Battle of Verdun
Tough job deciding what to lead off with. But it’s got to be off to Verdun, where the Germans have been making full use of Fort Douaumont. It’s not every day the enemy gifts you a gigantic concrete supply dumb/troop barracks. Readers with long memories may recall how, back in 1914, HMS Bulwark just up and exploded for no very good reason. Today, exactly the same thing happens at Douaumont. A vast pillar of smoke and fire spews out of one of the casemates, and a thousand men are dead. The scenes inside, so bad that apparently their comrades just bricked up the entrance and left it be.
And of course Generals Nivelle and Mangin have seen this, and taken note of it, and reasoned that what better way to cancel out the recent loss of Hill 304 than by retaking Fort Douaumont for France? Mangin is even now drawing up some proper plans for an attack, and it’s due to start in about ten days…
Louis Barthas moves forward again, to the ruins of Bethelainville. Now he is under the guns again.
This village was only partly destroyed. Nevertheless the inhabitants had prudently taken off, except for one poor old fellow who couldn’t bring himself to die far from the church tower of his birthplace. Despite finding ourselves at the mercy of an enemy bombardment, we took up quarters happily in the barns, where we rested up from the preceding nights we had spent in the rain.
If his previous patterns of trench duty hold true, he can expect to be up the line within four days. Fewer if the Germans attempt to push further down the south side of Hill 304. It’s all but impossible to tell who’s attacking and who’s counter-attacking at this point.
The changing face of submarines
Hey, remember that order the other day where the German submarine fleet was apparently told in no uncertain terms, by direct order of the Kaiser, to go back to Prize Rules immediately and stop sinking ships without warning? Well, there’s three U-boats far out at sea, and they’ve all missed Admiral Scheer’s message recalling them to port. They’ve happily been torpedoing away on their scheduled cruises. And today U-20, the same U-boat that sank the Lusitania, puts a full stop on the campaign by sinking another passenger liner, Hesperian, 140 miles off Fastnet Rock.
Fortunately for the German government, everyone aboard is British; there will be no further diplomatic ructions. Admiral Scheer is now refining his plan for a major fleet battle. His intelligence has let him know that Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers are stationed in the Firth of Forth, not at Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet. There will be another battlecruiser raid on the British coast, but this one will be at Sunderland, just 100 miles away from Beatty. Faced with such a challenge, there’ll surely be nothing to stop the headstrong Beatty from charging out and setting course.
And then, not only will Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers be able to lure the British ships right into the dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet, but Scheer will also lay a submarine ambush for them. Zeppelins flying high above the seas will provide plenty of information on the Royal Navy’s movements. A date is now about to be set; the 17th of May. Surely the two biggest battleship fleets ever built won’t continue to fail making contact with each other for the entire rest of the war. Surely.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but there is a very tempting tendency in military history to present the operational commander in any given situation as the sole mind behind the plan. Of course the commanding officer carries the can, but the details are all worked out by his team of little elves; the staff officers. General Haig may have the final responsibility for saying “We shall attack the German Second Line on the first day”, or “The primary objective is to capture Bapaume”. However, it is his own team of staff officers who will have shown him how it can be practically done and to work out all the fiddly little details.
And so we find ourselves meeting General Kiggell, Haig’s chief of staff, who has just distributed around the BEF an extensive note entitled “Training of Divisions for Offensive Action”. It’s freely available on the internet, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Far more than any other single document, it sets out how in practical terms the BEF will attack during the Battle of the Somme. I’d love to reproduce the whole thing, but even here there’s not enough space. I’ll summarise.
The first fascinating part is the detailed description for how divisions should conduct practice attacks in the rear.
A complete system of hostile trenches and at least the first line of a second system together with the defended localities between these two systems, should be marked out…to full scale from trench maps and aerial photographs, to represent as far as possible an actual system of trenches and strong points. The assault over the area so marked out should be practised several times by the division as a whole; the division being disposed in depth on a narrow front with two brigades, and also with one brigade in the front line.
This is both sensible and imaginative! I’m liking this. Information is a Good Thing. Of course the men who go over the top should know, as far as possible, what to expect when they arrive. Moving on.
Every attacking unit must be given a limited and clearly defined objective, which it is to capture and consolidate at all costs; the assaulting columns must go right through above ground to this objective in successive waves or lines, each line adding fresh impetus to the preceding line when this is checked, and carrying the whole forward to the objective. The cleaning up and consolidation of positions passed over by the assaulting columns in their advance, the formation of protective flanks, and the preparation of strong supporting points in the captured area will be carried out by other troops of the attacking force, following the assaulting columns and specially told off for the purpose.
When a particular line or succession of lines have reached an objective assigned to them, for the consolidation of which preparations have already been made, it will usually be inadvisable to order these troops to push on to a further objective. It follows, therefore, that, to secure continuity in operations on a large scale, it may be necessary to arrange for fresh troops to pass through others.
