Albatros | Nieuport | SPAD | 13 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

About a week too late, Mustafa Kemal’s corps has finally been given permission to get into the Endres Valley. Having done so, they’ve blundered straight into an enemy rifle division, fresh from some rather dull garrison duty in Erzurum. The Third Army’s advance is about to come to an extremely undignified halt. Like many things in the Caucasus theatre, this was not in the Ottomans’ plan. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Unfortunately, the Russians weren’t in on that meeting.

Delivery, sign here please

There’s a lot of new aircraft about on the Western Front. The Germans have finally introduced an aeroplane to match (and, indeed, exceed) the performance of Nieuport’s Bebe, and it makes the Royal Flying Corps’s Airco DH.2 fleet look like Morris Minors next to a Porsche. Its manoeuvrability isn’t anything special, but the Albatros D.I is both lighter and stronger than any other fighter currently flying. It’s not only faster than anything the Entente can field, it can be faster while being armed with twin machine-guns, a first. And it’s made out of plywood. Plywood! They were all totally mad.

The only reason there aren’t about 150 flying over the Somme right now is that the first pilots to get one have been complaining about a lack of upward vision. So the D.I, already outclassing every other fighter, is about to be slightly redesigned into the D.II, and by the end of September there’ll be 150 Albatros fighters of both types on the Western Front. This could get painful if there’s no response. But wait, what’s this from France? The Nieuport firm hasn’t been standing still, for one thing. They’ve recently started production runs for a number of different models, all an advance on the Bebe; the most important is the Nieuport 17.

And, not just that. Top French ace Armand Pinsard is just about to begin testing a prototype SPAD VII, the first aircraft to use that Hispano-Suiza engine about which there were such ructions earlier in the war. It’s all a big game of rock-paper-scissors, of course. If most of the Nieuport 17s go to Verdun, and the Albatros fighters go to the Somme, it won’t be much consolation to the RFC in their DH.2 pushers that there are more Nieuport 17s in existence than there are Albatroses…

Meanwhile, some aggressive destroyer patrolling has ended the recent submarine scares in the Channel. The tanks are heading for Le Havre again. It’s all but impossible that General Haig will have 150 tanks to throw into another push in mid-September, though. 25, almost certainly. Maybe 50, if he’s a good boy and eats up all his Shredded Wheat without complaining.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has been yanked out of reserve. He’s managed to dodge going over the top for a year and a half, but it seems that his luck might just have run out. Someone far above his pay grade has decided to have a diversionary attack to improve the tactical position.

The wind was in our favour. They were going to launch against the Boches the famous poison gas, for which we had been preparing for so long. Nobody within my hearing was particularly happy about this operation. There was going to be a big bombardment, on both sides, and from what the patrols told us we might have to occupy certain enemy positions. While waiting, our section was going to occupy a jumping-off point in a part of the trench with no shelter at all in which to protect ourselves from the likely bombardment.

Soon we learned that the time was set for midnight, the hour of crime. But you could say that the wind was guilty of collusion with the enemy: at ten minutes to midnight, the wind was blowing too hard. They postponed the business to two in the morning. But by that time the wind had stopped blowing altogether, to the point where it wouldn’t have moved a candle’s flame. The order came down to go back to our dugouts. A reprieve of 24 hours was granted to the Kaiser’s subjects who were swarming throughout Champagne.

Over the next week, the wind continues changing; the attack will never come. Another fortunate escape.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is nearly at the Somme.

The sun is setting over Albert.

I have wandered out alone to the top of this hill, learning that a view of the battle-front may be had from this spot. Nearly all the rough ground hereabouts is taken over by some department of the army; dumps and camps are littered about everywhere like a child’s toys strewn over the nursery floor. But here, for a few hundred yards, where the scrub is clear, poppies and cornflowers stud the ground about my feet and glow bright as jewels in the evening light. …

I turn from them to look out over the east.

The sky is purple dark and all along the horizon gun-flashes quiver as if some fearful aurora borealis were continually appearing. Every now and then huge explosions send up pillars of smoke, as though the internal fires of the earth had broken through. Nearer, the darkness is pricked by lesser lights that rise to fall and fade successively, like matches thrown into the air; and to all these ominous illuminations there comes the continual accompaniment of roll and roar: the grind and belch of guns and the shock of countless explosions.

