The Cow of Beaumetz | 19 May 1916

Battle of Asiago

There is an important tactical point to note about the Austro-Hungarian advance into the Asiago plateau. For all his offensiveness and shouting, Conrad von Hotzendorf is not trying to micro-manage this battle, and neither are his immediate subordinates. There is, after the fashion of the German General von Mackensen, a relatively high amount of control being devolved down the chain of command. Field officers are not just doing what they’re told; they’re being granted significant leeway to seize the initiative and push forward towards the offensive’s overall objectives.

It’s one thing for the German army to do something well. One stereotypically expects Zee Germans to be organised and to do things properly. For Austria-Hungary to be able to take the same techniques and put them into effect with their already-wobbly armies and their shortage of experienced officers is quite another. I think we can safely say that we might just have here the beginnings of a blueprint for tactical success in the war. Battles can be won with these methods, if only their lessons can be digested and adapted to the needs of a particular front.

The Austro-Hungarians have taken methods from Galicia and transplanted them successfully to the Dolomites. Is it really so far to take them to France and Belgium also? Time will tell. For today, there is just another chain of successes, and Italian units forced out of makeshift defensive positions and onto the retreat again. It’s a race against time now to hold them up long enough for 5th Army to get ready to go into action.

The Cow of Beaumetz

Say, remember yesterday when we met up with a subaltern who was just moving some howitzers into Beaumetz-les-Loges, near Gommecourt? He’s got a funny story for us.

The guns were dug into an enormously deep bank about 10 feet deep by the side of a field. The digging we had to do to get into that gun position—10 feet deep and about 40 feet in length—was simply gigantic. We camouflaged it extremely well by putting wire netting over it threaded with real grass. We had an awful job to manoeuvre the guns into it, because the caterpillars were useless, they could get them into the neighbourhood of the guns, but then we had to manhandle these enormous monsters—they weighed several tons. We had to push them, couldn’t pull them, push them into their positions.

When they were there they were very well concealed, so much so that a French farmer with his cow walked straight into the net and both fell in. We had the most appalling job getting this beastly cow out of the gun position. The man came out all right, but the cow! However it was enormous fun! It was one of those delightful moments when you all burst out laughing.

Can’t you just imagine this old dude strolling across the fields he’s known all his life with his cow? Everything exactly as it’s always been despite the war…and then suddenly the ground disappears, and he falls through a giant hole, and cracks his knackers on a gigantic howitzer barrel. These guns, incidentally, are far too big for horses to pull. They’re hauled around by Holt tractors, the very same tractors who so singularly failed to inspire British tank designs and succeeded at inspiring French ones.

Hill 304

Louis Barthas spends the last hours of night crawling back in the general direction of his mates, where “the snoring of Sabatier” tells them they’re back. Private Sabatier is apparently reputed to sleep through even the heaviest of super-heavy bombardments, but the word “alcohol” rouses him as if by magic. The rations have arrived, and with them comes a message that they will be relieved tomorrow.

But that’s tomorrow. Today the Satanic farting shells are turned on Hill 304 once more. It’s a hella busy day; I am crunching events waaaaay down to get to the vital stuff. Barthas points out an important sundry detail.

All of us, one after the other, suffered from an epidemic of intestinal disorders. The resulting diarrhea sure cleaned us out, but inopportunely. As soon as one of us got over it, his nextdoor neighbor was afflicted with it, and had the bad luck to have to climb out of the trench and head for the shell hole which served as a latrine. Of course we did this only as a last resort, at the last moment of agony, stretching our guts until they were about to burst. One of us was surprised in the latrine by one of these sudden fusillades, and collapsed into his own excrement.

War is, indeed, shit. Barthas has another narrow shave with a shell, and takes fresh cover with Sublieutenant Lorius, “seated philosophically in his shelter like Diogenes in his barrel”. Come evening, a Zouave battalion from Morocco moves up and goes over the top. French artillery tries to support, but fires short.

The captain, brandishing a revolver, cursed and swore that he wanted to kill the first artilleryman who came into his sight. As for our half-section, it was lying flattened out in a section of boyau, ready to spring forward across open country to reinforce our front line—a prospect that hardly gave us any pleasure. Suddenly here is a big 105 shell which explodes so close that the boyau collapses, burying Jalabert and Sabatier, who didn’t like this game at all and waved their arms and legs around like a couple of devils in a chapel, to try to get out of there.

After a minute of stupor we started to go to their help when, boom!, here’s a second shell coming along, which by a singular fate blasts away the big chunk of earth which had smothered our two comrades, freeing them and leaving them without a scratch. Jalabert rushed off like a madman, but Sabatier, shaking himself off like a wet dog, declares in a cheerful voice, “What do you know – my pipe is busted!”

