Desertion | 02 Dec 1914

The lull in major events continues.  We’ll have a quick dekko at the general situation on the Eastern Front, and then go on to talk about a rather emotive subject. Unfortunately, it’s going to have to be Anglo-centric; it’s all I have access to at the moment.


The Austro-Hungarian Emperor is officially informed today that the city of Belgrade has been occupied. Plans are made for a triumphal procession through the streets. The Serbian army has successfully fallen back to Nis, and has re-armed itself with a large number of supplies brought up the railway from Salonika. The King of Serbia, Peter I, makes the shrewd move of going to the stores, insisting that they issue him with a rifle, and making plans to travel towards the front with his men.

Eastern Front

As fighting continues around Lodz, the Russians are becoming concerned about their position. They’ve successfully defended the town, but at the cost of putting themselves into a large, broad salient. This would be all right if they could then drive out of it and attack Silesia or Prussia, but the arse end of winter is not a good time to be launching major operations with any kind of force. Their men are in need of rest and re-supply. They begin to consider a strategic withdrawal, giving up Lodz, to shorten their line and better defend Warsaw.

To the south, the siege of Przemysl continues. The Russians are beginning to push into the Carpathians, despite the horrific winter weather. Crossing the mountains would open the door to an advance on Budapest, into the heart of Hungary. They also hold very favourable positions for a future attack on the Austro-Hungarian army at Krakow. However, miscommunications as they bring up fresh men have weakened the line south of Krakow, just as the Austro-Hungarians are planning an offensive to improve their position in this area…

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It’s “The Valley of Fear”, which I like probably more than it deserves.


Meanwhile, the commanders of the BEF, watching their men swimming about in the flooded trenches of Flanders, are becoming deeply concerned with a new problem. The rate of desertion is rising rapidly. The horrendous conditions and bitter fighting of the last months are beginning to take their toll now. For the officers of the time, the issue is extremely confused by the sheer numbers of missing men, most of whom are killed or prisoner. Nevertheless, in December 1914, about 2,000 men will desert from the BEF. Some will merely leave their units for a few days, or a few hours, to avoid going up the line again. More will attempt to leave permanently. (One such man, Corporal Latham of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, has been on the run since August, having escaped from custody once. He’s currently hiding in plain sight in the village of Armentieres, walking about the town in his uniform to blend in, and sleeping with a sympathetic local woman at night.)

The wheels of military justice are beginning to turn in earnest as the situation and the front lines are stabilising. It’s becoming easier to excuse officers from duty for a day or two to serve on a court-martial. The number of men brought before them is rising steadily. It’s important to note that most of those men are not being brought up on a capital charge. Also, that although 60 men have already been found guilty of a capital charge and sentenced to death, 57 of the 60 have had their sentences commuted, most often to extended periods of imprisonment, or hard labour, or Field Punishment Number One, or some combination of those things.

We’ll be coming back to desertion, crime, and military executions as the war wears on. What is clear already is that even at this early stage, the most senior BEF generals are highly concerned by the possibility of mass desertion, or some other breakdown in discipline. They are giving clear orders that courts-martial should take an extremely dim view of the offenders being brought before them. For now, the dimmest possible view has been taken of three men. Their cases all warrant a closer look, and we’ll take one later.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Kolubara

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Mass confusion on page 9! Under the official communique, the paper strenuously denies reports of any new German attack near Ypres. Across the page, William Maxwell reports on a new German attack near Ypres.

Meanwhile, thank God that cash supplies are plentiful in the money market (page 2, and I’ll never get bored of being sarcastic about those headlines), the court reports on Page 3 have the fantastic headline “Bogus Baby Case”, and Page 9 also includes an article from Mr Rudyard Kipling on the training of Kitchener’s Army. Apparently this will be a regular series.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to read, have a look at this reading guide.)

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