Demonstrations for Verdun | 9 Feb 1916

Demonstrations and deceptions

The Germans now initiate their main programme of deception to support the imminent Battle of Verdun. They’ve been very precisely designed to simulate, as far as possible, the first day at Verdun. In particular, there will be almost no preliminary bombardment before the main attack in three days’ time. As in the deception attacks, a day of mostly intermittent bombardment will be followed by the infantry attack in late afternoon. The only difference will be in intensity; the Germans are concentrating what for them will be an unprecedented amount of artillery in one place.

So today at Vimy Ridge, there’s a day of intermittent bombardment. Many more observation balloons than normal have been sent up. The infantry goes over the top (aided by one of the shortest No Man’s Lands on the Western Front, only about 20 to 40 yards wide) and captures the odd section of trench here and there. Could they be planning a heavy punch against the French 10th Army? The coast is only 60 miles away. Perhaps they have some scheme to cut the front in two. Or maybe they intend to march on Arras and then Amiens, to secure crossing points over the River Somme for another attack towards Paris

Ridiculous it might sound now; we know what happened next. To General Joffre, ready to believe in a major offensive anywhere but at Verdun, there are all kinds of possibilities. These kind of attacks even fit, in a different form, with his concept of fighting several smaller battles before the main summer offensive, and we’ve already seen how the French Chief is prone to believe that his opponent thinks in the same way that he does.

British aviation

Colonel Hankey, the world’s most devoted committee man, is trying to improve the lot of military aviation. The basic and unsurprising problem here is a bit of good old inter-service rivalry between the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, who are fighting like cats in a sack over just about every issue possible. This is, ahem, less than ideal for the cause of improving British aviation capabilities.

Hankey’s first tack, of having Lloyd-George and the Ministry of Munitions be put in charge of all aircraft supply issues, has been fended off. And not without reason; the French have recently been struggling with those responsible for procurement being too far from the concerns of frontline flyers. Making civil servants responsible for procurement would surely have given the British effort the same headache. More on this to follow.

Tanks

General Haig has now had time to consider a barrage of glowing reports on last week’s tank trials at Hatfield House. Today he sends a message back to the War Office that can be read at least two different ways. He wants an immediate order of 40, on the grounds that this is the maximum production possible without interfering with other war materiel, and he also wants to know how many more might be delivered by July, the date he’s working towards for the Battle of the Somme. He also makes the prudent suggestion for it to be officially circulated that the project has been cancelled and it be put back to a “need to know” basis.

So, the point to ponder here is the order of 40. If you like Haig, your angle will likely be “see how he immediately saw the potential of the new weapon? He ordered some right away!” If you don’t, your angle will likely be “the French are about to place an order with the Schneider company for ten times that number! Haig is being far too conservative and sniffy about this new technology because it had more than 1 horsepower!” Both are valid interpretations.

At any rate, the tank is about to become a fact of war. Colonel Swinton is already arguing that they should build at least 100 of them. Meanwhile, Albert Stern and Tennyson d’Eyncourt are considering how best to improve their own position. More soon.

Serbian Army

The last Serbian Army units are now being taken off from Albania, with the invading Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians still weeks away. It’ll take them another twenty days to reach Durazzo, and by then anyone who’s still watching this theatre will be watching the Birdcage at Salonika. We’ll be catching up with Flora Sandes soon, incidentally, but not today.

Salaita

Private E.S. Thompson of the 7th South Africans gets his first taste of action today as a large force moves out to recce Salaita Hill.

Fine morning for marching. The 5th, 6th and 7th Regiments were accompanied by a Baluchi Regiment and Field Telegraph Corps. Marched past the railway construction gang and when we had got about half a mile past we extended on a long line on a ridge. We were on the extreme right flank. We advanced through the bush which was very tedious going.

