Battle of the Somme
In Pozieres, the battered and bruised 1st Australian Division is being removed from the line and replaced with fellow Gallipoli veterans the 2nd Division. Time to rewind a bit; don’t worry, we’re coming back to a relevant point. When the concept of a Reserve Army was created, General Haig did so on the grounds that he was creating a force of exploitation, with plenty of cavalry, to thrust through a gap at Pozieres and gallop towards Bapaume at double-quick speed. So he appointed as its commander General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, a fellow cavalry officer with strong aggressive tendencies.
Unfortunately, the situation has developed somewhat since then. Reserve Army, far from being an instrument of exploitation, has now been transformed into an instrument mostly of occupation, to hold the line north of the Albert to Bapaume road so General Rawlinson can concentrate on the south. This is not the kind of situation suited to Gough’s personality. He’s not handling it well, either. Now, this might sound a bit rich after having just said some extremely rude things about Haig and Rawlinson’s lack of control over their armies.
However, it still must be said that Gough has gone far too far the other way. There is a happy medium between exercising no control, and exercising too much control. Gough is exercising too much control. We saw before the first push on Pozieres how Gough tried to pressure the ANZACs into attacking without much of a preliminary barrage. Fortunately, that time the strong-minded General Walker had the backbone to tell Gough where to go. However, now he’s trying the same trick again, and General Legge of 2nd Division has given in.
So they’ll attack tomorrow against the Pozieres windmill, to capture that critical high ground. Meanwhile, preparations continue apace off to the south-east for a combined French/British attack towards Guillemont and Maurepas. And that’s not all, of which more in a moment. But first.
General Haig has two observations for us today. One of them is somewhat promising. The other one…
The 5th Brandenburg Division, the crack corps of Germany, was driven from its remaining positions north of Longueval village this morning, and also from the whole of Delville Wood. This is a fine performance. Two counter-attacks made yesterday by the Enemy on the wood were repulsed with great loss. [Some prisoners] were captured in the wood, and some officers in the village surrendered. They said they were the only survivors. They were greatly depressed and said “Germany is beaten”. This is the first time we have taken German officers who have arrived at that opinion…
This assessment of morale is also being backed up by BEF Intelligence’s analysis of captured letters. Among the men who have seen particularly hard fighting or heavy bombardments, there is a small but growing body of opinion that has lost faith in ever being able to win the war. Haig is quite right to be encouraged by it. On the other hand, he is once again working from faulty information when he’s told that Longueval and Delville Wood have been secured, they’ve not. Still.
General Birch [Haig’s artillery commander] in the evening reported that the Australians had at the last moment said that they would attack without artillery suppoart and that “they did not believe machine gun fire could do them much harm”! Birch at once saw Gough who arranged that the original artillery programme should be carried out.
This, on the other hand? This is bollocks. 2nd Division spent three months at ANZAC Cove and all would have known what happened to men of the 1st Division at the Nek during the summer attacks. Perhaps some clueless Australian staff officer said his piece about machine gun fire. However, the general implication that the impetuous Australians are having to be restrained by General Gough is completely arse forwards. It’s the ANZACs who are being pressured into attacking without proper planning or preparation by Haig’s mate. We should not be surprised if the result is piss-poor performance.
The air over the Somme
The Germans haven’t just been transferring men and artillery away from the Battle of Verdun. They’ve been transferring their aeroplanes away, too. The process is continuing, but they’ve already sent enough men and enough machines to make a real difference. The first order of business for the Germans is to interfere with the small but regular RFC air raids against road and rail junctions in their rear areas. A private of the German 24th Division complained about how this looked from the trenches:
You have to stay in your hole all day and must not stand up in the trench because there is always a crowd of English over us. Always hiding from aircraft, always, with about eight or ten English machines overhead, but no-one sees any of ours. If German machines go up at all, they are only up for five minutes and then retire in double-quick time. Our airmen are a rotten lot.
But the bomber pilots are beginning to notice not only a significant increase in the number of enemy flyers in superior planes, but their anti-aircraft fire is coming on by leaps and bounds. Even with almost total air superiority, they’ve lost 111 men and enough planes for the RFC’s commanders to be worried whether they can send out enough replacements to keep the numbers up. And the battle goes on.
Today, with Kelkit and Erzincan secure and the remnants of the Ottoman Third Army fleeing the field, General Yudenich orders an immediate halt to operations. He’s taken a risk by attacking, and it has paid off handsomely. The Caucasus Army’s intelligence has been aware for some time that there is a new force gathering off to his south, and recently estimates of its strength have become very worrying. it’s now clear that this is an army-sized formation. And it’s just had orders from the commanding officer, Izzet Pasha, to begin an attack on the same Russians who’ve spent the last month marching and fighting.
Had Izzet caught them overstretched, looking to their front towards Third Army, the Russians would have been outnumbered and in a very difficult position indeed. He’s now delayed just long enough for his opponents to begin redeploying to face his men and deal with them. Even better, even though he still has more fit, fresh men than his opponents, he’s seen fit to divide his forces into large, widely-spread, independent columns. It’s time to remind ourselves of a mildly silly military term, “defeat in detail”.
This is when a smaller force wins against a larger force by taking on smaller enemy sub-groups with overwhelming force and fighting a series of actions in which they have a local advantage. It’s what the Germans did at on the Eastern Front in 1914, and what their Navy has been trying to do in the North Sea to the Grand Fleet. Izzet’s strategy is nothing so much as one giant invitation to be defeated in detail. He’s played right into Russian hands. More to follow.
