Douaumont | Charles de Gaulle | 2 Mar 1916

Douaumont

Relentless scrapping continues at the Battle of Verdun over Douaumont village, which is rapidly disappearing from the map. General Petain’s old 33rd Regiment is right in the thick of it today, and their war diary paints a vivid picture of the battle. Sick and tired of the fighting, the Germans have now supplemented their latest bombardment with a large gas release.

From six-thirty in the morning, terrible shelling by heavy artillery over the whole breadth of the sector and to a depth of three kilometres. The earth trembled without a pause; the noise was unbelievable. No liaison, either forward or to the rear, was possible; all telephone-wires had been cut and any messenger sent out was a dead man … At about one-fifteen in the afternoon, after a bombardment that had cut the lines to pieces, the Germans launched their attack … Soon the Germans were in the rear of the 10th company.

The 10th company was seen to charge straight forward at the massed enemy reaching the village, engaging them in a terrible hand-to-hand struggle in which these brave men received blows from rifle-butts and bayonets from every side until they were overpowered. Seeing itself completely surrounded, the 10th company launched itself into a furious attack led by its commanding officer, Captain de Gaulle, charging close-packed bodies of men, selling its life dearly and falling gloriously.

Yes, this is Charles de Gaulle, who you may have heard of in connection with another war. At the end of the day Douaumont is still French, and Captain de Gaulle is missing, presumed dead. He’s taken a bayonet to the thigh, he’s been thrown around by shell explosions, and finally his mask failed and he’s been gassed. But somehow he’s alive, and by nightfall he’s on his way to a German hospital. He’ll spend the rest of the war in a succession of ever-higher-security prisons, reading the German newspapers, lecturing his fellows on the certainty of victory, and plotting unsuccessful escape attempts.

I’m finding it very hard to give an exact date to when General von Falkenhayn agreed to expand the battle to the west bank of the Meuse. I think we can safely say that he must have done it by now, though. Arrangements need to be made; the attack will be launched on the 6th, in four days’ time. They have got to do something about those French guns on the west bank, but they’re going to have to cross open ground and well-sited French positions to get at them. The terrain is much less suited to stormtrooper tactics than on the east bank, one of the reasons for not attacking there in the first place.

The Bluff

Back now to the BEF’s extended game of silly buggers with the Germans at the Bluff, in the Ypres salient. At 2am, patrols creep out to make sure that the Germans haven’t been able to repair their wire. They haven’t; now it’s time for the really sneaky bit. By 3:45am, the British assault troops are all lying out in No Man’s Land, under cover of darkness, opposite the gaps in the wire. 4am rolls round, and the artillery opens up with a half-hour bombardment. (I invite readers to speculate on the brassness of the balls required to just lie there with little cover, with half an hour of shellfire going off 50 yards or less from your head, knowing that guns are only expected to be accurate to within 100 yards…)

Remember, the Germans have spent the past week or so being trained that bombardments fire for 30 minutes, lift for two minutes, then resume for 30. And so, at 4:30am, the men in No Man’s Land quietly move into the German trenches and capture most of the Bluff’s occupants without a fight. When day comes, so too does the inevitable counter-attack, but there’s an artillery barrage for that too; and although they’ve taken over 1,500 casualties, the BEF has its vital observation platform back.

The effectiveness of “Behaviour Modification” has now been well and truly proved; through the rest of the war, artillery commanders will continue refining it for best effect.

Flora Sandes

On Corfu, Corporal Sandes has temporarily left her company (yes, with permission) to go down to the docks and lend a much-needed hand unloading and sorting the growing quantity of stores that’s arriving there.

The quay was a most interesting place, though I should have enjoyed the work more if it had not poured steadily all day and every day, as there was no cover anywhere. French, English, and Serbians were all working there together, and things were considerably complicated by the fact that hardly one of them could speak the other’s language.

It was quite a usual thing to find an Englishman, who could not speak French, trying to explain to a French official that he wanted a fatigue party of Serbian soldiers to unload a certain lighter, and neither of them being able to explain to the said fatigue party, when they had got them, what it was they wanted them to do.

A simple system for assignments has been worked out. The soldiers work 12-hour shifts and change over at 6 o’clock, morning and evening. When coming on duty, they simply gather at a nominated point and wait for orders to happen, and it’s then first come, first served.

As I could speak French and enough Serbian to get along very well, most of my work was on the quay, and I was often called in to act as interpreter. As I did not want to get down there at 6am, I got a friendly English corporal, who had to be on duty then, to get twice as many men as he wanted himself, and then give me half of them when I came down.

I was rather afraid of the English Tommies at first, and thought they would be sure to laugh at a woman corporal, but, on the contrary, there was nothing they would not do to help me, and the French soldiers were just the same.

One more in the eye for anyone who wants to complain about women lacking authority in military service. Don’t worry about hurting them, they’re obviously blind already.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends are stuck in a hellish spot near Vimy. Snow, rain, freezing cold. They’re up the line and the trenches are full of sticky, boot-capturing mud; the only shelter is of course occupied by the officers. There’s a mine shaft nearby, but of course Captain Cros-Mayrevielle has expressly forbidden them from sheltering in it.

So we were forced to install ourselves along the shelf in the trench, with a few poles upon which we stretched our tent cloths, a fragile roof which stopped neither the wind nor the rain nor the cold. You couldn’t even think about lying down, or sleeping sitting up. The terrible cold which reigned throughout the night obliged us to head frequently to a place where the duckboards weren’t covered with water, to stamp our feet furiously in order to struggle with frostbite, keeping our feet from swelling up, turning blue, and cracking painfully.

To do battle with the cold, instead of giving us more fortifying meals or an extra ration of pinard, our captain could himself find nothing better to do than to send us on work details, nonstop. This hard work consisted of ridding the trenches of water, mud, and snow. But rain or snow fell every day, almost without stopping; the sides of the trenches caved in, and the water bubbled up in thousands of little springs, between the edges of the duckboards.

You had to say that the captain’s remedy did some good. The men who would complain about suffering from the cold had only to try slogging twelve hours out of twenty-four in freezing water up to their knees, and then they would see how effective it was.

Pinard is the cheap red wine issued by the French Army; it fills much the same role as rum does for the BEF.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has about the quietest day that an active victim of the Armenian genocide can hope for. They spend all day marching nowhere in particular, meet no unsavoury characters, and then arrive in a village where the inhabitants will sell them food at grossly inflated prices. That counts as a good day. More tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Leave a Reply