Firing was heard on the left flank (5th Regiment) and we afterwards heard that they met an Askari patrol. No casualties. We could now see that there was a German fort on a hill about 3 miles away flying 2 flags. We all thought we were to attack this and so loaded our rifle magazines. We advanced for another hour through the bush and then came into a clearing. We passed their 1,500 yds range indicator and as they could see us quite well we expected every minute they would open fire but they never did. Suddenly the word was passed along that the enemy was sighted 400 yds (366 metres) ahead so we doubled into cover and unpacked the guns.

This is your reminder that Private Thompson is on a machine-gun team.

The range was now 800 yds (732 metres). The Askaris could be seen running down the hill from the fort to man the trenches. The fort was right on top of a small hill and had 3 lines of trenches. It ought to be a tough place to take as the ground is so exposed.

This is an important observation; let’s remember it going forward. Anyway, with their mission complete, they turn about and head for home.

We trekked back through the bush and long grass, and on the way had a row with the Sergeant over the telephone wires. When we got up to the railway line we noticed that they had advanced about a mile since we passed them in the morning.

Laying a mile of narrow-gauge railway in about 12 hours of work is a pretty amazing effort from the Indian Railway Corps. It’s efforts like these that make battles possible.

We came through the Baluchis advanced camp…and there the chaps began falling out. I got a bit of stick in my boot at that camp and had it under my sole all the way from there to camp. It hurt but I didn’t want to fall out. I have never struck such a long 3 miles as the last 3. Felt so tired when we got back that I could have cried at the least thing. After I had changed my shoes and a sort of bath felt much better and was glad I hadn’t fallen out. It is reckoned we went 24 miles altogether.

Once again, this is “retreating from Mons” pace to do 24 miles in a day with some fighting in there as well. General Malleson, in command of capturing Salaita Hill, now has all the information he’s going to get. The attack isn’t far off now.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is out of the line now. Some time later, he looked back on his first few days at the Bois Francais.

What I notice most is the way in which I recorded the fall of individual canisters and rifle grenades, even if they were twenty yards away! Never a six days in, latterly, that we did not have to clear Old Kent Road and Watling Street two or three times; and we used to fire off a hundred rifle grenades a day very often, and received as many in return always. And the record of casualties one did not keep. We were lucky, it is true. Once, and once only, after, did “B” Company go in and come out without a casualty.

Here we see again the common BEF practice of naming trenches after places from home. From this we can guess that the first BEF units to occupy these positions (and who would have produced the first trench-maps) were likely from south-east London or west Kent.

Those first two days in Maple Redoubt, when “everything was quiet” were the most deceitful harbingers of the future that could have been imagined. …The dugouts were abominable; not one was shell-proof; and there was no parados or traverse for a hundred and fifty yards. The truth of the matter was that these trenches had been some of the quietest in the line; for some reason or other, when our Division took them over, they immediately changed face about, and took upon themselves the task of growing in a steady relentless crescendo into one of the hottest sectors in the line.

“For some reason”. Yeah, I wonder why that might be.

Malcolm White

Lieutenant Malcolm White, one of the two friends from Salisbury, has just arrived in France. He’s gone into a base camp at Le Havre.

More reportings and eventual arrival at the Base Camp, where life has become more commonplace, and excitement has gone for a time. Which Battalion will it be? The 2nd seems probable from here, but not necessarily.

Hopefully some of these subalterns who are just arriving in France will give us a chance to explore the BEF’s rear areas and training camps. Maybe one of them might even make it to Etaples, which has changed just a bit since we last saw it in early 1915 as the world’s worst music festival.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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2 thoughts on “Demonstrations for Verdun | 9 Feb 1916

  1. I am not entirely convinced that the debate over the size of Haig’s initial tank order is really all that important – in practice, the order of 40 he did place wasn’t complete by July anyway (and if he had tried to order a large number, he’d have almost certainly got the initial order even more slowly).

  2. King George had seen the 3rd trial of tanks at Hatfield accompanied by Swinton. HRH was ‘delighted’ and hoped that a 100 could be built…..influenced by Swinton? IMO Haig was keen to have anything of ‘promise’, especially given Royal approval, but was justifiably worried about secrecy; in fact Kitchener was the least enthuiastic.

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