Yesterday we reminded ourselves of all the different things that the Romanian government has been asking for in exchange for joining the war. Now they’ve just dropped a massive shell into negotiations. They’ve been forced to admit to the French that they don’t actually intend to declare war on Germany or the Ottoman Empire, just Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Which has gone down in Entente-friendly capitals like a cup of cold sick. The obvious implication is that Romania is only interested in fighting that will directly benefit their prime minister Ion Bratianu’s extensive territorial ambitions.
This is an important tipping point for Entente attitudes towards Romania. A set of secret, parallel negotiations now begin between London, Paris, and Petrograd. The theme, not unreasonably, is that they feel like Bratianu is trying to pull a vast confidence trick on them. They’d all been counting on future Romanian assistance on the Eastern Front, or against the Ottoman Empire. Now nobody feels morally obliged to hold to any of the promises they’re putting in the alliance treaty, on the grounds that they were negotiated under false pretences. Two can play at that game.
Now, speaking of morale. Back on a trench duty cycle, Louis Barthas is having his four days in close reserve. Water is of course strictly rationed, but of course there are ways for an enterprising NCO to get things done on a less than official footing.
They didn’t give out water to just any passerby. Only a regular work detail, with a non-com bearing a written order, could come and partake of it. Although you could quench your thirst there, you couldn’t get water to clean the mud and the lice out of your clothes. For that you had to bribe the Territorial on guard duty in front of the barrels, or distract him, which could be done only at night, if at all. Well, you didn’t need a hundred-franc note, or even a tenner, to purchase the Territorial’s compliance.
For me, all that was needed was a three-sou cigar to get him to turn his back while I filled a canvas bucket, which was all I needed to do my laundry. Certain desert animals have the gift of finding water, I don’t know how many leagues away. Similarly, the poilu could sniff out pinard at a great distance. In this camp there was no way to get anything to eat. The food cooperatives were only in the planning stage, and the truck gardeners didn’t risk coming up this close to the front lines. A jug of coffee, a jug of wine for a drink, the meager company mess for food, that was all.
We were in the same state as an army under siege, except for Messieurs les officiers who, through their rationers, lacked neither the necessities nor the luxuries.
More to come about the ordinary soldier’s relentless pursuit of pinard, the cheap red wine (I’m told that “plonk” is a fair loose translation) that fuels the French Army.
Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler continues his adventures around the rear near Trones Wood, ever on the lookout to improve things for his men as best he can. Half a French soixante-quinze battery has appeared near his lone forward howitzer, an excellent opportunity for some socialising.
I went round to call on them, and found them rather unhappy. Owing to the incessant [German] barrage on the road, they had not been able to get a [telephone] line back to their battery, and had not received any orders or food for 24 hours. They had, however, ensconced themselves in some wonderful dug-outs they discovered in a deep quarry. I promptly moved my people up to live there too, and on returning to the back areas, I located their battery after much hunting.
They seemed very glad to get news of their section, and eagerly accepted my invitation to run a line to my battery, and to be made honorary members of our line to Bernafay Wood and our observation post at Hardecourt. They soon got this done and then shelled a ravine vigorously all day, chattering like magpies the whole night, all of which could be heard as it passed through our exchange.
They’re all preparing for this combined Guillemont-Maurepas attack. I have to say, he’s painting a picture of an effective field officer; wherever possible he leaves the donkey work of shooting the guns to his junior officers, and instead applies himself to wider concerns.
Had a huge breakfast of porridge and honey and bread. Mail of newspapers came in, got a ‘Sunday Times’ and ‘Railway Magazine’ for June. Chilly wind still blowing… The machine guns [section] and [car] returned from Moshi, but without machine guns. Heard that there had been scrapping ahead and that the motor machine guns had got into it. German prisoners say that they cannot last out 20 days.
Dick went out foraging and brought back tomatoes, pumpkins and milk. Owens, the driver of the motor, brought us 8 [tins of] golden syrup, 8 lbs [3,6 kg] of sugar, 3 boxes of cigarettes and matches. Pinched a tin of bully beef off the motor.
I will never not be amused that this steely-eyed machine-gun dealer of death takes Railway Magazine to read in his copious free time. As for the prisoners, I’m not holding my breath.
Maximilian Mugge once more weighs in on matters of religious importance.
I have been helping in the “Scottish Churches Hut”, a large refreshment room for the Jocks in our neighbourhood. If there is a possibility for an outsider to judge the management of some of the more prominent huts in this camp, I should place the Scottish Hut first; a Roman Catholic and a Salvation Army Hut second.
Though the people of our Church Hut are certainly more courteous than the snappy self-conceited crew I have met in another camp, there is too much Religion about them. We appreciate their notepaper but we love the people and the refreshments in the Scottish Hut. And the fried eggs (two at 5d.) in the Salvation Army Hut are only surpassed by the fruit dishes of the Roman Catholic Hut.
As to the lovely hot baths which Lady Seraphina Besfor provides in her hut, there is only one opinion, they are a boon and a blessing, but there are not enough of them to go round. Often after waiting in a long queue, some of us have to tramp back to our respective divisional camps without the luxury of a bath, because groups of officers arrive, and these demigods, claiming precedence, fill the few vacant cubicles again.
Amusingly, a modern-day Google for “Lady Seraphina” turns up a Calgary dominatrix; the full name “Lady Seraphina Besfor” appears to have been a private joke of some sort. Suffice to say that there are plenty of aristocratic do-gooders around the BEF’s base areas in France, operating all kinds of huts to make the blokes’ life a bit more comfortable; it could have been any one of many.
Incidentally, isn’t it interesting how we rarely hear stories of these boorish officers who hog the baths in accounts written by other officers? Sometimes a little reading between the lines might be necessary; if yer man says “we marched into billets and I had a lovely bath”, you may wish to ask who he might have elbowed out of the way to get it.
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