Fromelles | Pozieres | 20 Jul 1916

Battle of Fromelles

The diversion at Fromelles has time for one last ignominy. During the evening, plans were made and orders were sent out at HQ for a push to capture just one more German strong-point. However, to his credit, General Haking (who’s buggered most everything else up six ways from Sunday) has been alert to new information as it trickles in during the night, and he did try to have the fresh attacks stopped. Of course, the hopelessness of communications meant that only some of the messages got through. But it’s the thought that counts, right?

So it’s only a few Australian battalions who try to attack again just before dawn, and as units they quickly end up creeping back to the old front line with their balls in a sling. By 8 am, the artillery is firing a box barrage to isolate the men who are left in the German front line so they can retreat; by 9am the ANZACs back in their old trenches and trying to pick up the pieces.

There are a lot of Australians who get extremely emotional about Fromelles. To be sure, it is one of the worst moments for the BEF on the Western Front, a perfect storm of incompetence and cowardice among the Brains Trust. Very few people above the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel come out of this shitshow with any credit whatsoever to their names. A later German assessment will call it “operationally and tactically senseless”. Two Australian battalions are almost completely destroyed and will have to be rebuilt from their survivor cadres; there is only one day on which more Australian soldiers have died in battle (of which more later).

Both attacking divisions took near 50% casualties; the Australian number is bigger than the British Territorial division’s number because that division was badly under-strength and sent far fewer men into the battle. And yet, if we look at the Italian front, at the Eastern Front, at the Caucasus, we find far, far more egregious crimes than the one at Fromelles. If there is a message about the horrors of this war to take from Fromelles, it is not that this battle was surpassingly awful. It’s that this battle was all too typical.

Pozieres and Guillemont

Battle of the Somme. Plans for what they do next. It all sounds so very reasonable if we just look at the map for a moment, so let’s look at the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

So, over on General Rawlinson’s right, it makes sense to have an attempt at a bite-and-hold towards Guillemont and Ginchy. Between the BEF and the French, there’s just far too many men trying to use far too few roads immediately north of the Somme. Any advance here soothes inter-alliance tension; and a strong advance towards Ginchy opens the door for surrounding Delville Wood rather than directly attacking it. The French have been indicating that they want to attack in this area together with their allies for the same reason.

The case for attacking Pozieres is even more convincing. An attack would be carried out by fresh men from General Gough’s Reserve Army, which as yet has only fought small actions. The Germans see Pozieres as the keystone of the Second Line; if it were to fall, they’d surely begin a wide-scale retreat north of the Albert to Bapaume road to avoid being cut off. Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel, and Serre could all be taken almost without a fight. The weather even seems to be clearing up for them; hot is much, much better than wet.

And after that, why, there’s just the Third Line standing between the BEF and Bapaume, their original objective. Capture that, and we could still show the French what we’re good for, eh? Just got to keep the enemy off balance, don’t let him re-organise, keep wearing him down. Intelligence says they can’t have too many more men in reserve, unless they’re going to do something drastic at Verdun. So we’ll attack again, as soon as possible. It sounds so reasonable and so seductive. With one bound, Dick was free!

But, in the words of a rather famous wag. “There was only one flaw with this plan. It was bollocks.” Intelligence was wrong, the Germans have now fully implemented their command reorganisation, there’s plenty more reserves to throw in. This, um, this might be hard to watch.

Mesopotamia Commission

Details about what exactly went wrong for the British Empire in Mesopotamia are rather harder to come by than details about Gallipoli. Nevertheless, enough people have survived the campaign, avoided captivity, and told their stories. Today the Earl of Wemyss uses his seat in the House of Lords to introduce a motion calling for “a full Inquiry … into the whole conduct of the campaign, especially in relation to the transport arrangements and the provision for the wounded”. An excellent idea! There’s an adjournment debate in the House of Commons, also proposing just such a measure.