It is an inferno. Can anything live in that? Heaven on one side : hell on the other. One should not hope to come out of that alive. It is a continuous earthquake. Well, life must end somewhere. One wouldn’t have chosen it there.

And this on a day when it seems that “nothing of importance” is occurring.

E.S. Thompson

Architectural expert E.S. Thompson is exploring Dodoma.

Mealie-meal and tea for breakfast, after which looked round the place a bit. Station quite a neat but foreign-looking one. Saw [a Reo Speedwagon] with flanged wheels running, also a Ford car. Quite neat houses near. The water tank had been knocked over and destroyed. Had tea and porridge for lunch during which John arrived with a sow. After lunch cleared out a place for a kitchen and got some stones from a cemetery nearby. Rose and Bibby brought some sweet potatoes back. Motor Cycle Corps left for Kilossa making a great noise.

Ali and the other Mohammedan boys much disgusted with the pig. George stuck it for us and it died quite calmly. Skinned and cleaned it. Fried the steak with which we had sweet potatoes for dinner. Mouth very sore. Got into bed early. Had to do an hour’s guard each.

So what you’re saying to me is that the Germans have different looking architecture??? Cor blimey, slap me vitals, and other unconvincing expressions of disbelief.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has been gathering information about his new home, the political concentration camp for soldiers too dangerously German to remain in fighting units. He begins with a description of how the 30th Middlesex was formed; I’m leaving his original names in rather than trying to translate them.

I hear that this Battalion was formed on 12-7-16 as the 33rd (I.W.) Bn. Midshire Regiment, at Balmy Camp, Sussex; Captain P. L. Thornly 10th East Lancers Regiment assuming temporary command. The majority of the men are conscripts and were recruited under Army Council Instruction 1209; they are of enemy (German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian) Alien parentage.

On the 13th July 1916 Headquarters and 300 men of this Unit proceeded to Peas Pudding Camp, Reptum, as an advance party; on the twentieth Colonel Byle took over command of the Battalion, and seven days later the remainder of the battalion arrived. On the 3rd August, 1916 200 men of A. Company under 2nd Lieut. Singleway proceeded to Fodderham and were attached to the Guards for Trench Digging at the Bombing School.

I would love to know if anyone could track down the true identity of either “Captain Thornly” of the “10th East Lancers” or “Colonel Byle”; Mugge is fond of puns (“Peas Pudding” for “Pease Pottage”, for instance), so it wouldn’t be completely hopeless. Beyond my resources at the moment, though.

The boys here call themselves “Bing Boys,” I believe after some London Revue. They are a quite superior lot as far as I can judge. Almost one-fifth seem to be clerks and city people. A very considerable number of Jews are amongst them and with the usual shrewdness of their race all the more comfortable billets like staff sergeants and quartermasters’ jobs have of course been appropriated by their financial magnates, stockbrokers and others. The cooking is excellent as only to be expected, our cook being a former chef of the Metropole.

There is in my tent a poor creature, cannot walk at all: rheumatic gout; had to be carted here. Born in England. Before Appeal Board; chairman, on being pointed out utter inability of man, alleged to have said “O ! they will find some work for him and he will be amongst his brother Huns.” The boy is in law and in fact English. Another boy with two gold stripes arrived today. Another “bloody Hun” who fought for England and was wounded for the cause of liberty.

Uncomfortable shifting at this anti-Semitism from a man of German parentage. The Metropole is a grand hotel in London that’s been requisitioned as Government offices; and a gold stripe is worn on a man’s sleeve to indicate that he was wounded on active service, one per wound.

We’ve also run into references to the Bing Boys a few times before. The revue is so popular that the name “Bing Boys” is being self-applied to units of dubious fighting value or extreme disorganisation. This is in much the same way that in 1914 and 1915 it was popular to call the Kitchener recruits “Fred Karno’s Army”, after the pioneering slapstick comedian who popularised throwing custard pies at people.

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

Haig’s joke | Flora Sandes | 12 Aug 1916

Battle of Romani

Time to close up shop in Egypt for the forseeable future. The Ottomans have lost just about two-thirds of their force. General von Kressenstein has had enough; he’s ordering a full-scale retreat back across the desert to Arish. Even if anyone on the other side might have wanted to chase him, they simply don’t have the water. There have been plans made to pipe water forward from the Suez Canal to support an attack towards Palestine, but they’re still a good four months at least from completion. Nothing can be done until that’s done. So now we’re bidding farewell to Egypt for a while.

