Chinese Labour Corps | 23 Aug 1916

Chinese Labour Corps

The story of hired Chinese labourers in the war is about to officially begin. The French government has spent the better part of 18 months working on a scheme to recruit men from China to do labouring work, and so free up French soldiers for duties closer to the firing line. However, in order to preserve the appearance of Chinese neutrality, they’ve used a deeply convoluted cover by which various private companies do all the official business of recruiting. Both governments can then claim that this is a strictly private arrangement and nothing to do with the war effort.

This of course is bullshit. It’s also led to some dangerous infighting; the French Foreign Ministry has organised one effort, the Ministry of War another, and the Ministry of Works a third. Inevitable disagreements will follow between the various government departments as to who will be in charge of the men and who gets to put them to work. When the French trade unions find out, they too will protest against job losses for their members. At one point there had been grand plans to bring over at least 100,000 men; the final figure will be barely a quarter of that.

Meanwhile, at the end of last month the War Office performed a remarkable about turn. Having been utterly opposed to the hiring of Chinese labourers before the Battle of the Somme, it’s now clear that the manpower situation has entirely changed. This could be a war of attrition, and minister of war David Lloyd George has just authorised the opening of negotiations, on an absolutely top secret basis. So it is that the British Empire, and not the French, will become by far the most extensive hirer of Chinese labourers in the war. More to follow.

There is an interesting footnote on this subject, by the way. A couple of days ago we caught up with Colonel Northey’s Rhodesians in German East Africa. They’re just approaching Iringa; and apparently they found in the town 100 Chinese labourers who’d been working there for the Germans. An explanation of how they got there (beyond the obvious “on a boat?”) has, unfortunately, defeated my limited research abilities.

E.S. Thompson

Walking accident E.S. Thompson continues blundering around Kondoa Irangi. They’re having a concert party tonight to keep morale up, but will he make it there?

Steak and tea for lunch. Cleared away the bush over my head, and then caught a thorn in my finger which poisoned it and made it swell up. Had a shave. My guard from 4pm to 6pm. Stew as usual for dinner. Went to the concert on the square with Wackrill. Electric lights were on poles but were too dim. A piano was on a transport wagon and there was a big log fire burning. The colonel presided.

The concert opened with a violin solo, during which the seat on which Captain Meser, Lieutenant Newton, Captain Tucker and 2 or 3 other officers were sitting collapsed, much to everybody’s amusement. The next thing was ‘Bandalero’ followed by ‘Keep the home fires burning’. Sutcliffe then sang ‘Perfect Day’. Corporal MacMaster recited about some Yiddisher gentleman, then imitated an Indian juggler, chiding the colonel about too much building, poor rations, etc.

Had to get back to do guard from 8pm to 10pm. Time did not seem so long as we listened to the music in the distance.

Amusing as it is to think of these soldiers enjoying a Lou Reed song about heroin, Sutcliffe is almost certainly singing “A Perfect Day”, a popular standard of the time.

Herbert Sulzbach

Lazy gunner Herbert Sulzbach has not only been given a little more work to do, he seems grateful for it.

Thank goodness, I was given another tour of duty with my infantry friends, occupying our observation post and sharing quarters with Sergeant [R.] of 315 Trench Mortar Section. At the same time the French began to give us another good going-over with trench mortar shells, and we had a fair numbers of casualties. We returned the fire, lobbing 250 heavy-calibre jobs. We hear in the meanwhile that the Bulgarian offensive in Macedonia is making progress, and that the [Brusilov Offensive] has come to a halt.

Two firm “eh, sort of” pieces of news from our German correspondent here. Jean Bonhomme across the way is probably being told that the Bulgarian offensive has been arrested and the Russian offensive continues marching on. Both are reasonable descriptions of parts of the offensive.

Henri Desagneaux

Another intermittent missive from Captain Henri Desagneaux.

In the evening, a huge din. Flares sent up all along the line. A barrage starts up and lasts until 2am. The cause of it all, a German [raid] and the panic of the 23rd Company on my right, which lost a man taken prisoner.

