Evacuating Cape Helles | Sheikh Sa’ad | 5 Jan 1916

Evacuating Cape Helles

Liman von Sanders, the German commander of Ottoman forces on the Gallipoli peninsula, is deeply suspicious. The evacuation of Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove last year had rather caught him with his lederhosen down, and he’s now determined not to let his opponents pull another fast one at Cape Helles. Try as the MEF might to keep things secret again, at Helles the trenches are extremely close and almost immediately overlooked by towering high hills. It would have required some truly spectacular blindness on the part of the observers not to notice that artillery batteries are mysteriously disappearing.

Indeed, now they know what to look for, it seems as though those sneaky English are trying to push their remaining guns around the place so that one gun can simulate the work of a whole battery, or more. Now we have a double-headed race on. von Sanders has brought a fresh division from Suvla Bay down to Helles. Can it finish preparing and launch its attack before the enemy can escape, again?

Meanwhile, Sapper Eric Wettern of the Royal Engineers is stationed in the former French Empire sector on the far right at the Kereves Dere. The communication trenches on both sides seem almost completely exposed to the enemy, and yet…

Fortunately, however, our predecessors, jointly with Johnny, had devised a brilliant way out of the difficulty. On two trees between the lines, right down near the beach, were two flags – one French; one Turkish. As long as nobody, from either side, ventured beyond those flags, there was to be no rifle fire during daylight hours in this particular region. The agreement was strictly adhered to with the result that this portion of the line was an absolute rest-cure.

Wandering along the line, through an olive grove which it traversed, one found chaps placidly leaning over the parapet, or sitting on it. I succeeded in getting one or two photos of No Man’s Land by the simple method of strolling out in front of the line near the afore-mentioned trees. I there and then formed the resolve that if ever I should have occasion to run a private war of my own, I would organise it on similar lines!

Another excellent example here of how British-led fraternisation with the enemy tends to be very rare but also highly visible (the Christmas truce of 1914 being the obvious model), whereas the French hob-nobbing culture is to work out a sensible arrangement and then quietly stick to it without drawing attention to oneself. They won’t play football in No Man’s Land one day of the year, but they will play bridge in a dugout and exchange newspapers two nights in every five.

Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad

Right, for the benefit of anyone who prefers their war stories with a little more war in them, we’re heading back to Mesopotamia. The force that intends to relieve Kut, under the command of General Fenton Aylmer (not to be confused with last year’s bete noire, Aylmer Hunter-Weston), has spent all day marching and sailing up the River Tigris; half of it is still strung out between Sheikh Sa’ad and Ali Gharbi. The weather’s been rather foul for the last week or so, and Aylmer’s small ration of aeroplanes from the Royal Flying Corps’s 30 Squadron has barely been able to fly. (The ration is even smaller than usual right now; more on why in a moment.)

When they have, they’ve reported that they’re facing a small Ottoman picket force of about 2,000 at Sheikh Sa’ad. Aylmer and his subordinates, Generals Younghusband and Kemball, have made their plans accordingly. It seems a simple job to Younghusband (who, incidentally, was married at age 32 and is now 57), for which the ~7,000 men he has at his disposal. Arab tribesmen have told him roughly where the enemy is; they appear to have done him a big favour by deploying on both banks of the river and splitting their small force even further.

On the left bank he will fight a holding action while he pushes his main strength forward on the right bank and leave it the choice of retreating or being pocketed in Sheikh Sa’ad itself, in a convenient bend of the Tigris. The enemy, outnumbered three to one, will likely go scuttling off back to Kut with dire warnings that the English are coming, and that’ll be job done. Except of course there are rather more Ottomans at Sheikh Sa’ad than he supposes, about 10,000. His planes are grounded and horrible wet, muddy, misty weather is impeding his cavalry. Without Younghusband has no reason to suppose that his supposition is in fact fit only to be a suppository (ahem).

Sanity briefly threatens to break out in the evening. General Aylmer is still overseeing the prolonged departure from Ali Gharbi (there’s a severe shortage of shipping), and signals forward to Younghusband not to do anything more than a reconnaissance by fire until he, Aylmer, arrives. So, here’s the first gigantic irony of the year. 1915 has been absolutely stuffed full of situations where hesitant generals failed to use their initiative, not knowing that they were passing up golden opportunities to win a serious victory. Now we’re going to kick off 1916 with a British general deciding that his plan is close enough to Aylmer’s order to pass muster (“I ordered the men forward and the enemy almost immediately turned and fled the field, Sir…”).

So he’s going to use his initiative and order that major attack tomorrow. Great.

Siege of Kut

Right, about those imaginative RFC nutters in BE2c planes from yesterday? Some bright spark from 30 Squadron has realised that you can drop other things than bombs out of a plane. If, for instance, some blokes find themselves cut off from their supply lines, perhaps you could load a plane with food or ammunition, fly it over the fighting, and drop the supplies for your blokes to pick up. If they can pull it off, it would be the first operation of its kind.

Their base isn’t that far from the Siege of Kut, and when there’s a siege on, anyone with a slightly crackpot idea and a persuasive manner can get a fair hearing from the General. They’ve been trying to do some preliminary experiments, but the awful weather (of course the British have brought rain to the desert) has been scotching any chance they might have of proving the idea. More soon.

By the way, 30 Squadron still exists in the modern RAF under the same name. Appropriately, they now fly the comedically enormous C-130J Hercules air transport. And yes, they’ve recently flown them into modern-day Iraq.

Robert Palmer

Lieutenant Robert Palmer of the 1/4th Hampshires is, of course, blissfully unaware of all this. Nor is he trying to find any of it out. He’s more concerned with the strength, or otherwise, of a reinforcement draft that arrived at Amarah a few days previously.

…The new draft arrived, headed by Jack Stillwell and Lester Garland. They arrived only 45 strong, having reached Basra over 100. Basra is a nest of military harpies who seize men for obscure duties and make them local sergeants Only 68 escaped from it; and of these 23 fell out on the march—another specimen of [Royal Army Medical Corps] efficiency. The Medical Officer at Quetta had merely passed down the line asking each man “Are you fit?” and taking his answer.

Palmer finished 1915 by injuring his leg at football and then being given completely contradictory instructions by two seperate RAMC doctors. He’s also received a highly interesting titbit via a friend and a news agency.

A mysterious Reuter has come through about conscription. As it quotes the Westminster as saying Asquith has decided on it, I’m inclined to believe it: but it goes on to talk obscurely of possible resignations and a general election.

The debate about whether Britain should for the first time introduce general conscription of all military-aged men has been going since it became known at the start of the war that a BEF was being sent to France, from the quietest rural pub to the Cabinet room. Now, after a year and a half of war, the Government has indeed just introduced a Military Service Bill. More about it, and the conscription debate, as it wends its way through Parliament.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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