One last note. Getting an Ottoman division across the desert and then back again is an amazing feat of logistics from General von Kressenstein. Making a horrendous bollocks of the following battle is an amazing feat of tactics, although not in the same sense. Defending, as he will probably have to do from now on, is also going to require some tactical thinking…

General von Falkenhayn

Let us now pause for a moment and consider the position of one Erich von Falkenhayn. He took over as German commander-in-chief in 1914, stabilised the Western Front at the Battle of the Aisne, then failed to win the extremely winnable First Ypres. He made it clear that he thought victory would come on the Western Front and wanted as little as possible to do with the Eastern Front. Another chance at advancing on the critical-to-the-BEF Channel ports was blown at Second Ypres.

He got little credit for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive or the conquest of Serbia, having made it clear that this was not his preferred option. He then stitched up the Eastern Front dream team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff in favour of General von Mackensen and his amazing hat. Who, incidentally, has stayed in command of the remaining German presence in occupied Serbia. For nine months he’s been having polite dinners with Bulgarian officials and other passing dignitaries, rather than being transferred anywhere more useful. (This is actually going to work out very interestingly; watch this space.)

von Falkenhayn has effectively staked whatever reputation he may have left on the success of the Battle of Verdun. And we’ve all seen how that’s turned out. Then there was the Brusilov Offensive. von Falkenhayn had launched Verdun at least partly on the basis that the Russians couldn’t attack on the Eastern Front any time soon. And then there was the Battle of the Somme, the biggest loss of captured French territory since 1914, where his army commanders are now beginning to complain about that order to defend every inch of ground.

This is not a good picture. Say, you know who else doesn’t like him very much? The Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, whose own political position is far from secure. Political life in Berlin is fast filling up with threats to resign from all and sundry. The Bulgarian government has discreetly made it known that they would much prefer for their generals to deal with Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Charles has been trying to build support for getting rid of his own commander-in-chief Conrad von Hotzendorf; there’s a growing movement (mostly in the Hungarian government) to have von Hindenburg and Ludendorff as generalissimos.

And there’s a list of German politicians, civil servants, industrialists, advisors, and other hangers-on as long as your arm who are openly supporting Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Despite all these ructions, von Falkenhayn is still clinging onto his job, mostly by exploiting the Kaiser’s growing inability to take any kind of decision, and his not-unjustified fear of what Hindenburg and Ludendorff might do with a supreme military command. Maybe the Kaiser will begin burning von Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s ever-more-aggrieved letters of complaint about their boss. It’d help von Falkenhayn’s case if he could be right about, oh, anything, mind you.

And so we come back to Romania. von Falkenhayn has convinced the foreign ministry to send the Romanian government a series of warnings against any funny business. Romanian food and oil is crucial to the ever-more-fragile German war economy. He’s also had his staff draw up contingency plans for putting the Romanians in their place if they do do anything stupid. But he’s quite sure that the Romanians probably won’t do anything stupid this year. And even if they are going to do something stupid, it’s now so late in the year that they’ll have to wait for the soldiers to come back from harvest leave in September. Surely.

Harvest leave! Anyone else remember harvest leave being a major arse-ache for Conrad von Hotzendorf back in the days of the July Crisis? Now here it is again to trip someone else up.

Haig, Joffre, and the King

As their opposite number teeters, the Entente’s top military men are playing amusing pranks on each other. Today General Rawlinson’s headquarters is putting on a gluttonous seven-course lunch for King George V, President Poincare, and a few other lucky sorts who appreciate haute cuisine. Unfortunately for General Joffre, proud owner of the largest appetite in the war, the King is taking an Important Moral Stand. In order to set an example to his people, he has sworn off alcohol for the entire war. Of course, when the King is not drinking, nobody is drinking.

And so Joffre finds himself offered the choice of ginger beer or orange juice with his meal. This is not unlike offering a Manchester United fan tickets to see either Manchester City or Liverpool play. “Many of us will long remember General Joffre’s look of abhorrence, or annoyance”, wrote Haig in his diary afterwards, but the japery doesn’t end there. Holding out some hope that there might be some arrangement for serving booze when His Britannic Majesty isn’t looking, Joffre directs several meaningful looks at the waiters.

