Footballs on the Somme | 29 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

This, of course, should have been Z Day, but due to the bad weather, Z Day’s been put back to the 1st of July. Instead, the bombardment continues, and Private Eversmann of the German Army, far underneath Thiepval, gives a short but arresting description.

Shall I live till morning? Haven’t we had enough of this frightful horror? Five days and five nights now this Hell concert has lasted. Hell indeed seems to be let loose. One’s head is a madman’s; the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. Five days and five nights, a long time, to us an eternity. Almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink. No sleep, always wakened again. All contact with the outer world cut off. No sign of life from home, nor can we send any news to our loved ones. What anxiety they must feel about us. How long is this going to last?

Still, there is no use thinking about it. If I may not see my loved ones again, I greet them with a last farewell.

The barrage continues lifting every so often. Sometimes it starts again after only a few minutes’ pause. Sometimes it goes a little longer, and yet more trench raids are launched. The prisoners being brought back are looking worse than ever, many of them unable to resist, completely shell-shocked. There are routes through the German wire for the raiders.

At this point, we find General Rycroft, in command of the 32nd Division, which will be attacking Thiepval, watching the fifth day of bombardment with his brigadiers. Perhaps we can forgive him for an oft-quoted observation, screaming to be heard over the roar of the guns. “My God! All we’ll find in Thiepval when we go across is the caretaker and his dog!”

Footballs

Now then. The same idea has occurred to quite a few officers up and down the Somme. Football is a popular rear-area pastime, of course. Most often mentioned here is a company commander, one Captain Nevill of the 8th East Surreys. His men have much further than the maximum recommended distance of 100 yards of No Man’s Land to cross when they attack. This will mean being out for some minutes in No Man’s Land. Captain Nevill is understandably worried that the men’s morale might crack.

So, in order to give the men something to focus on as their wave approaches the German line, he’s been given permission to issue footballs to the men. They’ll be thrown over the top, and the men will be encouraged to kick the footballs forward and follow them. It sounds a bit silly, but if it works…

A mile or two to the rear, our artillery friend Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has more serious matters on his mind.

“Y2” Day. A cloudy day, but as no more rain has fallen, the country is drying up fast. The only outstanding incident in the day was a smoke discharge on a seven-mile front, preceded by a very intense bombardment of one hour. It was a wonderful sight. Every smoke candle was lit simultaneously, and as far as the eye could see, a solid wall of smoke about 50 feet high moved over the Hun trenches. The night passed with two more gas discharges. Both were accompanied by the usual barrage.

His bosses, at least, are certainly very determined to show the Germans everything possible, so that they won’t be able to reason “Aha, Tommy did not let off smoke earlier, this must be the real thing!” Well, with one exception, of which more later, but you take the point, I hope. This barrage is far more subtle than just “FIRE ALL THE GUNS AT ONCE AND DON’T STOP”.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White has had his orders to go forward and prepare to attack.

I scribble my entry for the day, while my servant waits to pack up this little book in my valise. We go up this afternoon, and this book must not go too.

His last letter to Evelyn Southwell is now on its way.

Oh Man, I can’t write now. I am too like a coach before the Bumping Races or Challenge Oars.

So, Man, good luck. Our New House and Shrewsbury are immortal. which is a great comfort.

The Challenge Oars is another rowing competition at Shrewsbury that White and Southwell would have coached crews in before the war. He spends the night moving up into his jumping-off trench.

Battle of Verdun

Has Henri Desagneaux been relieved from the front lines at Verdun yet? No. Has Henri Desagneaux been killed in action yet? Also no. Is his eloquence finally beginning to suffer after a fortnight of Hell?

Our 14th day in this sector. The bombardment continues, our nerves make us tremble, we can’t eat any more, we are exhausted. Yet still no relief.

Little bit, yeah. At least he wasn’t attacked today. As it happens, there is going to be another French attack to retake Thiaumont tomorrow.

Haig and Hunter-Weston

Today is a rather interesting day for General Haig’s diary. Quick reminder: he kept daily hand-written diaries throughout the war, which he then sent home to his wife for safekeeping. The diaries were then typed up for posterity; and initially, the typed diaries were presented to history simply as “Haig’s diary”.

This is troublesome, because on quite a few occasions he took the opportunity to make amendments to his original thoughts. It would be unfair then to accuse him of trying to systematically amend history to his benefit. In fact, I’d rather have it this way. He was of course not the only man to do this. Sir Ian Hamilton published his type-written diaries. Rawlinson was happy with simply polishing up his diary, as Haig did, in type-written form, and leaving it among his personal papers.