To appreciate this you had to know that Sabatier’s pipe was stuck in his mouth eleven hours out of twelve. The commission evaluating reparations for wartime damages will have to include Sabatier’s pipe on the lists it draws up.

You may recall Sabatier, the man who only speaks Occitan and not standard French, from his adventures trying to get home from leave with Barthas some months ago. An aide appears and wants someone to be a runner between command posts. Our hero volunteers.

Liaison duty on Cote 304, the day of an attack — that’s no sinecure. But I volunteered immediately. I wasn’t ignorant of the dangers I would be running, but if I had to be there I would a hundred times rather die with a dispatch in my hand than with a rifle which had just killed a fellow workingman like me, a brother in misery and suffering. No, I’m not going to perish with that on my humanitarian, socialist conscience.

When, order in hand, an orderly or the battalion adjutant (Calvet from Peyriac) appeared at the shelter’s entrance, there was a poignant silence. What company’s number was being called? Wasn’t this a death sentence for him who was leaving, alone, for the front lines, a deadly assignment on its own? He who was called sometimes went pale, but without hesitation plunged ahead and sometimes never came back.

Later I read a book by Captain Henry Bordeaux, an Academician, The Last Days of the Fort of Vaux, where there is plenty of whitewashed nonsense. He wrote about liaison runners; if one fell, another took his place. Those who were left were always at the ready; they even offered their services before their turns came along. In other words, this Academician would say that they would be happy to go get themselves killed. In ordinary times a liaison’s job was a lucky one, and no one turned it down. In a nasty sector they still had to do their jobs. But to say that they jumped to the head of the line—that’s too much.

As for me, no one called for me, no one asked for me or bothered with me. I still wonder why they had made me come there.

At nightfall, a signalman informed us that the colonel, comfortable in his shelter, wanted to let our battalion have twenty-four hours more, but, he said, the commandant and the capitaine-adjutant-major cried out, on the telephone, that that was impossible, that the exhausted men couldn’t hold on anymore, et cetera. In the face of such energetic protests, the colonel granted our relief for the next night.

Wow, Quinze-Grammes and Cros-Mayrevielle just did something useful. Will wonders never cease? One more day, and then the noria turns, and Barthas can be shot of the Battle of Verdun forever. An Academician, incidentally, is a member of the Academie francaise, the body charged with overseeing the French language. Election to it is a common honour for notable French writers.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has another hard day of marching, once the nasty morning rain goes away.

We had a frightfully steep hill to climb which graded about 1 in 4 feet and it seemed as if we would never get to the top. We ultimately passed the 10th Regiment who were camped on the right of the road and we camped on the left. It was bitterly cold and I was fair beat but we off-saddled and got some dinner going in the shape of coffee and fried steak. After knocking round and shivering we built a nice fire and prepared to doss down at about 11 o’clock.

Early in the morning they told us that the transport had come in so we could draw our overcoats. Dick got them and I was glad to have mine with my sleeping cap and slept fairly well after that.

Maybe you should keep it with you, instead of only having it when your quartermaster sees fit to keep up with you? Ye gods, this twit and his disappearing overcoats is making me more annoyed than I get when I think about General Haig.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge’s official papers have just arrived at Shoreham Camp. Though sympathetic, the Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 16th Royal Fusiliers is forced to order Mugge to join the men of the Non-Combatant Corps. The irony of Mugge being put in with the conchies despite his burning desire to go and have his brains blown out for Britain is just off the scale.

There are about three hundred NCCs here. Whether they are all conscientious objectors or not I do not know, but in my hut all the men belong to that class. On an average they are pretty well educated and some are refined and gentle in their manners. At first the change of atmosphere is almost bewildering; no more ripe and b—- swear words to be heard, but discussions on Biblical and sociological questions take the place of the sexual burlesques and purple verbiage so beloved by the other boys. A few of the COs have that unearthly strained look one notices in some Salvation Army lasses.

The COs do fatigues, at least most of them. For there are several categories of COs. Some obey orders, others do not. The latter, the Absolutists group, are mostly in the guard room. In fact, the guard room is not big enough to hold them all and a whole hut has been turned into a temporary detention room.

I cannot help admiring these pioneers of a far distant future, when the principle of humanitarianism will no longer be contrary to the natural disposition of man; but as my newly-made friends in D Company say, it is hard lines on me to be lumped together with COs. I cannot, owing to my intellectual attitude, share their glory; so only their troubles and the odium in which they are held at present will be my part. Perhaps my 201st letter to the War Office will be effective.

Since I am quite sure that Mugge never said “bloody” in his life, I’m not filling in his own blank.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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