“I think General Joffre wants the bread…” suggests his BFF Haig. The bread basket appears. The General can’t very well refuse. The meal progresses. Joffre’s silent pleas continue. Haig continues sending the bread basket round. By the end Joffre is having a little difficulty restraining the urge to write his name in the history books as the first man to trigger an international incident by throwing staple foods at a Scotsman. Eventually the King and the President retire for conversation and cigars; someone explains the unfortunate situation to Joffre and offers him a digestif by way of apology.

Of course he refuses. If he cannot have a glass of wine with his meal, he will have nothing. A most successful jape; and one that’s very important in order to give a full sense of Haig’s personality. He’s often unfairly described as being extremely austere and having no sense of humour; it’s only right to deepen our portrait of him into three dimensions before saying rude things about him.

Flora Sandes (Slight Return)

One of the most remarkable non-commissioned officers in the war right now is a sergeant in the Serbian Army. This sergeant was not, however, born in Belgrade, or Nis, or Kragujevac. This sergeant was born into an upper-middle-class family in a well-to-do Yorkshire village called Nether Poppleton, which (appropriately enough for a soldier) sounds rather like an unfortunate condition brought on by a venereal disease.

When a very small child I used to pray every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy. Fate plays funny tricks sometimes, so that it behoves one to be careful of one’s wishes.

In 1915 we followed as Flora Sandes, Red Cross nurse, joined the Serbian Army (which has a refreshingly practical opinion on the role of women in wartime when one’s country is literally being overrun by foreign invaders) and obtained quick promotion through being both a good soldier and an excellent propaganda asset.

The soldiers seemed to take it for granted that anyone who could ride and shoot, and I could do both, would be a soldier in such a crisis. To their minds there was nothing strange about a woman joining up; there had occasionally been Serbian peasant girls in the Army, and there was one in this same regiment. The only thing that distinguished me particularly, and made them treat me with so much affection and respect, was that I, an Englishwoman, was willing to rough it with them, and to fight for Serbia.

Like the Turks they say “to die for your country is not to die”; but to die for someone else’s country, they thought to be something extra special.

It is often suggested (by osmosis from lazy historians) that this has something to do with the old rural Balkan tradition of the “sworn virgin”, by which a person assigned female at birth can be treated by their society as a man for all practical purposes. Sandes directly rejects that interpretation here, which I am reliably informed is best responded to with targeted flatulence. Anyway. She’s spent most of the summer on leave in England, rallying support for Serbia and raising money for war orphans. But now, as we know, there is an offensive in the offing. Sandes has now returned to her regiment.

My memories of the 1916 campaign are confused. They seem like a whole series of vivid pictures of little incidents which I can never forget, but which are not consecutive. With the help of my very scrappy diary, I hope to be able to make some kind of a whole of them, beginning in mid-August heat with the 2nd Regiment, numbering some 3,000-odd men, and ending in November snows with a bare 500. In the Iron Regiment (our nickname) I served by apprenticeship in war with a vengeance, and my tough and hardy comrades, most of them young veterans of two previous wars, taught me how to be a Serbian soldier.

We’ll see what we can do as regards putting them in some kind of order. And do think of her the next time you see someone fulminating about how women soldiers are totally too fragile and weedy to be effective in combat roles. By the way, she refers to another woman in the regiment; this woman is in a different battalion, but we will eventually meet her. And the two wars are of course the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

E.S. Thompson

And now we go from the hyper-competent woman soldier to the Transvaal’s own travelling pratfall, E.S. Thompson. What comedy misadventure have you for us today, Private?

Not feeling very well, having a tired and heavy feeling. Took aspirin tablet which made me feel much better. Read a bit then saddled up and moved off at 4pm, marching 2.5 hours. Off-saddled for coffee then moved off again after 2 hours, into Dodoma. Total for the day 11 miles. Touched the railway line as we walked over. Camped on a square opposite the station and next to the hospital. Went to get the kits but somebody had found them by mistake. After a lot of enquiring found them and went to bed.

