quietly disappeared after the liberation of Paris. Haig has also just been told by Wully Robertson that both his and Winston Churchill’s assessments of the battle have been presented to the War Committee, but that nobody’s listening to Churchill.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley and his fellow officer-prisoners are settling in, if that’s the right word, to life in captivity at Kastamonu.

Malaria returned. The ague was more severe this time. Quinine we have at last procured in small quantities at the rate of five piastres a cachet, which means that one’s malaria medicine bill will be fifteen shillings daily. A cold snap in the weather has sent several others here down with malaria. Kastamonu is said to have a cold winter, so we hope to get this fever quite out of our system. It is raining steadily, the first rain since arriving here. We have no books as yet, but it is to be hoped the Turks will allow them to come through later on.

I have finished the Bible, a complete reading now since Baghdad. What a vigorous teacher is St. Paul. No mundane considerations seemed to prevent his putting the true value on this transient existence, and from that probably sprang the facility with which he decided always for the Lord.

The men from Kut are now mostly working as labourers, on precious little food, all along the Baghdad to Berlin railway.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman spends most of the day trying not to think about his broken leg, waiting to be taken away. It seems that the German advisors have been teaching the Ottoman soldiery a thing or two about how to taunt Tommy Atkins.

There was still no sign of our being moved to railhead, and as some of us were suffering considerable pain, our wounds were re-dressed. At midday we were visited by several friends from our regiment who were on their way up to the front line. We heard that cholera had broken out amongst the Turks and that some cases had occurred amongst our troops. It appeared that after a stiff resistance the Turks had evacuated. They had left a note saying that Lieutenant [name removed], of the Australian Light Horse, was safe and a prisoner; that he had dined with the officers of one of their batteries the night before, and that he was a gentleman.

Another note said “How did you like the six ladies from Katia?” This referred to their heavy guns, which they had succeeded in removing.

By evening they’ve been loaded onto a train and despatched to Kantara for further evaluation; most are being sent on to hospital at Cairo and Port Said. Teichman won’t easily forget the train journey, though.

A trooper in a New Zealand regiment who lay next to me, and had been shot through the spine, kept up a pitiful wail until he was finally exhausted. He was just alive when eventually taken out, but could not have survived long. After we had been going for a time the noise of the train overcame the groans of the sufferers. On reaching Pelusium our engine broke down and the train waited for a considerable time; then the shrieks and groans of the wounded broke the stillness of the quiet night. But worse was to come: we had to be shunted in order to let a supply train pass through.

It seemed a cruel thing to shunt a train full of wounded in open trucks, but it had to be done. Every bump in our springless truck was extremely painful.

Yeah, that hurts just thinking about it.

Max Plowman

From physical to mental pain now with Max Plowman, who’s been summoned along with all the officers by the battalion’s commanding officer. He’s a new replacement; I’m trying to work out whether the former lieutenant-colonel was wounded or killed on the 1st of July.

Officers, many of whom I have not seen before, crowd into a small room, each one saluting as he comes before a grey-headed, red-faced man, wearing a Scottish uniform, who sits writing at a table. Standing by his side is another Scotsman, tall, raw-boned and of very sour expression. He is our medical officer. The faces of the two men offer a contrast in red and grey; but they both look unpleasant. Without preamble the colonel begins:

“The discipline in this battalion is damnable. Some of you officers don’t know your job at all. You think the men will respect you just because you wear a belt. They won’t, and I don’t blame them. You’ve got to command these men before they’ll respect you, and the sooner you make up your minds to it the better. I see officers talking to men as their equals. I won’t have that. If there isn’t an alteration at once I intend to make it devilish hot for you. I don’t know what you’ve learnt at home. I don’t know who sent you out here. Some of you fellows have only just come out.

Well, you may as well understand, this isn’t a picnic. If you don’t know your job and show a very different idea of discipline, I’ll have you sent back and reduced to the ranks. You think you’ve come to France to loaf about. You’ll find your mistake. There’s got to be a drastic alteration, or back you go. I’ll not allow the men to be under the command of inefficient officers. Just understand that. You can go.” We salute and file out.

This seems a strange introduction. What does he know about our efficiency? The majority of us have only been with the battalion a matter of days. Why should we be cursed by a man who has never set eyes on us? We are volunteers; most of us joined in ’14, and our prospects of dying for our grateful country are the brightest in the world. Is this the way the modern commander spurs his men on to victory? I am stung with resentment. Captain Rowley sees this and smiles indulgently. He declares it is all “eyewash,” prompted by the doctor who regards every man who was not in France before July as a skunk.

Yes, Colonel. Because it was officers having civil conversations with their men that caused the disasters of the 1st of July, Colonel. Please feel free to have a shell drop on your head at any moment, Colonel.

Oswald Boelcke

Oswald Boelcke has continued meeting with the great and the good in Bulgaria. He’s managed to inveigle himself worryingly close to the front for someone who’s supposed to be off flying duty.

I was with General von Mackensen, and sat next to him at the [meal] table. Mackensen talked with me for quite a while. He is serious-looking, but not nearly as stern as his pictures lead one to believe. Later, I went by train to Hudova, and reached aviation headquarters, where I was given a fine welcome in the barracks. The aviators all live in wooden shacks, in a dreary neighborhood. This is not an enviable place to be, especially since they have had nothing to do for months. I flew up and down the Greek front. Then I went back to Uskub, where I spent the night.

Let’s now continue exploring the Dicta Boelcke, his rules of air combat for German pilots. Rule number 2:

Always carry through an attack when you have started it.

It’s very important that Boelcke has noticed what’s happened when other people start an attack, then attempt to break it off. Our man’s seen plenty of comrades shot down this way; and a flyer who’s been shot down often can’t tell the story of why he got shot down. Breaking off after starting to attack is a terrible idea, since first you alert the enemy to your presence, and then you obligingly turn round and make yourself vulnerable to him as you run away. Much better to just keep attacking and hope to force your opponent (who, after all, is being attacked) to make a mistake.

Maximilian Mugge

Recently, Maximilian Mugge was complaining that every time he’d applied to the War Office to become an interpreter or translator, they’d responded by transferring him. Except this latest time, which until now has not drawn a response. But no longer.

If amongst those mates of mine who were sitting outside our tent last Saturday even a bomb had dropped, nobody could have been more surprised than we were. A sergeant came just before the First Post was sounded and gave me orders to report the next morning at the Orderly Room in order to proceed to England. Of course we were convinced that the Fairy-Godmother-Department at the War Office had yielded to my 2001st application.

Whilst the boys munched up the contents of my two large parcels which had only arrived that evening, I had to listen to congratulations without end. “Fifty pounds I’d give milad!” said one of my mates,”if I were in your shoes.”

Fifty pounds in 1916 would be more or less a year’s wages for a private soldier.

Actions in Progress

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

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