As long as the original diaries survive (which they have), this means we can compare his less considered, immediate reactions with the reactions he would have apparently preferred to have had. This is one of the few entries where he decided his original thoughts needed supplementing. He’s now arrived at his advanced HQ at Beauquesne, about 13 miles behind the front. Close enough to be in touch, far enough away to not get shelled. In theory.

General Hunter-Weston came to see me and stayed to lunch. He seemed quite satisfied and confident. I gave him a kind message for his Divisional Commanders. I told him that I fully realised all the difficulties and hard work which they had had in training their divisions, and in preparing their trenches, etc, for attack. Also that I have full confidence in their abilities to reap success in the coming fighting, etc.

After dinner, my Commander Royal Artillery (Birch) came to report on his visit to VIII Corps [Hunter-Weston’s] today. The conclusion I came to is that the majority [of their officers] are amateurs, and some thought that they knew more than they did of this kind of warfare because they had been at Gallipoli. Adversity, shortage of ammunition, and fighting under difficulties against a superior enemy, has taught us much!

Those were his original thoughts. Worryingly, he later decided that much more specific criticism was required, both of junior officers and of Hunter-Weston and the senior men. This is not promising.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien has just joined his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, in the middle of an intense round of last-minute training. They’re probably not going over the top on Z Day, but there’s always the chance of a last-minute change of plan; and they’ll almost certainly have some fighting to do as July wears on. This is, to say the least, not the ideal time to join a new battalion and make friends.

He’s also struggling with the strict social separation between officers and men. He may have come from Oxford University, but his early years were not always comfortable and privileged. In many ways, he feels that he’s got more in common with the men than with his brother officers.

The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

He’s not at all happy; he now knows that his friends Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith will both be attacking on Z Day.

Mount San Michele

The Battle of Asiago is at an end, but of course Conrad von Hotzendorf simply cannot leave well alone. The Austro-Hungarian army has for the last few months managed to obtain and stockpile some gas, apparently a modern chlorine/phosgene blend. So now they’re going to try to use it on the Carso, while the Italian Brains Trust is still distracted with the Asiago plateau, and drive the Italians away from Mount San Michele once more, ideally all the way to the River Isonzo itself. It’s a bold plan. And the Italians only have basic mouth-pad gas masks, completely ineffective against phosgene.

With a lot of Italians still on the Asiago plateau, it might even have worked; and it would have been a major kick in the dick if it had worked. Unfortunately, about an hour before the gas is due to be released, the wind drops to almost nothing. Without any experience of this sort of thing, the Austro-Hungarians release the gas anyway, and a day’s brutal fighting follows.

When it’s over, the attackers have occupied a significant number of enemy trenches, and then been unceremoniously evicted again. The situation is unchanged, except now the Italians are sure they’ve got gas and know they need better masks. Oh well.

Emilio Lussu

Meanwhile, Emilio Lussu has another extensive, confused, and extremely aggravating tale of a wholly unnecessary attempt to attack the new Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the edge of the Asiago plateau. Officers fall quickly, Captain Canevacci one of the first. The enemy has dug down and supplemented their digging with solid stone breastworks. After several hours, Lussu takes himself in the rear to call in some artillery support against a pesky machine-gun. He passes another battalion…

The whole place had an air of confusion and terror. The major in command was standing against the trunk of a fir tree. I knew him well. I had eaten at his mess many times. Red in the face, he was shaking his hands at someone I couldn’t see. He looked really upset. “Hurry up! Hurry up or I’ll kill you! Give me the brandy! The brandy!” He was screaming at the top of his lungs, in a tone of command. He said “brandy” in the same voice he would have used to say “battalion in column!” or “double column!”

A breathless soldier appeared with a bottle of brandy in hand. The major was holding a pistol in his right hand and a sheet of paper in his left. He threw the paper to the ground and went over to the soldier, still screaming. He grabbed the bottle and, with a lightning move, sealed it to his mouth. He looked paralyzed, like he was dead on his feet. The only signs of life came from his throat, guzzling down the liquor with gulps that sounded like groans.

Lussu tries to get some help; the man is beyond reason, and waving his pistol dangerously. Lussu takes the pistol and confiscates the bullets for everyone’s safety. The major grins at him. Lussu tries to find someone else. Most of the officers are dead. There will be no help here. Nobody knows where the artillery is. Out of options, he heads back to his men.

[As I left, I] passed by the command post. The major was standing there motionless, in the same spot where I’d left him, pistol in hand, and he was still smiling.

There follows a brief period of calm. Lussu’s battalion has only three officers left now, all of them lieutenants. There’s nobody left to carry out the generals’ orders. So further attacks will have to wait for a while until reinforcements can be brought up. More in a while.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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