Decimation | Cadorna | Asiago | 26 May 1916

Battle of Asiago

Let us begin with an update from the actual fighting at the Battle of Asiago. It’s still pretty much unmitigated bad news for Italy. The Austro-Hungarians are still advancing with only isolated areas of resistance. They’re starting to attack positions around Arsiero, and the fall of Asiago itself won’t be slow to follow. The Asiago plateau is still wide open. Nevertheless, I’ve had plenty of surprisingly good things to say about General Cadorna thus far. He’s been taking a number of extremely prudent damage limitation measures. From his record so far in the war of bull-headed idiocy, I absolutely did not see that coming.

And then. And then. Having put the strategic situation in hand, Cadorna has turned his attention back to a nasty little problem. A major factor in the Austro-Hungarian advances has been the poor morale of the 1st Army, whose men have been quick to surrender. Even when they’ve not put up their hands, they have been very easy to push out of their positions, retreating without orders and in bad order. Now we must rewind to the start of the year, when we found Cadorna writing to the Prime Minister, bleating that he’s not allowed by military law to shoot his own men out of hand.

Cadorna’s very first order to the army in 1915, nearly a year ago to the day, dealt solely with discipline. It was an iron first to end all iron fists. That September, he outright called for summary execution for men who fail at “taking the way of honour that leads to victory or death”. He has now had enough of trying to act with government sanction. We must do something drastic, this is something drastic, we must do this. Politicians be damned.

So today he has written a memo, for general distribution, urging his officers to execute immediately any man whose actions were “unworthy of an army that upholds the cult of military honour”. It will not be long before some [LONG LIST OF EXPLETIVES DELETED] decides to take advantage of this new opportunity to get a boost up the greasy pole on the backs of his own dead men. Ugh. Let’s go talk about something less depressing.

Battle of the Somme

Yes, this now counts as “less depressing”.

Time to dot the Is and cross the Ts on the Battle of the Somme. The reduction in French forces committed to the battle passes without a squeak; the BEF has already been planning under this assumption. General Haig’s suggestion that the offensive should be delayed until mid-August? Eh, not so much. General Joffre had opened the conference with such cheerful observations as “To allow its allies to be prepared completely, France has resisted alone violent enemy assaults for three months. The enemy probably wanted to hinder the general offensive. It would be vain to deny that he has succeeded.”

It’s perhaps then not surprising that almost as soon as Haig mentioned mid-August, Joffre completely lost his temper, shouting “The French Army will cease to exist!” This is an exaggeration, but perhaps it is merely Joffre playing “bad flic” to General Castelnau’s good flic. In any case, we saw yesterday that Haig is more than prepared to give in if the suggestion doesn’t appear to be going down well. So he does, Joffre’s temper immediately soothes, and we’re back once more to the 1st of July. Haig does request that this date not be tampered with at the last minute, as happened last year when attempting to coordinate the Battle of Loos with Third Artois.

The 1st of July is just a month and change away. And by then, the grand summer offensive will be well and truly underway. Last summer was busy as all hell; it’s looking to be no different this year also.

Greece and Bulgaria

Pretty much nobody in the Balkans is satisfied with the current situation. The Serbian Army, of course, has been thrown out of their own country. The Greek people are trapped between a rock and a hard place; there is strong popular support for Eleftherios Venizelos, and while King Constantine I’s actions have been constitutional, they’ve certainly been anti-democratic. But, they might well have saved Greece from invasion in 1915. General Sarrail desperately wants to attack and achieve something and make his name. General Milne wants nothing of the sort.

On the other side of the hill, the Germans are trying very hard not to think about all this. The Austro-Hungarians have seemingly achieved their war aims (remember those?), but the Serbian Army is still a viable fighting force, and the wobbling Austro-Hungarian army is still committed to three fronts. And then there’s the Bulgarians. They’d love to take further action to get rid of the Gardeners of Salonika and maybe grab a bit of Greece into the bargain. Capturing Salonika itself would mean gaining a vital Mediterranean port, one that wouldn’t require ships to pass through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus.

