Battle of the Somme
General Rawlinson is not particularly happy at the moment, having presided over a gigantic wet fart of an offensive on the 23rd. Something must be done, so he’s thought back to the Bazentin Ridge offensive. The Chief is still very annoyed that Delville Wood and Longueval have not been taken. It’s a very small area, barely a square mile. The successes of Bazentin Ridge came from more artillery and a narrower front. This time, he’s going to take as much artillery as was firing between Bazentin and Delville Wood last time, and turn it all on Delville Wood and Longueval for an hour tomorrow.
Between shrapnel and high explosive, over the course of that hour, there will be one shell for every 25 square yards of ground. It will be theoretically impossible to stand in the same place for that hour and not get hit by something. Of course we know it doesn’t work like that; there will be a few lucky souls who survive, because there always are. But, ye gods, a much smaller weight of shell saw the South Africans off last week. I’d say “nothing exceeds like excess”, but I rather suspect that this kind of excess is in fact the new normal.
Meanwhile, the brutal shelling continues at Pozieres. The ANZACs can’t last like this forever. They need food and water at least, to say nothing of ammunition or reinforcements. (The 2nd Australian Division is now moving forward to replace the 1st.) Sergeant Preston of the 9th Australian Battalion has volunteered to take a party back to the rear and find something, anything, to bring back to their mates.
Big shells were falling thickly. We could see them like black streaks coming down from the sky just before they hit the ground. Often times we were thrown to the ground with concussion, great clods of earth showering us and making our steel helmets ring. One member of the party, Private Fitzgerald, was partly buried, but was quickly dug out and left in the nearest trench to await the stretcher bearers. Eventually we reached Contalmaison, got some water in benzene tins, and made our way back to the front. The water, as can be imagined, had a strong benzene flavour.
On the way we passed Fitzgerald, badly wounded, but still alive.
I do quite sincerely doubt whether anyone complained about the taste of the water.
JRR Tolkien is back up the line. This time he’s gone to Beaumont Hamel. Which brings us, incidentally, to an important change. General Haig has finally got round to deciding what should be done about that fucker Hunter-Weston and VIII Corps. The BEF is exceedingly short on good candidates for corps command at the moment. (An uncharitable person might suggest they’re pretty short on good candidates to clean the latrines, never mind corps commanders.) Sacking Hunter-Weston is, apparently, not possible; and if he were sacked, he might very well end up in Sir John French’s gossip factory in London, making mischief.
However, what can be done is to transfer his corps to 2nd Army and send them to the Ypres salient. The implication will be quite obvious, and it will also be simple enough to keep bouncing him away from any future offensive. Hunter-Weston himself will soon be writing a letter to his wife, protesting far too much that he most certainly isn’t being confined to the kiddie pool and made to wear armbands and use floats. But I’m not buying that, and I sincerely hope that this is the last time I have to type his stupid double-barrelled name.
Anyway, so Tolkien’s corps is now in VIII Corps’s place, and his battalion is now up the line for the third time. Tolkien has been elevated from company to battalion signals officer, a role for which he’s almost completely unprepared. The new role is almost entirely managerial; deciding where things should go and who should do what duty. There’s plenty to do, and no senior officer to help. One suspects he might have spent a lot of time asking his senior sergeant “so, how would you arrange things?” and then letting him get on with it.
Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is feeling rather better, and this time manages to make it all the way to an observation post, by way of a colleague’s position.
I visited Maclean and his lonely howitzer at dawn. He had been slightly wounded in the neck, but was carrying on; they all looked very red and blistered about the neck, having had their gas-masks on for seven hours during the night, besides encountering tear gas the rest of the time. The aroma round that spot is really remarkable. I counted thirty-eight men and fifteen horses lying dead between their dug-out and the gun. Being near the main road to Longueval, that spot is continually shelled, and passing units never have enough time to clear up any mess.
I heartened them with a promise to send up a sack of [chloride of] lime to sweeten the place. I spent the rest of the day in Hardecourt. The village had been taken originally by [French colonial troops] after desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Judging by the state of the dead, they are certainly rather messy fighters.
