Fall of Fort Vaux
This is the end. A few men in scattered parties, thirties, twenties, and tens, have been given permission to break out or sneak out of the fort as best they can, and have done so under cover of darkness. After a short period of denial, Major Raynal’s officers are unanimous; both their orders and their honour is satisfied, and now they must surrender. While a German-speaking lieutenant has the unenviable task of taking a letter to the enemy, every man who still has the energy to do so is helping to destroy the fort’s machine-guns and its official documents.
Over on the other side of the hill, the Germans are absolutely staggered by the news that Fort Vaux is ready to surrender. Fog of war, guys. Fog of war. The official acceptance of the surrender follows, there’s a lot of gentlemanly socialising, and eventually, the garrison leaves. To the local Germans’ credit, once the prisoners get outside they soon find that there has been a large tank of drinking water laid on for their use. So the saga of Fort Vaux comes to an end. The German Army is six inches closer to Verdun.
And after all that, they’re still well short of General von Knobelsdorf’s line that they must reach before standing on the defensive. Casualties are ticking deep into six figures on both sides. And still the German Army prepares to attack, and still General Nivelle dreams dreams of a grand attack of his own. Meanwhile, the new French prisoners begin the long journey to Mainz in Germany.
Hey, guess who else is making that journey right now? That’s right, Lieutenant Georges Connes is heading that way, a few days ahead.
The road from the barracks to the train station skirts the town, and we only come across a few Frenchmen. We stiffen, unable to speak, tears coming from our eyes. A road worker, old and bent, looks up from his toil. The old man exclaims “Good God, is it always going to be the same thing?” Walking by him, I say the classic phrase, “On les aura!”
Yes, at that moment, I violently want to get them. What are they doing here on this land that is not theirs?
The answer, Lieutenant, is “Extracting large amounts of food, money, and resources from the local population.” Since you asked.
On the first day, an Austro-Hungarian division dissolved into the dead and the captured. On the second day, its corps went the same way. On the third day, General Brusilov ate up an entire Austro-Hungarian army. And he was still hungry. The Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army was supposed to be defending Lutsk. Elaborate defences had been dug all round the city, bristling with wire, connecting three old forts. Unfortunately, what nobody realised is that the best defences in the world are utterly useless if there’s nobody who can usefully occupy them. The men who should have been occupying them are either dead, captured, or retreating very fast.
The offensive can now be considered a success. The Russian 8th Army has taken nearly 50,000 prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. There’s a huge yawning gap appearing in the line between the Fourth and First Armies. The entire front south of the Pripyet Marshes is now untenable. Time for another major retreat. For the Austro-Hungarians, it’s now a question of how much of Galicia they’re going to end up losing back to the Russians. There’s no reason this needs to turn into Gorlice-Tarnow II. All we need is some basic military competence, plenty of reserves, and a little original thinking.
Battle of Jutland
So. At a week’s remove, it’s time to consider the fallout from the Battle of Jutland. As we know, the Germans were extremely quick to declare victory. On the face of it, that’s not so unreasonable. They’ve inflicted 7,000 casualties and 6,000 dead on the Royal Navy, for 3,000 casualties and 2,500 dead in return. (Unlike on land, a lot of casualties end up as dead because of the whole “ships sinking and/or violently exploding” deal.) The Germans have lost 62,000 tons of shipping; the Royal Navy, 115,000 tons.
It doesn’t look any better when we turn to individual ships sunk or damaged. On the British side, there’s the very small matter of three huge battlecruisers just up and exploding. (Inquiries have already been carried out; and they’ve correctly identified unsafe ammunition handling as the cause.) More British ships have been damaged than German ships. In a raw contest of damage done, the Germans win the battle and it isn’t even close. Certainly to a British public, expecting overwhelming victory at every turn, this is deeply worrying.
But a game of chess is not won or lost on points. There is more to this than numbers. For one thing, the main fighting at Jutland ended with both sides’ main fleets facing off, whereupon the Germans turned round and ran away as fast as they could. This is not traditionally how a winning side celebrates its victory. The question we should be asking here is “what has changed as a result of this battle?”
And, where it really and truly matters, the answer is “absolutely nothing”. None of the fundamental assumptions of the war that rest on British naval superiority have changed. The RN may have lost a few big ships and had a lot more damaged, but the Grand Fleet’s strength today is almost exactly what it was two weeks ago. Other ships can be transferred, or brought out of repair docks, to make good the losses and provide cover while the damaged ships are being repaired. The German Navy simply cannot absorb the long-term loss of two battlecruisers and three dreadnoughts to battle damage, and continue along like nothing happened. They almost might as well have been sunk.
For the final verdict, we must turn to an American newspaper. (It’s surprisingly hard to find out which one; some people say “the New York Times”, others just say “a New York newspaper”.) “The German fleet has assaulted its jailor”, the organ informs its readers, “but it is still in jail.” And yet it still doesn’t quite feel right saying “this was a British victory”. So instead I’m going to finish this on my favourite little observation about Jutland, the most important battle in a war which is oozing irony from every pore.
