The Military Service Bill has completed its accelerated journey through Parliament and been to see the King. In two months the Army’s recruitment crisis will, in theory at least, be over. Now the Government needs to prepare to enforce the bill. Interestingly enough, for a concept designed in theory to bring the British military into something that’s fit for modern 20th century warfare, its administration makes me think of nothing so much as the Poor Laws.
Getting people into the army won’t be the difficult bit; they’ve got an app for that already. What they don’t have any capacity for is in deciding who’s eligible for exemption. This will be handled at local government level; the borough or parish council. Each parish will set up a tribunal composed of local worthies, usually ones who had already signed up to manage their local voluntary recruitment effort. On top of that, they’ll be, ahem, assisted by a military representative.
This may sound suspiciously like a bit of a stitch-up, but I’m sure that magnificent sense of British fair play will prevent it from becoming so. And besides, how many men are going to need exemption anyway? Surely everyone will realise that the state would not attempt compulsion unless it were vitally necessary and all sign up at once like good little boys? (It’s okay, I’m sniggering into my hand too.)
Battle of Verdun
We’re just a little more than two weeks away from the timetabled start of the Battle of Verdun. The German artillery is now receiving orders to begin its bombardment on the 12th of February. We’ll be taking a detailed look in a few days, complete with awful map, at what they’re planning to do. However, there is something else going off today that’s directly relevant.
Yes, time for another new correspondent. He has a silly name, so he’s an officer, and quite a senior one, too. Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Fraser-Tytler is still interesting, though; he’s in the artillery, and he’s thankfully rather more talkative than Herbert Sulzbach is being. His guns are currently in a small wood near Frise, on the south bank of the River Somme itself. Things are just about to get very interesting for him.
We are certainly blessed with good weather this month. Today it was glorious and there was quite a lot doing. We started the morning with a few rounds at some fellows who were loafing outside a wood, and then following an arrangement with the infantry we proceeded to knock out a very aggressive machine-gun.
Before lunch we began to get odd doses of shrapnel onto the guns, but…then we got it in salvos from at least two batteries. I got the men safely [under cover], where we sat under some trees and watched the fun. Except for two incidents it would have been quite amusing. One man got a nasty wound behind the shoulder; and the cook of the Siege Battery got knocked out completely and fell into his fire.
I think, however, that he was quite dead before being burnt.
He describes parts of the wood as looking like a tornado had hit it after the enemy barrage. This is just the start. The Germans are now beginning their programme of deception for Verdun, during which they’ll launch several attacks on other parts of the front. Frise is the first target.
Raid on Kornes
Russian preparations for an attack on Erzurum continue with a large raid away to the north of the fortress. Again, we shouldn’t think of the war on this front being fought in trench lines. Too few men, too big a front. The Ottoman defensive positions are based around a system of self-supporting strongpoints that are not directly connected. So tonight, someone is planning something extremely sneaky with a large group of picked Turkish-speaking soldiers who had in peacetime lived near the border. Dressed in captured Ottoman Army uniforms, they sneak out under cover of darkness and succeed in making it through Ottoman positions and into Kornes village. Which is where the Ottomans have set up a divisional headquarters.
By the time the raid is over, they’ve captured the division commander, eight of his staff officers, the divisional artillery commander, three artillery staff officers, the division’s chief vet, and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On their way out they also capture three guns and an infantry company that’s unwisely moved into their line of retreat.
Austro-Hungarian air raids
Today Conrad von Hotzendorf continues preparations for a push into Albania with some air raids. They’re tiny by the standard of almost any other air raid conducted ever, but tell that to the people who are under the bombs and they may not find that so comforting. One raid hits Salonika, which has done nothing for General Sarrail’s nerves. The other one goes after the Serbian Army at Durazzo. Say, don’t we know someone who’s spending a lot of time in Durazzo at the moment?
Bigads, we do indeed. And she’s in town today.
I went round to the British Adriatic Mission, and while I was having breakfast there there was a most terrific crash, followed by others in quick succession. I left my breakfast and went out into the street to see what was to be seen. Five Austrian aeroplanes were circling round and round overhead, apparently dropping bombs as fast as they could. The streets of Durazzo are very, very narrow, and the town is very small and very crowded. People were running as hard as they could to get out of the way. At least, the Italians were running; the Serbians always thought it beneath their dignity to do so.
I was standing with a Serbian artillery officer who knew all about it and could almost always guess pretty well where they were going to fall. Looking up into the clear blue sky you could see the bombs quite well as they left the aeroplanes: first of all they looked like a silvery streak of light, and then like a thin streak of mist falling through the sky, till they hit some building with a crash, smothering everyone in the neighbourhood with a powdery white dust. Two of them fell in almost identically the same spot at the end of the street about a hundred yards from us, and several more round about.
Another officer joined us presently who was very much annoyed because he was in the middle of being shaved when the first bomb fell, and the Italian barber had, without more ado, instantly dropped his razor and fled, so that he had to come out with only half his face shaved. He was rather glad afterwards, however, when he found out that had the barber remained he would have had no face left to shave, as when we walked back to the shop we found that a bomb had gone clean through the roof and the barber was standing outside anathematising aeroplanes for ruining his business.
When it was all over I went back again, and, finding the headquarters of the British Adriatic Mission still standing, sat down to a fresh lot of bacon and eggs for breakfast, such luxuries not being obtainable every day.
So is her name Flora Sandes or Flora Sangfroid? If that had been me I’d still be digging a hole to hide in.
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