As you might expect, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, spends a lot of time in the House of Commons with a very dead bat, stonewalling like the old professional that he is. However, it’s very telling that his line of argument is “well, clearly we’d all like to know why we lost, but is this the right way to do it?” That’s a line of argument that can only last you for so long; eventually, people will indeed decide which is the right way. In the end, his hand will be forced and he’ll have to set up a more independent inquiry than the parliamentary select committee that he was hoping for.

We’ll check back with them in rather a while when the commission produces its report. For now, there is a rather amusing request near the end of the debate. This is one for those of us who waited so long to see the Chilcot Report into, er, an ill-advised invasion of Mesopotamia. The final contribution to the debate, from Sir Basil Peto (Conservative MP for Devizes):

The right hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill) is rightly anxious that the reference to this Commission should be extremely definite, and should be definitely limited to certain points. I am entirely in agreement with that, because we do not want the Commission sitting, as the hon. Member for Mayo [John Dillon] suggested, for, perhaps, eighteen months, or, perhaps, until well after the termination of the War, and with no results achieved.

Indeed, yes, wouldn’t that be tragic, and other such insincere expressions of agreement.

Edward Mousley

Meanwhile, a very long way away, Captain Edward Mousley has completed his journey to Ankara; there’s one more lot of travelling left to go. Half the officers in his group have now been separated off and sent to Yozgat.

The station seemed the only decent building in it. We seemed to be at the end of creation. Everything was so quiet and sleepy. It is indeed a branch line and one sees no Germans or Europeans. We were hustled at once into two deep and marched half a mile to a wretched low little eating restaurant place with some sleeping rooms upstairs. Our luggage came in afterwards. Mine had been looted, I found, quite considerably, two or three times since the Aleppo change, but I don’t know where.

The next morning three-quarters of us had collapsed. Colitis and fever were all around, and the Turkish doctor inoculated those who were well enough to be done, for cholera, of which Ankara was full. During the night a fearful itching broke out all over my body, the most maddening itching imaginable. Spots and a red flush followed. I thought I was in for scarlet fever or something. It seemed as though we had forced ourselves on to the railways’ end by will power, and then, that being over, had collapsed.

The time here is no rosy one, and although more comfortable than in Mosul, the trek being mostly behind us, still one’s vitality is even worse. We are still without money. One day some of those fit enough were taken to a cafe near by, but as they had no money “nothing happened,” as they expressed it on returning. Anyway, we are running up a bill here, and unless they pay us before leaving, the hotel-wallah will get nothing. There is no news, except a reported Russian shove through Romania, and rumours of a move soon.

Except the Bible, one has no books. I have now finished the Psalms and Proverbs to-day, and am going on. They say the second phase of the Titanic struggle (or Teutonic struggle) is beginning in France.

No news, except some highly interesting rumours. Romania and Russia co-operating, you say? Aren’t they trying to keep that absolutely tippy-top secret? Except, of course, someone’s probably told the Italians about negotiations. And, as you may faintly remember from the July Crisis two years ago, the Italian diplomatic codes are not what they should be, so the German and Austro-Hungarian governments have been freely reading all Italy’s messages…

Oskar Teichman

Time for Oskar Teichman to go to work; there’s going to be a fight soon at the Suez Canal.

At twelve o’clock orders were received for one squadron of the Worcesters, one squadron of the Gloucesters and two squadrons of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles to be ready to move off if required. I was ordered to go in medical charge of this composite [battalion].

At 10 p.m. we moved off; the desert seemed to be alive with infantry battalions and guns, which kept bumping into us in the dark, and a brilliantly lit hospital ship passing down the Canal gave a sort of omen of what was to come. We halted at Hill 40, where the Adjutant of a New Zealand regiment told us that patrols had been in action near Oghratina, in the vicinity of which 10,000 of the enemy were said to be entrenched. Hill 70 was reached before midnight, here the air was still more pregnant with rumours, and after watering our horses we bivouacked for the night.

For the time being, the waiting continues.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has now seen a casualty list in which Malcolm White is officially missing. He now enters a relatively standard-issue faith, one, crisis of; existential despair, for the use of.