This is, um, less promising. Now, I know that it’s slightly unfair to compare the Eastern Front to the Western…but last year’s major success in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive did come off the back of a highly decentralised command structure, and trust being placed in relatively junior commanders to determine the pace of the offensive and how far and hard they should push. The stormtroopers in the first days of the Battle of Verdun operated on similar, if smaller-scale lines. They were not being told, as these men are being told, “do what you’re told and only what you’re told”.
It’s probably unfair to criticise. The BEF will have had pretty much zero opportunity to analyse these German operations as we’re able to, and to learn from them. Even if it were theoretically possible, British Army doctrine has always had this faint whiff of internal contradiction about it. Once given his orders the “man on the spot” is king and his judgement on how to carry them out will stand unquestioned, but to go beyond one’s orders, or to attempt instead to be more conservative than one’s orders, is in most cases a serious faux pas.
Gallipoli should have stood as a tribute to the sclerotic confusion that this structure can encourage. Sir Ian Hamilton was all but certain that the original landings were impossible, but his faith in Lord Kitchener led him to doublethink his very reasonable concerns away. He then had serious concerns about General Hunter-Weston’s handling of the opening hours, but was unwilling to override the judgement of the man on the spot once the battle was in progress. He also then showed a similar lack of backbone when dealing with General Stopford at Suvla Bay.
Anyway, back to Kiggell and the Somme. He and his staff are deeply skeptical of what might happen if Kitchener’s Army men are called upon to improvise. This at least might be construed as a lesson learned from Suvla Bay, where a green Kitchener corps was put into an extremely confusing situation and reacted about as well as could be expected (that is, not at all well). Certainly they muddled through far less effectively than regular soldiers might have been expected to. So:
…It must be remembered that officers and troops generally do not now possess that military knowledge arising from a long and high state of training which enables them to act promptly on sound lines in unexpected situations. They have become accustomed to deliberate action based on precise and detailed orders.
Officers and men in action will usually do what they have been practised to do or have been told to do in certain situations, and it is therefore all the more necessary to ensure that a clear understanding should exist among all ranks as to what action is to be taken in the different situations that may arise in battle. In this connection every endeavour should be made to inculcate mutual confidence and the spirit of combination directly towards the achievement of the task set.
Put another, slightly unfair way: “These people are used to being told exactly what to do; therefore, instead of training them to develop the skill to think for themselves, we will teach them to obey better, and then give them orders that can cover every eventuality.” The document does also tell us what young officers are expected to learn instead.
The strictest attention must continue to be paid to the cultivation of the power of command in young officers, also to discipline, dress, saluting, cleanliness and care of billets, and the importance of strict obedience to instructions as regards arrangements of supply, preservation of iron rations, water, etc., must be impressed on all ranks.
A 4th Army training booklet will later take this principle to its logical conclusion, stating baldly “Men must learn to obey by instinct without thinking. The whole advance must be carried out as a drill.” It’s not just the men who will be obeying without thinking. Who knows. Maybe they won’t have to. But I’m not entirely confident about their chances when the only people who are allowed to think are the ones with the least accurate picture of the situation. More soon.
Maximilian Mugge continues detailing the minutiae of life as a medically unfit man in a dull English garrison camp. This has become really rather interesting in its own small way, you know. This is a perspective on the war that I’ve barely seen even alluded to before, much less detailed.
Listened to the grousing of the men who had to appear at Company-office. There the Captain in command of the Company, in State, surrounded by all his “higher” NCOs, i.e., Sergeants and the Sergeant-Major, dispenses military justice to “criminals.”
One man, Rogers by name, been away Saturday afternoon to Sunday night without leave, said this morning when Sergeant-Major came into the hut: “Wife laid up.” Whereupon the mighty Sergeant-Major: “Always the wife! You bloody well never go near them. Why the devil did you fuck off without asking? Always the wife to hide your sins!” Rogers got three days confined to barracks and two days pay stopped.
Mugge and his publisher are of course far too reputable to use the actual language. I’ve filled in the most likely choices.
Thirty-six hours absent. Yes. Keyward was absent too, at the same time. You know Brighton is not very far, you can walk it. Keyward, however, was not punished. He is an old sodjer [sic] and knows the ropes and is the Sergeant’s friend. Of course he was not punished. There was no charge, which is but justice. For is not the Army the fortress of freedom, the haven of happiness, the essence of efficiency?
This afternoon I was detailed off to accompany a sergeant to escort a prisoner from here to Pells prison. Went in full war paint. Belt, bayonet fixed. The prisoner smoked the sergeant’s cigarettes; his last for forty-six days to come. Told us yarns that would have made the poppies blush.
No, we’ll never know what the man’s crime was (I will not use inverted commas; sometimes bored squaddies do really stupid things). Must have been serious to warrant a stint in an actual military prison, instead of just confined to barracks or locked in the local guard-room.
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