The word used by the translator is “patrol”. The BEF at the time differentiated between a “patrol”, which only involved going out into No Man’s Land, and a “raid”, which involved entering enemy trenches. If the Germans took a prisoner, this was almost certainly a raid.

Ruth Farnam

Ruth Farnam, American agent of the Serbian Relief Fund, crosses the Channel and heads for Paris.

Every one of the several hundred passengers kept as sharp a lookout as if he were personally responsible for the safety of the ship. However, we landed at Le Havre unharmed, and after endless formalities were allowed to proceed to Paris. Such a long journey! We seemed to stop at every barn and cottage on the route and arrived at dead of night, hungry and cross, as if our troubles and discomforts were all-important. But just as we finished the short examination at the station gates, a train-load of wounded French soldiers came in and the first men were carried past us on their stretchers to the waiting ambulances.

We stood ashamed of our peevishness when we saw the glowing eyes shining in the dim light and heard the feeble voices shout “Vive la France.” The men about me took off their hats and the grossest, most cantankerous woman of us all, who had made the journey even more uncomfortable than need be by her constant grumbling, ran forward weeping and tried to kiss one pathetic lad whose blanket lay hideously flat where his legs should have been.

She’s a practical woman, mind you. She’s seen this sort of thing before. Anyway, she’s succeeded in getting into France; now she must get back out again.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Haig and Rawlinson | 22 Aug 1916

Haig and Rawlinson

It seems that the rule among the BEF’s high command at the moment is “if in doubt, shout at General Rawlinson”. While General Melchett might have approved of this man-management strategy, he’s about the only one. To be sure, General Haig has every reason to be peeved about the performance of his 4th Army commander, and has told him so in no uncertain terms.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from the repeated failure of attacks on Guillemont is that something is wanting in the methods employed. The next attack must be thoroughly prepared for in accordance with the principles which have been uccessful in previous attacks and which are, or should be, well known to commanders of all ranks. …

In actual execution of plans, when control by higher commanders is impossible, subordinates on the spot must act on their own initiative, and they must be trained to do so. But in preparation close supervision by higher commanders is not only possible but is their duty, to such extent as they find necessary to ensure that everything is done that can be done to ensure success. … It is not interference but a legitimate and necessary exercise of the functions of a commander on whom the ultimate responsibility for success or failure lies.

Oh, physician, why dost thou not heal thyself? You’re right, General. It is indeed both legitimate and necessary. So why are you, personally, so incapable of doing it? He goes further when describing to his diary Rawlinson’s latest plan for taking Guillemont.

I disapproved of…his plan because the whole advance would be under the Enemy’s machine gun fire from Guillemont Ridge. Numerous shell holes afforded excellent cover for his machine guns. In fact I thought the scheme doomed to failure.

So why didn’t you make him un-fuck it before allowing him to attack again, you hopeless pillock? It’s enough to make anyone want to scream.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien and his friend G.B. Smith are doing some soul-searching, just as hundreds of thousands of other men are, who’ve so recently seen their mates die in a dubious cause. He and his school-friends declared years previously that they were destined to do great things in the world, and now it’s uncertain whether any of them will survive the war. Smith offers his grieving friend some high-minded words of encouragement; Tolkien comes to the conclusion that if only one of them lives, that one might achieve greatness on his own.

As they try to eat together for the last time before Smith has to go back up the line, their rear-area billet is shelled and they have to dive for cover. Tolkien’s course is ending; he’ll be back in the trenches soon. And this will be the last time he sees Smith alive.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman, meanwhile, has been wounded. Sort of.

Castlereagh, bright lad, has made me a drink of tea, which I am thankful to accept even from his mess-tin. But while drinking it, I feel a smack on the neck and look round to see who is throwing earth about. No one looks guilty, and putting my hand up I find my neck bleeding; and there at my feet lies an inch of shrapnel I had not seen before. Luckily it must have been the flat side that hit and split the skin. Hill ties me up and we laugh over our first “casualty.” Then Rowley comes along and, brushing my ridicule aside, insists that I must report to the Medical Officer.

He’s passing this off with a stiff upper lip, but he was very possibly only a few inches from death. The side of the neck instead of the back, the carotid arteries; or a sharp edge breaking through to the spine or the brain…

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley continues trying to make the best of a bad job.