Yes, it is M.G. White, I am afraid. I like to think of him, as Browning did of Abt Vogler; say that his million ideas of music, poetry, teaching, friendship are now utterly satisfied: and it seems at least mistaken to grieve for him too much. Ah me! but I was nearly saying it is a cruel world. What a wonderful thing the faith must be, when it is able to keep one absolutely proof against everything! I sometimes think that, in the Divine Arithmetic, 1 and 1 do not make 2.

I mean that one is apt to look at the tragedies of the War, and say ‘This, and this, and this. How awful!’, while all the while it may not be more awful for anybody, God included, for twenty myriads of families to be bereaved than for one. It is at least arguable that no one family suffers more, and perhaps, even, it suffers less, by the thought that others too need comfort. I do not know, but I try my little hardest to believe.

Ah, the Edwardian upper classes confronting the idea that sometimes, really quite unbelievably shitty things happen in the world. Can’t beat it. Georg Joseph Vogler, often known as “Abbe Vogler”, was a now-obscure baroque composer, teacher and musical theorist; equally-now-obscure Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote a long poem in praise of him.

E.S. Thompson

Action and excitement around camp for E.S. Thompson as General van Deventer rides out in pursuit of those beastly Germans who won’t stand still and be killed like proper gentlemen.

I saw some yellow powder on a rock and thinking it was curry smelt it and it made me sneeze, but it wasn’t. I fired 3 shots from Smikky’s revolver. Leo amusing me by holding his fingers in his ears.

Well, there’s two bad life decisions in the space of as many sentences.

The advance on Dodoma started today, the howitzers and naval guns going forward as well as the South African Horse. On the way out General van Deventer passed us in his motor, and also Legg driving some staff officers.

A captain of the Veterinary Corps came up to us with a native who picked out 2 of our machine gun boys and said that they had stolen a goat and then hit him in the eye with a stick. We brought him into camp with us but the native disappeared before anything could be done. After going about 2 miles, I saw the 4th South African Horse camped beside the road and I went to see Nighty but they told me he had been sent back 3 weeks ago with the fever as he could never shake it off.

We passed transport all the way along the road and saw Mac under a tree. I showed him the yellow stains on my hand and he told me that the yellow powder which I thought was curry was Lyddite and advised me to wash my hands as soon as possible. After I left him my nose began to bleed and continued [to do] so till we got back to camp. Had some koekjes and water for lunch. Tea of koekjes and coffee, after which fooled about with Paddy and watched the machine gun boys imitating the colonel on parade and had a good laugh at them.

Lyddite is basically picric acid with knobs on. It does have some potential medical uses, but if straight-up inhaled or swallowed it’s nastily toxic, and it’s also corrosive to the eyes. Thought it was curry, indeed! This plonker basically needs to be kept away from anything that might possibly be food, he clearly can’t be trusted. And he apparently rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel later in his life! I for one do not believe it. (Sure, you might like to go “ho ho ho, he’s clearly qualified to be an officer”, but to get commissioned from the ranks, one must first have been a sergeant…)

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge reminds us that war is shit, even if you are stuck on permanent base duty and your laundry goes forward.

To-day they put me on the “Sanitary Fatigue.” Swept latrines.

I was grateful though, for there are some much more disagreeable duties summed up under that euphemistic label “Sanitary Fatigue.” The water-supply in this camp is still limited. “Charlie! Muck in with me!” is still a frequent formula if the one and only wash-basin contains but half a pint of water. Appreciating the kind fore-thought of the authorities for as Rumour has it, water will be laid on to be used in the next War. I cannot help feeling we should have less lice now if we had more water.

I was visited by a company of these darlings a few nights ago. Ten times worse than ants. And there were sixteen men sweltering in the same tent. Then I made a solemn vow, “Never again!” As a result I am sleeping by myself in the open now. True, the first morning was rather “dewy,” but I think I shall now be able to weather even a rainstorm. And it is glorious to look up at the starry heavens ! No wonder the French coined the phrase: “A la belle etoile.”

Literallly, “under the beautiful star”; idiomatically, “in the open air”, or some such. I just hope he’s not planning to sleep outdoors once the temperature begins dropping, with that heart of his.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

Further Reading

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