First Artois | 17 Dec 1914

Spot the Difference:

The hour of attack has sounded. After having contained the attack of the Germans, it is necessary now to smash them and liberate completely the occupied national territory.

-General Joffre, order of the day to French soldiers, 17 December 1914

The weapons of siege warfare are not yet ready, and we should not expect very great results. We must prevent Germany from moving troops for use against Russia.

-General Joffre, two weeks previously, in conversation with President Poincare (as reported by Poincare)

First Artois

Today begins the First Battle of Artois. All along the front the French Army is in action, over hundreds of miles of front. The vital attacks on Vimy Ridge and the Lorette are an almost total failure. The apparently vast concentration of artillery has proved good only for wrecking the rain-sodden ground. The German barbed-wire is almost entirely intact. The advanced saps dug into No Man’s Land have been mostly disintegrating under the weight of water.

All the French have left to carry the assault is elan. They take a trench here, and a trench there. Gains are being measured in hundreds of metres at best. Souchez, Givenchy, Carency, the Bois de Berthonval. All of them are first-day objectives. Some of them are even first-hour objectives. None of them are in French hands by sunset.  First Artois is already a failure, but it can’t just end here.  “We must do something, this is something, we must do this.”

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Louis Barthas

The story continues up and down the line. Another trench here, another trench there, the odd few hundred metres at a time. Almost all the artillery is at Vimy. Louis Barthas is going over the top at Auchy (then, Auchy-lez-la-Bassee; now, Auchy-les-Mines), the next town up the road after Vermelles.  His is only a supporting attack, a diversion for First Artois.

One machine gun started clattering, then two, then three. Bullets smacked the lip of the trench like hailstones, making us pull down our heads. In the squad that went ahead of us, one man was shot through the shoulder, spurting so much blood that he was surely going to die without immediate attention. … Stepping over this moaning, wounded comrade, we had to splash through his blood.

Our leaders might as well have been in the pay of the Kaiser, having sold out to the enemy. If they had been, they wouldn’t have acted any differently, drawing us into an ambush and getting us massacred.

The captain wasn’t at the head of his men. Now they had come up with this. The colonel marches with his reserve battalion. The commandant, with his reserve company. The captain, with his support section. The section chief, with his relief squad. It was left to the corporal to lead his squad. The sergeants took up the rear.

I should point out that Barthas intends no criticism towards his own Captain Hudelle, a man who he respects greatly and who will appear time and again to defend his men from the brass hats.

We crept forward a few metres. Barely half the company had gotten out of the trench. From behind, a rough voice threw out to us a terrible threat. “Tell the section chief that if it doesn’t move forward, we’ll fire on it!” Terrified, we crept a little further along the embankment, like earthworms. Up in front, they tried to form a skirmish line, but those who left the slope were immediately struck down. … The brutes who commanded this assault finally seemed to understand that since we didn’t have skin like a hippopotamus, it was impossible to advance into a hailstorm of bullets.

Corporal Barthas and his men eventually find safety in a line of rifle-pits that had been dug by the Germans in No Man’s Land for the use of sentries. On their bellies, and then on hands and knees, they scrape away at the ground, deepening the pits, joining them up, forming a parapet. Back goes the report. “Advance of some 150 metres in front of Auchy.” When night comes, there are no stretcher-bearers, and they must take the wounded back themselves.


I think we could all do with a little light relief, don’t you? The Emden shore-party is having quite an interesting time of it. Unable to communicate openly with any other German ships during their 24 hours in Padang harbour, they resorted to talking in extremely loud voices about a well-known rendezvous point in the Indian Ocean, where they spent about two weeks hove to, waiting hopefully for someone to turn up.

At one point they had an interesting run-in with a British merchant, who they successfully dodged by pretending to be stupid, and a few days ago their prayers were answered. They’ve been met by a German merchant steamer (and a rather large storm). The weather’s been preventing them from transferring the crew to the iron-hulled ship from the rotten-hulled one.

Yesterday they managed to find shelter in the lee of a small island chain, and completed the first phase of their escape by boarding the merchant and scuttling their rickety schooner. Now it’s time to decide what to do next. Sailing to German East Africa, or across the Pacific, is quickly ruled out as a waste of time. The latest news is that there’s been fighting between Britain and the Ottomans in the Middle East, so they set course for Arabia, hoping to then gain Ottoman assistance in returning home.

The journey will take some weeks, so the men entertain themselves with a DIY project. The entire ship will be repainted and disguised as an Italian vessel, complete with home-made Italian flag.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Predictable outrage over the raid on Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (pages 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12), including a spectacularly sanctimonious leader, even by the standards of the day.

Elsewhere, for some reason Page 2 reports extensively on the AGM of the United Fruit Company, Page 6 is gushing over the meeting of we three kings of Scandi-navi-are (ahem), the Belgium Fund crashes noisily past £90,000 (£9 million today), and Page 14 has a funny story or two under the headline “Lighter Side of War”, which presumably one should always look on. (The second of those stories is far from the last time someone will conduct gramophone warfare in this conflict.)

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

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