I’m pretty sure that if your hand-to-hand fighting goes off without mess, you’re probably doing it wrong. And if the people you killed two weeks ago aren’t a mess by now, they’re probably zombies and then you really do have a problem.
The following mobile column order was issued:
“Attention of [Officers Commanding] is called to the following:
1. As the number of sand-carts and cacolets is limited, great care should be exercised that they are only indented for when absolutely necessary. An indent should bear the signature of a responsible or medical officer.
2. As it is probable that the troops will be fighting without their tunics, OCs will take steps to ensure that when this occurs all field dressings are extracted from the pocket of the tunic and pinned to the breeches.
3. All ranks are reminded that when dressing the wounds of a comrade the field dressing belonging to the wounded man should be used, and not that of the man who is dressing the wound.
With regard to order 2, I was very against this, and strongly advised that our men should continue to wear their tunics in order to avoid sunstroke, and also in order to make it possible to wear the cavalry equipment, which it was difficult and painful to carry without shoulder straps. Eventually this was agreed upon, and our men fought in their tunics and preferred it.
During the afternoon an “aviatik” dropped a message asking us to mark our hospital tents more clearly.
Point 3 has been an Army principle as long as anyone can remember, and still is today. You use the casualty’s stuff because you may well need yours in a few minutes’ time. A cacolet is an entirely hilarious construction, two stretchers nailed to each other and then mounted on the back of a camel or donkey.
At daybreak the sentry who was watching the periscope, which was hidden behind a high clump of grass, signaled me frantically to come up. I looked in the mirror and was stupefied to see a German’s head reflected in it—a neck like a bull’s, a big square head, a thick red mop of hair, a bestial look—all enough to give you nightmares. This apparition was coming out of the earth, barely four or five meters from us, into our own barbed wire which surrounded our outpost, without the slightest shovelful of disturbed earth to indicate that there was any sort of trench or excavation around him.
Evidently this was not a mirage; the Germans must have dug a subterranean passage, carrying back to the rear the dirt they removed. The sentry took a grenade and was about to toss it at this intruder, looking at me for approval. I held his arm. I will always be faithful to my principles as a socialist, a humanitarian, even a true Christian, even if they cost me my life, of not firing on someone unless in legitimate self-defense.
And was it in our interest to break the neighborly relations which existed between our two adjoining outposts? “If this lascar is poking his head up only out of curiosity,” I said to my comrades in a low voice, “that’s all the same to us. If he is coming to check out our position in order to send over a couple of grenades, we’ll open our eyes so that he doesn’t show us his big square head again, or we’ll make it round for him.”
The incident goes off without violence. “Lascar” is a word that in other languages refers specifically to sailors and marines from east of the Cape of Good Hope who were hired to crew European-owned ships. In 1914 the British merchant marine alone employed over 50,000 such seamen on extremely, ahem, cost-effective terms.
Maximilian Mugge has a less-than-promising report on the BEF’s morale, and the shock news that ANZAC soldiers like a drink.
The people in the villages tell me how fed up they are, and how they wish the cruel war were over. On the fields and in the farmyards the women do the work; I have not seen one able-bodied Frenchman between 16 and 60 anywhere.
The tradespeople, especially the inn-keepers, are, however, reaping a golden harvest. Anxious to be able to say later on how they have “seen life,” our wealthy Australian soldiers are consuming oceans of citron a l’eau, which the shrewd peasantry sells at six shillings a bottle, labelled “champagne!” The British Tommy does not indulge in such riotous living, but occasionally he orders and solemnly consumes a bottle of “vinn rooge,” a reddish syropywater-concoction [sic] slightly vinegared.
In the afternoon we had two parades to make up a draft for the Front. It needed three men to complete its numbers; when the Regimental Sergeant-Major asked for volunteers, one man out of about 400 stepped forward. So the missing two were picked out at random and ordered to go.
Citron a l’eau I do believe is Mugge’s Franglais for “fizzy lemonade” (the French call it, and other carbonated drinks, “limonade”, even though a lemon is a “citron”). I’m not entirely sure I buy that story, but I am reminded of the story from 1914 about the Tommies who confiscated some apparent bottles of champagne and then found they’d been hauling litres of mineral water around…
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