Ah, there’s a small novella in the story of “a lot of enquiring” about who’s nicked his kit. So, they’ve arrived at Dodoma to garrison the Central Railway. Time once more for Thompson and chums to hurry up and wait. Just what he needs, more time on his hands to think up new and exciting ways to maim himself.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has acquired a batman, a patronising attitude, and a disturbing piece of news. (A reminder that he is almost certainly using pseudonyms in his memoir.)

Herbert Castlereagh (better known to his mates as “Erb”) is a dark undersized Cockney with a switch of black hair that the company barber ought to see to. His personal cleanliness is an item he forgets, and his speech is difficult to understand; but he has a comical face and there is a good deal of the faithful spaniel about him. He says he is twenty-one: he doesn’t look more than sixteen. With a true Cockney’s ability to make shift, he found some sticks and rigged me up quite a tolerable bath this morning.

Though the performance entailed mild censure for indecent exposure, I’m pleased with Castlereagh, and we shall repeat the trick. An orderly has a few privileges, and, after Gallipoli, it seems only human to save such a brat from as much hardship as possible. He is the butt of the other orderlies, but in his old serio-comic fashion he is quite able to defend himself. He has a marvellous stock of righteous indignation that he displays like a coster if I, or another, happen to swear at him. A queer self-contained bit of old humanity, I like him, and believe he likes me.

The battalion is still considerably below strength, but I hear we are moving forward tomorrow.

That’s not promising, and I do wonder how much divisional and corps command knows about the strength of battalions like the 10th Green Howards. The Austro-Hungarian staff is infamous for consistently assuming that all its units were at full strength regardless of their actual condition. Perhaps it is mildly unfair to single them out in that regard.

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

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 | Bir el Abd | 6 Aug 1916

Battle of the Somme

It’s just about job done at Pozieres. All they need to do now is dig in. This morning the ANZACs finally rotated the 2nd Australian Division out, in favour of the 4th Australian Division. Lucky them. There’s no trenches as such up on the Windmill Hill, in the lee of the still-not-totally-dead windmill, just a line of conveniently-sited shell holes. Corporal Charles Smith is heading into the wasteland.

Ghastly sights were witnessed on that journey through the sap. Scores of bodies had been partially buried in the soft earth, and bloody hands and feet protruded at frequent intervals. Boxes of rations and ammunition were scattered about, telling plainer than words that the fatigue parties had come under violent artillery fire and had been annihilated. … Dead were scattered everywhere. Broken trenches, twisted barbed wire, mutilated rations and military equipment, stretchers with their once human contents, and bearers now cold and stiff, all gave mute evidence of the recent carnage.

And they thought ANZAC Cove was bad. There’s slightly less dysentery around here, that’s true, but it’s not much of a consolation.

Sixth Battle of the Isonzo

Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. Yes, we’ve had a spring and most of a summer’s holiday from the slaughters on the Isonzo. But all good things must come to an end, I suppose. And at least General Cadorna has learned his lesson, after having had it taught to him five times. This is a strictly limited attack. New artillery doctrine has been laid down. Italian industry has been manufacturing vast quantities of guns; more have been bought in from France, and plenty of trench mortars to go with them. On the other side of the hill, what little new artillery has been manufactured is mostly going to the Eastern Front, and then being lost again.

The length of the preliminary bombardments have also been significantly curtailed. Most of the attacks are going ahead after only 12 hours of bombardment. In 1915 this would surely have been a death sentence. But the Italian gunners have learned a thing or two about clearing barbed wire after a year and a bit of war. And so, believe it or not, what we’ve got here on the first day of Sixth Isonzo is a considerable success. The critical northern stronghold at Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia, falls in just 38 minutes.

A few isolated platoons and companies try to hold out inside deep dugouts. The Italians have no time for this bullshit, so they pour petrol down the stairs and then set the caverns on fire. As they do so, the entire Austro-Hungarian line is finally wobbling. By nightfall, the whole of the Podgora hill just to the west of Gorizia is under Italian control. Away to the south, there are men poised to push up and over the whole of Mount San Michele, and more occupying San Martino village to the south.

After nightfall there are counter-attacks, but not only is there hardly any general reserve left, it’s stationed four days’ march behind the front. Local reserve formations are barely worth mentioning. The Isonzo front has been heavily milked over the last few months, first for men for the Battle of Asiago, and then for men to oppose the Brusilov Offensive. In some positions they’ve even run out of artillery shells. Put all this together, and there might just be a chance for the Italians to make something big happen here. More tomorrow.