I attempted a long walk, permission having been obtained for a party of us to go. The direction led me over hills towards some pine woods—a considerable climb for those in our condition. An extraordinary phenomenon common to almost all Kut people, young and old—but more especially to the young who had starved on account of enteritis troubles—is their sudden huge girth expansion. One’s figure protrudes like any Turk’s. The fatty foods and weak state of the stomach are said to be the cause of this.

The next day I actually turned out to rugger for our house, as left wing three-quarter. The delight after all one’s sickness in feeling one’s legs really attempting to run was so encouraging that one Brabazon and I, for dinner, divided a bottle of German beer. This is to become a custom. We played three spells of ten minutes each, and quite enough too, with a ball stuffed with wool, as we had no bladder. Kastamonu is totally hilly, and the footer ground over a mile away, is uneven and stony, but the best we can get. Correct collaring is barred, but we go croppers just the same.

I have had some rough chessmen made out of bits of wood, and am settling down to discipline my mind again to some sort of methodical thinking. One feels that some such effort as this stands between us and oblivion.

He seems quite determined to portray Kastamonu as the world’s worst CenterParcs resort. And I can only imagine the fun had by anyone who did not grow up in England, trying to decode the sentence “Correct collaring is barred, but we go croppers just the same”.

Ruth Farnam

Ruth Farnam has now gone from London to Southampton to catch a boat. She lived in Southampton for a while before the war, and has heard that one of her old household staff has been wounded in France and is now in a local hospital, so pays him a visit.

When I saw poor Mursell, my faithful gardener of happier days, on crutches and heard that he had been wounded in the legs, he seemed to think that I ought to have an explanation. As he is only five feet four inches in height he was, for a time, ineligible for military service, but after a while “Bantam Regiments” were formed and he was among the first to join and was the tallest man in his regiment! “Yes, madam,” he said, “I caught a shell-splinter in my legs. Why, a man six foot four could have been wounded there.”
He was quite cheerful and happy, in spite of the pain which he was suffering, to have “done his bit” in the great war.

On my way to dinner in the town, I remembered that my presence at the police station was required, so I went there. The sergeant on duty asked my business.
“I’m an alien and am here without an identity card,” I said. “Are you going to arrest me?”
“What for, madam?” he asked.
“Oh, I just thought you might want to,” I replied.
“Wouldn’t think of such a thing. And I didn’t know you was a h’alien, madam.” This courteously.

I looked surprised and he laughed and said he remembered often having seen my husband drive with me down the High Street when we lived near Southampton and he ‘ad h’ always supposed that I was H’english, though he knew that Mr. Farnam was a H’american.

I do henjoy seeing someone take note of the peculiar speech patterns hof the workin’-class British man who is puttin’ on hairs, on haccount of bein’ in a position of hauthority.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

von Knobelsdorf | Iringa | 21 Aug 1916

Nyasalanders in Tanzania

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

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

German command structure

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

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

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

Procurement

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

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

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

Robert Pelissier

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

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

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

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

E.S. Thompson

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

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

Sad trombone. Sad, sad trombone.

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

You don’t say, chief. You don’t say.

Clifford Wells

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

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

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

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

Maximilian Mugge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Eland | Florina | 19 Aug 1916

Battle of Doiran

The Serbian Army has been forced to give up the town of Florina, near Lake Ostrovo. Happily for them, there happens to be a rather large ridge between the town and Lake Ostrovo. If the Bulgarians First Army can push all the way through to the lake, they’re going to have a secure flank and will be extremely difficult to dislodge from their current position.

Africa

In the south-west of Tanzania, one Sergeant Maker of the South African Mounted Rifles has just seen something truly jaw-dropping. They’ve just seen off a small Schutztruppe detachment, and Maker is leading a patrol through the very middle of nowhere, near the banks of the River Ruhudje.

As we approached the river, just about dawn, something caused me to stop dead still, which also brought the patrol to a halt. There was no talking allowed, so everything was done by signs. Nothing happened. The signal was given to advance, and at that moment, the whole countryside appeared to move! As far as one could see, there were eland; males, females, and calves. They slowly moved off, up the river. … I often wonder, with the advance of civilization, if a sight like this will ever be seen again.