HMS Dreadnought herself, the ship who started all this “dreadnought battleships” nonsense, didn’t fire a shot during the battle. She didn’t even leave port. Dreadnought was in the middle of a major refit while the war went on around her. Dreadnought couldn’t have gone to what will turn out to be the only chance she’ll ever have to fight in the role she was designed for, even if she’d wanted to.
The usefulness of tanks
So, one massive Navy-designed weapon has just failed entirely to change the course of the war. What about another? General Burnett-Stewart, a GHQ staff officer, has been considering what can practically be expected of tanks. His report is not particularly promising. “[They] will be an adjunct to an offensive in trench warfare and are not likely in an action to get further away from their starting point than a distance of three miles, supposing them to start from a point one mile behind our front trenches.”
This is a very important point. It is important to remember at this point that the Mark I tank prototypes that the general has seen pootling around are a long, long, long way from what we now think of as a tank. It’s all very well for Colonel Swinton to write hopeful doctrine for use by tanks as they not only punch holes in German lines, but also drive through them to exploit the breakthrough. The tanks he has are deafendingly loud, their armour is painfully thin, it takes four men just to steer the things by pulling on an unlikely arrangement of levers and cranks. The tanks travel at walking pace, they guzzle fuel and grease and coolants like a drunk on a pub crawl, and the engines are very often disinclined to start properly.
The whole point of the Western Front is that with cavalry vulnerable to artillery and machine-guns, nobody has a weapon that moves faster than walking pace and no room to launch flanking movements. If the tanks can’t go faster than walking pace, they might be able to punch holes in a line, but they’re useless as an instrument of exploitation. This is where Burnett-Stewart’s attitude comes from. This is why the first tank force to go to France will go without its own motorised supply column. It simply won’t need one for doing what it’s currently capable of doing. Their rations and supplies have to come up with everyone else’s.
There is one good thing about the tanks, mind you. The giant, stinking, offensive, unwieldy, exposed, crew-gassing engine does have a large, flat ledge part of the way up its casing. Someone has discovered that this ledge gets extremely hot, and is situated at a convenient height to fry bacon on. You can do a lot of things while driving a Challenger 2, but you can’t cook a bacon butty directly on its engine.
Captain Evelyn Southwell is rather peeved. He’s been promoted…but another captain has just been sent to the battalion, for some reason, and that captain is junior to all the others except Southwell. So the new man, Captain Garton, gets command of Southwell’s company, and Southwell gets to whinge about it.
It will be one of the things that the bulletin from Sir D. Haig ought to report daily, so that everybody may know where we are. “Captain Southwell took over the command of C Company, 9.2.16.” “Lt Southwell handed over, 10.2.16.” “Capt. S. took over again to-day, 11.2.16.” “Lt Southwell handed over again, 12.2.16.” “Mr Southwell retired to civilian life in disgust, 13.2.16.” And so on.
Rules, after all, are rules.
Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is also complaining about seniority, although in much less interesting terms. He does have a nasty little anecdote, though.
There is with us at present a Lieutenant who came to England as a civilian and through friendship with General [REDACTED] secured a commission, and was attached to the Battalion about two weeks ago. He knows absolutely nothing about soldiering. Most of the officers will scarcely speak to him. The unfairness of it is this, that as he is absolutely useless until he receives some training, he has to be given the preference when it comes to detailing officers for various courses. I know enough of the duties of an officer to “carry on” in a reserve battalion. He does not.
Hence, he may be sent to [a three-month training course] in preference to me. If this happens, I shall feel more like committing assault and battery on a British subject than I have felt for some time. The poor simpleton apparently does not realise that there is anything unusual about his position in the battalion.
Have we found someone who is more of an idiot than Mr Wells? Criminy. And how weird is it to see a man born in Toronto, who is the son of a man born in Toronto and a woman born in Montreal, describing a fellow Canadian as a “British subject”? Empire’s a trip, man. They are indeed both British subjects; the concept of a “Canadian citizen” was invented in 1910, but only as a flavour of “British subject”.
Anyway. News of the Battle of Mont Sorrel has raised Wells’s hopes of getting to France.
Canadian casualties last week are estimated at from 7,000 to 10,000. We received orders on Sunday that every available man in camp should be ready to proceed to France on Tuesday. A company from another battalion was also given us to equip. This meant a tremendous amount of work. Most of the officers worked all Monday night getting the draft ready.
Wells still remains at the bottom of the pile for officer vacancies. I guess it’s going to take something more than the Battle of Mont Sorrel to get him out to France, huh?
The well-informed Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery has received yet another dispatch.
Lord Kitchener has gone down with the cruiser Hampshire after she was torpedoed on her way to Russia by one of our U-boats. In the East the Russians have started a huge offensive as well. In the naval battle of the Skagerrak we lost [a list of small ships]. I’ve read in a Swiss paper that a new giant Zeppelin is under construction in the Zeppelin yards at Friedrichshafen.
