Cortina | Mimi and Toutou | 29 May 1915

The Admiralty prepares for the most ridiculous military operation in the world, the Italian Army is just ridiculous, Kenneth Best is unhappy, and Louis Barthas talks rats.


Hot on the heels of a Central Powers offer, the Entente now makes its own offer to bring Bulgaria into the war. The two offers are rather similar, and when the news reaches Serbia and Greece, both countries are rather miffed that their allies are now promising disputed territory to Bulgaria. With the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive and the Italian invasion of Austria-Hungary well underway, the Bulgarian government has an excellent excuse to wait for a while and see what happens.

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Lake Tanganyika

Back to the adventures of Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simson, who we last saw preparing to go on the world’s most ridiculous expedition to claim naval superiority on Lake Tanganyika. He’s already assembled twenty-seven of “the strangest and queerest characters” in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (a high bar indeed to clear). He’s so far got no further than the Crystal Palace, where he’s trying to prepare the men for their ridiculous escapade.

However, he’s had a large stroke of luck. It turns out that two appropriately-sized and well-powered motor-boats had just been knocking around the Admiralty waiting for someone to use them. (They’d been ordered by the Greek government, but never sent after the war intervened.) According to one of his men, he first tried to name them “Cat” and “Dog”, at which point the Admiralty rejected the names as being rotten for gunboats. Spicer-Simson then responded by proposing Mimi and Toutou (or, en Anglais, “Pussycat” and “Doggie”).

The Admiralty raises no objection, and Spicer-Simson wins his first victory. They’ve since begun trials on the River Thames, and are now extensively modifying the boats. Today, just three weeks after receiving their orders, an advance party leaves for Africa. Their job is to follow exactly the route that Mimi and Toutou will take, and make everything passable by the time the main group passes through. We’ll catch up with them later.

Sri Lanka riots

The situation in Kandy escalates dramatically in the morning. A Moorish bazaar is attacked by Sinhalese. One Moor responds by taking a gun and shooting a Sinhalese child. The police are entirely unable to control the spiralling tide of violence.


Speaking of which! The Italian Fourth Army wanders aimlessly into Cortina today, getting on for a week behind schedule. The Puster Valley is still wide open for them, and they’re still nowhere near it. Oh, and it’s absolutely pissing with late spring rains at the moment. The River Isonzo is rising fast and flowing faster.

Meanwhile, at Mrzli, the Bersaglieri sappers finish their bridges and their colonel orders men forward to the far bank to support the reservists’ advance. At which point orders arrive for him to stop moving immediately, lest he get in the way of his comrades. (It’s possible that he may have deployed some colourful language at this point.) So they stand and peer hopefully up at Mount Mrzli, waiting for news.

It’s not good. The reservists have found the 4th Bosnians waiting for them. Let’s make something clear here. They’re in the upper foothills of a genuine mountain. This is not like Flanders, where “Mount Kemmel” gets to be called that despite being barely more than 500 feet tall. The reservists have gone into action some 3,500 feet above sea level, fighting up mountain passes that can be easily garrisoned by one machine gun or thirty rifles.

They lack everything that might be useful in such fighting; grenades, mountain artillery, competent officers. They’re currently clinging to a large ridge 650 feet below the summit of the mountain. And the men who should be up the mountain are about to receive further orders…to retreat towards Livek. descending slide whistle noise

Kenneth Best

On Gallipoli, Kenneth Best continues his steady diet of burial services, having yesterday buried two privates. He’s getting rather worried, but he’s already acquiring a store of useful local knowledge.

Asiatic Annie dropping lyddite in next field. Turks seem to be respecting [medical corps] flag. But artillery and troops are forced by constriction of space to be near, so they get shelled. Turks all fighting honourably and gentlemanly, except snipers and a few others. Australians have spread most of the rumours of cruelty to prisoners, perhaps to excuse their own practice of not taking prisoners.

Asiatic Annie is a general nickname for the Ottoman heavy howitzers near Canakkale and Besika Bay that are able to fire across the Dardanelles to hit Cape Helles.

Tramped round to find out whereabouts of our Brigade, now split up to reinforce regulars. Only a few remnants in reserve and available for services. Found regular officers as usual sympathetic and helpful. Hardly any officers left in the units. Lieutenants or Captains usually in command. Came back via 3rd Field Ambulance. Escorted them to a fairly secure place for dressing station near Captain Bolton’s grave. Unfortunately we were shelled directly we got there.

They were ready to turn back, but I assured them Turks were after a French battery a quarter of a mile past us, and these were just ranging shots. So it turned out and they adopted position, though rather unhappy. As I suspected, Major Clarke tells me 55,000 Turkish casualties is a fictitous estimate. The figure is calculated on no sure data, but is intended to keep up morale. Our troops are having a trying time, losing men steadily and gaining nothing except a few yards of Turkish soil.

A reminder that an “ambulance” in this period is usually a stationary aid post, not a casualty transport vehicle.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is not finding his period of rest at Mazingarbe as restful as he might have hoped. His squad is currently billeted on two floors of a large pigsty, and they’re sharing quarters with a multitude of rats.

They pounced on our musette bags, ravaged our knapsacks, ran and chased each other at night, dancing on top of us. We had to wrap our heads in our blankets and risk suffocating, to protect our noses and ears. I occupied the corner of a balcony by which the rats came and went. I was finally forced to yield the place to them and spend the night on a cart outside, preferring the chills of a springtime night to contact with them.

The village should have been called Mazingarbe-les-Rats. It was a little mining center with many refugees from La Bassee and Loos who lived in discomfort, if not outright misery.

More to come on the refugees.

Actions in Progress

Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
Armenian Genocide
Sri Lanka Riots

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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