On the other hand, it’s not without a gigantic dollop of risk. There’s been a great deal of umming and ahhing and considerations of whys and wherefores and consultations with the Germans. Finally, they’re now going to do something; but the plan appears to be along the lines of “poke it with a stick and see what happens”. A brigade of the Army advances today into Greece along the line of the River Struma and pitches up next to Fort Rupel, demanding the fort be surrendered. The fort’s commander realises that this is far above his pay grade and contacts the Greek government.

Now what? Surrender, and you lose the “at least we’re stopping the country being dismembered by foreigners!” angle. Fight, and that surely means war with the Central Powers, which means all the effort you’ve gone to to keep Venizelos out of power is completely wasted. There’s no good answer to this problem, and no time to think up a plan as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at the University of Athens. The least worst option, from a monarchist perspective, is surrender; so the Army hands over the keys and scuttles off westwards.

This drops a massive depth charge into all the Entente calculations. General Milne has recently renegotiated the British force’s role at Salonika, and so it will be his responsibility to send men up the Struma Valley to defend against a Bulgarian attack up the coast from the east. Meanwhile, a large amount of very polite diplomatic shouting begins. More soon!

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has discovered that there is nothing like the prospect of imminent death to keep your mind off ill health.

The Germans began shelling one of our A3 carts which was crossing the open. One of the shells went quite near the cart and another quite near us and we were expecting them to come on to our hill but we were lucky. … Dick, Smith and I then made an oven in the ground to bake our bread and scones in, after which I had a look at the German position through Mr Parsons’s field glasses. The Germans evidently have put up a dummy trench as it is so clear and the hill they are on affords ample cover without the necessity for trenches. They use a huge rock as outlook and it commands a good view.

When rations had been issued Alf made some bread and scones which after being allowed to rise were baked in the oven and were a success. I cut up the meat and found it a bit of a job as everybody wanted a bit of bone. Anyway I managed alright and got a good bit of fat for our mess. … I slept under a rock near our kitchen to look after the grub. The Germans began shelling the 10th Regiment’s trenches before tea with shrapnel and we had a good view of it from our look-out. Slept comfortably.

I usually try not to be skeptical of what seem like unlikely assertions. This guy’s barely been a soldier for six months, this is his second day under fire, he’s not got much cover if artillery fire does come onto their hills, and they could start shooting at any time during the night. When it comes to “slept comfortably”, I reckon there’s a real possibility that he might just have written down what he would rather have happened.

Building a bread oven in the field, on the other hand? That’s totally believable. Nothing like a good arts and crafts project to keep your mind off a stressful situation.

Malcolm White

Speaking of summary executions, let’s see if Malcolm White can write in his diary without making me want to have him put up against a wall by the Revolution.

Slept till late in the morning. Had a fine night and worked from 9.30 to 1.30, and then watched the daylight come as we marched back along Watling Street (so says the map), which is here under mined with trenches and sometimes swept by machine guns, which leads from the trenches to Radlett, and so to Church Stretton and Wenlock Edge. There was a bombardment of the trench in front (our front line) from 11pm to 11:15pm, and we had to stop work.

During this day there were many turns and much glorious futility, and I realised that I am peculiarly fortunate in my fellow Company-officers.

Sorry, mate. You probably aren’t.

On the subject of “how does the BEF name things?”, a mild preoccupation of mine: ‘Watling Street’ is about the most useless regional marker possible, since the most famous Watling Street runs 275 miles from mid-Wales through London to Dover. However, it does run through Shrewsbury near its beginning, and “Church Stretton” and “Wenlock Edge” are both just to the south of Shrewsbury, so I’ll guess that these names have almost certainly been applied by the Rifle Brigade.

(Radlett is more of a mystery; there is a Radlett on Watling Street, but it’s more than a hundred miles away in Hertfordshire…)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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