Chinese labourers | Kondoa | 14 May 1916

Chinese labourers

We open today with some very interesting news from France. Unsurprisingly, with the voracious demand for men to go into the Army, there’s a severe civilian manpower crisis going on, and the government has come up with an original solution. Under the cover of several private shell companies, the French and Chinese governments have been negotiating for China to supply France with labourers. This of course is a major violation of China’s official neutrality, but it’s not like the Central Powers are in any position to do anything about it.

The Chinese government, like the Japanese government, is banking on an Entente victory, and has high hopes of being able to leverage helpfulness during the war into a favourable post-war settlement. The extended negotiation process has just finished; China will recruit 50,000 men to go to France, potentially with more to follow. The British War Office, meanwhile, has for mostly racist reasons been rejecting similar overtures, preparing to use men from within the British Empire instead.

The German government also has an opinion, of course. They can jump up and down and protest and kick and scream all they like, but what are they going to do about it? Nice of them to suddenly develop a conscience about the proper behaviour towards neutral nations now, isn’t it? Excuse me while I go mutter quietly in a corner about hypocrites.

Kondoa Irangi

In Africa, the first supply run from Arusha to Kondoa Irangi has just arrived, and not a moment too soon. His men will still be on starvation rations for the next couple of weeks, but there’s a little hope for them now. Not much, mind you. The entire district stinks of rotting flesh, both human and animal. General van Deventer barely has 300 “fully fit” men left, for a given value of “fully fit”. Two doctors have already quite literally worked themselves to death.

Meanwhile, almost by default, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck has pretty much decided to just hold steady and contain the South Africans. One good attack, with a plan other than “dim-witted frontal attack”, could quite easily have put them in the bag once and for all. Instead, his men quietly melt into the hills, confining themselves to occasional artillery fire and sniping. The much-vaunted German commander appears, for the moment, to have lost his bottle. The Kondoa front lapses into a watchful silence. And the rains rain on.

E.S. Thompson

Hundreds of miles to the north, E.S. Thompson is marching up in support of all this nonsense.

Did 6 miles before lunch. My feet were beginning to feel rather tender by now. While we were waiting we were entertained by the amusing scene of natives boxing. We marched [another] 6 miles escorting mules and horses for the South African Horse. On the last 3 miles I carried the stew. Tea just ready when we were ordered to saddle up and moved off to a camp about 200 yards South of the road. During the afternoon we did another 6 miles to Lolkisale, thus totalling 15 miles for the day. Slept like a log.

Yeah, I’m not surprised. It’s not “retreating from Mons” pace, but it is comfortably over the usual British Army marching pace of one mile per hour.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley proceeds on the desperately sad journey to Baghdad.

We tingled with anger and shame at seeing on the [riverbank] a sad little column of British troops who had marched up from Kut, being driven by a wild crowd of Kurdish horsemen who brandished sticks and what looked like whips. The eyes of our men stared from white faces drawn long with the suffering of a too tardy death, and they held out their hands towards our boat. As they dragged one foot after another some fell, and those with the rearguard came in for blows from cudgels and sticks.

I saw one Kurd strike a British soldier who was limping along. He reeled under the blows. We shouted out, and if ever men felt like murdering their guards we did. But that procedure was useless. We prevailed on the Turk in charge of our boat to stop and take some of the men. It seemed that half their number were a few miles ahead and the rest strewed the road to Kut. Some have been thrashed to death, some killed, and some robbed of their kit and left to be tortured by the Arabs. I have been told by a sergeant that he saw one of the Sumana crew killed instantly by a blow on the head from a stirrup iron swung by a Kurdish horseman for stopping by a road a few seconds.

Men were dying of cholera and dysentery and often fell out from sheer weakness. Lieutenant Tozer succumbed to enteritis after a terrible ordeal of some days. The groans of this poor fellow as he lay unconscious hour after hour stirred one to the heart. Periodical violent vomiting succeeded, and one morning the changed and drawn face was still and the tired eyes of a ghastly green were closed. We held a tiny service below Ctesiphon. We realized as we stood around his grave that the remorseless hand of death overshadowed us too.