An eland is a kind of antelope. They’ve briefly slipped from Michael Redgrave narrating The Great War, and dropped into David Attenborough narrating Life on Earth.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s battalion is still dodging shells in the trenches near Beaumont Hamel. The man himself has once again been excused trench duty, though. All battalion signal officers in the division have been recalled to headquarters for a week of urgent remedial training. By day he’s being bollocked by someone who ranks as high as any on the Divisional staff (please read that in the accent of Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian). By night, though, it turns out that his friend GB Smith has just moved into rest billets near him, and they’re able to spend a lot of time together.

It’s not entirely happy. They’re both struggling with the loss of Rob Gilson, rather as Evelyn Southwell and thousands of other subalterns are struggling with similar losses. More family friends have died since then, for both of them. More will die as the war continues.

Persia

General Baratov’s Russians are now installing themselves on the Sultan-bulak pass; and here the situation in Persia finally congeals for a good time to come. Ottoman commander Ihsan Pasha (not to be confused with the other Ihsan Pasha, who was captured at the Battle of Sarikamis) has never been entirely sure about Enver Pasha’s grand design of advancing clean across Persia to make trouble in Afghanistan for the British Empire. He’s at the sharp end of a 370-mile supply line and has no intention of getting his men slaughtered on the pass. Here they stop; here they will stay for the forseeable future.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is not enjoying his time at war. He’s on the Somme, currently occupying reserve positions near Montauban and Pommiers Redoubt, in what used to be the German First Line.

We seem to have been here for weeks: actually we have been here three days. It has been what is called “a soft time,” too, for the only casualties in the battalion have occurred in the company behind us, and there they have only had about half a dozen killed and wounded. We hear the batteries have suffered heavily, and small wonder, for so far the shelling has never stopped. This afternoon, frayed out with the incessant noise, I went to see Captain Rowley in his miserable little dug-out for the sole purpose of asking him whether shelling ever did stop.

He smiled and inquired what I expected, adding that it was “a bit steep,” but we ought to be thinking ourselves damned lucky we weren’t getting it. I was immensely grateful to him, for he was friendly and not in the least superior. I shall owe him something for that kindness as long as we are together.

As dark comes on we are filing out to dig a new communication-trench down in the valley between the front line and our own. Passing a dump, the men draw picks and shovels alternately. It is strange and exciting to be in the open again. The men are extended in line while the tape is being laid. They begin to chatter, too loudly it seems, for half a dozen whiz-bangs come fizzing right among us, glaring red as they burst. The men flop, and I, knowing no better, do the same. Down along the line comes Rowley cursing the men furiously. “What the hell do you think you are doing lying there?”

I get up feeling badly chagrined, and the work is begun.

And he’s not even been right up the line yet. Perhaps this is an act of common sense from the Staff to hold them back for the time being; the 10th Green Howards are still far from full strength.

Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes is acclimatising rather more speedily to life in the middle of an offensive.

In this sort of terrain the shells used to make the most appalling din, bursting on the rocks and scattering them in every direction, whilst the echoes kept up a continual reverberation among the mountains, growing fainter and fainter, but never wholly dying away before the next shell fell and echoes started anew.

For some reason prolonged shelling always made me feel sleepy. The louder the racket the more soundly I slept. One day we were waiting as reserves, while a terrific bombardment was going on just below us. The colonel, prowling round, passed me curled up under a rock fast asleep, and was much amused. “You must indeed be an old soldier if you can sleep through that, and no longer my new recruit,” he said to me afterwards. As there were no trenches, or deep dugouts, all we could do, when we got caught in a place without cover, was to lie flat on our faces, bury our heads in our arms, and grin and bear it.

Of course, nothing is so bad when there are plenty of others quite close to you, all doing the same thing, which I suppose accounts for that fatal tendency, leading men to bunch up together under shellfire, instead of scattering as they should.

A long time ago, I recall Louis Barthas commenting with surprise on his platoon snoozebag, who could sleep his way through even the heaviest shelling. Now we get the story from the snoozebag’s point of view.

