The Power of Positivity
There is at least one person in the whole of the British Army who is entirely confident in his own performance over the last little while. That would be General Charteris, head of BEF Intelligence. He’s had his men hard at work for the last five days, analysing everything they possibly can find in the old German trenches. From captured orders, to identification markings on the men’s uniforms, to personal letters and diaries, to interrogation of captured prisoners. This is what the Intelligence department is for.
Most of these sources will take a little while to pay dividends. However, the BEF’s existing intelligence sources are identifying four new German divisions on the Somme battlefields. They’re working on the assumption that the German general reserve has only seven divisions in total, of which five have already been through the meat grinder at Verdun, and the other two might already have been sent to the Eastern Front. This is, sad to say, complete bollocks, most of it based on irritatingly little hard evidence.
On the Western Front the Germans in fact have ten divisions in general reserve; and General von Falkenhayn has sent six of them to the north of the Somme. This still does not leave much margin for error, mind you; but margin for error there is. Intelligence has at least correctly observed that some units already in the line north of the Somme are being peeled off from their parent formations and sent to the Somme as extra reinforcements. (The French have noticed the same thing; the bombardments Herbert Sulzbach is suffering under at the moment are partly an attempt to prevent this.)
So today we find one General Howell, chief of staff to II Corps, the youngest full brigadier-general in the Army, and grateful recipient of General Haig’s friendship, loyalty, and patronage, dropping in for a visit. His corps has been in Reserve Army, so Haig has quietly given his trusted man an informal roving brief to watch the first few days of the Battle of the Somme and provide the Chief with his own assessment of how things have gone. He’s here to deliver his report and then begin preparing for his corps to go into battle.
While visiting Haig’s advanced headquarters, he’s less than impressed with the steady stream of optimism issuing forth from Intelligence.
Charteris as optimistic and cocksure as usual. GHQ announce that only 15 battalions [~15,000 men, or one fresh division] remain on our front and that a breakdown is likely.
This figure also appears in an official order to General Rawlinson to please get on with it and get stuck into Trones Wood already. It also has the rather amusing suggestion that German cohesion has broken down so far that there is “no formed division nearer than St Quentin”. St Quentin is 28 miles away and directly behind the French line of advance. As it happens, there are actually four reserve divisions in this region who will soon be committed to the battle.
At this important stage, General Haig is now being told exactly what he wants to hear; territorial gains are behind schedule, but he is successfully conducting a wearing-out battle. Ehh, not so much…
General Joffre has not completely stripped his army of cavalry units; there are still a few cavalry forces available to exploit a favourable situation. Quite beyond his expectations, he’s now considering committing them to the capture of Peronne. Unfortunately, here come those dratted reserve divisions to get in his way! Any chance of a cavalry breakthrough for the French, however slim, has already been and gone two days ago. Now they’ll need to break through the reinforced German Third Line to release the cavalry. Le sigh.
Another staff officer
Meanwhile, down at the sharp end. It’s the 13th Rifle Brigade’s turn to go on corpse-burying duty. The front has now moved just far enough away from Lochnagar Crater, near La Boisselle, to make it possible to bury the men who were killed six days ago on the 1st of July. Sergeant Jack Cross is a practical man. He’s only been in the Army since 1914, but he’s already learned many of the important points of soldiering and sergeanting. They’ve already got a bloody big ‘ole handy, and a lot of men to bury, he reasons. Why waste time digging another one?
My job was to take the identity discs off the dead men. Others were detailed off to collect the rifles and equipment, and then there was a band of stretcher-bearers who picked up these dead gentlemen and took them to the edge of the crater. Rolled them down, and they buried themselves [in the sodden chalk] before they got to the bottom.
Corporal Joe Hoyles is slightly less sanguine about the job. But then, he’s on stretcher-bearer duty. Suddenly, lying about his age in the recruiting-office doesn’t look like quite such a good call.
There was a terrific smell. It was so awful it nearly poisoned you. A smell of rotten flesh. The old German front line was covered with bodies. They were seven or eight deep, and they had all gone black. The smell! These people had been laying since the first of July. There must have been a thousand bodies there. I don’t know how many we buried. I’ll never forget that sight. Bodies all over the place. I’ll never forget it. I was only 18, but I thought “There’s something wrong here.”
Hoyles and Rifleman Joe Monckton are brewing a cup of tea in the trench when their colonel passes by, showing some staff officer or other the ground that’s been captured. The man has a good look for himself. “Good God!” he says. “I didn’t know we were using Colonial troops!” The two mates exchange looks, but Monckton restrains himself until the offending idiot has gone away. He’s seen plenty of things after ten months in France. “Has the bastard never seen a dead man before?” Apparently this one staff officer seems not to know that dead bodies turn black after exposure to the elements.
Tolkien, left behind as his battalion does its first stint of Somme trench duty, has just had an unexpected surprise. His close friend G.B. Smith has finally found his way back to safety after the doomed attack on Leipzig Redoubt on Z Day. He’s beaten the odds; he’s taken a platoon over the top, returned unharmed, and found one of his best friends waiting for him. They’re still waiting for news of Rob Gilson, but they’ll have a few days of mostly restful rest, discussing poetry and the Grand Future that may yet await them, before Smith has to go up the line once more.
Battle of Erzincan
Remember General Lyakhov’s ill-timed and ill-tempered attack yesterday in the Caucasus? It’s now threatening to backfire on him, quelle surprise. His men have just eaten a vicious counter-attack, and will spend most of today and tomorrow heading backwards at a rate of knots. For absolutely no good reason, he’s just handed the enemy a chance (not a massive slam dunk, but a chance) to dislocate, or at least considerably slow down, the continuing advance on Bayburt. Does anyone know what the Russian is for “You had one job”?
Since the attack in front of Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler went so well on Day 1, he’s had little to do. There were a quiet few days; then he fired at Bernafay Wood quite a bit; now he’s displacing forward to support the advance to the Second Line, when it finally comes about. He’s now somewhere near the old BEF front line at Maricourt, and idleness has given rise to unhelpful thoughts.
I can’t help comparing this great Somme attack to a man who tries to knock in a post with a sledgehammer which is far too heavy and unwieldy. Collecting all his energy he deals one mighty blow successfully, but from the sheer weight of his sledge he has to rest for several minutes before repeating the blow. Contrast that with a gang of navvies, dealing without a check a rain of shrewd blows each from a different quarter. How easily the post goes home. Criticism, however, when one knows so little, is very useless.
As a battery we, too, have been lucky, only losing one subaltern, two NCOs, and two telephonists.
By midday they’re settled in and registering their guns on Trones Wood.
There is an awful shortage of interpreters, my kind and sympathetic Colonel tells me. Assures me he will do his best for me. Meanwhile, I am going on with improving my chances for an appointment as a bottle-washer in the Hotel Metropole after the War.
The papers are full about the ” Great Push,” “Men anxious to go,” etc., etc. You should hear the boys returned but yesterday from those pleasant places which the journalist studies on the map at home. “Bloody fools!” “There ain’t a man breathing who wants to go.” One man in my tent said to another in the course of an argument about the German prisoners arriving, “They are compelled to fight just as we.”
Well, I’d be pedantic here; Clifford Wells is proof that it would be more accurate to say “there ain’t a man who’s been who wants to go back”. Still, there’s a very important point here about the utter fatuousness of the British newspaper reports of the battle. They are literally full of drivel about how chirpy chaps go over the top with nary a care and stroll to a hard-won victory. One idiot is even trying to claim that the British dead look more noble in death than their German counterparts, as they hang on the old barbed wire. We’ll examine that point in more detail later, if space permits.