Battle of the Somme
We start the day with a story from the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. They’re urgently needed as reinforcements. 4th Army desperately needs to rotate some fresh men into the battle; some battalions have been fighting for almost two weeks with little rest. Today they’ve marched about 11 miles in high summer, one mile an hour, fifty minutes marching and ten minutes’ halt. They’ve just reached Fricourt; from here, it’s another ten miles (in a straight line; far more than that in the trenches) to High Wood, and of course it’ll now be uphill all the way. Corporal Jack Beament:
There was Jack Brown, and old Billy Thompson, and his pal Charlie Thompson from West Hartlepool, and myself. Billy wasn’t a big chap, but how he could swear! I always remember him after that march taking off his equipment and his boots and socks and swearing like hell. “Those fucking, bloody bastards! Those bloody fucking bastards!” Between us we said more than a word or two, because it was so hot and we had full equipment and 120 rounds of ammunition to carry. I’ll never forget the relief of it, coming to this stream and bathing my poor bloody feet. We weren’t there long, and there was more swearing when we were told to pick up our stuff and march up the line.
I shall never forget that scene. As we marched along there was a corpse of a soldier with no head plonked up against the side of this sunken road. A bit further on, sticking up above the ground, a hand and obviously a body underneath, but all you could see was a hand. And, on the left-hand side, just lumps of flesh with the innards and remains of a poor horse all rolled up there together. A shell must have got them. But we had to take it all in our stride because we couldn’t do anything about it. We’d got to go forward. That was our job.
And he hasn’t even started being shelled yet. There’s a lot of that about right now. The new German command structure is being put to a severe test, but it doesn’t take much wit or understanding of the situation to order “go here, dig trench, then counter-attack”. Aided by a bit of panic when a large column of BEF prisoners is mistaken for a major breakthrough, the gap in the German line has been plugged by dawn. The rest of the day is spent with the BEF, short of reserves, trying to consolidate its new positions, and three divisions’ worth of fresh German artillery trying to stop them.
Once again the question is “now what?” General Haig spends most of the day touring 4th Army corps commanders while he works out the answer. Let’s go to the map.
There has now been enough time for the Germans to fully garrison a “switch line”, an intermediate trench line between major defensive systems, which runs from Flers to Martinpuich by way of High Wood. Had the attack been pressed home yesterday afternoon, there’s every chance the cavalry might have beaten the Germans into their own trenches. They haven’t. Now General von Below has a safe halfway house for men moving forward to the two main sources of fighting: High Wood, and Delville Wood.
General Haig has, unfortunately, been told that the whole of Delville Wood was captured today. The truth is rather more difficult. Though we’ve mostly heard of South Africans so far fighting in Tanzania, they have sent a brigade of three thousand men to the Western Front. Today it goes into Delville Wood, which has been stubbornly resisting for 24 hours now. The South Africans go in, the Germans carefully withdraw to a switch line running through the north of the wood and through Longueval also, to allow their guns a chance to shoot with minimal risk. Once again, tactical cohesion rapidly begins breaking down inside the thick wood. Captain Medlicort is trying very hard not to die.
In view of the fact that there is no wire in front of my firing line—neither is there any in front of the Huns and No Man’s Land is only about 300 yards—I think an ample supply of ammunition for Lewis Guns chiefly should be on hand with me. It was most difficult work getting the men to husband their ammunition—especially as we had to allow several hundred Huns to go in peace at a range of 800 yards. But it paid as we caught them at 500 yards. My supply of ammunition is very short.
It’s not easy.
The situation at High Wood is no better. It’s taken just 24 hours for the latest push on the Somme to drift out of the control of the Army Commander and into penny-packet attacks authorised at division, brigade, and battalion level. After a punishing couple of days of marching, Corporal Beament and the lads from the 16th KRRC are trying to get forward to assist in High Wood, but…
I remember wondering if the Germans had machine-guns in the trees, because as we were getting back, I remember the bullets hitting the ground, just like heavy raindrops. There were explosions all over the place, it wasn’t very pleasant. I just had to struggle on as best I could and hope to God we would get back. What a shambles it was. I didn’t get more than thirty yards, or forty at most. We just couldn’t make any advance at all. It was a horrible, terrible massacre.