Battle of Romani

The Ottomans have completed a successful withdrawal to Bir el Abd, although they’ve taken plenty of casualties and their morale is now suffering badly. General Chauvel, commanding the Australian/New Zealand mounted division, is proposing a frankly hair-raising scheme to send his mounted troops on long rides to attack the Ottomans from three sides at once. We’ve seen schemes like this badly backfire on more than one occasion, and it’s going to be an all-or-nothing gamble. It’s either going to break the enemy for good, or else give them fresh heart to carry on.

Meanwhile, Oskar Teichman and his broken leg are waiting patiently to be taken to the rear, but he’s not going to die of it any time soon.

We were well looked after, our wounds were dressed, and we were supplied with excellent rations. On asking when we should be removed to the railhead, we were told that the line was so congested with Turkish prisoners that it would be impossible to evacuate us at once.

During the morning a Major from the Canterbury Regiment was brought into our tent, and he told us that the mounted troops and infantry had cleared Katia, and that the Turks were putting up another rear-guard action at Oghratina. He had met some of our infantry in a fearful state through lack of water, with blackened lips and swollen tongues. After all, we mounted troops did not know what it was to march through heavy sand. In the afternoon there appeared to be still no chance of moving the wounded, and the various Field Ambulances became very full.

I have to say, even the most optimistic of soldiers usually get a bit miserable after they get shot. This is by far the stiffest upper lip I’ve seen. Even the Sunny Subaltern got a bit unhappy about being unable to liberate the Ypres salient on account of his wounds.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is still at rest, close enough behind the Somme front to hear the guns firing on Pozieres. However, he’s got enough free time to write to an American friend and offer some in-depth thoughts on the USA’s foreign policy, leavened with some casual racism.

Your war with Mexico has ended agreeably. It is a good thing. You can gain no glory fighting Greasers… . In spite of the Lusitania, Wilson may loom big yet in the history of the world. I absolutely refuse to put a small dingy political motive back of his foreign policy. It seems to me that he acted logically as representing a Nation made up largely of convinced pacifists. It is not time to talk peace now in France, but after the war it will be a shame if all the fine, and generous movements for general peace which were at the bottom of most political discussions are not taken up again and with more vigor.

After two years of this fighting business I can’t agree with those who say that there will always be war, and any man who has the generosity to fight for peace [against all odds] seems to me most respectable. It’s very easy for a Roosevelt to be popular. All one needs to do is to appeal to the cowardice of those who are afraid and to the passions of those who are, above all, proud or vain or greedy.

Romain Rolland is getting damned up and down because he keeps airing his belief that in spite of all things done, there may yet be a few good Germans in the world. He is very much more creditable to his nation than that ass of Saint-Saens, who since the Belgian and Northern atrocities, has discovered that Wagner had no musical sense at all.

Romain Rolland is a French writer and academic who has indeed stuck by his pacifist beliefs. Camille Saint-Saens is an ageing composer of classical music who is now 81. When he isn’t railing with equal ferocity against French modernists such as Claude Debussy and German Germans such as Wagner, he’s constantly touring France giving piano performances to raise money for war charities.

Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, is now starting his campaign for re-election as President, in what will turn out to be a damned close run-thing. His chief slogan is to be “He kept us out of war” (cough, cough). Meanwhile, perations in Mexico against Pancho Villa are now more-or-less over, with Villa still at large. For a while it looked as though things might escalate into all-out war with Mexican government forces, but Wilson’s pulled back from the prospect.

Oswin Creighton

British Army padre Oswin Creighton is about to move from Romsey to Witley Common near Aldershot, to join a new battalion, the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers. On his way out of the door, he has a few thoughts about the officers he’s been trying to socialise with at Romsey.

I do hope they will find someone who will be able to come here and really get on with these officers. I cannot tell you how much I blame myself. I have never really mixed at any time of my life with men of this type, and I am afraid I simply don’t understand them. I have never hunted nor been to a race-meeting. There are good fellows, I know, among them. I would give anything to know what they really think about things to be able to get near them. But after nearly five months I simply feel I am leaving a lot of strangers behind me. I feel entirely outside them. They have been preparing for weeks for a gymkhana to-morrow, and have talked of little else.