Ruth Farnam

Meanwhile. Ruth Farnam is an American who’s just beginning a very similar career trajectory to our Flora; beginning as a nurse, then having to leave Serbia urgently, then returning later as a general do-gooder. She’s officially coming back to the front as a representative of the Serbian Relief Committee, a humanitarian organisation to support refugees. Her mission, which she has chosen to accept, is to visit the American consulates in Greece and smooth over some apparently strained relations.

But, like Sandes, her life is going to take one hell of a left turn at Albuquerque…

It was the third week in August when I sailed. There were no trippers, no gamblers, no “little actresses” and few New York dressmakers or milliners on board. Everyone was going on serious business, mostly connected with the war, which was nearly the sole topic of conversation. Many people then, as they are today, were perfectly certain that “Germany cannot last out another six months.” There were several alarms of submarines and one man was so depressed by the sense of danger that he jumped overboard and was lost.

On our arrival at the mouth of the Mersey, we found ourselves enveloped in a dense fog and were obliged to wait several hours before we could go up to Liverpool. Just behind us, when we at last did berth, was a large ship filled with German prisoners that had arrived that day from the Cameroons. They lined the rail and stared at us curiously, and when two other New York women and I passed near them, one of the younger ones shouted something about “Amerikanerin” and spat viciously in our direction. I saw an English sailor grab him by the collar and there was trouble for a few minutes.

It is of course relatively easy for a sergeant of the Serbian army to return to her regiment and face the enemy guns. For an American civilian, there is a far more pernicious enemy to overcome: bureaucracy. We’ll see how she goes with that.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

“Improving the position” | 18 Aug 1916

Bulgarian initiative and First Doiran

Quick recap; Romania has just signed on to enter the war. The French have agreed to lead an attack to pin the Bulgarian Army down on their southern border so they can’t just turn round and kick Romania’s back door in. They’re due to start properly in two days. Unfortunately, the Central Powers are well aware that something is going on, and so the Bulgarians have been on the move for a week. Around Lake Doiran they’re now heavily engaged with British, French, and Serbian Army troops.

Good news for exciting combat anecdotes from Flora Sandes. Bad news from just about any other point of view.

Battle of Verdun

The other day I mentioned that General “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men” Mangin has ordered a few limited attacks to recapture Fleury village and roll back some other recent German gains. Some of them fail miserably, but the headline news is that Fleury is French once more, and with gratifyingly few casualties even where attacks have been thrown back. Maybe there is a way to do limited position-improving attacks in this war after all! (It includes a lot of artillery preparation, including heavy emphasis on counter-battery fire, and the infantry only having to cross 100 metres or so of No Man’s Land.)

Battle of the Somme

Now then. In theory, what we have here is a grand joint Franco-British attack from High Wood to the River Somme itself. General Haig has shown almost no interest in it, preferring to concentrate on his Flers-Courcelette push. General Fayolle has set extremely limited objectives for his men, seeking to advance the line only a couple of hundred metres. General Rawlinson, meanwhile, has managed to ensure enough co-ordination for everyone to attack at the same time. Unfortunately, this means attacking in broad daylight, in mid-afternoon, and heading for trenches that are mostly far too far away.

At a lower level, there has been a sign of original thinking; the 4th King’s Liverpools are attacking between High Wood and Delville Wood. Good news; they’re to be assisted by a company of the Machine Gun Corps. Over the last few days, they’ve been digging machine-gun pits out in No Man’s Land; the MGC will then move in, occupy the pits, and lay down fire to keep the Germans suppressed during the final rush. It’s a good idea and proof that no, battalion and brigade commanders didn’t just witlessly keep using the same battlefield tactics (at least, not all of them). They’re trying to innovate and war better.

Bad news; the MGC has been formed to be specialists in operating the BEF’s heavy, water-cooled, crew-served Vickers guns. Their crews, hauling the heavy equipment and water supplies, have got caught up in traffic jams in the trenches. They were supposed to sneak out before the main attack and be in position well before zero hour. But when zero hour comes, Private Arthur Russell of the 13th Company MGC finds himself going over the top with the infantry. And he’s far from alone in being late.