We lost all the officers out of our company. We lost all the sergeants, all the full corporals and all the NCOs right down to Herbert King, the senior Lance-Corporal. He was my pal, and he brought A Company out. There were more than 200 of us went in, and Herbert brought them out. 67 men, that was all.
The BEF is not going to break the switch line in penny packets. It needs another pause, a proper consolidation, and then a proper bite-and-hold leap. Aiming for a breakthrough is probably hopeless; the Germans have kept a few pioneer units spare to work on the Third Line, which in most places existed only in outline until a month or two ago. Now it’s being deepened as fast as the shovels can dig it, and they’re not nearly out of men who could garrison it.
JRR Tolkien is lucky. He doesn’t have to lead men through the hopeless tangle of trenches that make up the final German holdings at Ovillers. This is good; one platoon commander in his battalion dies today, and five more officers are wounded. In fact, he’s almost at something of a loose end. His job now as signalling officer is to set up and operate the battalion’s signalling capabilities. He spends a little time trying to lay some telephone wire, and then gives it up as a bad job. In any case, now that it’s known the Germans can listen in, use of the field telephone has been banned except as a last resort.
His signalling capabilities are one extremely temperamental wired Morse buzzer that spends most of its time cut off, and a few extremely unhappy runners who are now having to do all the work. He has at least installed himself at the bottom of a very deep dugout, and nothing except the order to go into reserve billets is likely to get him out again.
Time for the first of many real attempts by General Nivelle to take the initiative at the Battle of Verdun for the first time in, well, ever. I’d get sarky and start saying “and he’s not going to let failure put him off!” but that’s unfair. The attacks of the last few days have been hasty, poorly-planned, and launched with tired men. Now they’re going to do some proper planning and come up with a really good idea for some time in August. That time for sure, Bullwinkle!
Meanwhile, it’s irony everywhere as General Joffre continues Operation Suck Up To Romania by ordering General Sarrail to plan an offensive in Salonika, assuming his current strength plus 50,000 Russians. About now there’s some rather interesting communications between Joffre and Wully Robertson, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff. A cynic might suggest that, although both men are officially assuring the other of cooperation, they’re both writing and reading “yeah, my arse” and other such cynical comments between the lines of their diplomatic communications. They’re both committed Western Fronters, after all…
Battle of Erzincan
General Yudenich is running about as high as he possibly can be. His men are sweeping towards Bayburt and Erzincan. The Ottoman Second Army is, for the moment, keeping their powder dry. (They’re now approaching full strength, although desertion is still a problem and they’re short of artillery and shells.) At the moment, his army just can’t stop winning, and again I note how nice it is to occasionally check in with someone who consistently seems to know what he’s doing. More soon!
Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is displacing forward once more to support the continued advances on the Somme. It’s been a horrible process, full of rain and tear gas and enemy high explosive. As a good battery commander, he is ever on the lookout for ways to improve his situation.
As we are again the right-hand British battery, the French infantry in support are beside our guns. On our arrival I succeeded in bribing a party of them with 100 Woodbines to dig a tiny dug-out for me on the fire-step of their trench, roofed with three sheets of galvanised iron. The one bright spot about our position is the possession of two deep Hun dug-outs, in which the bulk of the men can sleep in perfect safety. Anything which saves labour and economises energy is a blessing, particularly as the men were pretty beat after fifty hours’ non-stop firing and digging.
There’s plenty more firing to come, don’t you worry. A Woodbine is a strong unfiltered cigarette favoured by the Tommies.
University professor turned soldier Robert Pelissier is writing to an American friend, with an eye to entertaining the internet in a far-off future. I do like it when people are polite enough to appeal to modern tastes.
I refuse to write a letter it’s too hot and besides there is nothing to say as life is as flat as a pancake or a Kansas town or a faculty meeting. We trot around and over the country in pursuit of imaginary Boches, then we sleep and eat and so days go by as alike as Siamese twins. A squash bug life of the purest Beverly type is more full of imprevu than our existence.
Did I ever tell you my opinion of cats? Well, for your sake I never killed any, but I may have betrayed my country in being so forbearing. At the last trenches where we were, German cats came across the line to us and we used to feed them and show them every courtesy, but with very few exceptions they would go back to the German lines and probably tell on us. I have thought since, that we should have put them in irons right away.
Nah mate, you were right first time.