Eve of the Somme
It’s the last day before the Battle of the Somme. There’s very little more to say. We’ve been building up to this for most of 1916. Time to find out whether General Joffre’s grand offensive is going to succeed in changing the face of the war. Something, somewhere is going to have to give. Whose and where? That one’s still up for grabs. Check back later.
General Haig is doing about as well as could be expected for a guy who never expected to lead more than, at most, ten thousand men anywhere, and has now ended up in charge of a million-man army. It’s funny how life turns out.
The weather report is favourable for tomorrrow. The men are in splendid spirits. Several have said that they have never before been so instructed and informed of the nature of the operation before them. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparation so thorough. I have seen personally all the Corps Commanders and one of all are full of confidence.
Whether or not we are successful lies in the Power above. But I do feel that in my plans I have been helped by a Power that is not my own. So I am easy in my mind and ready to do my best what ever happens tomorrow.
Dib dib dib. There’s another addition in his typed diary, again claiming he had some lingering doubt over Hunter-Weston’s corps. Which our friend Malcolm White belongs to. I do not like that one bit, no I do not.
Attacking battalions are now all forming up in their jumping-off trenches. They’ve already reduced themselves to attack strength. After some battalions were reduced to 50 men or fewer in the first months of the war, there is now a policy that each battalion before it attacks will take about 150 men and a few officers as a survival cadre, and leave them behind. If the worst comes to the worst, the battalion can be re-formed around those men and maintain continuity and instutitional memory. They can also be used in dire emergencies as a last-ditch reserve.
This is, ahem, not particularly psychologically easy on the survivors, watching all their mates march off and knowing some of them won’t come back. On the other hand, it’s common and encouraged that men will volunteer to go on patrol in No Man’s Land at night, or participate in trench raids, in exchange for being put in the survivor cadre when it’s time for a big attack. If they survive the raids. How do you like your odds either way?
Y3 day for Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler and his guns. They’re not quite having things their own way.
Thanks to the high wind, the country is really dry again. In the morning the Hun started another “hate” at our group of Observation Posts and completely demolished the one belonging to Terry, also knocking in the top of Nunn’s. Luckily there were no casualties, however. In the afternoon we heard the next day was to be the great Z Day. One can’t help wondering if the Hun has any great devilry in store. He has been suspiciously quiet on the whole. But, of course, as [our] whole line is strafing, he may think that it is only a bluff on this sector.
At 10pm, when I was in bed, the orderly brought me an envelope containing the news of the Zero hour (7:30am). Everything I can think of is ready, so there is nothing further to worry about. Tonight the dug-out is fairly rocking with the roar of the bombardment. When phoning to HQ I had to smother my head and phone under the bed-bag before I could hear a word.
It’s been seven days’ hard work. Now then, he mentioned something about a bluff on this sector? Though he can’t know it, he is in fact 100% correct. General von Falkenhayn thinks the attack will actually come somewhere further to the north. Though General von Below, the German army commander who’s about to get attacked, disagrees, he thinks he won’t be attacked south of Thiepval, which is where Fraser-Tytler’s been shelling. Neither has he foreseen that the French are going to attack alongside their allies.
Battle of the Boar’s Head
And so we move on to the last diversionary attack for the Somme. The Boar’s Head is just to the south of Neuve Chapelle, site of that first offensive battle in 1915, right where von Falkenhayn is expecting to be attacked. It’s one of many little mini-salients into the BEF’s line that the Germans have allowed to exist because it means that they’re occupying a very useful hill from which they can’t be easily removed. Three Kitchener battalions from the Royal Sussex Regiment attack the salient at dawn and succeed in capturing most of the German first-line trench system.
Then come the counter-attacks, and since this is only a diversionary operation, there are no reserves available to reinforce it. Both sides lose about a thousand men, and the line hasn’t gone anywhere, but that isn’t the point. If the BEF is in Bapaume by the 5th of July, it’s all good. Even this isn’t good enough for Lieutenant-Colonel Grisewood, until recently in command of the 11th Royal Sussex. Before the attack, he objected on principle to “sacrificing my men as cannon fodder”, and was immediately relieved of command.
And, in a slightly alternate universe, if the War Office had just let him alone, Maximilian Mugge might just have ended up in this attack. This is not going to be quickly forgotten, either. The three battalions were all very tightly-knit, full of friends serving together. They joined up to be in the Big Push and die for King and Country. They didn’t think their mates were going to be dying so someone else could avoid dying for King and Country.
Battle of Verdun
Meanwhile. Today sees another almighty French effort to recapture Thiaumont, as a staging post to recapture Fleury. Hey, do you think this is going to end badly for Henri Desagneaux? It’s a fair bet. It begins at 6am.
We are getting hit more and more often, as our position is the favourite enemy target. During this time we expect an attack at any moment. My own company is hard hit. A [heavy mortar bomb] falls directly on a group of men sheltering in a hole. A minute later, a second shell sends a machine-gun flying, killing two more and wounding a third. It’s panic stations. The men run and I have to force them back again with a revolver in my hand. Everyone goes back to his post. We set up another machine-gun and keep watch.
If one of Louis Barthas’s officers had threatened him with a pistol, I would not expect that officer to be alive much longer. On the other hand, Desagneaux leads by example. He’s been up in the trenches and the shell-holes with his men the whole time. On Hill 304 the officers were conspicuous by their absence.
At 10am and 2pm, French attacks on Thiaumont. Our heads are buzzing. Myself, Agnel, and my orderly are squashed into a hole, protecting ourselves with our packs. We await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils, not knowing where to go, come to us, believing they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke. The air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood. Two of them are breathing their last.
One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out; in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. One begs me “Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me”. The other implores me to kill him. “Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me your revolver!” For hours these groans and supplications continue until, at 6pm, they die before our eyes, without anyone being able to help them.
They did not start the war. And then, shortly after that, Desagneaux receives the first good news for two weeks, the only news that can be good news.
We are to be relieved. We wait anxiously, it’s 2am before the replacements arrive. Tiredness disappears and our limbs regain enough strength to escape. Corpses of men, carcasses of horses, it’s a horrific graveyard all the way to Verdun. Each one of us thinks of those who have not returned. Whole regiments have melted away. The 129th Division doesn’t exist any more. The 359th Regiment has lost 33 officers and 1,100 men. [We] prevented [the German] descent into the ravine and the complete encirclement of the area.
And off he goes to a well-deserved rest.
I see from the papers there is a great deal of activity about. I’m not betraying any secrets, therefore, when I say that the noise has been on the increase, though I must not say where most of it came from. Please make it clear that I do not want any increase chez vous of anxiety at all, if possible. But if ever you remembered anyone in your prayers in this world, I would like it to be my friend White. I know I do not ask in vain.
The sun sets. The sun rises. Final preparations are made. Barbed wire is cleared out of the way. An extra rum ration goes round. And the men wait for their officers’ whistles to blow. See you tomorrow. Good luck, everyone.
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