The infantry commenced to scramble over the parapets and our crews of Vickers machine gunners to move up the saps in No Man’s Land. Almost at the same moment the German front which for several hours had been uncannily quiet, broke into violent action with a great crash of artillery, trench mortars, field guns, howitzers and siege guns—everything they had. At the same time their trench garrisons let off into the ranks of the attacking British troops a blaze of rifle and machine gun fire, and a shower of stick bombs.

Russell was in a crew of six; a shell lands almost on his head, killing four of his mates and leaving just himself and his ammunition carrier. Ted Gale, meanwhile, had been a rifleman with the 1st Rifle Brigade at the Battle of Mons two years ago. He’s since been kicked in the mouth by a horse and lost all his teeth, then had an almost-fatal bout of food poisoning after eating bad rations, then got promoted to Lance-Corporal and sent to the 7th Battalion. He delivers an example of how nasty it is trying to attack trenches positioned near the bottom of a reverse slope.

Our own guns had put down this terrific barrage but, because we were a bit higher up than the Germans, in order to hit them they’d had to sight the guns so that they would just skim to top of our trenches. There we were, crouching in this terrible noise, and these terrible shells going over just inches above. One fellow had the top of his head took off with one of our own shells. His brains were all over the place. The artillery couldn’t help it. They had a terrible job to get the elevation right. It didn’t do much for us to see that sort of thing before we went over!

Five minutes after we went over the top, we were finished. The German machine-guns went through our lines just like a mow goes through a field of corn. I don’t think we got two hundred yards. I was in a shell-hole with the Sergeant, who’d been sampling the rum. He kept jumping up and shouting “Why don’t we advance?” Nothing would keep him quiet. The third time he jumped up, they got him and blew half his face away.

Out of a company of nearly 250 men, Gale and 22 others return. He had been wondering, as he lay in a shell-hole and looked back up the hill, why the other company he could see lying in No Man’s Land weren’t coming forward to help. Of course, once darkness fell and he was able to get back, he soon realised it was because they were all lying dead…

It’s not all total failure. This time, the orders have accounted for the possibility of not being able to get to the German trenches. Of course, that’s what the staff would like, but for many units, if you can just shove forward to within 200 yards of the enemy and survive long enough to dig new trenches under cover of darkness, that’s now a win. I’m torn between sighing despairingly at the lack of ambition, and nodding approvingly at a sensible reaction to a difficult situation. (Yes, a truly sensible reaction might well be to stop entirely, but you can go tell General Haig that and I’ll be over here watching.)

Neil Tennant

Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Tennant is getting to know the pilots under his command in 30 Squadron.

There was ” Bert” sometime cavalry officer planter in Burma artillery brigade commander in South Africa; now hawk-like observer,mess president and cocktail-mixer-in-chief; there was little that “Bert” did not know or could not do; his joy and the youthfulness of his heart were those of a boy, his manner that of a courtier. “Bert” became famous through the land. Then “D.H.,” otherwise “Mark 2,” being the youngest of a famous pair. Life was not serious for “D.H.” The ground hardly knew him, but when it did it smiled; he feared neither God nor Man.

Thank God, someone with a little indiscretion. Tennant earlier gave his full name, and it’s quite clear that “D.H.” is Lieutenant Hereward de Havilland. His older brother Geoffrey is currently chief designer for Airco; in 1920 he will set up his own “De Havilland” aircraft business at Hatfield.

His mate was “Oo-Er,” a vermilion machine and the terror of the Turk. When by chance on the ground, he would play golf round the aerodrome, a palpitating tyke following in his train. In the dog days came “Chocolo,” which is short for “Chocololovitch” (after a soldier comedian who sang a song of that name), a broth of a boy with a brogue of Fermanagh. He presented himself from his Indian unit at a time when there was no vacancy for embryo observers; however, as a result of the difficulties of transport for his return and a determination not to budge, “Chocolo” remained for two years.