I go on horseback to visit Kurt Reinhardt again, at Filain with his regiment. Kurt’s battery has firing positions on what they call the Chemin des Dames. We swapped a lot of experiences, of course, thinking of Namur, Lille, Belgium, Flanders, and so into the Champagne country.
Whether the switch from mine to torpedo is a deliberate propaganda fabrication or not, I’m not sure. And if anyone has any nominations for which Zeppelin this is, drop a comment down there.
Working in the docks all day. Got up at six, had two biscuits and a mug of tea for breakfast. Started work at 6.30 am. Forage shifting; until twelve o’clock. Then all the way up-hill to Camp for dinner. Bully-beef. Down again to the docks. More “portering.” Jones and I between us shifted 112 cwts. of oats in the afternoon. Am very tired. Wonder how long this silly old heart of mine will stand it? To add insult to injury, of course, no one here knows I have been put amongst the NCCs against my will, by some benighted blithering Whitehall idiot.
The Lady in Princess Beatrice Hut refuses serving tea to NCCs. “We serve only soldiers here!” During our first night in Camp, from Saturday to Sunday, we
had three of our hut windows broken.
Followers of my occasional series “Tracking Maximilian Mugge’s class indicators” will be absolutely fascinated that he is referring to the noonday meal as “dinner”. As far as we know, which isn’t much, he’s always lived in or around London and was recruited into the Royal Sussex Regiment. He also clearly wants to be part of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Every single man jack of them has “lunch” at noon. Having dinner at noon is not just something the working classes do, it’s something the Northern working classes do. Where did he pick it up? Seeing him say “dinner” is like hearing an apparent born-and-bred Bostonian suddenly say “y’all” like they were from Alabama. Curiouser and curiouser!
PS: One hundred and twelve hundredweight is equivalent to 12,500 pounds, 5,690 kilograms, or approximately one of those modern Challenger 2 tanks (bacon content unknown). Which is a lot of weight for any two blokes to move anywhere, never mind when one of them has a heart condition.
We finish with Bernard Adams, who is still having trouble getting over the brutal death of Lance-Corporal Allan. He’s been in a bad mood all day, and is looking forward to a chance to go out into No Man’s Land tonight to put out some more barbed wire and have something to do to keep his mind off things.
There was what might be called a concertina craze on: innumerable coils of barbed wire were converted into concertinas by the simple process of winding them round and round seven upright stakes in the ground; every new lap of wire was fastened to the one below it at every other stake by a twist of plain wire; the result, when you came to the end of a coil and lifted the whole up off the stakes was a heavy ring of barbed wire that concertina’d out into ten-yard lengths. When you are out wiring you forget all about being in No Man’s Land, unless the Germans are sniping across. The work is one that absorbs all your interest, and your one concern is to get the job done quickly and well.
All this strip of land between the trench and the crater edge was an extraordinary tangle of shell-holes, old beams and planks, and scraps of old wire. Every square yard of it had been churned and pounded to bits at different times by canisters and “sausages” and such-like. Months ago there had been a trench along the crater edges; but new mines had altered these, and until about a fortnight ago, there had been no trench there for at least five months. The result was a chaotic jumble.
I had just looked at my luminous watch, which reported ten past one, when I noticed that the sky in the east began to show up a little paler than the German parapet across the crater. “Dawn,” I thought, “already. There is no night at all, really. We must knock off in a quarter of an hour. The light will not be behind us, but half-past one will be time to stop.” I was lying out by the bombers, gazing into the black of the crater. It was a warm night, and jolly lying out like this, though a bit damp and muddy round the shell-holes.
Then I got up, told Corporal Evans to come in after fixing the coil he was putting up, and was walking toward 80a bombing post, when ”Bang” I heard from across the crater, and I felt a big sting in my left elbow and a jar that numbed my whole arm. “Ow,” I cried out involuntarily, and doubled the remaining few yards, and scrambled down into the trench.
“They’ve shot me.” “Well, shoot them back!” I suppose it’s ironic that the battalion sniping officer should be hit by an enemy sniper. His men administer first aid and then take him to the doctor.
Somehow I found my equipment and tunic off; there seemed a lot of men round me; and I tried to realize that I was really hit. My arm hung numb and stiff, with the after-taste of a sting in it. I felt this could not be a proper wound, as there was no real throbbing pain such as I expected. I was surprised when I saw a lot of blood in the half light.
“What sort of a one is it?” I asked.
“I could just do with one like this myself,” said the doctor.
“Is it a Blighty one?”
“I’d give you a fiver for it any minute,” answered the doctor. ”I’m not certain whether the bone’s broken or not, but I rather think it is touched. I can’t say, though. A bullet, did you say? Are you sure?”
”Very sure,” I laughed. “I can’t make out why there’s not more pain.”
“Oh, that’ll come later. You see the shock paralyzes you at first. Here, take one of these.” And he gave me a morphia tabloid.
And very soon after that, he’s off on the long journey back to Blighty. His time as a regular correspondent is over, though we shall catch up with him a time or two more. Back at the front, in his absence, preparations for the Big Push continue at full speed.
After all, nothing of importance has occurred.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!