Creighton is no proletarian; he went to public school and then to Keble College, Oxford. And these chaps are too toffy even for him. “Gymkhana” is a word from the Empire; in this sense, it’s a multi-disciplinary horse-riding competition. He continues with some thoughts on the apparent lack of religious feeling among the blokes.

Two men came to the Holy Communion. This is the Sunday we are keeping as the anniversary of the war and the memorial of the fallen. The Church Parades were cancelled, as we are going to have this big voluntary service to-night. I cannot dismiss all these men and feel they have no religion. I know they have finer feelings. As far as I know only two are even coming to the service to-night. What is the National Mission going to say about a situation like this?

I must say I simply feel bewildered. It cannot be all my fault. They don’t even go to the Abbey. They do their Work splendidly and untiringly. It is difficult to see how they could do it better. The general tone is high. But they simply have no apparent feeling for religion as I have learnt it. Have I learnt it wrong, or is the way I have learnt it one and theirs another?

I don’t have the heart to poke fun at him. He sounds so very depressed, poor man.

Max Plowman

Thoroughly scandalised, 2nd Lt Max Plowman goes on parade for the first time with his new battalion.

One figure stands out. It is Company Sergeant-Major Steel. He is a tall, thin, dark man of about five-and-twenty, with a long hooked nose and a slight stoop. He wears the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but his manner is casual, and there is nothing of the parade sergeant-major about him. Indeed, I wonder at first how a man of such weedy appearance can have attained his rank. But when Captain Rowley introduces us, I see a couple of keen, intelligent eyes looking abnormally bright, like eyes that have seen too much.

As we step aside, Rowley describes him to me as the bravest man in the regiment, who obtained his distinction by bringing in fourteen prisoners, single-handed, on July 1st. In days to come I am to see much of this man. Many a dreary hour in the trenches we shall wile away together, talking of his home in the West of England where he used to be a confectioner, and where his young wife and child wait for him. There’s strange galvanism in this man, for he can pull the whole company together with a word, and yet his natural habit of mind is soft and reflective.

Already he is utterly sick of the war and many a time he is to tell me, in response to some chaff about his ribbon, how gladly he would exchange it for a week’s leave.

I am trying to work out whether or not Plowman is using the standard convention of false names; it doesn’t say so in the introduction.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has an afternoon to himself, which he spends by a railway line, watching the trains.

In one [train], there were men stretched gloriously asleep on the floor, while over them and nearly on them, stood their animals tethered and patient. Repose, certainly, in the GS wagons, which packed on the trucks, carried a gunner or two on the front seat, serene in air with cigarette and magazine. Repose too, I devoutly hope, for the animals; but eight horses to a [train truck] is a tight fit, and made no less so by the spurious label [“Sheep”] which stands on their carriage wall.

We are not at all perturbed by the delay; at least, I think not: I know one officer who (after his manner) is loving it. The rest of two Battalions are stretched before me, about four deep among the rails, and I do not think they are in undue hurry. A Royal Flying Corps car dashes up beyond the rails, and a cyclist whizzes down the road behind my head. Aeroplanes, of course, come (with their kind of coquettish curtsying, peculiar to their kind when infantry are about), to see the trains and their loads. A Red Cross car flits in and out of the station. Frenchmen wander down the line in shirt-sleeves and white trousers.

But nowhere is there much of a hurry, thank God. It is true the guns are pelting away somewhere or other, but nobody cares. The sun shines over our shoulders, and it is the infantryman’s day out. Every moment sees him, indeed, a thought more comfortable; and, as I write, he is already beginning to get his tea.

Incredibly good concert in the orchard last night. One Baynes (late Cambridge University Boating Club; he rowed against me) is now our Medical Officer, and very remarkable he is: he is one of those men who sing like birds, and swim, and dive (WITH somersaults), and do a lot of shouting, and are very good, in fine. You should have heard him take 300 men clean off their feet with “Songs of Araby” last night; an old, old friend, of course, but I never saw it so effective. Nor any one so priceless as the modern Royal Flying Corps man: he is perfectly immaculate, salutes all officers, and drills like a Guardsman.

For the moment, his time in the rear continues. “I’ll sing thee songs of Araby” is by WG Wills and Frederic Clay.

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