Then there was “Bobby,” an imperturbable representative from Caledonia. Bobby was stolid; when threatened with expulsion after appalling crashes, he would remain quite stoically undisturbed with a grin on his face. He said little. The only times that Bobby blossomed to the outside world were on such occasions as New Year’s Eve or St. Andrew’s Night, when our friend would become suddenly brilliant, the central figure of the evening; after which he would retire into his quiet canny shell until another Festival came round on which he thought it fit to blossom forth once more.

Later on he distinguished himself by shooting down a Hun in aerial combat and received the Military Cross. Questioned by the General as to how many he had crashed, Bobby replied: “Sixteen; fifteen English and one German, sir.” His next crash, alas! was his last.

Toffs at war, my friends Toffs at war.

Oswald Boelcke

Oswald Boelcke is in Berlin, becoming ever-more-monosyllabic as he goes. Fortunately, we’ve still got the Dicta Boelcke to review. Principle 4 is “Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.”

It sounds obvious, but Boelcke has learned by experience that in the heat of battle, it’s all too easy to become distracted for a moment and then lose sight of whoever you were chasing. He’s also seen enemy pilots escape impossible situations by pretending to spiral out of control, and then recovering from the spiral after their opponent turns away, thinking he’s won. The importance of having all this common sense written down as a reference for new pilots can’t be overstated.

And, although his published diary doesn’t mention it, the head of the German army’s air service, General von der Lieth-Thomsen, has just convinced the Kaiser to send Boelcke back to flying duty. Boelcke will spend the next ten days assembling his pick of the best German fighter pilots to form a new elite squadron, which will become commonly known as “Jasta 2”.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson heads out into the bush with some mates to supplement his rations. Oooh, I wonder what he’s going to fuck up this time? So many options.

…After walking around in a large circle I bagged a guinea fowl and in following up the flock put another shot at them, but missed. When going to see the result I suddenly came across a herd of about 8 koodoo. One saw me, gave a bellow and turned to run but I let him have it and the bullet went between his hind legs, hit him in the stomach and came out at the breast. He scampered off and I thought I had missed him but, afterwards, I heard him grunting and throwing himself about, so I went up to him and watched him die.

When it was nearly dead and stopped kicking I cut its throat then started back to camp. Great excitement when I brought in the guinea fowl and greater excitement still when I told them about the koodoo. After having some breakfast and cleaning the guinea fowl John, Smikky, Rose and I with 2 boys started out, having a few shots on the way, but hitting nothing. As soon as we arrived at the koodoo we ‘gutsed’ it and cut it up into 4 quarters, keeping the liver, kidneys, heart and tongue. The rest of the entrails and the neck we gave to the boys.

Rose and I carried one of the quarters and Smikky and John the other, the 2 boys carrying the forequarters. We went back through the bush nearly getting scratched to death by the thorns and arrived back at the camp very thirsty. We kept a hindquarter for ourselves and gave the other to the other 3 messes, a forequarter to Paddy, the other forequarter to the natives; a sirloin cut to Mr Parsons and another to Dick’s Germiston friend. Fried buck cutlets in batter and tea for lunch.

Cleaned my rifle and had a shave. Heard No. 4 platoon of the Motor Cyclists had been ambushed. Paddy found my bullet in his portion of the buck and returned it to me through Bibby. Did clerk duty on the post for about 2 hours. … Went to bed fairly early and slept fairly well but had pains in the stomach during the night.

Outstanding, Private Pyle! I think we’ve finally found something you do well! A koodoo (these days usually rendered “kudu”) is another species of antelope.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is soon to be going up the line near Delville Wood, not too far away from where Max Plowman is getting his first taste of trench life. Like Plowman, he’ll be spending much of his time in reserve trenches; he writes to his friend H.E.E. Howson.

We go up into the trenches tomorrow, so I’ve not time for a very long letter. One can, I think, feel more quietly and happily about our dear Man now. At least, I feel much happier than at first. I think his wonderful letter must lead that way. Our bit of the line will not be what is known as a soft job, though our present intentions after arrival are somewhat doubtful. But I would like you to think I’m fit and well and happy, and not to be anxious at all.

I too hope that if I go to one of the deadliest parts of one of the deadliest battles in history, my friends will not worry about me. He’ll need more than a little luck to avoid being grabbed for one of those stupid “minor” attacks to improve the line in front of Delville Wood…

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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