Gardeners of Salonika? | 12 Dec 1915


All Entente troops who had crossed the border into Serbia are now back in Greece, which is good news for precisely nobody. It’s not good news for the blokes themselves; with the French government insistent that this wasn’t a total farce, there’s no chance of them leaving any time soon. These are the men who, as they dig themselves in and prepare for one of the longest “hurry up and wait” jobs of the entire war, will soon become known as the Gardeners of Salonika. It is widely said (though such claims are surprisingly difficult to find a source for) that in Germany, the high command began to refer to Salonika as “our biggest prison camp”.

And yet. And yet. This is not as unambiguously good for the Central Powers as it might first appear. Internal Greek politics are slowly going down the tubes as the gulf between King Constantine I’s neutralist supporters and the followers of Eleftherios Venizelos and his pro-Entente stance widens with every day that Greek neutrality is being violated. (Once again I’d just like to comment on the deep, deep irony of the British government being quite prepared to defecate all over Greek neutrality despite having allegedly entered the war to preserve Belgian neutrality.) This is good for nobody, because eventually the war will end, and deep divisions in Greece are hardly beneficial to a peaceful Balkans no matter who wins the war.

Then there’s the consideration that even a prison camp requires guards. True, the lion’s share of the work on this front will be done by the Bulgarian army. But we can only guess at what might have happened if the Entente had been entirely evicted from Greece. Maybe there could have been a wide-scale redeployment of Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian troops to other fronts, and who knows what might have happened then?

It is truly a situation that is good for nobody involved; not even the one still-neutral country that appears best-placed to take advantage of the situation settling down into stasis.

Siege of Kut

Siege of Kut. Kut, siege. Siege, Kut. (Ahem.) Indian Army reinforcements are being rushed into Mesopotamia from wherever they can be spared. Fresh generals are arriving in theatre, more men, more cavalry, more guns. They’re trying to assemble, and frankly aren’t doing a particularly good job of it. They’re strung out along the Tigris between Amarah and Ali Gharbi, struggling manfully against a severe lack of river transport. The ships formerly making up Townshend’s Regatta have been reinforced with new gunboats, but there still aren’t nearly enough of them to be in all the places they need to be at once.

Indeed, it’s fast becoming apparent that the size of the relief force will have to be restricted, because there simply aren’t enough ships to keep everyone supplied if they advance as far upriver as Kut. Even the port facilities at Basra are struggling to cope with the number of men and supplies coming through. A new director-general is about to be appointed, formerly the man in charge of Rangoon, but even he can only do so much. And then there’s the organisation of the men who can go forward, or lack of it. Urgency is the keyword, and new formations are having to be worked out on the fly, staff officers re-appointed, generals given unfamiliar troops to use. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence.

There is now no prospect of a relief expedition until January 1916; and General Townshend’s report was that he could hold out comfortably for two months, but then things might get hairy. I hope he’s still got his shaving-razor. Meanwhile, General von der Goltz has explained certain things to his subordinate commanders, and they’re now settling in for the attacker’s half of a prolonged siege. More to come, next year.

Italian 48th Regiment

Yesterday found the Italian 48th Regiment in a bad way; were they British, they may well have called themselves by the old military phrase “fed up, fucked up, and far from home”. Despite heavy casualties over five months of almost non-stop fighting and shelling, the remnants of the regiment have had orders to reconstitute as a half-battalion and go back up the line. This did not go down well, and a full-scale mutiny broke out, with shots being fired at officers.

Within 24 hours, the Italian equivalent of a field general court-martial has been set up. They work quickly. Before the day is out, multiple convictions for mutiny have been handed out and two men have been executed. And this is far from the worst excess of Italian military discipline. The events have not escaped the notice of General Cadorna, and he has a rather knotty problem to wrestle with. Public support for the army has been bolstered by iron censorship of men’s letters and an absolute refusal to grant home leave. Now the Supreme Command is caught between a rock and a hard place. Allow home leave, and the stories go home with them men. Deny it, and there’ll surely only be more mutinies. Unfortunately, more soon.

Louis Barthas

The rain has eased off slightly at Neuville, and Louis Barthas and his chums are back in their trenches. Well, most of them are.

Meanwhile, in spite of the ferocious orders, friendly contact between Frenchmen and Germans continued, particularly at the listening posts. In the 21st Company, Private Gontran, from Caunes-Minervois, even paid a visit to the German trench. He had gotten to know the German captain, a good family man who always asked about his own children and gave him a few cigarettes. Whenever Gontran stayed too long, the captain pushed him out of the German trench, saying “Let’s go, on your way.”

Unfortunately for Gontran, one day when he was making his way back from the German trench he was spotted by an officer of his company—none other than Lieutenant Grulois, who said to him, “I’ve got you now. You’ll be shot at dawn. Arrest this man.” Nobody moved. Everybody stared stupidly. Gontran, maddened by the officer’s threat, scrambled up the side of the trench, crying out [“Come and get me!”] In a few strides he made it to the enemy trench, and he didn’t come back.

That very evening a court-martial composed of the superior officers of the regiment and presided over by the colonel met in the dugout of our commandant. In five seconds, Private Gontran was condemned to death in absentia. After an investigation, Lieutenant Grulois was put under arrest for being too zealous in frightening the guilty party and causing his desertion. Corporal Escande, from Citou, and the soldiers of his squad barely escaped court-martial for not firing on their deserting comrade as he fled across no-man’s-land.

For you, Gonti, ze var is over!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

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