I think we were ready to fight the symptoms when they should appear and ready to die quietly if it had to be.

This pretty much speaks for itself. I can add nothing.

Louis Barthas

I really have no idea where I’d rather not be; marching across Tanzania in the rainy season, trying not to die on the POW boat to Baghdad, or cowering in a barely-there reserve trench on Hill 304. When we left Louis Barthas, he was confidently predicting that the German artillery would blow him to bits in the morning.

At the first light of dawn, to our great joy, the sky was covered with low-hanging clouds which enveloped Hill 304 with an opaque veil, masking us from the enemy all day long. At any moment, with no evident pattern, the Boches fired salvoes of shells. Pressed into the deepest recesses of the boyau, we didn’t have any wounded that day. That night, our battalion had to go up to occupy the firing line.

At the appointed hour we headed out, following the boyau, which soon was no more than a muddy ditch, collapsed in places. We were crouching down, so as not to catch a stray bullet or shell fragment passing by. And if this weren’t bad enough, a heavy rain started to fall. It didn’t take long for the water to fill the ditch, and to submerge our shoes. Our helmets were transformed into drain spouts. Little waterfalls ran down our packs onto our hips, off our shoulders and along our arms. We didn’t know what, or whom, we were waiting for.

Finally we moved out again. Soon, no more boyau. We had to cross over an entanglement of barbed wire, fence posts, shredded sandbags, dead bodies, all sorts of debris. Some of us got lost, or got stuck on the prickly barbed wire which you couldn’t see in the dark of night, which grew even darker after each shell burst.

Eventually, they reach a German dugout. Commandant Quinze-Grammes and Captain Cros-Mayrevielle disappear into it like a ferret up a Yorkshireman’s trousers. More tomorrow.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White, meanwhile, is enjoying jolly good larks at a Batttalion sports day for the 6th Rifle Brigade. Actually, from the sound of it, it’s ended up rather more like a country fete.

Things are calming down a bit now, and it has been a beastly week, and I have learnt a good deal. There was a good church parade this morning. In the afternoon the sports. Wonderful side-shows, Aunt Sallies, etc. A wonderfully organised obstacle race. It is amazing what a Battalion in the field can produce. There was a Rifleman doing clownish side-shows in a completee vening-dressu it. Nor was a megaphone wanting. The Divisional Band played. (But I hate sports.)

We had a concert in a barn at 8 pm, at which I played Humoreske and Perpetuo Mobil on a very poor violin, which the Quartermaster-Sergeant of ‘A’ Company carries about with him, though he doesn’t play himself.

Humoreske is a piece by Dvorak, a Czech composer; Perpetuo Mobile is by Carl Bohm, a German. I wonder if that was White’s little joke, to pick pieces by composers from enemy nations?

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is shuffling his guns over a bit.

The battle of Frise had proved that a river formed a bad dividing line between two armies, in that liaison was thereby made so difficult. Consequently the French are now taking over the sector between the [River Somme] and Maricourt. The first swallow of the blue-clad invasion arrived a short time ago in the shape of a solitary 75mm gun and a subaltern, by name Salandere. He messes with us and sleeps in a dug-out next to mine.

We are to move over to the right, and are fortunate enough to have been allotted gun-pits already made in the Maricourt Valley. They are excellent gun-pits. It will be a great saving in labour for men and horses.

There is an important thing I just want to point out. This might be a touch of repetition, but it’s worth making the point again. A relatively minor action was fought at Frise a while ago. Lessons were learned. Now they can war better when the the big push comes. You don’t learn how to war better unless you actually war. Much as I’d like it if everyone could have sat in dugouts for four years and invented tanks and fighter planes and combined arms by thinking really hard, you need to fight and screw things up in order to have lessons to learn.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Kondoa

Further Reading

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